‘The history of England,’ Sir John Seeley declared in The Expansion of England (1883), ‘is not in England but in America and Asia.’ Like many aphorisms, this was at once consciously perverse and entirely apt. Seeley wrote as a fervid supporter of imperial federation, ‘Greater Britain’, but he was also taking issue, as in a preceding series of lectures delivered at Cambridge, with the introspection that characterised so much contemporary English historical writing. In his opinion, altogether too much attention had been devoted to a Whig narrative of purely domestic constitutional advance, to the story of Parliament, political parties and pieces of statute law, when ‘the great fact of modern English history’ was in reality the evolution of its Empire overseas.
In recent years, these arguments have become immensely fashionable again and even radical, but only in certain quarters. Salman Rushdie might almost have been quoting from Seeley when he remarked, some time ago, that the problem with the English was that so much of their history ‘happened overseas … that they don’t know what it means’. As this suggests, one reason Seeley remains worth reading (and if a modern, scholarly edition of his classic isn’t in production, it should be) is that in these islands the narrow vision he castigated has proved to be an enduring one. ‘British History’ is still generally understood and carried out here as though it were concerned only with domestic developments, while ‘Imperial History’ is usually practised as a separate, minority discipline and perceived as primarily to do with extra-territorial events.
Attempts to blend matters British and matters imperial into a more integrated history have been far more common in former colonial outposts, especially the United States. There are obvious historical reasons why this should be so. Until 1776, most white inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies shared religious and political ideas, patterns of consumerism, trade networks, secular culture, war efforts, as well as a king, with the people across the Atlantic. Consequently, Colonial American historians have long taken it for granted (as British historians rarely have) that their studies should have an Atlanticist scope, embracing aspects of Britain’s past as well as their own. More recent trends have also sharpened American interest in empire. British history is now such a minority discipline in American universities that narrow specialisation within it of the kind taken for granted here has become impracticable, and any young practitioner of the subject is almost routinely (and quite legitimately) expected to span the story of both the British at home and the British diaspora.
In addition, investigating the British imperial past is widely viewed as useful for the present of the United States. At one level, it casts light on, while also perhaps distracting attention from, the role of imperialism in Americans’ own state formation, foreign policy and self-image. At another, it has become an article of faith with many Americans that it was European imperialism which gave birth to the racial animosities and attitudes that so trouble their own society, and that only by a thorough and sceptical excavation of European and particularly British empire will the roots of racism be properly uncovered and exorcised. As a result, it can sometimes seem that there is no English language text, no British art work or other cultural artefact, and no event in recorded British history that is not being scrutinised somewhere across the Atlantic with the prior determination of finding evidence of latent imperialism and racial prejudice and/or anxiety.
The perception, justified or no, that American attempts to bridge domestic and imperial British histories have sometimes fostered undiscriminating and hopelessly politicised analysis has only served to confirm many British scholars in their doubts about the desirability and viability of such a strategy. One of the many virtues of David Armitage’s Ideological Origins of the British Empire is that its author is markedly transatlantic in background, and consequently able to understand and mediate between these very different intellectual sensibilities and scepticisms. Trained at Princeton and now at Columbia, he aims unapologetically and explicitly to reintegrate the histories of British empire and early modern Britain. But he also writes as a product of Cambridge, much influenced by its proprietorial brand of ‘New British History’ (meaning the relations over time between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland), and by Quentin Skinner’s school of intellectual history. Armitage has drawn on these different legacies adroitly to square the circle. Intellectually, he argues, empire was inextricably bound up with Britain’s domestic history, because in the ideas and arguments that its politicians and writers mobilised in response to the problematics of its own multiple kingdoms lay also the origins of British imperial ideology.
This is not an entirely new idea. In the 1970s, Michael Hechter argued for the link between the ‘internal colonialism’ he saw England as implementing in its ‘Celtic fringe’ from the 16th century onwards, and the evolution of its empire overseas. And as early as 1907, Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, drew attention to the parallels between medieval and early modern Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Welsh border conflicts, as well as the ‘ceaseless struggles’ in Ireland, and the challenges posed by more far-flung imperial frontiers. What distinguishes Armitage’s tightly argued and consistently intelligent work is the depth and range of his learning and his acute sense of nuance, complexity and, above all, change over time.
