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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

  The first-generation Romantics developed an existing topos in a way that manifests great tension with regard to a polite audience and its likely social position. They also developed an existing poetic genre in a similar way. Coleridge's and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads have often been put in the context of domestic radicalism. Wordsworth's claim to be speaking the real language of rural labourers made poetic style an issue in the politics of culture. The poems challenged, in form and diction as well as subject-matter, the values by which the governing classes legitimized their power. Yet whilst this challenge has been clearly understood, it is still too often assumed that Wordsworth and Coleridge derived their lyrical ballads from the folk ballad, which Percy's Reliques had revived.[40] It is arguable, however, that Cowper's popular 'The Negro's Complaint' (1788) was just as relevant an influence, as well as a more recent one. In this poem, written in response to the request of John Newton for popular verse in support of abolition, Cowper presented the voice of a slave in deliberately simple form and diction. He thereby rendered his enslaved African a victim whose brutal exploitation had not destroyed his innocence. That innocence both demands compassion from the reader and assures him/her that the slave is not a violent - or savage - threat. It allows the slave to question the colonialist's hypocrisy without alienating the reader in the colonizing nation:

  Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
   Is there one who reigns on high?
Has he bid you buy and sell us,
   Speaking from his throne the sky?
Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
   Matches, blood-extorting screws,

Are the means which duty urges
   Agents of his will to use?

Having gained the readers' compassion and appealed to their religious conscience, Cowper's Negro is able to overturn their racist assumption of moral superiority:

  Deem our nation brutes no longer
   Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard and stronger
   Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings
   Tarnish all your boasted pow'rs,
Prove that you have human feelings,
   Ere you proudly question ours![41]

Here, as in Blake's Songs of Innocence and in Lyrical Ballads, the innocence of the voice and simplicity of the style lull the readers, allowing a challenge to their prejudices to succeed because it is unexpected. The Negro's complaint becomes an inquisition, the slave, first victim, and then, interrogator. In an age when Reason, as Cora Kaplan has argued, was 'marked from the beginning by exclusions of gender, race, and class',[42] Cowper's attribution of powers of rational enquiry to the Negro is exceptional. Of course, Cowper's Negro is characterized in terms of the debate of the time. 'Fleecy locks and black complexion / Cannot forfeit nature's claim' defensively concedes the point made by racists such as Edward Long that the African's physical features should be read as animalistic.[43]

  As Blake's 'The Little Black Boy' and many of the poems in Wordsworth's and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads indicate, the forms of expression developed in abolitionist discourse were vital to the discourses we have come to term 'Romantic'.[44] As Cowper and Burke also reveal, opposition to current forms of colonialism within a colonizing culture does not make a writer immune from colonialist stereotyping: Cowper makes no concessions to the African's own idiom of speech.[45] Yet at its best, as in 'The Negro's Complaint', abolitionist discourse transforms the stereotype with which it operates, so that it destabilizes rather than reinforces the assumptions of the imperialist culture.

  William Blake's awareness of the slavery issue and his verbal and visual representations of it have been well discussed by David Erdman.[46] As well as 'The Little Black Boy', Blake also produced his illuminated poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion in 1793, making explicit the connection between racial and gender oppressions. It has been argued that Blake elaborated Mary Wollstonecraft's questioning conflation of the issue of race and slavery in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft, commenting on the racial and gender exclusions of 'Reason' had asked:
Is sugar always to be produced by vital blood? Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subjected to prejudices that brutalize them, when principles would be a surer guard, only to sweeten the cup of man? Is not this indirectly to deny woman reason?[47]
Blake elaborates on the psychology of the colonialist Theotormon's own mental oppression and on his oppression of both woman and African in the person of Oothoon who is the victim of colonial and sexual violence. Erdman argued that Blake's Theotormon functioned as a critique of John Gabriel Stedman who, in 1796, published his A Narrative, of a Five Years' Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America; from the year 1772 to 1777. Blake produced, at Joseph Johnson's behest, around fourteen plates for Stedman's Narrative between 1792 and 1793, the time of his etching of Visions of the Daughters of Albion.[48] Erdman claimed that the momentum of the poem is
. . . supplied by the oratory of Oothoon, a female slave, free in spirit but physically bound; Bromion, the slave-driver who owns her and has raped her to increase her market value; and Theotormon, her jealous but inhibited lover who fails to recognize her divine humanity . . . the frustrated lover . . . being analogous to the wavering abolitionist who cannot bring himself openly to condemn slavery although he deplores the trade.[49]
Erdman's historicization of Visions is convincing in locating the poem as a response to the debate about the slave revolt in St Domingue (Blake's 'vales of Leutha'). Blake's slaver certainly repeats Said's later explication of the cliches of Africanist discourse in his proprietorial claim:

