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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

  These years saw the emergence of several writers for whom race and gender were related concerns: Mary Shelley, Mary Butt Sherwood and Matthew Lewis are discussed here by Joseph W. Lew, Moira Ferguson, and D. L. Macdonald. The period brought the formal abolition of the slave-trade (1807) and a subsequent rise in illegal slave smuggling. It saw the development of missionary societies and the increasing influence of colonial government by Evangelical precepts. After 1815 successive governors-general vastly expanded British rule in India and in 1828 the then Governor-General, Lord William Bentinck, introduced a comprehensive policy of 'Westernization', instituting English as the official language of law, administration, and education, and outlawing Indian customs such as sati.

  Britain became the colonial power in Malta and the Mediterranean, giving Coleridge first-hand experience of colonial administration. Colonialist interest also expanded to the West: the discovery and subsequent conquest and government of the South American tribes was a popular subject for poetry in the period. Helen Maria Williams's long poem Peru (1786) had told the story of Pizarro's conquest of the Incas; Joel Barlow glorified the Inca state in The Vision of Columbus (1787) and R. B. Sheridan adapted Koetzebue's Pizarro (1799) for the London stage. Advised by Samuel Rogers and Robert Southey, William Lisle Bowles described Spanish rapacity in Chile in The Missionary (1811-13). This poem developed the sentimental topoi of Williams's Peru. It indicted Spanish colonialism and advocated instead a 'benevolent' paternalism by idealizing the Christian missionary Anselmo, himself a victim of torture at the Spanish Inquisition's hands. It enlisted male readers' chivalric feelings against the Spanish by portraying their cruelty to helpless Indian maidens. The heroine Olola is abandoned by her Spanish lover and is forced to watch her father being tortured; doubly betrayed, she drowns herself, singing of her love in a scene intended to be reminiscent of Ophelia. Thomas Campbell, likewise, used the death of an innocent maiden, lamented by a faithful Indian, to oppose the military conquest of America in Gertrude of Wyoming (1809). Byron, who admired both Campbell and Bowles, adopted a similar method of structuring his analyses of colonial relations through stories of cross-cultural love in which the woman suffers. His Eastern Tales, the age's most popular imperial fictions, were founded on the sentimental depiction of the conquest of the West.

  In 1805, Southey published his romance Madoc (begun in 1789 but heavily revised in 1804). Southey's poem imagines an encounter between his twelfth-century, Welsh, Christian hero and New World Amerindians, repeating the stereotypes of the good and bad Indians (pacifist Hoamen and the barbaric, devil-worshipping Aztecs) found in the literature of colonial encounter from Columbus onward.[1] Madoc's militant religion and his wish to suppress the native customs of human sacrifice and flesh eating made him resemble Thalaba, Muslim hero of Southey's 1801 Orientalist epic. And his later poem, The Curse of Kehama (1810), also began with a condemnation of the superstitious customs of native peoples. Southey's poetic narratives, however, displayed enough disturbing similarity between Britain and the peoples of its empire to invalidate their ideological aims. In using poetic licence to explore foreign cultures, he seemed to be asking British readers to believe in the mythology of heathens. The Curse of Kehama was condemned by reviewers for this reason. And his portrait of Madoc was termed a 'deification of a marauder, possibly as savage as the Indians themselves'.[2] His counter-productive poetry had collapsed the distinctions it had been attempting to make, infecting the colonizer with the barbarity he found in the natives. Thus, his colonialist poetry made renewed attempts to construct an ideology of imperialism all the more necessary as it reminded Britons of similarities they would rather forget between their own culture and those of the countries they ruled.

  Southey made renewed attempts to do so, turning to the medium of prose, and becoming one of the age's most influential commentators on the politics of empire. In discussions of Ireland, India, Polynesia and South America he strove to eradicate the similarity of homeland to colony, precisely because that similarity was partly produced by the export to the colonies of the repressed fear that the 'infections' of commercialism, Jacobinism, sensuality and superstition were endemic to the British character and not just diseases that threatened the nation from without. Locating (and exterminating) the sources of infection in the colonies, then became a mission by which Britons assured themselves of their own purity, whilst subordinating the colonized to their 'righteous' authority.

  For the nineteenth-century public, Southey's most influential, imperialist work was his Life of Horatio, Lord Nelson (1813): thirteen editions were published before 1853. This biography was presented as a training in imperial duty: Southey's preface hoped the book would be carried by the young sailor 'till he has treasured up the example in his memory and his heart'.[3] In 1828, Grosvenor Charles Bedford told the author that the biography 'ought to be in the chest of every seaman, from the admiral to the cabin boy'.[4] In the later Victorian period, it was included in the 'Every Boy's Library' series and was made a school-book (in an edition which included examination questions).[5] The Life sought to define British imperialism by embodying it in a paternalist, dutiful and Protestant hero. Instrumental in forming the values of generations of Victorian schoolboys, many of whom went on to become soldiers, sailors and colonial officials, Southey's Life was one of the texts by which Romanticism educated the British in an ideology of empire.

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