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Caribbean Culture and British Fiction in the Atlantic World, 1780-1870


Tim Watson


Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, vol. 61

Cambridge : University Press, 2008

Hardback. xv + 263 p. ill. ISBN 978-0521876261. £60.00

(Paperback reissue, 2011. 978-0521188715. £21.99)


Reviewed by Claire Joubert

Université Paris 8



Tim Watson’s Caribbean Culture and British Fiction in the Atlantic World (1780-1870) brings to the impressive scholarship on the 19th century which has been developing under Gillian Beer’s guidance at Cambridge University Press an astute, informed, and suggestive study; and one which stands out both on its own merit and as a representative of the current disciplinary inventiveness in North American academia.(1) Indeed possibly the most striking contribution which the book makes consists in the singular object of study it carves out, within a field which is one of the most dynamic and exciting areas of research in the Humanities at the moment. In the Anglophone context of mainstream cultural and postcolonial studies, the intervention will be immediately appreciated for the fine strategic repositionings which it proposes; in a French reception context—organised around different disciplinary and thematic dynamics but now very much attuned, sometimes over-sensitively, to the issue of the politics of culture which the postcolonial perspective has imposed—it comes as another timely confirmation of the need for French cultural theory to engage far more widely than it has done so far with this now sophisticated, scholarship-rich, and critically fresh field of study. It confirms, also, the need for its reception in this country to start filtering out seriously beyond the field of English studies, into wider disciplinary, editorial and critical spheres—but then this will not be the first time such a view has been expressed from inside the discipline.

Having said this, in return, I would suggest that the French reception context also brings into view a perspective which the monolingual, mono-colonial ambit of Tim Watson’s study does not take into account, despite its perceptive analysis of the peripapetic character of the 19th century issues and debates concerning the Caribbean, and of the lives of the characters who made it what it was. In conclusion of this review I will try to present some of the advantages of adding a trans-colonial question onto Tim Watson’s main argument, as a tentative input from France.

Tim Watson’s main contention is concerned with the need—now actually well established and well on the way to being realised, through the cumulative research of the last decade—to reappraise the position (central rather than marginal) and the importance (constitutive) of the Caribbean in the 19th century British empire. Viewing the empire as a synergetic whole, rather than as a centralised metropolis of power with peripheral and subordinate tentacles in distant lands, is both indeed an invaluable historical corrective, and a theoretical insight in the workings of the power differentials at play in the geopolitics of colonialism, with important implications for the fundamental debates of anthropology, as well as for the task of making sense of today’s regimes of asymmetric international relations. It is in this by now fairly well mapped-out field —with pioneer work by Catherine Hall, Ian Baucom, David Lambert, Brent Edwards, and the more overarching inputs of Paul Gilroy and Edward Said, Gayatry C. Spivak, Mary Louise Pratt, Robert Young—that Watson’s mindfully constructed angle finds its critical footing, in a manner which is both original and effective.

The reliance on this rich context of parallel research projects is explicit in the book, in a way which constitutes a remarkable vindication of a “thick” Humanities policy currently possible in (certain privileged zones of) the North American academic infrastructure. A genuine intellectual field is active and supportive here, around the questions of the Atlantic world and its critical implications for the understanding of world history and of the dynamics of culture. Tim Watson’s study deftly brings together a productive nexus of references which knit up into a constantly fertile, insight-producing backdrop to the questions he considers in the course of his argument. It is not only a matter of his research being well and widely informed about the ongoing debates of his field: the true quality of scholarship here resides in the intelligence of the connections which he proposes, within this field and with neighbouring disciplinary or methodological spheres.

