The British Empire: a Very English Perspective
- May 15, 2023
- Samuel Rubinstein
An explicitly ‘progressive’ survey of nascent British imperialism buckles under the weight of its contradictions.
The Great Defiance: How the World Took On the British Empire, David Veevers, (Ebury Press, £25)
Works of history are sometimes criticised for being insufficiently forthcoming in their arguments. No such criticism will be levelled against David Veevers’ The Great Defiance: How the World Took On the British Empire. His second book is as provocative as it is wide-ranging. Bouncing from Ireland to India, from the Caribbean Sea to the Sea of Japan, it tells the story of how the English, later the British, were resisted and evaded, outflanked and outplayed, by the peoples, kingdoms, and empires which they encountered between 1500 and 1800.
These stories are recounted as discrete vignettes and are told with pep and vim. The drama is heightened by Veevers’ frankness about his personal sympathies. The ‘Anglo-British’ are the ‘bloodthirsty’ villains of the piece. They burst out into the world because their own land, ‘on the farthest northwest tip of the Eurasian landmass’, was ‘drab’ and ‘dreary’. Compared with the places they found across the choppy seas, Stuart England – the home of Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Dryden, Bacon, Behn, Purcell, Hobbes, and Locke – was an ‘intellectual and artistic backwater’.
The ‘indigenous and non-European peoples’ (Veevers’ preferred formulation, allowing him to include the Irish), meanwhile, are his heroes. Their societies were more equitable, even ‘classless’; their cultures more vibrant; their purses heftier and their castles grander; even their empires less ‘amateur’ than those of the English. That they ‘proved remarkably resilient when challenged’ by these English upstarts was, says Veevers, a ‘good thing, too’.
This moral schema can lead both Veevers and the reader to some peculiar places. After pages and pages of admiration for the ‘indigenous and non-European peoples’ and denigration of their would-be imperial masters, one might be lulled into cheering on the determination of King Agaja of Dahomey to ‘put the Europeans in their place’ – before realising that what he really was fighting for was his right to ‘set the terms of the lucrative trade in enslaved people’.
Veevers’ emphasis on personal agency is valuable; his insistence that the emergence of the British Empire was never inevitable, and relied upon all manner of contingencies, is also worth reflecting on. Like all good works of history, the book poses some very interesting questions. ‘What does a history of the British trade in enslaved people look like’, Veevers asks, ‘when we acknowledge that West Africans were not only victims, but could also act from positions of power?’ It would, for one thing, have profound implications for debates over slavery reparations. Understandably, Veevers doesn’t go there.
The core thesis of the book is that ‘the defining feature of the pre-modern world was not the emergence of an all-encompassing British Empire, but the great defiance of the people who found themselves in its path, and their heroic struggle in resisting it, often successfully’. Such an argument, overegged as these things often are, requires at least some special pleading, some not-seeing-the-wood-for-the-trees.
Does the ‘great defiance’ really hold greater explanatory power for how and why the world map changed between 1500 and 1800 than the basic fact of English (and later British) expansion? Would one ever write a book about the rise of, say, the Roman or the Mongol Empires, presenting the ‘defiance’ to it as the ‘defining feature’ of their respective ages? Veevers’ insistence on portraying England as not only nefarious, but small and pathetic to boot, also raises more questions than it answers. On his account, the English seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world not only in a fit of absence of mind, but at times with an almost Mr Beanish incompetence. How did this place, this impoverished backwater, establish its dominion over wealthier, more sophisticated parts of the globe?
The book’s historical claims will spark much discussion and debate. But the historical claims are really a secondary concern. What historians ‘ultimately do’, claims Veevers, is ‘reinterpret the past’. This is a book much more concerned with ‘reinterpretation’, with an eye to the present day, than with the past itself – and, in the shadow of the culture wars, such acts of reinterpretation are morally and politically charged. In his own review of the book, Andrew Mulholland rightly frames its ‘central purpose’ as not historical, but historiographical. Throughout the book, Veevers writes with the kind of defiance that he so admires in his protagonists, offering a powerful challenge, stoutly taking up arms against – well, against what, exactly?
