• Email
  • Print

Empire Building

Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English-Speaking Empires from the Fifteenth Century to the 1780s

by Angus Calder
Dutton, 916 pp., $36.00

Empire” has come to have a fixed meaning for the British in their post-imperial years. It stands, to the exclusion of almost all other memories, for the “high empire” of the Victorian noon, the empire of the Sepoy Mutiny, the great calm of the viceroyalty which followed it, Kipling’s small wars, the naval Pax Britannica. And the memories have living force, for not only do most small British towns and villages still house a band, dwindling but not yet extinct, of retired Indian colonels and colonial judges, but the direct experience of empire still lives in the experience of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people.

In their willing abandonment of their overseas possessions, the British fought a dozen small wars of disengagement in the years between 1945 and 1960—in Malaya, Kenya, Borneo, Palestine, Cyprus, the Arabian peninsula. Most were waged by teen-age conscripts, who also provided the garrisons of those many other colonies from which the British withdrew peacefully. The result is that “the empire on which the sun never set” sustains an afterglow in homes up and down the land; not regretted necessarily, but certainly remembered by husbands, sons, and brothers who shouldered a rifle, or at least sweated their khaki black, between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn twenty or thirty years ago.

Yet there was another British empire. It is known to historians, who call it the “first British Empire.” But its existence has been almost entirely forgotten by the population at large, even though its largest component is now the leading country of the Western world, while the black inhabitants of what, once, was its richest constituent have come in the hundreds of thousands to settle British cities. But America’s former Britishness has been so overlaid by the revolution as to seem never to have existed. And the conquest and colonization of the West Indies is so remote in time and bizarre in character as to escape altogether from general understanding.

It is the purpose of Dr. Angus Calder to bring this vanished empire back to life again. This enormous book tells the story of the English imperial effort from the fifteenth century to the American Revolution. Calder’s method is the large-scale narrative, onto which with great organizational skill and lively prose he crowds action and characters from three centuries and throughout the globe. And it is not to end there. In two projected volumes he intends to carry the story of the empire forward into our own time, and to bring along with it that of the rise of the United States to true unity and full nationhood during the nineteenth century.

The American connection is crucial to his story. For if his enterprise has an element which differentiates it from that of other large-scale histories of the British Empire already in print, it is in his vision of a common, if unconscious, purpose animating or connecting all the inhabitants, native or voyaging, of the British Isles and its dependencies in the early modern world. As he demonstrates, America was not simply a place of settlement. It was also a base for further colonial enterprise by the “colonists” themselves into the West Indies and even as far as Africa. And it was also a seedbed of new ideas about politics, commerce, and social relationships which by re-emigration would transform the old societies in ways that their rulers could not have foreseen when they so blithely licensed and chartered and sponsored colonizing groups in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

He is particularly persuasive in his treatment of Puritanism. Implanted in America in a highly authoritarian form, it there underwent a progressive liberalization. Dissent within the Puritan community expressed itself in factions, but where factions in the narrow land of England led to fragmentation of the sect, or repression of the weaker by the stronger party, or both, in America dissent generally resolved itself by new internal colonization. In the process doctrine was weakened but dogma—in the sense of the lowest common denominator of belief—was strengthened. The lowest common denominator of Puritanism being liberty of conscience, that principle thereby acquired intellectual autonomy and thence easily bled over into political attitudes. What the disciples of Tawney may or may not have proved to be true about the long-term effects of the “Puritan Revolution” in England therefore amply and evidently proves itself in America.

But Dr. Calder is not concerned with the British Isles only as a base of colonial enterprise and an eventual recipient of its effects. It is another original feature of his scheme that he brings into it the struggle by the English for supremacy over the Scots and the Irish. The Scots were colonists themselves. They were certainly great venturers, who had served widely as mercenaries in Europe during the Thirty Years War before British overseas settlement had properly begun. But their poverty prevented them from competing abroad on an equal footing with the English—the failure of the famous Scottish scheme to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama was due to undercapitalization, though the sums lost equaled perhaps a quarter of the country’s liquid cash in the 1690s—while their determination to remain themselves ensured ample and frequent occasions for conflict at home.

In the end the Scots lost their sovereignty—though in the very long run their virtual capture of the machinery of British colonial government would give them their pawky revenge. But whether Dr. Calder is right to include the Anglo-Scottish struggle within a story of empire seems doubtful. It would certainly need much arguing to persuade the ordinary people of the two countries that their long and complicated marriage is comparable to that of Britain’s relationship with India or even America. And specialists would require for conviction a larger and more eclectic theory of empire than any the author advances here.

