British popular culture’s relationship with imperialism is complex, to say the least, and it continues to be a source of debate to this day as debates about the legacy of the British Empire and decolonization rage.
The more that changes, however, the more things stay the same. If we go travel back to the early modern period when the British Empire was just getting started, we find that imperialism also generated a response in popular culture.
Early Modern Jingoism
Early modern poets certainly found that the empire was worth praising. In Thomas Tickell’s Royal Progress (1714), for example, we find the following words
But see! to Britain’s Isle the Squadrons stand,
And leave the sinking Towers, and lessening Land,
The Royal Bark bounds o’er the floating Plain,
Breaks thro’ the Billows, and divides the Main,
O’er the vast Deep, Great Monarch, dart thine Eyes,
A wat’ry Prospect bounded by the Skies:
Ten thousand Vessels, from ten thousand Shores,
Bring Gums and Gold, and either India’s Stores:
Behold the Tributes hastening to thy Throne,
And see the wide Horizon all thy own.
The celebrated Matthew Prior in Solomon (1718) struck a similar tone when he wrote:
From pole to pole she hears her acts resound,
And rules an empire by no ocean bound;
Knows her ships anchor’d, and her sails unfurl’d,
In other Indies and a second world.
Long shall Britannia (that must be her name)
Be first in conquest, and preside in fame.
Michael Drayton whose ode To the Virginian Voyage (1606) opened with the following laudatory lines:
You brave Heroique Minds,
Worthy your countries name,
That honour still pursue,
Goe, and subdue,
Whilst loyt’ring Hinds
Lurke here at home, with shame.
Yet even at this early stage other writers back in Britain were by no means uncritical of the establishment of colonies overseas. One example we have of this attitude to the emerging empire is John Fletcher’s Bonduca, first performed in 1613, and later published in the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio in 1647 (although Beaumont and Fletcher collaborated many times, scholarly consensus is that Bonduca is solely Fletcher’s work).
The play told the story of the ancient British warrior queen, Boudicca (also named Boadicea by some), who led an uprising against the Roman Empire between 60-61 AD.
In the play, the Ancient Britons’ rebellion was depicted as their last gasp in the fight for independence against the domination of the Roman Empire. The Britons resist the Roman army’s advances because they fear it will lead to a loss of their culture, way of life, and even their sense of history. These sentiments are revealed in the following prayer which Bonduca offers to the gods of Britain before the final battle:
Bondu: ye powerfull gode of Brittaine heare or prayers.
Heare vs you great revengers: and this day
Take pitty from ovr sworde———from our valour
Double the sad remembrance of our wronge
In every breast: the vengeance vnto those
Make Infinite and endlesse, on our pikes
This day pale terror sitt …
O rise you valiant bones. Let not base earth
Oppresse yor honors. Whilst the pride of Roome
Treade on yor stocke. And Wipes out all yor stories.
Bonduca and the Algonquin
The play was then adapted into an opera by Henry Purcell in 1695 and given an elegant musical score. Claire Jowitt convincingly argues that in this play the ancient Britons represent the Native American Algonquin tribe and that the Roman Empire represents the modern English empire. The clash between the Britons and the Romans in Fletcher and Beaumont’s play represents the often violent encounters between the British colonisers and the Native Americans.
Jowitt points to a number of factors such as the fact that
‘The difficulties both the Romans experience in the early scenes concerning the victualling of their invasionary forces, and the starvation [the Romans] suffer at the end, are noticeably similar … to those experienced by the British in Jamestown’.
The ancient Britons in the play fight in similar manner to the Native Americans by disguising themselves and ‘blending in’ with the landscape; the similarity of the language used by Fletcher to describes the ancient Britons closely matched contemporary descriptions of Native Americans.
Yet Fletcher has no easy answers; there is a sense that the Britons in the play (the Native Americans in real life), will inevitably succumb to foreign domination, and this made Fletcher uneasy. Even though English colonisers at this early period wanted to settle, farm, and make a life for themselves in the New World, and to trade with the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, Fletcher foresaw the end-point of this process: Eventually the indigenous Americans and their culture will be decimated and replaced by the new Romans–the British Empire.
Basdeo, Stephen, Heroes and Villains of the British Empire: Their Lives and Legends (Pen and Sword, 2020)
Fletcher, John, Bonduca, ed. by Walter Wilson Gregg (London: Malone Society, 1951)
Jowitt, Claire, ‘Colonialism, Politics, and Romanization in John Fletcher’s Bonduca’, SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, 43: 2 (2003), 475–94