  Stamped with my signet are the swarthy children of the sun;
They are obedient, they resist not, they obey the scourge;
Their daughters worship terrors and obey the violent.[50]

Erdman's historical insights into the revolutionary potential of Visions have, however, been problematized in Steven Vine's recent account of the occlusions made by the poem, an account which 'maps the struggle of the poem to expose structures of sexual and colonial enslavement in the name of visionary Enlightenment' yet also shows how, 'while affirming its radical potential', Blake's language 'dramatizes the historical and ideological uncertainty of its own limitations'.[51] Certainly Blake had a tendency to subordinate issues of race and gender to the dictates of his own highly-developed symbolic structures, so much so that in The Song of Los (c. 1795) skin colour is a sign of the fall into materialism and rationalism:

  Adam shuddered; Noah faded. Black grew the sunny African,
When Rintrah gave abstract philosophy to Brahma in the East.[52]

  Responses to discovery of the island of Tahiti (or Otaheite as Europe knew it in the period) and its inhabitants were very different but equally complex. The natives of Tahiti were made an indicator for European attitudes to the peoples with whose culture Europeans were unfamiliar. At first the natives were regarded as conforming to Rousseau's notions of the 'noble savage'. The French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville visited Tahiti in 1768 after its discovery by Samuel Wallis. Bougainville believed he had been transported to the Garden of Eden and he named the island 'La Nouvelle Cythère', from the island in Greece where Venus first emerged from the sea.[53] Tahiti was an island of peace and plenty where nature supplied all the wants of mankind. Bougainville stressed that the islanders had no personal property and that they were free of the stringent sexual taboos of Christian Europe. Diderot penned a Supplement (1772) to Bougainville's account of his voyage. The mental voyage to Tahiti made by the philosophe described a land free from the Enlightenment bêtes noires of orthodox Christianity and despotic government. Tahiti became as Philip Edwards puts it 'a showpiece for the advantages of the natural or pre-civilized state', a place from which to criticize the warped values of civilized Christian Europe.[54] Cook arrived in Tahiti in 1769, returning in 1773, 1774 and finally in 1777. Cook, a practical man formed from the traditions of Enlightenment Christianity, regarded the myth-making of Diderot and Bougainville with scepticism. He viewed Tahitian society with a degree of tolerance and practised a kind of cultural relativism with regard to its sexual mores.

  It was also in Tahiti that William Bligh landed in 1788 on a mission to secure the bread-fruit plant which was intended for transplantation in the West Indies to be used as a food source for the slaves. The mutiny on board The Bounty on Bligh's leaving the island for the West Indies helped crystallize notions of Northern duty and Southern pleasure for the British reading public. By the time of Bligh's visit the Tahitian way of life was suffering from its contact with the West. Many of the natives became addicted to drink and were infected with venereal disease. In the new Evangelical climate that began to dominate British opinion in the early nineteenth century, the Tahitians were no longer seen as noble savages but as unfortunate pagans. An expedition sent by the London Missionary Society arrived on the island in 1797. These missionaries were not the enlightened natural philosophers like those who sailed with Cook, but instead determined servants of their Lord who had little ethnological respect for the cultures of others evident in late eighteenth-century exploration. Subsequently in this new climate the Tahitians were viewed as a primitive, or degraded, crude and superstitious people in need of revelation.[55]

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