Society for the History of Discoveries

Dee, John. The Limits of the British Empire. Edited by Ken MacMillan with 
Jennifer Abeles. Westport, CT.: Praeger, 2004. 150 p. ISBN 0-275-97823-0.

John Dee (1527-1608) has, for centuries, been a figure of contentious historical significance. Astrologer to Elizabeth I, original fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, lecturer of Euclidian geometry on the continent, alchemist, magus, and influential proponent of British imperialism were all among the many hats that this great Elizabethan polymath wore. Although much of the scholarship on Dee has deservedly been focused upon his magical and esoteric activities, such as his famous angelic conversations, as well as his writings on alchemy and astrology, new attention is being paid toward Dee’s imperial writings.

In 1577, Dee published his famous General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfecte Arte of Navigation, which was a treatise imploring Elizabeth to build a Royal Navy to protect English fishing from foreign intrusion and to project British influence upon the wider world. In addition, two other writings, “Of Famous and Rich Discoveries” (1577) and “A brief Remembraunce of Sondrye foreyne Regions, discovered, inhabited, and partlie Conquered by the Subjects of this Brytish Monarchie” (1578) comprised Dee’s imperial writings. Dee made mention of other imperial writings in his diary, but scholars have considered them similar enough to his known writings to dismiss them as already known. These titles consisted of “Imperium Brytanicum,” her majesty’s “title to Greenland, Estetiland, and Friseland,” among others. 

In 1976, John Dee’s The Limits of the British Empire was discovered and acquired by the British Library. The discovery of Limits goes a long way towards rehabilitating the reputation and historical importance of John Dee; a process which had begun with E.G.R. Taylor’s Tudor Geography, published in 1930. In fact, the editor of the new found manuscript, Ken MacMillan writes that “when the documents compiled in Limits are properly dated (late 1570s) and reconciled with English overseas activities at the time of their presentation to the state, it becomes clear that the compilation rises in importance to become a seminal text in the early discussions about the expansion of the British Empire.” (p. 5).

The first two documents, now translated from the original Latin, are brief treatises entitled “Concerning a New Location for the Island of Estotilant and the Province of Drogio” and “Concerning this Example of Geographical Reform”. These documents largely argue for a new geography, contrary to the geography promoted by two of Dee’s close friends and professional colleagues, Mercator and Ortelius, which argued that Drogio was part of the mainland of North American and that Estotilant was actually an island in the region of modern-day Baffin Island. Dee argued that if his geography was accurate then the Spanish and other opponents could not lay claim to a geography that they knew nothing about. 

The remaining two documents are entitled “Unto your majesties Tytle Royall to these Forene Regions & Ilandes do appertayne 4 poyntes,” and “The Limits of the British Empire”, obviously the latter of which lends its name to the entire manuscript. In fact, Dee has been credited with coining the phrase the “British Empire.” These last two documents, the bulk of which is contained in “The Limits of the British Empire,” were mainly written to provide a legal justification for the occupation and colonization of new lands overseas. After all, Protestant Elizabethan England had to tread the waters of the Atlantic carefully so as not to stir up the Catholic Spanish against her.
In the introduction, MacMillan writes that, “the arguments and evidence that Dee expresses and develops in these seminal writings on empire, his early use of the term “British Empire,” and the overall impact of Limits are of much more than passing interest. Dee’s status as an imperial thinker shifts from enthusiastic amateur to leading expert, and his works are now required reading for those interested in claims to overseas territories during the early modern period, in early formulation of the British Empire, and in the contemporary use of evidence to serve a political and propagandist purpose.” (p.9). 

MacMillan’s edition of the newly discovered John Dee manuscript The Limits of the British Empire, will serve as a valuable resource not only for Dee scholars, but because Dee was an important intellectual and significant contributor in so many different disciplines (geography, mathematics, alchemy, astronomy, navigation, etc.) in the early Modern period that scholars of those fields will benefit as well.

Mike Downs
The University of Texas at Arlington
The University of Texas at Arlington

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