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The American empire, a fine old British tradition
The Times (U.K.) ^ | 01/13/03 | William Rees-Mogg

Posted on 01/12/2003 3:21:40 PM PST by Pokey78

It is one of the happy sidelines of British culture that we produce the best tele-historians, rather as we used to produce — perhaps still do — the best Shakespearean actors. Since the classical period of A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, still with us as Lord Dacre of Glanton, we have moved to the modern times of Niall Ferguson, Simon Schama and David Starkey.

Last Thursday Professor Ferguson was presenting the first episode of his ambitious Channel 4 series Empire. It is likely to win him this year’s Golden Lorgnette, or whatever the award for television historians is called. Dr Starkey seems to have exhausted the Tudor monarchs, though they have certainly not exhausted him; perhaps he will now turn his attention to the Stuarts — he would make mincemeat of James II.

Ferguson has the capacity to handle a theme on the largest scale. His study of the origins of the British Empire moves freely between stimulating ideas and detailed observations. His account of the origins of the Empire rests rather too heavily on an economic interpretation — perhaps we are all Marxists nowadays — and starts surprisingly late, but he is very good on the significance of the Dutch financial model, and on the haphazard nature of the imperial enterprises. He is excellent on the East India Company and on the role of the Pitt family.

He raises the interesting question of the appropriate figure with whom to open an account of the British Empire. An earlier generation of historians might have chosen pirates, but of the Elizabethan period. We should have heard much of the singeing of the King of Spain’s beard and of Sir Walter Raleigh. Ferguson also chose a pirate, but his choice fell unexpectedly on Henry Morgan (1632-1688), a Welsh pirate of good family who became Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica.

Pirates make good copy, as Errol Flynn found, but Morgan does seem an idiosyncratic choice. I think he weakens Ferguson’s central argument. The British Empire, at every stage, was a creation of accident and opportunity. But it was also developed through institutions, most of which were founded in the cities of London and Westminster. Ferguson spoke with so much insight into the East India Company that one might wish he had given more than a side reference to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Unless it comes later, he has left out the Massachusetts Bay Company altogether — though that institution had the greatest influence on the creation of modern America, and therefore of the modern world. The decision taken in London on July 18, 1629, to transfer the small government of the Massachusetts Company from London to New England was far more important than anything Henry Morgan every did.

The man who drafted that decision was the then governor of the company, Matthew Cradock, not a well-known figure. He was a Member of Parliament for the Borough of Stafford, gave £50 to help to found Harvard University, had £2,000 of the East India Company’s stock, and never visited America, though he waved the Arbella goodbye from the Isle of Wight. He transferred the domicile of the Massachusetts Bay Company to New England in order to avoid tax. Practical businessmen made more history than pirates. They still do.

On the same evening as the viewers were able to enjoy Empire, the news gave us live pictures of Hans Blix’s press conference in New York on weapons inspection. Ferguson was at his best when describing the worldwide struggle between England and France in the mid-18th century, and gave particular emphasis to their war in India. The news was describing the struggle of the American empire to contain Islamic terrorism and, in particular, to deal with the threat of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

These two struggles of empire have some characteristics in common. Both are global, both have economic, political and religious aspects, both have involved tensions between France and the Anglo-Saxons, both could be decisive in terms of imperial power. If Saddam were to see off the United States, that would be a crippling defeat for American authority. There is an intriguing personal link between these two imperial crises. Towards the end of the Seven Years War, Eyre Coote, then only a lieutenant-colonel under Clive, was fighting the French in India. With his small force, Coote was besieged by the French under the Comte de Lally in the strategic town of Wandewash. On January 22, 1760, Coote burst out of the town, and defeated Lally’s much larger force of 2,200 Europeans and 10,300 sepoys. According to the Dictionary of Autobiography, “this great victory sealed the downfall of the French in India”. Coote later received a baronetcy, in which he was succeeded by his nephew, Sir Eyre Coote, another celebrated soldier, who later, like Henry Morgan, became Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica.

In Jamaica, Sir Eyre Coote, like Thomas Jefferson, had a love affair with a black lady which produced a child. From that child is descended Colin Powell, the Secretary of State of the United States. Powell is not a direct descendant of the first, and greater, Eyre Coote, but he is as close to him in generations as Winston Churchill was to the Duke of Marlborough. Ferguson thinks the Seven Years War decided whether Britain or France would take the global position of imperial dominance, which lasted between 1760 and the mid-20th century. If the battles in India and Canada had gone the other way, the United States itself might not exist, or the Americans might be speaking French.

Colin Powell’s ancestry may be a romantic link between the Seven Years War and the Gulf War. Yet it symbolises the personal and cultural links between two great empires.

When, in the early 1960s, Harold Macmillan made the first application for Britain to join the Common Market, President de Gaulle turned him down, on the grounds that Britain and the United States were “late Anglo-Saxons” and belonged to a separate, non-European culture, prejudicial to France. Perhaps he was right. The historian of the future may see the British and American empires as a single development, growing like a walnut tree as two trunks from the single root.

In the present struggle in the Middle East, the continuity of the Anglo-Saxon and imperial tradition is particularly obvious, with the US travelling the same territory that Britain covered in the first half of the last century and meeting the same problems of oil, Islam and Arab nationalism. Beyond that, the motivations of the two empires are surprisingly similar. Both have always been trading rather than military empires: like Athens, not Sparta; like Venice or Carthage, not Prussia. If they had a single textbook it would be Adam Smith, not Machiavelli, nor Marx.

Indeed, it is no mere coincidence that 1776 marks the publication of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the US Declaration of Independence. The United States may have retained more of the intellectual imprint of the British 18th century than Britain itself. Both the British and American empires have responded to circumstances, but have seldom been planned. They are happenings rather than intentions. Very few US Presidents have been empire builders; Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps George Bush is becoming one, but most were not. The same is true of Prime Ministers. Ferguson is right; Britain stumbled into empire, and so has the United States.

Empires come into existence, or grow, largely in response to threats or problems. All empires, in the benefits they provide and the damage they do, reflect the culture of the whole nation. The French were unlucky in that their early empire was pre-revolutionary, before France had developed democracy or freedom of trade or speech. The English were luckier that their empire was substantially post-revolutionary; almost all of it was acquired after the Civil War, and most of it after the revolution of 1688.

The Americans have been luckiest of all, in that their empire came after the War of Independence and the Civil War. The US empire really started in 1898, with the war in Cuba against Spain. The new American empire is global and powerful, but technologically advanced, liberal and democratic. As the British Empire dwindled and disappeared, an essentially benign American empire has helped to secure the stability of a very vulnerable world.

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TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; Foreign Affairs; News/Current Events; United Kingdom
KEYWORDS: simonschama

1 posted on 01/12/2003 3:21:40 PM PST by Pokey78
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2 posted on 01/12/2003 3:25:23 PM PST by Anti-Bubba182
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To: Thud
3 posted on 01/12/2003 4:20:55 PM PST by Dark Wing
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To: Anti-Bubba182
Excellent post.
4 posted on 01/12/2003 5:28:11 PM PST by denlittle
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To: Pokey78
A balanced, historical view of our times. The kind of thing one might expect to see in the London Times.

But never in the New York Times...

5 posted on 01/12/2003 6:11:18 PM PST by okie01 (The Mainstream Media: IGNORANCE ON PARADE.)
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