I was doing some Patrick’s Day reading on Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, and was struck by the way the Puritan leader justified his brutality in religious terms. It set me thinking. Cromwell is one of those historical figures whose colossal accomplishments are so combined with heinous crimes that it’s hard to know how to judge him. Some consider him the leader of the first bourgeois revolution in world history, the Puritan Revolution beginning in 1640 which Ephraim Lipson called “the turning point in the evolution of capitalism.” The revolution freed society from a great array of royal edicts that, for example, specified seven-year apprenticeships in various trades. It somewhat freed up relations between employee and employer. It abolished feudal land tenure, closed guilds, and many monopolies. Beginning as a clash between King and Parliament, it established the rule that Parliament determines taxation. The revolution produced a tax system favorable to merchants and manufacturers. It curbed the power of the English church over the courts; broadened suffrage; and promoted tolerance for a range of views among the Protestants (Independents, Presbyterians, Quakers) while readmitting Jews (banned from the country in 1290) although it suppressed Catholicism. It promoted some of the main tenets of modern democracy. Cromwell was surely a great revolutionary leader.
But a monster, too, of a particular religious variety. Sent in 1641 by the Parliament to restore order in Ireland, which had been Catholic since the fifth century and under the British Crown since 1494, the passionate anti-Papist conducted one of the most ferocious invasions and occupations in history. The Puritans quoted the maxim of James I: “Plant Ireland with Puritans, root out papists, and then secure it.” Cromwell himself told the people of Dublin upon his arrival that he would lead “.the great work against the barbarous and bloodthirsty Irish, and all their adherents and confederates, for the propagating of the gospel of Christ, the establishing of truth and peace, and restoring that bleeding nation to its former happiness and tranquility.” He proceeded to the port town of Drogheda, storming its garrison and putting four thousand to the sword, including about a thousand women, children and friars in the cathedral of St. Peter, afterwards torched by his troops.
Cromwell truly believed he was doing the Lord’s work. The Puritans believed themselves to be the “elect” chosen by God as his people. They believed that the British were uniquely favored by God, as shown in the miraculous victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 and by England’s rapid growth as a maritime nation. Some believed that the English were a lost tribe of Israel. Thus nationalism, religion (including intolerance for Catholicism) and extraordinary arrogance help explain English troops’ behavior in Ireland.
“It hath pleased God to bless our endeavors,” Cromwell reported after Drogheda. “This hath been a marvelous great mercy.” “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches” The “great thing” that had been done was “done, not by power or might, but by the Spirit of God.” Later after the pillage of Wexford, and the slaying of two thousand more soldiers, priests, women and children, Cromwell wrote that he had not really planned to destroy the town, as it might be of some use, “yet God would not have it so; but by an unexpected providence, in His righteous justice, brought a just judgment upon them; causing them to become a prey to the Soldier”—- which is to say, prey to raping and massacring English conscripts trained to view the Irish as subhuman.
So on the one hand, a great man; on the other, a great devil in the history of relations between Ireland and England. A man who guided by fiercely held religious beliefs committed atrocities that leave a bitter legacy.
When I teach about the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who died in 1598, a year before Cromwell was born) I like to compare him with Cromwell. Uniting Japan after a century of incessant civil wars, Hideyoshi undertook economic and social-engineering policies that encouraged the rapid expansion of the middle class and the appearance of incipient capitalism. He maintained the “free market, free guild” policies of his warlord predecessor Nobunaga, promoted urban growth and village autonomy, encouraged trade with China, Korea and Portugal, and laid down basic governing principles that were to apply for almost three centuries. While he tried to fix the samurai, peasantry, and townspeople into fixed status groups, with merchants at the bottom, in fact the policies he and his successors applied generated an affluent bourgeoisie.
Like Cromwell, Hideyoshi was a brilliant general, and a record of aggressive foreign war also taints his biography. Having brought all of Japan under his own rule by 1590, Hideyoshi proceeded in 1593 to invade neighboring Korea, dispatching 150,000 men to the peninsula. His samurai slaughtered hundreds of thousands, kidnapped and sold into slavery many more, torched palaces, temples and libraries, burned down forests and left the country with one-third the cultivated land it had originally possessed. Among Hideyoshi’s memorials is an “Ear Mound” in Kyoto, which supposedly contained the ears cut off 100,000 Koreans and brought back in barrels to Japan to support warriors’ claims that they had fought valorously against the enemy. There’s a similar “Nose Mound” in Kyushu. Don’t worry about the souls of the mutilated dead. Hideyoshi had Buddhist priests say prayers for them when they consecrated these sites.
