Know Your Enemy: England and the British

by Peter Douglas 

What’s wrong with the following?

“On August 27, 1664, a fleet of four British warships sailed into the harbor of New Amsterdam.”

“In 1664 the Dutch surrendered control of the colony of New Netherland to the British.”

“Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant surrendered to the British in September 1664.”

“The main enemy of New Netherland was consistently the British.”

“This positive assertion of the British title to New Netherland…”

“Charles II formally annexed New Netherland as a British province.”

“The British takeover of New Netherland in 1664…”

“In 1664 the British and the Dutch were at war.”

“British warships were sent to seize control of New Netherland.”

These excerpts are from books, theses, periodical articles, and websites, and there are plenty more out there. The obvious common factor here is the use of “British.” The big problem is that the events described here took place in the seventeenth century, a time when there was no country called “Britain” and nothing was “British.”

The cut-off year is 1707. The Kingdom of Great Britain didn’t exist before then, so unless you’re writing about the Britons, the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles, or their language, a reference to anything “British” before 1707 is a mistake.

Great Britain, or Britain, is a political idea as well as a geographical one. It refers to the combined countries of England, Scotland, and Wales, the last having become part of England in the sixteenth century under Henry VIII. Britain came to be under the Acts of Union, taking effect on May 1, 1707, in the reign of Queen Anne. After this date the Kingdom of England ceased to exist, and the new flag of Great Britain visually reflected the joining of the two countries, uniting red, white, and blue in the cross of St. George and the saltire of St. Andrew. Writers whose subject is New Netherland, or anything else that took place in the seventeenth century and before should take note of this when they write about the inhabitants or institutions of the British Isles.

An early but unauthorized use of “Great Britain” came shortly after James I of England (also James VI of Scotland) took the throne in 1603. As he ruled England, Scotland, and (by virtue of holding the English crown) Ireland, he chose to style himself “King of Great Britain.” This was denied on legal grounds, and each country remained legally separate, with its own Parliament and laws, for another century. The use of the term was a personal one for the sovereign, and had no official standing, though James’ successors used the title on their seals and coins.

Equally wrong, but from the opposite side, is when we read about the history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and find muddled references to things “English” as well as or instead of “British.” This includes, of course, the extensive literature relating to the American Revolutionary War, where Britain played a major role as villain. With reference to matters relating to the post-1707 Kingdom of Great Britain, what we should be consistently seeing is “Britain” and “British.” During the American Revolution, George III (reigned 1760-1820) was not “King of England.” He was King of Great Britain and Ireland. After the union of the two countries in 1801, he was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  

Here are some examples from a writer who doesn’t get it. One murky example even gives us “England” and “British” in the same sentence:

“The battle for New York in 1776 gave England an excellent opportunity for a decisive victory.”

“In the course of England’s long and unsuccessful attempt to crush the American Revolution…”

“England also installed General Thomas Gage, commander of the British Army in America, as governor of the colony.”

Here and elsewhere there’s the strong impression that writers use the two words alternately for the sake of mere variety, as if they were synonyms. But there is a difference and it needs to be understood. The British Isles is a geographical term for a group of islands off the coast of continental Europe, including Great Britain and Ireland, plus numerous smaller islands. Great Britain, or just Britain, is the largest of these islands, comprising England, Scotland, and Wales. Today the country is called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It’s usually abbreviated to the United Kingdom or the UK, though “Britain” is also an officially recognized short form and is generally understood to mean all the countries, and “British” can mean pertaining to the UK.

The UK today is the result of various Acts of Union and secessions, with constituent countries complicating the picture by joining and leaving the union, partially or completely, at various times stretching over the centuries. Following the 1707 Act, the Acts of Union 1800 brought the Kingdom of Great Britain to an end and created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on January 1, 1801. The new member left the union in 1922 to become the Irish Free State (and the Republic of Ireland in 1949), though this didn’t apply to the whole of Ireland; six counties of Ulster chose to remain in the UK and became known as Northern Ireland. Note that while Northern Ireland is part of the UK, it is not part of Great Britain.

Because England is just one of the three countries that make up Britain, when discussing events from 1707 on it makes no sense to write of  “the English army” or “the Prime Minister of England.” There is no such a thing as an English passport, and the English Parliament ceased to exist in 1707. There is a British government, but no English government. The casual use of “England” for “Britain” (and vice versa, clearly) is rife, especially outside the UK where the difference may not be so readily appreciated, and the two words are often used interchangeably.

It’s not hard to see how confusion and mistakes occur. “England” can be informally used to mean Great Britain, and even the UK, though in formal writing more care should be taken. This use can be considered a simple error, but it can also be explained as an example of a figure of speech called synecdoche, where a term for a part of something refers to the whole of that thing, as in “boots” for soldiers, as in “boots on the ground,” meaning ground troops on active service in a military operation. Even so, to say “English” for “British” is at best vague and inadequate, and usually just wrong unless the matter concerns England specifically. It’s better to be clear and precise because the two words have distinct meanings and connotations.

There are good reasons, of course, to use “England” and “English” in their appropriate and specific context: the ship docked in England, the storm battered the English coast. Naturally things get muddy, especially in regard to individuals and explicit events. There are, for instance, references in the same document to Charles Darwin as “a British scientist” and to Charles Dickens as “an English novelist.” Both were born in England (part of Britain), so Darwin and Dickens are both English and British. But the main thing is that when referring to broader matters, politics, and institutions in this period “Britain” and “British” are generally required.

Throughout Britain’s history, the English have been in a leading position and dominant in political weight as well as in population. England occupies more than half the area of the UK and around 80 percent of its people live there. Moreover, England is prominent in Britain because this is where London, the capital city and seat of government, is located, so this too may in part explain the blurring of definitions and the emphasis on England. Also, English is the name of the language we speak; there is no “British language.” For such possible reasons and others, the concept of “Englishness” and “Britishness” have tended to blend and to be considered very similar, despite the clear differences in geography and politics. The people of the UK may identify themselves as being British, or as being English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, or Irish – or as being both. We must remember that national identity is important in Britain, and the Scots, Welsh, and Irish are likely to be offended if they are confused with, or lumped in with, the English.

Whatever the explanation for the confusion regarding England and Britain, in common parlance and in academia it’s important to understand and to make the distinction. Paul Revere never actually shouted “The British Are Coming!” but the words attributed to him were not “The English Are Coming!”

About the New Netherland Institute

For over three decades, NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

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