From International Socialism 2:83, Summer 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Nicholas Canny (ed.)
The Origins of Empire: The New Oxford History of the British Empire Volume I
Oxford University Press 1998, £30
At the start of the 20th century people in Britain were very proud of Queen Victoria’s mighty empire, which was still expanding in Africa and would reach its furthest extent in the 1920s. Yet very few knew much about it. When public opinion polls got going towards the middle of the century, they disclosed that most electors found it hard to name colonies, let alone know where they were. The British retreat from the Indian subcontinent in 1947 was presented as a noble and generous renunciation – few realise even now that India had been on its way to home rule with dominion status in 1939 and only Churchill’s stubbornness had prevented recognition of independence during the war, when India had voluntarily poured men and munitions into the fight against Hitler. The House of Commons had habitually emptied when Indian and other imperial questions had been discussed.
Empire had been taken for granted, except in those middle and upper class circles which had provided soldiers and administrators for the Raj and its equivalents elsewhere in the tropics, sent professionals and missionaries to far places, or imported and exported goods to the colonies. Shanghai and Argentina, not formally ‘owned’ or garrisoned by Britain, were hugely more important to the metropolitan economy than the vast tracts of Arctic North America and the far flung archipelagos of the Pacific which were painted or marked with red on the map. Attlee’s post-war Labour administration was committed to self rule for imperial peoples, yet it presided over a spate of emigration which vastly increased white settler populations in British Africa and so provided the human basis for Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence. The ‘absence of mind’ which the Victorian historian Seeley had seen as typical of Britain’s acquisition of an empire persisted down to that moment in the 1960s when Harold Wilson’s government presented the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia to the US as a base, wholly irrespective of the wishes of its contented inhabitants, who were kicked out, and beyond that to the war launched in 1982 by Margaret Thatcher to defend the Falklands, which British administrations, Labour and Tory, had been trying to hand over to Argentina for many years.
The devoted geographers and historians who tried to interest university students and school children in the empire had support from jingoistic headmasters and the more bone-headed teachers of ‘English literature’, but knew that they faced an uphill struggle. We should be clear that the general tenor of British education, and public life, was imperialistic right through to the 1950s-Empire Day and the monarch’s broadcasts to the empire, along with huge empire exhibitions, did make an impression on the public, and the Queen of Tonga’s appearance at Elizabeth II’s coronation was a popular stroke of pageantry in time honoured style. But bright university students of history would mostly be more interested in the medieval origins of parliament and ‘English liberty’, or in that splendid industrial revolution which the British had somehow, it was insinuated, engineered all by themselves, or in Wellington’s peninsular campaigns, than in the awkward tale of empire which included quasi-genocidal activities in Ireland, slave colonies in the Caribbean, defeat in the war of American Independence, and not too savoury deployment of rapid fire guns against Africans. Even the extremely noble British Raj in India had unmistakably sordid origins, and the Amritsar Massacre of unarmed Pubjabi demonstrators in 1919 hardly supported the case of idealistic imperialists who believed that wise and benevolent British rule was leading the world towards peace and justice.
I have in my hand a school prize awarded to Duncan Stuart of Alloa Academy – ‘3rd in Mathematics, 3rd in Drawing’ – in 1915: Deeds that Won the Empire, by W.H. Fitchett, BA, LLD. Dr Fitchett’s preface commences in the characteristically paranoid mode of embattled imperialist scholarship:
The tales here told are written, not to glorify war, but to nourish patriotism. They represent an effort to renew in popular memory the great traditions of the imperial race to which we belong. The history of the empire of which we are subjects – the story of the struggle and suffering by which it has been built up – is the best legacy which the past has bequeathed to us. But it is a treasure strangely neglected. The state makes primary education its anxious care, yet it does not make its own history a vital part of its education.