Veevers announces his bête noire in the introduction: it is those ‘bestselling books that crowd the shelves of history sections today, proclaiming how “Britain Made the Modern World”. He repeats this in the conclusion, excoriating those ‘histories that grace bookshops proclaiming how Britain “Made the Modern World”. The final words of the book flip that formula: actually, he tells us, Britain unmade the world. The concluding salvo of The Great Defiance strives to offer us an alternative to this (apparently ubiquitous) way of explaining the emergence of the modern world.
Unhelpfully, however, Veevers doesn’t tell us exactly what characterises this strain of historical thought. ‘How Britain Made the Modern World’ is almost certainly an allusion to Niall Ferguson’s book Empire, which bore this phrase as a subtitle when it was published twenty years ago. If Ferguson’s book is indeed Veevers’s foil – if this is what he apparently can’t walk into a bookshop without seeing – it would have been welcome for him to vie with its arguments explicitly. As it happens, Ferguson’s Empire is absent from the book’s twenty-page bibliography.
But Veevers has more than just Ferguson in his crosshairs. The Great Defiance seeks to bring down an entire school of thought which, we are repeatedly told, dominates British discourse about the Empire. Veevers chastises Sir Penderel Moon for concentrating on the ‘deeds, motives, and thoughts of the principal British actors’ in the British Raj; he did so, he argues, because Moon allowed his narrative to rest on the ‘histories and accounts of earlier generations of Anglo-British colonists who had also sought to write off India and its people’.
Sir Penderel was not alone in this regard. The history of ‘indigenous and non-European peoples’, Veevers tells us, has hitherto been ‘determined almost entirely by British perspectives and actions’. Not so, apparently, for his own book – which sets itself the task of ‘rewriting those Anglocentric histories of the early modern period’ which were ‘distorted by generations of colonial authors’.
It is quite surprising, then, to discover that the book relies so heavily on the very ‘colonial authors’ whom it derides. Whether for want of linguistic competence or paucity of source material, we hear much more in Veevers’ book from the European colonisers than from their victims (if ‘victims’ is indeed the appropriate word: this of course gets to the heart of one of the book’s tensions).
The seventh chapter, for example, paints a colourful picture of Banten in Indonesia, a sort of multicultural hotchpotch in the early-modern period. There we find ‘indigenous Javanese from the coasts and Sundanese from the highland interior; migrating Malay; Chinese diaspora communities; Indian merchants and their families; Arabs of the Ottoman Empire; even Swahilis from East Africa’. But we never hear from members of any of these communities. Instead, our picture of Banten is drawn for us by the testimonies of ‘one Dutch visitor’, ‘one European merchant’, and the English privateer Sir James Lancaster. A central motif of the book is that the English found these foreign lands more impressive than one might expect. On the very first page, we see the West African kingdom of Dahomey through the eyes of the magnificently-named British merchant Bulfinch Lamb. Veevers takes on the English gaze from the beginning, and never lets it shift.
This would hardly matter if he hadn’t made such a fuss over criticising ‘Eurocentric’ narratives and patted himself on the back for taking a more enlightened, global approach. It would hardly matter if the book confessed to being what it really is: a story of how the British encountered ‘indigenous and non-European peoples’, rather than (as the introduction claims) ‘vice versa’. It is, indeed, difficult to see how Veevers differs from his own crude depiction of his supposedly benighted scholarly forebears. Of the list of printed primary sources in the bibliography, exceedingly few provide the ‘indigenous and non-European’ perspective, and most of those that do were edited and translated into English by the very colonial, Victorian historians against whom Veevers is tilting. He bites the hand that feeds him.
There are, to be sure, far worse books in this industry – some of them even to be found in Veevers’s bibliography. In its entertaining prose and broad scope, it may be compared favourably with James Felton’s 52 Times Britain Was A Bellend: The History You Didn’t Get Taught at School. But as far as its history goes, The Great Defiance buckles under the weight of its internal contradictions. And as for the historiography, Veevers’s promises to turn an entire discourse on its head are, in the end, left undelivered.