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The Great Defiance: How the World Took on the British Empire by David Veevers

The author argues that instead of thinking that Britain ‘made’ the modern world, we should think about how ‘Britain unmade the world’ by replacing many histories with its own

The Great Defiance: How the World Took on the British Empire
Author: David Veevers
ISBN-13: 978-1529109955
Publisher: Ebury Press
Guideline Price: £25

For nine long years from 1593 Ireland was ravaged by one of the largest and most brutal wars that Europe had seen for centuries. Tens of thousands of soldiers died from fighting and disease, while even more civilians died from famines instigated by English attempts to starve the population into submission. As the Elizabethan state poured money and men into Ireland, it seemed to many that the country could never be subdued. As veteran officer Nicholas Dawtry wrote in 1597, a “conquered nation” is “evermore malicious unto those that conquered them, and so will be until the world’s end”’.

The English, and then the British, would go on to conquer many more nations in the subsequent centuries, using military and economic might to establish a global empire. That history is often told from the perspective of British success, of “progress” and “modernity”, a “great divergence” in which Britain became the most advanced and dominant power on Earth. But as David Veevers writes in his provocative new history of the empire’s first centuries, it is just as important to remember that everywhere they went the British found advanced societies offering fierce resistance to their colonisation. The history of the early modern world, he argues, looks very different from their perspective.

Brexit Britain is in the grip of a “history war” in which right-wing media, politicians and commentators are intent on defending the empire’s “legacy” from an academic and cultural shift towards “decolonisation”. Victorian myths about the “civilising” power of empire have been hamfistedly resurrected. While some historians prefer to ignore such politicised “debate”, Veevers is determined to take it on.

He rightly diagnoses that the British public mind vastly overestimates the global importance of early modern England (even if it is perhaps a stretch to call it an “impoverished and drab region of northwest Europe” and “an intellectual and artistic backwater”). But it is not, he powerfully argues, England’s European imperial rivals who deserve more attention. Beyond “the great game” with the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch and the French, early English colonialism was primarily directed against the indigenous societies that lay in the way of new colonies in the Atlantic, and the empires who controlled trade with the East.


Veevers shows that for centuries English imperialism generally struggled or failed when it came up against the interests of eastern superpowers whose commercial, political and military power often dwarfed England’s. The Ottomans in the Mediterranean and the near east, the Ming and Qing dynasties in China, the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan, and the Mughal empire in India “only tolerated the presence of the English as far as they were useful”. When they became threatening the English were often defeated or expelled. By focusing on later western hegemony, Veevers persuasively argues, we misunderstand the power politics of the early modern world.

The geopolitics of imperial superpowers, however, is not necessarily “resistance”. That word perhaps better describes the experience of the indigenous peoples and cultures displaced by English plantation. Veevers begins his narrative in Ireland, where “the Irish were the first people caught in the crosshairs of English colonialism”, though many Irish historians might raise eyebrows at the binary perspective he adopts.

Rather than be transformed into an English “lordship”, he writes of the late medieval period, “Ireland had reclaimed its independence”. But the prism of “independence” heavily simplifies the island’s patchwork of dynastic power politics, pushing nationalist narratives further back than our history can bear.

Veevers admirably tries to render Irish names in their own language, but his linguistic hybrid only serves to highlight elided complexity. “Hugh Ó Néill” was Hugh O’Neill in English and Aodh Ó Néill in Irish, and the great earl’s shifts between those identities were key to his political career. Tyrone’s rebellion is cast as an attempt to “rid his country of every shred of English influence”, but even many contemporaries would have suggested that O’Neill’s conversion to “faith and fatherland” was about ruthless self-interest rather than “resistance”.

Not since the coming of the Normans, Veevers writes of the 1590s, “had Ireland been this free”, with bards able to “travel the glens” and pastoralists “roam the meadows”. “For a few brief years, a different future could be envisaged: one without atrocities, famine, dispossession, religious persecution or cultural repression.” But these emerald-tinted lenses obscure a violent and exploitative society in which the Reformation and Counter-Reformation ushered in deep sectarianism. We do not need to mythologise in order to acknowledge the catastrophe of colonisation.

“The Irish never stopped resisting the English,” Veevers writes of the 17th and 18th centuries, but it is hard to fit O’Neill’s dynastic absolutism, the Catholic gentry’s royalist loyalism in the English civil war, and Henry Grattan’s sectarian ascendancy parliament into one narrative of national resistance (never mind the Irish soldiers and officials who helped spread the emerging British empire across the world). The vast and shifting conflicts of the 1640s in particular – the focus of recent decades of research in early modern Irish history – are almost entirely absent.

