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The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661.

The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661. By Carla Gardina Pestana (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. 356 pp.).

In a review four years ago, Carla Gardina Pestana recalled a time when the scholarship of the "British Empire" simply meant the empire of the nineteenth century. (1) But as Pestana argues in her latest book, The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, the empire was created in the seventeenth century, when the English Revolution set in motion political, economic, and social changes that redefined the relationship between England and its colonies across the Atlantic world. In the end, she writes that in "the interlock helped to create a new English dominated world that laid the foundation for empire ... commercial, diverse, inegalitarian, and prickly about its rights, this world was born in the crucible of revolution." (2)

The book begins with an introduction to the English Atlantic before the Civil War. One of the strengths of this "prologue," indeed of the entire book, is its truly Atlantic scope, which ranges from Africa across to Newfoundland, down through New England and the Chesapeake all the way to Barbados, with dozens of stops along the way, including tiny Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Although the English successfully "planted" in these places, Pestana rejects the view that these holdings constituted an "empire," as the inter-colonial commercial network that would make colonization so profitable had yet to materialize, and would only do so in the turbulent context of the English Civil War. Before the war, the colonies shared an economic dependency on England as well as a class system where increasing concentrations of landed wealth had already begun to limit social mobility for the poorest of the poor. But as the author recognizes, the desire to acquire land bound colonists of all classes together. Pestana describes how this resulted in the expropriation of Native American land, although she does not treat the wars of colonial conquest that secured territory for English settlement. Thus, the blood-soaked Indian conflicts that formed the frontline of imperial expansion go unexplored, as do the attendant racial and religious identities that they helped to fashion.

The book's first two chapters discuss how most colonies tried to avoid choosing sides during the Civil War. Although sympathies were clear in many places and often religiously-based, Pestana proves that these sympathies did not translate into active support for King or Parliament. Putting aside political or religious principles, colonies such as Virginia, the Bay Colony, and Barbados opted for neutrality to protect their charters and the free trade that made profit possible. But religion did figure importantly in colonial-English relations during the war's early years when many of the English godly favored New England's congregational model as a template for the Atlantic-wide reformation of the English church. This view did not survive the war, however. Pestana argues convincingly that the Bay Colony's repression of heterodoxy ultimately led its English supporters to abandon the New England Way.

Chapters three and four deal with the revolution in imperial policy sponsored by the purged or "Rump" Parliament. The Rump's support for regicide prompted several neutral colonies to proclaim the Stuart heir, Charles II. Ensuing colonial regulations concerning religion and trade further redeemed the view of Royalist planters that the revolutionary government seemed bent on a course of tyrannical innovation. The Act of 1650 did, in fact, give Parliament complete legislative authority over the colonies, thus overhauling the de facto autonomy colonists enjoyed before the English Revolution. The Navigation Acts would follow, as would religious regulations that called for moral reformation and the abolition of episcopacy in favor of sectarian toleration. While parliament never really attempted moral reform in the Caribbean, it hardly needed prompting in New England. But the New Jerusalem would prove difficult in another way, as the Bay Colony's execution of Quakers revealed the difficulties the imperial government faced when it tried to safeguard toleration from afar.

The last two chapters are among the book's most interesting. Chapter five examines how colonials drew upon political rhetoric of the "free born Englishmen" in the face of the grasping policies of the revolutionary government. The irony here does not escape Pestana, who describes how a colonial world literally built by unfree labor developed a discourse in political freedom that defined itself against the "slavery" of imperial infringements upon colonial autonomy. In perhaps the book's strongest section, the author shows how the "Western Design," Cromwell's bloody and inept attempt to conquer the Spanish Caribbean, was "the single most important event" that forced colonists to confront a new imperial order where their own interests were subordinated to those of the imperial state. (3) It also resulted in the conquest of Jamaica, which would eventually become the sugared-jewel of the English Atlantic, affixed to the imperial crown with the blood of hundreds of thousands of slaves.

In many ways, Pestana has written an exceptionally original book, although she ignores to her cost existing work that would only have advanced her thesis, particularly Linebaugh and Rediker's Many-Headed Hydra. (4) Like Pestana, these authors show how the revolutionary English government developed policies to supply the empire with unfree labor from around the Atlantic world. But Linebaugh and Rediker, unlike Pestana, show how workers could transcend the racial, ethnic, religious, and national differences that English planters used to divide them. Through collective action they also developed their own language of freedom, one that drew from the Christian and English traditions of their masters, but redefined the exclusive privileges of these traditions as natural rights. Additionally, Pestana wrongly portrays the English revolutionaries as like-minded imperialists. Many, including the former New Englander Henry Vane, turned against Cromwell after the Western Design, seeing it as a mercenary perversion of the Good Old Cause of the English Revolution. Linked to these condemnations were critiques of the regime's coercion of unfree labor, which some radicals described as a corruption of Christian and republican principles. (5)

Ultimately, the book's many strengths outweigh its weaknesses, which are remarkably few given the ambitious scope of the project. Historians must now more than ever wrestle with the English Revolution's central place in both English imperial history and in the making of the Atlantic world.

John Donoghue

University of Pittsburgh


1. Carla Gardina Pestana, "Review: The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, by David Armitage," William and Mary Quarterly LVIII (2) (April 2001), 542.

2. Pestana, English Atlantic, 1-2.

3. Pestana, English Atlantic, 177.

4. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, 2000).

5. For a fuller treatment of this idea, see my "Unfree Labor: Imperialism, and Radical Republicanism in the Atlantic World, 1630-1661," Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 1 (4) (Winter 2004), 47-68.
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Author:Donoghue, John
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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