He offers a valuable corrective to the view that ‘British’ empire grew inexorably like an acorn into a mighty oak from the 16th century onwards, and consequently that a full-blown ideology of empire was already in evidence in Elizabethan and early Stuart writings. He argues that precisely because the evolution of imperial ideology was so closely bound up with internal state formation, the former was necessarily a slow and imperfect growth because so, too, was the latter. The early Tudors certainly possessed a vocabulary of empire, which they sharpened in their wars with Scotland. But at this stage the idea that England was an empire signified independence from external powers and internal rivals, not a manifest destiny overseas. Moreover, English projects of empire had to coexist with separate Scottish imperial aspirations, and would continue to do so until the 1690s. James VI of Scotland, who went on to become James I of the Three Kingdoms, was as determined to impose Lowlands ‘civilitie’ on his ‘barbarous’ Gaelic Islands, by the sword if need be, as the English were to plant their official language and forms of local government in Wales.
Armitage is also sceptical about the immediate imperial impact of the Protestant Reformation. By the 18th century, and even more by the 19th, it had become axiomatic that British empire was a distinctively Protestant growth (and as a result much better and freer than the earlier empire of Catholic Spain and the rival empire of Catholic France). Consequently, and in retrospect, the Reformation became a vital trigger of native imperial enterprise, the impetus, for instance, behind all those famous Elizabethan sea-dogs who attacked the treasure-ships limping home under their weight of cargo from Spain’s American possessions. Armitage supplies a close reading of the works of Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas, both given iconic significance by the Victorians as post-Reformation maritime pundits, so as to demonstrate that the connections between Protestant theology and enterprise at sea were, to say the least, slight and uncertain at this early stage. He suggests, too, that anti-Catholicism was always a negative rather than a positive ideology in the context of empire. Here, I think, he somewhat overstates his case. Anti-Catholicism, as it evolved, usually served a dialectical function, drawing attention to the supposed despotism, superstition, military oppressiveness and material poverty of Catholic regimes so as to throw into greater relief supposed Anglo-British freedoms, naval supremacy, and agrarian and commercial prosperity, and consequently superior mode of empire. But Armitage is right to insist that it was not until the 18th century that this line of argument fully matured.
One of his most original and brilliant chapters traces the way ideas about the sea changed from being of primarily domestic significance to acquiring an expansionist edge. For early proponents of Anglo-Scottish union, maritime allusions proved invaluable because of their implicit geographical determinism. Since Britain was an island, nature and the waves proclaimed that it must also be a single, identifiable unit. James I, who may have hankered after the title of ‘Emperor of Great Britain’, made a point after 1603 of pushing mare clausum policies in all the seas around the coasts of England, Wales and Scotland. By the mid-17th century, these ideas and initiatives were shifting seamlessly into something more robust. Marchamont Nedham’s translation of Mare Clausum in 1652 was commissioned by the Cromwellian Council of State for use against the main Protestant rival for maritime and commercial empire, the Dutch; and by the 1680s, William Petty was writing about the ‘Dominion of the Sea’ and the utility of a blatantly navalist strategy: ‘such as desire empire & liberty … let them encourage the art of ship-building.’
This notion that maritime empire was fully compatible with freedom would prove immensely attractive and useful, if also ultimately limited. It played to Britain’s obvious strength, its powerful Navy, while glossing over its still relatively modest Army. It also catered to the self-image which became ever more pronounced after 1688 that Britons were the freest people in the world, and made empire appear far more respectable and reassuring. The Roman and Spanish Empires, it was argued, had nourished atrocity, contaminated their makers and ultimately declined because they had relied on military conquest. Being maritime, commercial and Protestant meant that British empire by contrast would be both benign and enduring. By the 1730s, Armitage claims, these ideas had attracted a broad following, especially among opposition politicians in Britain and Anglo settlers in North America, Ireland and the Caribbean. But he takes issue with scholars such as Jack Greene who have interpreted all this as evidence of the emergence of an imperial identity. Rather, he suggests, these notions constituted an ideology, and as such were always contested and unstable. In the end, the British failed to find a fully satisfactory way of conceiving of their Empire as a single community, in part because they also failed to resolve some of the fissures in their own multiple kingdoms. The Treaty of Union of 1707 effectively united England and Wales with Scotland, but it said nothing about Ireland or about those other Britons living across the Atlantic. From these signal omissions there ultimately stemmed revolution and imperial disintegration.
