Reviews and Short Notices
Wales and the British Overseas Empire: Interactions and influences 1650–1830. Edited by H. V. Bowen . Manchester University Press. 2011. xiii + 200pp. £60.00.
Version of Record online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Author. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 72–73, December 2012
How to Cite
Charmley, G. (2012), Wales and the British Overseas Empire: Interactions and influences 1650–1830. Edited by H. V. Bowen . Manchester University Press. 2011. xiii + 200pp. £60.00. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 72–73. doi: 10.1111/1467-8314.12025
- Issue online: 20 MAR 2013
- Version of Record online: 20 MAR 2013
This latest volume in the Manchester University Press ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series concentrates on the connection between Wales and the British empire. In contrast with the Scots, whose involvement in Britain's empire have been explored in Michael Fry's The Scottish Empire and numerous other books, the involvement of Wales in the British empire has been less well explored. Welsh nationalist authors, influenced by the socialism, nationalism and pacifism that have been dominant in Welsh culture since the 1920s, have tended to see Wales as a colonized, rather than colonizing, nation. ‘Imperial Wales’, as Gwyn Alf Williams observed, has been largely ignored by Welsh historians. In this collection of studies, based on papers presented at a workshop in Aberystwyth in late 2007, the authors address this neglect from religious, social and historiographical perspectives. Huw Bowen observes that the first known use of the term ‘British empire’ was by enigmatic Elizabethan Welshman John Dee, but modern Welsh historians have proved notably unwilling to engage with that term, or what the arrangement it stands for.
Although the title indicates the intention of the authors to concentrate on the early, formative period of the British empire, rather than its apogee under Queen Victoria, Neil Evans's essay, ‘Writing Wales into the Empire’, analyses Welsh historians’ involvement with the British empire into the Edwardian period. This essay, which will undoubtedly have the greatest interest for historians, explores writing on Wales and the British empire, revealing a more varied spectrum of opinion than the statements of contemporary nationalists such as Gwynfor Evans and Ned Thomas or of neo-Marxists such as Michael Hechter might suggest. For this historiography, Evans returns to the age of Liberal Wales, of Welsh historians such as W. Watkin Davies and politician-historians such as W. Llewelyn Williams and O. M. Edwards. The contribution of Liberal historians to the stillborn topic of Welsh imperial studies is outlined in some detail. David Davies, Llandinam, close friend of Lloyd George and banker for many national and international institutions in Wales, is explored. The scope of Evans's writing is reflected in his reference not only to the mainstream of Liberal historiography, with its positive view of Welsh involvement in empire, but to the unique contribution of the man Evans dubs ‘that contrarian of all that Liberal Wales held dear’ (pp. 19–20), J. Vyrnwy Morgan. The Great War saw a surge of interest in Wales’ imperial destiny, as Lloyd George assumed the premiership, leading Britain to victory. Economist H. S. Jevons dreamed dreams of a British economic empire centred on Cardiff after the war. However, the painful realities of the inter-war period, depression and the replacement of Liberalism by socialism in the Welsh coalfield saw a waning of interest in the empire, the League of Nations replacing the British empire as a focus for Welsh political interest. This, Evans suggests, had a further impact on Welsh views of empire, Gwyn Alf Williams being identified as the only modern Welsh historian to engage with analysis of Welsh involvement in the British empire. Imperial history, Evans concludes, remains London-centric; Welsh historians should pay more attention to this neglected subject.
The remaining essays in this collection are easily divided by geography. Chris Evans compares and contrasts Welsh and Munster involvement with the Atlantic trade. Welsh attempts to restrict Irish trade with Great Britain, he argues, led the Irish to look across the Atlantic, while Welsh trade remained orientated towards England – in part because Wales lacked major ports until the 1830s. Even Swansea copper was shipped from Bristol, forming part of the notorious ‘triangular trade’ in slaves, rather than direct from Wales. As with Neil Evans's essay, and the other essays in this volume, this brief study concludes with an appeal for further study of the subject.
Martyn Powell's study of the rivalry between the three ‘Celtic’ nations reminds the reader that pan-Celticism has not always been the order of the day. At times, there was substantial anti-Irish sentiment amongst the Welsh. Although all three nations at one time or another professed Jacobitism, in Wales this consisted of little more than drinking the health of the Pretender; Scottish and Welsh troops took part in the suppression of Irish revolts, Watkin Williams Wynn's ‘Ancient Britons’ acting brutally towards their Celtic ‘brethren’. At the same time, the religious issue is explored, Wales’ Protestantism, it is observed, set them apart from the others during this period. This serves as an introduction to David Ceri Jones's exploration of the cross-Atlantic network formed by the letter-writers and reviewers of the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century, tied together by peripatetic evangelist George Whitefield. Based in part on his work on Welsh involvement in the revival, this highlights the role of Welsh evangelist Howel Harris in the spread of Methodism to the East Coast, and of Welsh settlers in America.
Welsh ties to Jamaica and the sugar plantations are dealt with by Trevor Burnard, in his essay on the connection between the Pennants’ plantations and their development of the slate quarries of Bethesda, with the result that the decline in the Atlantic trade, which destroyed so many fortunes, did not affect that of the Pennants, later Lords Penrhyn. For the last two essays, the focus shifts to Asia, where the difficulty of identifying Welshmen is highlighted. References are made to networks of Welsh ‘nabobs’, who made their fortunes in the East Indies and returned to Wales, building great houses.
This is a fascinating volume of essays which whets the appetite of the reader for further studies of this under-appreciated and little-studied area. Each essay represents a starting point for anyone interested in Wales’ involvement in the empire. At £60, the price-tag is a little steep, but this collection is unique. It is only to be hoped that this represents a starting point, rather than a blind alley.