The heart of this system of connections is built around the critical intersecting of postcolonial studies and imperial history, the cultural history of 19th-century Britain and the history of the Caribbean, the literary and social history of English narrative forms of the time (imperial romance, gothic narrative, “bardic nationalism” and the “Waverley novel”…), and the methodological tropes of history-from-below and subaltern history’s re-reading of the colonial archive. It is this crossroads which allows for the main object of the book to come into relief: hypothesising the ambivalent cultural interplay, over the period, of the contrarian discursive logic of creole realism and theCaribbean romance projected by the new humanitarian logic of Victorian imperialism. The white creole culture which was becoming vocal in the islands with incipient, proto-nationalist resistance to the metropolitan politics of slavery, labour and international commerce, with early calls for autonomy from the British geopolitical sphere and growing interest in the Americas, Watson argues, developed in discursive genres where “realism” was used to counteract the imaginary association of the Caribbean with exoticism and mystery; with piracy and the family romance of paternalist slavery. As this administrative modernity in discourse (the “actuarial historicism” described by Ian Baucom in his analysis of Robinson Crusoe) coming out of the colonies was finding its terms, as early as the pre-emancipation decades of the century, the humanitarian abolitionist movements were entangling the metropolitan imagination of the Caribbean in the contradictions of a paternalistic sentimentality, shot through with the nostalgia for the patriarchal, primitive simplicity of slave society—as well as with the faint but unshakeable thrill associated with the horror at the inhuman cruelties of slavery. While the metropolitan novel was fashioning the generic markers of English realism, an instability at the heart of the genre was being built in with theCaribbean theme, a favourite trope for the return of the repressed. Watson argues for the recognition of the way the various realist projects of British Victorian modernity keep slipping into romantic patterns, and being irresistibly attracted into the gothic, sentimental, or melodramatic modes of the Caribbean romance.

The chronological framework of the book intends to track the contrarian dynamics of romance and realism across the thresholds traditionally put into place by imperial history and show how it provides a deep cultural linkage between both the pre- and post-emancipation dateline of the 1830s, and the cut-off point of the 1860s which would mark the eventual marginalisation of the Caribbean in a modernised empire now turned towards the East. A first historical stage is set, in the 1800s, with the examination of the private papers of one wealthly Jamaican creole Simon Taylor—who owned and managed plantations in Jamaica and whose defence of planter interests is taken here as exemplar of the rationalist, anti-sentimentalist and anti-missionary genre of creole realism—which are put into contrastive interplay with the new language of colonial administration introduced by James Stephen in the registration (and therefore political, humanitarian status) of slaves, at the same as the introduction of the submerged figure of black insurgency at the heart of the English novel (Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda in this instance). A further tripartite contrast is set up between the romantic repertoire of adventure tale and imperial romance which made up the metropolis’ favoured genre of Caribbean writing, the scientific-minded accounts published by travellers to the West Indies in a transperipheral publication like Edinburgh’s Blackwood’s Magazine, and the archives of the Saint-Thomas-in-the-East (Jamaica) branch of the Society for the Conversion and Education of Negro Slaves in the British West India Islands, where unexpected characters emerge that both come to challenge creole realism and reintroduce the tropes of romance, now inflected with a radical valence.

At this point the key personnage conceptuel envisioned by Tim Watson’s essay in cultural history becomes clear: the “black doctor” character evoked in the Blackwood’s narratives evoke, and the faint historical figure of Mary Lindsay which he recovers from the Saint-Thomas archive, together construct the notion of a structurally ambivalent protagonist of writing about the Caribbean: both obeah-man and entrepreneurial doctor or mulatto nurse; both potentially rebellious religious convert and respectable church-going slave. They are “hinge” characters who carry in their ambivalence the radical potential that can be generated in the interstices and passages between creole realism andCaribbean romance. Represented in Simon Taylor’s colonial writings, such figures tend to weight his creole realism with romantic effects which, with another concurrent valence switch, ultimately start to inscribe within the colonial archive itself something like a history-from-below account of an autonomous African-Caribbean cultural life.

Having established this pattern, the book then takes on the task of tracking the fine shifts and switches between realism and romance, and between creole (both white and black) and metropolitan enunciators (both colonialists modernisers and abolitionist progressives) of those modes, which this Caribbean ambivalence keeps generating over the long stretch of the decades between 1780 and 1870. In this it offers a critique of the binary it has itself etched out, and opens up one after another a series of subtle analyses of various “fruitful matrix[es] of [the] curses” of colonialism—to borrow an expression from Samuel Ringgold Ward, one of the historical figures whose voice T. Watson recovers from the colonial archive. The chronology charts the circulations and metamorphoses from the realism of the modern British novel in its colonial genealogy—which are shown to be warped from the inside by the pressure of the Caribbean repressed—to a sentimental, “humanitarian” taste at home for the romantic–ironically inspired by otherworldly brutality of the Caribbean past. Together which this it shows the parallel development of the subaltern potentials inherent in romance, slowly and paradoxically finding their way into the hegemonic sphere as political realities: be it through the integration of black insurgency and adumbrations of Waverley-inspired nationalism in the gothic melodrama framework of a text like Hamel, the Obeah-Man (1827), in the thematics of the humanitarian, post-paternalist English novel (George Eliot’s Felix Holt upturning of the “inheritance plot” provides a case study here), or through the early developments of a black internationalism, whose “realist” language nevertheless remains inextricably complicit with the ideological tropes of British imperialist discourse (exemplified here by the figures of two “black turbulent priests” in their “peripapetic” preaching careers across the Americas and Europe).

