Imagining Iberia, Dreaming of Home: A British Colonial Landscape
University of York, York, UK
In 1708, one year after the Parliamentary Acts that united Great Britain, Anglo-Dutch forces seized the Mediterranean island of Minorca. By contrasting conflicting representations I argue that from the crucible of this theatre of war an emerging colonial architectural character was forged, for the C17th ‘imaginative geography’ that had constructed Minorca as ideal for naval and mercantile purposes, with potential for dominating the Mediterranean, was contested by the empirical data produced by the British government institutions. Immediately, a grid-iron town and impregnable fortifications were projected by the Board of Ordnance, and the Navy Sick and Hurt Board commissioned military engineers to construct a hospital ostensibly for the relief of maritime suffering. Through the fusion of the ideal and the actual, engineers, architects and local craftsmen created a poetic architectural landscape that expressed geo-political power in visual and spatial terms, while stimulating latent emotion.
I argue the rhyming of the Thames Estuary and the natural theatre of Port Mahon facilitated, in Spain, a reimagining of England, and I examine the importance of Greenwich as a key topos for an emerging British identity. Linda Colley has emphasized the primacy of ‘an uncompromising Protestantism’ in early modern constructions of British national character. The naval hospital, as the first purpose-built British structure on Minorca, carried the diplomatic responsibility for shaping this new character and was constructed amid religio-political turbulence in Roman Catholic Spain. The redesign of the hospital and specifically its chapel emphasized the Protestant character of the occupying forces to indigenous audiences while evoking the cultural landscape of an imagined British political community for the military personnel, stimulating patriotism, commemorating the monarchy and advertising the sophisticated level of logistical and scientific competence that enabled colonisers to rule hundreds of miles from home.