wars are defined in these two vigorously iconoclastic books as
'episodes of violence associated with the establishment of . dominions
(usually but not always overseas), trading supremacies on oceanic
routes, and plantations or colonies; as well as the subsequent
struggles between European states and their rival subjects for
control of or access to such imperial prizes.' For the English
and British case, wars in Ireland are most definitely included.
Professor Lenman is in no doubt of the importance
of his subject, particularly for those peoples whose territory
became an imperial prize, but he believes that much that has been
written and continues to be written about colonial wars in his
period is misdirected and misleading. He insists that while wars
must 'be seen in their social and economic - as well as their political
- contexts', they cannot be subsumed into a process of expansion
that relentlessly and inevitably carried Britain to world domination,
while at the same time shaping the culture of its peoples. 'War
and its contingencies remain a force in their own right'. The outcome
of England's and Britain's colonial wars was never predictable
and their consequences were rarely what contemporaries intended.
Historians must therefore subject each war to close analysis rather
than basing grand theories on unsustainable assumptions about colonial
wars in general.
Two types of theorising, one economic the other
cultural, incur Lenman's ire in particular. He sees only a limited
role for extra-European trade and wealth extraction in Britain's
pre-industrial economic development. 'For a generation, no more',
that is roughly from 1748 to 1776, trade with the Americas, Ireland
and Asia was the dynamic leading sector in overseas trade. Thereafter,
'the simple fact that there were 150,000,000 people in Europe and
only 3,000,000 in the new United States helped return British manufactured
exports to more traditional European markets.' Those who see colonial
wars as a central part of a state policy of commercial expansion,
largely driven by the needs of merchants, are given short shrift.
The state had no such policy and merchants had little influence
over such policies as it had. Immanuel Wallerstein's suggestion
that the gains made by Britain in the peace of 1763 represented
the 'victory of certain sections of the world bourgeoisie, who
were rooted in England, with the aid of the British state' is briskly
consigned to 'historiography's rubbish bin'. They reflected a fortuitous
military and naval triumph that was soon to be reversed. In another
passage arguments about the importance of 'the primary extraction
of surplus' receive similar treatment. They can only be sustained
'by a selective use of those parts of the evidence which happen
to fit the model'.
At that point Lenman couples 'post-mortem broad
brush Marxism' with his other bete noir, that is with arguments
that an English or British sense of their identity and of their
culture were significantly influenced by colonial encounters that
provided the 'other', be it Celt or Chinese, against which they
could be defined. In Lenman's view, 'colonial peripheries' and
their peoples 'were of very little contemporary interest indeed
to the core English population even if that be redefined as a literate
elite'. Moreover, those who did take an interest in such 'peripheral'
peoples, be they native Americans or Irish, usually recognised
both their diversity and the ways in which they were comparable
to themselves. English and Scots accepted that there were 'many
shifting identities in Ireland. The tendency of 'American historians
in particular' to see Anglo-Irish relations as a ' "four hundred
years war'', at times of ' "genocidal magnitude" ' merely gives
'moral cohesion to the fractured vision created by their own work'.
The 'whole assumption that official British culture in the period
1688-1783 was stamped by a particularly imperialistic outlook is
itself very dubious'.
Not content with eliminating whole species of
scholars, Lenman conducts a cull of certain specific contemporary
sacred cows with the zeal of a vet from the former Ministry of
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food confronting a foot-and-mouth epidemic.
The 'brilliant synthesis' of John Brewer's Sinews of Power
has only limited application to Britain's involvements overseas.
Britain for most of the period was by no means an 'imperial state'
as is implied by 'an admirable collection of essays based on a
Princeton seminar', edited by Lawrence Stone and entitled An
Imperial State at War. The Elizabethan adventurers,
such as Raleigh and Gilbert have been taken 'far more seriously
by posterity than they deserve'. Seventeenth-century English did
not see affinities between Gaelic Irish and North American Indians.
Those who denounce Edmund Spenser's supposed views on the Irish
are obsessed 'with their own politics and the projection of those
politics into the past'. Britain's rulers did not see Ireland in
clearly imperial terms until the later eighteenth century. 'The
whole concept of an evolving British identity based on imperial
trade, imperial swagger and Protestantism, growing and evolving
between 1739 and 1748 is sheer post facto constructionism
by historians.' Protestantism no doubt contributed to a sense of
British identity, but 'Protestants differed and belonged to three
kingdoms and four nations'. 'To argue that the American Revolution
was in some sense a religious war is just not convincing.'
How does Lenman restock the landscape over which
he has strewn so many corpses? In the place of those arguments
that he has demolished he offers two of his own of great interest.
In the first place, he insists on the British state's limited capacity
to wage war overseas until the very end of the eighteenth century
and moreover on its very limited interest in doing so. As a consequence,
the two hundred and fifty years or so with which his books deal
are as much a record of checks and failures as of British successes.