War, Dr Fitchett concedes, ‘has a side of pure brutality. But it is not all brutal.’ In this book young Duncan Stuart, who was quite likely soon conscripted for the horrors of the Western Front, would have found inspiring tales of battles on sea and land against Napoleon – no Indian heroics, no Caribbean derring-do, no mayhem in the Sudan – only, to represent all far continents, Wolfe’s conquest of Canada from the French in 1763. In fact, the idea that Britain’s world hegemony derived from the victory over France which was sealed in 1815, and which for a while gave the island a virtual monopoly of overseas colonies, could be sustained by solid scholarship. But Fitchett’s book represented a typical evasion of the violent and controversial history of British intercontinental expansion, in favour of exploits against ‘civilised’ European adversaries, even though these happened just now to be Britain’s gallant allies against the bestial Hun.
Britain’s Story: a History for Seniors – Book 11: Britain, the Empire and the USA, published in 1949 – 20,000 copies in its first three impressions – represented the more relaxed view of empire after the Second World War, in which Britain’s mighty dominions had fought alongside it, and the rhetoric of the Atlantic Charter had advertised a ‘special relationship’ with the US and promised freedom and human rights to all the earth’s peoples. Through the empire, as H. Bellis, LLA (Hist Hons), told ‘boys and girls’, ordinary folk like themselves had ‘helped to make the world a better place to live in ... Now it is up to you to continue the good work of these older folks and to put right the mistakes they made.’ Such mistakes, apparently, included those of the ‘wild, barbarous’ Scots who in the 14th century rejected England’s offer of ‘wealth, culture and an ever-developing civilisation’ and plunged themselves into desperate poverty and constant warfare, those mistakes of Elizabeth I and Cromwell which sowed ‘seeds of enmity and hatred’ in Ireland, and that of the ‘officer in charge’ whose issue of cartridges greased with pig’s fat to Mohammedan sepoys precipitated, so the boys and girls learnt, the Indian Mutiny of 1857 – though after its suppression ‘much fine work’ was done by Britain for the benefit of India’s ‘helpless millions’. This feeble textbook, full of elementary mistakes and outright howlers, represents the lowest depths of the historiography of the British Empire.
Its peaks half a century ago included the two volumes of J.A. Williamson’s Short History of British Expansion, first published in 1922, and frequently revised thereafter. Williamson was a sturdy imperialist of the ‘blue water’ school who believed that the Royal Navy was the key to Britain’s sublime greatness. He was, however, a sedulous and accurate scholar who may still be used safely for basic reference. His first volume covers the ‘Old Colonial Empire’ down to the breakaway of the US. This is the subject of the first volume of the Cambridge History of the British Empire, edited by Rose, Newton and Benians, which appeared in 1929, along with the fourth volume, on British India 1497–1858, and edited by the redoubtable H.H. Dodwell (volumes two and three took the general narrative down to 1919, and the remaining four dealt with India after 1858 and the white dominions).
These remained standard works after the historians who had produced them had gone to exchange opinions with Drake and the Elder Pitt in the great smoking room in the skies. The last and finest product of the imperialist school was V.T. Harlow’s monumental The Founding of the Second British Empire 1763–1793 (1952–1964) which the author left unfinished at his death.
By the 1960s almost all sensible politicians and academics were embarrassed by the British Empire. They preferred to talk and write about the Commonwealth of Nations. Chairs of imperial history, in the few places where they existed, were renamed accordingly. C.A. Carrington, a good enough scholar to write very well about Rudyard Kipling, contributed an evasive overview of ‘Commonwealth’ history, first published in 1950, archly entitled the British Overseas: Exploits of a Nation of Shopkeepers. It makes one yearn for the candid triumphalism of J.A. Williamson and, indeed, for the stern elegiac and epic tones of Kipling. Like Philip Woodruff’s widely read apologia for the Raj, The Men Who Ruled India, and certain later sanitised overviews aimed at general readership (J.A. Bowle, Lawrence James), it present the Brits overseas as basically well meaning chaps, out to earn an honest bob or two and turn the natives into Christians with clean white shirts. Plantation slavery was a bad business, but then the Brits led the world in abolishing it – Wilberforce, not Clive, was the prime imperial hero. One was to suppose that Africans were better off under British DOs (carefully recruited by the Colonial Office on the criterion that thickos from fee-paying schools who liked field sports were preferable to state school oiks with brains) than governed by degenerate Portuguese, snail eating Amphibians or brutish Germans. No matter that D.K. Fieldhouse in The Colonial Empires: A Comparative Survey (1966) showed that all European powers went about colonisation and administration in much the same way.
