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The Oxford History of the British Empire (1998)


From the founding of the colonies in North America and the West Indies in the seventeenth century to the reversion of Hong Kong to China at the end of the twentieth, British imperialism was a catalyst for far-reaching change. British domination of indigenous peoples in North America, Asia, and Africa can now be seen more clearly as part of the larger and dynamic interaction of European and non-western societies. Though the subject remains ideologically charged, the passions aroused by British imperialism have so lessened that we are now better placed than ever to see the course of the Empire steadily and to see it whole. At this distance in time the Empire's legacy from earlier centuries can be assessed, in ethics and economics as well as politics, with greater discrimination. At the close of the twentieth century, the interpretation of the dissolution of the Empire can benefit from evolving perspectives on, for example, the end of the cold war. In still larger sweep, the Oxford History of the British Empire as a comprehensive study helps us to understand the end of the Empire in relation to its beginning, the meaning of British imperialism for the ruled as well as the rulers, and the significance of the British Empire as a theme in world history.

It is nearly half a century since the last volume of the large-scale Cambridge History of the British Empire was completed. In the mean time the British Empire has been dismantled and only fragments such as Gibraltar and the Falklands, Bermuda and Pitcairn, remain of an Empire that once stretched over a quarter of the earth's surface. The general understanding of the British Imperial experience has been substantially widened in recent decades by the work of historians of Asia and Africa as well as Britain. Earlier histories, though by no means all, tended to trace the Empire's evolution and to concentrate on how it was governed. To many late-Victorian historians the story of the Empire meant the rise of world-wide dominion and imperial rule, above all in India. Historians in the first half of the twentieth century tended to emphasize constitutional developments and the culmination of the Empire in the free association of the Commonwealth. The Oxford History of the British Empire takes a wide approach. It does not depict the history of the Empire as one of purposeful progress through four hundred years, nor does it concentrate narrowly on metropolitan authority and rule. It does attempt to explain how varying conditions in Britain interacted with those in many other parts of the world to create both a constantly changing territorial Empire and ever-shifting patterns of social and economic relations. The Oxford History of the British Empire thus deals with the impact of British imperialism on dependent peoples in a broader sense than was usually attempted in earlier historical writings, while it also takes into account the significance of the Empire for the Irish, the Scots, and the Welsh as well as the English.

To search for themes that might link the tentative ventures in transoceanic trade and settlement of the late sixteenth or of the seventeenth century with an Empire of rule that spanned the globe in more recent times is to venture on to dangerous ground. Even essential terms, such as 'British' or 'Empire' had completely different meanings. Yet certain features characterized British overseas expansion from its origins until the liquidation of the Empire in the later twentieth century. One distinguishing characteristic was that the enterprise involved all the peoples of the British Isles and changed their relations with one another in important respects. Another was that it brought the British into contact with alien peoples whose fate was to be determined by the British. Both these processes are clearly evident in this volume.

At no point in Britain's Imperial history has the dynamic of expansion been an exclusively English one, even though the English role may have been predominant, as it was in the period covered by this volume. The Scots were already involved in early expansion, though in a lesser way, and it was becoming an Irish process as well, as Irish labour crossed the Atlantic. This merging of peoples overseas was beginning to be reflected in the use of the term 'British' Empire. Before the eighteenth century the Irish were, however, far more a people colonized than colonizing. Waves of Anglo-Scottish settlement in Ireland attracted far larger numbers and much greater resources than any transatlantic enterprise. Whatever the differences of scale and environment, in the eyes of contemporaries, the 'planting' or settling of Ireland and America were seen as essentially similar operations.

Nor were fundamental differences seen between the Gaelic Irish and the native inhabitants of the new world. Both were regarded as backward and barbarous peoples who should be brought to Christian civility. A belief in superiority was thus balanced by some sense of obligation. In practice, especially in the early phases of contact in North America and throughout the period in Asian and West African ports, relations with non-European peoples involved co-operation or even dependence on the British side rather than domination. As settlement increased, however, the demands of new immigrants for land produced similar results in Ireland, North America or those parts of the West Indies where Caribs survived. Indigenous peoples were dispossessed; they were driven to retaliate in rebellion and war; Draconian punishments followed, including further dispossession. Those who laboured on the land from which native peoples had been expelled were usually servants shipped from Britain. In Barbados and later in other West Indian and southern mainland colonies, however, the supply of labour was increasingly met by Africans. This meant that English trade with West Africa came to be dominated by human cargoes, for whom the status of chattel slaves was devised by their owners. What was taken to be the imperative of inescapable need again broke down inhibitions; this time against trading in 'any that had our owne shape'. This was a pattern that was frequently to recur in the history of the British Empire.

