Skip to main content
Author: Nigel Clark

An Island Race?

Updated Wednesday, 13th July 2005

"Are people who live on islands different in some significant way from those who inhabit the 'mainland'?" asks Nigel Clark

This page was published over 17 years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see how we deal with older content.

When Britain first, at heaven's command, Arose from out the azure main, Arose, arose, arose from out the a-azure main, This was the charter, the charter of the land, And guardian angels sang this strain: Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

(Rule Britannia - James Thomson, 1740)

Does being surrounded by sea affect a people's character or culture? Winston Churchill's notion of the British as an 'Island race' suggests an affirmative answer. The quality of the British that Churchill admired (equally, the quality in Churchill that his people admired) is a particular steadfastness in the face of adversity and a willingness to go to any length to defend the island they called home. But it is also the capacity to leave home, to set out across the sea, and do great deeds the world over. Similar sentiments can be found in the anthemic Rule Britannia - that combination of being unflinching in one's allegiance to native soil, yet at the same time being ready and willing to take to the sea, to master and command the world's oceans.

Union Jack flag
Union Jack flag [Image: LaertesCTB - CC-BY licence]

This idea of linking security at home and mastery of the sea seems to make a lot of sense, especially if your land is an island with a long history of raiding or invasion from the sea. But on second thoughts, there are actually two rather different things going on here, and they don't necessarily rest easily together. On the one hand, there is the sense of being settled, of belonging. It's not just about staying put, but about feeling oneself or one's nation to be deeply rooted in the land, as if you had literally grown from the soil. On the other hand, the idea of commanding the sea evokes a sense of mobility, a desire to move freely across the surface of the earth: the very opposite, in other words, to being anchored in place. It's the difference, as British cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall has put it, of having 'roots' or valuing 'routes'.

It may seem obvious that the land is the place for sitting tight, for settling in, for being 'grounded', while just as obviously the sea is the site of movement, of 'going with the flow'. This way of thinking about the ocean is enshrined in the notion of 'the freedom of the sea' - which suggests that there should be free and unimpeded access to the high seas. As the 18th century English jurist, Sir William Blackstone put it, 'water is a moveable, wandering thing, and must of necessity continue common by the law of nature'.

This contrast between land and sea, it's worth noting, has historically drawn its strength not only from a sense of the land being stable, immutable and the realm to which people belong - but also being that which belongs to people. The sea appears free, open, and unbounded, in other words, because it is assumed that the land is restricted, enclosed and bounded. And this was indeed the experience when Blackstone was expounding the freedom of the sea. In England, Scotland and Ireland, the 18th century saw the conversion of vast areas of land that were once held in common into private property, which served to restrict use and access to a powerful minority of landholders.

Statue of Sir William Blackstone
Statue of Sir William Blackstone [Image: cliff1066™ - CC-BY licence]

Just as there is no necessity that land should be fenced off and privatised, so too is there nothing necessary or natural about the idea that the sea should be open to all-comers. For many coastal communities around the British Isles, prior to the Acts of Enclosure, it was assumed not only that the land should be under local communal control, but also that neighbouring stretches of the sea should come under the jurisdiction of local people. Another way of putting this is to say that there was a system in place of 'customary rights' to both land and sea, through which those communities who worked the land and the sea acted as guardians or stewards.

Ancient Irish 'Brehon law' for example, enshrined the customary rights of communities not only to land holdings, but also to the sea - out to a distance of 'nine waves'. The Norwegians also had complex systems of small-holding coupled with self-regulation of fishing grounds. And beyond Europe, as the Australian social scientist Nonie Sharp informs us, many traditional coastal communities had their own versions of customary rights over land and sea, as in the case of the Maori of Aotearoa (New Zealand) or the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia.


A lot of work had to be done to convert common lands into private and enclosed property, and a great deal of suffering followed from this dispossession and imposition of restrictions. Similarly, it took work to wrest the guardianship of local waters from coastal communities in England, Ireland (and many other places around the world), in a process that could be as painful and demoralising as the loss of customary rights to common lands. In the case of the seas, it was not as simple as converting waters under customary control into free-for-all waterways: instead it was most often a matter of conversion into territorial waters - that is, sea under the jurisdiction of the state. In theory, it was the 'high seas', beyond territorial waters, that were designated 'free'.

Private property sign Private property sign [Image: lucianvenutian - CC-BY-SA licence]

But even this notion of the freedom of the high seas is more complicated, and more fraught, than it might first sound. For in practice what this usually meant was that those with the power and the resources to command the seaways took control and asserted their right to 'freely' traverse the oceans - often against the resistance of others who wished to claim the seas for themselves, or to protect their own local interests. And it was the British in particular who, during the late 18th and 19th centuries, attained the naval supremacy to dominate the world's oceans; to enjoy a freedom of movement without precedent in maritime history. At the same time that enclosure was being enforced on the home turf, then, a new kind of wide-open, unrestricted mobility was being enacted at sea - across much of the watery surfaces of the planet.

