Ambivalent beginnings

The Ideological Origins
of the British Empire
March 30, 2001

Jon Wilson discovers the depth of our amnesia about the British Empire.

Scholars have long debated the origins of the British Empire. They have sought its genesis in an enormous variety of events, ranging from the 12th-century attempt to anglicise Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the wanderings of the Elizabethan sea-dogs, through Cromwell's policies in Ireland and on to the growth of the machinery of the British state in the early 18th century. Often these debates leave one wondering what "empire" actually consisted of. Historians move swiftly from one definition to another, leaving little other than a tangled web of conceptual confusion in their wake.

Our own era is one in which supposed imperial certainties have been replaced by ambivalence, but more often by amnesia, about Britain's imperial past. It would be easy to assume that this confusion about the origin and meaning of empire is peculiar to these post-colonial times. But David Armitage, the author of this important, long-awaited book, informs us that it is not. Certainly, Armitage would sympathise with the confused history student. But he also tells us that the meaning and origins of the British Empire were no more clear, and no less ambivalent, in the period in which empire was acquired and formed.

To study the origins of the British Empire during the 17th and 18th centuries, Armitage turns to intellectual history and the realm of ideas. Looking simply at the trading relations, battles and treaties with which the map was painted pink is not enough. The historian also has to probe the ways in which contemporaries used concepts such as empire to understand the world in which they lived. Armitage believes this involves the study of what he terms ideology. An ideology is "a systematic model of how society functions" that "is perceived as contestable by those who do not share it". Armitage sees ideology as a matter of continual intellectual debate.

Like commerce, the ancient constitution and old corruption, the empire was the subject of vehement argument throughout Britain's argumentative 18th-century Atlantic archipelago. The first conception of that "single political body", spread across territories throughout the western hemisphere and known as the British Empire, emerged in the process of ideological debate during the years of Robert Walpole's ministry and Whig hegemony in the first half of the 18th century. Yet these 18th-century conceptions of empire did not emerge by the imposition of a pre-formed British identity on those far-flung parts of the world governed by British laws. Britain's late imperial amnesiacs rooted the emergence of a British identity centred on Protestantism, liberty and trade to the history of an insular island race. More recently, historians have written about the emergence of an Anglo-British identity in the early modern period, suggesting that perceptions of imperial Britain were often little other than Englishness writ large. In contrast to these Anglocentric perspectives, Armitage shows that many attributes of Britain's 18th-century imperial ideologies were forged far from metropolitan London, by provincials in North America, the West Indies, Scotland and Ireland.

The history student scanning hastily through The Ideological Origins of the British Empire for an undergraduate essay (and the book certainly does deserve to have an undergraduate audience) will discover that 18th-century Britons saw their empire as "Protestant, maritime, commercial and free". Armitage organises his discussion around these four themes. But his definition of the core dimensions of an 18th-century British imperial ideology is not the most distinctive aspect of his treatment of the subject.

Of more importance is his suggestion that conceptions of the British Empire were not rooted in a sense of British identity, but instead were arguments about how Britain's pan-Atlantic polity should be ordered. The point here is that fragile ideologies that were forged in the cut and thrust of political debate were far more easily contested than more primordial conceptions of national identity. When colonists in North America challenged the sovereignty of the British Parliament and fought a war of independence, they were not suffering from a crisis of identity. Instead, in the space of two or three years, colonists overturned a conception of how a pan-Atlantic British society, which they themselves had helped to forge, should operate.

Armitage quotes a line from Robert Wedderburn's 16th-century The Complaynt of Scotland : "...realmis ar nocht conquest be buikus bot rather be blouid" [...realms are not conquered by books but rather by blood]. In asserting that the 18th-century British Empire was constituted by ideological debate in books and pamphlets rather than in the imagining of primordial identities, Armitage offers a powerful revision of the history of both Britain and empire in and after the early modern period. Most important, in emphasising the role of empire in creating the conceptions that defined what it meant to be British, he makes it far more difficult for scholars and students to see British and imperial history as separate fields of study.

Jon E. Wilson is lecturer in imperial and Commonwealth history, King's College London.

The Ideological Origins
of the British Empire

Author - David Armitage
ISBN - 0521 59081 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 239

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