Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560–1660 • Alison Games • New York: Oxford University Press, 2008
Reviewed by Warren M. Billings, Distinguished Professor of History, emeritus, at the University of New Orleans.
Ten years ago, Alison Games published Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World (1999). That book not only announced the arrival of a promising younger writer, but it also revealed her as someone of singular thoroughness and insight. Those qualities of the historian’s craft inhabit The Web of Empire as well, although more than craftsmanship joins the two volumes. Each affords readers opportunities to savor her development of a major theme that runs throughout both books: how the peregrinations of early modern English wayfarers led to empire as they scattered across the world.
Games first explored this phenomenon in Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World, where she drew notice to some 7,500 people who departed London in 1635 for destinations in the Western Hemisphere. Their leave taking was part and parcel of an exodus that massively sustained the American colonies throughout the seventeenth century. Although those settlers failed to recreate England in their tenuous mongrel societies, their repeated contacts with Britain and each other bound them into an Atlantic community nonetheless. In The Web of Empire, Games plots a different tack. Her temporal reach extends from the first stirrings of English interest in empire to the restoration of Charles II, and she focuses on the much smaller universe of English wanderers. She styles the latter "cosmopolitans." Cosmopolitans were Britons who itched to know terrains beyond their island home and who willingly risked the great hazards of sea voyages and sojourns among peoples of strange habits. They garnered their cosmopolitan patina by various means. Some soldiered in foreign armies, some were merchants, some wore clerical cloth, some were younger sons, and some passed portions of their lives as galley slaves. Initially they crisscrossed continental Europe and trekked across North Africa before they reached the empire of the Ottoman Turks, whereupon they set their faces toward other parts of the globe.
Cosmopolitans, no matter their social origins or the prickles that goaded them, exhibited remarkable capacities for adaptation. That is to say, when in Rome, they did as the Romans. They went native and learned the languages, customs, and ways of
the places where they spent appreciable periods of their lives. To do otherwise invited failure or death. Cosmopolitans eagerly shared their experiences with others through letters, diaries, and published treatises or travelogues. Thus, they gave their homebound countrymen an inclusive global vision that seemed limitless but equally fraught with challenges—and opportunities—for the insular, weak kingdom that was high Tudor and early Stuart England.
Games makes the further point that the spread of cosmopolitan knowledge fixed the view among early colonizers that the Mediterranean experiences, especially with the Turks, were readily transferable elsewhere. Failed mercantile ventures in such places as Virginia and Madagascar proved otherwise. By the 1660s, as she observes, "the assimilationist model waned, [and was] replaced by racist ideas that called for rigid hierarchies, displacement, separations, and exclusion, and even as cosmopolitanism no longer defined how the English would encounter the world, the larger lessons cosmopolitans had imparted—the necessity of knowing and understanding the world beyond England's shores—shaped the empire that came in their wake" (p. 299).
The fourth chapter is the one part of The Web of Empire that will draw the closest attention of readers of this magazine, because it is there that Games assesses the Jamestown project from its start in 1607 to Opechancanough’s attack on the colony fifteen years later. By her reckoning, the investors patterned the venture on English Mediterranean experiences, and so they conceived Jamestown as a mercantile outpost that harmonized profitably with the natives. That scheme came a cropper because the English who went out to the Chesapeake proved to be poor traders. Moreover, what worked for cosmopolitans with the Turks did not produce the same result for Jamestown and the natives. The Powhatans ultimately resolved to drive the aliens from their midst, and the Anglo-Powhatan War of 1622–32 forever doomed Virginia as a settlement of traders living in an international community, while the conflict dashed any hope of intercultural amity between the two peoples. Therefore, after 1622, Virginia became a permanent extension of England that displaced the Indians with wave after wave of English settlers. Although the Mediterranean commercial model failed, Games maintains that Mediterranean visions remained fixed in the minds of literate colonists long after 1622, and some of those images gave rise to chattel slavery.
The treatment is novel and rather more sophisticated than can be summarized in a paragraph here, but it is not entirely persuasive. One will not gainsay the influences of cosmopolitanism on some backers of the Virginia Company of London, but what of those investors who had commanded soldiers in Ireland and the Netherlands? Did not their knowledge of arms carry comparable or perhaps greater weight in their minds? As for remembrances of Mediterranean slavery shaping slavery in Virginia, the evidence for such a linkage is thin, to say the least. Furthermore, the predominant type of bondage in the colony throughout the seventeenth century was indentured servitude, and that was a species of labor wholly of an English creation.
At a time of ever-rising printing costs and ever-deepening misgivings about the future of the book, it is appropriate to compliment the Oxford University Press for the high production values that went into The Web of Empire. An eye-catching dust jacket melds with cover design, layout, typography, and paper stock, all of which result in a pleasing example of the bookmaker’s arts. The book is relatively inexpensive when compared to the prices that other university or commercial presses exact for volumes of similar heft. Its content bears witness as well to the keen eye of a scrupulous copy editor who, along with Games, created a nearly error-free text. They did however mistake the brothers Charles I (1600–1649) and Henry, Prince of Wales (1594–1612) for father and son (p. 155).
To conclude, The Web of Empire is an admirable book. It casts light in places where shadows lurked; thereby it brightens a reader’s view of the beginnings of the English empire. It proceeds from its author’s diligent scouring of sources, her eye for apt detail, her gifts of style, and her careful posing of argument, all of which render this book well worth an investment of one’s time. Readers may not always agree with where Games would lead them, but in following her direction, even the most deeply versed among them is invariably compelled to recalibrate anew their own explanations for matters that are the substance of the book. No small feat that!