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British Israel and the Irish past

Medieval and early modern historiography had encouraged the integration of biblical and Gaelic chronologies, and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Irish antiquarians, poets and romantic nationalists began to think of themselves as ‘Milesians’, the displaced descendants of a wandering Phoenician tribe. This chapter focuses on the British Israelites, a loose Protestant sect united by their belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel and that biblical prophecies on the future of ‘Israel’ referred to the British Empire. The British Israelites argued that the ancient Irish king, Ollamh Fodhla, was actually the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. This myth-history was deployed in support of the British-Israel claim that the Anglo-Saxons were the true heirs to the biblical Kingdom of David. Yet despite their fascination with the mysteries of pre-Christian Ireland, most British Israelites were arch-imperialists, staunch anti-Catholics and opponents of Irish Home Rule. The chapter explores shifting notions of British and Irish racial identity in relation to scriptural genealogy, and argues that Old Testament narratives were co-opted to serve conflicting political and religious agendas.

in Chosen peoples
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The Bible, race and empire in the long nineteenth century

Chosen peoples demonstrates how biblical themes, ideas and metaphors shaped narratives of racial, national and imperial identity in the long nineteenth century. Even and indeed especially amid spreading secularism, the development of professionalised science and the proclamation of ‘modernity’, biblical notions of lineage, descent and inheritance continued to inform understandings of race, nation and character at every level from the popular to the academic. Although new ideas and discoveries were challenging the historicity of the Bible, even markedly secular thinkers chose to explain their complex and radical ideas through biblical analogy. Denizens of the seething industrial cities of America and Europe championed or criticised them as New Jerusalems and Modern Babylons, while modern nation states were contrasted with or likened to Egypt, Greece and Israel. Imperial expansion prompted people to draw scriptural parallels, as European settler movements portrayed ‘new’ territories across the seas as lands of Canaan. Yet such language did not just travel in one direction. If many colonised and conquered peoples resisted the imposition of biblical narratives, they also appropriated biblical tropes to their own ends. These original case studies, by emerging and established scholars, throw new light on familiar areas such as slavery, colonialism and the missionary project, while opening up exciting cross-comparisons between race, identity and the politics of biblical translation and interpretation in South Africa, Egypt, Australia, America and Ireland. The book will be essential reading for academic, graduate and undergraduate readers in empire, race and global religion in the long nineteenth century.

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The introduction begins by positioning the volume in relation to current debates and developments in a number of related fields: religious history, biblical studies, postcolonialism, literary studies, imperial history and histories of scholarship and the book. Making a claim for the centrality of biblical narratives to the shaping of modern notions of race, nation and empire in the nineteenth century, the introduction discusses some of the reasons why this aspect has been downplayed in accounts of ‘scientific racism’ on one hand and the emergence of European empires on the other. Introducing the two interlinked sections of the book, we stress the importance of biblical ideas of exile, peoples and ‘lands’ to notions of identity and belonging in a variety of nineteenth-century contexts. Furthermore, we explore the explosion of textual transmission and translation in the period, which allowed these tropes and themes to be transmitted across global networks of transport, power and print.

in Chosen peoples