We are all Scots here

Linda Colley

  • The Scottish Empire by Michael Fry
    Tuckwell/Birlinn, 580 pp, £16.99, November 2002, ISBN 1 84158 259 X

How is empire to be understood in an age that takes nations and nationalism for granted? For those who were once invaded by empires which have since become defunct, this rarely seems a problem. For the majority of Indians in regard to the British Raj, as for one-time satellites of Soviet Russia, empire is simply the dark before the light, an episode of alien oppression now triumphantly shrugged off. Nor in practice have those current Great Powers which are still in essence imperial found coming to terms with empire difficult. China, for instance, continues to retain territories that were conquered by Chinese emperors long after the Spanish and Portuguese invasions of the New World, and does not always do so with the conspicuous consent of the governed. Yet, as has happened with some other Great Powers, conquest and colonisation have been glossed over by an exercise in rebranding. China remains an empire, but it now trumpets itself as a nation, a People’s Republic.

Empire has proved a more intractable subject for those Western Europeans who once swarmed greedily over large stretches of the globe, but whose dominion has become one with Nineveh and Tyre. For the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish, as for the French, Spanish, Danish, Belgians and Dutch, empire now generally evokes guilt, or mild nostalgia, or most commonly a determined forgetfulness. Thus virtually every history of Ireland contains (quite rightly) copious details about the national struggle against rule from London. But the fact that the majority of white troops in British India were for a long time Irish, as were a fair number of the Empire’s administrators, adventurers and traders, is usually – and wrongly – left out of the story. The Scottish response to lost Empire, too, is often a calculated amnesia. Imperial relics are confined to the basements or attics of museums and galleries; or the Empire gets reimagined as an indulgence merely of the English. Yet, as Michael Fry argues in this vast, contentious volume, alongside the Reformation, the Treaty of Union and the Enlightenment, Empire was ‘one of the great formative experiences’ in Scotland’s past.

The Scottish Empire is a remarkable book that could probably have been attempted only by a freelance writer like Fry. He has travelled across the world accumulating material, and the list of secondary works he has consulted is staggering. The book ranges across every continent, contains 38 chapters and includes some invaluable maps and illustrations. Anyone interested in Britain’s Imperial past and in Scottish history will need to read it and will learn a great deal. There are, however, some major problems. For many, the biggest difficulty will be Fry’s tone and approach. He is an unapologetic Tory, currently a rare breed in Scotland, and sometimes appears eager to anticipate criticism on this score by richly deserving it. His book focuses almost exclusively on dominant white males. Scottish working-class emigrants and soldiers only occasionally get a look in; and the single Scottish woman to receive cameo treatment, the missionary Mary Slessor, is gratuitously and in defiance of her photograph described as ‘plain’. As for those non-whites on the receiving end of busy Scottish Imperial activism, they tend to feature only as ‘dusky millions’ or as a ‘babbling crowd of Africans and Arabs’. There is another, less manifest difficulty, however. This is a book about Empire written by a fervent nationalist.

Fry’s aim is not simply to document Scotland’s enormous contribution to the British Empire, but to argue that Scottish Imperial activity was always distinctive. This is warranted to the extent that, more than the Irish, Welsh and possibly even the English, Scots invested in Empire to a degree out of all proportion to their number. As has long been recognised, Scotland’s smallness and relative poverty meant that it regularly lost ambitious young males to other societies even before the Union of Crowns in 1603. Infiltrating England’s overseas enterprises thereafter was at one level a natural extension of the earlier migrations of individual Scots to Russia, Poland, France, Scandinavia or the Low Countries to trade, learn, fight and settle. Even after 1603, some Scots continued to attach themselves to rival, Continental European empires, while many dreamed of an extra-European empire of their own. In 1684, Robert Barclay, an Aberdeenshire Quaker, founded his own settlement in east New Jersey; and in 1698, perhaps a quarter of Scotland’s liquid capital was expended on the Darien Scheme, an abortive attempt to establish a colony in Central America.