In the 1960s historical writing about the British Empire began to make some headway towards truth because its subject area was invaded by scholarship from other fields. The 13 colonies rose again into contestation. Americans had been as vague and selective about the early history of their own country as Brits had been about Francis Drake and All That. The revolution and still more the civil war dominated their sense of their past, if they had any, and neither of these particularly clawed at the heartstrings of recent immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Hollywood recreated the 19th century in lavish productions, but even now the reconstruction of early colonial life in the fine film of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is startling because it is so exceptional. However, after the Second World War the immense array of American universities began to churn out vast numbers of monographs and surveys of 17th and 18th century colonial history, led by such mighty scholars as Perry Miller and Bernard Bailyn. These often developed quasi-Marxist class analyses and this in turn was ‘colonised’ from the 1960s by new concerns with race and gender.
’The old colonial empire’ is still inspected by relatively few students. The more thoughtless devotees of Edward Said’s Orientalism and the prattling theorists of post-colonialism are satisfied with a lego model of imperialism which travesties its complicated origins. But the first volume of the New Oxford History of the British Empire, designed to supersede the Cambridge history at last, can draw on half a century of scholarship which has produced a sophisticated consensus, steady now for 20 years or more, about early British expansion and its place in the early modern history of the north west European archipelago, and in world history.
To itemise the scholarly thrusts which produced this new consensus ... The West began to pay serious attention to the history of East Asia – China and Japan. The massive Cambridge survey of science and civilisation in China directed by Joseph Needham from the late 1940s onwards established that the East was technologically ahead of Europe down to and after the pioneering voyages of the Portuguese. Nevertheless, modern capitalism, imperialism and ‘world history’ had to be explained by developments in Europe. Historians of naval and military technology were activated to examine European innovations in cannon fire and tactics. The study of the origins of capitalism in late medieval and early modern European history, already provoked by the theories of Marx and Weber and given impetus by famous studies by Tawney, bore its richest fruit in Fernand Braudel’s massive labours after the Second World War, which employed the perspectives of the French Annales school. Certain British historians, notably C.R. Boxer, J.H. Elliott and J.H. Parry, looked exhaustively into the overseas ‘expansion’ of Britain’s Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch competitors. Early modern English overseas trade was anatomised by Ralph Davis, whose statistics still seem to be standard. The Communist Party Historians’ Group in Britain after the Second World War supported Christopher Hill in his seminal reinterpretation of the English Revolution of the 17th century. Hill was neither curious nor particularly well informed about the details of colonial history but his acclaim for Cromwell’s successful naval forays against Holland and Spain in the 1650s aligned him, quaintly, with ‘blue water’ J.A. Williamson. His rather mechanical Marxist overview was that the English Revolution, and the aggressive ‘mercantilist’ imperialism which accompanied and followed it, were indispensable to the development of capitalism, and therefore splendidly progressive. More usefully, he explored with erudite subtlety the complex relationships between Puritanism in religion, the scientific revolution of Bacon and Galileo, the imaginative writing of Shakespeare and Milton, the political theory of Hobbes and Locke, and the ultimate triumphs of toleration, commerce, industry and Whiggery.
Meanwhile, Indian history was revitalised by scholars from the sub-continent itself, of whom K.N. Chaudhuri has been particularly influential. It is now abundantly clear that the Europeans were far from dominating Eastern trade after the Dutch and then the English had followed the Portuguese to the Indian Ocean and China Seas. In fact, the Europeans became, till the mid-18th century, merely a minor, often piratical, component in a vast and thriving system of commerce. The serious study of the African past began, with black scholars to the fore, as the continent was officially ‘decolonised’ from the 1950s. In the understanding of the slave trade, though, the most potent, indeed revolutionary, contribution came from the West Indies via the US, where Eric Williams, who later became prime minister of Trinidad, published his Capitalism and Slavery in 1944. Williams’s argument was that the profits of slave trading and sugar were the basis of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and that Wilberforce had his pious way only because the bloated man-owning planters of the Caribbean, for a long time dominant in British politics, were outweighed by the new economic importance of manufacture by steam. This point was particularly disliked by the new Commonwealth-minded apologists for empire, since it deflated the notion that British imperialism was especially virtuous. Williams did not give full acknowledgement to C.L.R. James, once his teacher at Queen’s Royal College, Port of Spain, whose Marxist The Black Jacobins (1937), was a history of the Haitian Revolution and contained the essence of what became known as the Williams Thesis. And the trenchancy of his argument was undermined by the crudeness of his methodology, so that for several decades his challenge could be shrugged off. But, as refined by subtler economic historians, the Williams Thesis has become central to our understanding of British and world history.
