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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 341-350
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The Accidental Empire
Nicholas Canny, ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume I: The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. xix + 533 pp. Figures, maps, bibliography, chronology, and index. $45.00.
P. J. Marshall, ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume II: The Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. xxi + 639 pp. Figures, maps, bibliography, chronology, and index. $45.00.
Unexpected gifts of knowledge and sensibility came from the periphery in the eighteenth century, bundled with tobacco and calicoes. News of their receipt has, however, perhaps only recently arrived at the Imperial centre. (Michael Drayton, "Knowledge and Empire," vol. II, p. 251)
The dismantling of empires has been much in the news of late as former colonies such as Macau and Hong Kong leave their old imperial folds. The two volumes reviewed here concern the first British empire, and both offer many new starting points for research about the British empire, including its American components, and more generally should prod conversations about imperialism around the globe. The goal of the five-volume Oxford History of the British Empire is to examine the British empire in light of the scholarship of the past few decades. These volumes therefore highlight the British (as opposed to English) nature of the empire and investigate the impact of empire on a range of people around the world, and, in a few cases, the impact of trade goods, conquered people, and acquired territories on Britain itself. With a tone derived from the visible and deleterious consequences of imperial expansion, the contributors labor with particular energy to reject an old triumphant and racist narrative of inevitable and ordained British expansion in favor of an enthusiastic emphasis on the disorganized and accidental nature of this empire's emergence.
Together these two volumes contain 47 essays by a total of 42 different contributors with expertise on a vast range of topics. Some of the essays offer new interpretations based on original research, while others provide useful [End Page 341] syntheses. The essays explore such topics as trade, colonization, governance, the economy, the military, migration, naval power, religion, indigenous people, and politics. The second volume covers the period from 1689-1815, and was originally conceived as the first volume in the series. The first volume, then, developed as an afterthought and has a flexible chronological framework which permits some of the most imaginative work in the two volumes. It has no starting date: as the editor Nicholas Canny writes "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" (vol. I, p. x). Each essay is followed by a brief bibliography, and each volume contains a lengthy chronology. 1 Thus these volumes are designed to serve as helpful introductions to the empire's history and many of the chapters will be invaluable for students of early American history. Volume I is particularly strong, characterized almost throughout by lively prose and fresh arguments, while volume II suffers at times both from a failure to integrate effectively the different places and subject people of the empire and from an aversion to some major trends in both British and early American history in the past two or three decades (especially social, cultural, or gender history), which consequently hinders its impact on either field.
Some common themes emerge in both volumes, which together chart the ebb and flow of different imperial trajectories. One clear theme driving both volumes is the accidental nature of the empire's creation. We learn in volume I that Britain's global ascendancy "was more the product of accident than design" (vol. I, p. xi) and in volume II that Britain's emergence in 1815 as the "hegemonic naval, commercial, Imperial, and industrial power had never been linear" (vol. II, p. 74). 2 At the same time that this was an accidental empire, there were few opportunities within it...