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Britishness and Otherness: An Argument

  • Linda Colley


There is no more effective way of bonding together the disparate sections of restless peoples than to unite them against outsiders. [E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (Cambridge, 1990), p. 91]

Britain is an invented nation, not so much older than the United States. [Peter Scott, Knowledge and Nation (Edinburgh, 1990), p. 168]

The morning of Saturday, September 14, 1793, was bitterly cold, and George Macartney, Viscount Macartney of Dervock in the county of Antrim, had been up since four o'clock, making final preparations for his audience with the emperor of China at his summer palace at Jehol, just north of the Great Wall. He stood waiting in the large, silken tent for over an hour before Ch'ien-lung eventually arrived, “seated in an open palanquin, carried by sixteen bearers, attended by numbers of officers bearing flags, standards, and umbrellas.” To the fury of the watching Chinese courtiers who had wanted him to execute the full kowtow (three separate kneelings and nine knockings of the head on the floor), Macartney went down on one knee only and presented the emperor with a letter from George III in a gold casket covered with diamonds. He followed this with other gifts—pottery, the best that Josiah Wedgwood's factory in Staffordshire could produce, a diving bell patented by the Anglo-Scottish engineer John Smeaton, sword blades from Birmingham, an orrery, a telescope, and some clocks.



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1 Cranmer-Byng, J. L., ed., An Embassy to China: Being the Journal Kept by Lord Macartney during his Embassy to the Emperor Ch'ien-lung, 1793–1794 (London, 1962), p. 122.

2 Ibid., pp. 307–19; Cranmer-Byng, J. L., “China, 1792–94,” in Macartney of Lisanoure. 1737–1806: Essays in Biography, ed. Roebuck, Peter (Belfast, 1983), pp. 216–43.

3 Cranmer-Byng, , An Embassy to China, pp. 337–41.

4 Roebuck, pp. 239–40.

5 Anderson, Aeneas, A Narrative of the British Embassy to China (London, 1795), p. 143.

6 Sahlins, Peter, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain (Berkeley, 1989), pp. 270–71.

7 Pocock, J. G. A., “The Limits and Divisions of British History: In Search of the Unknown Subject,” American Historical Review 87 (1982): 313, and see his British History: A Plea for a New Subject,” Journal of Modern History 4 (1975): 601–24.

8 From a still rapidly expanding list, one could cite surveys such as Davies, R. R., Domination and Conquest: The Experience of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, 1100–1300 (Cambridge, 1990); and Kearney, Hugh F., The British Isles: A History of Four Nations (Cambridge, 1989); biographies such as Lee, Maurice, Great Britain's Solomon: James VI and I in His Three Kingdoms (Urbana, Ill., 1990); and Hutton, Ronald, Charles the Second, King of England, Scotland and Ireland (Oxford, 1989); and a recent textbook: Heyck, Thomas William and Lehmberg, Stanford E., The People of the British Isles: A New History, 3 vols. (Belmont, Calif. 1992). See also the references in Clark, J. C. D., “English History's Forgotten Context: Scotland, Ireland, Wales,” Historical Journal 32 (1989): 211–28. It is worth noting that, with some few exceptions, historians of modern Britain have thus far found the Four Nations framework far less attractive and useful than have their medieval and early modern colleagues.

9 British historians were slow to apply the insights on state formation supplied by historians of Continental Europe: see, e.g., Elliott's, J. H.Imperial Spain, 1469–1716 (London, 1963), and his The Revolt of the Catalans (London, 1963).

10 See Russell, Conrad, The Causes of the English Civil War (Oxford, 1990), and his The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637–1642 (Oxford, 1991). Seeley was quoted by Samuel, Raphael in “In Search of Britain,” New Statesman and Society 25 (August 1989): 23.

11 For these trends, see Osmund, John, The Divided Kingdom (London, 1988); Nairn, Tom, The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationatism (London, 1981). As Robert Blake comments, there is a sense in which the Conservative party has always been the party of English nationalism: see his The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill (London, 1970), p. 273.

12 I am aware that—as with all statements about the relationship between Britain and Ireland—this one is controversial.

13 For a full discussion of the points in this paragraph, see my Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1992).

14 Kearney, pp. 1–9 and passim.

15 See Jewell, Byron FrankThe Legislation relating to Scotland after the Forty-five” (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1975); Smith, Annette M., Jacobite Estates of the Forty-five (Edinburgh, 1982); Durkacz, V. E., The Decline of the Celtic Languages: A Study of Linguistic and Cultural Conflict in Scotland, Wales and Ireland from the Reformation to the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh, 1983).

16 Hechter, Pace Michael, Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development (Berkeley, 1975). The unwisdom of treating either England on the one hand, or Scotland, Wales, and Ireland on the other, as though they were racially or culturally homogeneous is well set out in Kearney, passim. As far as England is concerned, Daniel Defoe made the same point very powerfully in The True-Born Englishman (London, 1701).

17 Morgan, Kenneth O., Rebirth of a Nation: Wales, 1880–1980 (Oxford, 1981), p. 20. Two recent collections of essays that capture very well Scotland's considerable autonomy after 1707 as well as the degree to which it exhibited trends in common with its Southern neighbor are Houston, R. A. and Whyte, I. D., eds., Scottish Society, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, 1989); and Mason, Roger A., ed., Scotland and England, 1286–1815 (Edinburgh, 1987).

18 For reasons that are well set out in Sahlins (n. 6 above), passim; and Hobsbawm, E. J., Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 145.