The consensus expressed, overtly or tacitly, by contributors to the New Oxford History may now be summarised. For reasons which would repay further study, a mighty outward thrust of trade and exploration by the Chinese Ming Empire, which might have made ‘world history’ utterly different had it been sustained, faltered coincidentally with the little probes made by Portuguese voyagers to the Atlantic Islands, around the African coast, then as far as India, in the 15th century. The conquest of Christian Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 gave ideological urgency to the aim of replacing trade in exotic products via Muslim intermediaries with direct access to their Eastern sources. Columbus, sailing for the Spanish monarchs, aimed to establish a direct trade route westwards to China, but found the New World instead. While the rich cod fisheries of Newfoundland lured many little ships from Europe, Spanish Conquistadors prevailed in land rich in gold and silver. The bullion which returned to Europe gave traders there for the first time a cargo attractive to Eastern providers of spices and silks, who despised the woollens and other clumsy trade goods which were all that Vasco de Gama and those who followed him had to offer. Since New World ‘Indians’ died like midges in autumn from commonplace European diseases, and those who survived were largely averse to coercive field labour, the importation of Africans to the New World as slaves began, and the Portuguese began to profit from slave cultivated sugar plantations in Brazil. The French crown took an interest in the New World, and Canada was eventually colonised from France.
Enter the Protestant Northerners. The triumph of Protestantism in parts of Europe was associated with the creation of ‘modern’ nation states – ‘empires’ as they were then called. (Down to the mid-19th century the term ‘British Empire’ applied primarily to the British Isles.) Thus Scottish kings ‘colonised’ successfully in the Norse Northern Isles and unsuccessfully in Lewis, while England’s Tudor monarchs sorted their deviant Welsh compatriots out and strove by persuasion and sword to make good their claim to the whole of Ireland. This effort was as much as Elizabeth I’s hard up crown could stand, especially as it was accompanied by heavy military support for the Dutch in their revolt against Philip of Spain, during which canny skippers from the Netherlands began to intrude everywhere in world trade. The accounts of far Tudor voyages collected by Richard Hakluyt, which eventually mesmerised imperialist historians, who grossly exaggerated their significance, represented little more than abortive searches for north east and north west passages to China and piratical incursions into the Spanish sphere in Central and South America. Official war with Spain towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign at least permitted some English ship owners to make large profits out of privateering (legalised piracy), and these, aggregated in the City of London, helped to sustain the East India Company born with the new century. Meanwhile, the conquest of Ireland and the exploitation of its resources by ‘plantation’ provided precedents for colonisation in the New World.
James VI and I, unlike his royal predecessor, was very interested in colonisation. His fellow Scots were lured in disproportionate numbers into the newly conquered province of Ulster. He took over the struggling colony of Virginia, the first English settlement in the New World to survive, and his son Charles I rather absent mindedly permitted Puritan politico-religious dissidents with influential backing to set up the godly colony of Massachusetts and a base for slaving and piracy on Providence Island off Central America. The latter disappeared so thoroughly in the turmoil of the civil war years that most historians of empires have forgotten about its brief and sordid existence, though it was a major focus of interest and activity for the parliamentary opposition to Charles I. Massachusetts survived and generated further colonies in New England where communities of farmers and fishermen, neither rich nor poor, survived by building ships with the abundant local timber and using them to sell cod to Europeans and farm produce to the West Indies.
