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?

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