As I’m currently sitting in the David Library of the American Revolution, poring over microfilm after microfilm about the pre-revolutionary imperial crisis in North America, I don’t particularly ‘feel’ like a Scottish historian right now. However, though I’m currently researching America rather than Scotland, the Scottish basis for my project – the Jacobite Uprising of 1745-46 and its aftermath in the Highlands – is never particularly far from my mind.
I’m currently in the third year of my PhD, engaged in a project that considers the actions, experiences and encounters of the British army in two places it was particularly active in the eighteenth century: the Scottish Highlands and North America. The aim is twofold, firstly to highlight the influence of the Jacobite Forty-Five on how the British army approached warfare and pacification in North America. Secondly, it considers how the personal experiences and interactions of army officers in both these regions informed their cultural attitudes towards groups of ‘others’ within the British Empire and influenced their ideas about how the empire ought to be governed.
Warfare against the so-called ‘savage’ Highlanders during the Forty-Five convinced many in the British army that violent repressive measures were the best way to pacify a ‘savage’ population and that indiscriminate violence and wanton destruction against the Highlanders as a whole could be justified because of the ‘savagery’ of this population group. The British army had no qualms about implementing similar measures when attempting to pacify various Native American nations during the pan-Indian uprisings commonly known as Pontiac’s War almost two decades later. Here, the British response closely mirrored its response to the Forty-Five (though the violence was even more extreme). Officers again showed that they were willing to engage in indiscriminate violence, with Sir Jeffrey Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of the army in North America, suggesting that the British should pass smallpox infected blankets to the natives in order to spread the disease amongst them.
In the longer-term the British army and state embarked on a process of militarisation in Scotland that was mirrored (though on a much vaster scale and, of course, with some differences) in North America during and after the French and Indian War. Significant standing armies were left in both regions to act as an implied threat against potentially hostile population groups. As such, soldiers and officers came into almost daily contact with numerous groups that they rarely had before, including Scottish Highlanders, French Canadians, Native American nations and colonial North American settlers.
These interactions in turn influenced the attitudes of specific army officers, as well as the attitudes of the army more generally, towards these populat
ion groups. By the time that the imperial crisis had reached a peak in the early 1770s, the attitudes of the British army and, to an extent, broader British attitudes towards all four population groups had been altered as a consequence of the army’s experiences of warfare and militarisation. Studying the experiences of the British army in Scotland and North America provides a better understanding of the cultures of British imperialism in the years preceding the American Revolution, and highlights that transformations had much earlier and more complex roots than is often appreciated. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the legacy of the Forty-Five extended far from Scotland, influencing attitudes, actions and policy in North America right up to the outbreak of the American Revolution.
Though I might not always feel like a Scottish historian, particularly when I’m focusing on the American aspects of my research, Scottish history plays a fundamental role in my research. Considering the influence of the Forty-Five on British imperialism in North America has convinced me of the importance of considering geographical links, where relevant throughout history, as well as the importance of having fluidity in your identity as a historian in order to confront the varied challenges of historical research.
Nicola Martin is a PhD candidate at the University of Stirling. You can find her via twitter. If you would like to be part of our new blog series and let people across the field know what you’re up to, get in touch!