Hideyoshi like Cromwell saw his mission and military victories in a religious light. Like Cromwell, he regarded his nation as uniquely commissioned by heaven to transform the world. But his nationalism is even more religious. He believed the very islands of Japan were born from the mating of the primordial Shinto deities Izanagi and Izanami. The imperial family is descended in an unbroken line from the first emperor, the great-great grandson of the highest divinity, the Sun Goddess, and all the Japanese are related to the imperial family and to the gods. The fact that Japan alone was spared Mongol conquest, saved by the “winds of the gods” (kamikaze)—typhoons that dispersed the invading fleet on both invasion attempts— proves its sacredness.
In response to a letter from the Portuguese viceroy in Goa (a Portuguese colony in India and center of the Jesuit missionary activities from East Africa to Japan) relating to Catholic efforts in Japan, Hideyoshi replied: “Ours is the land of the Gods This God is spoken of as Buddhism in India, Confucianism in China, and Shinto in Japan. To know Shinto is to know Buddhism as well as Confucianism.” He says that the native religion of Japan includes all of worth in other religious traditions. (Actually Shinto, involving reverence for nature, purification rituals, a primitive mythology, and emphasis on the special creation from the bodies of the gods of the Japanese islands and people, lacks the rich philosophical content of Buddhism or the ethical and metaphysical content of Confucianism. To “know Shinto” is most certainly not to know the wisdom of India and China. But maybe Hideyoshi thought so)
Hideyoshi like Cromwell believed he had been chosen. In a letter demanding that Formosa submit to him in 1593 Hideyoshi explained his divine mission:
When I was about to enter my dear mother’s womb, she had an auspicious dream. That night, the sunlight filled her room so it was like noontime inside it. All were overwhelmed with astonishment. The attendants gathered, and the diviner proclaimed: “This is a wondrous sign that when the child reaches his prime, his virtue will shine over the Four Seas, and he will radiate his glory in the ten thousand directions.”
Cromwell was a successful proto-imperialist, acquiring Jamaica, Surinam, Nova Scotia and other New World possessions while subduing Ireland. Hideyoshi added nothing to Japan, but even before 1590 began boasting of plans to conquer not only Korea and Formosa but mainland China, India and Persia as well. It was a mad delusion, but Hideyoshi, vaguely aware of the extent of King Phillip II’s empire and with about a million battle-hardened samurai on hand, perhaps really thought he could pull it off.
In Korea, Japanese forces provoked a Chinese response as they approached the Yalu (much as U.S. forces provoked a Chinese response while invading North Korea in 1950) and a military stalemate ensued. Hideyoshi died in 1598 (same year as Phillip) and the samurai in Korea, having no great motivation to maintain the fight with Korean or Chinese forces, soon withdrew. Power in Japan fell into the hands of the first Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, in 1600. He negotiated a peace settlement and promoted cordial diplomatic relations with Korea; indeed Korea was the only country with which Japan maintained regular diplomatic contact up to the 1850s. Thereafter a rising, imperialist Japan acquired Korea as a prize in the Russo-Japanese War (1905), and its colonial legacy ending in 1945 along with the invasion of the 1590s produces lingering Korean hostility towards Japan. This is quite comparable to Irish antipathy towards Britain.
You thought, of course, that I’d conclude by making some comparison between these two great men and our conquering president, whom as we know told the Palestinians, “God told me to smite Osama bin Ladin, so I invaded Afghanistan. Then He told me to smite Saddam Hussein, so I invaded Iraq.” But I see mostly contrasts. Cromwell and Hideyoshi were highly intelligent men, generals who acquired political power by a mix of military strength, political savvy and powers of persuasion. They oversaw many positive social reforms. They believed God was acting through them in unleashing terror in the world, but both had what we can call a “progressive” side absent in the forty-third president, who smites the American people along with the foreigners.
The moral of the stories is: When you invade countries, deluded by a religious sense of mission, and validate atrocities as evidence of divine favor, you just might generate enduring hate. The Crusades undertaken by Christendom from 1195 to the late fourteenth century are like recent news in the Arab world. Eight centuries later, by proclaiming another “Crusade” against “Islamic terrorism,” Bush alienates the entire Muslim world. Today in part of the Ireland that Cromwell subjugated, fiery Presbyterian Rev. Ian Paisley wants to publicly humiliate the Catholics with a public ritual of the IRA turning over all its weapons. The standoff continues. As Japan and Korea quarrel about who owns the Dokto (Takeshima) islets between the countries, the assembly of Japan’s Shimane prefecture proclaims a “Takeshima Day” asserting Japanese sovereignty over the uninhabitable rocks. A 54-year old Korean man, a member of the Association for Pacific War Victims, attempts to set himself on fire outside Seoul’s Japanese embassy in protest. The Pacific War was already over when he was born, but he is still a victim of it. The evil that men do lives after them in legacies of rage and hate.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org