His characterization of England’s—and Scotland’s—relationship with Ireland as essentially imperial carries much greater weight. If imperialism means no more than conquest, then Ireland was conquered indeed by the English, over and over again—by Norman lords, by Elizabethan generals, by Cromwell, by William III. If imperialism means colonization, then Ireland was colonized more ruthlessly than any brown or black land. By the end of the seventeenth century over 80 percent of Irish land had been statutorily transferred to Protestant owners; by 1776 only 5 percent remained in Catholic hands. If imperialism means legal and political harmonization, then that too the English imposed. But if it means ultimately cultural homogenization, there the English failed—and in failing ensured the ultimate reversal of all the rest that they had done. Ireland remained stubbornly Catholic and so an alien element in a Protestant union. We must wait until the next volume for the story of religion and nationalism combining as a single force. But it is as well that the roots are dug as deep as they are here, for there is a deadly symmetry in the Anglo-Irish relationship. If Ireland was the first land wholly colonized by the English, its defection in our own century may be seen as the first essential step in the dismantling of the second British Empire.

The jewel of that empire was to be India, an empire in itself, which was not to become British-ruled in its entirety until the mid-nineteenth century. Dr. Calder introduces us to it here as a fabled land, target of the most venturesome of English traders seeking their fortunes beyond the Cape of Good Hope. In the seventeenth century its Mogul government still remained intact, and confident enough either to grant without calculation the facilities the venturers sought or actually not to notice that they had been acquired without permission. The Chinese and Japanese would be less heedless, and so postpone the moment when they would succumb to European penetration until the superiority of foreign technology made resistance futile. Mogul government, lacking the structure and centralized authority of the mandarin and shogunate systems, learned to regret the casualness with which it allowed the British to establish themselves in their coastal enclaves, even before it had been overtaken in objective military power by the interlopers. Their unscrupulous exploitation of local ambitions and jealousies had won them control of a sizable area of the subcontinent before the end of the eighteenth century. And it had also won enormous wealth for those who found a way to combine service to the East India Company with the pursuit of private profit. They were so numerous that they acquired a name—nabobs—which identified the owners of some of the most magnificent houses built in the English countryside in the Gainsborough and Reynolds years.

But the real imperial money, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was to be made in the West Indies. Dr. Calder is perhaps at his best with sugar. He is excellent also on tobacco, once a West Indian crop until the discovery of how quickly it exhausted the soil led to the confinement of its cultivation to the American mainland. But it is with sugar that his gift for interweaving analysis and narrative is most enjoyably displayed. Sugar, in a sense, energized early modern Europe, and with it the drive to empire. There had been no addition like it to the European diet ever before—pepper to flavor ill-kept meat had been a luxury—and would be none again until canning and refrigeration brought cheap protein to the masses in the nineteenth century. But there was not only a lust to eat sugar. Understandably, given the extraordinary profits to be made, there was a lust to grow it, which drove men to extremes of competition on the islands themselves, states to war for their possession, and a conspiracy of planters, sea captains, and African kings to the subsidiary trade in slaves.

Slavery in its various forms runs throughout Dr. Calder’s narrative. The American colonies in their early days depended for their common labor on immigrants in indentured service, a form of slavery limited by time. When fed by the practice of organized kidnapping or fraudulent contract, as it was on a wide scale in the seventeenth century, the Irish providing many of the victims, indentured service became slavery indeed. And there were many refinements of cruelty to the “institution” itself. One reads with a particular pang of Red Indians—the losers in one of New England’s small wars of the seventeenth century—being sold into slavery to Muslim masters in Tangier. “This usage of them is worse than death,” the Puritan preacher John Eliot lamented, and one supposes that his good, kind heart spoke no more than the literal truth.

But it was black flesh for the sugar plantations that the trade needed and provided in bulk, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Cotton would not demand its battalions until the invention of machinery to separate the fibers from the boll made its large-scale cultivation profitable at the beginning of the nineteenth century.) Dr. Calder, perhaps recognizing that the subject has recently had the most thorough of airings, both in the scholarly and the popular press, imposes sensible proportions both on the tone and the extent of the coverage he gives it here. Indeed, he is at pains to correct the more sensational accounts of the human cost of the trade, at least in its physical effects. Its emotional and psychological cost he leaves to the reader to assess, and the implicit effect of his spare statement of the facts is more telling than an expostulatory approach might have been.