At times it feels like the debates of Brexit Britain are leading Veevers to ask the wrong questions about Ireland, almost instrumentalising our complex colonial history. “How might we understand the conquest of Ireland,” he writes, “if we note the enduring success of Irish culture, even in affecting its English colonisers?” Since when have we not?

Across the Atlantic the lines between imperial and indigenous were starker. Veevers engagingly shows how early English colonies in ”Carolina” were successfully opposed by the people of Ossomocomuck, and how the Powhatans of Tsenacomoco dealt with centuries of colonisation in “Virginia”. “The story of the Powhatans is as much about survival as it is about destruction.”

Further south he explores how the Kalinago people resisted and adapted to the English sugar colonies built on enslaved African labour, powerfully sketching a “forgotten indigenous Caribbean” that refused to go quietly into the night. It is surprising that there is no mention of Britain’s iconic defeat to revolutionary Haiti in the 1790s, but in both the “West Indies” and North America Veevers reminds us how a colonial narrative of “they came, they saw, they conquered” erases centuries of indigenous (and enslaved) agency.

The “success” of early resistance to English imperialism, he argues, was in large part due to the weakness of the English state and its colonial entities. With “the Glorious Revolution” and the act of union with Scotland, Britain gained the “political and religious stability, and fiscal and commercial effectiveness” to more effectively project its strength globally.

That Whiggish narrative remains controversial, but Veevers is on his firmest ground in south Asia, where his first book focused on the East India Company. He skilfully narrates both the failure of the company’s battles with the Mughals and the later long and difficult conquest of the Maratha empire by a Britain transformed into “the world’s foremost superpower”.

That power, however, was still contested. Veevers looks to west Africa, where the Atlantic slave trade underpinned centuries of British imperial expansion, to show how indigenous societies continued to help shape the empire through their own actions. Through the persistence of Dahomey (in modern Benin), “there was still room for states in the 18th century successfully to defy the British Empire, regardless of its growing power”.

That distinction between states and people is important. Dahomey’s “independence” from European powers, after all, was built through the brutal conquest of its neighbours, and by “seizing control of the trade in enslaved people for [its] own benefit”. Grouping a huge range of “indigenous and non-European power” together perhaps reinforces British imperial perspectives rather than undermining them: the common thread between the displaced Kalinago and the mighty Mughals is that they encountered the English.

Veevers provocatively argues that instead of thinking that Britain “made” the modern world we should think about how “Britain unmade the world” by replacing many histories with its own. We must, “consider all of the diverse threads of world history equally, regardless of which ones eventually went on to achieve dominance”.

Writing of a “pre-modern world that had met the threat of the British empire with great defiance”, however, is the opposite of that. The early modern world was, as Veevers writes, “a world of diversity, as well as complexity and power”. For much of this period there was not yet a global British empire to defy or resist, and looking back at the period through Britain’s later hegemony reduces its richness. Rejecting the grand narrative of imperialism and its apologists does not require another grand narrative of “resistance” taken from later times.

The British empire was a racist, rapacious, and violent force that enslaved, exploited and erased peoples and cultures across the globe. We do not need to simplify the histories of those who encountered it to acknowledge that fact. This wide-ranging book will hopefully shift some of Britain’s toxic public debate about empire, but decolonisation requires us to move beyond the backwards glances of the post-imperial power.

Christopher Kissane is a historian and writer, and host of the Ireland’s Edge podcast.

Further Reading

Courting India: England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire by Nandini Das (Bloomsbury, 2023). With an extraordinary depth of research and brilliant writing, Das illuminates the often-overlooked beginnings of British involvement in India from both western and Indian perspectives.

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal (Verso, 2019). Gopal shows how resistance movements from India to Kenya challenged the empire during its 19th and 20th century heights, and changed popular attitudes to imperialism back in Britain.

On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe b Caroline Dodds Pennock (Knopf, 2023). By reversing the direction of Atlantic encounter, Dodds Pennock shows us the early modern world from a very different perspective, that of the indigenous Americans who travelled to Europe and “discovered” the world that would come to colonise their home continent.

Making Empire: Ireland, Imperialism and the Early Modern World By Jane Ohlmeyer (Oxford University Press, November 2023). Based on her landmark 2021 Ford lectures at Oxford, Ohlmeyer’s forthcoming book will re-examine Ireland’s relationship with imperialism both as a colony and as an active part of empire.

Christopher Kissane

Dr Christopher Kissane, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a historian, writer and presenter of the Ireland's Edge podcast