REVIEW BY ANDREW MULHOLLAND
This is a provocative book which will ruffle feathers, perhaps among some MHM readers. But it is also an important one. While the heart of The Great Defiance is historic, presenting an alternative narrative of what is often described as the ‘First’ British Empire, its central purpose is historiographic – to demonstrate that much of the history of this period is distorted.
Indeed, author David Veevers closes his volume not with commonplace assertions about the damage the empire might have done, but with one about the damage British scholarship has done. He means to pick a fight here.
It is not that Veevers wants to play down the importance of Britain in this story. However, he wishes to demonstrate that the cultures and polities that the British encountered were sophisticated and powerful, and often successful in checking the expansion of this nascent empire. Lazy assumptions about a British superpower steamrolling primitive cultures are his target. His method is to tell the story from the perspective of the peoples the British attempted to dominate, and to focus on stories of their resistance.
Veevers is a lecturer in history at Bangor University. He has studied and written widely on global history and the early modern period. This is his second book. The Great Defiance weighs in at 502 pages, including an index, footnotes, a copious bibliography, and some useful maps. In other words, this is a substantial piece of work.
The methodology and perspective that Veevers has adopted means that the book is not comprehensive. It proceeds through the first 300 years of British (technically English, then British) expansion chronologically, but not exhaustively. Most of these areas have been well researched and documented before, and Veevers gives full credit to the historians concerned.
What he has been able to do is to assemble a series of accounts from the different parts of the world that the British engaged with, and to put them in one volume, in order to make his point. To an extent, it becomes a series of case studies, as the book examines those flashpoints at which the British encountered serious opposition.
It is thus a mistake to approach this as the story of the early British Empire. Rather, it is the story of those who opposed the early British Empire. So some mental gymnastics are required of those of us accustomed to Western-centric accounts; and this is its point.
A big plus here is the book’s entertainment value. The style is lively, the subjects and locations wide-ranging. There is a lot to learn about the cultures the British encountered, their histories and motivations. A good example would be the Maratha empire in north-central India and its struggle with the longer established Mughals. This is context for explaining the importance and success of the Marathas in resisting British ambitions, but it also serves as a taster for anyone unfamiliar with this aspect of Indian history.
We venture much further afield than this, including places where English/British proto-imperialism was attempted, but simply failed. These included enclaves in Java and Japan. Such intriguing accounts are, if anything, more important than the more familiar and ultimately ‘successful’ efforts in areas such as the Caribbean. The very fact that the book can operate in this way, reminding readers that these are fascinating, important, under-explored societies, again underlines his central case.
This approach does mean that some aspects of the early British imperial story are absent. The American Revolution is the most obvious of these and, indeed, there is barely any coverage of the history of the colonies on the north-eastern seaboard. Mentions are in passing, and only insofar as the region has a bearing on the rest of the narrative.
Intriguingly, we read about the genesis of the Tea Act in terms of British ambitions in India and, with a nod towards the Boston Tea Party, Veevers leaves it at that. This is his chosen method, and certainly it would not be very plausible to classify the American rebels as ‘indigenous or non-European’ – Veevers’ slightly fuzzy but nonetheless workable definition of the ‘defiant’ societies he describes.
The book’s structure produces a certain amount of chronological and spatial bouncing about, which can at times be puzzling. The sheer verve of the storytelling means the reader will quickly re-engage, but this could be off-putting for those without a good grasp of the early modern period. To repeat, this is not intended as a straight-line narrative.
Readers of MHM might wonder about the extent to which the book is military history. The answer is partially so, with broad coverage of the many violent clashes that punctuated this era. At times, particularly where the author is keen to reveal the military proficiency of Britain’s opponents, considerable detail is presented.
It is also the case that a lot of these engagements are small-scale and little-covered in mainstream military history. For that, they will make interesting, colourful, and often surprising reading for those with a broad interest in the subject.
In Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, for example, we read about the extremely violent series of raids and counter-raids that characterised much of the intercourse between the British, French, and indigenous Kalinago people in the 17th-century Lesser Antilles. Larger-than-life personalities, treachery, and innovative tactics make for a fascinating account. On a much bigger scale, the sophisticated military cultures that developed in Mughal and Maratha India are well described, as are some of the major clashes they produced.
These are ingredients in the mix though, rather than the central concern of Veevers. His is a multifaceted analysis, equally interested in the commercial, political, and social drivers of the events he describes. This makes for a rounder, perhaps more thoughtful overview than a strictly military history would provide.
Furthermore, unless your historic taste is literally confined to military matters, it is undeniably interesting. As military history enthusiasts, we are accustomed to that focus and there is nothing wrong with that in itself. But the broader causality of military conflict and indeed the tides of history are relevant. However provocative Veevers’ analysis is, it is well argued, thoroughly researched, and engagingly written.
For provocative it surely is. Inherently so, in that the argument being made is radical, setting out to challenge much of what has come before. There can be little to quibble with here unless one takes the view that Veevers’ analysis is badly flawed.
More likely to ruffle those feathers is the book’s emotional content. For there is also a sense of moral outrage that stalks these pages, especially in the earlier sections of the book. British readers in particular may find this grates. History becomes dull without passion and a moral viewpoint. For this (British) reader, though, the dish was at times over-spiced.
A common reaction to such sentiments can be ‘whataboutism’, wherein the reader begins listing for himself supposedly equal crimes committed by the ‘other side’. Veevers is good on this, careful to examine (for example) the pre-existing role of slavery in Africa and not being squeamish when it comes to cataloguing the atrocities of the Algonquian counterattack in Virginia.
Stepping back from any such personal hang-ups, the book’s British subject matter raises other important questions. One is contextual, as in how much resistance did other European empires encounter during their own periods of expansion, and allied questions of relative performance.
Of course, this is not what the book is about: its organising theme is the early British Empire. Those other players – Portugal, France, Spain, Holland, and so forth – inevitably feature heavily. Yet perhaps for reasons of space, Veevers does not offer us much by way of comparative analysis here.
Another is modern relevance. Whatever view one takes of Veevers’ argument, it is difficult to deny that it has application not only for the corpus of early modern history, but also for modern Britain. Looked at through this lens, many of the questions that dominate British contemporary life take on a different hue. That’s no bad thing – it is history’s primary purpose.
These are the kind of thoughts one has having read Veevers’ closing remarks. Because of its subject matter, the book’s readership will probably divide into distinct groups. One might be those, particularly beyond Europe, for whom none of this is news. ‘About time,’ they might say, while indulging in a bit of confirmation bias. Arguably the book will be less useful and certainly less shocking for them than it will be for others.
Then there will be those who are outraged, stoked up by the book’s combative style and its direct challenge to an established historic outlook.
Finally, there may be a group educated in the Western tradition who accept and are not particularly surprised by the thesis, but nonetheless pause and consider its full implications. For them, and for me, this will be an important process.
The Great Defiance: How the world took on the British Empire
Ebury Press, hbk (£22)