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Romanticism and Colonialism

edited by Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson

Chapter 3: Romanticism and colonialism: races, places, peoples, 1800-1830
by Tim Fulford

  Other texts had a similar educative role, not least Romantic discussions of Ireland. Closer to home than the new colonies in India, Africa and the West Indies, the anxiety Ireland caused in Britain was more familiar, the authoritarian response longer tried. The leader of the 1803 Irish rebellion, Robert Emmet, was executed in 1803, arousing Coleridge's regret at Britain's harsh treatment of its oldest colony.[6] But after the Act of Union (1800), which gave the Irish seats at Westminster, regret turned to fear of Catholic influence on the state. In essays of 1809, 1812 and 1828 Southey played on the traditional British distrust of Irish Catholicism as he argued against Catholic emancipation. 'Religious madness is infectious', he wrote, and the revival of monasteries allowed the Catholic clergy to 'communicate the contagion'. This contagion would be made political, as well as religious, by emancipation, and would 'introduce Irish priests into our army and navy; men acting under orders from a church which Buonaparte has ostentatiously restored'.[7] Equating religious enthusiasm with Jacobinism, Southey demonized the latter as a disease to which the uneducated were prone, just as credulous, Irish peasants were prone to the superstitions peddled by Catholic priests. This demonization was ultimately reassuring, however, since it allowed him to suggest that the removal of the priesthood's influence (by the refusal of emancipation, by the Protestant education of the populace, by the suppression of popular ceremonies and by the prevention of travel to Britain) would stop the spread of revolutionary politics, just as it would that of Catholicism - as if that politics was a foreign infection rather than a product of domestic radicalism. The familiar authoritarianism used to suppress insurrection in Ireland since Spenser's time was, thus, in Southey's colonized version of domestic politics, a prophylactic against the political infection of Britain itself. And, lest his readers quail at his draconian proposals, Southey compared the Irish to African kings notorious for their savagery and likened Catholic processions to the Hindu custom of sati. Ireland became Africanized and Indianized in his account, as he sought to portray the military government he thought necessary to prevent Irish infections as a civilizing paternalism that, as in the newer colonies, would save heathens from themselves. In this racist solution, those Irish too intransigent to accept military rule became 'refractory savages' to be shipped off to the colonies. Having proved themselves 'savages' by resisting British authority, any difference between them and the Africans, Indians and aborigines who inhabited the newer colonies (also 'savage climes' [8]) could be disregarded. In the East Indies, Africa and Australia, the Irish, now identified with the dangerous natives of Britain's remoter territories, would, at least, be at a safe distance. Here Southey's writing exhibits a process of import/export in which one imagined colony is shaped by (and in turn reshapes) the writer's interpretation (from reading and direct contact) of others. In this process, it is not simply the imagined colony's otherness, but its uncanny combination of similarity and difference from its fellows and from the home culture, that is most notable.

  Coleridge also referred to India, and to The Curse of Kehama, when writing of Ireland. In 1814, he published in The Courier a series of open letters to Mr Justice Fletcher. These alarmist letters feared a Catholic rebellion and defended 'the name of Orange dear and religious in the heart of every patriotic and loyal Irish Protestant'.[9] The causes for alarm included the persistence of Jacobinism which 'still walks in Great Britain and Ireland . . . like the Kehama of our laurel-honouring laureat, one and the same, yet many and multiform and dividuous, assaulting with combined attack all the gates and portals of law and usage'.[10] It was a 'contagion most widely dispersed' by 'Priests and Prophets' exploiting 'Irish superstition, and the barbarism and virulence of Irish clanship'.[11]

  At the root of Coleridge's alarm was an interpretation of Catholicism and Hinduism as forms of idolatry. Reverence for 'supernatural power transferred to objects of the senses' encouraged 'blind submission to remorseless leaders'.[12] Ireland merged into India in Coleridge's account, because its Catholicism made it fanatical. Or rather, it merged with the Orientalist and Protestant suspicion of Hinduism that Coleridge had adopted from Southey's poem. In the Romantic conservatism of the Lake Poets, then, Ireland was the victim of religious and political prejudice which Britain's exposure to Eastern beliefs only deepened. The more favourable (yet still ambivalent) portraits presented by Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies (1808-13) and the Edgeworths' Essay on Irish Bulls (1802) were exceptions to Romanticism's reinforcement of English stereotypes about the Irish.

