January 19, 2010

The Ideological Origins of the British Empire Part 1

The British Empire according to J.R. Seeley, one of its first historians, was acquired in 'a fit of an absense of mind'. Somehow by mistake the British seized vast tracts of America, Canada, India, Australia and Africa: like an artist consumed by creativity but without a sense of reality they sent a trail of pink paint around the globe until a third of it was dabbed by an unruly brush. The British Empire is divided conventionally by historians into two phases- one saw the creation of a North American Empire around New England and the American South and a dominance of India, the second was dominated by the Raj and the quest to secure India. The first saw its peak at the end of the seven years war in 1763 when Britain acquired Quebec from the French but then plummetted to its depths in the aftermath of the American Revolution, when Britain stood alone against the world. The First British Empire ended, as Sellars and Yeatman put it, unfairly when the allies didn't back Britain. The Second Empire culminated in the 1920s when British mandates throughout the Middle East and Africa were added to the territories carved out by Lord Salisbury and Benjamin Disreali at the Congress of Berlin (1878) and during the scramble for Africa (1880s).

Seeley was wrong. The British were conscious of what they were doing in creating an empire from the 17th Century on. I am going to examine in the next couple of posts, through an analysis of David Armitage's recent Ideological Origins of the British Empire, what exactly they were up to. It is important to start, where Armitage starts, with the recognition that the idea of English imperium was not so vastly novel in the 18th Century. Empire was a concept that had formed part of the juridical apparatus of European monarchy since the time of Charlemagne if not before: when Henry VIII claimed in the Statute in Restraint of Appeals that 'this realm of England is an empire', he sought to link himself to Constantine. Imperial claims could be and were used to suggest that England held a satrapy over the rest of the British Isles. From the times of Lanfranc, English Archbishops of Canterbury had claimed primacy over the entire Island: English Kings agreed with their Archbishops that their rule should embrace the entire island and claiming an imperium (as Edward VI did during the rough wooing of the late 1540s) was one way of doing so. Furthermore both English and Scottish Kings claimed imperium by the right of being sovereign over several distinct peoples: the Scottish Kings for instance as they expanded their realm from lowland Scotland into the Highlands and Islands ruled Gaels and Celts as well as Scots.

Empire had clear meanings in Britain prior to the age of empire. Perhaps the most significant of these uses of the word empire for the future history of the British Empire was its use as concerning Ireland and to a lesser extent, Scotland, by mostly English sources. William Cecil, the future Elizabethan chief minister, spent the 1540s and 1550s dreaming of a Protestant united island standing defiantly against the continental Catholic powers, a bulwark of true religion set amidst the sea. Those words parallel John of Gaunt in Shakespeare's Richard II who imagined similarly how secure an England set behind her natural moat was. Shakespeare again in Lear offered to the new monarch James I and VI a description of a British empire that had been united and disunited and now might be united again. It is in Ireland that as Armitage shows the consequences of this policy were to be most thoroughly followed through. Ulster was the first British colonial project with Scots and Englishmen colonising the northern part of the Island under James I and VI: similar sized tracts of land were allowed to the two nations and many went there to settle.

We should not overrate the power of this image- plenty of Englishmen and Scotsmen not to mention Irishmen rejected it. It is significant that Armitage says that Ulster until 1641 was the most successful colonial expedition of the British, in 1641 a rebellion broke out in which thousands of Protestants and Catholics were slain and the war that consumed the British isles started. Scots were unpopular in England and seen as foreign right up until the ministry of the Earl of Bute in the 18th Century. But even so the aspirations of men like Cecil were inspirations for the creation of an empire beyond the sea- when we think of the empire that Britain later created, we have to acknowledge, as Armitage suggests that that empire began in Britain itself.


James Higham said...

There was a major thrust starting around the mid 1700s, as there had been before but now it stood a sporting chance and a number of factors were interwoven.

The usurers, the Venetians had re-established their influence which had been lost when Philip had betrayed them and broken the unwritten code in 1314 and this largely replaced the necessity for the Holy Roman Empire which had served its purpose and pretty well disbanded in 1806, in the latter phase of the French Revolution, America and the Illuminati essentially transforming the political face of Europe and becoming the main thrust of it.