The counter-narrative of this Caribbean-viewed century provides a sharp reassessment of this transitional period from the First British Empire to the second, post-emancipation, capitalist colonial system. The implication here is to minimise the idea of a marginalisation of the West Indies and a shift of the colonial centre of gravity towards India, and to bring into relief the structural persistence of a cultural dynamic which would bring us to the 1860s with an undiminished sense of the centrality of the Caribbean haunting the new British colonialism in its very modernised, “humanitarian”, “civilising mission” rationale: where the Governor Eyre controversy in London after the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 in Jamaica would still have more immediate results on the politics of empire than even the Indian “Mutiny”. “The Morant Bay uprising, far more than than the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 to which it is often compared”, Watson writes, “crystallised concern on questions of governance, citizenship, and rights, both domestic and imperial, and in so doing inaugurated the new era of ‘the Empire’ ” [182]—thus making the ambivalent Jamaican figures which the book has portrayed “forgotten catalysts, rather than odd outposts, for the establishment of a new figure: the citizen-subject of the modern British empire” [186].

The “fruitful matrix” method generates a subtlety in argument and in close-attention points of cultural analysis which is constantly successful in its power to suggest fresh perspectives for the understanding of the cultural dynamics of the 19th century as a whole, and in the theorising of cultural history. The history-from-below, subaltern studies methodology is set up with care, and the disciplinary devices and tropes of cultural studies and new historicism are fully operative—at times indeed gracefully so. The choice of corpus, indeed the archaeological act of selecting this particular set of texts from the discursive formation of the “First British Empire”, would be my first point of discussion with the whole project though.

The objective is of course compelling, and responds well to the now widely recognised need for historiography to refashion, critique and minoritise the colonial library. The choice is for a symptomatic, monographic treatment which focuses in closely onto a selected series of alternative documents, discursive sequences or genres and the singular historical figures that emerge out of them, thereby cutting through the hegemonic mass of official history, often with penetrating critical effects.

The creativity of this approach also resides in the deliberate rearticulation of discourses which will highlight the coherence of a particular cultural regime across the variety of its generic spheres—a method which has already allowed for striking re-readings of history, in various contexts: Shakespearean culture as well as freedom-fighting India, to name but a couple. Yet both the close focus and the mindful circulation across hierarchical cultural boundaries come with their advantages and their risks. The bringing together of estate papers and imperial romance, colonial administration reforms and the records of religious societies, almanacs and realist novels, abolitionist journalism and the writings of black preachers, Parliamentary papers and post-Darwinian racialising bio-anthropology, is imaginative and often suggestive in the new connections it offers. The narrow monographic focus is effective in recovering the historical validity of the marginalised genres and their enunciators, and it is easy to become attached to these subaltern “heroes” whose voice and faint yet “specific” historical imprint are thereby rewritten into the narrative of the 19th century. There is undeniable value in the fragmentary rhythm of the study, which attempts above all to provide this type of critical effects. The choice of focusing on Jamaica for the study of the 19th-century Caribbean is made quite openly; the priority given to transitional moments and situations (the post-Revolutionary entrenchment of the British colonial regime and creole culture in the 1800s, the 1820s pre-emancipation peak of the First British Empire, and the 1860s of the Governor Eyre crisis) makes complete sense in view of the point to make about the actual nature of the shift to the “modern British empire”. But other dimensions of connections and critical interplay—geographical breadth, historical sequence, cultural articulation and material enunciative contexts—which would work out the compounded consequences of the localised insights are also thereby made inaccessible. Or, this is also true, fruitfully cleared open, for readers to take up the curiosity of following the leads through.