Armitage is right to draw attention to the limits of maritime, commercial, Protestant and libertarian concepts of British empire, and his argument is only strengthened if one considers the full extent and diversity of the beast. One of the few drawbacks of American scholars’ persistent interest in the so-called First British Empire is that their work has focused attention on its Atlantic component at the expense of other important regions. Even Armitage abides by this convention to the extent of defining the early 18th-century Empire as ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Ireland, the islands of the Caribbean and the British mainland colonies of North America’. Yet this omits Indian settlements of the East India Company, which was ostensibly a group of private traders but in fact already closely bound up with the policies and personnel of the British state. Even more grievously, it omits this Empire’s Mediterranean dimension. The largest concentrated investment in empire in the 17th century by the English state, as distinct from private bodies, occurred not in America, but in Tangier, the colony that Charles II lavished millions on but which failed. And before 1750, far more British troops were garrisoned in Gibraltar and Minorca – and far more naval activity occurred there – than in Britain’s Atlantic Empire.
The serendipitous acquisition and diverse location of this Empire help to explain why no single, entirely satisfactory imperial ideology was ever able to emerge. How could British empire be adequately portrayed as Protestant, when it manifestly encompassed Catholics, Muslims and Hindus? And how could it be represented as free and maritime when parts of it relied on substantial military garrisons and were closely caught up with considerations of state and regal power? This same diversity also precluded the emergence of an imperial identity. Had they put their minds to it, the British might in due course have been able to evolve a notion of a ‘Greater Britain’ which also encompassed their Protestant settlers across the sea. Burke certainly felt able to appeal confidently to the ‘two branches of the British nation’, but where exactly did such a formulation leave the non-white, non-Christian populations of empire? As a result of these difficulties, what emerged was not one but at least two ideologies of empire.
The first is the one Armitage has so deftly chronicled in this seminal work: empire as commerce, as maritime power, as Protestant and free, and as quintessentially transatlantic. The second was hinted at by David Hume: ‘When a monarch extends his dominions by conquest, he soon learns to consider his old and new subjects as on the same footing, because, in reality, all his subjects are to him the same.’ According to this view, there could be nothing uniquely and permanently special about British settlers in America. They might claim to be Britons on another shore (without wishing to be taxed as such), but they were also one set of colonial subjects among others, Indians, Catholic Europeans, Native Americans, Francophone Canadians and many more, all of whom possessed certain claims on London, and all of whom required ruling. These two perspectives on empire clashed disastrously after 1776.
The loss of the American colonies in 1783, and the growing global span of empire thereafter, only made it more difficult to evolve a single imperial identity which might also incorporate the British themselves. Stray schemes of imperial federation of the kind that Seeley championed (and even he wanted to leave out India) were floated only to fail. Instead, the British coped with the terrifying scale and diversity of their Empire by compartmentalising. Empire always mattered, for different Britons, in different ways and at different times. But when its demands were perceived as clashing with national interests, the former always lost out. Thus the British servicemen returning from global military service in 1945 preferred to vote for Labour and a welfare state in their own country than for Winston Churchill and his attachment to a continuing imperial role. This helps to explain why the British still approach their history in the bifurcated way that they do. Treating empire and nation as separate entities is not simply a product, as is often suggested, of guilt, wilful amnesia and conservatism. Investing in empire to a conspicuous degree while simultaneously drawing a mental line between it and themselves is what large numbers of Britons have always done.
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