January 21, 2010

The Ideological Origins of the British Empire Part 2

The British empire is traditionally seen as an empire of the sea. The continental monarchies of Europe (the Bourbon, the Ottoman and the Habsburg, later the Hohenzollern, Bonaparte and the Romanov as well) ruled empires conquered largely by massive armies. The British Empire was not like that. The British empire was therefore founded in part upon a doctrine of the empire of the sea. That empire of the sea required Englishmen and women to start thinking about who owned the sea- whose right encompassed the sea. This was a vital issue in early seventeenth century both in contributing to what we have already observed- the ideology of an Island community, an Island empire and to the foundation of the wider British empire itself.

Early Modern understandings of sovereignty at sea begin according to Armitage with Cicero's understanding that by nature there was no such thing as private property. To see what this meant to Early Modern citizens of England, turn to Richard Hakluyt who wrote of the King of Denmark that he might rule the sea, expel pirates and stop invasions but he could not own the sea. This key distinction is written into much early modern English discussion of the seas around Britain. John Dee for instance in the 1580s and 1590s argued that the seas around Britain by ancient title belonged to the crown of England: he cited the precedent of Edgar the peaceful who in the tenth century had proclaimed himself Emperor of the Seas in addition to his other titles. As William Welwood, Professor of Civil Law, put it, when arguing with the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, if God had not meant man to rule the seas, he would not have given, in Genesis, mastery to man of the beasts and the fish in the sea! John Selden, perhaps most famously, extended this argument, suggesting to the Dutchman that as the land too had at one time been common property, so at sea and at land sovereignty had followed from a common contractual root. As ancient precedent and common law suggested that the English King had imperium over the sea just beyond the shore, this suggested that such sovereignty must have been recognised for years and by recognition, England had acquired the right of rule of its own seas. Lord Coventry, giving an opinion in the Ship Money trial, went further: without rule over the seas there could be no rule over the land.

These arguments had an influence. At one point Armitage cites Oliver Cromwell being offered title to the oceans as well as the lands of Britain. William Petty tried to tempt James II into asserting the same kind of dominion. After the assumption of the throne by the Dutch stadtholder William III, such arguments fell into abeyance but their fundemental consequences, as Armitage argues, were important. They linked in the minds of Englishmen a claim over the seas to the British nation, they made it indispensible. The ideology that was to inspire Britannia rules the Waves was not so foreign from this seventeenth century impulse. Furthermore Selden's arguments and those of others could be redeployed in other terra incognita- the vast lands of America and India where Britain too might want to acquire rights. Suggestions that contract and recognition must be crucial to such conquest, questions about the interrelationship of rule and property and the business of the ownership of space which was not owned became key to the creation of imperial Britain.


James Higham said...

They linked in the minds of Englishmen a claim over the seas to the British nation, they made it indispensible.

As you rightly point out, Tiberius, much of this was in relation to Continental moves and influence.