Tag Archives: imperial

A genealogy of the term British reveals its imperial history – and a Brexit paradox



File 20181218 27764 116ol1a.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Richard Paton, Battle of Barfleur via Wikimedia Commons

Mark A Hutchinson, University of York

The genealogy of the term British reveals a fragile and contested historical identity – something Brexit has thrown into stark relief.

In the 17th century, being British only had meaning as a colonial identity, when it was used to denote the projection of English and Scottish interests overseas. When the term was used within the geographical confines of Great Britain – and later in Great Britain and Ireland – its common use was in reference to the British government or the British constitution.

Understanding the genealogy of the term British can help make sense of the lack of consensus which has emerged over Brexit. After all, the British empire no longer exists and the British government is instead managing a declining British presence worldwide. Alongside the devolution of powers within the UK, it’s unclear what the term British is now meant to describe.

The Irish context

While the term British had a medieval heritage, a modern genealogy of the term British began in the early 17th century. With the accession of James I of England (who was James VI of Scotland) to the English throne in 1603, the crowns of Scotland and England were united in one person. This recalled the ancient idea of a British monarchy, recounted by the 12th-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, who had described a distant past when there had been kings of Britain.

Scotland and England, however, remained separate kingdoms until the Act of Union of 1707 and so the idea of a united “British identity” had little traction within the geographical confines of Great Britain in this period.

Instead, in those records which still exist of material published in Great Britain and its dependencies up to 1800, the term British was mostly used in relation to Ireland in the first half of the 17th century.

It was with the flight of the Gaelic earls from Ulster in 1607, which opened the way for plantation by Scottish and English settlers in the north of Ireland, that the first truly British policy emerged. The Scots were co-opted into the long-running English involvement with Ireland, justified by the idea of “civilising” the Irish. Crucially, it was the collective actions of the English and the Scots outside their home nations which gave meaning to the term “British”.

A 1610 pamphlet listed the “Conditions to be observed by the Brittish Undertakers of the Escheated Lands in Ulster”, while a 1618 pamphlet restated the terms under which “Brittish undertakers” had received land.

Even with the English Civil Wars in the 1640s, British continued to be used in relation to Ireland, rather than in reference to the internal dynamics of Great Britain. A massacre of Protestants in Ireland, for example, was reported on in 1646 as “Cruelties exercised in Ireland upon the Brittish Protestants.”

An imperial project

The 1707 Articles of Union.
Parliament of England, via Wikimedia Commons

A similar pattern can be found from the late 17th century well into the 19th. The 1707 Act of Union of England and Scotland created the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The debates which surrounded the union were complex, but an important strand concerned the need to project British imperial power in order to counterbalance other European trading nations.

From the 1690s onwards, different pamphlets referred to “British plantations” overseas and later “British seamen”, which suggests that a growing imperial identity helped underpin political union at home.

Figures such as Edmund Burke (1729-97), an Irishman embedded in English domestic politics, expressed the growing complexity of the term British. Burke wrote about “British navigation” and “British trade”, which he argued could, under the right circumstances, benefit the sister Kingdom of Ireland. He also wrote famously about the benefits of the “British constitution”. There were also references from Burke by this stage of the 18th century to the “British nation”. Nevertheless, the propensity remained for the term British to denote imperial expansion – as well as the shared institutional structures of the United Kingdom.

The imperial logic of the term British can also be found in the circumstances which underlay the 1801 Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland, and more importantly Catholic emancipation in 1829, which gave Catholics the right to sit in the British parliament and hold most public offices. Even after 1829, within the confines of Great Britain and Ireland, Irish Catholics continued to be viewed with suspicion – as “disloyal” to the crown – and they were very aware of their separate identity. But the crucial role played by Irish Catholics in the British army overseas, where they embraced a British identity outside Ireland, made increasingly untenable those arguments which had continued against Catholic emancipation.

The British Empire at the end of the 19th century.
Cambridge University Library via Wikimedia Commons

Searching for a British identity

With the decline of empire, and the rise of nationalism in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century, the imperial traction of the term British began, slowly, to diminish. The awkward emptiness of the term British is neatly expressed in the “Order of the British Empire”, which was created to honour those who had acted in service and defence of the British empire during World War I, but now somehow honours those who have contributed to the life of the United Kingdom. The disappearance of the British empire after World War II underlines the strangeness in talking about an OBE.




Read more:
Empire 2.0 and Brexiteers’ ‘swashbuckling’ vision of Britain will raise hackles around the world


The genealogy of the term British therefore points to an inherent problem with the Brexit project. British, by its very definition, is an imperial term, not a national one – but there is no longer an empire. Speaking of a British outlook invokes a demand for a global presence. British was also meant to refer to a functional constitutional settlement which, in its idealised form, protected the interests of the different nations of the UK. Devolution, and a divergence in those interests, has placed the constitutional settlement under severe strain.

