Reviewed by: Denis Judd
Author: James Belich
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £25
I have concentrated much of my academic and professional work in an attempt to understand and interpret the impact and nature of British imperialism, as well as trying to assess the particular contribution to world history of the English-speaking people. Already admiring his earlier publications, I opened Professor Belich’s new book with eager anticipation.
I have not been disappointed. This is a superb work of history: deeply considered, wise, beautifully written and genuinely enlightening. It has about it the ring of a newly perceived historical truth, of the sort that every so often opens our eyes to what really happened, and at the same time seems strangely familiar, almost comforting.
The aim of the book is to explain the phenomenal English-speaking settler colonisation of not only the post-revolutionary USA across the Appalachians, into the mid-west and beyond, but also the simultaneous drives into the prairie provinces in Canada’s west, and the opening up of Australia, New Zealand and, to a significant extent, the Cape and its South African hinterland. Though not rigidly denying the traditional, almost Whiggish, explanation of this huge movement of humanity – the vigour of English-speaking Protestantism, especially of the dissenting sort, the rise of capitalism, the flowering of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, naval supremacy, stable political institutions and the like – Belich makes a further telling case.
Put simply, especially during the 19th century, there was a potent and explosive intersection between vastly improved and cheaper forms of mass transportation, a new attitude towards colonial settlement – both from government and among potential migrants – that was vastly optimistic and enabling (not merely “Go West, young man!” but also “Go South and East, if you wish!”), together with free flowing capital investment and a truly remarkable development in agricultural techniques that made farming more profitable and subsistence easier.
The result of all this changed much of the world forever, and profoundly affected most of it in the medium to long term. Mega-cities like London and New York rapidly dwarfed those in other cultures, even Melbourne became a city of nearly half a million inhabitants in little more than 50 years. Globally the number of English speakers grew sixteen-fold between 1790 and 1930, from about 12 million to nearly 200 million – a far greater rate than Indian or Chinese population growth, and well ahead of that in Russia or the Hispanic world.
Even when, inevitably, this great settler boom slackened and to some degree went bust, so powerful and efficient a system of interaction and communication had been established between the colonial frontier and the various metropolitan centres – incorporating banking and commercial links, shared cultural identities and overarching concepts of nationhood, patriotism and common cause – that the two major English-speaking nations, Britain and the USA, continued to develop and prosper. As a result, these two superpowers have dominated the world, both sequentially and in tandem, for the two centuries since the settler revolution began.
Professor Denis Judd is the author of Empire: the British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present (Fontana, 1997)