Stephen Conway is Professor of History at University College London. He is the author of The War of American Independence, 1775-1783 (1995), The British Isles and the War of American Independence (2000) and War, State and Society in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland (2006).
How did you become interested in the American Revolutionary War?
As a child, I was interested in the United States, and wondered how it emerged from a set of British colonies. I’ve never lost that interest, though I like to think that my understanding of the process has become more sophisticated.
Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
As an individual, I would choose George Washington, not because he was a military genius, but because he symbolized the Americans’ determination to carry on, despite setbacks and defeats. For an event, I would go for the Franco-American alliance of 1778, which transformed a colonial rebellion into a world war, and made British victory in America all but impossible. The force would have to be the Atlantic Ocean. Its great size – 3,000 miles separated Britain from the rebel colonies in North America – and the time it took for information, supplies, and soldiers to cross, played a big part in making the war very difficult to win for the British armed forces, even before the French intervened.
Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
The American Revolutionary War and the American Revolution generally have been so extensively studied that it seems difficult to believe that there are areas requiring further exploration. But in truth the international dimensions of the war – the fact that it was not just a struggle fought for and in North America – needs much greater emphasis. I hope that my book will go some way towards providing it, but a good deal remains to be done to give us a fuller picture of French, Spanish, and Dutch perspectives on the conflict.
Which figure in history would you like to go back in time to meet and why?
Probably Edmund Burke, who in early 1775 – just before the war began – delivered a speech to the Westminster Parliament setting out his ideas on the ways in which Britain and the colonies might be reconciled. Everyone present seems to have thought it was a great speech, but most MPs were in no mood to make the concessions to the Americans that he believed were necessary if catastrophe were to be averted.
What is your favourite book?
To switch off from historical researching and writing I read novels quite widely. I’m loath to pick out any favourites, but I find Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano books particularly enjoyable. ■