Review of Britannia’s Auxiliaries

9780198808701Kate Fullagar, STEPHEN CONWAYBritannia’s Auxiliaries: Continental Europeans and the British Empire, 1740–1800., The American Historical Review, Volume 124, Issue 4, October 2019, Pages 1521–1522,

For a modest book—modest in its claims and its tone—Stephen Conway’s Britannia’s Auxiliaries: Continental Europeans and the British Empire, 1740–1800 is exceptionally moving. It is moving most of all for what it does not say. This absence is best encapsulated by the publication date: 2017. In his preface, Conway notes that he had been working on the book since 2012, but that most of the research and writing was accomplished during 2015 and 2016. He must have been polishing the final draft just as the results of Britain’s cataclysmic Brexit referendum became known. This is above all a book for the Brexit era. Its lament for a Britain once integrated and cooperative with Europe would be almost deafening save for one thing: Conway never mentions the present-day politics surrounding the book’s production.

The omission is curious, presumably the result of the author’s own disinclination to “date” the work more conspicuously than it might do otherwise. It may have been a decision of the press. Either way, no one could read this work without noting its extraordinary contemporary context. Its detailed explanation of the many and various ways that Europeans built, manned, consumed, exercised, benefited from, and lived within the British state and empire through the eighteenth century contrasts completely with the prospective relationship between Europe and Britain today. The juxtaposition is impossible to ignore. Much like J. G. A. Pocock’s “British History: A Plea for a New Subject” (Journal of Modern History 47, no. 4 [December 1975]: 601–621), which urged a reconsideration of England’s historic weight in the middle of the decolonization era, or Christopher Hill’s The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries (1984), which offered up a reassessment of post-restoration radicals in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s dizzying rise to power, Conway’s Britannia’s Auxiliaries is sure to be considered as a measure of the current day as much as a contribution to historical knowledge.

To be sure, the book’s contribution to eighteenth-century history is notable. Conway claims three chief offerings. First, he argues that his extensive findings of European mercenaries, investors, servants, scientists, and merchants, involved with British enterprises at home and abroad, add nuance to our understanding of the British state at this time. It was a strong state, as John Brewer outlined more than thirty years ago, but it was strong through cooperation, co-option, and coexistence more than through pure exclusion, expulsion, or isolation. Second, Conway argues that proof of such an integration of the European presence undermines a long-running line about the causes of the American Revolution: the fact that European involvement did not seem to hurt British strength overseas puts paid to the notion that colonial revolt occurred due to a dilution of “Britishness” in North America (8). Third, Conway insists that his research shows how the common historiographical border dividing Britain’s European history and Britain’s imperial history is false and misleading. Both were entwined, he argues, especially in terms of economic and settler history.

All three of Conway’s claims to significance are justified. The level of detail about the variety and number of European personnel in British armed forces, colonial hot spots, missionary outposts, and merchant coffee shops is near overwhelming. That none of this infiltration seemed seriously to diminish imperial objectives—in fact, that most of it bolstered them—speaks eloquently to Conway’s points about the strength of the state and its identity. The chapter on European motivations not only provides an otherwise rare glimpse into the individual agency of Conway’s subjects; it also shores up his general argument about the coherence of British ideology across the world in the eighteenth century. And throughout the whole book, Conway interweaves European and imperial scenarios, networks, and events. Surely the old debate about whether fanfare for British expansionism in the eighteenth century was “really” about Europe or “really” about empire has by now died a deserved death. Although the end chapters of Conway’s earlier book War, State, and Society in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland (2006) in some ways supported the existence of this division, his new work joins others in decrying the utility of such an opposition for understanding the Georgian period.

Parts of the body of this book threaten to crackle with dryness: the small number of longish chapters, each bearing loads of examples, and always discussed with a furious attention to the historical period at hand and no other, can remind readers at times of the more earnest aspects of a doctoral thesis. The conclusion, however, exemplifies the many ways that Conway’s points add up to an almost unbearable poignancy in the present. “In practice,” Conway writes, “the British Empire was never a hermetically sealed unit; continental Europeans contributed . . . to its consolidation, defence, and expansion” (212). Some Europeans contributed under duress, he notes, but others “participated willingly, even enthusiastically” (213). Moreover, they chose Britain over other empires because Britain made the fewest demands on them: the nation offered opportunities to European families in fair proportion to the opportunities it knew it gained in consequence. Two hundred and fifty years later, this rich partnership appears at an end.

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