In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Britain and Empire, 1685–1730

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Conceptual and Theoretical Discussions
  • Reference Works
  • Rival and Comparable Empires
  • English, Scottish, and Irish Settlement and the British Empire
  • British Domestic Politics
  • British Foreign Policy
  • Colonial Policy, Governance, and Administration
  • Colonial Development and Identity Formation
  • Empire and Revolution
  • Ideas and Political Thought
  • Commerce and Political Economy
  • Slavery and Slave Societies
  • Religion
  • Encounters with Indigenous Peoples
  • Empire beyond America
  • Literary, Visual, and Material Culture

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Atlantic History Britain and Empire, 1685–1730
Gabriel Glickman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0226


The half century that followed the coronation of James II brought an escalation in English interest in the possibility of empire outside Europe. Through the seventeenth century, 300,000 Englishmen had 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. Repeatedly, strategic and commercial interests ushered the Crown into the occupation of Mediterranean cities, islands, and peninsulas. Throughout most of the century, hopes of global empire had appeared chimerical: the congeries of scattered settlements, commercial outposts, and private fiefdoms offered unpromising materials for international hegemony. The period between 1685 and 1730 can be identified, therefore, as a formative phase in the trajectory of English imperial expansion. Frontiers were stretched northward into Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the Hudson’s Bay basin and extended through the southern plantation world. Simultaneously, the Crown intensified its measures to control and exploit the established settlements. Proceeding in the background was the cultural and demographic transformation of great tracts of the dominions through unfree African labor. Stuart and, latterly, Hanoverian monarchs ruled a political community expanding in its terrain and its subject population, with far-reaching implications for the religion, culture, society, and economy of the domestic realm. Modern scholarship has sought increasingly to recover connections between the pressures of a nascent empire and the politics of the domestic realm, in a time of warfare and revolution. Fresh insights into early modern overseas expansion have been embedded in new accounts of Stuart and Hanoverian politics, examinations of overseas trade, and studies of the Protestant religion. The subject has given rise to an especially fertile field of intellectual history. The repositioning of Scotland and Ireland as “Atlantic nations” has uncovered linkages between the growth of dominion in America and the problems of managing a “multiple kingdom” monarchy within the British Isles. This article concentrates on works that have examined the influence of overseas expansion over the domestic kingdoms governed by Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs.

General Overviews

The alterations in scholarly thinking on the early British Empire have gained expression in a series of wide-ranging monographs, surveys, and anthologies. The essays in Greene and Pole 1984 present chronologically broad overviews of colonial America, with a focus on underlying themes, including politics, religion, class, and gender. Armitage and Braddick 2009 adopts a similar structure, bringing together the scholarly products of a 2001 Harvard seminar on the history of the Atlantic world. The emergence of “Atlantic history” has corresponded with an increasingly vibrant turn in the study of early modern communication. Steele 1986 provides one of the landmark works of this genre, reexamining the politics of colonial societies through a close study of the circulation of news and information along the maritime networks that connected England and America. Canny 1998 and Marshall 1998 combine thematic chapters with analyses of particular regions and provinces under British authority. Lenman 2001 focuses on the wars unleashed by overseas expansion, placing military struggles in America and India in the context of political strains within the early modern British Isles. The essays in Wilson 2004 emphasize the metropolitan alterations and insecurities induced through colonization. English overseas expansion is here delineated in terms of an “exchange,” “encounter,” or “accommodation” rather than simply an “invasion” or “imposition” upon cultures outside Europe. Burnard 2012 outlines the particular importance of the half century that followed the 1688 Revolution in shaping the principles and practice behind British imperialism.

  • Armitage, David, and Michael J. Braddick, eds. The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    Collection of thematic essays showing how the study of “Atlantic history” has reformulated perspectives on the British Empire. Identifies the emergence of the Atlantic world as a phenomenon distinct to preindustrial “early modernity” and represents British expansion as one component within a transnational environment in which state authority was visible but limited.

  • Burnard, Trevor. “Making a Whig Empire Work: Transatlantic Politics and the Imperial Economy in Britain and British America.” William and Mary Quarterly 69.1 (2012): 51–56.

    DOI: 10.5309/willmaryquar.69.1.0051

    Challenges the past neglect of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in studies of the early British Empire. Reviews modern attempts to reposition these decades as a formative phase in colonial history. Suggests that political and intellectual shifts in the 1690s carried major repercussions for relations between Old England and its overseas outworks.

  • Canny, Nicholas, ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. 1, The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Comprehensive introduction to the beginnings of the colonization process. Links the origins of English America to political and economic changes within the three kingdoms. Combines region-by-region studies with analysis of overarching themes, including trade, literature and ideas, state development, and the influence of European power politics.

  • Greene, Jack P., and J. R. Pole, eds. Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era. Papers presented at a conference held 1–7 August 1981 at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

    Ten chapters addressing long-running themes in colonial development, ranging across political, social, economic, and cultural history. Brings together the core arguments of a generation of scholarship, recovering the history of colonial British America as more than simply an antecedent to the War of Independence. Presses for the colonies to be more closely integrated into the history of early modern Britain.

  • Lenman, Bruce P. Britain’s Colonial Wars, 1688–1783. Modern Wars in Perspective. Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2001.

    Offers close analysis of colonial military campaigns, placing them against the background of strains on the state at home. Argues that ministers were unfamiliar with the colonial environment and were frequently unprepared for the conflicts that followed territorial expansion. Contends that the politics of the metropole were informed and disrupted by the pursuit of conquest overseas.

  • Marshall, P. J., ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. 2, The Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Twenty-six largely thematic chapters providing proportionate coverage over the designated period. Places colonial developments against the background of political changes that flowed from the 1688 Revolution. Key chapters show how the consolidation of British rule in America was paralleled by the growth of strategic interests in India and Africa.

  • Steele, Ian K. The English Atlantic, 1675–1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    Pioneering study that adumbrated many of the principal concerns of “Atlantic history.” Investigates the transmission of news, commodities, opinions, and ideas between England and its colonies. Shows how the investigation of maritime routes, oceanic currents, and developments in navigation can offer new perspectives on the political history of the Atlantic world.

  • Wilson, Kathleen, ed. A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660–1840. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Interdisciplinary collection discussing the impact of overseas expansion on politics, culture, and society in Britain and its colonies. Chapters on race, gender, the visual arts, and popular politics indicate the cultural pressures brought about by the reach of the kingdom into unfamiliar parts of the world.

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