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  • The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume 1: The Origins of Empire.
  • Alastair Bellany
The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume 1: The Origins of Empire. By Nicholas Canny. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

The opening volume of Oxford’s major new History of the British Empire has the unenviable task of covering a lengthy and dynamic period (c.1500–1700) during most of which neither Britain nor the Empire existed in any meaningful sense. It is thus perforce a book about “origins”, tracing the developments in colonization, interoceanic trade, naval power, state-building and ideology that, by 1700, had brought England to the threshold of world imperial power. The collection’s general thesis, compellingly presented in Nicholas Canny’s introduction, is that by the early eighteenth century there existed both an actual empire and a concept of empire; that this empire was more English than British, but that the peoples of Ireland and Scotland played a role, if only a secondary one, in its formation; that this empire centered on the Americas, in particular on long-standing colonial settlements in the Caribbean, New England and the Chesapeake; and that the essence and driving force of the imperial project was, above all, commercial. Canny argues further that this empire was the product more of “the trial-and-error efforts of the subjects of the British Crown” (32) than of consistent or coherent state intervention, although from the middle of the seventeenth century onwards the English state played a more purposeful role in encouraging and controlling colonization, fostering trade, and deploying ever more impressive military and naval power to achieve commercial and colonial ends.

Canny has enlisted a distinguished group of experts to tell this complicated story, and the essays function well both as part of a cumulative portrait and as stand alone pieces. Most of the contributions are narrative or synthetic, and thus particularly useful for students beginning to find their way in the historiography. Of the more controversial pieces, some are more effective than others, but all deserve the attention of both students and experts.

The collection ranges widely across the early modern period and across the globe. Although not the first essay in the book, John Appleby’s contribution supplies the chronological foundation with an exceptionally lucid narrative of a wide range of English proto-colonial activity in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Canny’s introduction and essays from Jane Ohlmeyer and Toby Barnard cover aspects of the Anglo-Scottish plantations in Ireland—England’s first colony, and the primary focus of the state’s imperial energies until the 1640s. An excellent quintet of essays (James Horn on the Chesapeake, Virginia Anderson on New England, Hilary Beckles on the Caribbean, Ned Landsman on the Mid-Atlantic, and Robert Weir on the Carolinas) focuses on the American colonies, synthesizing the latest research on immigration; English-Indian relations; labour patterns; economic and social development; political, religious and familial cultures; and relations with the metropole. Canny and Peter Mancall also contribute informative essays on changing English attitudes and policies towards the indigenous peoples of the Americas. And Richard Dunn supplements the quintet’s accounts of colonial politics with a forceful intervention in the ongoing debate over the impact of the Glorious Revolution on the American colonies.

Other contributors focus on the evolution of English naval and military power and on the strength and aspirations of the English state. N.A.M. Rodger offers a new interpretation of the “broadside revolution” and other aspects of early modern English naval technology. Michael Braddick sketches a useful account of the growing role and reach of the state in military, naval, commercial and colonial ventures. Jonathan Israel offers a European (mostly Dutch, Spanish and French) perspective on English maritime and colonial power in the second half of the seventeenth century, while the late Gerald Aylmer concludes the volume with some thoughts on the English state and navy during the same period.

Another group of essays focuses on colonial and interoceanic trading and on preliminary English contacts with regions of the world that, in later centuries, would fall under British imperial control. P.E.H. Hair and Robin Law survey English commercial...

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