The laughingly named Enlightenment was the thrust within the disciplines of learning and that, with the political and social thrusts, was mixed in with all sorts in later years - Blavatsky, Marx and so on.

The whole thrust of Europe was then, as today:

1) Abolition of all ordered governments
2) Abolition of private property
3) Abolition of inheritance
4) Abolition of patriotism
5) Abolition of the family
6) Abolition of religion
7) Creation of a world government

This was the time of the major push to deChristianize [ostensibly antidisestablishmentarianism]. So if MAR's 1773 meeting is taken as a starting point, then events followed quite swiftly.

1789 - Violence erupts in France.

1796 - Freemasonry becomes a major issue in the Presidential election in the United States. John Adams wins the election by opposing Masonry.

1816 - Congress grants a 20-year charter to the Bank of the United States.

1821 - Hegel formulates his dialect.

1828 - MAR's "Allow me to issue and control the money of a nation ..." speech.

1829 - British Illuminist Frances "Fanny" Wright gave a series of lectures in the United States, mentioning and trying to set up a movement that would be called "Communism."

1848 - Moses Mordecai Marx Levy, wrote "The Communist Manifesto."

The rest was history - the labour movement, suffragettes and destabilization across Europe.

Within this context, the imperialist [i.e. the lucrative] push for empire was being undertaken.

Gracchi said...

James I struggled how to answer this comment. I have two points.

Firstly I'm not sure what your theory has to do with ideologies of empire in Britain during the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Secondly, as for the theory itself. I disagree with it. I see no trace of it in my own research. Nor do I see any trace of it in the Enlightenment. There was no secret enlightenment conspiracy- most of the radicals were honest enough about their feelings and published them in popular print. There were also many enlightenment theorists who would disagree with your seven articles. As to Marx, I am completely unconvinced he had anything to do with a Venetian conspiracy- you will have to find more evidence than mere supposition to prove that! From my reading of Marx, he opposed capitalism in all its forms including the payment of interest. I have worked a hell of a lot on the seventeenth century and devoted years of my life to it and have never seen anything ressembling the structures that you say existed, emerge and I would say the same about the enlightenment. The picture I get from Tim Blanning or John Robertson, two eminent historians of the period, is completely different to the one you are painting here.

I could write at more length, but I'm not sure it would convince you or that it would provoke anything more than enmity. The last thing I'll say is that history is complicated and difficult, it isn't easy and there are no easy answers- either of a cosmic conspiracy or anything else. I don't think we have ever agreed on this so I will leave it there.

Any views on the British imperialist ideal though are very welcome!

Gracchi said...

And lastly Karl Marx's name was Karl Heinrich Marx- that was how he desired to be called and that is how he is known on this blog.

James Higham said...

No, not a theory in the least - I quoted dates and facts.

Those people also made the statements they did. This is called history, Tiberius, not idle speculation.

I knew you wouldn't like it because of your political stance but that stance ignores the inconvenient facts you never read because the only "facts" you get to read are those of the "victor", i.e. the type of historical literature available in libraries and they are well known for their selection process, especially university libraries.

The Venetian slanted "histories" we got to read at university were all of the same ilk. Why was it we were never directed to Ayn Rand, Hayek and Adam Smith but always to Marx, Sorel, Voltaire, Mill [to be fair], Tawney and GB Shaw?

Could there possibly have been the teensiest little bit of bias in the selection of those lists?

And who selected the selectors? Why the same sorts of people ensconced in the professorships. Don't forget that I slipped through the net when I became a professor so I am speaking from within the profession, not from outside.

The history I presented here is a severely truncated one, of course - you got small fragments but it exists. To call it non-peer reviewed is for the simple reason that it never sees the light of day and therefore never gets to be viewed by the either the students or the peer.

Now take those opening 7 points. Are you disputing that they are Weishaupt's?

No, of course you can't so what you will do there is play it down. Say it was one kook in a small localized movement, as there have been many others throughout history.

That though ignores Washington's and Adams'comments, which can't be ignored in the same way as, say, in 1797 with John Robison, Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University.

All said the same thing - that Weishaupt was just the front person of a movement which had gone on for a long time.

Churchill sid it played a recognizable role in the French Revolution and if you look at those series of events, see whom Voltaire was communicating with, then the whole show begins to look much more than, as you say: "I'm not sure what your theory has to do with..."

