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

  Tahiti, more than New Holland or New Zealand where the natives were either considered as primitive or vicious, occasioned modifications in aesthetic theories and practices at home. Bernard Smith has shown how the artists who voyaged with Cook, such as William Hodges, altered picturesque and Claudian assumptions about landscape art in their representations of the Pacific Islands. Tahiti figured in British poetry as an ideal paradise, although sometimes this was used ironically. The figure of the noble savage received added credence when the Tahitian native Omai returned to Britain and created a sensation. He was introduced to George III and dined with Dr Johnson (not himself an adherent to the noble savage creed). Eight years after Omai returned to Tahiti, a popular pantomime by John O'Keefe, Omai: or a Trip Round the World was performed in 1785 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Omai, transformed into a Tahitian prince, woos and marries Londina before returning home.[56] Not everyone, however, accepted the noble savage idea. The first book of Cowper's The Task argued that humanity perfects itself in civil society, even in 'the favour'd isles' of the South Pacific. Omai is imagined returning to Tahiti with his former joys ruined by comparison with those he had enjoyed in Britain, forlornly surveying the seas for sight of British vessels. Omai and Tahiti are abandoned because

                            Doing good,
Disinterested good is not our trade.
We travel far 'tis true, but not for nought.
(Book I, lines 673-75)[57]

The contrasting views towards the South Sea islanders put forward by Diderot and Cowper informed writing about this geo-political area in the Romantic period. The relationship of Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' to numerous accounts of South Sea travel has been well-documented.[58] Additionally Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and Byron were fascinated by the story of the Bounty mutiny. Wordsworth drew upon it for his drama The Borderers in 1797, Coleridge planned to write a narrative work on the 'Adventures of Christian, the mutineer' and Byron published his version of the event as The Island in 1823.[59] Southey, in a letter to John Rickman of 1803, alludes to 'Coleridge's scheme to mend' the Tahitians by 'extirpating the bread-fruit from their island, and making them live by the sweat of their brows'.[60] The bread-fruit which Bligh had come to gather was increasingly seen as the source of the indolence which made the island a 'paradise of sin' in which promiscuity and infanticide flourished.

  In this volume James C. McKusick explores the hitherto neglected context of accounts of the South Pacific in Coleridge and Southey's Pantisocratic project. An essential part of Romanticism's destabilization of the values of imperialist Britain was its capacity to imagine radical grounds on which social and political ideologies could be overturned. Pantisocracy, Coleridge's and Southey's scheme to establish a settlement in America, was an attempt to realize radical social equality in a country which had successfully rebelled against Britain's colonial power. McKusick argues that Pantisocracy arose from 'an imaginary representation of America that assimilates it to the South Sea Islands'. Coleridge and Southey, bidding to escape the boundaries of imperialist Britain, are seen to have constructed an idealizing colonialism of their own, one which collapsed the historical and geographical differences of remote societies so as better to be able to write inland America in the image of an exotic and fertile paradise. As was the case in Burke's representation of India, an attack on Britain's imperialist policy still retains a colonialist understanding: 'what it seeks to escape', McKusick concludes, 'it instead reinscribes within the text of its own geo-political unconscious'.

  The sense of 'place' is a key issue in most works in this collection. Remote locations are often dislocated in terms of time and space by Romantic writing and the various discourses which inform it. This can be seen in those essays dealing with the West Indies. D. L. Macdonald, utilizing James Clifford's notions of the allegorical basis of ethnography, shows how Matthew Lewis views Jamaica through a Gothic lens, whilst Timothy Morton argues that the economic tracts turn the colony into 'a supplementary island growing an imported, supplementary crop'. Although accepting the idea that Romantic writing dissolves the referents of place, the contributors to this volume also consider the ways in which such geo-political re-imaginings show resistance to and complicity with the material progress of colonialism and imperialism. One should not forget, as Marilyn Butler has pointed out with regard to the East, that these re-imagined places were the sites of a 'pragmatic contest among the nations for world power' in the period.[61]

  Alan Richardson broadens the focus in his chapter by placing Southey's and Coleridge's writing in the context of other Bristol abolitionist poetry by Thomas Chatterton, Hannah More and Anne Yearsley. Richardson questions whether Romanticism is complicit - even in its early abolitionist form - with the naturalization of racial categories that characterized nineteenth-century racism. He finds not a series of consistent - or even fully formed - attitudes towards race but internally unstable schemes from which 'race' is only beginning to emerge in a modern sense. And he notes how the class and gender of the writer shaped the portrayal of black slaves.[62]

  This whole question of race, class and gender, commented on by Wollstonecraft, represented in Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, has become a subject for a wide-ranging and hotly-contested debate in criticism informed by post-colonial writing. It had been argued that in many different societies patriarchal authority has relegated women to subjugated status and, furthermore, that the congruence of the position of women with those subjected to colonization indicates a shared experience and understanding of oppression. Sander L. Gilman has argued that in the nineteenth century black females and white prostitutes were labelled as both primitive and sexualized subjects, this labelling shown in the iconography of medical and artistic discourse.[63] Nancy Stepan has demonstrated the fundamental nature of 'the analogy between race and gender' in the nineteenth century where 'the major modes of interpretation of racial traits were inevitably evoked to explain sexual traits'.[64] Deirdre Coleman, in a recent essay, has employed such insights in discussing women's abolitionist writing in the 1790s, arguing that 'in seeking to capitalize upon fashionable anti-slavery rhetoric for their own political objectives, women only increased the general murkiness of abolitionist rhetoric, an effect most evident in their employment of the emotive but cliched analogy between their own disenfranchised lot and the plight of enslaved Africans'.[65] Anne McClintock, writing about the later period of European imperialism, similarly criticized the tendency in some post-colonial thinking to produce ahistorical and monolithic terms, such as 'Third World Woman' and 'Post-Colonial Condition' which flatten distinct realms of experience.[66] Such complicated debates about the triangulated conflicts of race, gender and class, informing the essays in this volume by Richardson and Ferguson, show the need for awareness of the interplay of these three key terms in Romantic-period writing about colonialism.

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