It is through the story of the slave trade that he introduces Africa into his scheme, though in the period here covered it had not yet become the target of annexation and colonization that it was to be in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His Africa is still a continent in which it is the natives who dictate terms to their white visitors, who are to be pitied for the awful fate which the fever coast exacted. The African end of the trade was firmly in local hands, which were adept at sorting the best deal to be had from competitors lying offshore or clinging to its margin in the tiny trade castles built at the breakers’ edge. Not until the medical advances of the nineteenth century would any European power think to translate these enclaves—as they were already doing in India—into full-blown colonial possessions.

With this circuit of the maritime globe Dr. Calder’s narrative approaches its end—though he chooses to round it off with a return to America and an account of the revolution there that consummated the impulse which originally underlay settlement. He thereby includes a consideration of the British presence in Canada, for he takes it that it was the defeat of the French colonial army which removed the thirteen colonies’ chief motivation for continued loyalty to the crown.

This is the conventional explanation. And to say that it is probably also the correct explanation does not mitigate the implied criticism of Calder for not opposing it. This is a highly conventional book. Its writing has been a labor of heroic proportions. The author has read on a Gibbonian scale and has Gibbon’s powers of organization. He has, too, an extremely agreeable literary style, so that no paragraph of his, or run of paragraphs, is tiresome to read. On the contrary, the eye runs on, pleasurably and effortlessly, while the mind absorbs acres of information without the least sensation of force-feeding. Until, that is, the story becomes familiar. But given the geographical and chronological scope attempted, familiarity is inevitable. For American readers, many of the chapters will read like their high school history lessons. British readers will too often be reminded of the “Boyhood of Raleigh,” and other passages of Victorian triumphing of Our Island Race. Both will then skip or, more probably, wonder why the author is telling them what they already know rather than seeking to explain it.

It is a choice he is aware of having faced, and resolved nonetheless by choosing a narrative rather than an analytic method. One wonders whether he was right. His first chapter, a journey round the whole island of Great Britain in the sixteenth century, is a beautiful essay in retrospective economic and social investigation, reminiscent of Raymond Carr’s famous first chapter in his Oxford history of Spain. Powers of synopsis are clearly not lacking in Dr. Calder. It was presumably the scale which deterred him. But he need not necessarily have chosen between analysis and narrative. Braudel implies his own critical pressure throughout the whole of his vast work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. And Braudel’s solution of a similar problem of explaining and relating life around the littoral of a great maritime area was, of course, to tell the story in one half of the book and to explain it in the other.

Dr. Calder is clearly no stranger to Braudel or his work. If he rejected his method, we must presume either that he did not think himself equal to Braudel’s achievement—and given the very remarkable quality of achievement shown here, that would have been overmodest—or that he could not perceive any underlying pattern of impulse and motive which allowed the story of the rise of the English-speaking empire to be told in the same manner as that of the clash of Habsburg and Turk in the sixteenth-century Mediterranean. Since Braudel’s explanation turned very largely on climate and geography in a single climatic region, that imperception is understandable. And yet there is surely a recurrent influence at work, and Dr. Calder might have given it more attention. That is the military superiority of the Europeans over all the non-European peoples with whom their ships brought them into contact—until they met the Chinese.

This power by no means depended upon technical superiority. European ships, it is true, were revolutionary in their sea-keeping properties and firepower. But settlers and explorers enjoyed no such technical superiority when they set foot ashore. European firearms were of paltry worth until the nineteenth century—why else the abandon with which they were exchanged as trade goods?—and the Europeans themselves always were heavily outnumbered by the natives. What allowed them to win, time and again, was that they brought with them a philosophy of warfare quite different from and far more ruthless than that practiced in any of the new worlds. As a Puritan settler in New England put it, “They [the Red Indians] might fight seven years and not kill seven men. They came not near one another, but shot remote, and not point blank, as we often do with our bullets…. This fight is more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies.” The Indians for their part found that European war was “too furious and slays too many men.”

We cannot guess when Europeans ceased to treat war as a pastime. Mr. Calder does not confront this issue. But it has something to do with their necessary reaction to the successive eruptions of barbarian peoples from central Asia during and after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Chinese, who were subjected to the same surges, eventually brought them into check by the construction of a permanent barrier along the inner Asian flank of their empire and the organization of a military system to garrison it. The Europeans, lacking the unity for that effort, taught themselves warrior skills which matched those of the horse peoples of the steppe and, when allied to settled agriculture, could overcome them. The rise of the maritime empires, Hispanic and English, is a subplot of this story. So, too, in a way, is that of Habsburg versus Turk in the sixteenth-century Mediterranean. Perhaps when, ten years hence, Dr. Calder undertakes a synthesis of his whole work, he will weave the revolutionary military ethic through his narrative and so make its unity show clear.

  • Email
  • Print