Well, naturally you would not. You haven't done the wider reading because if you had, you would have quoted some of it back at me.

This is not your fault - it was the conjurer's trick in academic institutions. Everyone likes to feel he is well read and you are - amazingly well read but it is reading of a type.

In terms of Rome, it is a reading of the prejudices of the time, e.g. Tacitus and we can't do much about our sources. But you'll recall that history gets "thicker" or "fatter" towards recent times and there is a wealth of history which never makes it through.

Doesn't mean it doesn't exist though.

James Higham said...


So with the greatest of respect, you're judging my statement in terms of the focus of your reading, as we all do, of course.

1798 - George Washington: "It is not my intention to doubt that the doctrine of the Illuminati and the principles of Jacobinism had not spread in the United States. On the contrary, no one is more satisfied of this fact than I am."

That is an attestable statement and Jefferson made similar. Now, if you explore that on the net, you'll just find a hundred sites of the conspiracy theorist type who repeat the same thing without exploring it.

Do you think that is my investigative method or do you think I test it out further?

This is the problem with alternative histories, not unlike the Apocrypha. Only certain mind types tend to explore them and the way they present them, in lurid colour and capitals, immediately cuts their authority.

But that still does not negate tht it is the malcontents who wouldn't accept the official line who make all the progress. GBS said something about this.

The only alternative then is to denigrate, call it "crackpot" and the like, as the Lib Dem candidate Martin Turner tried on with the Albion Alliance and got burnt for his trouble.

There is a huge problem with history, Tiberius, a huge problem and that was my only motivation in running that last post - to show that there are alternatives and that many of those do not see the light of day or are not given the same weight by "learned" historians because it does not fit the accepted truth of the time.

Witness Galileo and Kepler for this.

That was all i wanted to say.

Gracchi said...

I'm not sure I would ever compare myself to Galileo or Kepler! They did work from within established traditions to prove those traditions wrong as well. You are incorrect to say that modern people don't study Smith or Hayek: you are writing at one who studied both in depth at university in addition to Vico and others who might broadly be considered 'conservative'. Indeed I studied fewer of your radical thinkers whilst there.

I am unwilling to argue about history with you James partly because I think your view of it is so established that argument will not change it. There are facts there I'm sure- but I'm also sure that politicians use slurs against their opponents which may not neccessarily be true. Ultimately I'll give you some different facts to integrate into your theory and these are based on my knowledge of the actual documents.

1. There is not a single mention of any of this in the speeches and letters of Oliver Cromwell- I have read every single one and never came across this. (Read in the original manuscript often)

2. There is not a single mention fo this in the speeches and letters of Charles I, again I have read quite a number though not all.

3. In the private correspondence I have read within the New Model Army (where I have read in the region of 4-5000 letters) I have never come across this.

4. In the pamphlet literature of the period, of which I have read hte originals of over 400 pamphlets I have never come across this.

I say this because that's what I count as real historical research- its not going on the internet and getting quotations from random sites without checking them. Its not reading secondary literature unless you check the footnotes and see where the sources have come from. It is solid research. And none of mine on the 1640s and 1650s has produced anything about this conspiracy.

Furthermore I look at what you have produced and what I see are discreet moments- there is no evidence of a link- people are talking about different things- there is no evidence that they mean the same thing. Often these are accusations (Illuminism and Jacobinism as in Washington were often linked by others, but find some stuff from the Jacobins themselves) and political accusations can be distortions of reality.

This has nothing to do with my political views- I have friends who are on both the right of the political spectrum and the left of the political spectrum who would support my view of this (Matthew Sinclair for example). I'm sure that sometimes people believed in these groups and others may have wanted to be part of them- there were secret societies etc- but they did not govern human history and most of them were fairly shortlived.

I am not going to continue this though and this is my last post on the subject. I don't think it has much to do with what I was writing about here- so I'm going to leave it at that. We disagree and I'm not sure that there is a point on which we can argue since I do not beleive that either of us have the knowledge quite frankly to debate some of what you are talking about, at other times I just don't have the time to dig into exactly what Washington said, where the original report of that speech comes from etc etc.

Lastly it is a theory- it is an attempt to link together various facts in a chain of causation. That is what in history is called a theory- and almost all history is a theory of what happened because crucially we cannot know absolutely what happened- it is gone and lost.

