Revolutionary Empire

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Angus Calder has written the first book of a planned three-volume series which promises to become the standard survey of the first three centuries of English, later British (after the Union of England and Scotland) expansion overseas. It covers a period whose beginning was marked by the establishment of the first English settler colonies and which ended with the independence of the North American colonies and the acquisition of the first major non-settler colony in Bengal. The nature of English expansion changed greatly during these three centuries. While the first century witnessed a number of daring ventures, often by men who, like Sir Walter Raleigh, were backed by powerful courtiers, it produced few concrete results. By the second century of expansion a powerful class of settlers began to develop, particularly in the West Indies, who began to influence domestic English politics, and, by the end of the third century, expansion had been adopted as the official policy of monarchy and bureaucracy.

Revolutionary Empire, which took ten years to write, is a self-conscious attempt to refurbish an older tradition of academic history writing which emphasized narration—the telling of a story—rather than analysis. The author has refurbished this tradition by imbuing his narrative with a sensitivity to the theoretical issues and debates which have agitated his contemporaries in the historical profession, particularly those with an economic orientation. He insists that “man lives by stories as well as by bread,” and the telling of a story is the main function of his book. This orientation will prove frustrating to those more analytically inclined readers, who will no doubt find Calder’s recitation of events tedious. Those who appreciate his attempt to revive the narrative tradition, but who have been influenced by the analytical approach of present-day historical writing, may also be critical of the work, and wish that he had made the connection between particular stories and his overall structure clearer. Though a book of this nature might have found an audience among the “educated reading public,” its length, academic prose style, and exhorbitant price may alienate this group as well.

The narrative tradition from which Calder draws portrayed history as the product of the heroic deeds of a relatively small group of exceptional people. Contemporary historical writing tends to emphasize the social and economic determinants of human actions. Calder’s approach lies somewhere between these two extremes. While he discusses at some length the activities of a number of participants in the expansion of Britain overseas and, refreshingly, still believes that the actions of individuals do help determine the outcome of historical events, he insists that the “greatness” of these individuals was the product of historical forces largely beyond their ken. He uses their stories primarily to illuminate the relationship between individual choice and historical forces. To the extent that his story is an epic, he says, it is not that of human heroes. Rather, its main characters are “Spices,” “Tobacco,” “Sugar,” “Tea,” and “Cotton.” It is these “characters” which provide the main links between individuals and events described in the book.

Revolutionary Empire will be a daunting work for many. It is densely written, filled with an enormous amount of detail, with much of which even professional historians will be only vaguely familiar. If Calder sometimes seems misguided in his interpretation of particular events, or occasionally gets his facts wrong, his work must be judged, nevertheless, by how well it accomplishes its stated goal. That goal is synthesis, to tie together seemingly disparate events and, in particular, to show the linkages between what was happening in England and in the rest of the British Isles and the...

(The entire section is 1588 words.)