Global Encounters and the Archives: Britain’s Empire in the Age of Horace Walpole


Ranelagh Barrett, Portrait of General Henry Seymour Conway

On this occasion of the 300th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s birthday in 2017 and the 100th anniversary of W.S. Lewis’s Yale class of 2018, Global Encounters and the Archives: Britain’s Empire in the Age of Horace Walpole, the product of a lively collaboration between the library and Yale faculty and graduate students across academic disciplines,embraces the Lewis Walpole Library’s central mission to foster eighteenth-century studies through research in archives and special collections. Lewis’s bequest to Yale was informed by his belief that “the most important thing about collections is that they furnish the means for each generation to make its own appraisals.” The rich resources, including manuscripts, rare printed texts, and graphic images, indeed provide opportunity for scholars across academic disciplines to explore anew the complexities and wide-reaching impact of Britain’s global interests in the long eighteenth century.

Britain’s imperial reach spanned the globe in the eighteenth century, from Dublin to Bombay, from Edinburgh to New York, from London to Kingston. British merchants exported textiles, metalwares, ceramics, and furniture while importing slave-produced sugar, rice, indigo, and tobacco. At the same time, the British monarchs ruled over a wide variety of indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans.  The Empire—its goods, its peoples, its politics—fascinated Horace Walpole and those in his circle. This exhibit draws from the Lewis Walpole Library’s rich collections to bring Walpole’s global interests to light.

As befitting the son of a prime minister (Sir Robert Walpole), the nephew of the auditor-general of the Revenue of America (Horatio Walpole), and the close friend of a secretary of state (Henry Seymour Conway) who oversaw important imperial affairs, Horace Walpole well understood the partisan conflicts that helped shape the British Empire. Through the eighteenth century Britons debated and disagreed profoundly about how best to govern the Empire. Horace’s father, Robert, had long thought that the Empire should be organized hierarchically so as best to serve the people of England. He believed in a political economy of Empire that gave preference to the colonial production of raw materials like sugar, rice, or tobacco. For this reason Walpole and his establishment Whig supporters gave preference to the sugar and slave colonies in the West Indies. After the accession of King George III in 1760, British politicians sought similarly to extract wealth from the newly conquered Asian provinces of Bengal, Bihar, and Orixa.

The self-described Patriot opponents of Sir Robert Walpole and his post-1760 ministerial successors advanced a radically different vision of empire. Where the establishment Whigs had emphasized colonial production, the Patriots emphasized the importance of colonial consumption of British manufactured goods. Where the establishment Whigs insisted upon a hierarchically organized Empire with London at its center, the Patriots called for a confederal empire with sovereignty distributed among the various colonial assemblies, parliaments and local institutions. Where the establishment Whigs insisted on the necessity of chattel slavery, the Patriots reasoned that slavery was not only morally suspect but also failed to create the kind of consumer society upon which imperial prosperity depended. Where establishment Whigs turned away from alliance to subjugate indigenous peoples—whether American Indian, Irish, or Bengali—the Patriots advocated a restoration of diplomacy as their primary mode of interaction.

These conflicting visions of empire—represented here in the domains of political economy, diplomacy, slavery, and indigenous peoples—dominated popular discussions. There were adherents of the establishment Whig vision in Calcutta, Boston, Dublin, and Kingston. There were Patriots in London, Edinburgh, Halifax, and Bridgetown. These competing visions of empire, always the source of conflict, came to a head in the 1760s and 1770s. In Ireland, in India, in Britain, and in America this struggle of ideas erupted into an imperial civil war. For the Patriots this was a struggle between Liberty and Tyranny, with the colonists often pictured as a woman being subdued by her tormentors. For the establishment Whigs, by contrast, the struggle was between Loyalty and Rebellion. 

In association with this exhibition the library will sponsor a two-day conference in New Haven on February 9–10, 2018, that will present new archival-based research on Britain’s global empire in the long eighteenth century and consider how current multi-disciplinary methodologies invite creative research in special collections.