  Southey's idea of shipping Irish Catholics to the colonies became reality as the politics of landownership forced the poor to emigrate. But it depended on the rapid growth of new colonies in the period. In 1815, Cape Colony was confirmed under British rule after being twice taken from the Dutch in 1795 and 1806. Despite the fact that ninety per cent of the colony was Dutch, it became the focus for British territorial expansion. In 1809, the legal status of the indigenous population was defined in such a way as to oblige them to work for the Europeans, and in 1812 they were virtually enslaved by the Boers. In 1820, British settlement of the Cape began in earnest when 5,000 emigrants arrived, bringing with them the London Missionary Society.[13] British law was imposed in their wake and English became the colony's official language in 1822. The native Khoikhoi ('Hottentot') were given legal protection and slavery was abolished in 1833, leading to the Great Trek of the Boers, in which thousands moved Northward, establishing the Orange Free State and the Transvaal republics. Although the Cape did not catch the attention of Romantic writers to the extent of other geo-political regions, it was a source for the popular tale by Mary Butt Sherwood which Moira Ferguson analyses in this volume. It was the subject for the work of the Scottish poet, Thomas Pringle. Pringle emigrated there in 1820 as part of the British drive to colonize the Cape. His collections of verse and prose, Ephemerides (1828) and African Sketches (1834), applied the rhetoric of the picturesque to the South African landscape. J. M. Coetzee argues that the intractability of the South African landscape to European notions of the sublime may have been linked to the absence of an aggressive politics of expansion in the area, which lacked the great American frontiers.[14] Pringle also adapts the typical Romantic ballad to subjects native to South Africa in poems such as 'The Bechuana Boy', 'Song of the Wild Bushman', and his sonnets on the three tribal groups of the Cape, 'The Hottentot', 'The Caffer' and 'The Bushmen'. 15

  A further colony of settlement was added to the British Empire when James Cook charted the coast of Australia in 1770, on his first voyage of exploration. In 1788, a colony was established in what Cook had named New South Wales when a fleet of eleven vessels containing 736 convicted criminals, a Governor and some officials arrived there. Transportation was an important part of the British penal system and, after the revolution of 1776 prevented any further convict settlements in North America, an alternative destination needed to be found. By 1852, some 160,000 convicts were transported to the new colony which became a major supplier of wool for the British textile industry.[16] Not surprisingly, it is the penal aspect of the colony's character which features in writing of the period. Up until 1820, views of Australian nature were largely created by the experience of the colonists who settled around Sydney Harbour and Cumberland Plain. For the colonists, Australian scenery appeared visually monotonous and led to feelings of melancholy in those who surveyed it.[17] Southey's 'Botany Bay Eclogues' (1794) use 'this savage shore' at the 'farthest limits of the world' as a background for an indictment of social injustice and penal severity, yet also depict a land of potential opportunity, uncorrupted by European civilization. Southey's 'Eclogues' gloss over the real hardship endured by the colony:

                 Welcome, ye wild plains
Unbroken by the plough, undelved by hand
Of patient rustic; where for lowing herds,
And for the music of the bleating flocks,
Alone is heard the kangaroo's sad note
Deepening in distance. Welcome, wilderness,
Nature's domain! for here, as yet unknown
The comforts and the crimes of polish'd life,
Nature benignly gives to all enough,
Denies to all superfluity.

Ironically, it was to a 'moral' Botany Bay that Byron, perhaps with the 'Eclogues' in mind, was to sentence Southey, Wordsworth and Coleridge for their 'apostacy' in Don Juan (Canto iii, stanza xciv).[19] Byron may have been alluding to the Crown's 1790s practice of transporting reformers to Botany Bay under legislation against sedition. Transportation was one of the fates that Coleridge's radical friend, John Thelwall, would have had in mind as an alternative destiny to being hanged for treason when he penned his sonnet 'On the Report of the Death of Thomas Muir, on Board the Surprise, in his Passage to Botany Bay'.[20] But, by and large, the colony is simply represented as a land unwounded by plough or spade and suitable for the erasure of either the individual's guilt or society's iniquities. From the start, Australian nature was, as Bernard Smith puts it, seen as 'something to be worked upon and made congenial for human occupation'.[21] This was the tenor of the medallion Josiah Wedgwood fashioned out of clay which had been sent from New South Wales. On it was stamped the legend, 'Hope encouraging Art and Labour, under the Influence of Peace, to pursue the employment necessary to give security and happiness to an infant settlement.' The medallion was accompanied with a dedicatory poem by Erasmus Darwin, The Visit of Hope to Botany Bay, which envisaged a municipal and agricultural future for the colony. Australia provided a congenial space for Darwin's 'progressive and evolutionary speculations in natural philosophy'.[22] The aborigines, although a frequent subject in the colony's visual art, scarcely feature in the poetry of the time. Despite an initial attempt to idealize the inhabitants of New Holland as noble savages, it was the aborigines who were to rival the 'Hottentot' for the distinction of being, in European eyes, the lowest link in nature's chain between man and animal.[23]

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