The teller of Europe's tale

William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire
July 25, 1997

This splendid volume serves as a valuable corrective to the recent bicentennial emphasis on Edward Gibbon, although it is also a useful supplement since William Robertson influenced Gibbon. For example, Robertson's discussion of the balance of power in his History of the Emperor Charles V was an important source for Gibbon's thinking on international relations. Gibbon also shared Robertson's view that cultural transmission was crucial to the increase of European homogeneity. Robertson repays study and this book is the best available on the historian. The aim of the volume is not to provide a comprehensive account of Robertson's varied life, a task that certainly needs addressing, but, rather, to direct attention to his career and to his contributions in shaping the European consciousness in the age of Enlightenment and empire.

After a brief introduction in which he summarises the contributions, Stewart Brown offers a chapter-length essay that provides an overall interpretation of Robertson and an introduction that is of value to nonexperts. As a result, the volume avoids a common fault of the Ideas in Context series: a preference for detail over clarity. Brown argues that Robertson strengthened the religious and educational establishment in Scotland and encouraged the growth of an inclusive and world-affirming theological perspective that offered a vision of global history celebrating the essential unity of humankind.

Jeffrey Smitten provides a characteristically scholarly and judicious contribution in which he considers how Robertson saw his own work, a project unfortunately affected by the limited nature of the surviving correspondence. Nicholas Phillipson assesses Robertson's historical thought, not least his theory of progress that linked the beliefs of the age with its material progress. He finds hints of "the seeds of a new world religion, pluralistic, united by a common stoic ethic and a belief in toleration, a religion absorbing all creeds and denominations". Karen O'Brien discusses his thought in the context of 18th-century narrative history, providing an important contribution to historiography. Owen Dudley Edwards takes this forward to look at Robertson's influence on romanticism and America, including the Declaration of Independence.

In the "Ideological significance of Robertson's History of Scotland", Colin Kidd explains how he fashioned a new Whig-Presbyterian patriotism that was not dependent on nationalism. Instead, as Kidd shows, Robertson's pessimistic account of 17th-century Scotland was indebted to the critique of the Union of the Crowns. He offered a new historical apologetic designed to meet the needs of the 18th century: "a provincial religious establishment guaranteed by treaty but coexisting with a much more powerful rival core establishment within an enlightened and Erastian British state".

John Renwick considers the reception of Robertson's historical works in France: he was greatly praised by the philosophes. They found numerous aspects of his historiography familiar and congenial. History was to be a pleasurable instrument of useful instruction.

Richard Sher looks at Charles V and the book trade. He explains why Strachan and his associates paid so much to obtain the book's copyright and suggests the book was representative of the shaping of the Scottish Enlightenment by predominantly Scottish figures in the book trade. Sher looks at the book's publishing history in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris and Philadelphia. He reminds us of the need to pay close attention to the particular circumstances and changing contexts in which books appeared. The highly favourable terms Robertson was able to negotiate resulted from the convergence of several factors, including the work's significance for the London printer-publisher. This convergence of contributing factors was not replicated in its entirety in Dublin, Paris or Philadelphia. In each of these cities, Charles V was reprinted soon after its initial publication in London, but with a meaning and significance which varied according to the nature of local conditions. Sher also reminds us that the book was not a single entity, but existed as different things in different places.

Bruce Lenman considers Robertson's treatment of his Spanish sources with specific reference to the treatment of the conquistadores. He argues that Robertson was impervious to evidence on the inexorability of stadial progression in history and the low rating on the stadial scale of North American Natives. Geoffrey Carnall turns the attention to India, and suggests that Robertson revealed considerable cultural sensitivity and toleration, certainly more so than generally were to be shown the following century. He was convinced that India was the seat of a magnificent and long-enduring civilisation, which had flourished many centuries before that of Greece and Rome. His defence of the caste system revealed Robertson's open-mindedness in the face of difference, although he described Hinduism as a "system of superstition". Nowhere did Robertson suggest that European rule was indispensable to the well-being of the inhabitants. The book closes with Jeffrey Smitten's useful bibliography of writings about Robertson 1755-1996, the fullest available. Smitten, wisely, does not claim to be definitive.

The essays are of great value for our understanding not only of Robertson, but also of important aspects of 18th-century literary culture. This is also a fundamental work for those interested in historiography. O'Brien on the development of narrative history, Renwick on reception and Sher on publishing contexts should be considered by all historians.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, Exeter University.

William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire

Editor - Stewart J. Brown
ISBN - 0 521 57083 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 6

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