- The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560–1660
The Web of Empire provides an impressive and important contribution to our understanding of the development of the English empire during the century before 1660. Games focuses on the people, “cosmopolitans,” who traveled between the various outposts of English commerce and later colonization to make visible the messy process by which English men (and they were men) found their way in the world and eventually built an empire.
Games first establishes the context with discussions of recreational travel, the English in the Mediterranean, and the English merchants of the period. These chapters demonstrate the crucial role of adaptation in the life of merchants and travelers: The secret to success was fitting in [End Page 448] with local society. A chapter on Virginia shows how the Virginia project started as another trading station, like those in the Levant or Japan, only gradually to be seen as a settlement that could provide income through the production of a staple crop. Games convincingly argues that Virginia became the model for colonial development in unexpected and circuitous ways. The remaining chapters alternate between the personnel of the empire (including the clergy) and other attempts at colonial settlement, in Madagascar and Ireland. In the process, individuals moved from one place to another, clearly learning from prior experiences in each new place.
This important book challenges existing arguments in several ways. First, the scope of the book demonstrates the limits of “the Atlantic” as a framework for understanding the development of English overseas activity. Second, by placing Ireland at the end rather than the beginning of the story, Games argues that Oliver Cromwell’s plans in Ireland owed more to Virginia and Massachusetts than vice versa. Finally, as she scans the short history of English control over Tangier, she is able to show how the model for expansion had changed over the course of the period: By 1660, Virginia was indeed the model, not the trading station. As the English moved from the periphery to the center of Europe, they stopped trying to adapt to local culture; they tried instead to remake it.
By focusing on people, Games is able to interrupt our familiar narratives, and show how what was learned in one place was applied—not necessarily successfully—in another. As such, the book is full of vivid personalities—not just the ubiquitous John Smith but also people like Nathaniel Butler, who served in turn as Governor of Bermuda, and of Providence Island; or the Scottish chaplain Patrick Copland, who made at least two East India voyages (one to Japan), then served in Bermuda during the 1620s, and ended his career in Eleuthera. These men, and others like them, Games insists, were changed by their time overseas.
Games, who is a sophisticated thinker about the nature of the early modern world, uses narrative to build a theoretical argument; at times the accretion of detail makes the overall shape of the argument more difficult to track. The concept of “cosmopolitan” is defined in practice, with no attention to recent work on the subject. Although her book shares much with prosopographical studies, it never embraces prosopography as a method: It would have been useful to include a table to offer a visual overview of where different individuals were engaged in the world. Likewise, a bibliography would have been a welcome addition. But these are minor complaints about an excellent book, which will help shift discussions of British overseas activity from the Atlantic to the world, and will demonstrate that the English were changed by the world that they tried to shape. [End Page 449]