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Seat of Empire

By the end of the seventeenth century, wars with the Dutch had established England’s naval supremacy. London’s position as the country’s engine of growth and industry was strengthened. New trading partners and routes connected London with the known world. New systems of banking and financing were in place. With products, people, and ideas from around the world circulating in new places and reshaping communal outlooks, Londoners found themselves at the center of an emerging empire.

Seller. A new systeme of geography. London, 1694

To support England’s rising naval power in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, people like Samuel Pepys recognized the need for a British industry in maps, sea charts, compasses, and other instruments. Several established publishers moved into the map trade. The London clockmaker, John Seller, was appointed Charles II’s royal hydrographer in 1671. With his pocket-sized volumes, Seller also aimed to produce geographical works for a general public, eager for information on “any Empire, Kingdom, Principality, or Government in the whole World.”


A naval power would need a navy, and how would England find a ready supply of loyal subjects? Twenty years’ worth of “Children put forth Apprentices to the Practice of Navigation” from Christ’s Hospital are listed in the pamphlet shown at right. Built at the former Greyfriars’ monastery, Christ’s Hospital had been given to the City of London to continue the charitable goals of the evicted Franciscans. Eventually, Charles II gave it a new charter and a new mission as a mathematical school, to train orphans and poor children for the British navy. The account diplomatically reminds the new monarchs, William and Mary, of the ways this charity school benefits the nation.


As the British empire expanded, collections from around the world may their way back to British shores. The John Tradescants, father and son, achieved fame as horticulturalists through collecting trips on the European continent and to Virginia. The father established gardens in Lambeth, on the south bank of the Thames. People could pay a fee to visit rarities from around the world at “Tradescant’s Ark.” The son produced this catalogue of the curiosities in the collection. Eventually, the collection formed the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.


An early novel, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko probes the role of race and slavery in empire building for a reading public back home. Behn was a royalist propagandist and the first professional English woman playwright. Late in her career, Behn turned to prose. Like an increasing number of Londoners, Behn herself had traveled abroad. Oroonoko is based in part on her brief experience as a young woman in the English colony at Surinam. Her sensational story of an African prince enslaved by the English also blurs boundaries between exotica and ethnography.


At home in London, news and events were discussed at coffee houses. The first London coffee house opened in 1652 near the Royal Exchange; by 1700, there were more than 2,000. The new venue offered a gathering place where classes could intermingle to discuss news in civil fashion. The scene pictured at right seems tame enough at first glance, but notice the fight breaking out among the customers. The scene also raises the question of the role of women and servants in this supposedly democratizing world. Is the woman fair game for bawdy innuendo or a civilizing presence?

Seller. A new systeme of geography. London, 1694

Christ’s Hospital. Present state and list of the children. London, 1690

Tradescant. Musaeum Tradescantianum. London, 1656

Behn. Oroonoko. London, 1688

Edward Ward. Vulgus Britannicus: or the British Hudibras. London, 1710

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