After this disaster, and the Treaty of 1707, Scottish Imperial ambitions had perforce to operate under the Union Jack and not the Saltire, yet in some parts of the world one would scarcely have known it. By the 1760s, Scots controlled huge swathes of what was supposedly the English East India Company’s patronage. The first Scottish Prime Minister, Lord Bute, allowed his countrymen the lion’s share of jobs and land in East and West Florida; while the conquest of Canada in 1759 enabled generations of Scottish settlers to impose their churches, culture, linguistic patterns, traditional sports and umpteen St Andrew’s societies on another, transatlantic shore. Like other successful minorities, Scottish Imperialists understood the importance of retaining their distinctiveness and of ruthlessly advancing each other. When the East India Company introduced competitive examinations for its official posts in 1853, clannish Scottish power in India was dealt a major blow. No longer could cousin Angus from Arbroath or brother Colin from Caithness be eased so smoothly into the next soft billet in the Subcontinent. Smaller, private companies, however, were – at least initially – more easily managed. ‘Thank God,’ one of the directors of the Imperial British East Africa Company declared in the 1880s: ‘We are all Scots here.’

To this extent, it’s perfectly legitimate to speak of a separate Scottish history of Empire. It’s clear, too, that the considerable internal autonomy Scotland retained after the Union always coloured its population’s Imperial involvement. Scots’ prominence in overseas posts in the 18th and early 19th centuries can be attributed to the superior education offered by their universities at that time, and not simply to chauvinist trade unionism. Scotland’s extraordinarily narrow and corrupt electoral system prior to 1832 may have encouraged some Scottish proconsuls like Thomas Maitland, Governor of Malta and the Ionian Islands, to take a particularly dim and manipulative view of colonial assemblies. Scotland’s churches produced distinctive forms of missionary activity, while the fact that few Scottish, as compared with English and Irish, convicts were initially transported to Australia was a byproduct of Scotland’s separate legal system.

Fry’s thesis of separate Scottish Imperial development goes further, however. For him, what distinguished the Scottish Empire throughout was its commitment to commerce as distinct from conquest, territorial settlement and occupation. He argues that the British Empire only became overwhelmingly attractive to Scots after the American Revolution, when it ceased to be an English-dominated ‘Empire of colonisation’ and ‘instead . . . turned into a commercial Empire’.

Yet the mass of detail on offer in these pages frequently runs counter to any such chronology or analysis. It could be argued that Scots before 1776 were less inclined than their southern neighbours to view white American colonists as brethren, because the latter were mainly of English stock. But Scottish migration across the Atlantic grew rapidly after 1700 and, long before the Revolution, towns like Greenock and above all Glasgow had become as keenly involved in American Empire as Bristol and London. Moreover, and pace Fry, most Scots seem to have wanted this to remain a colonial relationship. In 1776, a conspicuously large number of Scottish burghs and counties came out in support of war to conquer the American rebels. They wanted transatlantic territory and dominion, not just commerce. Their strong representation in the Armed Forces meant that Scots were just as prominent in wars of Imperial conquest in Asia and Africa. Nor were they at all averse to using violence to advance settlement. As Fry describes, the armed band of fellow Highlanders led by Angus McMillan against aboriginal peoples in Gippsland, south of Sydney, in 1842, may have been responsible for some of the bloodiest acts of genocide in Australian history.

To acknowledge all this is not to deny that, over the centuries, Scottish moneymen like Thomas Sutherland of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Scottish manufacturers like Coats of Paisley, Scottish shipbuilders on the Clyde and ruthless Scottish traders like Alexander Matheson and William Jardine, drug-runners extraordinaire, proved conspicuous Imperial players. But there has been a recurrent tendency in history for Protestant peoples to claim they are only interested in commerce, when in fact what they have also wanted is to rule. The English and Dutch did this in the 17th century, regularly and deceptively contrasting their own maritime and trading ventures with the military Empires of Ancient Rome and Catholic Spain. Americans, too, would come to argue that their only legions were the dollar and free trade, while increasingly developing very different mechanisms of global power. Vociferous Scottish enthusiasm for commercial Empire was hardly unique. And no more than was the case in these other Protestant societies did this appetite for global trade prove incompatible with a taste for conquest and settlement. Far from it.

