Q&A with L.H. Roper

Today at The Junto, L.H. Roper, professor of history at the State University of New York at New Paltz and coeditor in chief of the Journal of Early American History, joins us to discuss his new book, Advancing Empire: English Interest in Overseas Expansion, 1613-1688. In the book, Roper explores the role of private interest in the establishment of a global English empire during the seventeenth century. With chapters that span America, Africa, and Asia, Roper’s work challenges us to think more critically about state versus individual initiative and emphasizes continuity across a wide geographic scope. The book came out last year and has received attention and praise in several notable reviews, which can be found here, here, and here.

JUNTO: Could you explain a little about what inspired you to write this book?

L.H. ROPER: Can a negative provide inspiration? I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the perennial (in the United States) focus on the Western Hemisphere, usually in terms of ‘early American’ social formation with lip service paid to the metropolis, as the basis for considering seventeenth-century English overseas and colonization. In the course of previous investigations I kept coming across these names—Robert Rich (second earl of Warwick), Sir William Courteen, Maurice Thompson, Samuel Vassall, Martin Noell, James Drax—I found deeply involved in myriad overseas ventures although they never received much, if any, serious attention in the historiography of these ventures. The geographic and commercial scale of their careers—and other ‘private interests’—made it apparent that these careers were essential to the expansion of English overseas activities, including the development of Anglo-American colonies; especially as it was equally apparent that the English State, which perennially lacking the requisite funds, apparatus, and degree of interest, never took a lead here. The nature of those careers also convinced me that a proper understanding of the initiation and development of English seventeenth-century overseas endeavors and the consequences of those endeavors, including the increasing capacity of the English State, could only come from adopting a global perspective.

JUNTO: Advancing Empire is an impressive book in terms of geographic scope, with chapters covering English activities in America, Africa, and Asia. What were some of the challenges involved in terms of research and writing?

L.H. ROPER: The main challenge, which I was quite keen to undertake, was to have a much better sense of the histories of Africa and Asia in the seventeenth century: the book provided a happy pretext for doing so and I hope I have not embarrassed myself too much. Another issue was the character of the record, which is scattered through various archival series in various repositories: I had to trawl through Admiralty and other court records (and distractions can pop up while reading these) but I had some reward, such as the fairly detailed account of the 1648 slaving voyage to Guinea and the Caribbean that I tracked at the beginning of chapter three. Even the state papers yield ‘nuggets’. Since the calendars to these series can be useful but often reflect the interests and perspectives of the compilers, the significance of items such as the massive petition presented in 1652 to the Council of State by ‘divers sea captains, mariners, widows, and orphans’ of Ratcliffe, a district east of the Tower of London (pp. 151-152), which set out a litany of injuries sustained from the Dutch going back thirty years, can be missed. Even so, some of these records are too damaged to examine—very frustrating but what can you do?

JUNTO: In your book, you argue that individuals working for their own self-interest “furthered English commercial and territorial situations, the administrative and cultural integration of English overseas interests, and the social and political development of English colonies that constituted the basis of the English Empire in the seventeenth century and provided the platform for the post-1707 British Empire” (2). In short, looking at these merchants, aristocrats, and colonial-imperialists reshapes our understanding of English imperial advancement in fundamental ways. Why do you think the role of these colonial-imperialists been relatively neglected in the historiography until now?

L.H. ROPER: I think a large part of the neglect has come from the abiding preference for regarding the political culture of ‘early America’ as driven by resistance of colonial Americans to the plans of allegedly tyrannical, inept, and/or impractical imperial ‘masters’ (unless they were neglectful). In the first instance, both a local orientation and resistance to perceived encroachments on local liberties were pillars of English political culture that extended naturally—both formally and informally—to Anglo-America and other remote parts of the seventeenth-century Anglophone world. More importantly, though, the enduring tendency to think of colonists and metropolitan officials/administrators/colonizers at loggerheads demonstrates how ingrained the nineteenth-century conception of the imperial state is in the historiographical imagination for all of the recent emphasis (and rightly so) on ‘Atlantic’ and similar perspectives that seek to deemphasize the nation-state (and empire) as an appropriate concept for studying the seventeenth century. Even so, the presumption that ‘the state’ is advancing ‘state’ interests—even in the seventeenth century—remains an essential component of ‘early modern’ history. In reality, local leaders not only cooperated (‘collaborated’?) with ‘the state’ they often invited involvement of the center into their disputes in the metropolis as well as in the colonies although it never hurt to have a sympathetic ear in the government; the 1664 attack on New Netherland was an excellent example of how the English imperial system worked (pp. 210-212).

