Vol. 1: The Origins of Empire, Nicholas Canny (ed.). (Oxford University Press, £30) ISBN 0198205627 Vol. 2: The Eighteenth Century, Peter Marshall (ed.). (Oxford University Press, £30) ISBN 0198205635

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2 (Summer 1999), Reviews, Volume 7

The first two volumes of the Oxford History of the British Empire survey ground last comprehensively covered in the Cambridge History of the British Empire, now over half a century old. As such they take their place among a growing number of attempts, ranging from the new Oxford History of England to the new Dictionary of National Biography, to create up-to-date versions of the standard works of an earlier era. In practice neither volume, any more than their counterparts in other ventures, quite recaptures the authoritative and confident tone of the great scholarly enterprises they aspire to replace. In both cases the relentless quantitative growth in research and publication, the increased pace of revision, and the progressive fragmentation of academic life between competing intellectual and ideological allegiances repeatedly make it necessary to note areas of unresolved controversy, alternative conceptual frameworks, and gaps in the historical record. But that is only to say that these volumes, just as much as their predecessors, are creatures of their times. Clearly and carefully written by active and open-minded researchers, designed on a generous scale, and superbly edited to provide coherent and comprehensive treatment, they provide a magnificent guide to a complex and hugely important field of historical research.
The Origins of Empire takes as its recurring theme the rejection of teleology. The English, different contributors make clear, came late to colonisation. The acquisition and development of overseas possessions for long took second place to the pursuit of windfall profits in the form of privateering or the search for new sources of precious metals. Even shipping design and organisation favoured a nation of maritime predators rather than empire builders. By the second half of the seventeenth century both the state and private enterprise had begun to recognise overseas territories as a vital commercial resource, to be defended and increased. But this was a gradual, cumulative and uneven development. One consequence, as David Armitage points out in a forcefully argued piece, is that a whole school of ‘proto-colonial studies’, based on the supposed ubiquity of empire within the collective consciousness of Tudor and early Stuart Englishmen, collapses into self-referential ruins.
The Eighteenth Century, by contrast, takes us into an era of spectacular and increasingly purposeful expansion. Successive chapters chart the extension of empire in North America, the West Indies, and Asia, as well as the penetration of the Pacific and Britain’s emergence as the world’s most active slave-trading nation. Important contributions by Patrick O’Brien and Jacob Price restate the case for seeing colonial trade as essential to the rapid growth of Britain’s domestic economy. Some contributors, at this stage, show signs of being carried away by the imperial success story. In particular Richard Drayton and Jack P. Greene extend their comments on the centrality of empire to intellectual life and to notions of political identity backwards into the seventeenth and even the sixteenth century in ways that the comments of Armitage and others in The Origins of Empire make difficult to sustain. Other contributors, by contrast, continue the first volume’s insistence on the perils of teleology. Bruce Lenman and N.A.M. Rodger, examining warfare and naval strategy, both emphasise the continued primacy, throughout the century, of the European theatre. Even during 1793-1815, as Michael Duffy points out, there was a sharp contrast between British strategy, which concentrated on the Caribbean and Latin America, and the actual outcome, which was that the most spectacular territorial gains were achieved on the other side of the world, in India.
Ireland is well represented in The Origins of Empire. Nicholas Canny’s opening survey includes a nuanced discussion of the Irish case, seen in the context both of the traditional image of colonisation, derived from classical Roman and medieval European precedents, and of new modes of overseas expansion. (A second editorial contribution, on English attitudes to the Amerindian, is wholly transatlantic in focus, but Irish readers may detect echoes of earlier debates on policy towards Gaelic Ireland.) Jane Ohlmeyer offers a more detailed comparative analysis of colonisation within the British Isles. The parallels she points up, particularly in terms of the use in the Scottish Highlands, both of fire and sword campaigns and of the expropriation of native proprietors, should do something to modify exaggerated claims regarding the supposedly unique ferocity of the Tudor assault on Gaelic Ireland. T.C. Barnard, faced with the less immediately rewarding task of examining the failure of renewed plans for large- scale Irish colonising ventures after 1650, skilfully reveals the increasing gap between the rhetoric of colonisation and the realities of a society shaped by centuries of earlier settlement and interaction.
The Eighteenth Century, by contrast, contains only one Irish chapter.  Tom Bartlett conscientiously surveys Irish participation in imperial trade, but otherwise makes little attempt to place Ireland’s development in a wider framework, or to match the examination of complex mentalities and processes offered elsewhere in the volume. Instead there is a rather bland and parochial narrative, following a well-worn path past such familiar landmarks as ‘colonial nationalism’, the downfall of the undertakers, legislative independence and the Act of Union. Stale metaphors (Ireland as sister kingdom or troublesome child colony) and uncharacteristic lapses into cliché (‘constitutional issues were in the air’, ‘a veritable torrent of pamphlets’) confirm the sense of a story already told at least once too often. Other parts of The Eighteenth Century contains much incidental material to interest the Irish historian. James Horn on the British diaspora and Richard Drayton on ‘Knowledge and Empire’ both comment directly on Ireland, while the accounts of interaction across racial and cultural boundaries by Daniel Richter on North America and Rajat Kanta Ray on India offer the raw material for profitable contrasts and comparisons. Where Irish historians themselves are concerned, however, it seems clear that there is much to be done before the eighteenth-century specialists among them can claim to have followed their sixteenth and seventeenth-century colleagues in making their subject part of a wider framework of collective  investigation.

S.J. Connolly


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