The great and the not so good

The Oxford History of the British Empire - The Oxford History of the British Empire
September 4, 1998

As the last vestiges of empire disappear, Britain's imperial record has had a major reassessment

The Oxford History of the British Empire. Volume One: The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the 17th Century. Edited by Nicholas Canny. Oxford University Press, 533pp, £30.00. - ISBN 0 19 820562 7. The Oxford History of the British Empire Volume Two: The 18th Century. Edited by P. J. Marshall. Oxford University Press, 639pp, £30.00. - ISBN 0 19 820563 5

The end of the 20th century can be seen as a transitional period for Britain. With the loss of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Britain has truly entered a post-imperial age. Perhaps equally significant, the structure of Britain itself is in the process of altering irrevocably. Impending devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, coupled with increasingly vocal demands for separation from England, seem likely to foreshadow a fundamental change in Britain's identity. Furthermore, despite evident doubts and misgivings, Britain is edging inexorably towards greater integration with the European Union. In an era when the country's international and domestic profile is undergoing transformation, the major reassessment of the British imperial experience offered by The Oxford History of the British Empire is therefore particularly timely.

The first volume in the series, The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century, has posed particular problems. As editor Nicholas Canny has candidly admitted: "The study of the British Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries presents special difficulties because no empire, as the term subsequently came to be understood, then existed, while the adjective 'British' meant little to most inhabitants of Britain and Ireland during the years covered by this volume." Terms such as "the Empire of Great Britaine" or "great Britaines imperial crowne" had no specific expansionist connotation in the early Stuart age. It is appropriate, therefore, that the contributors to the first volume seek to explore the reasons for the initial lack of success in the colonial field.

In John Appleby's opinion, the failure of achievements to match the expectations of colonial enthusiasts of the Elizabethan age "stemmed from the lack of sustained state support for overseas expansion". The first attempt to establish a colonial settlement in North America in 1585 had to be abandoned after just one year. As war with Spain intensified in the late 16th century, hopes that the state might produce an oceanic strategy capable of fostering transatlantic settlement were "dashed by the reluctance of the Queen to risk limited resources in a distant and marginal theatre of conflict". N. A. M. Rodger focuses more on the technological impediments to successful colonisation. Deficiency in the quality of victuals and the organisation of victualling, he argues, "alone explains why Queen Elizabeth's navy could not have been an instrument of colonial conquest even if she had intended it to be". The lure of Ireland as a field of colonisation can also explain the limited success of transoceanic settlement before the mid-17th century. Jane Ohlmeyer points out that, prior to 1641, 100,000 people migrated from mainland Britain to Ireland. At around the same time, by contrast, Virginia had 8,000 settlers, Massachusetts a mere 6,000. James Horn, moreover, stresses the difficulties faced by the English settlers: unlike their Spanish counterparts in Central and South America, they lacked convenient access to precious metals, the Orient and advanced Indian civilisations, all of which could be easily exploited. New England was famously dismissed by Oliver Cromwell as "poor, cold and, useless", while settlers in the Chesapeake were forced to rely on a single crop, tobacco. "We have no trade at home and abroad", confessed a contemporary, "but that of Tobacco.... it is our meat, drink, clothes, and monies."

As the 17th century progressed, however, initial frustration and failure gave way to success and profitability. Although by 1700 England's transoceanic trade only accounted for about 20 per cent of total overseas commerce, Nuala Zahediah emphasises that it was the "rapidity of growth rather than its absolute scale which drew fascinated attention from contemporaries and later historians". Michael Braddick's chapter also indicates the increasingly direct responsibility for war, trade, and colonisation assumed by the national government from the mid-17th century. In demonstrating this important development in the consolidation of England's overseas presence, Braddick concedes that it "derived as much from the necessities of civil war as it did from Imperial ambition". On a more positive note, Ned C. Landsman characterises the emergence of the Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the second half of the 17th century as "the time in which disparate English colonial outposts on the North American mainland were drawn together into a contiguous and interdependent line of increasingly British colonies".

