The Global Indies. British Imperial Culture and the Reshaping of the World, 1756–1815

Cohen, Ashley L.
The Lewis Walpole Series In Eighteenth-Century Culture and History
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Onni Gust, University of Nottingham

In her 1985 essay, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism”, Gayatri Spivak began with the statement: “It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English.”1 Spivak’s provocation has been taken up by post-colonial feminist scholars, including, for eighteenth-century studies, Srinivas Aravamudan, Felicity Nussbaum, and Kathleen Wilson.2 Ashley Cohen’s The Global Indies builds on this work by providing a richly researched, nuanced, and compelling argument for the constitutive and dialogic role of the “East” and “West” Indies to British imperial world-making.

The Global Indies begins by the fireside of an English country residence, a scene from William Cowper’s The Task (1785) that situates Cohen’s narrative at the cultural and geographical heart of the British imperial elite. The interruption of rural tranquillity (or, perhaps, ennui) by the arrival of a London newspaper containing news of battles and conquests in the Americas and India encapsulates the overarching argument of The Global Indies: that the eighteenth-century British cultural worldview, or mentalité, understood the East and West “Indies” as part of the same spatial, political, and discursive world. Cohen names this conceptualisation of global space that spanned the Americas and the Indian subcontinent the “Indies mentality” (p. 23). The Global Indies argues that eighteenth-century British literature conceptualised “East” and “West” Indies as part of the same analytical field through an investigation of three, interconnected themes: racialisation and blackness (Chapters 1 and 2), ideas of slavery and freedom (Chapters 3 and 4), and capital accumulation through aristocratic kinship networks (Chapter 5). Cohen employs what she calls a “past-critical reading” (pp. 18–19), which reads across different genres – theatre, novels, caricatures, newspapers, published diaries – to understand how the eighteenth-century British literary elite produced the structures of the thinkable that determined the meaning of “global space” (p. 11).

Chapter 1 focuses on Samuel Foote’s plays and Fanny Burney’s debut novel Evelina (1778) to show how popular metropolitan British meanings of blackness were articulated through cross-referencing to British affairs in both America and India. Cohen illustrates the entanglements between race, class and masculinity through her discussion of Foote’s thinly-veiled representation of Charles James Fox as a blackface macaroni in The Cozeners (1774). The decadent and materialist macaroni already stood as a gendered symbol of moral decay, the blackening of the macaroni “ties this decay to the corrupting influence of colonial wealth” (p. 61). Both works critiqued the aristocratic beau monde by using racialised tropes that placed the spectre of the West and East Indies at the centre of metropolitan British self-conceptions.

Chapter 2 develops the theme of racialisation by focusing on the bi-racial character Julius Soubise (d.1798), whose life story stretched from St Kitts, where he was born, to metropolitan London and finally to India. Unlike the majority of London’s non-white population – the “Black poor” that encompassed lascars (sailors) from Asia and Black Loyalists who had fought in the American War – Soubise lived in a state of unfree luxury as Catherine Douglas, duchess of Queensbury’s “pet companion” (p. 80). The aristocratic social world to which he very precariously belonged enabled him to become a fencing and riding instructor, but it also shaped his racialised self-fashioning as a “Black Prince”. Cohen begins chapter two with a discussion of representations of race on the stage in London where the use of cosmetics to vary the shades of blackness on the stage were used to denote the differences between African and Indian, as well as between upper and lower ranks: “rank was a determinative factor in the representation of race” (p. 83). This was the popular culture of racial representation that Soubise navigated as a Black, unfree man of fashion in London in the 1770s; it was also this culture that represented him, in turn, when he left London in 1777. Reading the chapters on Soubise in Nocturnal Revels (1779), Cohen shows how Soubie’s own self-construction as African aristocracy was ridiculed and refused by labelling him a fraud and imposter. The use of the figure of the eunuch that Cohen explores here and in the earlier play The Padlock (1768) is particularly interesting for what it reveals about the way that British culture seized on racialised forms of gender and sexuality to demarcate difference, whilst collapsing distinctions between West and East Indian forms of unfreedom.

Chapters 3 and four 4 on the rhetoric of slavery as it developed in late eighteenth- century metropolitan British culture and circulated in the media. Comparing representations of Tipu Sultan of Mysore with those of Dessalines and Christophe, the first leaders of revolutionary Haiti, Cohen shows how the same discourse of political slavery – with its connotations of moral corruption, political tyranny and monstrosity (often figured as sexual deviancy) – was used to malign Britain’s enemies in East and West. Cohen examines two stories in Edgworth’s Popular Tales, “Lame Jervas” and “The Grateful Negro”, the former centred on labour practices in India, the latter on Jamaica. In both narratives the answer to the evils of slavery is not necessarily emancipation but gradual amelioration through education, paternal benevolence and deferential gratitude that enables the system of racial capitalism to remain intact in the name of social order. By the mid nineteenth century, however, East and West had been conceptually separated in relationship to slavery. Cohen argues that this separation was one of expediency; it allowed the abolitionist movement to argue against African slavery in the Caribbean whilst ensuring that the structures of expropriation and capital accumulation in Britain (and Europe) remained intact. This is evident in Colebrooke’s spurious claim that the Bengal peasant was “free” to work, if only to evade starvation (pp. 184–185), and in the continuation of exploitative labour practices long after the formal end of slavery in the Caribbean by replacing enslaved African labour with indentured servants from Asia. Cohen’s important point is that the history of slavery in the modern era must be read with an understanding of the deep economic and discursive entanglements between “East” and “West” Indies.

The final chapter returns to the question of British aristocratic self-fashioning and identity formation that occupied the first half of the book. Yet rather than focus on the strategies of representation that brought the East and West Indies together into one “Indies mentality”, Cohen looks at the networks of social capital that shored-up the imperial project. Focusing on the East and West India journals of Lady Maria Nugent (1771–1834), this chapter shows how aristocratic patronage networks relied on lucrative positions in both the Caribbean and India to bolster ailing financial and social status in Britain itself, ensuring the continuation of “the ruling class’s hegemony” (p. 225). A final “Coda” situates the book’s argument in the wider context of post-colonial ambitions to understand, and thereby undo, the hegemonic worldview that was created by British imperial expansion.

Global Indies offers a fascinating insight into the constitutive role of East and West in the cultural production of a British imperial worldview. The overarching argument for viewing East and West as part of the same analytical framework is compelling, but it is in the thick description of intersecting worlds and texts that this book really adds to our understanding of an emergent British-imperial worldview in the long eighteenth century.

1 Gayatri Spivak, Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism, in: Critical Inquiry 12 (1985), 1, pp. 243–261, p. 243.
2 Srinivas Aravamudan, Enlightenment Orientalism, Chicago 2012; F. Nussbaum, Torrid Zones. Maternity, Sexuality and Empire in Eighteenth-Century English Narratives, Baltimore 1995; Kathleen Wilson, The Island Race. Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century, New York 2003.

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