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  • The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560–1660
  • Michele M. Strong
The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560–1660. By Alison Games. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 400 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

In 1649, when Oliver Cromwell and his successors conquered and then colonized Ireland, massacring, displacing, and deporting its inhabitants, they based their strategy on models of English trade and expansion elsewhere in the world. Impressed with colonial successes in North America, for example, Cromwell attempted to recruit skilled settlers from New England to resettle in Ireland. Moreover, Cromwell sought the counsel of colonial careerists, such as soldiers, governors, and clerics, who understood from their own experiences around the globe what it took to build productive settlements and to subjugate indigenous [End Page 459] populations. These models and men, as Alison Games shows in The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560–1660, had been in the making for over a century, belying Ireland’s “pride of place” as the blueprint for subsequent territorial expansion in Britain’s imperial history.

In revising the “conventional story,” Games argues that Cromwell’s notably brutal colonization of Ireland was not the original “inspiration” for subsequent British colonies, but rather the result, in large measure, of traders’ and settlers’ earlier experiences across the globe during a century of increasing English mobility. Games builds her case by tracing the movements, practices, and ideas of primarily English globetrotters, and their impact on the emerging English Empire between the reigns of Elizabeth I and Charles II. It is both an exciting and a disturbing journey. The first chapter begins with well-to-do travelers, mostly young men, who toured the European continent for the purpose of recreation or education. Their journals and letters home “domesticated travel” by making their encounters with “the foreign” understandable to their readers, and motivated other travelers to step off the beaten path. In the remaining chapters, Games discusses specific groups of men involved in overseas expansion, such as traders, colonists, ministers, consuls, and governors, and examines their points of exchange in trading posts and colonies in the Mediterranean, Japan, Madagascar, North America, and, on the final leg of the journey, Ireland. As the invasion of Ireland indicates, the impact of these globetrotters’ “cumulative wisdom” often devastated indigenous populations. But their experiences of networks that connected travelers and regions together and the knowledge they exchanged over time and space also help explain England’s transition from a weak state in 1560 to a “kingdom on the rise” a century later, one that was well positioned to compete internationally for markets and colonies (p. 7).

Games explains this transition by consulting a wide range of sources, including the letters and travel diaries of students and soldiers, the record books of merchants and joint stock companies, and the pamphlets of the “best traveled” of all, the clergy. Her analysis also draws on the conceptual insights of historians increasingly associated with the “new” imperial history. Games adopts, for instance, Tony Ballantyne’s now familiar metaphor of “webs” in Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire (Houndsmills: Palgrave, 2002) and adapts it to the early modern context. Focusing on the intersection of commercial and colonial networks, Games maps their ties to the core and to each other as the web “tightened.” Games thus confers to the periphery, and to her “globetrotters,” enormous cultural power in “defining how the English [End Page 460] experienced the world and the empire that emerged in their wake” (p. 11).

This is a key point in her analysis, because Games asks us to consider these networks and exchanges in terms of global perspectives: ours and theirs. Games rejects the “separate ocean basins” approach to English expansion, in which the Indian Ocean represents the “world of trade” and the Atlantic a “world of colonial endeavors,” and argues that travelers saw and experienced these worlds as an intertwined conceptual and geographical space (p. 14). A global perspective, therefore, provides historians a window into how the English based new trade ventures and colonial experiments on previous models, and illuminates the “transoceanic global perspectives” of the travelers themselves...


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