English leftist veneration of Cromwell is not as big a thing as it once was, so Sunday’s piece in the The Guardian constitutes a bit of a blast from the past. The focus is on newly discovered letters written by Cromwell on Ireland, that are to comprise part of a forthcoming collection, edited by John Morrill Professor emeritus of British and Irish history at Cambridge.
Morrill was one of the “revisionist” English historians who claimed to have rejected the cruder social determinist view of history, although he is an admirer of the Marxist Christopher Hill who was a pioneering historian of the Cromwellian period in the 1950s and 60s. Marxists like Hill who focused on the popular basis of the Cromwellian revolution had to believe that the Cromwellian period had led to “a great improvement for most people on what had gone before.” (Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p384.)
To do otherwise would have been to question the teleological basis of Marxist historiography in which the victory of the “progressive bourgeoisie” over the Royalist obscurantists, especially when they were Catholic obscurantists, was part of the march of history to the eventual inevitable glorious victory of the proletariat.
Hill only tangentially referred to Ireland in his work because minor details such as the genocide of less developed peoples in Ireland, Poland, Ukraine, Tibet and so on, was really not the sort of thing that Communists wished to dwell overmuch on in the 1950s, especially when they were trying to dupe under-developed people that Stalin’s gang was their best hope.
Cromwell, like Robespierre and other pre-socialist terrorists were part of that lineal descent. One of Stalin’s apologists, Issac Deutscher, said of Stalin that “Like Cromwell, he embodies the continuity of the revolution.”
For the purposes of Christopher Hill, and Eric Hobsbawm and E.P Thompson of the Communist Party of Great Britain Historians Group, Cromwell’s soldiers who were the initial beneficiaries of the massive land grab that followed their victory in Ireland were akin to the 17th century equivalent of the Red Army in Poland after 1945. Its an analogy that has similarly been occasionally attractive to anti-national leftist “historians” here.
Morrill has clearly not shaken off that part of his intellectual inheritance, as he would have us believe that Cromwell was not as bad as we might have been led to think, by the Christian Brothers and all. Most of the terrible things that he did in Ireland were part of his war with the followers of the Stuarts with whom the Parliamentarians were engaged in civil war, they’d have you believe.
The problem with that narrative is that the English civil war ended in 1651 while the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland continued for all of the remainder of the 1650s. During that time, hundreds of thousands of people were killed and died of starvation and disease, tens of thousands of people were sent to the Caribbean as indentured servants – slaves to all intents and purposes despite the recent attempt to make out that they were on the 17th century equivalent of J1 visas – and tens of thousands more fled into exile.
In proportional terms the population of Ireland had fallen by anything up to 40% by 1659. That puts what took place here right up there with the worst genocides in human history.
Ferguson’s piece in The Guardian manages to reduce this to Cromwell having “killed dozens of Irish priests and forced hundreds more into exile.” Would The Guardian rationalise the slaughter of European Jews by the Nazis or the Maoist terror in Tibet on the basis of a “few rabbis” or a “bunch of Buddhist monks” being among the victims?
Hardly. There’s a hint too that apparently Cromwell may well have had a good reason for whatever excesses he engaged in because of his belief, that is not contradicted, of the role that priests were alleged to have played in instigating the “terrible atrocities … inflicted on Protestants” in 1641.
Perhaps Ferguson might have checked out some research in The Guardian library beforehand. Had she done she might have realised that the 1641 “terrible atrocities” reports based on depositions held at Trinity College were analysed more than ten years ago by a team from the University of Aberdeen and found to be a completely unreliable basis for contemporary claims that even several thousand let alone 200,000 settlers were slaughtered in 1641.
Cromwell’s correspondence has no bearing on the facts of what took place here after 1649. Nor is Morrill’s conclusion that he was a “flawed man, who was deeply tolerant, but struggled with the responsibilities of power in a fractured and divided nation” suggestive of someone who has even begun to understand that Ireland was never a part of any common nation with England.