British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800

British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800

British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800

British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800

Synopsis

This book examines the status and uses of ethnicity in political debate during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the era that immediately preceded the onset of modern racialist and nationalist thinking. Ranging widely across the political cultures of England, Scotland, Ireland and revolutionary America, it also considers European influences and comparisons as well as engaging historically with current debates over nationalism and identity.

Excerpt

Historians appreciate that early modern nationhood was inextricably bound up with confessional identity. By contrast, however, the parallel connection between theology and ethnicity has largely escaped the attention of mainstream historiography. Yet this was a profound relationship whose central importance within the realm of Christian apologetic has long been recognised by students of historical theology. For the peopling of the world was a familiar part of sacred history and a topic which occupied a crucial place in the Bible. The first five verses of Genesis 10 constituted the fundamental text which associated the peopling of Europe with the Japhetan descendants of Noah, and described the basic relationships of the various tributaries of the Japhetan lineage:

Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth; and unto them were born after the flood. The sons of Japheth: Gomer and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras. And the sons of Gomer; Ashkenaz, and Riphath, and Togarmah. And the sons of Javan; Elishah and Tarshish, Kittim and Dodanim. By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.

A few other passages of Scripture also dealt with ethnological matters: the story of the confounding of languages at the Tower of Babel in chapter 11 of Genesis, and some later references to the descendants of Noah in chapter 38 of Ezekiel. These accounts of the dispersal of nations provided a recognised point of departure not only for the study of ethnicity but also for the construction of national identities.

In the seventeenth century the history of Ham, Shem, Japhet and their offspring featured prominently in vainglorious patriotic boasts about the high antiquity and noble lineage of various European nations. Writing in the late eighteenth century, Edward Gibbon noted the utility of a Japhetan genealogy to previous generations of patriotic antiquaries:

Among the nations who have adopted the Mosaic history of the world, the ark of Noah has been of the same use, as was formerly to the Greeks and Romans the siege of Troy. On a narrow basis of acknowledged truth, an immense but rude . . .

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