Britain could not dominate the world outside Europe until the era
of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. A triumphalist
interpretation of a relentless rise of Britain to worldwide greatness
is therefore entirely misplaced.
Elizabeth had no 'programme' for the conquest
of Ireland before the 1590s and in any case she was 'probably too
mean to make the necessary resources available for such a policy,
even if she had them in the first place'. Her policies were 'an
appalling failure rooted in ignorance and folly'. The 'English
nation' conspicuously failed to become 'an Atlantic imperial people'
in the wars of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century.
The colonies would not combine for their own defence and left it
to metropolitan Britain reluctantly to shoulder more and more of
the burden. In the War of the Austrian Succession the British were
beaten off by the Spanish in the Caribbean, thrashed on the continent
by the French and humiliated at home by the Jacobites. The Seven
Years War brought great victories, but it left the British monarchy
'grossly over-extended' and harassed by 'often incompatible and
demands, ambitions and points of view'. In particular, the war
had unleashed an expansive imperialism in the thirteen colonies.
'It was becoming clear that settler and metropolitan versions of
imperialism in North America were so incompatible that only force
could move the argument out of impasse.' Force was indeed to be
used and Britain was to lose the thirteen colonies. Such scepticism
is very salutary.
Lenman breaks many lances against current theories
about British identities, but he is deeply interested in the problem
and has challenging arguments to propound. Again, he is warily
sceptical. He does not believe that colonial wars consolidated
either an English or a British identity. They had precisely the
opposite effect. They led to two great 'fracturings of the Englishry'
and did not create much in the way of Britishness to compensate.
The alienation of the Old English of Ireland
in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the revolt of the
English in North America in the later eighteenth century constituted
the fracturings of the English. Lenman explains how the future
Jesuit Edmund Campion identified in 1571 with ' "our English in
Ireland" ', that is with the Catholic Old English of Ireland, and
hoped 'to strengthen English culture in Ireland'. His hopes were
to be frustrated by the Elizabethan government, which unleashed
waves of ruthless adventurers on Ireland. These New English rationalised
their expropriations in the name of Protestantism and sought to
turn the Old English into rebels. An alliance between the Gaels
and the Old English in the name of a common 'Irishness' based on
religion had no deep historic roots. It was the achievement of
English policy from the later sixteenth century. In the 1640s and
1650s the Old English did indeed lead a 'Catholic proto-nationalist
alliance'. Defeated, they finally merged into a 'Catholic nationalist
community'. The New English were the victors, but the British state
showed little inclination to bind them into a national community.
They were to take up 'a principled hostility to the domination
of the composite monarchy by London' as a consequence.
For all the waves of new immigrants during the
eighteenth century, the elites in the thirteen colonies of North
America were essentially English in outlook. These communities
had never been ruled effectively from London and Lenman believes
that 'the substance of independence . was probably inevitable by
1760'. The Americans had already developed 'a frightening appetite
for further territorial aggrandisement', which exacerbated problems
of rule. The 'ideological and tactical inflexibility of the Westminster
system', however, ensured that independence came when it did and
that it would constitute full sovereignty wrung from Britain by
war. Until it was far too late, the British government clung to
a 'frequently reiterated political theology which reserved for
it a mystical seamless sovereignty'. As in their dealings with
the Old English of Ireland, a narrowly based regime in London had
pursued narrowly conceived objectives in its American policy and
thus the English underwent 'the second great schism in their corporate
identity' brought about by colonial war. This did, however, clear
the way for the English to embrace Britishness with the Scots.
That concept, in Lenman's view, only began to have real force in
the late eighteenth century. By then the Scots were willing to
'add Britishness to their multiple identities, something most American
English colonists never really did.
It is hard to imagine any reader of these books
who will not find his or her views challenged by Lenman's robust
and splendidly unpredictable views. For instance, his dislike of
the ignorance and arrogance, particularly about notions of sovereignty,
of the London political elite at any time is well known to aficionados
of Lenman's work. It is a revelation to discover how much he dislikes
the founding fathers of the American Republic, who 'devised a self-righteous
civic religion' as their ideology and 'in the name of liberty went
in for ruthless populist suppression of dissenting voices'.
Readers must perhaps be prepared for other challenges.
The reasons for the scale on which some episodes are treated by
comparison with others are not always obvious. Why, for instance,
is there so little on the War of the American Revolution outside
North America? Reading these books is rather like listening to
Bruce Lenman in person in full flow as a raconteur or in making
contributions to conference discussions. An extraordinarily quick
and fertile mind is drawing on a vast stock of erudition. As Boswell
said of Burke, he can foam like Niagara. The less nimble witted
may feel that they are going over the falls in a barrel and may
have real difficulties in teasing out the structure of the argument
or in recognising the force of some of the allusions. They should