“The strength of Empire,” wrote Ben Jonson, “is in religion.” In Reforming Empire, Christopher Hodgkins takes Jonson’s dictum as his point of departure, showing how for more than four centuries the Protestant imagination gave the British Empire its main paradigms for dominion and also, ironically, its chief languages of anti-imperial dissent. From Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene to Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” English literature about empire has turned with strange constancy to themes of worship and idolatry, atrocity and deliverance, slavery and service, conversion, prophecy, apostasy, and doom.
Focusing on the work of the Protestant imagination from the Renaissance origins of English overseas colonization through the modern end of England’s colonial enterprise, Hodgkins organizes his study around three kinds of religious binding—unification, subjugation, and self-restraint. He shows how early modern Protestants like Hakluyt and Spenser reformed the Arthurian chronicles and claimed to inherit Rome’s empire from the Caesars: how Ralegh and later Cromwell imagined a counterconquest of Spanish America, and how Milton’s Satan came to resemble Cortés; how Drake and the fictional Crusoe established their status as worthy colonial masters by refusing to be worshiped as gods; and how seventeenth-century preachers, poets, and colonists moved haltingly toward a racist metaphysics—as Virginia began by celebrating the mixed marriage of Pocahontas but soon imposed the draconian separation of the Color Line.
Yet Hodgkins reveals that Tudor-Stuart times also saw the revival of Augustinian anti-expansionism and the genesis of Protestant imperial guilt. From the start, British Protestant colonialism contained its own opposite: a religion of self-restraint. Though this conscience often was co-opted or conscripted to legitimize conquests and pacify the conquered, it frequently found memorable and even fierce literary expression in writers such as Shakespeare, Daniel, Herbert, Swift, Johnson, Burke, Blake, Austen, Browning, Tennyson, Conrad, Forster, and finally the anti-Protestant Waugh. Written in a lively and accessible style, Reforming Empire will be of interest to all scholars and students of English literature.