The British in the Americas: 1480-1815.

The British in the Americas: 1480-1815. – book reviews

Desmond Gregory

Anthony McFarlane casts his net widely to cover the colonisation by the British of not only the north American mainland but also the islands in the Caribbean and what is now the state of Guyana. Aiming at synthesising the findings of the most recent historical research, he wisely chooses a chronological approach, while simultaneously analysing the structure of American colonial society and the Anglo-American economy.

Tracing the story from the first recorded voyages undertaken from Bristol across the Atlantic, dating back to 1480, he shows how Britain’s American empire was created during the seventeenth century by astonishing waves of emigration (the numbers of emigrants reached 400,000), by the cultivation of tobacco and sugar and by the introduction of slavery. `Britain’s American empire’, he quotes, `was built largely on the institution of African slavery’, spreading as it did from the Caribbean to mainland north America, where it caused a radical transformation of the nature of society there in all but the colonies of New England.

What is of particular interest in this book is the distinction the author draws between British colonial America and the American colonies of Spain and Portugal. The wealth of Spain and Portugal’s colonies derived from gold, silver and diamonds; that of the British colonies mainly from the products of agriculture. Spanish colonists, from the very beginning, employed Indian and African labour, while the British relied for many years on `indentured servants’ exported from England. The Spanish and the Portuguese colonists intermarried with the local population, successfully evangelised the native Indians, gave them legal protection (in theory at least) and incorporated them into their society. The British colonists, in contrast, treated the natives as savages and `an obstacle to immigration’.

Spain ruled her colonies directly through a centralised bureaucracy, while Britain `formulated no colonial policy nor political framework to contain the colonies’, until the middle of the seventeenth century and even then rode them on a very loose rein. Spain controlled emigration to her colonies strictly, was intolerant of religious heterodoxy and made her colonies self-financing.

British America, on the other hand, was a pool of religious diversity, subject to no immigration control and an open society that was socially mobile and not dominated by a government in Europe, nor by an authoritarian church, nor a collection of powerful landlords such as existed in Brazil.

British colonial governors, moreover, were dependent for money and their salaries on representative colonial assemblies. Spain exercised a strict control where trade with her colonies was concerned: in contrast, Britain showed flexibility in creating a virtual free trade area within the boundaries of her empire, even permitting colonial trade with foreign countries in certain commodities.

A further interest of this book is the introduction of a number of topics that are currently under discussion in the field of historiography: whether British migration to the New World was prompted by economic circumstances rather than by religious dissent; whether the New England colonies were a replica of English society; whether class conflicts in north America were behind the revolt of the thirteen colonies; and whether Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, and eventually of slavery itself, was prompted by economic motives.

In conclusion the author demonstrates, first, how the loss of Britain’s thirteen colonies, followed shortly by two great wars with France, led not only to an increase in Britain’s trade with north America, but to a further extension of her territory in the islands of the Caribbean, and the creation of a British colony in what had been formerly francophone Canada. Secondly, he shows how the revolt of the Spanish colonies after 1810 in south America, and Portugal’s complete dependence on Britain after the events of 1807, led to Britain’s economic dominance in the countries of Latin America.

Though the structure he has adopted in this book leads the author to repeat himself, it remains an impressively extensive survey, the narrative enlivened with interesting statistics and many perceptive comparisons. The book is a useful introduction to the subject for anyone unfamiliar with it, as well as an up-to-date resume of the arguments of revisionist historians active in this particular field.

COPYRIGHT 1995 History Today Ltd.

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