Can an empire exist without the direct involvement of a state? Can an empire exist without an underlying imperial ideology? According to L. H. Roper, the answer to both questions is an emphatic “yes.” In Advancing Empire: English Interests and Overseas Expansion, 1613–1688, Roper argues that the roots of England’s overseas imperial exploits are to be found in the activities of “a cohort of aristocrats and merchants” (2) who were at the fore-front of commercial endeavors around the globe in the 1600s. By and large these men “held heterodox Protestant religious beliefs” (2), but their motivations in overseas trade and colonial expansion were not driven by ideology. Furthermore, the commercial networks created by these “private interests” (2) in the early 1600s provided the backbone of imperial administration well into the late seventeenth century. Roper emphasizes the purely “reactive role” of the English state in imperial affairs throughout this period, arguing that “the Crown delegated extraordinary powers” (3) in terms of both trade and colonial governance. When the state took an interest in colonization and overseas trade, it was usually in response to the perennial need for revenue. There was no overarching imperial agenda emanating from the government, or even from the private merchants and aristocrats that Roper focuses on, “since self-interest propelled [their] activities” (9). Rather than viewing the seventeenth century as a time of dramatic change and upheaval, Roper emphasizes continuity in terms of English commercial overseas interests and the absence of imperial governance. Profit seeking was the only real motive. In decentering the state from the narrative of England’s imperial history, Roper hopes to recenter other entities such as charter-based corporations, proprietary colonies, and merchant networks.
Many of the men upon whom Roper focuses in the first part of the book will be familiar to those who have studied England’s most prosperous overseas merchants of the early seventeenth century. Roper challenges Robert Brenner’s characterizations of these men as “new merchants” and “interlopers” (112) in established trades.1 As Roper argues, the definition of an interloper in a given trade was extremely fluid. A merchant might participate in illegal trade in one area but be a full legal participant via a monopoly corporation in another. This is an important point for him because the scholarship has traditionally drawn too sharp a distinction between [End Page 579] “monopolists” and “interlopers” (72) in this merchant community in order to emphasize conflict, upheaval, and change among those responsible for spearheading colonization.
Roper emphasizes two other arguments about the empire that the aristocrats and merchants created. First, he stresses that from relatively early on, their trading and colonizing interests assumed a global scope. From the beginning of the 1600s, English overseas merchants and their aristocratic allies wanted to build colonies and expand trade not only in North America, the Caribbean, and West Africa, but also in South and Southeast Asia. Like other historians, Roper frames this global economic interest in terms of international conflict, especially with the Dutch in Asia. As Roper argues, English merchants understood their own overseas interests as inherently interconnected. Second, African slavery was central to this integrated world of trade from very early in the seventeenth century. Accordingly, in addition to analyzing such corporations as the Virginia Company and the East India Company, as might be expected, Roper also focuses on the lesser-known Guinea Company and the English involved in the transatlantic slave trade from the early seventeenth century. Thus the turn to the use of enslaved Africans in English colonies in the mid-1600s was by no means an “unthinking decision” (68) but one carefully considered and aided by merchants with significant interests in overseas trading and colonization enterprises, including such men as Maurice Thompson, Sir Nicholas Crispe, and William Pennoyer.
These are compelling arguments and important historiographical interventions, particularly about the centrality of slavery to the early English Empire. Unfortunately, they get obscured by Roper’s desire to deemphasize not only the role of the state in the...