Book Review: A History of Britain Volume II: The Wars of the British, 1603-1776

Schama, Simon. A History of Britain Volume II: The Wars of the British, 1603-1776. New York: Talk Miramax Books, 2001.

It has been almost thirty years since J.G.A. Pocock first called for a "new British history." In his now famous essay, Pocock pointed out that the history of the "Atlantic Archipelago" cannot be written entirely in terms of English developments but must consider Scotland, Ireland, and Wales as well. While other scholars, notably A.J.P. Taylor, still maintain that "British history has no meaning," most seem to agree that British history is more than English history by another name and many have begun to take up Pocock’s challenge.

Of course, if one is going to write "British" history, one must first determine what such an undertaking involves. Pocock used it "for lack, an Irishman might add, of a better term—to denote the plural history of a group of cultures situated along an Anglo-Celtic frontier and marked by an increasing English political and cultural domination." Meanwhile, as "identity" has developed into a hot topic, scholars like Linda Colley, have focused on "Britishness" as an identity separate from distinct national identities like those found in Scotland or Ireland. This is not an "academic" question because it ultimately defines every aspect of the narrative that will be produced.

In his new book, A History of Britain: The Wars of the British, 1603-1776, Simon Schama fails to consider these issues in depth. Although Schama does make a nod to Linda Colley in his closing chapters by claiming that a British identity did not develop until the eighteenth century, Schama’s volume is largely another English history—albeit one of the more enjoyable and entertaining ones available for a popular audience.

Schama begins promisingly by borrowing from Conrad Russell’s important argument concerning the causes of the English Civil War. Russell placed considerable importance on the existence of "multiple kingdoms" each of which exhibited its own set of interests during the early to mid- seventeenth century. Ultimately, these interests combined with Scottish and Irish rebellions to push the Atlantic Archipelago into bloody civil war. Although the multiple kingdom argument might have been used as a starting point for a history explaining interactions between these kingdoms, Schama spends the remainder of his book retelling tried and true stories of English high politics. It is true that readers learn about Stuart efforts to create a British identity in the early seventeenth century, the Darien scheme, the Glencoe Massacre, the Battle of the Boyne, and the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions, but Scotland and Ireland are otherwise missing from this book. (Apparently, as far as Schama is concerned, Wales was entirely integrated into England by this point—an argument that many Welsh historians would disagree with.) Although these events are exceptionally important, they remain but a few chapters in a long relationship.

Just as a truly "British" dynamic is missing from the book, so too is any substantial recognition that British history constitutes more than high politics. Social and cultural developments are also extremely important. Unfortunately, the social history covered here is limited to interesting accounts of prostitution in eighteenth century London, alcohol consumption, and the growing popularity of tea and sugar. The infamous Black Acts are also mentioned, but Schama’s treatment is limited to elite motives for the growing number of capital offenses on the statute books and the growing importance of landed wealth under Walpole. There is nothing incorrect in Schama’s treatment, but in some ways it misses the point by failing to acknowledge that eighteenth century Britain was at least as divided by class as it was by national identity (if national identity is even the right term). Class was an important factor standing in the way of the development of a British identity, a factor that should not be limited to a few pages. Indeed, if "modernization" theorists are correct in linking the industrial revolution to the development of nationalism, then class should be an essential topic of discussion.

All this having been said, it is important to note that Schama has not attempted to write a scholarly history of the British Isles. His book was written as a companion to a multi-part television history of Britain and so limits itself to well known stories that make for good television. Most readers/viewers probably do not care very much about "British" versus "English" history, or even the role of social and cultural history in its development. I imagine that most want to be entertained and to learn something along the way. Schama’s book certainly meets such criteria.

Perhaps as a result of its intended popular audience, Schama does not include footnotes. This provides a considerable headache for those interested in the sources from which he has drawn his stories. At various points Schama tells tales of poisoned enemas, hemorrhoids suffering generals, and other behind the scenes dramas. This reader, for one, was interested in learning more about where the author had found these stories. More troubling, Schama borrows arguments from scholars like Linda Colley and Conrad Russell yet, while both are listed in the bibliography, they are never listed in the text as the originators of the ideas being presented. Footnotes would assure these scholars the credit they richly deserve.

To his credit, Schama’s book is entertaining, readable, and fun, to say nothing of the numerous beautiful color illustrations (see samples in the margin 2). Amateur history buffs will find much to enjoy when reading it and glancing through the pictures. The facts presented are generally accurate and the stories told often fascinating. Scholars interested in learning more about the development of British identity, or even the evolution of British history should look elsewhere. It seems that Pocock’s dream of a "new British history" must wait before making its appearance for a popular audience.

1) By class, I mean to draw attention to the distinct social experiences that resulted from an amazingly stratified society in which landed wealth was limited to a tiny minority. I do not intend to suggest the existence of a coherent class consciousness among the lower orders—something that may not have existed until the later nineteenth century.

2) Images courtesy Talk Miramax.