English spoken here, Tony Simpson

Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and Rise of the Anglo World 1783-1939
James Belich
Oxford University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780199297276

In an interview with The New Zealand Listener shortly after this book was published, the author posed an interesting question: why is he sitting in Wellington 19,000 kilometers from England speaking English? A hundred years ago the answer to this question was a given. Liberal and conservative imperialists alike would have pointed you to the peculiar and superior genius of the English “race” which authorised them to create an empire and to bring civilisation to what Rudyard Kipling notoriously referred to as “lesser breeds without the law”. As a notion it has a long history going back at least to John Milton who spoke, unselfconsciously, of “God speaking first through his Englishmen”.

By the mid-seventies of the 20th century, it had become impossible to believe in this particular mythology. An imperial people that has, over the space of a few decades, seen its vast empire reduced to a group of self-governing dominions and a few scraps of red on the map has a credibility problem over its right to lead and rule. Notwithstanding that some, Kipling and our own Truby King included, believed this genius encompassed the North Americans.

Kipling, it should be recalled, had urged them too to “take up the white man’s burden”, an invitation enthusiastically embraced by Theodore Roosevelt.

Nevertheless, as one of the symptoms of the post-imperial hangover, many British historians have become fascinated by the question, and others of a similar nature, that Belich poses. A lively debate has broken out in historical circles not only over the question of why the British Empire, but what it is that constitutes the nature of “Britishness” – or what Belich calls the rise of the Anglo world.

This has, of course, generated a range of answers. Some historians, such as Brendan Simms in a recent book (2007), conclude there are no over-riding factors other than the logic of an evolving situation in which the guiding principle from the 17th century to WWI and beyond was simply Britain’s need to control a small corner of north-western continental Europe to forestall the prospect of invasion. Empire in North America and India was an incidental consequence of this strategic imperative.

Another, Norman Davies (1999), argues that “Britishness” was a deliberate invention, designed to create a unified bulwark out of four distinct peoples and cultures against European incursion. One which is no longer necessary given the ever closer integration of the same four nations into Europe, thus occasioning a crisis in “British” identity.

Perhaps one of the most interesting essays into this field is by the internationally admired New Zealand scholar John Pocock (briefly alluded to by Belich). In a series of illuminating works, he tracks the pattern of British history as the expansion and contraction of a series of nations across what he calls an archipelago, including, ultimately, the Antipodes and the northern Americas. It is a theme explored in parallel by such American historians as Thomas Dyer and others.

This new book is Belich’s contribution to that debate and a most impressive and significant contribution it is. It is written in Belich’s engaging, almost affable, prose style, one which does not exclude the odd ex cathedra comment. It also encompasses a mass of research which is so extensive as to constitute a tour de force in its own right.

Quite a lot of it must have been canvassed by the author for earlier works, particularly his Paradise Reforged (2001). In that Belich searched for a framework within which to understand the development of New Zealand as a nation. One to take us beyond the simple nationalism of Keith Sinclair and the conflict between tangata whenua and incoming settler immigrants that impels much of the work of Michael King.

He suggested a sequence of three stages: a frontier society, largely undisciplined but self-confident and booming, until this boom went bust in the 1880s; a reconnection to the metropolitan economy to rescue our own from disaster until Britain joined the European Union in 1973; and a period of independence and discovery of ourselves which we are still working our way through.

Fairly obviously Belich, in writing that work and its companion volume Making Peoples (1996), found himself asking another question arising from it. Given the nature of the New Zealand colonising experience, how general was that experience within the colonising and colonised world?

He is recorded as saying as much in the Listener interview noted above. From there it is an easy step to ask why the Anglo world prevailed and came to dominate, when other imperial colonisers, particularly the Spanish and Russian (the latter were moving east and south during the same period) did not?

His answer, not surprisingly, is that a complex range of factors were in play. They invariably are in history, and the length and complexity of the book itself reflects that. In broad summary, his conclusion is that the American war of independence and the conclusion of hostilities in 1783 converted the Anglophone peoples from a single polity to what he calls “a far-flung culture group, in an inter- continental ‘world’ ”.

