- Advancing Empire: English Interests and Overseas Expansion, 1613–1688 by L. H. Roper
Roper has written an extraordinarily and admirably ambitious book. His stated goal is nothing less than to comprehend how and why what he refers to as the “English Empire” developed as a global process and phenomenon during the course of the seventeenth century. Within this frame, his argument is twofold: first, that “a cohort of aristocrats and merchants . . . “assumed the primary responsibility for advancing seventeenth-century English commercial and territorial activities”; second, that such a sociology of imperial agents determined that the goals and methods of the English Empire would remain largely static and unchanged across the period under analysis (2).
In thematic and methodological contrast to those scholars who located “ideologies” or “visions” of empire in the seventeenth century, Roper assumes his subjects to have been motivated only by “self-interest,” competing with rival Catholics and Protestants in international markets with equal fervor (9). This emphasis on what the “non-state” imperial actors did rather than what they thought shapes Roper’s approach to his sources; he chides scholars who “focus on the treatises and other publications . . . that articulated the apparently competing visions of [the] reality” of the Empire; his analysis of “correspondence, court minutes, and other unpublished documentation” related to the Empire reveals the fundamental continuity of its character throughout the seventeenth century (249).
As a result, Advancing Empire is a resolutely conventional monograph from a disciplinary perspective. On the one hand, Roper constructs a truly global account of the Empire—the greatest strength of the book and the core of its historiographical contribution. Few scholars of the early modern English Empire display Roper’s range: From Surat and Madagascar to the Gold Coast and the Americas, he makes a largely [End Page 321] convincing case that associations of elite men pursued their commercial interests throughout much of the known world as semi-sovereign entities, with (and sometimes without) the blessing of a fundamentally “reactive” and relatively weak home government. According to Roper, the seventeenth-century Empire was organized primarily to supply unfree labor to the American plantation complex for the profit of metropolitan interests. Roper’s global frame allows him to make this point dramatically clear; he illustrates that merchants seeking to participate in West African markets needed Indian commodities to do so, and that the slaves were trans-shipped to the Americas while African gold went east to Indian markets. Such an analysis provides a salutary and welcome complement and corrective to Atlantic studies of the English Empire that neglect the African and Indian dimensions. Early Americanists will certainly appreciate this impressive and important achievement.
As strong and necessary as Advancing Empire undoubtedly is, Roper’s disciplinary focus weakens his argument to some extent. Monetary and economic historians will applaud his attention to the crucial role of African gold, but they will be less enthusiastic about the absence of any discussion of currency in American markets. The Royal African Company, for example, failed not only because of interlopers in West Africa but also because of American planters who could not pay Company factors for slaves with a viable circulating medium of exchange. Similarly, although Roper has little patience for intellectual and cultural history, some attention to that material might have helped to strengthen his case. The “colonial-imperialists” who are the crux of Advancing Empire appear to have been monomaniacal in their pursuit of self-interest and profit. Had Roper considered the “treatises and other publications” concerned with the economy throughout the seventeenth century, he would have seen that most economic commentary had aligned with the mentality of Roper’s subjects by the latter half of the seventeenth century. Roper argues that these colonial imperialists were responsible for metropolitan policy; from an interdisciplinary perspective, those same men were also responsible for metropolitan thought, belief, and culture, as their actions abroad influenced English society at home.