So let's come back to the idea of the British as an 'island race'. It's a notion that's laced with tension, even contradiction, I want to suggest, because it rests on a distinction between a certain construction of land and sea, between the value of being settled and the value of roving the world, between 'roots' and 'routes'. One of the ways this tension expresses itself most strongly is in the very idea of the British being one 'race', or one people or even one culture. For one of the outcomes of travelling the world, of having many 'routes', is that it brings you into frequent and sustained relationships with other people. And this means that things get mixed up. Things move, ideas move, people move. British people go to other places, people from other places end up in Britain. In this way, the very idea of being a single people rooted in the land starts to get itself muddled: roots get tangled with routes, the idea of being embedded begins to get unsettled.

A suitcase
A suitcase [Image: NihanPeker - CC-BY licence]

But once we start to recognise that mobility implies meeting, mingling and mixing, then questions are raised not only about the last few centuries when this mobility has been most visible, but about the whole span of the history of these islands. Clearly, the historical evidence suggests that there have been comings and going from the islands we have come to call 'Britain' for as long as we can track human occupancy here. Of course, it's fairly common knowledge that Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Norse, Celts, Phoenicians, Romans, Normans and many others all arrived from elsewhere, adding to the local 'mix'. But its perhaps harder to acknowledge that such inter-mixture goes 'all the way down' and in this way rather undermines the idea of a single 'race', rooted in the soil, just as it confounds the notion of common character or culture that follows on from this rootedness.


The island race, is, and always has been, many island races. Though 'race', in this sense, is not a very helpful word, and we might do better to think in terms of 'culture,' or 'ethnic groups.' But what of the shared experience of 'islandness' of all the peoples who have assembled themselves, mingled and made a home, here in the British Isles? Does this imply some sort of common character or culture, shaped by the experience of inhabiting an island? I don't want to go as far as to say that living on an island and being surrounded by sea makes no difference, but I think it is important to remember that there are many different ways that sea and land can be imagined, or experienced, or constructed. That's why I wanted to point out that what became the dominant British view - land as mostly 'enclosed' and privately owned coupled with sea as free and open - is only one possibility.

It's vital to keep in mind that there were other times in the history of these islands when such hard distinctions were not made, and people saw themselves as belonging to land and sea alike. And it's equally important to keep in mind that there are many island and coastal cultures around the world today who retain a strong sense of the sea as a place which can be a home, a place of belonging, and not simply a site of mobility and unlimited access. For instance, as the Pacific scholar Epeli Hau'ofa notes, the islanders of the Pacific have considered the open seas their home for many thousands of years.

Fishermen Fishermen [Image: Nganguyen - CC-BY licence]

It's probably best not to think of the British, then, as a single 'race', and there are different ways that people living on islands can think about the sea, different ways that they fit it into their lives and make something of it. With these points in mind, it's worth returning to the idea of 'freedom of the sea' coupled with a steadfast commitment to the 'soil', that has featured so prominently in the last few centuries of British history and culture. In many ways, this seemingly strange and paradoxical twinning of unimpeded mobility with being grounded in the soil, this tension between having 'routes' and 'roots', is not simply British. It is better viewed as part of modern life - one of (if not the) defining features of being modern. You don't have to live on an island to feel this tension. Rather, it seems to be a facet of life wherever there are ongoing opportunities to encounter other people and places, or wherever there is a general sense of being connected to a much wider world.

The British, then, may not form a single island race with one, unified culture or set of characteristics determined by their sea-encircled status. But it is probably fair to say, that there is a certain tension - the tension between the experience of inhabiting a 'home land' whilst also being exposed to the disturbing, exhilarating effects of an interconnected world - that the British have felt with particular acuteness over the last few centuries. This might be a definitively modern tension, but Britain's prominent role in turning the world's oceans into a single, traversable space seems to have given an added intensity to the anxious relation between routes and roots. Of course, there is much to celebrate in a maritime heritage that spans the globe. But beneath the triumphalism and bluster that has often accompanied the idea of 'ruling the waves', or being a proud 'island race', there are also difficult questions about identity, about who the people of these islands believe themselves to be.

Further Reading
Nonie Sharp, (2002) Saltwater People: The Waves of Memory, Allen and Unwin and University of Toronto Press

Brian Lavery (2005) The Island Nation: A History of Britain and the Sea, Chrysalis Books

Stuart Hall (1995) 'New Cultures for old', in Doreen Massey and Pat Jess (eds) A Place in the World?: Places, Cultures and Globalization, The Open University and Oxford University Press


Become an OU student


Ratings & Comments

Share this free course

Copyright information

Skip Rate and Review

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?