The volumes in the Oxford History of the British Empire do not necessarily begin and end at the same point. Historical understanding benefits from an integration and overlap of complex chronology. Although oceanic voyages from Britain commenced as long ago as the Middle Ages, and crossings of the Atlantic took place from the end of the fifteenth century, this volume begins with the deliberate attempts to open up long-distance trade and to found colonies from the late sixteenth century. As is the case throughout the series, there is no uniform chronological ending for this volume, some chapters extending up to the end of the seventeenth century, some even beyond into the eighteenth century. Other chapters end with the Glorious Revolution of 1689, a notable landmark in the history of both Britain and the British overseas.

A special feature of the series is the Select Bibliography of key works at the end of each chapter. These are not intended to be a comprehensive bibliographical or historiographical guide (which will be found in Volume V) but rather they are lists of useful and informative works on the themes of each chapter.

The Editor-in-Chief and Editor acknowledge, with immense gratitude, support from the Rhodes Trust, the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, DC, St Antony's College, Oxford, and the University of Texas at Austin. We have received further specific support from the Warden of St Antony's, Lord Dahrendorf, the Dean of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas, Sheldon Ekland-Olson, and, for the preparation of maps, the University Cooperative Society. Mr Iain Sproat helped to inspire the project and provided financial assistance for the initial organizational conference. It is also a true pleasure to thank our patrons Mr and Mrs Alan Spencer of Hatfield Regis Grange, Mr and Mrs Sam Jamot Brown of Durango, Colorado, and Mr and Mrs Baine Kerr of Houston, Texas. We have benefited from the cartographic expertise of Jane Pugh and her colleagues at the London School of Economics. We are indebted to Jane Ashley for her help in preparing the index. Our last word of gratitude is to Dr Alaine Low, the Assistant Editor, whose dedication to the project has been characterized by indefatigable efficiency and meticulous care.

Wm. Roger Louis


The title to this volume appears without a commencement date because it is impossible to identify a moment before which people in Britain and Ireland had no interest in the known and unknown world beyond the confines of Europe. Romanticized reports of travel by Europeans in Asia and Africa circulated in both islands during the Middle Ages as they did on the continent of Europe, and there can have been no maritime community in either Britain or Ireland that did not harbour myths about lost islands, or even continents in the Atlantic, or about voyages by intrepid mariners such as the Irish St Brendan or the Welsh Prince Madoc. Belief in such stories must have played some part in encouraging sailors to undertake voyages far into the Atlantic, and traders and fishermen from the west of England, especially from Bristol, maintained regular contact with Iceland during the medieval period. This renders the argument that Bristol sailors reached the coast of Newfoundland in 1481, at least eleven years before Columbus's first Atlantic voyage, plausible if not proven, but it would be far-fetched to suggest that such possible discoveries also laid the foundations of Britain's trading and territorial Empire.

Where trade was concerned, the vast bulk of English and Scottish commerce had been centered on the continent of Europe during the Middle Ages, while Irish trade was directed towards England, with a lesser concentration on southern Europe. Well-established trading routes supplied the peoples of Britain and Ireland with Mediterranean and Baltic commodities and with the luxury goods of Asia that were brought to Europe by the traditional overland routes. At the same time territorial controversies also focused on the continent of Europe rather than further afield, and the ambition of successive English monarchs to revive the medieval Angevin Empire did not end until 1562 with the evacuation of New Haven (Le Havre).

During the Middle Ages English and Scottish monarchs disputed the border that separated their realms. The resulting conflict persisted into the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI and was not finally resolved until 1603, when the two realms were brought together into a single, composite British monarchy. Scottish monarchs, who upheld the interests of the Scots-speaking population of the lowlands, also aspired to extend their authority over the Gaelic-speaking highlands, while sixteenth-century English monarchs were extensively and expensively engaged in the analogous effort to assert their influence over all parts of Ireland until the end of the century.