To that should be added the wars with revolutionary France which “pressure cooked” British industrialisation, forced the same direction on the newly formed United States, and, by 1815, had left the British navy as the “last man standing” and thus capable of geopolitical domination of the trade routes. Once industrialization reached take-off point, it led to massive demographic and economic growth. By the mid 19th century Britain dominated industrial world trade and the US was well on the way to following suit and eventually surpassing it.

This new industrial proletariat had to be fed and in this lies the importance of what Belich calls “the settler revolution”, in which settler populations were mobilised to feed and supply the home nation. Timber from Canada, grain and pork from the American Midwest, beef from the Argentine, and ultimately sheep meats and dairy products from the Antipodes, flowed into Britain in British merchant fleets, and industrial products and people flowed outwards.

This mutually convenient economic arrangement also allowed the new settler societies (including the US, which had no laws to protect intellectual property rights until well into the 19th century) to draw on the infrastructure technologies of the metropolitan societies. It was accompanied by a culture change. Sending your people elsewhere no longer became a matter of “shovelling out paupers”, as one writer rather brutally expressed it, but the harbinger of new hopes and a better life.

This change in attitude, which was supported by an enormous boostering outpouring of publications on the desirability of emigration, eventually transformed itself into the ideology of imperial British destiny noted above. In all, this re-settlement engaged 36 million people, if the Americans moving west in their own homeland are included, an enormous movement of peoples from any perspective, and one which had to have a massive subsequent effect. That most of them spoke English has had a signal effect on the world as it stands today.

But the crucial factor Belich identifies is the role played by what he terms the “settler societies”. It is true that the relationship between large areas of the British Empire and the American West, and the subject indigenous peoples contained in them, was one of exploitation and appropriation of their natural resources and population bases by the British in India, Africa and the West Indies, in precisely the same way as the empires of Spain, Portugal and the Russian tsars had done and were doing.

What largely differentiated the English-speaking peoples was the development of settler colonies alongside this exploitation. In New Zealand, Australia and Canada, and in the frontier West of the United States, these societies rapidly developed into full partners of the metropolitan centres of London and New York – the only two cities in the world, Belich points out, with populations in 1890 of more than two and a half million people.

The British “dominions”, as they came to be known, “supplied food like they were part of the British metropolis, and they fought like they were, so they were more like extensions of metropolitan Britain than the ‘black’ colonies”. In a felicitous phrase he describes them as “extra virtual Scotlands”. They gave the British the extra staying-power to survive as an imperial international force for the best part of a century until economic logic forced the relationship with Europe, a link with which many English people in particular still feel rather uncomfortable and which continues to cause serious splits in the Conservative Party.

Belich also implies that he could easily have written a much larger and longer book. He barely scratches the surface of the implications of his analysis for the cultural and social history of the Anglo world he describes.

The book opens the door to the exploration of these themes in new and original ways, which is to be particularly welcomed in the context of our own historiography that, for inexplicable reasons and after a robust start, seems more recently to have got itself trapped in an arid structural formalism which fails to capture the sense and immediacy of what it has meant to live in past times in this country.

If Belich has found a way out of that cul de sac, then his book is even more welcome.

In the end he appears to be saying that the reason the Anglo world has achieved its current dominance is because it happened to be in the right place at the right time when a whole series of events and developments came together to bring us to where we are. He concludes:

The exploding Anglo world could be said to have its precedents: Greeks, Arabs and Mongols. Each of these dynamic cultures had a moment of unity before fragmenting politically but continuing to expand. While the great long-lived centralised empires of Rome and China were agents of continuity, these more meteoric cultures were agents of change. The era in which the Anglos wrought their changes, both destructive and creative, happens to be our own, and our understanding of the Anglo world’s past is entangled with its present. The day of the English-speakers may be passing, but for the moment the world’s leading superpower still speaks English, as has been the case for the last 200 years, and English is the language in which I have written this book. Successful peoples prefer to explain their achievements in terms of long-term, hard-wired, virtues or advantages rather than medium-term contingency, and the Anglos were no exception. One response is to deny the success; another is to explain it differently. This makes the history of the English speakers more interesting, not less – by freeing it from the shackles of the normative.

 

One sincerely hopes so, and Belich’s work to date serves to prove the point. Let us trust that we may look forward to much more of it.

 

Tony Simpson is a Wellington reviewer. 

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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