Freaks of Empire

V.G. Kiernan

  • Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English-Speaking Empires from the 15th Century to the 1780s by Angus Calder
    Cape, 916 pp, £16.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 224 01452 8

‘Revolutionary empire’ is a bold term which may be taken in various senses. Like the Roman and Arab before it, but on a grander scale, the British Empire was a powerful force in drawing peoples out of their separate existences, pulling the world together into one jarring and explosive whole. Its expansion had transforming effects on Britain itself, and through it on Europe. How much it altered the world outside, or altered it for the better, is disputable. If it destroyed many old, worm-eaten things, it reinvigorated others, partly by rousing so much resentment against Europe and all its ways, and later on by patronising conservatism in its colonies as a safeguard against revolt. Today the Third World is asking whether imperialism, British in particular, did more to pull it forward or to push it back.

At any rate, the beginnings of empire were everywhere violent and brutish, from the moment when Spain’s conquest of Mexico ‘gave Europeans a new and potent myth’, the conviction of one European as equal to twenty others which for a very long time events seemed to confirm. Nor was there any steady improvement later: relapses into ferocity were recurrent. What stands out most forcibly is that the sending of European settlers to dominate or displace alien populations resulted inevitably in barbarity. Idealistic impulses were indeed not rare, but usually in strange alloys. Dr Calder finds in Raleigh an embodiment of the very mixed motives which hurried England towards empire, and quite early gathered support from a surprising number of Englishmen. In the House of Commons of 1604 and 1614 nearly two-fifths of members were investors in overseas companies: though to call them ‘a remarkable breed of gentleman-investors which had no counterpart on the Continent’ is not quite accurate, for Spanish grandees were happy to take a share in the profits of the Seville galleons. Empire broadened its appeal, material and emotional, as time went on. In 1739 Pitt’s denunciation of an arrangement made by Walpole with Spain marked ‘the first emergence of blatant imperial boasting as a factor in British public affairs’. Calder adds that English literature had already been taking up the swelling theme of empire – a new book by John McVeagh has much to say about this.

‘How can one write the history of the English-speaking peoples and their empires?’ – a large question on which Calder must have long deliberated before striking out his path. There has been discussion lately as to whether narrative history still has a place. Calder has no doubts about this. ‘Man lives by stories as well as by bread,’ and fits his own experience into the mould they provide. This book is not framed as a continuous narration: instead, its lengthy span is crystallised into eras, roughly corresponding with generations. Arrangement by subjects or regions would have been simpler, Calder observes, but ‘the quiddity of the epoch would be lost.’ Each section therefore covers all the leading topics that fall within it. There are ten in all, grouped into three larger cycles: 1530 to 1660, 1660 to 1763, 1763 to 1785. So skilfully are the subjects combined that few readers are likely to feel confused by discontinuities. They are more likely to end by feeling that a book with so immense and complex a range could scarcely have been better written. Even in those parts of the story with which they may be familiar, they can expect to come on new information and fresh ideas. The amount of reading that has been distilled into these pages is incalculable – the tale of Thor drinking the sea half-dry comes to mind.

Three of the first group of four eras, but none later, take their titles from names of individuals – Thomas Cromwell, Raleigh, Sir Thomas Smythe. Later on, individuals were increasingly overtopped by events. But the limelight is always ready for outstanding men, bad or semi-good: no copybook heroes make an appearance. Great men in Calder’s view are not autonomous factors – rather, they are ‘a creation of trends and events’. At the same time, he disclaims any leaning to ‘vulgar materialism’. Probably most historians today try to steer some such course between Scylla and Charybdis, though complete success may be beyond the reach of any of them. For practical purposes Calder’s map and compass are reliable enough. He knows his Marx, and knows that his story cannot be simply about men and women: capitalism has often given commodities a life of their own, and often reduced men to commodities. But Marx is for him, as he should always be, an opener, not closer of gates. There is much psychological insight in this volume, into the mentality of communities as well as of human beings. ‘Guilt, for most people, insists on a scapegoat’, and American slaveholders took to blaming Britain for foisting the slave system on them. There is awareness, moreover, of how much of history still lies outside the narrow beam of the lantern of research. Why, for example, did the 18th century bring a worldwide rise of population? Was there an abatement of epidemic diseases, or a climatic shift? What else was at work?

