Overseas expansion and British identities, 1585-1714

Course Material 2022/23

The seventeenth-century brought the possibility of attaining an empire outside Europe into British domestic politics. Through this period, over 300,000 subjects of the realm advanced across the Atlantic,  seating themselves within uncharted American spaces and among unfamiliar native peoples. The creation of trading depots, forts and encampments in parts of India and the Guinea Coast offered further  glimmerings of global ambition. Strategic and commercial interests similarly ushered the crown into the occupation of Mediterranean cities, islands and peninsula.

This paper will look at how the British kingdoms were themselves transformed by overseas expansion.  It will explore the political and intellectual influences that drove colonisation in the New World, will examine  the spheres of interest created in India and Africa, and place conquest and plantation in the context of wider patterns of British travel outside Europe. The emphasis of the paper will not be on the histories of particular colonial territories. Rather, it will focus on the contested place of empire within the domestic realm: the impact that ventures outside Europe wrought over the politics, religion, material culture and imaginative literature of Britain and Ireland. Seminars will show how encounters with unfamiliar lands, commodities and peoples were dramatised and circulated for public consumption, and will look at how territorial enlargement contributed to the political and religious discontents internal to the Stuart kingdoms. A particular theme will be the effect of overseas expansion upon national identities at home, exploring the way in which the creation of ‘Greater Britain’ changed relations between the different component parts of the Stuarts’ monarchy.

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Image: Detail from Part of Tangier from above. Wenceslaus Hollar  (1607–1677)