Fry’s reluctance adequately to compare the Scottish experience of Empire with that of other societies is one aspect of his fervent nationalism. He argues here, as he has elsewhere, that Scottish historians should focus on what was unique about their country’s past. Yet, manifestly, establishing what was genuinely distinctive about Scottish experience cannot be done in a vacuum, and Fry often strives too hard for difference. Thus he describes how the Scottish head of the Central School in Hong Kong, Frederick Stewart, endeavoured to create a system combining Scottish and Chinese forms of education, foiling in the process the ‘English Governor, Sir John Pope Hennessy, who wanted to impose a Western curriculum’. But Pope Hennessy was an Irish Catholic, who got into trouble first in Barbados and then in Hong Kong for what was viewed as excessive sympathy with indigenous peoples. When he made his ceremonial departure from his Chinese posting in 1882, the event was boycotted by most of the local English and Scots. Thus an episode that Fry seeks to represent as a piece of distinctive Scottish Empire-making can more appropriately be interpreted as one more example of the way their respective forms of Protestantism regularly and effectively knitted English and Scottish Imperialists together.

Fry’s desire to distinguish between these two groups of invaders and to poke fun at the former gets in the way of more important issues. Crucially, it is possible only occasionally to infer from these pages what those on the receiving end of Scottish overseas exertions thought of these intruders, and of how far – if at all – they perceived Scots as being different from other Imperialists. By the same token, Fry’s concern to stress the collective lineaments of what he calls ‘the Scottish mind’ gets in the way of a thoroughgoing analysis of how far different types of Scots reacted differently to Empire. It would have been useful to have had more discussion of the often repeated argument that Highland Scots were more sympathetic to indigenous peoples, and more prone than Lowlanders and the English to intermarry with them. Fry supplies much evidence of such cross-cultural relationships – for instance, among the men led by Cuthbert Grant at the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816 in what is now Winnipeg. But it remains unclear whether Highlanders were inherently more receptive to indigenous connections, or whether their marked poverty and land hunger drove them disproportionately into frontier zones where such connections could scarcely be avoided.

Of course, it’s not possible for any book, even a massive one like this, to treat such a huge and contentious subject comprehensively. It’s sometimes argued now that the history of European empires is already a known quantity, and that what is needed is an intensive investigation of those they encroached on. But while the latter part of this injunction is absolutely correct, the former is not. Together with those myriad peoples whom they sought to subject, European empires (and non-European empires) still badly require close, iconoclastic and sensitive scrutiny. Anyone working on these topics quickly becomes aware, in Fry’s words, of ‘standing on the shore of an ocean’. If only in order properly to chart that ocean, however, historians need to move beyond nationalist pieties and preoccupations. Empire has often fed on nationalism, and it has often fostered nationalism among its protagonists and victims. But its inherent diversity means that empire has also invariably compromised and complicated national distinctions. There was never a discrete Scottish Empire, in fact, any more than there could ever be a purely English Empire. Their very extroversion, greed and aggression involved these two small countries in far bigger trends than they could possibly control.

For the English, indulging in global Empire always meant extending patronage, perks and varying degrees of acceptance to a wide range of other peoples, and conspicuously to the Scots, because this was the only way they could secure the necessary manpower and skills. For Scots, too, Empire always involved compromises of identity and exclusivity. Part of the price was acquiescence in a state run from London, but there were other costs as well. Fry is very good at showing how, over time, commercial enterprises founded by imperially minded Scots were increasingly swallowed up by the self-same global economy they had once helped to promote. Thus Coats textiles still keeps its headquarters in Glasgow, but 80 per cent of its profits now come from thirty developing countries. ‘We follow growth,’ its chairman made clear in 1981: ‘our investment will inevitably be foreign, and our rationalisation will inevitably be in the EEC.’ For this late 20th-century enterprising Scot, it was the global economy that mattered, together perhaps with a new empire run from Brussels.

This is why I’m sceptical about Fry’s heartfelt conclusion that, with the advent of devolution, ambitious, post-imperial Scots will ‘come home’ in order ‘to redirect their hopes and dreams’. Perhaps they will. But in view of Scotland’s past, it seems more likely that large numbers of them will continue to move south as they have always done; that others will pursue careers in the new empires of America and the European Union; and that yet more will seek opportunities in other parts of the globe. Around one million Britons are estimated to have been missing from this island during the recent census, most of them young males. How many of these absentees were Scots, yet more exiles from a small country hungry for new frontiers? Enough, surely, to ensure that Scottish historians will always need to look far beyond the confines of nationhood.