Gifts of style are an indispensable requisite for carrying a reader, without fainting or flagging spirits, through so many hundreds of pages. Calder possesses, in the first place, the virtue of being able to recount happenings succinctly and impressively, throwing what is historically important into prominence, while missing nothing that should stir imagination. His telling of the capture of Quebec by Wolfe may be cited as one among many examples. He is a good deal of a literary man as well as a historian, conscious of history as drama, very often tragedy. His tribute to Raleigh, rising as a poet above his pettier self and that of his age, is discerning. He has a frequently compelling turn of phrase. ‘Ireland, of course, is irony’s chosen country,’ he remarks on the oddity of Burke, emotional and romantic, coming to be venerated as founder of modern conservatism. Poor whites in the West Indies mostly ‘lounged and drank crude rum till they died and the land crabs nibbled their corpses in the gutters’. Calder has travelled over sundry parts of the Empire, which has helped to sharpen his impressions; he helps to sharpen ours with a lavish supply of well-chosen illustrations.

An important feature of the work is the detailed attention paid to England’s Celtic fringe, even the Isle of Man. The overrunning of the Celtic lands is seen as the preparatory school or training-ground of empire-building. James VI and I patronised a scheme for a ‘plantation’ or colony in the Hebrides, as well as the one in Ulster. An English-speaking élite in these areas acquired attitudes of racial superiority which were extended to Africans and Indians. Men like Raleigh and Grenville hated Spain and denounced its cruelties in the New World, but they themselves were quite ready to behave in the same fashion in Ireland, by ‘that paradox of attraction of opposites which is so familiar to historians’. There was nothing like this in French experience, after the Albigensian Crusade; Brittany, already a feudal fief, came to it peaceably by marriage, Burgundy had no ethnic identity. There may be one clue here to the French preference for expansion within Europe, by contrast with England, or with Spain and Portugal growing up out of the war against the Moors within Iberia.

One of the many Celtic mysteries, which Calder could not have found space to explore, is why Celtic society in old Ireland, but not in the Irish-Scottish Highlands, seems to have been rigidly divided between a ruling class and its bardic toadies, and a downtrodden mass. It may be that Celtic conquest of an aboriginal population, like Aryan conquest in India, opened a gulf never filled up. In the Highlands, unlike Ireland, Anglo-Norman intrusion sponsored by native kings engendered a form of feudalism, clothed in kinship ties and clan sentiment, which made for a firm vertical integration of society. Both regions might be backward compared with England, but observers in Ireland seem to have been conscious of a special odour of primitivism. Jesuit missioners launching the Counter-Reformation there condemned Irish barbarism in much the same terms as English Protestants did, though their aim was to civilise instead of to extirpate. ‘Tyrone’s massive figure,’ as Calder writes, ‘exposes all the internal contradictions of a dying Celtic order.’

Protestantism brought another irremediable division. At the time of the American Revolution Ireland could appear ready to go the same way, to be in ‘a classic revolutionary situation’, but the clash of dogmas and all that went with them was a fatal obstacle, and obscured, as it still does today, the real contradictions between rich and poor. Nationalism grew, but even in the more enlightened national leaders there lurked the same two-facedness about social rights and wrongs as in non-socialist colonial movements today. It peeped out in the histrionic modes of expression to which Irishmen have too readily succumbed. Grattan declared that he would never rest ‘so long as the meanest cottager in Ireland has a link of the British chain clanking to his rags.’ Calder might have appended to this quotation Dr Johnson’s objection, to the admiring Boswell: ‘Nay, Sir, don’t you perceive that one link cannot clank?’ There was no ‘human reason’, Calder holds, for Ireland not taking a full part in the Industrial Revolution; and he dwells on lack of coal. An alternative view would be that the deficiency was precisely animal, not mineral, scarcity: not so much of coal as of homo economicus.

