British Empire-Building after Culloden

The Battle of Culloden – April 16, 1746 – was a brutal and fateful event. Not just because of the ethnocidal impact it had on the native Gaels of the Highlands, but because it removed the last internal obstacle to hegemony for an anglo-British empire and facilitated more brutal and oppressive forms of colonial rule. The unrestrained ability to coalesce and focus all of the human resources at the disposal of the British Crown was equally lethal to people much further afield.

The impact of European empires on peoples in the Americas – especially native peoples and people brought unwillingly as slaves – is the topic of impassioned discussion, especially because the negative consequences are very much still with us in the form of institutionalized and racialized privilege, not to mention the compromised sovereignty of First Nations.

Too many people assume, however, that the practices and ideologies that inform domination, exploitation and dehumanization – especially in the anglophone realms of the US and Canada – were virtually invented in the encounters of North American imperialism when “white people” came into conflict with “people of color.” While racial polarities are certainly dominant now and go a large way to explain the disparities of power and privilege of the present, categories we now take for granted (“white,” “black,” “Indian,” etc.) all took generations to form and settle. What is clear from analyzing historical events and conflicts in the generations and centuries before English colonization of North America began is that all of the concepts, values, structures and practices of imperialism had a long gestation time in the British Isles themselves as anglophones sought to conquer and dominate neighboring Celtic societies (see some discussion here).

There has been a long-running controversy in Nova Scotia about the monuments built to celebrate the victories of the brutal military leader Edward Cornwallis, whose colonization schemes involved violence and brutality against the native Mi’kmaw (see WikiPedia article here). This controversy is an echo of debates about the representation and monumentalization of colonial figures all over the world. It is surely significant that Cornwallis’s formative experience was at the Battle of Culloden.

An English soldier, Michael Hughes, wrote A Plain and Authentic Journal of the Late Rebellion (London, 1747), in which he describes his actions in the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6 as an English soldier who fought for the Duke of Cumberland. The following section (pp.52-3, 54, 55) concerns the Hanoverian troops sent to wreak vengeance and destruction on the Jacobites in the Highlands after their defeat on Culloden Moor.

The last Command, consisting of 800 Men, was given to Lord George Sacville, and Lieut. Colonel Cornwallis; with full Commission to plunder, burn and destroy thro’ all the West Part of Innernesshire called Lochaber, from the Glens above Knoidart, down to Arasack, Moidart, and Swenard, opposite to Mull; and positive Orders to bring no more Prisoners to the Camp. The Body divided themselves different Ways, with a full Resolution to finish their Work; and for better managing the Persuit, they have Orders to take nothing but their Firelocks and Ammunition.
Our party was 320 Men under Colonel Corwallis, a brave Officer of great Humanity and Honour. When we first set out, twas intended to march all Night, but a great Rain caused us to halt. […]
From hence the Party marched along the Seacoast through Moidart, burning of Houses, driving away the Cattel, and shooting those Vagrants who were found about the Mountains. Lord George Sacville was another Way with 480 Men. We camped in a Valley 12 Mile from the Ile of Mull, and detached Parties about their Sheils and Glens, who did great Execution among those who were still in Arms, obstinately refusing to submit and accept of Pardon. […]
At a Fortnight’s End, Lord George’s Part returned to Fort Augustus with near a thousand head of Cattel; and for fifty Miles round there was no Man or Beast to be seen. His Lordship finished his Commission with that Fidelity and Conduct as becomes a good Officer; for it ought to be known, that this last part of the Campaign was of the greatest Consequence to the Public, tho most troublesome in the Performance.

The best discussion that I’ve yet found about the consolidation of imperial power and colonial force that followed Culloden is the book Rebellion and Savagery: The Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the British Empire by Geoffrey Plank 2006. It is well worth reading at length, but these excerpts from the conclusions are indicative of these patterns:

The dispute over the meaning of the army’s actions in the Highlands paralleled other, ongoing conversations over the governance of Britain’s colonies. Cumberland’s officers, after they were stationed in colonial posts, differed from their predecessors in their zeal for advancing British civilization. In a variety of contexts, in the Mediterranean as well as in North America, they sought to promote the use of the English language, serve the cause of Protestantism, and encourage commercial exchange. They also generally hoped to establish English-style law courts, though their interest in legal reform was subordinated to an overriding concern to assert the supremacy of the British government under George II.

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