By Chris Cotton, ProQuest Senior Product Manager
Over 350 years of British colonial activity and its associated conflicts are documented in two ProQuest historical collections — Colonial State Papers and British Periodicals. The former presents documents pertaining to the administration of Britain’s North American colonies during the period 1583-1757, while the latter features reporting, discussion, and analysis of the myriad aspects of British colonialism from the late-17th through to the 20th centuries.
If the 17th-century colonisation of North America and the West Indies was inescapably accompanied by conflict, the publications in ProQuest’s British Periodicals collections shed light on how this trend continued through Britain’s wider attempts to acquire, administer, and retain territory from the 18th through to the 20th centuries.
It is clear from perusing British Periodicals that the pursuit of colonial objectives through military force did not bring about a universal, unalloyed patriotic sentiment. The contingent popular response is apparent in the contemporary verses and songs that followed British successes during the 18th and 19th centuries, many of which are reprinted and reviewed in the publications comprising British Periodicals. Following the eviction of Napoleon from Egypt in 1799, the author of a review of W. L. Bowles’s “Song of the Battle of the Nile” in the Analytical Review observes that the poet’s having made “[e]very attempt to assuage the miseries, without countenancing the vices of war” entitles him to “the highest applause”, but notes that it would have been the more admirable “if his strains had approached less nearly to the air of the war-whoop."
As well as Britain’s continued colonial expansion, the strain wrought by the struggle for — and the ultimate loss of — the 13 American colonies is articulated in many articles of the time. One author in the Sentimental Magazine agonises about the merits of sacrificing prestige in order to avoid material ruin. Writing in 1776, during the throes of the Revolutionary War, he anxiously asks “if corn should become as scarce on the continent of Europe as it probably will be in England, how are we to avoid the fatal consequences of a famine before next year’s harvest." His proposal is that “an immediate accommodation of the dispute with America” should be reached: “I am sensible that our ministers will talk of the national honour; but what will the people think of that honour, when the famine stares them in the face?”
The latest collection in the British Periodicals series — Collection III — completes the picture by adding a substantial volume of content from the 20th century, and therefore encompasses the contemporary reactions to the process of post-war British decolonization. The tone of reporting on Britain’s ceding her overseas territories varies considerably. Responses to the Irish Independence movement, for example, range from the politically and morally charged to the merely pragmatic. One writer in The Tatler and Bystander remarks in 1947 on the partitioning of Ireland with a tone of sober accountancy, noting that “to have two Parliaments to rule 4,000,000 people” would mean “the doubling of Government offices and posts” and observes that “[t]he saving alone to the people of Ireland by unity would be considerable."
A more emotional reaction to the process of decolonisation is found in The Sphere in 1963, where the author characterises the dissolution of the Central African Federation as “a sombre story, whose end is not yet told” and, observing that “[d]ecolonisation is always a painful process," warns that “further disagreeable and dangerous ordeals await” the European settlers in Southern Rhodesia.
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