As might be expected from a Scottish historian, though one far from uncritical of his country’s annals, substantial sections on Scotland provide a running commentary on its very different fortunes. One point of origin can be found in the unexplained replacement, to which Calder refers, of Gaelic by English in the Middle Ages over most of the Lowlands. Scots drove out English invaders, but adopted their language: in this there was a presage of times when Scotland, so long England’s foe, would be art and part, instead of victim like Ireland, of English imperialism. There was a nearer foretaste in 1642, when 2500 Scots descended on Ulster during the great Irish rebellion, led by a veteran of the Thirty Years War ‘ruthless even beyond the standards of his profession’, to do butcher’s work at Newry. Failure of the Darien scheme, due to ‘its own folly, not English hostility’, showed Scotland too puny to acquire an empire of its own, but it got its teeth into England’s promptly and firmly. Immediately after the Union there were calls for a conquest of Canada, as a suitable area for Scots to settle in. In the 1770s, there were a hundred Campbells in Jamaica; it may be recalled that at one time Robert Burns was on the verge of joining them. Migration of ‘Scotch-Irish’ – a term coined before the end of the 17th century – to North America was ‘one of the most remarkable folk movements in history’, Calder writes; and in wars with Indians they ‘proved matchlessly savage fighters’. Many of the psychological microcircuits of empire were still being fashioned in Ireland. In the early and worst period of British power in Bengal Scots had a disproportionately large share; ‘Scots rapacity’ and penury made them perhaps more willing than Englishmen to risk premature death. One Scotsman’s effects, listed at Calcutta, included the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Swift, a backgammon table, a hookah, four empty cases of gin and two Malay slave-girls: an epitome of Scotland overseas, outcome of a jumbled, contradictory evolution of Scotland at home.

North America yields a crop of intriguing topics, from tobacco cultivation and trading and their effect on colonial society to the extent to which Puritan ideals brought immigrants and continued to influence them. Some genuine high-mindedness was transplanted to the thin soil of New England, but over the years, as Calder writes, ‘the Puritan was turning into the Yankee, byword the world over for commercial sharpness.’ The early history of the settlements is very often unedifying. Virginia abounded in disorders, and sometimes plotted to murder its governor. Running through all this is the story of the Red Indians of eastern America: no feeble moribund race, Calder insists – in resisting the white man ‘their tenacity, if tragic, was remarkable.’ A sanguinary episode was ‘King Philip’s War’, in 1675, after which those of his followers who survived were sold into slavery, whether they had taken up arms or not, in the West Indies or Tangiers. ‘The North American mind was permanently affected’: the same pattern repeated itself over and over again as the frontier drifted westward. Indian wars benefited the Colonies partly by reducing social tensions, ‘directing aggression outwards and giving an occupation to poor whites’. It was the same elsewhere later on, as in South Africa with the Kaffir wars. In the American Revolution some Indians fought on the British side, quite sensibly, because success for George III would have done them more good than ‘the triumph of patriot land speculators’.

In North America, colonists were expelling an old race: in the West Indies, which for very long mattered more to Britain, they were bringing in a new race: ‘Large numbers of people in and around London and Bristol profited directly’ from the slave trade: it was the man in the street’s first taste of the sweets of Empire. Economically, tobacco and sugar plantations were ‘harbingers of revolution’, because they could open up limitless markets. Calder makes the noteworthy suggestion that, by giving Europeans added physical energy, sugar must have been ‘an important factor in Europe’s rise to world dominance’ and he refers to tea and coffee as beneficial substitutes for alcohol. But torpid India always had sugar-cane; a great deal of West Indian cane was turned into rum; Britain floated to imperial supremacy on seas of alcohol, without which its wretched soldiers and sailors could never have been kept up to the mark. All the tropical products except cotton were deleterious or, at best, useless. As in Richard Dunn’s book, we are given gruesome details about the vicious, often sadistic regime of the plantations which produced them. Speaking of the Antigua revolt of 1736, Calder discusses, as others have been doing lately, the general puzzle of whether raw newcomers from Africa or what might be called the aristocracy of slave labour were more likely to rebel. In Antigua the shock to the planters was all the worse because ‘skilled and trusted slaves had been to the fore.’ In ordinary times one prime West Indian product was boredom. Visitors noticed how ‘languid and spiritless’ were the white women, dawdling their vacuous lives away; they are to be reckoned, as Calder says, ‘among the innumerable casualties of empire’.

Fears crept in early that one day the North American colonies would break away, and to let them go might well have been the logical choice. It is pointed out here how awkwardly they fitted into mercantilist calculation, since they produced little that England could not produce for itself, and proficiency in smuggling enabled them to slip through the meshes of any English legislation. London-made rules might injure some interests, but by and large the colonists were not ill-used; towards the end it was a case of paranoia on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a fact worth stressing that the fast-growing American population had a large component of youth, as the Third World has today, by contrast with the aging West. But only a minority, when it came to the test, were militant ‘patriots’. This has been true of all revolutionary upheavals, and America’s was also, as others have been, a civil war. There is the same difficulty as with the English Civil War in trying to make out why some took one side, some the other. About thirty thousand loyalists fought for King George, and up to a hundred thousand may have emigrated; the majority of the rich were loyalists, but the majority of loyalists were not rich.