These preoccupations of the people of Britain and Ireland, and their rulers, go some way to explaining why, in spite of famous exploits, such as the Cabot voyages of 1497 and 1498, their role in long-distance voyaging was relatively modest before the close of the sixteenth century. The volume explains how this involvement quickened during the seventeenth century to the point where the English were the most consequential European presence in the North Atlantic, and where English merchants were the principal conveyors of African slaves across the Atlantic as well as being major participants in direct trade with Asia.

While seeking to explain this transformation in England's position in the world of long-distance trade and colonization, the volume concludes that it was more the product of accident than design. It also suggests that a shape was imposed on what had been accomplished by chance only after state authorities came to appreciate the commercial importance of the various colonies, fortified posts, and trading routes throughout the world that had been established by private adventurers. Successive chapters reveal a striking contrast between the low level of state involvement during the first half of the seventeenth century and a more active state participation in colonial endeavour from the 16505 onward, but the overall impression is that transoceanic ventures remained a low priority for all British governments to the end of the period and that the real achievements might well have been frittered away in any of the European peace negotiations of the late seventeenth century. People in the seventeenth century had little awareness that they were on the threshold of some great Imperial age.

The volume draws upon recent scholarship on the history of Britain and her colonies and incorporates original research. Thematic chapters deal with the concept of Empire in the early period. Some contemporaries viewed colonization as a way of extending civil society and were greatly influenced by knowledge of classical literature. A chapter is devoted to literature and Empire. Ethical issues and the struggle for legitimacy by the colonizers, and the relations between colonizers and Native Americans on the mainland and in the Caribbean are explored in two chapters. The impact of political, constitutional, and religious upheavals in Britain on events in the colonies is examined. By the end of the period some settlers were prepared to take up arms to defend their rights. Divisions between whites within the colonies and tensions between colonial populations and at home in the First British Empire in North America and the West Indies foreshadow the conflicts of the eighteenth century. Other themes which are given separate treatment are the growth and development of the state and its military and naval prowess, the importance of technological advance in ship design, and the expansion and specialization of British trade and manufacture. These themes are further developed in specific regional chapters.

The regional chapters are arranged in chronological order. They show how a network of communication linked the various parts of the emerging British Empire in the New World with London, and with each other through intercolonial trade. Chapters deal with colonization within Britain and Ireland as well as in the New World and attention is also given to the part played by the Scots and Irish in colonial endeavours of the English. The book indicates that contrasts between the transplanted society of New England, which has been depicted as a communal success, and those in the Chesapeake, the West Indies, and outposts such as Newfoundland, have been exaggerated in the past. However, there were real differences and four chapters discuss colonizing efforts in distinct regions of North America and illustrate the diversity of modes of government in church and state. The role of the great trading companies in Asia and West Africa and the importance of the West Indies trade is explored in three regional chapters. Britain's role in the European continental wars and her rivalry with other European colonial powers within the New World and Asia take the story up to 1713, so forming a link to the second volume in the series.

Nicholas Canny

The Oxford History of the British Empire (1998)

Volume I. The Origins of Empire
Edited by Nicholas Canny
Volume II. The Eighteenth Century
Edited by R.J. Marshall
Volume III. The Nineteenth Century
Edited by Andrew Porter
Volume IV. The Twentieth Century
Edited by Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis
Volume V Historiography
Edited by Robin W. Winks

The above volumes are available on the Internet Archive

See also...

Our Empire, Past and Present
Volume 1, Great Britain in Europe by the Earl of Meath, M. H. Cornwall Legh, LL.A., and Edith Jackson (1901) (pdf)

See also...

Britannic Confederation
A Series of papers by Admiral Sir John Colomb, Professor Edward A. Freeman, George G. Chisholm, Professor Shield Nicholson, Maurice H. Hervey and the Right Honble Lord Thring, edited with an Introduction by Arthur Silva White, Secretary and Editor, Royal Geographical Society (1892) (pdf).

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