In a penetrating chapter by Jonathan Israel, England's emergence in the second half of the 18th century as a leading colonial power is placed in the context of European rivalries in this period. "As a result of the Glorious revolution and its aftermath, the Williamite campaigns in Ireland and Scotland and the events of the war of the Spanish succession", observes Israel, "Britain was now unquestionably Europe's dominant maritime and colonial power." Serendipity, however, played an important part in the achievement of this superiority. In the period leading up to the Glorious revolution of 1688, Israel identifies the tendency of Louis XIV's France to concentrate on neutralising the Spanish and the Dutch, rather than the English, as "the factor which, more than any other, rendered impossible any sustained concerted action to halt, and roll back, English colonial and maritime expansion". The Franco-Dutch War of 1672-77 is particularly significant. Even the resumption of Anglo-French hostility during the nine years' war (1688-97) failed to undermine England's overseas interests. While England's Dutch allies were forced to devote most of their resources to an arduous land campaign in the Low Countries and the Rhineland, England was free to assign a much higher proportion of its naval and military resources to the war at sea and beyond Europe. The far-reaching colonial concessions that France granted to Britain at the conclusion of the war of the Spanish Succession (1702-13) left Britain "poised to create the greatest empire in terms of territories, trade, and shipping that the world had ever seen". Whether Britons were aware of the dawning of a new age is quite another matter.

In G. E. Aylmer's estimation, as late as 1700 the economic contribution to the empire of New England, New York, and Pennsylvania was "certainly unclear to most contemporaries". David Armitage's wide-ranging and iconoclastic chapter on "Literature and empire" questions the link between the two terms in the early modern period. "Both 'literature' and 'empire' are modern categories that have been projected anachronistically on to the early-modern period," he asserts. On the one hand, before the mid-18th century the highest form of literacy was command of the classical languages, while on the other, the more usual term for empire, imperium, merely denoted a juridical concept with its roots in Roman law. "(O)nly in retrospect did the Elizabethan era come to be seen as a golden age, and only with the rise of linguistic nationalism in the 19th century were literature and empire traced back to common roots in the late 16th century." Perhaps most revealingly in the context of the volume as a whole, Armitage notes that the sense of the British Empire as a unitary body of which England, Ireland, Scotland and the colonies were dependent but integrated members "seems only to have appeared in the second quarter of the 18th century, and is an index of the slow growth of a comprehensive imperial ideology for Britons, whether in the metropolitan nations or outre-mer". While Armitage is primarily concerned with Britain itself, other contributors to volume one focus on the impact of its expanding overseas presence on indigenous people.

After decades of moralising, Anthony Pagden chillingly records that the English sought "only to exclude the Indians or, where expedient, to annihilate them". "And because of their view of themselves as a commercial and agricultural rather than a conquering people", Pagden adds, "few Europeans were so little given to moral scruples over their imperial exploits as the English." John Locke, who had a long association with America first as secretary to the lords proprietor of Carolina between 1668 and 1671 and subsequently as a member of the Board of Trade at the close of the 17th century, set out to legitimise the colonisation of North America. Developing an argument from Roman law known as res nullius, he contended that unoccupied lands remained the property of all mankind until they were put to some tangible use, usually agricultural. "(I)n the beginning", wrote Locke, "all the world was America." While more sophisticated than previous justifications for colonisation, Locke's views echoed earlier sentiments. Writing in 1622, Robert Cushman had declared that the Indians "run over the grass as do also the foxes and wild beasts". Pagden demonstrates, however, that the English liked to portray themselves not as the conquerors of Indians but as their potential saviours "not only from paganism and pre-agricultural modes of subsistence, but also from Spanish tyranny". Nevertheless, it would be a distortion to see the Indians as passive victims of English colonialism. Peter Mancall in his chapter "Native Americans and Europeans in English America" underlines that many Indians re-ordered their lives in order to pursue the new European goods, groups in modern New York abandoning their traditional migratory lifestyles and settling near the shore where they could participate more easily in trade. Similarly, P. E. H. Hair and Robin Law in their contribution on western Africa are keen to stress that it would be an exaggeration to see the Europeans exercising some form of "informal empire" over the African communities allied to them. In fact, "it was the Africans who were exploiting European support, and playing off rival Europeans against each other". Hair and Law also make the point that English settlements in western Africa were mere trading posts rather than embryonic "colonies".