Then, it turns out that the discernably more direct role that the English State played in overseas affairs after 1642 came about because people like Thompson and his patron, Warwick, took over the state and used their new position to their economic and political advantage.

JUNTO: Could you speak a little about your decision to use the term English Empire? Specifically, how would you respond to the tendency among early Americanists to view seventeenth-century English colonial activity as not quite “imperial”?

L.H. ROPER: The character of seventeenth-century English overseas activities differed, of course, from what transpired in the later British Empire. Yet, there was a sufficient degree of organization, integration, and purpose to seventeenth-century overseas commercial and colonizing enterprises to warrant characterizing this activity as ‘imperial’. The ‘trick’ comes in recognizing that this purpose occurred with the state customarily assuming a reactive place in overseas pursuits.

JUNTO: Advancing Empire expertly weaves the history of the transatlantic slave trade into wider English endeavors in Asia and the Americas, providing a compelling argument for rethinking the relationship between growing English involvement in the slave trade and the global reach of English imperialism during the seventeenth century. How does centering the slave trade reshape how we think about English imperialism?

L.H. ROPER: Thank you for your kind ‘expertly’ observation! The central point of what passed for English imperialism in the seventeenth century was the quest for regular access to valuable overseas commodities. Labor was notoriously perhaps the most lucrative of these commodities: as contemporaries recognized, only this economic lifeline (ugh) sustained American plantations; maintaining it required access to Asian fabrics, cowries, and other commodities that African merchants preferred (along with Swedish iron): the most comprehensive seventeenth-century imperial visions—all of which came from “private” sources—and the global struggle against Dutch interests revolved around this. Of course, Asia had other attractions, such as nutmeg, that also fueled Anglo-Dutch competition.

The chronology is vital to understanding the importance of the slave trade but the American-oriented perspective on imperial developments that claims a ‘transition to slavery’ on the part of planters has obscured it: some English people worked out the value of labor rather earlier than we have been told (perhaps as early as the 1480s). English operators (even before there were English planters in any numbers) were certainly involved in the Caribbean slave trade by the early 1610s. Various people, most notably Courteen, were aware of the Dutch plantations in Essequibo where slavery was well in place by 1613; Courteen and his agents extended slavery to the colony they founded at Barbados in 1627. The year before, Maurice Thompson (another Warwick client), who had been an indentured servant in Virginia before returning to England, sent the earliest English slave trading voyage to an English colony (St. Christopher) that I have found. After the Dutch cleared the Portuguese from the Gold Coast in 1637, English operators had clearer access to “Guinea”; while the likes of Thompson and Samuel Vassall were determined to take full advantage of this situation, their prospective customers in Anglo-America cannot have known much about it.

JUNTO: What’s next for you?

L.H. ROPER: I have several new projects in mind. The first will be a further investigation of seventeenth-century English activities in Africa. I’m certain that there is more evidence of voyages to ‘Guinea’ in the first half of the century but it entails a return to panning for gold in the High Court of Admiralty and Mayor’s Court of London records; off to Blighty again next June.

Another considers the history of the area bounded by the Connecticut, St. Lawrence, and Mohawk Rivers and Chesapeake Bay between 1636 (the founding of Hartford, Connecticut and Springfield, Massachusetts on the Connecticut) and 1744 (the Treaty of Lancaster that ‘opened’ the trans-Appalachian region to European colonization). I have begun conceptualizing this as an ‘imperial zone’ and what that meant in contemporary terms (for Native people, about whom I would like to write more, as well as Europeans).

A third will examine the involvement of colonial-imperialists, such as George Downing (and his relations), in Cromwellian Scotland. For instance, these characters hatched a scheme to export prisoners of war to work in the iron works developed by Downing’s cousin, John Winthrop Jr., at Saugus, Massachusetts. The iron works has received attention, inevitably in terms of the economy of ‘colonial America’, but this Scottish aspect of it has only been noted in passing. I think that this initiative—typical of the thinking and behavior of these people—suggests quite a bit about the character of the seventeenth-century English Empire and how imperial operators, such as the Winthrop-Downing family, worked within it.

More ambitiously, Martine van Ittersum, a leading scholar of the Dutch in Asia, and Jaap Jacobs, whose work on the Dutch in North America is seminal, and I are planning a global history of Anglo-Dutch relations from the Treaty of Nonsuch (whereby England recognized the Dutch Republic in 1585) to the Treaty of Utrecht. But, as we all have other pressing matters, this might have to wait until retirement.


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