South of New England, colonies survived only through the cultivation of ‘staple’ crops. The squabbling Virginian pioneers round Chesapeake Bay found that the vast Old World market for tobacco was enough to keep their settlements solvent. A unique society without towns developed, where planters expanded the cultivation of the weed into land cleared of Indians and sold their produce direct on their own waterfronts to English merchants. Tobacco was everything, functioned as a currency, and provided the wherewithal to buy increasing numbers of black slaves. Chancers who settled various Caribbean islands moved from tobacco to sugar, with the help of Dutch merchants after the Dutch had temporarily conquered Brazil and seen how the Portuguese cultivated that lush and sinister crop. Cane sugar, formerly a luxury, had, like tobacco, a market which seemed almost infinitely elastic. White ‘servants’ under indentures proved insufficient in health, supply and tractability and by the end of the 17th century the British Caribbean Islands were petty but prodigiously profitable arenas where Englishmen, Welshmen and Irishmen with strong constitutions, doughty livers and flexible moral standards could make vast fortunes from driving black slaves to early death and replacing them from the ships which flocked in with human cargoes from Guinea.
Superimposing the geopolitics of late Victorian empire on the 17th century pattern of English trade led the imperialist historians to gross imbalance. Even before the final abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1838, the West Indian sugar islands were becoming inefficient economic backwaters. The North American colonies, in contrast, had been the germ of a second English speaking empire and clever imperialists explored the vision of a world under joint Anglo-Saxon domination, as when Kipling implored the Yankees to ‘take up the white man’s burden’. Thus, imperialist historians devoted considerable attention to the rumbustious daredevil Drake and the pious, genuinely virtuous Pilgrim Fathers, who had established Plymouth Colony in New England as a religious haven without consideration of profit. On the other hand the energetic traders of Bristol and Liverpool who risked their lives on the unhealthy middle passage and made Britain in the 18th century by some distance the pre-eminent slaving power received less attention, as did the North Americans who traded salt meat and fish in the West Indies for rum which they used to fuddle and debauch simple white fisherfolk and the Native Americans who traded furs with them. The same was true of the Glasgow tobacco merchants who ventured beyond the Chesapeake waterfront to new tobacco plantations up country and by the mid-18th century gave their city a virtual monopoly in that much prized commodity Virginia tobacco.
The crucial point which Eric Williams spotted is that gross statistics of industrial production and commerce did not account for the primacy of Britain in ‘Industrial Revolution’. Newcastle coal proved very handy when that revolution came along, but Britain’s copious coal deposits would not in themselves have generated modern industrial capitalism. At the end of the 17th century, as at the beginning, woollens were still England’s chief export commodity, as they had been for centuries – so what? The crucial conjuncture was the proximity of Liverpool and Glasgow to centres where cotton goods could be produced. The central event in the ‘revolution’ was the application of steam power to cotton. A riot of technological innovations meanwhile applied ideas which would not have surprised the ingenious Chinese to all manner of industries. The development of Wedgwood’s potteries and the burgeoning of Sheffield plate cannot be very directly related to sugar production in Jamaica or the British conquest of Bengal. But they did react to the growth of a relatively vast new middle class market generated by the prosperity brought by intercontinental trade and its spin-offs into banking, brewing, agricultural improvement, and even book publishing. ‘Calico’ and ‘tea’ are the world which sum all this up.
Elizabeth I’s court knew little of cotton. The very expensive alternative to heavy, smelly woollens was bug excreted silk. The arrival of calicoes from the East, where Indian workmen who were at least as prosperous as their counterparts in the English textile manufactures produced them most attractively and efficiently, preluded the liberation of affluent folk from sweaty wool. Cotton could not be grown in Britain, but it could be imported from the New World. The colonial empire therefore provided the raw material for mass production for another very elastic market. The slowish but ultimately explosive rise of Manchester and West of Scotland cotton manufacture marked the sudden reversal of the age old East-West imbalance. Manchester textiles invaded markets everywhere in the world, including India. Opium grown in India for the British was the means for aggressive penetration at last of the mighty Chinese market.
