Maurice Thomson’s War
- Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict and London’s Overseas Traders 1550-1653 by Robert Brenner
Cambridge, 734 pp, £40.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 521 37319 0
- The Nature of the English Revolution by John Morrill
Longman, 466 pp, £32.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 582 08941 7
The English Civil War occupies a strange niche in contemporary memory. To all official appearances, no episode of the country’s modern past is so parenthetical. Leaving no reputable trace in common traditions or public institutions, it looks in established retrospect like a temporary black-out in the growth of the national psyche. Our only republic remains under ban, a historical freak. Rosebery could raise a statue to Cromwell outside Parliament: eighty years later, Benn could not even get him onto a postage-stamp, at a time when Rosa Luxemburg adorned West German mail.
Such treatment, it might be argued, is not without all justice. For in a comparative perspective, did not the English Civil War – however traumatic at the time – prove in the end to be the least significant of the political upheavals that ushered in the leading nation-states of the capitalist world? Set beside the Dutch Revolt, America’s War of Independence, the French Revolution, Italy’s Risorgimento, the unification of Germany, let alone the Meiji restoration in Japan, the overthrow of the English monarchy seems of a different order: not a modern starting-point of institutional development, more an exotic intermission. If this is so, however, there remains a paradox. For what would be the most barren convulsion has produced the most fertile literature. The volume of modern writing on the French Revolution – the only possible rival – is larger than on the English. But intellectually it is thinner.
The difference has much to do with the respective situations of the revisionism that has dominated each side of the Channel in recent years. Where the French variant, personified by François Furet, has been fashioned as a polemic against what it has identified as a single historiographic tradition, a Jacobin-Leninist continuum running from Mathiez through Lefebvre to Soboul, the English school has developed as an argument with two conflicting traditions – the Whig view descending from Notestein through Hexter, and the Social Interpretation passing from Tawney through Hill. Ideologically, the consequences can appear marked. English revisionism often looks more unequivocally like a historiographic Right, locked in struggle with a liberal Centre and a socialist Left – where French revisionism tends to occupy both right and centre positions in its polemic against the local Left, shifting from liberal-conservative to conservative-liberal accents as the occasion demands. That might seem a politically more commodious posture. Intellectually, however, the topographical contrast between the two countries has benefited the English historians. Seeking to displace not just one but two explanatory paradigms, they have had to display greater ingenuity. The outcome has been more tough-minded and original.
It has been also more various, as can readily be seen from the cluster of summa recently published by three leading historians, whose work has set the agenda for debate on the English Revolution since the Seventies. Kevin Sharpe’s Personal Rule of Charles I, Conrad Russell’s Fall of the British Monarchies and John Morrill’s Nature of the English Revolution all represent distinct standpoints, but certain common features continue to stand out. Rejecting both constitutional explanations of the Caroline crisis, and class interpretations of the Civil War, these histories focus on the politics of royal finance and court faction, clerical administration and diplomatic manoeuvre, at the apex of the state, and of parochial lobby or credal grievance in the localities below. If the new costs of war placed unfamiliar strains on the compact between the monarchy and gentry in the mid-17th century, the breakdown of a fundamentally consensual polity was fortuitous – the result of a sequence of mishaps, springing from management of the Stuart patrimonies in Scotland and Ireland, rather than any incurable division within England itself. The targets of criticism remain Whig or Marxist conceptions of the Civil War as a struggle grounded in long-term oppositions of either juridical principle or social interest.
Taxing such accounts with anachronism, the revisionists insist on the primacy of palace imbroglios and theological feuds, and the fumbling collisions attending them, as the stuff of politics in the age of Buckingham and Pym. Not that the new orthodoxy is at all abstemious itself in mixing past and present, for its own purposes. The revisionists, indeed, relish gestures of a swashbuckling topicality. Sharpe depicts Henrietta Maria as a bubbly twin of Princess Diana, and even transvests Charles I into a baroque Margaret Thatcher, closing seven hundred pages on the King with the words: ‘He believed some principles worth adhering to whatever the repercussions – and well, he may even have been right.’ Russell will compare Ship Money to the Poll Tax, and describe the arrival of James I in London as a foretaste of the Single European Act. Such are the playful flourishes of a scholarly ascendancy. In these pages Blair Worden has even ventured the view (LRB, 29 August 1991) that Russell’s ‘hegemony’ over Civil War studies has ‘banished controversy to the margins’. There, pockets of Whig resistance no doubt remain – readers of Lawrence Stone’s correspondence with Russell in the TLS not so long ago might be surprised to learn the field had become so pacific. Yet even Stone has conceded the second part of the victory the revisionists claim. For he, too, has opined that the Marxist interpretation of the Civil War is dead.
