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‘Rule, Britannia!’ at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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Written by Prudence Jones

Prudence Jones, a subscriber to HR, visited the Black Atlantic exhibition in Cambridge and was surprised by the suggestion there that the song Rule, Britannia! was a celebration of the slave trade. She queried this with the Fitzwilliam Museum and tells the story herself here.

I visited the Black Atlantic exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum on September 8th 2023 and my attention was caught by the caption for one of the exhibits, a Delftware punchbowl celebrating Admiral Vernon’s capture of the Spanish trading port of Portobello, Havana, in 1739, during the war between Britain and Spain over trading rights in the New World, the so-called War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-48).

The label stated that the song Rule, Britannia! was composed in celebration of this victory, which facilitated Britain’s slave trade with the Spanish Americas, and that it was first sung in 1741 at a banquet in Vernon’s honour. The implication was that the song was a celebration of slave trading.

I wrote to the Fitzwilliam on September 10th pointing out that the song was

generally thought to have been composed for Thomas Arne’s 1740 masque Alfred, about Alfred the Great, and the lyrics clearly refer not to chattel slavery but to political slavery, rule by a foreign tyrant (exemplified in the masque by the Danes of 878). No doubt the song was gleefully taken up by the Navy and other patriotic institutions in the 1740s, but its origin appears to be to nothing to do with the slave trade.

The Fitzwilliam curator, Victoria Avery, replied, thanking me for flagging up the error, offering to correct it, and identifying it as a misinterpretation of a passage in a 2015 book by M.G. Hanna. This claimed that, although originally composed for Thomas Arne’s 1740 masque ‘Alfred’:

During a banquet in honor of Vernon’s attack on Portobello [held] in 1741, ‘Rule Britannia’ was sung for the first time. Originally written in 1740 by the Scottish poet James Thomson for a masque to celebrate Frederick, Prince of Wales…[1]

A similar claim had been made by N.A.M. Rodger in 2005: that the song was written in 1740 to mark the Portobello victory and performed for the first time at a dinner in London honouring Vernon.[2]

The Fitzwilliam conceded that although the song was ‘probably…first sung in August 1740 as part of the Alfred masque’, this was ‘again within the context of Portobello’, and directed me to an article by Oliver Cox, which stated that it was ‘a delayed expression of patriotic celebration occasioned by Admiral Vernon’s capture of Portobello.’[3] According to Dr Avery,

The label text was trying to draw attention to the fact that in the popular imagination, the song soon became associated with Vernon and his Portobello Victory and the trade in enslaved peoples to the Spanish Americas that this victory in part enabled.[4]

Cox’s article itself, however, makes it clear that the ‘patriotic celebration’ attached to the song was in no way a glorification of slave trading as such. To be a member of the Patriot parliamentary faction in the 1730s was partly to support free speech and debate against Crown censorship, but also:

to oppose vigorously Sir Robert Walpole’s pursuit of a European peace at the expense of British trade … Patriots looked forward to achieving an end to party … and a thriving mercantile economy supported by an assertive maritime foreign policy, ready to be led by a future Patriot King [Cox 2013: 932-3]

Throughout the [parliamentary] crisis, the unwritten ancient constitution and the protean concept of English liberties [contrasted with the supposed ‘Norman yoke’: ibid. 951 n.92] were the building blocks of opposition rhetoric. [ibid.933-4] 

Whereas Alfred was believed to have founded the Royal Navy, promoted trade, and ensured the nation’s maritime security, contemporary governmental foreign policy was believed [by the Patriots] … to be too pacific and inappropriately European.  [ibid. 938]

This patriotic narrative, then, had nothing to do with the rights or wrongs of slave trading itself but everything to do with competition on all fronts against the rival trading empires of France and Spain. When news of the Portobello victory reached England in March 1740, according to Cox:

Vernon swiftly became the popular hero of the day … professing his loyalty to the patriotic causes of English trade and English liberty. Court Whigs had been quick to highlight Vernon’s victory as ‘proof of the vision and sagacity of ministerial war policy’, whereas Patriot Whigs and Tories were swift to claim Portobello as vindication of their ‘prescriptions for a vigorous and aggressive war policy and a purified body politic’. ‘Alfred’ embodied the opposition’s interpretation of Portobello in masque form. [ibid. 950]

Thus ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was indeed composed as a vindication of the Patriots’ aggressive foreign policy, to which the Portobello victory was credited, and also as an assertion of the supposedly traditional liberties of the English people against any foreign ruler, whether Norman or Hanoverian. After its initial private performance before the Prince of Wales at Cliveden on August 1st 1740, the masque was performed as a public oratorio at Drury Lane on March 30th 1745[5] and as an opera, Alfred, nearly ten years later, in February 1751.  However, by this time, according to Cox:

the original political purpose of the masque was lost.  The Monthly Review [of March 1751], for example, was relieved that the masque had been ‘much more adapted to general entertainment than in its first occasional model’. The transition from a rallying cry for the Patriot Opposition to a broader popular patriotism was achieved only by detaching the Ode in Honour of Great Britain, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ from its original context. [ibid.954]

It was a popular patriotic song then, in celebration of a mercantile victory, but nothing directly to do with slave trading.

The Fitzwilliam’s caption was changed, as promised, to read:

To celebrate this ‘victory’ [at Portobello], the recently composed song Rule Britannia is sung multiple times, with the line ‘Britons never shall be slaves’ taking on new meaning.

I am grateful to the Fitzwilliam for forwarding me the Cox and Hanna articles and for responding courteously and constructively to my observations.  However, I would need further evidence to be convinced that the ‘new meaning’ referred to in the changed caption, and apparently taken on by the song, was anything other than the ‘popular patriotism’ already mentioned.


Prudence Jones is an independent historian working on pre-Christian European religions and their contemporary revival.  A History of Pagan Europe (1995, with Nigel Pennick), ‘A Goddess Arrives: 19th Century Sources of the New Age Triple Moon Goddess,’ (Cosmos and Culture, 2005) and ‘Pagans and Dialogue’ (Journal of Dialogue Studies, 2022) are among her publications. She has taught logic and the philosophy of language in Cambridge and at the University of Alberta. She is a former Chair of the Cambridge Jungian Circle.

 

[1] Hanna, M.G. (2015) Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, p. 141.

[2] Rodger, Brendan (2005), The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649–1815. W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 235-6.

[3] Cox, O.J.W. (2013), ‘Frederick, Prince of Wales, and the First Performance of “Rule, Britannia!”’, The Historical Journal, 56, 4: 931-954.

[4] V. Avery to P. Jones, e-mail 12/9/23.

[5] https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_National_Biography,_1885-1900/Arne,_Thomas_Augustine

About the author

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Prudence Jones

Prudence Jones is an independent historian working on pre-Christian European religions and their contemporary revival.  A History of Pagan Europe (1995, with Nigel Pennick), ‘A Goddess Arrives: 19th Century Sources of the New Age Triple Moon Goddess,’ (Cosmos and Culture, 2005) and ‘Pagans and Dialogue’ (Journal of Dialogue Studies, 2022) are among her publications. She has taught logic and the philosophy of language in Cambridge and at the University of Alberta. She is a former Chair of the Cambridge Jungian Circle.

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