Colonialism From Below

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Misha Ewen (@mishaewen) is a Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Bristol, and has published on gender, colonialism, and trading companies in The Historical Journal, Gender & History, and Cultural and Social History. She has just published The Virginia Venture: American Colonization and English Society, 1580-1660 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022).

Misha Ewen

Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, we have witnessed renewed scrutiny of British involvement in colonialism and the transatlantic trade in enslaved people. Many of the names and institutions at the centre of debates (and the manufactured so-called culture war) are early modern, from Edward Colston and Tobias Rustat to the Bank of England. It’s through the lens, and understanding, of the early modern period that apologies have been issued, new findings about institutional complicity have been made, and statues have been torn down. Calls for reparations, from private individuals like Richard Drax MP and institutions like the British monarchy, are also distinctly early modern in their basis and legitimacy.

With good reason, recent action and debate has focused on these particularly prominent individuals and institutions, but this narrowing of attention does mean that we often don’t discuss the wider public interest in and support for colonisation that permeated society in early modern Britain. My impression is that our general understanding about early modern colonisation does not extend to knowing how ordinary women, men, and children encountered and engaged with colonial activity in myriad ways, how they profited from it and upheld it. There were those who shaped policy in the Houses of Parliament and meeting rooms of trading companies, and then there are those who outfitted ships and provided food and lodging to colonists in the days leading up to their departure: women like Elizabeth Hibbert, who earned fifteen shillings providing this service to Virginia colonists departing aboard the Margaret from Gloucestershire in 1619.

Participation in the colonial project operated on a spectrum like this, from what could be considered more passive or fleeting, to active, deeper, engagement. For those individuals and institutions which were more tightly involved with colonial policy and projects, we sometimes have ample evidence of their outlook and activity, and this is where our focus usually lies, rather than on others like Elizabeth Hibbert, who contributed at the margins and remain there. Their imprint on the archive is much lighter, and their interaction with the colonial project appears short-lived. How does evidence of this kind, however fragmentary it is, not only impact how historians understand histories of colonisation and empire, but potentially challenge engrained narratives about our heritage?

Focusing our attention on the everyday efforts ‘from below’ which made colonisation possible pushes us back to a time much earlier than we’d usually imagine, when people in late-sixteenth century and early seventeenth-century English shires were already becoming entangled with the violent business of empire. In my recent book, I argue that there was more ‘social depth’ to colonisation efforts than historians have usually appreciated. People across society were involved in colonial trades, generating capital, and the practices that smoothed the way for the forced labour of poor children and prisoners – the very lifeblood of empires.

An early modern tobacco advertisement: smoking the ‘potent herb’ was one of the ways ordinary people were involved in the colonial project. Credit: the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Our acknowledgement of individual participation in these efforts should not rest on how knowing or determined individuals were about their contributions. Of course, there would have been no empire without an ‘imperial consciousness’, but this does not mean discounting behaviours and actions which made colonisation possible when it is more difficult, or even impossible, to determine the motivations behind them. For this reason, early modern historians are now more likely to include the ephemeral in their work – a tobacco pipe shared between friends, the carrying of a letter about the ‘Virginia voyage’ or the lodging of colonists and washing of their clothes – when exploring how colonisation took hold in America. This most mundane, yet essential, involvement mattered then, matters now.

How can we appreciate and reckon with Britain’s imperial past and its modern legacies without this full understanding of just how embedded colonialism was in early modern England and how implicated wider society was? There’s no way to seek reparative justice for this broader complicity, and there won’t necessarily be statues we can bring down or museum labels to rewrite. More simply it’s an acknowledgement that colonialism was such a widespread phenomenon that it should be central to how we understand society then and now. It should not be possible to separate out parts of our history and heritage from these facts. If we historians downplay and marginalise what might seem minor ‘contributions’ to colonisation, we might inadvertently enable others to overlook, side line, or exceptionalise individual and institutional involvement. 

Further reading:

Ewen, Misha, The Virginia Venture: American Colonization and English Society, 1580-1660 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022)

Gaskill, Malcolm, Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Working, Lauren, The Making of an Imperial Polity: Civility and America in the Jacobean Metropolis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)

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