By contrast with the sketchy nature of Britain's overseas presence in the period covered by the first volume of The Oxford History of the British Empire, the second charts the growth of Britain's identity as an imperial power in the course of the 18th century. In his introduction, the volume editor, P. J. Marshall, argues that the Seven Years' War (1756-63) "revealed that most of those who ruled Britain were investing Empire with a new significance". By 1815, this feeling had, if anything, intensified. "Nearly everyone at the time," records Patrick O'Brien, "perceived that economic progress, national security, and the integration of the kingdom might well come from sustained levels of investment in global commerce, naval power, and, wherever necessary, the acquisition of bases and territory overseas."

Jack Greene's illuminating contribution on "Empire and identity" reinforces the growing tendency among contemporaries to extol the virtues of empire. In 1774, for example, the political writer John Campbell acclaimed the colonies as a great national resource that had "contributed greatly to increase our Industry, and of course our Riches, to extend our Commerce, to augment our Naval Power, and consequently to maintain the Grandeur and support the Prosperity of the Mother Country". Increasing contacts with the East, however, were causing mounting concern at home. As H. V. Bowen emphasises in his chapter on the metropolitan context of British expansion in India in the second half of the 18th century, "It was thought that misrule, corruption, greed, vice, and arbitrary government would not remain confined to India but might serve to act as corrosive agents and weaken traditional liberties, values, and virtues within metropolitan society."

In Jack Greene's analysis, "liberty was ... the single most important element in defining a larger Imperial identity for Britain and the British Empire". "For English people migrating overseas to establish the new communities of settlement," expatiates Greene, "the capacity to enjoy - to possess - the English system of law and liberty was ... crucial to their ability to maintain their identity as English people and to continue to think of themselves and to be thought of by those who remained in England as English." Such extravagant notions, nevertheless, were not always shared by those in the mother country. Benjamin Franklin, who spent much of 20 years from the mid-1750s to the mid-1770s in London, commented that British opinion increasingly perceived the American colonists as the "lowest of mankind, and almost of a different species from the English of Britain".

The contrast between rulers and ruled became yet more pronounced as the British Empire came to encompass millions of non-European peoples. "The colonial rationale for the disenfranchisement of a whole race," remarks Rajat Kanta Ray in his chapter on "Indian society and British supremacy", "derived from a particular construction of the native character which induced the utilitarian philosopher at India House (James Mill) to reflect gravely, 'In India there is no moral character'." As regards the justification for Britain's expanding overseas presence, Richard Drayton in his impressive chapter on "Knowledge and empire" reveals how "Service to the cause of knowledge lent dignity to an enterprise which might have appeared otherwise as mere plunder and rapine."

In seeking to provide a bridge between the "first" British empire based on North America and the "second" founded on India, Marshall stresses in the concluding chapter that "Elements of an old Empire and of a new one coexisted side by side well into the 19th century." "If there was a swing to the East in the later 18th century," avers Marshall, "there had certainly as yet been no corresponding swing away from the Atlantic."

The Oxford History of the British Empire is an ambitious project that has attracted a number of doubters and critics. The publication of the first two volumes, however, should serve to silence these dissenting voices. Both volumes are meticulously planned and flawlessly executed, providing texts that are both scholarly and accessible. The combination of thematic chapters on the empire as a whole, and regional ones on particular parts of it, is especially effective. A studied refusal to become mired in stale constitutional debates, coupled with a determination to examine the imperial experience from the perspective of both rulers and ruled, is to be welcomed. Another notable feature is the objectivity and sensitivity with which the contributors handle emotive and controversial subjects. It can only be hoped that the remaining three volumes in the series dealing with the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as historiography, emulate the efforts of Canny, Marshall and their fellow contributors.

Simon C. Smith is lecturer in international history, University of Hull.

The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume One: The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the 17th Century

Editor - Nicholas Canny
ISBN - 0 19 820562 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 533

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