January 23, 2010

Why did Britain conquer the Americas so much more slowly than Spain?

By 1600, Spain was in possession of most of South America. By 1700, the English colonies merely hugged the Atlantic coast- spreading from New England in the north to Virginia in the south but scarcely penetrating further inland. One of the great questions about American colonization by European powers is thus, why the English in North America were so much slower than the Spanish in South America at conquering the continent? What the Spanish had acheived by 1600 was barely achieved in the United States by 1900! Its a question worth answering because what it brings to light marks a crucial distinction in the Americas that the Europeans faced in the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

I am resting this entirely on Sir John Elliot's perceptive discussion on his recent comparative history of England and Spain in the early modern period- but in this I think he is right. There was a key dynamic that pushed the Spanish in a way that they did not push the English to conquer the entire continent. The first dynamic was the type of state that they conquered. The Spaniards conquered the empires of the Aztecs and Incas and were able to sit themselves upon the thrones of the conquered peoples. The English arrived to find tribal confederacies but no empires- the lands they took over were sparcely peopled (thanks in part to European diseases making their way up from the south in the course of the 16th Century). When the Spaniards took destroyed Montezuma, they became his successors. When the English took over from the Powhatten confederacy, they did not fully control the Atlantic coast. In a sense just as in 1066, the reason that the Spaniards like the Normans succeeded to conquer the entirity of other states lay in their predecessor's successes at creating empires.

There are other things we could mention: the differing attitude to evangelic missions for one- but I think it is worth stressing how the different natures of the societies that were conquered effected the type of conquest that was possible for the European colonists.

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.

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.

January 18, 2010

The Good Shepherd


The Good Shepherd is a big and important film, it proclaims it with its title and its theme. It is a film about the CIA and its creation. It is a film about the tragedies of work, of marriage and of fatherhood. After the portentousness of the theme and the title, the film itself probably underwhelms. We start with Damon remembering his life during the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961. We start with a suicide. We come to Yale where a young Matt Damon is recruited into the secret service of the US to spy on his Professor, supposedly a German spy. After a successful operation, Damon's character ends up married to the sister of a friend of his who seduces him and becomes pregnant with his child. At their wedding, a retired general invites him to join the nascent CIA and within a week, Damon's character is on his way to London to join up with the British secret service. From there he follows the conquering armies to Berlin and administers a spying project in the destroyed city and then back to the United States, through Latin America and of course onto Cuba and to the helm of the CIA.

From that account, you'll glimpse one of my main problems with the film. It is incredibly episodic and though there are a few themes that bind together those episodes, it is hard to relate to any of the more minor characters. His wife played by Angelina Jolie sashays across the screen, sexy at one moment, a matron at another, an adultress, a mother but never a real character- always a cartoon. Damon's character has an affair with a German woman- we see her toss her body at him, then he kills her, that is about all there is to her character. In and out the characters go without us ever getting anything from them. This matters because it also happens to infuse the accounts we have here of historical moments. Take one near the end, as they organise the Cuban events, Damon goes to the house of a mafiosi played by Joe Pesci (a nice piece of casting). Pesci's character has one scene- that's it and we learn nothing more about him nor about the dilemmas of the criminals working with the law or the law working with the criminals in Cuba. Of course Pesci's character gets some nice lines to say about Damon's and about the CIA- but that doesn't matter, nice lines only count when the characters behind them mean something in the context of the film, here they don't.

Because of that it is hard to get a handle on Damon's character. He is meant to be a human failure and a professional success. Working for the CIA drives him monomanically mad. He is too secretive, too callous in his behaviour to others and stays Stalin like in the shadows, working at obscure and sinister bureacratic tasks. Unfortunately the film doesn't give us enough insight into his relations to others to understand this. We hear about but do not see the damage that this inflicts on his family and friends. Damon character's distress is related to his father's suicide in some way, or to the bullying of the Yale Fraternity house- the skull and bones- but we do not really understand even this. The film's episodic nature makes it difficult to understand Damon as a character because it is difficult to understand any of the characters around him as characters. Never has it been more truly shown that a human being is the sum of his interractions with other people: if only there were a few fewer people in this film, we might get to see some of Damon's interractions in a bit more context and understand him in a deeper way.

Robert De Niro, the director and stars don't do a bad job on this film at all- but the frustration is more manifold because they don't. The aspirations are so high: telling the story of the CIA and the story of a man's failure to achieve that they make the slight acheivement even more galling. There are some very fine performances here: Michael Gambon as Damon's character's professor at Harvard gives a particularly good performance as a British traitor. One wishes that several of them (including Pesci) had been better used. Ultimately though this is not a great film at all- it is a film that aspires to greatness, and that alas is not the same thing.

