The warm reception accorded Nick Bunker's An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America, a history of the “tragedy of errors” leading to the Revolutionary War, belies the sometimes frosty surround in which it was written.
“My office-cum-library is in an extension of our medieval house in Lincolnshire, whose earliest section dates from about 1150,” says the London-born author, whose book was a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the George Washington Prize.
“The extension was built (we think) in the 17th century, and is very chilly in the wintertime. In fact, I will be using some of my George Washington Prize money to install a new state-of-the-art Norwegian gas stove.”
Doubtless this will please Bunker's wife, Sue, not to mention the two otterhounds, Quintus and Mercury, who keep him company during his writing hours.
He has already pleased some demanding critics with An Empire on the Edge, which re-examines primary sources from both the U.S. and Great Britain to chronicle the misapprehensions and miscalculations that culminated in war.
“American history is for me a passion that goes back a very long way,” says Bunker, formerly a journalist for the Financial Times. “This particular project really had its origins in my previous book (Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World), which was about the early settlements of New England. Having written that book, I felt I could look further forward.”
Educated at King’s College, Cambridge, and Columbia University, Bunker shifted careers in the 1990s, leaving journalism for the world of investment banking, a dual background that has served him in good stead.
“Essentially, my specialization is writing books that involve Anglo-American history where it’s possible to research them on both sides of the Atlantic and where I can add value by using material in America to illuminate events in England, and vice versa,” he says.
The linchpin of the book is the Boston Tea Party. Bunker explores its origins and the roles played by such figures as Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Thomas Hutchinson on one shore and George III's chief minister, Lord North, on the other.
Originally, Bunker had intended to compose “a focused account of narrative nonfiction” dealing almost entirely with the Tea Party.
“But as I was working on it, I realized I had to be more ambitious. I had to write a fairly comprehensive account of what was going on in the thought processes of those on the British side. I also had to do something similar in terms of what was going on in America.”
Eighteenth-century studies is a very well-covered era in the U.K., says Bunker. Generally speaking, scholars there have tended not to venture too deeply into the early history of the colonies.
“That meant there were probably materials I could use that had not been utilized before. The records of the East India Company are superb, for instance, and had not been investigated as much as they should have been.”
Bunker also found heretofore unpublished information regarding the Tea Party in some unexpected places, not least the private letters of a Scottish officer in the British navy unearthed in Edinburgh's National Archives.
In the States, he discovered the unpublished letters of Elbridge Gerry, which revealed how political activists in Massachusetts “were working themselves up into a bellicose emotional state” that was almost certain to have violent consequences.
“Essentially, apart from the tragic misunderstandings of each side's intentions, what I'm arguing is that there was a fatal flaw in the way the British Empire was constructed, waiting for an opportunity to break down.”
Ultimately, An Empire on the Edge serves to heighten our understanding of those pivotal three years that preceded the outbreak of war.
“Using all the available sources—not just official documents, but also private letters, diaries, the newspapers of the period, and much more‑I have tried to show exactly how and why the British took their two fateful decisions: first, to ship the tea to Boston in 1773; and then, in 1775, to use force against the rebels in Massachusetts,” Bunker says.
“What’s new is this: the combination in my book of a very clear overview of the big picture—that is to say, the underlying flaws in Great Britain's imperial system that led to the crisis—with what I hope is a subtle, nuanced account of the process of escalation that occurred during 1774.”
Bill Thompson is the author of Art and Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat.