Perspectives on Britain's First Ethnically Diverse Empire
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Ethnohistory 48.1-2 (2001) 323-336

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Review Essay

Perspectives on Britain’s First Ethnically Diverse Empire

William Pencak, Pennsylvania State University

"Asylum for Mankind": America, 1607—1800. By Marilyn C. Baseler. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. xi + 353 pp., preface, tables, index. $42.50 cloth.)

People of the Wachusett: Greater New England in History and Memory, 1630—1860. By David Jaffee. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. xiii + 306 pp., preface, introduction, index. $42.50 cloth.)

Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism and Native America, 1585—1685. By Michael Leroy Oberg. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. x + 239 pp., preface, introduction, index, bibliographic essay, maps. $39.95 cloth.)

Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York. By Donna Merwick. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. xvi + 281 pp., preface, maps, illustrations, extensive "notes and reflections," bibliography, index. $35.00 cloth.)

The New England Knight: Sir William Phips, 1651—1695. By Emerson W. Baker and John G. Reid. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. xxiv + 359 pp., preface, introduction, maps, illustrations, bibliography, index. $65.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.)

When Henry VIII founded the Anglican Church in 1533, he also inadvertently founded a new sort of empire. Until the French Revolution, when radical republicanism replaced Roman Catholicism as the major ideological enemy, English (and subsequently British) identity was closely tied to [End Page 323] the nation’s leadership of the worldwide Protestant cause.1 Many English and most of the refugees who came to the British Isles from the Continent espoused a more thorough reformation of liturgy, doctrine, and by implication social order than the Anglican establishment intended. Given this situation, England adopted a notion of empire opposed to that of its rivals, Spain and France. Instead of strictly controlling settlement so that only natives of the imperial power could migrate, England in effect created an ethnically diverse empire, loosely supervised from the metropolis. The idea was to turn domestic troublemakers into imperial assets.

Broadly speaking, recent historical scholarship has examined this interaction of different peoples within the first British empire from three perspectives. One path, following Bernard Bailyn’s Voyagers to the West, has in large measure been the product of research seminars and conferences he has directed over the past decade at Harvard University.2 It emphasizes the movement of diverse European ethnic groups to British dependencies–including Ireland, the West Indies, and North America–and the interconnections of these peripheries with each other as well as with the metropolis. A second trend, exemplified by Richard White’s The Middle Ground, has stressed the interaction of Native Americans with Europeans over protracted periods in those territories, which neither group was able to dominate.3 The third approach, favored by Stephen Saunders Webb, has emphasized imperial efforts to integrate various peoples into a unified and stable military order.4

All three ways of looking at early America are correctives to theories of history that emphasize endemic conflict among whites and victimization of other races, the approach of leftist historians such as Gary B. Nash and Francis Jennings, which has remained influential since the 1960s, although decreasingly so.5 Instead of dwelling on the miseries of the lower orders in Britain and colonial cities and towns, Bailyn and the "peoplers" move them out to the frontier, where indeed many relocated and found greater opportunity. Instead of viewing the destruction of Native American societies as an inevitable tragedy, White and others have reclaimed Indian agency for a period of nearly two centuries, when it frequently mattered more whether someone was pro-French or pro-British rather than (anachronistically) "red" or white. Webb similarly restores dignity to hard-pressed imperial officials who spent a great deal of energy trying to keep colonists and Indians from killing each other and provoking conflicts with foreign powers. It was probably inevitable that these three ways of looking at early America would coincide in studies of how Europeans, white colonials, and Native Americans encountered each other. While their rapprochement adds richness to our understanding of Britain’s first, multiethnic [End Page 324] empire, as with...