Readers might nevertheless argue that the “contradictory scraps” strategy, or the “subaltern” methodology which the author defends, make for a tantalising desire for more substantial working out of the intuitions proposed, grounded in a broader, syn-phonic exploration of discursive formations in their structural historical logic. The fragment is indeed critical when it detotalises the archive, but to the extent that it starts generating—synecdocally, symptomatically—the alternative accounts of historical dynamics which it promises. As the Subaltern historians indeed have done. Here the “romance” of recovering silenced voices, and of recuperating the contrarian undertows which keep discursive valences shuttling between romance and realism, does have a tendency to aestheticise the process of enquiry, when it is itself attracted into the resonance field of loss, and at times lead to press onto the material in a manner that fetishises more than it (re-)historicises the archival trace. There is a hint of the mimetic fallacy in Watson’s self-reflexive precautions over the discursive practice of the cultural historian, his (in this case) “commitment to social justice and fidelity to the subaltern past”, and his methodological anxiousness over “the dilemma of the postcolonial historian or cultural critic caught between what Ian Baucom calls the actuarial and romantic historicisms”: between the material of a colonial archive itself “structured […] according to the protocols of imperial romance”, the realist constraints of “responsible historiography”, and the need to inscribe the radical valences of romance in history—without romanticising resistance in the power structure of empire. There is an unquestionable quality of ethical vigilance in the aesthetics of dilemma, but there is also the freezing of historicity in the structure of denial (in the sense of Freud’s analysis of the melancholic ‘fort-da’), out of whose seduction it is always possible to break out with more historicising, and more materialist discursive history.

This attention to the unavoidable discursivity of historical/historiographic enunciation is engaging; as is the ultimate decision to commit to the revalidation of romance as critical space for the practice of cultural history. It is also, to a certain extent, characteristic of generic practices developing in the field. Yet the “dilemma” of ethico-discursive entrapment rests on theoretical issues—the simple yet far-reaching question of what precisely is meant by “discourse” when practiced in colonial discourse analysis, cultural history and literary history—which are not so impossible to unlock. The differenciation of Derridean, Foucaldian (and indeed Said’s) senses of “discourse” in the conceptual career of the term within cultural and postcolonial studies is one ingredient which might clarify the ideological implications it carries, and loosen some of the blockage, by identifying its most potent strains for historicisation: through a precise historicisation, or attention to discursivity, of the concept itself. A clearer articulation of the way “discourse” works as transaction between language and culture would also be gained if the notions of genre, fiction, narrative, prose, and indeed “romance” and “realism”, which are so important to the book’s argument, were examined with more precision still. The critical power they contain can only be limited as soon as they are stretched to encompass—therefore metaphorise—non-discursive cultural realities and patterns. The practical conflation of “realism” as cultural attitude with Realism in the history of the English novel, its peculiar discursive markers and its ties with humanitarian culture assumes an identity which is far from obvious; and the extension of “discourse” or genre” or “the language of” (romance, empire, abolition, humanitarianism, heredity, nationalism…) as co-terminous with the ideologies they produce and reproduce kills the peculiar incisiveness of the concept of discourse. And despite the pointillist yet consistently insightful evocations of English literary genres in their enunciative history, which do give texture to the textual analyses offered in the study, the readings often focus on the texts’ diegetic rather than discursive logic: they read the fabulation but rarely the poetics of the works, where their own politics of enunciation resides. In this regard on notable absence in the book’s theoretical framework is Homi Bhabha’s incisive conceptualising of ambivalence as discursive strategy, which does provide a workable model for the study of the fracturing of enunciative regimes. Any projection of Bhabha’s concept onto early, Caribbean-focused European colonialism can only be extremely illuminating, and promises to prepare interesting stress tests for Bhabha’s notions of Third Space and cultural translation.

