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Romanticism and Colonialism

edited by Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson

Chapter 2: Romanticism and colonialism: races, places, peoples, 1785-1800
by Peter J. Kitson

  Burke's version of British India was one of several colonialist discourses which shaped Romanticism. The campaign against the slave-trade was also vital in shaping the radical politics and the characteristic forms of expression adopted by the young poets Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth. Thomas Clarkson was already resident in the Lake District when Coleridge and Wordsworth met him there, in November 1799. The two poets had known his Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade for several years.[14] Clarkson's detailed evidence, along with further information found in the work of the Quaker Anthony Benezet[15] had provided an essential component of Coleridge's and Southey's political radicalism. The influence of writers such as Clarkson and Benezet and the impact of the whole race/slavery debate on the first generation of Romantic writers has never been fully acknowledged. Indeed, the debate about the slave-trade was conducted within the parameters of a larger discourse about race. The prevailing view of race in the eighteenth century is summarized by Robert Young: 'The dominant view at that time was that the idea of humans being of different species, and therefore of different origins, conflicted with the Biblical account; moreover, the pressure of the Anti-Slavery campaign meant that the emphasis was very much on all humans belonging to a single family'.[16] What Wylie Sypher calls the 'egalitarian dogma of the eighteenth century,' with its acceptance of the hypothesis of one species of humanity, remained the consensus throughout the nineteenth-century.[17] However, the idea that there was a hierarchy of 'races' within the family of humanity and that the Negro was at, or near, the foot became generally accepted as a result of 'the rise of a new science of human taxonomy' and 'the homogenizing pressure of imperialism and the slave-trade'.[18] It appears that the discourse on race underwent a shift in the late eighteenth century from being a system of arbitrary marks to 'an ascription of natural signs'.[19] This new conception of race derived, perhaps unfairly, its most influential and scientific justification from the work of J. F. Blumenbach.[20] Blumenbach followed the biblical account of race, arguing that the different varieties of humanity could be accounted for by the idea of 'degeneration'. The pure origin of humanity was the white male, all other forms were descended from this race according to gender or geography or a combination of the two. The European race (Caucasian) was the most beautiful and least degenerate and, therefore, constituted the historic race. For Blumenbach white was 'the primitive colour of mankind' since it 'was very easy for that to degenerate into brown, but much more difficult for dark to become white'.[21] He enumerated four other races (Malayan, American, Mongolian, and Ethiopian) which deviated from the norm, with the Mongolian and Ethiopian being the two extremes.[22] Coleridge had attended Blumenbach's lectures while at Göttingen in 1798-99 and he annotated his work.[23] His later speculations on race are deeply indebted to Blumenbach's pioneering anthropology.[24] Blumenbach, following Montesquieu, argued that climate accounted for change and denied that mental ability was a key determinant of race. He has been described by one recent writer as 'the champion of the Africans' and had a noted collection of literature by black writers, which Coleridge may well have seen.[25] Yet it is not difficult to see how his ideas about racial degeneration could be adapted to justify later nineteenth-century theories of imperialism and, later, of racial supremacy.[26] The Romantic period thus witnessed the beginnings of a paradigm shift in race theory and in the ways 'race' was related to nationality and culture. By discussing various representations or constructions of the African in a number of writers of the time, we can see how this paradigm shift was manifesting itself, and how, in speaking for and/or giving voice to an estranged and silenced 'Other', the literature of the period was complicit with, and/or resistant to, such trends.[27]

  The idea that the human race was essentially one species, although generally accepted, did not go unchallenged. The Jamaican slave owner, Edward Long, argued, in his influential History of Jamaica (1774), that the white and the black were two distinct species and that the African is closer to the ape or ourang outang than to mankind. Long's refusal of the status of humanity to the African slave suited his defence of slavery. Following Hume, Long found that Western descriptions of Africans as bestial reflected an absence of moral, intellectual and artistic capacity. The Africans 'have no moral sensations' and they are the 'vilest of the human kind'.[28] In 1799, the Manchester surgeon, Charles White, published his Account of the Regular Gradation of Man, allowing 'Long's expedient prejudices [to] move into the realm of scientific theory'.[29]

  It was the pseudo-scientific view of the African that the opponents of the slave-trade were trying to excise. Two writers who were important for Coleridge's and Southey's early views of race were Anthony Benezet and Thomas Clarkson. Benezet, America's most prominent opponent of the slave-trade, published his Some Historical Account of Guinea . . . with an Inquiry into the Rise and Progress of the Slave-Trade (1771) to persuade his readers to end the trade and to swiftly emancipate the slaves.[30] His work was hugely influential in England and France.[31] He represented the inhabitants of Guinea as noble savages living a happy and pastoral life until interrupted by Europeans. In fact, it was probably Benezet who was instrumental in fashioning the eighteenth-century abolitionist myth of the noble Negro. For Wylie Sypher, Benezet's work is important, in that it 'marks the point at which religious, primitivistic, humanitarian, ''philosophic'', and practical objections against slavery fuse'.[32]

  Benezet stated that the Africans had a developed, if not sophisticated, civilization involving agricultural cultivation, and several trades (smiths, potters, saddlers, and weavers), as well as established systems of law and justice. He paid tribute to the quality of the work of the goldsmith and silversmith and the fine cloths of the weavers. He employed a range of sources to authenticate the quality of the Africans' work and their industry in trade, fishing and agriculture. Guinea appeared a fertile and Edenic place where the inhabitants had a sense of a one true God and a future state, but they were also 'superstitiously and idolatrously inclined' (Account, p. 32). Yet ultimately, for Benezet, the Africans were barbarous and savage and he exhorted Europeans to use 'their endeavours to make the nations of Africa acquainted with the nature of the Christian religion' (Account, pp. 58, 82). He questioned the moral superiority of the Europeans who had behaved so cruelly and immorally to the Africans, but he never accepted that the Africans had achieved parity with the European. He did not mention any linguistic or artistic excellence that they possessed. He could not imagine African cultures on their own terms, but only as primitive states of European culture. Throughout he spoke for, or allowed others to speak for, the silenced African and he accepted the oppositions of enlightenment and barbarity, and the equivalence of darkness, ignorance and savagery, the terms which drive JanMohamed's 'manichean allegory'.

  If both Long and Benezet, despite both their differing views of race and their conflicting aims, can be seen to accept the inferiority of the black races, Thomas Clarkson, who paid generous tribute to the effects of Benezet's work, went further than most in stressing the equality of the African.[33] Underlying Clarkson's arguments against the slave-trade was his Christian universalist view of race. He believed that all mankind sprang from the 'same original' and that the notion of separate species contradicted scripture and science.[34] His first work on the subject, the prize-winning Cambridge dissertation, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1788), makes the case for the humanity of the African race in a rigorous and compelling way. The premise behind Clarkson's writing, which becomes one of the central creeds of Coleridge's later political philosophy, is that a man is not a thing and thus cannot be traded as a commodity. Clarkson's essay argues for the original equality of all men and the contractual state of government. Slavery must always be illegal unless the person consents to being placed in that position. Clarkson informed his audience of the horrors of the slave-trade in a way that no other writer had so far done. He also attempted to demolish the main arguments concerning black inferiority. Clarkson's more-than-apologia for African industry and culture marks him out as someone whose writings push the parameters of Eurocentric views of Africa to their limits, making his readers rethink their assumptions about European superiority.

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