19 For England, see Bossy, John, The English Catholic Community, 1570–1850 (London, 1975), an excellent survey that fails, however, to come to grips with the extent of Anti-Catholicism in this society.

20 Cressy, David, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London, 1989). Orthodox Presbyterian practice did not permit the Church of Scotland to keep calendrical feasts or fasts that were not demonstrably scriptural in their origin. It was able to participate in the special days of worship ordered by London on occasions of national thanksgiving, however, and seems to have done so enthusiastically alongside the Welsh and English churches. The forthcoming doctoral dissertation of my research student, James Caudle, will illumine the Britishwide impact of this state calendar of worship.

21 Scotland's Opposition to the Popish Bill: A Collection of all the Declarations and Resolutions (Edinburgh, 1780), pp. 337–38.

22 Jenkins, Geraint H., Literature, Religion and Society in Wales, 1660–1730 (Cardiff, 1978), p. 47.

23 In their eagerness to chronicle their country's resplendent Enlightenment, Scottish historians have neglected the very different and often singularly unenlightened ideas of the mass of Scotland's population in the 1700s and after. But see Donovan, Robert Kent, No Popery and Radicalism: Opposition to Roman Catholic Relief in Scotland, 1778–1782 (New York, 1987).

24 See Haydon, Colin, “Anti-Catholicism in Eighteenth-Century England, c.1714–c.1780” (Ph.D. diss., Oxford University, 1985).

25 Haller's, William dated but still valuable The Elect Nation: The Meaning and Relevance of Foxe's “Book of Martyrs” (New York, 1963) should be read alongside Firth, Katherine R., The Apocalyptic Tradition in Reformation Britain, 1530–1645 (Oxford, 1975).

26 Foxe, John, The Book of Martyrs: Containing an Account of the Sufferings and Death of the Protestants in the Reign of Queen Mary the First (London, 1732), preface.

27 I discuss these points in greater detail in Britons (n. 13 above).

28 Scotland' Opposition to the Popish Bill, p. 191.

29 Teague, John and Teague, Dorothea, “Where Duty Calls Me”: The Experiences of William Green of Lutterworth in the Napoleonic Wars (West Wickham, 1975), p. 47.

30 Haydon, p. 55.

31 See Callahan, William J. and Higgs, David, eds., Church and Society in Catholic Europe of the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1979), passim.

32 Black, Jeremy, “The Catholic Threat and the British Press in the 1720s and 1730s,” Journal of Religious History 12 (1983): 364–81.

33 Chandler, Samuel, Plain Reasons for being a Protestant (London, 1735), pp. 6364. The most balanced survey of the Jacobite threat after 1688 is Lenman, Bruce, The Jacobite Risings in Britain, 1689–1746 (London, 1980).

34 See Cunningham, Hugh, The Volunteer Force (London, 1975); Bourne, Kenneth, The Foreign Policy of Victorian England (London, 1970).

35 Newman, Gerald, The Rise of English Nationalism: A Cultural History, 1740–1830 (London, 1987).

36 Brewer, John, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688–1783 (London, 1989).

37 Bayly, C. A., Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780–1830 (London, 1989), p. 3.

38 I discuss these points in more detail in Britons (n. 13 above).

39 Quoted in Dawson, Warren R., The Nelson Collection at Lloyd's (London, 1932), pp. 450–51.

40 This is beginning to happen. See, e.g., Rodger, N. A. M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (London, 1986); Steppler, G. A., “The Common Soldier in the Reign of George III, 1760–1793” (D.Phil, diss., Oxford University, 1984).

41 Tibbie, J. W. and Tibbie, Anne, eds., The Prose of John Clare (London, 1951), p. 47.

42 Personal communication, Professor Kathleen Wilson, State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1989.

43 See Fischer, David Hackett, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford, 1989).

44 See Bayly, passim; Cain, Alex M., The Cornchest for Scotland: Scots in India (Edinburgh, 1986); Ingram, E., ed., Two Views of British India: The Private Correspondence of Mr. Dundas and Lord Wellesley, 1798–1801 (Bath, 1970).

45 Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York, 1978), pp. 12.

46 Ibid., pp. 33–34.

47 This is a rich vein of inquiry that historians, as distinct from students of English literature, have barely begun to mine. But see Taube, Samuel R., “British Fiction and the British Empire, 1830–1880” (Ph.D. diss., State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1979); Suleri, Sara, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago, 1992); Bratton, J. S., Acts of Supremacy: The British Empire and the Stage, 1790–1930 (Manchester, 1991); MacKenzie, John M., ed., Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester, 1986); Mangan, J. A., ed., “Benefits Bestowed”: Education and British Imperialism (Manchester, 1988). For a typical piece of imperialism for the young, see Miles, Alfred H., Fifty-two Stories of the British Empire (London, 1897).

48 Beith, John Hay, The Oppressed English (New York, 1917), p. 30.

49 Osmund, John, “Wales in the 1980s,” in Nations without a State: Ethnic Minorities in Western Europe, ed. Forster, Charles R. (New York, 1980), p. 44.

50 Reader, W. J., At Duty's Call: A Study in Obsolete Patriotism (Manchester, 1988).

51 See, e.g., Elliott, Marianne, Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France (New Haven, Conn., 1982).

52 See Cook, Scott B., “The Example of Ireland: Political and Administrative Aspects of the Imperial Relationship with British India, 1855–1922” (Ph.D. diss., Rutgers—The State University, 1987).

53 Pocock, , “The Limits and Divisions of British History” (n. 7 above), p. 333.

54 Quoted in Osmund, p. 44.

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Britishness and Otherness: An Argument

  • Linda Colley


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