Cambridge University Press Shield Cambridge University Press @ Romantic Circles Romantic Circles

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

  Clarkson argues that the Africans in their own country 'exercise the same arts, as the ancestors of those very Europeans, who boast their great superiority, are described to have done in the same uncultivated state'. Although he sees African societies as at an earlier state of development than those of European nations, he is keen to stress the African's linguistic abilities, arguing that their songs 'afford us a high proof of their poetical powers, as the works of the most acknowledged poets' (Essay, pp. 118, 120). As evidence of this Clarkson cites the work of Phillis Wheatley. He is able to make the important statement that, if Wheatley 'was designed for slavery, (as the argument must confess) the greater part of the inhabitants of Britain must lose their claim to freedom' (Essay, p. 122). Furthermore Clarkson regards certain aspects of the African manufacturing arts as surpassing those currently practised in Europe. African skill in ironwork goes beyond 'the workmen in our towns' and African cotton cloths are 'not to be exceeded by the finest artists in Europe' (Essay, p. 124).

  Clarkson's second major argument concerning race relates to colour. He attacks at some length the argument that the Africans suffer the curse of Ham and Canaan by showing that the descendants of Ham were not known by their colour and that this colour could not be used to distinguish them. The descendants of Cush, however, were 'of the colour' yet no such curse was placed upon them.[35] Clarkson's explanation of difference accepts the current synthesis of Christian and Enlightenment reasonings. Either the Deity interposed and created such variation or it springs from climatic causes. In both cases differences in colour must exist for human convenience and not as a sign of moral difference. Adopting contemporary notions of race, Clarkson argues against the polygenist hypothesis of those, such as Long, who posit the existence of separate species by pointing to the fertility of the offspring of black and white (Long claimed, against overwhelming evidence, that such offspring were sterile). This fertility test was, as Robert Young has pointed out, the key eighteenth-century argument for the existence of one species of humanity as 'if two animals of a different species propagate, their offspring is unable to continue its own species' (Essay, p. 132).

  Clarkson's speculations about secondary characteristics are quite fascinating in their mixture of Christian essentialism and contemporary scientific awareness. He postulates that the colour of 'dark olive; a beautiful colour, and a just medium between black and white' was probably the complexion of Noah and that of all our ancestors. He does not see white as the primary colour, and he accepts its equivalence with black; 'there is great reason to presume, that the purest white is as far removed from the primitive colour as the deepest black' (Essay, p. 134). Clarkson's insistence on the relativity of our perceptions of the primacy or beauty of skin colour is not exactly unprecedented: Sir Thomas Browne, Joshua Reynolds and others had made the same point. What is new is Clarkson's attempt to confute pseudo-scientific racialists such as Long by giving his arguments a scientific underpinning. His speculations into the origin of colour led him to minimize the key difference as simply resulting from the 'mucosum corpus' which lies under the skin. The actual skin of the 'blackest negroe' is of the same transparency as 'that of the purest white'. Not having an awareness of modern-day genetic theory, Clarkson cannot account for the gradations of colour or its inheritance but he assumes 'the epidemic complexion' in all its many and various gradations to result from climate. He even goes so far as to conceive of 'a black skin' as like a 'universal freckle' (Essay, pp. 134-38, 144-45). It is clear that Clarkson is attempting to efface the sign of difference between white and black, unsettling such binary oppositions by positing a dark olive as the primary colour, so removing the grounds for the workings of any manichean allegory based on such an opposition. Although he does not explicitly state them, Clarkson must have realized the implications of his discussion in decentring Western assumptions of white as privileged and primary. Yet ultimately the African is positioned as a being at a more primitive level of development than that of the European and in his Essay on the Impolicy of the Slave Trade (1788) Clarkson does look forward, like most of the abolitionist writers ( John Thelwall being an exception), to his Christianization.[36]

  Clarkson's writings and activities helped to provide the dynamism for Coleridge's and Southey's radical campaigning in the 1790s. In this period, Coleridge preached and lectured against the slave-trade, finding his first audience amongst Bristol and West-Country dissenters. He attacked slavery in his 'Ode to the Departing Year' and 'Fears in Solitude', thereby incorporating political comment in what scholars of Romanticism have sometimes been content to read as uncontroversial nature poetry. Yet colonial debate was at the centre of Coleridge's 1790s activities. Anti-slavery discourse acted as one of the few forms of opposition to Pitt's government possible after the passing of the Two Acts gagging the press in December 1795. It acted too as a form of imaginative displacement - Thelwall's novel The Daughter of Adoption contained discussions of the slave rebellion in French St Domingue (present-day Haiti) which served as an analogue for the author's own experience of persecution and marginalization as a radical subjected to the repressive power of established Church and State. Here (as was later the case with Byron for different reasons) the writer's experience of physical displacement and intellectual alienation led him to identify with rebels against and victims of colonization and to generate through his portrayal of them a critique which showed that repression at home and abroad was central to the imperialist nation (a critique later made from the position of colonized subjects in C. L. R. James's treatment of the same rebellion).[37]

  Abolitionism often acted in the Romantic period as a coded language of opposition to the dominant culture within Britain as well as a direct campaign against the cruelties of empire. For dissenters the campaign for the recognition of black Africans' human equality was fuelled by, and in turn refuelled, their campaign to remove the Test and Corporation Acts which prevented them from holding public office. For Evangelicals within the Church of England such as Wilberforce, anti slave-trade agitation was part of a larger attempt to effect a moral reform of the governing classes. In this attempt campaigners spoke on behalf of those who had been colonized, using 'their' words to prick consciences at home about exploitation abroad but also to serve domestic agendas. Even the most assiduous abolitionists rarely let those who had been subjected to colonization speak: instead they appropriated the words of the colonized from mixed motives of their own.[38] Nevertheless, their imagined versions of the speech of colonized people had powerful results, being astutely organized to move the sensibilities of middle-class English readers. Timothy Morton, in his essay, shows how Southey and Coleridge radicalized a topos already made familiar by the anti-slavery writing of Cowper, William Fox and Thomas Cooper,[39] in which the sugar sweetening the tea of polite Englishmen and women was figuratively turned to the blood shed by the slaves who produced it. In the hands of the young Southey and Coleridge, Morton argues, this topos became ambivalent: intended to arouse a shared guilt and compassion in its audiences it also hinted that the poets vicariously enjoyed the prospect of revolutionary violence. The blood of the sugar-producing slaves would be mingled with the blood of sugar-consuming ladies and gentlemen if the writers' warnings were not heeded and slave revolt followed.

1 2 3 4 5