Merchants and Revolution, dedicated to Stone, comprehensively overturns that judgment. Its author, Robert Brenner, belongs to that rare group of historians who have given their name to a whole literature – the ‘Brenner Debate’ on the origins of agrarian capitalism in Europe recalling the ‘Pirenne Thesis’ of old. His new book, in which the name of Marx is never mentioned but his spirit is omnipresent, transforms the landscape of the English Revolution. Merchants and Revolution is distinguished by three achievements, any one of which would be impressive enough. First is the simple magnitude of the research the book embodies. Brenner’s archival investigation into the activities of the leading merchant networks of Stuart England – a quest that often reads like a vast, intricate detective story – has no counterpart in recent literature. Moving below the level of the landed élite, Brenner has made more discoveries of importance about the period than any of his contemporaries. To read Merchants and Revolution is to realise how far revisionist histories – for all the acuity of their negative insights – have tended to tinker at the edges of existing stocks of positive knowledge, truffling in official holdings. Brenner’s book opens another world.
No less striking is the way Merchants and Revolution restores narrative to the 17th-century crisis, on a grand scale. In principle the revisionists are committed to a variant of the English one-damn-thing-after-another view of the past, stressing acceptance of the contingency of historical events as a condition of understanding them, which ought to have generated a narrative school. In fact, the reverse has been closer to the case. Russell’s Fall of the British Monarchies, as Worden has pointed out here, is a selective patchwork of themes that makes no attempt to recount the actual process of breakdown to which its title alludes. Ironically, Russell in turn has lodged the same objection against Sharpe (LRB, 10 June), complaining that The Personal Rule lacks any coherent narrative. For its part, Morrill’s Nature of the English Revolution is a splendid collection of essays, from which we learn that the author has for the moment desisted from a projected history of England’s Wars of Religion. An earlier work, Anthony Fletcher’s Outbreak of the Civil War, offers a genuine chronology, but one so clotted and short-winded as often to defeat its purpose. For truer narratives, we have to move forward in time to historians – Underdown, Woolrych, Worden, Gentles – more sympathetic to the revolutionary experience itself, who have written the modern accounts of Pride’s Purge, the Putney Debates, the Rump or the New Model Army. But with the exception of the last, these still cover relatively brief episodes. Brenner’s work is of an altogether different range. Its subtitle indicates a span of a century, but although there is a necessary preamble starting in Elizabethan times, what the book offers is a sustained account of its subject from the accession of James I to the arrival of Cromwell as Protector – with a crucial flash-forward to the overthrow of James II. This timescale sets the English Revolution within a longer dynamic than any other study of comparable detail.
The narrative is an analytic one. Rather than plotting the movements of individual actors, or the evolution of political factions, Brenner’s account reconstructs the trajectory of the social forces that led to the Civil War and its aftermath. It does so through the prism of one particular, hitherto largely unnoticed, but crucial player in the drama: that sector of the London merchant community which made its fortunes in the Americas, rather than in trade with Europe or Asia, under the early Stuarts. By focusing on this pivotal group, and its development within the wider constellation of power and property in the first half of the century, Brenner rearranges the whole look of the time. The upshot – the third achievement of the book – is the most powerful social explanation of the breakdown of the Caroline monarchy we now possess. Merchants and Revolution connects structure and event in a continuous tale of pointed historical meaning.
What is the gist of this account? Brenner shows that, contrary to received opinion, the expansion of English trade after the acute commercial crisis of the mid-16th century was not powered by the search for new markets to sustain staple cloth exports, but was essentially import-driven. The Merchant Adventurers who monopolised the cloth trade with Northern Europe continued to dominate the City establishment in Jacobean times, but were now increasingly challenged by the Levant and East India Companies, controlled by a quite distinct group of merchants, engaged in the import of Mediterranean or Oriental delicacies and luxury goods – wines, currants, silks, spices. By the end of the 1630s, the leaders of this combine were typically wealthier than the cloth traders, and had displaced them from hegemony in London’s municipal power system. The two groupings, however, still shared a common interest in tight political regulation of their respective trades – the legal exclusion of outsiders and monopolistic price-setting within them. By contrast, in the Americas there emerged a very different kind of merchant, accumulating capital in a zone of free competition open to new entrants. Here the valuable commodities were tobacco, sugar or furs. The growth of these westward trades spawned a third commercial interest, whose rise is Brenner’s particular concern. Forming an intricate network, tied by bonds of kinship and partnership, the merchants of the New World were a breed apart as chancers and innovators. Brenner picks out as the central figure among them one Maurice Thomson. His career makes an amazing story.
Born in the Home Counties about 1600, the eldest of five brothers, Thomson emigrated to Virginia in his teens, where he soon became a ship’s captain, acquired land, and entered the tobacco trade. Returning to London in his mid-twenties, he pioneered slave plantations in the Caribbean, and within a decade had become the major tobacco merchant in the Atlantic, with sidelines in New England provisioning and fisheries. Supply contracts for colonial ventures off Honduras, prospecting for silver in Panama, and raids on Venezuela followed. By the 1640s, Thomson and his associates were planting Barbados with sugar, and stocking it with slaves from West Africa. Soon they were embarking on another huge arc of operations, breaking into the chasses gardées of the Old World, with voyages to the Guinea Coast and then schemes for bases in Madagascar and the Celebes. On the eve of the Civil War, these interlopers were second only in wealth to the Levant-East Indies combine itself.