Imperialist historians were, of course, clear that British involvement in India had been of paramount importance. What could they make of its early history? Small English trading settlements at Surat (later usurped by Bombay), in Madras, and finally in Calcutta, had dealt in Indian cottons and eastern spices to the great profit of investors back home, but with negligible effect on the overall pattern of Asian trade. An Indian gravestone reads, ‘The Dutch and the English, they were here/They drank toddy instead of beer.’ Survivors of gross feasting, unwise computations and violent tropical diseases could make excellent profits by fitting out ships for the local trade, manned by local sailors. ‘Necessity was the mother of invention and the father of the Eurasian.’ Haughty racial exclusiveness came much later, deep in the high minded evangelical 19th century. When the East India Company presumptuously declared war on the Mughal Empire late in the 17th, the result was a mouse-that-roared debacle. As in Africa, where European forts on the Guinea Coast existed by sufferance of native rulers, the Brits in India usually tried to keep out of trouble. Tea was an increasingly valuable commodity, not least prized by those smugglers whose activities in 18th century Britain corresponded in extent and collateral violence to those of late 20th drug dealers. Like sugar and cotton cloth it gravitated downwards inexorably from luxury to mass market. Brits, like other Europeans, acquired it in the one port, Canton, which the Chinese emperors opened to the trade. Of no great consequence to the Sons of Heaven, this leaf, too, helped create world history.
Your Williamsons and Dodwells, reading away, cheered up when the arrogant Amphibians began to intervene in the politics of India as the Mughal emperors lost their grip. The series of wars against France from the 1690s through to 1815 became a contest for world hegemony, and gave a context, as Linda Colley has brilliantly shown, to the development among English, Welsh, Scots and many Irish, of a composite and bellicose common ‘British’ identity – Protestant, libertarian and deeply averse to the eating of garlic and snails, let alone poncy French gallantry and sexual licence. As the East India Company responded to French aggression in India, that remarkable man Robert Clive was positioned to win the victory over the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey in 1757 which preluded British conquest of the subcontinent. Imperialist historians felt able to justify the cynical plundering of Bengal which followed, reducing India’s richest area to the poverty which prevails to this day, by working up the long forgotten incident of the Black Hole of Calcutta. The East India Company had defied the Nawab. He had, quite within his rights, conquered their fort. Like every British garrison from Inverness to Jamaica, it had a ‘Black Hole’ in which disorderly soldiers were deposited to rue their mischievous deeds. The Nawab quite sensibly commanded that the vanquished Brits should be put into their own prison. It was a hot night, some were wounded, water was in short supply, and numbers died – though nothing anywhere near the number later alleged. So Plassey was a valid ‘revenge’ for fiendish Asiatic cruelty. And it followed that the barbaric ferocity with which the British suppressed the Sepoy mutiny of 1857 was justified by the intrinsic viciousness of Indian natives who would rape every white woman in sight if they weren’t kept severely in their place.
Gender studies have not made much impact yet on imperial historiography, except in the crazier reaches of ‘theory’. The study of family history and intricate demography since the Second World War confirms unsurprisingly that colonial societies in North America were resolutely patriarchal, though wives and widows of farmers and traders often had independent influence. One remarkable Puritan, Anne Hutchinson, who was expelled from Massachusetts for openly preaching heterodox Calvinist doctrines, and helped found the deviant, because tolerant, new colony of Rhode Island, is an exception proving the rule that the chief role of women in early English speaking America was to assist in remarkably rapid population growth made possible by the basic prosperity of the fertile frontier, where land and firewood were abundant. Conversely, in slave communities, where men were overworked and susceptible to raw rum and early death, the minority of black women probably played a disproportionate part in the upbringing of children and the preservation of African traditions.