With Brexit, despite an empty imperial nostalgia so neatly encapsulated by the promise of an “Empire 2.0” after the UK leaves the EU, the term British has lost even more of its meaning. Now, more than ever, the country needs to decide what it wants the term British to mean.The Conversation

Mark A Hutchinson, Research Fellow in Politics, University of York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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School curriculum continues to whitewash Britain’s imperial past


Deana Heath, University of Liverpool

The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign has drawn attention to the way Britain continues to live with the legacies of its empire – and the failure to confront the history of its imperial exploits.

Media attention on the campaign has focused primarily on a group of students’ attempt to remove a statue of the British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. But a key component of the campaign is a quest to de-colonise Oxford’s curriculum by making it less eurocentric and by including more works by people of colour and women.

To be fair to Oxford, such a critique could be made of many – if not most – institutions of higher education in Britain and the West, not to mention primary and secondary schools. England’s new national history curriculum for five to 14-year-olds, which was rolled out in 2013, offers a case in point: it whitewashes empire and its legacies.

While the curriculum does cover the slave trade and aspects of the history of empire, it manages to avoid tackling the actual impact of empire on either colonised peoples on Britain – or its ongoing effects.

The curriculum embodies a tension between a “little island” version of history and a history that positions Britain as a part of global processes, contacts and connections. As the statutory guidance for history programmes of study puts it, students should know not only “the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative”, but “how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world”.

There is a non-statutory option (which schools are not required to teach) in Key Stage 3 of the curriculum (for 11 to 14-year-olds) on “the impact through time of the migration of people to, from and within the British Isles”. Apart from this there is very little in the curriculum on how Britain has been “influenced” by the wider world.

Narrating Empire as a triumph

The suggested topics relating to empire – all of which are in Key Stages 2 and 3 of the curriculum (for seven to 14-year-olds) – are all non-statutory, and focus predominantly on political, military and religious history. They all concentrate on the beginnings or ends of empire, not on what happened in between, therefore effectively ignoring the violence of empire and its effects.

The government’s guidance, for example, recommends that pupils study “the first colony in America” and the “first contact with India”. In other words, not the nature of British colonisation, its effects on indigenous peoples, or the ways in which it shaped Britain.

British colonialism in India crops up again in the guidance, but only in terms of “Indian independence and [the] end of Empire”. Children would therefore, presumably, have little idea at all what happened in India between “first contact” and Indian independence.

There is a similar treatment of the United States in the guidance, with the American War of Independence and the civil rights movement recommended as two additional topics. Such omissions of the periods in between make possible a triumphalist, nationalist historical narrative that renders empire a positive historical force in giving birth to nation states. This, the guidance implies, was a beneficial historical development – though colonial critics such as Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore would undoubtedly have disagreed.

Ireland, perhaps even more astoundingly, receives similar short shrift in the guidance. Other key British colonies – such as Australia – are not mentioned at all.

A history of white men

The one seeming exception to such whitewashing is teaching of the transatlantic slave trade, which the guidance says should focus on both “its effects and its eventual abolition”. But again, not only is the study of slavery non-statutory, but the narrative of slavery suggested in the guidance is again a triumphalist one. It positions slavery as having a clear end, with no enduring legacies – at least on Britain and the peoples it colonised.

Such legacies are, instead, displaced onto the US, via the civil rights movement. The curriculum guidance sidesteps the whole issue of empire and violence. While it includes topics on the Holocaust and the two world wars, colonial genocides and what historian Mike Davis has termed the “late Victorian Holocausts” – droughts, crop failures and famines exacerbated by European imperialist policies in which as many as 60m people died – are completely elided.

Cristóbal Colón – the last man to discover America.
edenpictures/flickr.com, CC BY

The progenitor of colonial genocide, Cristóbal Colón (still referred to, in the guidance, by his anglicised name Christopher Columbus) is positioned as an example of a “significant individual” who has “contributed to national and international achievements”. Yet he wasn’t even the first person to “discover” America, but the last.

This history curriculum that the guidance lays out is ultimately a history of white men. Not only does it devote considerable attention to war, politics, and military history, but women’s and gender history are notably completely absent. Non-white peoples play a small role as historical agents, particularly in British or wider Western history.

We still have a long way to go in decolonising, de-racialising and de-masculinising our past.

The Conversation

Deana Heath, Senior Lecturer in Indian and Colonial History, University of Liverpool

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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