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

  In the Romantic period, the processes of colonialism underwent significant transformation, both at the material and ideological level. The rather rigid Marxist distinction between colonialism and imperialism is complicated by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The traditional, historical periodization of the Romantic Age as one which coincided with the rise and fall of the old colonial system prior to its supersession by the 'New Imperialism' from around 1870 onwards, has been problematized by recent writing. In fact, a new system of British imperialism appears to have been emerging at roughly the same time as what we know as Romanticism began to appear.[1] Gananath Obeyesekere has recently argued that it was in the late eighteenth century that the concept of the 'colonialist' changed. Obeyesekere regards the three voyages of Captain James Cook as crucial to this transformation: 'the voyages that he led heralded a shift in the goals of discovery from conquest, plunder, and imperial appropriation to scientific exploration devoid of any explicit agenda for conquest of and for the exploitation and terrorization of native peoples'.[2] Similarly, Mary Louise Pratt noticed that, around this time, there occurred the end of the 'last great navigational phase' of discovery and its replacement by a growing concern with the exploration of the interiors of the continents. This was fuelled by the concomitant emergence of a new 'planetary consciousness', altering the ways in which Europeans perceived themselves and understood their place on the planet. Pratt argues that this led to a kind of 'anti-colonialist' literature which conceals an underlying colonial purpose.[3] Pratt's point about the movement to interior exploration still needs qualifying. The sublime polar landscapes, the last remote areas of the globe, remained unexplored. On his second voyage Cook explored the Antarctic regions and his third and final voyage began, in 1776, as an attempt to discover the North West Passage, a navigable waterway, which, it was believed, crossed North America from East to West.[4] In 1818, the British government organized the first of several Arctic explorations, and in 1845 the ill-fated Franklin expedition left in search of the elusive passage. The sublime polar sea-scapes which haunt the Romantic imagination are, in part, a response to this scientific endeavour. It was to seek the North West Passage, as well as to discover the secrets of the magnet, that Captain Robert Walton, one of the 'sons' of Captain Cook, left for the Arctic Circle in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), where he encountered the dying creator and his unnatural progeny in extremes of cold and ice. Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (1798) similarly uses the Antarctic as a means to explore the metaphor of mental and maritime exploration, describing a voyage bearing remarkable similarities with Cook's second expedition (1772-1775).[5] Several commentators have pointed out that the guilt felt by the mariner after shooting the albatross might be a displacement of a more general guilt experienced by the Western maritime nations for their treatment of other cultures.[6]

  The treatment of other cultures became a central issue in British Romanticism and in the new variety of British imperialism after 16 February 1788. On that day, Edmund Burke rose to his feet in Westminster Hall and began the impeachment of the Governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings. Burke's speeches, and the impeachment which they launched, were the first powerful manifestations of colonial guilt at the centre of British political life. An audience of MPs and members of the public were confronted with a narrative determined to expose the brutal and violent acts done in the interest of the Company's profits. Burke's sensational narrative was not anti-colonialist. Rather, it contained a reading of Indian society from which Burke argued for a different, and, he believed, more effective colonialist policy than that executed by Hastings. As Michael Franklin points out in his chapter in this volume, Burke 'saw the politics of the subcontinent as the imperial and ethical challenge of his time'. He represented Indian society, for the benefit of his Westminster audience, as a complex civilization bound by traditional institutions, social distinctions and laws. Hastings had violated this traditional structure, humiliating Indians of power and wealth, reducing all to the level of subjects equally vulnerable to the Company's arbitrary power. In a critique that he was to develop in the 1790s in his attacks on the French Revolution, Burke showed Hastings' colonialism to depend upon the destruction of pre-colonial society and upon the construction in its place of an inherently tyrannical (and unstable) despotism. The Company monopolized power: Indian society was levelled, Indians of different ranks, castes, wealth all now equally subject to its authority. Hastings, Burke claimed, was playing God: in claiming 'arbitrary power' he was forgetting that he was 'bound by the external laws of Him, that gave it, with which no human authority can dispense'.[7] But playing God in the colonial space of India was a Satanic temptation prompted by the culture's unending and complex difference, by the very variety that enabled it so effectively to elude the colonialist's desire for control. The colonialist seeking such control was led into an expansionary, but unavailing, logic of terror, becoming bloodier and bloodier in his efforts to make India assume a pattern over which he could have knowledge and authority.[8]