The main point to make about the New Oxford History’s first volume is that, while it represents solid recent consensus (albeit, one getting stale and in need of fresh challenge) and so makes sense for readers of the New Millennium that Old Cambridge can provide, it is not organised so as to do justice to all major areas of interest, and it culpably perpetuates old imperialist neglect of plantation slavery. The series editor Wm. Roger Louis is a Texan best known for his studies of Anglo-American rivalry in the 20th century. We must be grateful to the volume editor, Nicholas Canny, for his revelatory work two decades ago on 17th century Ireland. Between them they have employed the veteran Richard S. Dunn to write, not about the Caribbean, where he has published brilliant work on sugar and slaves, but on the reorganisation of the North American colonies under James II and William III, a topic which he covered admirably three and a half decades ago. The African slave trade gets no more space than it did in the old Cambridge History. Unbelievably, the rackety era of the Buccaneers in Jamaica gets no mention at all, and that remarkable rogue Sir Henry Morgan does not appear in the index. But then, after all, he was Welsh. Though Professor Canny pays editorial tribute to the current, post-Colley, fashion for integrating the histories of the Celtic nations with those of England, and Ireland gets what is probably its full due, attention to Scotland is very patchy (much about settlement in Ulster and the interesting Quaker venture which created in East New Jersey what for a while was a distinctively Scottish colony, but little about the internal relations of the administrative centre with the Scottish Gaeltacht), and Wales receives only scant mention.
The Old Cambridge imperialists planned their first volume carefully to avoid overlap and to achieve what to them seemed to be the right proportions. New Oxford, in contrast, seems to have been slung together far too fast, and I am afraid that black scholars in particular will find its disemphases offensive. Why do we get two separate stabs at the topic of European reactions to North American ‘Indians’ and nothing on the ‘images of Africa’ so potently opened up for discussion by Basil Davidson and Philip Curtin four decades ago? Why do the trivial slaving voyages of John Hawkins, once so overrated by imperialist historians who worshipped Sea Dogs, still receive attention denied to the origins of the runaway Maroon communities of Jamaica and other islands, which had long term political and cultural consequences? Why do the ineffably petty ‘politics’ of the unimportant colony of North Carolina get space which could have been devoted to further discussion of the epochal ‘sugar revolution’ on Barbados in the 1640s? Why, in contrast, is discussion of South Carolina, which soon came to depend heavily on slave labour, allowed to continue deep into the 18th century, where the rest of the volume provides no context for it?
There is a lot of good writing here, some of it by scholars relatively fresh in the field, some by well established experts like N.A.M. Rodger, who contributes a very valuable chapter on the technology of guns and sail. But readers without a good deal of prior knowledge will be baffled, as so often these days, by our modern, or postmodern, distaste for straightforward basic narrative. The English ‘Civil War’, otherwise ‘Revolution’, otherwise ‘War of Three Nations’, preceded by and involving complex struggles in Scotland and Ireland, has to be straightened out as far as possible in chronological sequence before much of the detail here can make sense at all. Out of the civil war and interregnum emerged an English polity armed with Navigation Acts which sought to maximise profit to the state and to English manufacturers and merchants from overseas trade, a serious Royal Navy ready to take on the Dutch and all comers, a metropolitan financial upsurge in London which poised that city to overtake Amsterdam as the commercial hub of Europe, the conquest from the Dutch of New York, the growth of the slave trade out of English ports, the systematic colonisation of rich farmland in Pennsylvania, the opening up of Jamaica and South Carolina, the rudiments of a system of centralised control of the empire, and the makings of industrial revolution.
Yet this rush of development seminal for world history up to and including our current globalisation and pregnant with the rise to hegemony of the yet unimagined US is nowhere discussed in terms of the economic and ideological overview validly suggested by Christopher Hill, or the broader perspectives provided by Braudel. Sometimes this volume welters in minutiae and suffers from the tendency of US historians to descry Manifest Destiny and the mighty future in the early proceedings of tiny townlets – thus Philadelphia is described as a ‘city’ at a point when its total population matched that of present-day Ullapool. Around its multiplicity of trees, New Oxford does not clearly map the wood. There are four further volumes following this. One, bizarrely, will be devoted to historiography. As I have tried to demonstrate, to separate historiography as a discrete topic from the revision of imperial history is, at this moment, impossible. Understanding by serious historians themselves has advanced far beyond the twaddle still accepted by ‘general readers’ and producers of TV documentaries. Indifference to what may be said to have really happened because of the British fighting, slaving and trading overseas is still almost universal. New history has to explain old nonsense and stake out clearly the reasons, provided by new perspectives, why chauvinist, racist, patriarchal and anglocentric fables should be rejected. New narrative – retelling the story, in order – is another indispensable requirement.
Last updated on 4.5.2012