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The first British Empire and the question of ‘improvement’

Blog • • Dr Gabriel Glickman

In a recent episode of the BBC series Civilisations, David Olusoga examined the ‘Cult of Progress’ created to celebrate the achievements of nineteenth-century European empires, and vindicate their blueprints for ‘civilising’ indigenous peoples. 

A map of Virginia from Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590). Credit: Thomas Hariot, Theodor de Bry, via The British Library

A map of Virginia from Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590). Credit: Thomas Hariot, Theodor de Bry, via The British Library

Many of these ideas had been incubated in an earlier period, with the construction of the ‘First British Empire’, centred on territories in North America. In the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, over 300,000 English settlers surged into newly-formed colonies and plantations. Hundreds of vessels crossed the Atlantic annually, and the achievements of discovery and conquest were held up as an exhibition of national greatness. ‘Progress’ may have been a doctrine of the later Enlightenment, but the looser idea of ‘Improvement’ was the watchword for earlier generations of colonial promoters, operating on both sides of the Atlantic. According to one Virginia landowner, the creation of an English empire could unleash radical possibilities for ‘the benefitt of mankind and the advantage of the Commonwealth of Learning’.

Science and Empire

By 1600, hopes for English colonisation were closely bound to insights arising from natural philosophy. For the explorer Thomas Hariot, English dexterity in the New World arose not simply from manpower but intellectual weaponry - ‘Mathematicall instruments, sea compasses… gunnes, bookes’. Through these tools, agreed the clergyman John Beale, seafarers had begun to unlock the secrets of God’s universe, gaining ‘dominion over the Winds, Ayre, Water & Lands’. European authors and artists believed that technological innovations put their own societies at a higher stage of development than the native peoples encountered on other continents. 

Europa and America, woodcut in Ripa’s Iconologia 1603 widely known as the ‘Four Corners of the World’. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Europa and America, woodcut in Ripa’s Iconologia 1603 widely known as the ‘Four Corners of the World’. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Intellectual advances raised the equally enticing prospect that modern kingdoms could outstrip the achievements of fallen empires in the ancient world. Thomas Sprat, a fellow of the Royal Society, believed that Englishmen were attaining mental as well as territorial mastery over their dominions, having ‘describ’d, and illustrated, all parts of the Earth’, as they planted. With their cargoes of plants, artefacts, animals and ‘curiosities’, every returning vessel was seen to enhance the stock of human knowledge and increase the resources available for English power. Colonies became laboratories, and the emerging empire a vessel for the expansion of the human mind.

The ‘improvement’ of the Amerindians

English authors staked their claim over the New World on their capacity to convert a ‘vacant wilderness’ into productive agricultural landholdings. They aimed equally to bring about the reform of the indigenous societies with whom they came into contact. Early ventures among the Indians spread reports of a people brimming with unrealised moral and intellectual potential.

The Elizabethan artists John White and Theodore de Bry combined popular depictions of Indian life with paintings of the ancient Britons. The similarity was intended to prove that ‘Inhabitants of Great Bretannie have bin in times past as savage as those of Virginia’. The implication, believed the clergyman Robert Gray, was that ‘it is not the nature of men, but the education of men, which makes them barbarous and uncivill. Change the education of men and you shall see that their nature will be greatly rectified and corrected’.

Pictures of American people like ‘The Conjurer’ (left) appeared alongside brutal images of Picts from ancient Scotland (right). Credit: Thomas Hariot, Theodor de Bry, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590) via The British Library

Pictures of American people like ‘The Conjurer’ (left) appeared alongside brutal images of Picts from ancient Scotland (right). Credit: Thomas Hariot, Theodor de Bry, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590) via The British Library

As the Celts had been wrenched towards civilisation by their Roman conquerors, so the conquerors of the New World had an opportunity to reframe Indian minds, and usher ‘primitive’ peoples into the superior web of English nationality, European culture and Protestant Christianity.

Conflict on the frontier

Yet settlers struggled to bring these designs to fruition. The English failed to conquer Indian societies, and by 1640, after a succession of conflicts in Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut, the colonial outposts were placed on permanent high alert. Settlers turned more commonly towards the exclusion rather than the incorporation of native peoples, endeavouring to push Indians further back from the frontiers.

A century after the creation of the first settlements, the early visions for Anglo-Indian contact had been clouded with pessimism. For one Virginia magnate, writing in 1704, the English had succeeded only in introducing degraded forms of their own culture - ‘drunken-ness and luxury’ – to their neighbours in the New World.

Accordingly, the Indians ‘have on several accounts reason to lament the arrival of the Europeans’, who had robbed them of their ‘primitive innocence’ as well as ‘a great part of their Country’. The missionary clergymen Morgan Godywn feared that, far from Christianising and ‘civilising’ the Indians, colonial encounters had instead induced cultural regression among Englishmen. Grasping after land and riches, settlers had forgotten the higher mandate of colonisation, and surrendered themselves to ‘the Barbarity and Heathenism of the Countries they live in’.

Imperial anxieties

These comments reinforced older and deeper anxieties registered in English debates over colonisation. Seventeenth-century authors wrestled with warnings issued from biblical and classical sources against the avarice, self-delusion and inevitable decline that attended on territorial empire. Renaissance scholarship taught that all societies followed the trajectory of the human body – they grew, ripened and decayed. From the empty ‘Walls and Palace of Babylon’ to, ‘the Pyramids of Egypt… the Temples and Palaces of Greece and Rome’, the stage of human history was littered, according to the diplomat William Temple, with the debris of mighty powers that had tried and failed to overcome that invincible cycle.

Following the same pattern, the colonisation of the New World may have raised a ‘great Increase of Wealth and Luxury’ in England, but it had brought few achievements likely to surpass ancient Rome. For Temple, English knowledge of the world had advanced little beyond a fleeting familiarity with ‘the customs and manners of so many original Nations, which we call Barbarous, and I am sure have treated them as if we hardly esteem them to be a part of Mankind’. For Temple’s protégé Jonathan Swift, the men of his age were not great; they were small, and, like the Lilliputians in his work Gulliver’s Travels they were being made smaller still, by the scale of their pretension to spread civilisation over the world.

Through the seventeenth century and into the modern world, European expansion was legitimised by a claim to advance the universal interests of mankind. But the connection between ‘empire’ and ‘progress’ was subject to relentless interrogation within the ‘old world’. In presenting the moral purpose behind their ventures, champions of colonisation were forced to negotiate the messy realities of implanting power in unfamiliar environments. They also had to overcome misgivings embedded within their own political and intellectual traditions.


Dr Gabriel Glickman is a University Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. In October 2018, he will take up a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to work on his project, ‘The making of an imperial nation: colonisation, politics and English identity 1660-1702.’

Blog • • Dr Gabriel Glickman