- When the Waves Ruled Britannia: Geography and Political Identities, 1500–1800 by Jonathan Scott
Scott’s book offers a suggestive analysis of the importance of maritime concepts in early modern English political culture, rejecting the simplistic geographic determinism that would deduce English imperial history from Britain’s island nature. It shares little with conventional historical geography and does not engage cultural geography in any systematic way, though a more inclusive study of political identities might usefully draw on some of its ideas. Its primary concern is the impact of geographic concepts on elite political culture and policy in early modern England and Britain, and its strength lies in its cumulative demonstration of an ambivalent relationship between England (leaving aside Scotland and Ireland, components of imperial Britain that Scott does not treat as distinct geographic challenges here), its surrounding seas, and the large continent to the east.
The book’s argument is convoluted, with individual chapters sometimes composing a serial analysis of texts rather than sustained argument, resulting in something of a tortured narrative. In general, Scott argues for a conflict in early modern English political culture between those who viewed England in insular, dynastic terms, and those who stressed both its maritime potential and the salutary influence of the “discipline of the sea” on English society and manners. The latter often drew on ancient Greek as well as contemporary Dutch examples to make their case, and Scott is at his best when interweaving these accounts of ancient and contemporary European history. Over the course of time, this maritime view prevailed, generating a dynamic imperial synthesis in which Great Britain by the early nineteenth century had become the floating island center of a global archipelago. The argument remains more effective as a kind of poetics of empire than as a historical analysis of political identity. Scott uses a wide array of political, administrative, and literary sources to good effect, including print and manuscript in a range of genres, and occasionally incorporates the visual evidence of landscape and seascape. If one tires of the company of Richard Gibson or Sir Henry Sheres during the voyage, both former naval officers given to discourses on the immorality of the service, one is revived by the satiric intervention of Sir Henry Neville and by other tales of floating islands that surfaced periodically to challenge easy assumptions about England’s relationship to the watery element. [End Page 454]
Scott’s main critical target is the simplistic geographic determinism of nationalist textbooks: Britons are deceived in viewing themselves as an “island nation” in any literal sense, because many other societies have definitively influenced the most important aspects of their society, politics, and culture. Most will share this point of view, elaborated most successfully in Scott’s discussion of the Dutch influence on English politics under the later Stuarts. Scott develops this clearest aspect of his argument through an elegant analysis of three Anglo-Dutch moments of interrelationship during the late sixteenth, mid seventeenth, and late seventeenth centuries. In learning the meanings and potential of the ocean, the English learned as much from studying the Dutch cultural example as from their own geographic experience, a learning process that was sometimes as subtle as direct naval attack, military invasion, and conquest. Scott here argues persuasively enough that habits of maritime and commercial empire had to be culturally acquired and must not be read from geography alone. It is less clear why Scott confines his analysis of the learning process to the Dutch example. Many will find the absence of any parallel discussion of English and British interactions with the varied polities of the West African coast to be a troubling omission from a study of this “oceanic” history, for the Atlantic became the medium whereby the “island nation” transformed hundreds of thousands of Africans into property, the slave labor used to produce the sugar that enriched the lives of the “islanders” in myriad ways during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This new...