THanks for the comment though.

James Higham said...

Tiberius, you name some documents which I did not refer to and because it is not mentioned in them, you assume it is not mentioned anywhere.

You speak of primary sources which is precisely what mine were. I even name the publication in my post. This is a tiny fragment of the whole, which represents a vast amount of material.

As I said in the post, of course you haven't read any of these because 1. your focus was elsewhere 2. the explosion of information hadn't yet occurred in your formative years, nor in mine.

It's not a problem - I was just pointing out that there was a lot you hadn't read. If you had, you would not take the view you do.

As I said in the post also, victors write the history and decide what is to be in there. You'll recall Churchill intending to do that.

The history of 1770 roughly through to the early 20th century would reward your looking at it. I suggest Colonel House is a good place to start.

James Higham said...

Please don't feel that I'm disagreeing with your take on the ideological origins of the British Empire but to understand the rise of Britain as Britain, it must be seen in the context of the rise of other nation states as well, for example, France and in the context of the Venetian usurers who sought at all times to profit from it.

The Venetians are the least attibuted troublemakers in history for the role they played in the wheeling and dealing of the latter half of the millennium.

Some fragments [that’s all that is possible in this space]:

Gabriel Hanotaux, Jeanne d'Arc, Editions Hachette, Paris, 1911:

From 1425 to 1428, the invading English conquered every town from Maine to Anjou, were able to reduce Picardy and Champagne, beat back two offensives in Normandy and Brittany, and were on the point of taking strategic Orléans which would have enabled the English to rejoin their northern states with those of the south, ending thereby the French nation as such.

The humanist Nicolo Albergati (1375-1443), assisted by both his secretaries, Tommaso Parentucelli, the future Pope Nicolaus V, and Aeneas Sylvanus Piccolomini, Pope Pius II. These were clearly the networks who saw in France and in her young prince Louis the potential for the kind of nation state outlined by Nicolaus of Cusa in his The Catholic Concordance.

Louis XI used the Sorbonne press as a political weapon as well as an educational one. In 1477, the king commissioned the first book in French, La Chronique by Saint Denis which recounted the building of the French nation from the Roman times to the death of his father, Charles VII. This was used widely to discredit Charles the Bold of Burgundy as an enemy of France.

In 1509, the League of Cambrai brought together the largest military alliance ever organized against the Venetians, including Louis XII of France, the Emperor Maximilian I of Germany, Ferdinand of Aragon of Spain, Henry VIII of England, the Duke of Ferrara and the Medici bankers from Florence, and the instigator of the league, Pope Julius II. The doge, Leonardo Loredan, admitted before the city's Great Council that their ``sins of pride'' and of ``luxury'' were being punished by God.

Louis saw printing, educational institutions, Viator’s perspective which caused among other things, a freemasons’ meeting in Regensburg, Germany in 1549, which declared, ``No one shall transmit the secret of how to calculate elevation from a plane.''

He brought in the Medici to bankroll the operation at 0% interest, blocked Genoa and his enemies, e.g. Philip of Savoy and others, created the mining and postal industries, income tax paid to the crown increased from 1,200,000 in 1462 to 3,900,000 pounds in 1482.

And so on.

There is just no space in a blog post comment to put it all down but this is an example of what I mean about alternative histories. One must look at them all and then conclude from that.

Gracchi said...

James- a lot of what you say in your latest post I think is absolutely true. Yes there is a comparative angle to this and the histories of France, Britain and the rest should be lined up next to each other and I agree with you.

As to the importance of Venice as a state in early modern Europe, yes again I agree with you, they were key. As an image as well they were vital- so many people used Venice as an image of Republicanism and of Republican liberty. On the other hand say Machiavelli used Venice as an image of a Republic for stability which made it a key alternative for the BRitish empire.

christian conservative said...

James i'm trying to understand your point-is your piont all these people were involved in a conspiracy together to acheive these set aimsand do you think George Washington was a Jacobite?

christian conservative said...

James is your point all these peole were part of a conspriacy spreading hundreds of years in secret or have i misunderstood you .

On two of most factual points most Venetians wern't usurers in fact I think it was close to being illegal for them? (grcchi? ). I'd also very much second Gracchi's point he was batptied that how on earth is it not his name?

and are you accusing George Washington of being a Jacobin?