Monday 18 June 2018

The rise of England's imperial power

History: Revolution: The History of England from the Battle of the Boyne to the Battle of Waterloo, Peter Ackroyd, Thomas Dunne, hardback, 416 pages, €19.99

Muskets at dawn: The Battle of the Boyne, recreated here in Co Meath, saw the rise of the Protestant ascendency in Ireland. Photo: Niall Carson
Muskets at dawn: The Battle of the Boyne, recreated here in Co Meath, saw the rise of the Protestant ascendency in Ireland. Photo: Niall Carson
Revolution by Peter Ackroyd

JP O'Malley

A captivating book details how trade powered England's growth in the 18th century and charts the repercussions this side of the Irish Sea.

In 2014, Peter Ackroyd published Rebellion, his third volume on the history of England. It documented one of the most radical periods in the nation's history, which included: the English Civil War; the execution of Charles I; Cromwell's Commonwealth, and his subsequent genocide in Ireland; the Restoration of Charles II; and then, finally, the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The latter event saw the Catholic King, James II, being overthrown in favour of the Protestant, Dutch king, William of Orange.

However, Ackroyd is keen to stress in the opening pages here how the so-called 'Glorious Revolution' was an arrangement strictly brought about to protect the privileges of a small oligarchy of aristocrats and landed gentry; even if it did mark the beginnings of parliamentary democracy and ended the Divine Right of Kings, too.

The book concludes in 1815, when Napoleon was defeated by the British at Waterloo. By that stage, Britain possessed a huge empire covering a large proportion of the Earth's surface: including Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Australia and the Caribbean.

So how did a small island nation become a leading world imperial power for almost two centuries?

The short answer is trade.

If 17th-century England was violently torn apart by the tumultuous politics of religious identity, 18th-century England, conversely, was one where trade became - as Ackroyd aptly coins it - "a national metaphor and the great engine of growth".

Or, as Adam Smith put it: the English turned into "a nation of shopkeepers".

The Scottish political economist crops up numerous times in Ackroyd's tome. His 1776 book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations laid the foundations to speak at length about concepts like the modern market and free trade.

Smith argued that the laws of supply and demand, and the so-called "invisible hand" of the self-regulating market, would be advantageous to all of society. But Ackroyd documents a less glamorous side of mercantile colonialism/global-capitalism.

Sugar and tobacco were the two commodities that drove Britain's wealth during this period of history. But so too was its other most important commodity: human slaves. By 1750, Britain was handling over 270,000 slaves per decade, through its global imperialist market system.

William Wilberforce, one of the founders of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, noted in the House of Commons at the time how more than half of those slaves transported never lived to see their destination. Britain would not outlaw slavery until 1833.

Moreover, were there not enough slaves at home, Ackroyd asks rhetorically? The historian claims the landscape of English society changed more drastically during the 18th century than it had in the previous 10,000 years: as an agricultural society rapidly transformed into an industrial one. This change wasn't just physical though. But social, psychological and economical, too. The natural cycle of days that had existed in the old agricultural world thus ended forever.

Men, women and children became more machine than human in factories across the country, as the unquenchable thirst for profit changed social relations like never before. Time literally became money, as the age of global capitalism truly began. People worked around the clock in horrid conditions. It wasn't all negative though. The urbanisation of society meant English culture changed for the better in some ways: as people flocked to towns and cities in their thousands. This was the period when London really began to grow into a global city like nothing the world had ever seen previously.

Ackroyd eschews distinct left or right leanings here. Readers looking for a more detailed analysis of how global capitalism changed the world in this period should consult the work of more left-field historians, such as Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm. Still, Ackroyd has a decent social conscience nevertheless. He stresses how it was children who became "the least protected group of 18th century society".

The title of Ackroyd's book, Revolution, may be slightly misleading though. Revolutions were certainly breaking out across new emerging Republics- in both France and North America - during this time. But England itself was a country tied to tradition, trade and rigid class structures. The reason a similar revolution did not break out in England itself - Ackroyd convincingly argues - is because historically, the English have shown themselves to be a deeply conservative people: who believe in the notion of a hierarchical order.

In any case, as his last volume showed, much of England's political, economic and religious revolutions had already taken place in the 17th century. But now that it had preserved a steady conservative state, Great Britain - as it became known after the Union between Scotland and England in 1707 - was spending a great deal of its national income on going to war.

Between the reigns of James II and George I, Ackroyd notes, taxes had multiplied 16 times. And the country declared war on foreign enemies on eight separate occasions.

English interference across the Irish Sea, meanwhile, would drastically change the course of modern Irish history, too. The Battle of the Boyne in 1690 saw the rise of the Protestant ascendency in Ireland.

The subsequent penal laws ensured Catholic discrimination would continue for generations. This only exacerbated political unrest, and, in turn, a revolutionary spirit. Over a century later it would culminate in the failed Republican rebellion from the United Irishmen. This was led by a Protestant, Theobald Wolfe Tone, who became the undisputed founder of Irish Republican nationalism.

Ackroyd merely skims the surface here of these monumental historical Irish events. As is to be expected, however, in a book as detailed and varied as this. Especially given how much of English history in this era covers much of global history, too. Nevertheless, it would be two Irishmen, the author stresses, who dominated British intellectual and political life more than anyone else during this era: Jonathan Swift and Edmund Burke.

Ackroyd continually returns to their ideas when trying to capture the zeitgeist of 18th century Britain: where satire, irony, thoughtful prose essays, playful arguments, light-hearted humour, and polite gentlemanly conversations were the defining themes of the age.

Indeed, Ackroyd puts an enormous emphasis here on the importance of culture; especially its capacity to reflect on historical and political events: metaphorically and literally.

It's this subtle touch, and sense of connectivity in the historian's writing that makes this brilliant volume of English history such a captivating, insightful, lucid, and thoroughly thought-provoking read.

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