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No Grand Plan, Episode 1 - 26/09/05


World Voyage Map by Judocus Hondius, 1595 (Getty Images)

World Voyage Map by Judocus Hondius, 1595 (Getty Images)
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How was it that the people of a small island race off the European mainland came to dominate the world? That is perhaps the most intriguing question of the British Empire. Even the term 'Empire' means something different today than it did in the days of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I's astrologer John Dee. Dee is said to have put the idea of colonial expansion in the queen's mind.

The British, at the peak of their Imperial powers in the late 19th century, 'owned' a quarter of the people in the world. Some 440 million people came under the British flag. That is roughly the population of modern-day Europe. Half the cargoes in the world were carried in British registered ships. Most banking and insurance was done through London.

The Empire was the best and constant market for the goods produced in Britain's industrial revolution. Without the Empire, Britain would have struggled to balance her national budget. The two world wars of the 20th century could be so named because, apart from Japan, the war involved the global states and dominions of the British Empire.

Given this huge constitutional and historical structure, it is inevitable that our story of the British Empire raises fundamental and sometimes uncomfortable questions for the people of these islands. Was the Empire the biggest example of international asset stripping the world has ever seen? Was it built on cruel slavery? Without it, would Britain have become an obscure archipelago off the coast of continental Europe? Would there have been need of a Marlborough, a Nelson, a Wellington, even a Churchill?

The answers to these questions would seem obvious. But they are not. At the end of the ninety parts in this series, however, all these notions will have been explored and the answers laid out clearly for all to see. Yet be warned: even with logical and reasoned answers, the Empire story remains as controversial as ever.

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Historical Figure

John Dee 1527-1608 (Getty Images)

John Dee 1527-1608
(Getty Images)
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John Dee, 1527-1608

One of the founding fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, who was accused of causing the death of Mary I by magical means.

Dee was astrologer, alchemist, mathematician, geographer and believer in the existence of a northwest passage to China. He is credited with being one of the first to convince Elizabeth that a British Empire of colonies was possible.

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Did You Know...

When Henry VIII talked of Empire, he meant that the Pope had no control over British lands and subjects.

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Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in the West Indies region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

Comment on the West Indies

Dominic Pearson
Having read Niall Ferguson's acclaimed book on the history of the British Empire, it is interesting to listen to an alternative, (albeit a somewhat more centre-left self shaming version), of our wonderful history by the BBC. It is wonderfully narrated and I was delighted to hear about some of the more obscure history going all the way back to the first millenium where I had never imagined our Empire had its roots. The British Empire clearly defines us as a nation. It is interesting that in this narration it is often referred to emphatically as a brutal and ruthless regime; but onl;y by today's standards. I believe it is unfair to judge the morals of then to those of today's. After all, in that time what were the alternatives?: being conquered by a far more brutal and morally defunct empire such as the German, Spanish or Japanese. It is thanks to our Empire and its morals, that we are free to this day. Without it, there would be no or little "1st World" as we know it; we would have been conquered other terribly cruel and ruthless European powers: by the Axis in the First World War, then again by the Nazis and Japanese in the Second. I am proud to be British and have such a history.

Kevin Williams
A wonderfully produced and narrated first episode, which intoduced the listener to the notion of a British Empire which existed hundreds of years before the Victorians. I personally cant wait for the next instalment!

Guy Richards
Commercial adventurism and opportunism seemed to gain territories by accident rather than design. The Empire brought benefits - mainly for Great Britain -based upon a closed market for its manufactured goods and a raedy source of raw materials.

Daniel Abadi
That may be true, however, one must remember that words alone do not convey meaning. When contructing buildings and other projects, Henry VIII often used Roman architechture. The association with Ancient Rome through archetecture, denotes a sense of Empirical leanings and ambition. This is in addition to the connection Henry was trying to make to the pre-papal church.

david howarth
just listened to the first episode. i thought that anna massey would be a hard act to follow but Juliet Stevenson was very good indeed

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Contemporary Sources

Elizabeth I sanctions discovery overseas
Elizabeth I's words, granting Sir Humphrey Gilbert permission to seek out new lands, 1578.

"Know ye that of especial grace we do give and grant to our trusty and well-beloved servant, Sir Humphrey Gilbert of Compton in our county of Devonshire… free liberty, licence from time to time and at all times from ever hereafter, to discover, find, search out and view such remote heathen and barbarous lands countries and territories not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people and… shall attempt to inhabit within the said countries or any of them or within the space of two hundred leagues near to the place or places within such countries as foresaid if they shall not be before planted or inhabited within the limits aforesaid with the subjects of any Christian prince being in amity with her Majesty."

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