January 17, 2010

Review: Restoration Politics, Religion and Culture

This blog and therefore this blogger has an obsession and can acknowledge it, with the seventeenth century. The reason is that that century saw a vast revolution which swept away for a time all the forms of English government and set England on a different route than its continental cousins. Whereas Charles I failed to defeat Parliament, Louis XIV did defeat the Fronde and some of the differences between the English and French monarchy through the next sixty years, indeed through the next three hundred and fifty years come down to that distinction. The story is more complicated than that in England of course: history is seldom uncomplicated and anyone who tells you it is is telling lies. In 1660, the Stuarts returned, after several regimes during the preceding ten years had failed. They returned because the other agents that might have provided a political settlement were incapable of so doing. The story of what happened next which takes us to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is important because under Charles II, to a degree, and under James II definitely, the Stuarts made an attempt to imitate the revolution of Louis XIV. They failed and the line of James was swept away, replaced by his sisters and eventually by the Hanoverian dynasty of Northern Germany.

The story of what happened between the arrival of Charles II in England in 1660 and the fall of his brother in 1688 is told by a new volume by George Southcombe and Grant Tapsell. What they argue is that English politics in this era was dominated by fear. On the one hand many feared a resumption of civil war: the devastation that war created in England cannot be underestimated- it is probably one of the most tragic events to have ever happened in these islands. On the other, people feared a resumption of Catholic tyranny. Catholicism was naturally, in the view of many English Protestants, tyrannical. Tapsell and Southcombe, in line with John Adamson's recent work, dismiss the idea that there is any kind of division between tyranny and religion: these fears were related in the minds of Englishmen. The word Catholic brought up images of the Jesuits and of the reign of Mary I, the word tyrant brought up the same images- especially after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) sent an army of Huguenot refugees into England with their experiences of French persecution.

Charles and James both fell victim to these linked ideas- they did so in different ways though. Charles, according to Tapsell and Southcombe, wished to create an absolutist monarchy but wished more to survive. This meant that as in 1672 he rowed backwards at the first signs of dispute. The only moment when he insisted on his rights as a King against his Parliaments was over the exclusion crisis in 1678-81 and as Tapsell and Southcombe make clear, it was this series of events more than any other that polarised the country into those who feared civil war and wished to protect Anglicanism (Tories) and those who feared tyranny (Whigs). James tried to do the same thing with more determination- Tapsell and Southcombe establish from 1685 a series of moves was made by James in which he attempted to establish an absolute monarchy. Both monarchs used the resources of Ireland and Scotland within England and attempted to govern their three kingdoms together- but both faced huge problems, especially in Scotland where anti-Catholicism in Scotland.

This is an old story, recognisable to many I suspect from older historians and yet Tapsell and Southcombe infuse it with some new elements. In particular their analysis of Restoration culture is interesting to a non-specialist. For example they chart the way that Charles II's mistresses became emblematic of the King's disposition to tyranny. It confirmed that the King was ruled by his appetites. That virtuous male republicans were being ruled by a King dominated by his women. Scurillous rhymes in London contrasted the ways in which Louise de Kerrillac, the Duchess of Portsmouth, the Catholic whore managed to outdo Nell Gwyn, the Protestant whore, in sexual gymnastics to satisfy Charles's lust. The King's prick ruled his sceptre as Rotchester said and his sceptre ruled England. Languages about sex and politics and religion all tended to the same outcome- the creation of a public who was determined against Catholicism and tyranny and identified the same in their Stuart Kings. The strength of this volume lies in its clear statement of the case and its exploration of the parts played in the decline of Stuart monarchy by dissenters, the different Kingdoms, the characters of each King, the cultural politics of the day and the religious politics of the day. Their structure is very clear- proceeding along the same lines as Clive Holmes's recent book on Charles I, they divide the subject into various questions (eg. "How important was dissent") and in answering those develop an interpretation.

This kind of expansion of the historical narrative combined with the book's clarity and conciseness make it a perfect introductory text. It is useful to have an account which fuses together the cultural and the political with such ease and facility. Perhaps I should confess a personal interest here in that Grant Tapsell is a good friend of this blogger, but another personal interest should also be confessed: I have read three books on the Restoration period recently- this, Steve Pincus's and Tim Harris's and this is by far the shortest, the best organised, the least repetitive and the easiest to read. Occasionally I would have added a comment on two- Charles II's mistresses were not merely symbols of the King's lack of self control, there must have been a basic horror within the elite of a man who was dominated by women- such images appear often enough in pamphlets at the time. I would have been kinder to Charles- occasionally the judgements of James and Charles and whether they were a good or a bad king are neither charitable nor needed for the greater point that is being made. Lastly the question format in which the authors have organised the work is good in that it enables a clear focus to every section, but also can at times interrupt the coherence of what is ultimately a very coherent book.

I don't think those are major questions. This is definitely the best introduction I have read to the period, and in some senses, given that this was a period that my undergraduate education missed out (I studied papers at Oxford which effectively ran 1520-1660 and 1688-1832), it was on a period I don't know much about.