While Britain was losing America it was beginning to win India, an immense shift of the Empire’s centre of gravity. Clive set out to Plassey with a miniature army that included fewer than a thousand Europeans: his victory may be seen as a staggering testimony to the feebleness that most of India and Asia had sunk to, in everything making for political cohesion. Clive was a manic depressive and opium addict. Calder may be right, though much could be said on the other side, in maintaining that the Anglo-French wars for empire were rational, and brought solid gains to the winner, and in rejecting Adam Smith’s opinion of armies and navies as a useless burden: but the heroes thrown up by these wars were often freakishly irrational. Imperialism was another stimulant, like alcohol, for Europe’s deranged nerves. Wolfe was efficient, but neurotic too. Pitt, who sent him to Canada, suffered from fits of morbid gloom as well as gout. ‘His strategical talents are questionable,’ like those of an earlier chronicler of the English-speaking peoples, Winston Churchill.

With America going, India coming, a third new chapter was being opened by the movement to abolish slavery. Calder analyses its motives searchingly, but again he has no hesitation in rejecting Adam Smith’s denial of the economic value of slavery, and in asserting that it was ‘crucial to the take-off of British industrial capitalism’. There is much room for controversy here, but it is one of the book’s many virtues to raise so many matters so challengingly. Religious currents naturally have a large place. Calder has to ask himself, for instance, why so many Quakers turned up in America, why their leader Penn was so cryptic a character, ‘a man of self-contradiction and compromise’, why New England in Jonathan Edwards’s day glowed with Calvinistic revival. Race relations are, of course, a pervasive theme. A divergence is pointed out between the home government, usually preferring placid accommodation with colonial peoples, and settlers, to whom ‘the native was always a savage who should be murdered before he murdered the white.’ It may not be quite so convincing to have Raleigh’s appreciative description of an Amerindian woman’s looks taken as proof of ‘clearer, franker and friendlier’ eyes than those with which most Europeans looked at other races. Men have always had clear and friendly eyes for any fine figure of a woman, of any race or class. It is not beneath a Brahmin’s dignity or sanctity to sleep with an Untouchable belle.

Here and there, too, a laudable wish to avoid European bias may lead Calder into some over-indulgence to non-European shortcomings. Repelling the charge that Red Indians left too much work to women, he argues that they had a fair division of labour, men hunting and women growing food. But the very thought of equal treatment for women has been a fragile blossom of the highest culture alone. It is the natural instinct of the stronger to exploit the weaker, and men everywhere have been faithful to nature by exploiting women. Even the materially lowest societies, like those in Australia, reserved a lower place for women. Calder seems, but cannot seriously mean, to put mercenary disposal of heiresses in England’s marriage-market on a par with the burning alive of Hindu widows by their fathers, brothers and sons. The gravest doubts concern Africa. That west African politics were hopelessly backward compared with European he considers a ‘myth’, to be ‘totally dismissed’. But the chief evidence offered of a promising level of development is that the chiefs who bartered slaves were too shrewd to be fobbed off with inferior rum or muskets. In fact, Africa was flooded with rotgut for commoners. More important, if it is true that slavery owed its place in west African economies to underpopulation, it was a curious sign of enlightenment for Africans to indulge in continual destructive wars for the purpose of capturing scarce labour-power and exporting it. During the course of the Atlantic slave trade between eight and ten and a half million human beings reached the New World, and other millions perished on the way. The guilt of Africa, the seller, was no less enormous than that of Europe, the buyer. But if Europe was being transformed by the results of the traffic, Africa, as Calder recognises, was not. It was merely swallowing rum and burning gunpowder. In this light the ‘myth’ of retardation must appear far less easy to banish.

Whether such progress as came eventually to Europe and the world from the sombre doings here recorded was worth the cost in human sin and suffering is a question for the philosopher. Up to a late stage in material growth, progress has always meant the certain sacrifice of many now for the doubtful benefit of others still unborn. The human condition being what it is, to make moral sense of history is impossible. Calder ends, not inappropriately, with Captain Cook, grown testy and heavy-handed with the years, getting himself killed in Hawaii, and the population of Tahiti halved by the epidemic that followed his last visit. Two further volumes are promised. Many expectant readers will wish the intrepid author as favouring winds as ever wafted Cook over the Pacific.