  Burke's case against Hastings was implicitly also a case for a colonialism based on rule through the adaptation and manipulation, rather than the destruction, of the existing Indian power-structures. As such it mirrored, as Michael Franklin's chapter shows, the kind of colonial administration practised by Burke's friend Sir William Jones (although Jones's detailed knowledge of Indian culture eventually led him to perspectives rather different from Burke's). But Burke's impeachment speeches were also important in other, related, ways. They brought debate about Britain's colonial role in the East to the heart of public life. Their rhetoric of horror vividly animated some of the oppositions produced by colonialism - showing the subjection of those who were colonized to be a process inherent in the attempt by the colonizing power to construct itself in a position of exclusive authority. And they suggested that this attempt was the more dangerous, for colonizer and colonized, the greater the exclusivity claimed.

  Both Jones and Burke shaped the discourse of Romanticism. 'All-accomplished Jones', as Anna Letitia Barbauld described him, showed that Oriental culture could be translated into terms familiar to Europeans without the figurative excess of Burke. India became more easily read, more easily grafted on to existing aesthetic modes, because his translations represented it as different but not alien. Franklin shows too that Jones did not simply, as Aijaz Ahmad and others have implied, conservatively identify Hindu culture with the work of the Brahman élite at the expense of popular movements.[9] Although concerned to remove aspects of popular Hinduism likely to confirm European readers in their prejudices about Indian savagery, Jones was appreciative, to a degree most Orientalists were not, of the continuity between ancient Sanskrit devotional texts and contemporary popular cults. And Franklin also shows, contra Said, that Jones's Orientalism did not simply impose a colonialist discourse upon India, facilitating British administration. It also partially fostered Indian nationalism by helping in the process of liberating its writings from Brahman control.

  Jones's neoplatonic translations made Hinduism available to the Romantic poets - as the work of Southey, Shelley and Coleridge reveals. But Burke's anti-Hastings language also left an enduring rhetorical legacy. Its figurative power, its enthralling excess, its violent attack upon colonial violence fascinated Cowper, Wordsworth, Coleridge and their radical mentors. All admired Burke's rhetoric and echoed it in their own attacks upon the slave-trade, even as they bemoaned Burke's later use of similar rhetoric to attack enthusiasts for the French Revolution. Historians of Romanticism have too often read Wordsworth's and Coleridge's 1790s use of Burke as evidence of a 'reactionary' abandonment of pro-French radicalism. If, however, we trace their Burkean rhetoric to their participation in the anti-slavery campaign, it can be seen to derive from Burke's attack on the current forms of British colonialism. Coleridge paid tribute to Burke as 'the bold Encomiast of the American Rebellion' against Britain.[10] And in his lecture against the slave-trade, he developed Burke's own rhetoric in a racist portrait of American Indians as 'human Tygers' that was intended to make readers guilty about the imperialism of the British government who employed them to attack white settlers.[11] Guilt about British imperialism did not necessarily entail opposition to all forms of colonialism: like other opponents of the slave-trade Coleridge came to favour colonial expansion. Burke himself argued for more principled, colonial government whilst opposing the trade:[12] in 1789 and 1791, he supported Wilberforce's motions for total abolition, and in 1792, he sent Henry Dundas his Sketch of a Negro Code which characteristically proposed the expedient of regularization and humanization of the trade and of the institution of slavery to accompany its gradual abolition.[13]

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