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BOOKS: ‘Three Victories and a Defeat’
Question of the Day
THREE VICTORIES AND A DEFEAT: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE FIRST BRITISH EMPIRE
By Brendan Simms
Basic Books, $39.95, 832 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
This is a book about Britain's political and military role in the 18th century by a professor at Cambridge University superbly informed about his subject. His research has been both diligent and extensive: not only has he explicated decision-making and policy in council chamber and battlefield in the particular period under examination, but he has delved back into the previous century to better understand why things developed as they did. Consistently articulate if opinionated, he is a dedicated advocate for the thesis he is expounding in colorful, compelling prose, often a dialectic with some other historian, for he is a master of historiography as well as a masterly historian himself.
"Three Victories and a Defeat" is a massive, complex volume full of incident, characters and detail, but its argument is a relatively simple one, laid out clearly at the outset:
"'The history of England' in the eighteenth century, John Robert Seeley proclaimed in his classic 'The Expansion of England,' was 'not' in England, but in America and Asia.' It was not: the history of eighteenth-century Britain was in Europe. From the Dutch invasion of 1688 through the Wars of Grand Alliance against Louis IV, the French and Spanish-backed Jacobite revolts, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War to the American War of Independence, the destiny of England — or Great Britain as the composite state became known — was decided by events in Europe. … The discussion of European treaties, subsidies, wars and the balance of power generally also loomed large in the emerging public sphere. Trade with Europe far outstripped that with other continents until very late in the century."
What Mr. Simms is saying was that Britain thrived politically, economically and militarily as part of the European concert of nations, playing one power against the other in constantly shifting alliance to the enormous increase of its own strength. France had by this time displaced Spain as the predominant continental power, but throughout the 18th century, Britain steadily chipped away at its position by enlisting various nations in wars that were costly to that superpower. Both Britain and France were already what we would now call colonial or imperial powers and even a conflict grounded in European dynastic affairs like the War of the Austrian Succession spilled over into the Indian subcontinent and North America. Lured by its success in these far off theaters of war, Britain followed up the victory of its alliance against France in Europe during the Seven Years War, by forcibly expelling it from its remaining possessions in North America (Quebec).
And this enormous success, Mr. Simms argues, led Britain into the fatal error of believing that her destiny lay overseas rather than across the English Channel and opted out of European affairs in favor of an imperial strategy. But little more than a decade later, she found herself embroiled in an ultimately unsuccessful war against her own colonists in North America, leading to the cataclysmic defeat at the Battle of Yorktown, where less than 20 years after she had booted France off the North American continent, she suffered the same fate herself. She had fought the colonists unaided by any other nation — indeed those European powers who had fought with her against France as well as her traditional enemy itself had supported the rebellion against the mother country — and Mr. Simms argues that this was because she had ceased to bother cultivating Continental allies. The 1780s found her not only humiliated militarily and politically and bereft of the 13 colonies, but diplomatically isolated and friendless.
A plausible interpretation, certainly, but despite Mr. Simms' passion and erudition, ultimately unconvincing. The trouble lies in the way that he has laid his historical cloth, for all that it is densely woven with learning, upon the proverbial Bed of Procrustes to be cut conveniently and interpreted to suit his case. There are many instances of this, but here are some.
The triumphant diplomatic strategy he sees Britain pursuing against France was insufficient to prevent that nation twice — first in 1715 and then 30 years later — from backing Jacobite rebellions which very nearly (particularly in the 1740s) toppled the Hanoverian dynasty in London. It was as alone fighting these off, for all its European allies, as it later would be with the American colonists. Those shifting alliances which admittedly brought Britain onto the winning side of all those conflicts after all did not exactly achieve peace: hundreds of thousands of men were killed, maimed and wounded in this cycle of conflicts. Indeed, the continual rearrangement of sides in one war after another, far from being the admirable strategic wizardry Mr. Simms hails it to be, is actually a pretty good facsimile of Orwell's nightmarish vision in "1984" of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia each trapped in an endless succession of conflicts with one or both of the other two.
Britain's withdrawal from Europe in favor of kith and kin across the ocean probably had as much to do with George III's succession to the throne as with the siren song of imperialism. Unlike his predecessors as joint kings of Great Britain and Hanover, this king was British rather than Hanoverian by birth and unlike George I and II who were both born and bred there, he never even so much as visited his German realm. Kings still counted then and so it was inevitable that, unlike his predecessor who actually led British troops into the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 (the last British sovereign to take to the battlefield), this truly English monarch was bound to turn the nation away from Europe.
And although it is true that the English colonists along the eastern seaboard of North America would probably not have dared shake off the protection of their colonial masters in London had they still faced the threat posed by French troops on their flank, the expulsion of France from Quebec did not make the American Revolution inevitable. A more emollient, less confrontational reaction to the demands of the 13 colonies would surely have averted the separation and kept them in the British fold. Even as things developed, once the painful break had been made, the trans-Atlantic ties between the two nations have generally been stronger in the centuries since than have those with Europe.
But one suspects that for Mr. Simms, his argument is as rooted in the present as it is in the past actually under discussion. His book seems to be aimed at the British Euroskeptics in his own time who prefer the "Special Relationship" with Washington to that with Brussels. Britain did so well playing the European game back then, so the European Community should be its future where it could relive those glory days! But two can play at reading the past as refracted through more recent history. Mr. Simms might do well to remember Margaret Thatcher's heartfelt cry that in her lifetime, all her country's woes had come from Europe and only good things from across the Atlantic: It, too, has resonance beyond the confines of its particular time and continues to be the best riposte to this book. In the end, that defeat did Britain and her people far more good than those three earlier victories.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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