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…

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