- Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe in the Eighteenth Century: Similarities, Connections, Identities
In his introduction to this volume, Stephen Conway—Professor of History at University College London—tells his readers that the book "offers a different way of looking at Britain and Ireland's relationship with continental Europe" (2). This is a modest beginning to an engaging piece of scholarship that challenges time-honored perceptions of British distinctiveness. Other historians, Conway tells us, have dealt with particular aspects of this topic, "stressing convergence rather than divergence, establishing important connections and exploring their ramifications." None, he asserts, "has attempted such a panoramic view" (2). In addition to politics, the economy, and religion, Conway's panoramic (even kaleidoscopic) approach takes in a striking diversity of topics: from dynastic connections to intellectual exchanges, from international soldiering to tourism, from the Glorious Revolution to the French Revolution.
Conway's first two chapters—"The Glorious Revolution and its Constitutional Legacy" and "The Continental Commitment in British Foreign Policy"—deal with two-way trafficking in political innovation and response. Although "the English trumpeted national political distinctiveness throughout the eighteenth century" (25), post-1688 politics was profoundly shaped by events on mainland Europe. For example, supporters of William II liked to portray him as a selfless defender of English liberties and the cause of international Protestantism. Not emphasized was his Dutch agenda. It was William II, Conway reminds us, who brought the British into anti-French alliances that involved an odd mix of European powers over the course of the eighteenth century, "and committed the country to a wide-ranging military and diplomatic involvement with the Continent that continued long after his death" (48). The author carefully traces those connections through the Peace of Amiens that brought an end to the war against revolutionary France.
Economic links are the subject of Conway's third, eighth, and ninth chapters: "Finance and Trade," "Earning a Living Abroad," and "Maritime Connections." Scholars have long appreciated the role of the Dutch in financing British [End Page 309] economic growth—a point not emphasized by apostles of British distinctiveness. In the Amsterdam-London nexus, capital and credit, always in search of a high rate of return, flowed freely across borders. The Dutch held roughly 15 percent of the British national debt in 1750, and there was significant borrowing by British and Irish merchants to finance trade. For merchants on both sides of the English Channel—and in the Atlantic economy generally—markets were where one found them. In spite of well-developed patterns of smuggling, most transnational trade operated within bounds defined by the rules that governed overseas commerce. There are many examples. In the wine trade of the Bordeaux region, for instance, there was a conspicuous Irish presence in production and distribution. At the same time, Ireland was a strong market for French wine where imports were paid for by the exportation of Irish beef and butter to the French Caribbean. This exchange persisted even in wartime. During the Seven Years' War, for example, vast quantities of Irish produce were carried to the French West Indies aboard Dutch and Danish merchantmen, paid for by French wines shipped to Ireland under cover of government-sanctioned English and French passports in trading vessels insured by London underwriters.
Religion likewise functioned in a European-wide context. Conway begins his sixth chapter, "Religious Ties," with a comment on the persistence of Christian solidarity in societies mindful of encroachments by Ottoman Turks in the Balkans and Algerian corsairs in the Mediterranean. But Christian solidarity was one thing, and Christian unity quite another. Divisions within Christendom were exacerbated by linkages between the Roman Catholic and Protestant faithful in the British Isles and their coreligionists on the Continent. For Irish and British Catholics, suffering significant disabilities under the Penal Laws, Europe provided hope and spiritual sustenance. Hundreds of Irish and British priests were educated in France, Spain, and the Low Countries, from which they returned with "the languages, manners, and ideas of continental Europe" (171). For Protestants in Great...