Oliver Cromwell’s Western Designer

In today’s blog Dr David Scott, senior research fellow for our Commons 1640-1660 project, continues our look at parliamentary links to the trade of enslaved people and colonial expansion in the seventeenth century. The name Martin Noell may not be familiar nowadays, but this notorious merchant trader rose to prominence during the interregnum and his legacy ought not to be overlooked when considering Parliament’s colonial past…

Late in September 1665, the Great Plague of London claimed its most famous victim. ‘I hear for certain this night’, wrote Samuel Pepys, ‘that Sir Martin Noell is this day dead of the plague in London, where he hath lain sick of it these eight days’ ( The Diary of Samuel Pepys ed. R. Latham, W. Matthews (Oxford, 1971), vi. 245). The name Martin Noell has long since slipped from the national memory, but by the time of the Restoration in 1660 he was the best known, certainly notorious, entrepreneur and financier in all of England.

Noell’s rise to fame and fortune epitomised the transformation that had occurred in English maritime commerce and colonial enterprises since the early 1600s. The younger son of a Stafford mercer, he used his elder brother’s business connections in London, and his own marriage to the daughter of a wealthy City draper, to break into the burgeoning trade with the colonies across the Atlantic. While never straying too far from his London counting-house, he had established himself by the late 1640s as one of the merchant-planters on Barbados, the island at the centre of England’s sugar boom. Noell’s rapid climb from provincial nobody to metropolitan venture-capitalist, though eye-catching, was not unusual among the so-called ‘new merchants’ – men from outside of London’s established mercantile elite, often from small-town backgrounds, who had come to dominate the transatlantic trade in sugar and other colonial merchandise.

Noell’s friend and business partner Thomas Povey, John Michael Wright, c.1657
National Trust, Dyrham Park. Via ArtUK

The new merchants were well-insinuated with the radical faction in Parliament that executed Charles I in 1649 and established a republican state. With friends in high places, Noell won large government contracts for collecting a range of customs and sales taxes, from which he skimmed a healthy profit. Noell’s friend and business-partner Thomas Povey thought that he had ‘swollen into a much greater person by being a farmer [i.e. collector] of the customs and excise’ ( British Library, Add. ms 11411, f. 39v.). Duties on salt were probably Noell’s biggest domestic earner. As a tax-farmer on salt and an investor in salt-production, he made money from both ends of the industry. Oliver Cromwell’s son and heir Richard Cromwell was not exaggerating when he styled Noell ‘the great salt-master of England’ ( The Correspondence of Henry Cromwell, 1655-9 ed. P. Gaunt (Camden Society ser. 5, xxxi), 308.)

But Noell’s most marketable asset by the mid-1650s was his value to the house of Cromwell – Britain’s new ruling family. He used his financial resources to make substantial loans to Cromwell’s government to cover its day-to-day running costs and keep the wheels of state turning. In fact, it is likely that the Cromwellian regime depended more upon Noell for ready cash and credit than upon any other individual. Not only that, Noell acted as private money-lender to Protector Oliver himself. Noell’s status as Cromwell’s personal paymaster rendered him (in Povey’s words) ‘considerable everywhere…a person of the most spacious interest of any merchant or citizen [in England]’ (British Library, Add. ms 11411, ff. 41v, 65v.).

Noell’s money bought him political influence. He and Povey were closely involved in directing government policy on the Caribbean colonies, particularly Barbados. And Noell played a leading part in organising and financing Cromwell’s ‘Western Design’ of 1655 against the Spanish colony of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). One well-informed observer identified Noell as ‘he who suggested the design of the West Indies’ to Cromwell.

Nautical chart of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, Johannes Vingboons, c. 1639.
Via Wikimedia Commons

In the event, the Western Design was a fiasco – partly because profiteering by Noell and other contractors had deprived the expedition of vital supplies and equipment. Repulsed from Hispaniola with heavy losses, Cromwell’s troops took Jamaica as a consolation prize. Not that Noell was complaining. He had taken his usual cut regardless, and he was further rewarded with a grant from Cromwell of 20,000 acres on England’s new colony. The seizure of Jamaica would provide a massive boost to the English sugar-industry and to the slave trade that sustained it.

Noell’s plantation in Barbados was well-supplied with enslaved Africans to work the sugar-canes. But it was what he euphemistically termed his ‘Christian servants’ on the island, and the circumstances of their presence there, that landed him in trouble with his fellow MPs following his election for Stafford to Richard Cromwell’s Parliament in 1659. Noell was forced to defend himself against accusations in the House that he had violated English ‘liberties’ as a contractor for transporting royalist prisoners to indentured servitude on Barbados. The victims of his ‘most unchristian and barbarous usage’ alleged that they been ‘bought and sold…from one planter to another…as horses and beasts’ (Diary of Thomas Burton, Esq. ed. J. T. Rutt (1828), iv. 255-73). Noell admitted transporting prisoners to the island, but denied that he had effectively sold them into slavery or that they had been harshly treated. Indeed, he claimed that labour conditions for indentured servants on Barbados were better than those of the ‘common husbandman here’. The really hard work, the ‘grinding at the [sugar]-mills and attending at the furnaces or digging in the scorching island’, was mostly undertaken by African slaves, he insisted – and as he well knew, no one in the Commons cared about them.

Noel shrugged off his grilling in the House, and he would emerge from the downfall of the protectorate and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 similarly unscathed. Pepys was surprised in 1662 to hear that Noell had been knighted, but he conceded that the former Cromwellian was still ‘a very useful man’ (Pepys Diary ed. Latham, Matthews, iii. 190.) In 1663, Noell invested heavily in England’s foremost slave-trading venture, the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, and he and Povey lobbied the crown hard during the early 1660s for the establishment of a royal-sponsored West Indian company ‘for the better regulating and improving of foreign plantations’(British Library, Egerton ms 2395, ff. 107-12, 270-2; Add. ms 22920, f. 22.). Noell’s debts at his death in 1665 amounted to over £30,000 – millions in today’s money – and included the sum of £1,747 he owed ‘on a contract’ for slaves (London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/002/01/002, f. 156v; CLA/002/02/01/0500.).

Through his loans and counsel to the Cromwellian regime, Noell did more than anyone of his day to draw the state into the hitherto largely private business of colonisation and trade in the Atlantic. Securing Britain’s base in the Caribbean would prove vital in the march to global empire and represents Cromwell’s, and Noell’s, most enduring legacy to the nation – one that we are still struggling to come to terms with today.


Further reading:

The Diary of Samuel Pepys ed. R. Latham, W. Matthews (Oxford, 1971).

The Correspondence of Henry Cromwell, 1655-9 ed. P. Gaunt (Camden Society ser. 5, xxxi).

Diary of Thomas Burton, Esq. ed. J. T. Rutt (1828), iv. 255-73; available online at https://www.british-history.ac.uk/burton-diaries

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s