The fact remains that the snatches of archive brought together into one disjunctive field of echoes in the book constitute an exciting little re-contextualising bomb, which has no difficulty in indeed dislodging some of the routines of national histories, regional histories, and traditional periodisations. The very dynamic Atlantic World research on literature of the last decade, coming after postcolonial studies’ own decentring of Eurocentric versions of world history, has turned up important material for the history of the 20th century and the differently-accented reading of the genesis of modernity. In this context it is of great value to have this spectrum of connections made possible with the upstream of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The reminder of the discursive minutiae of pre-Industrial Revolution (and altogether pre-Berlin Conference) colonialism is precious in refreshing the horizons of postcolonial criticism and remodelling the very framework under which it works. And the mutual transdisciplinary illumination of colonial cultural history with late 18th-century and Victorian literary studies is evident. The Caribbean re-location makes a solid case for adjustments in the very units of world history used to make sense of imperialism: in the same way that the study of slavery and the induced African diaspora has imposed the “Atlantic” framework which cuts across and rearticulates national or continental coordinates, the Caribbean focus organises an intensely productive fluctuation between the sense of a geographic projection of Europe, and the proto-nationalist spaces of the Americas. And the study of the peripapetic, “turbulent”, mobile nature of culture in the Caribbean Americas of the period fleshes out—and complexifies—a 19th-century picture for the translational turn in cultural anthropology which James Clifford neatly captured in his call for a shift from a perspective centred on “roots” to one learning to theorise “routes”. 

The theoretical gambit which organises the book is another such transdisciplinary proposition: bringing the operative concepts of the Subaltern historians to bear on the Caribbean context. G. Spivak’s work on race is one reference which comes to mind if we want to think of precursors. Yet the trans-colonial implication of the gesture here—across pre-Independence ruralIndia and a Jamaican context taken just after the American and French Revolutions and its later evolutions—is one of the intriguing and arguably most invaluable ideas put forward. In this sense the several moments of the argument which involve reminders of the “transperipheral” circulations and echoes between the British West Indies and Scotland, Ireland, or Francophone Haiti, weave into the texture of colonial history an important part of the weft which has been missing from traditional accounts. This is a radically necessary reframing if we want to open up seriously the historical analysis of early internationalist anti-colonial movements.

Yet a couple of fine fault-lines can be detected in this cross-framing of disciplines and their respective objects, which are nevertheless helpful in opening up very promising questions. One concerns the cautiousness with which the issue of religion and religious conversions is approached, and the uncertainty about how to deal with their characteristic slipperiness on the scale of colonial submission or resistance. Even if the Subaltern historians’ thesis of the revolutionary agency of religious discourse—and its historic role as an alternative to liberal nationalism within the emancipation struggle—still allows room for the ambivalence itself, and even if it has been also challenged on this question by other historians, the issue can still find substantial discursive grounding in the whole history of Black theology (as studied from W.E.B. Du Bois to Paul Gilroy) which the book hardly evokes, as well as in other major strands of theorising about the linkage of religion with dissent, revolution and radicality in social history. Max Weber comes to mind at a more distant point in the past, as does the history of religious dissent which is the point of origin for the creation of theUnited States of America. But nearer to us: it is true, as Tim Watson reminds us, that E.P. Thompson’s argument about the ultimate structural submissiveness of Methodism in the context of 19th- century British revolutionary movements. But in same decade and the same field of left British social history (which constitutes such a prominent part of the DNA of British cultural studies), Christopher Hill’s study of English Radicalism since the English Revolution was also bringing to light a broader picture which provides ample material to convince us of the existence of a strong, Anglophone history of the linkage.

Similar political implications are involved in the second issue, with which I will conclude: the question, in an argument that attempts to counteract the interruptive logic of the 1830s periodisation and of the disassociation of centre and periphery, of the interrupted focus in the study which cuts off the history of the British Caribbean from that of the other islands enmeshed in the same European Atlantic history, even if tied pre-eminently to non-British colonial systems within it. The one situation that comes to mind as crucial for the history of subaltern insurgency is the comparative space offered by the case of Saint-Domingue, which became the independentRepublic ofHaiti in 1804, and where this history played out in such dramatically different terms. What is particularly salient in this trans-colonial comparison of two colonial locations negotiating the turn into the 19th century, which is also the turn from what Francophone scholarship calls the “colonialisme d’Ancien Régime”, is the hinge on which the reorganisation of the European empires turns, at that decisive moment in the balance of world powers: the question of revolution, as the form taken by the capitalist democratic pressure brought to bear on the European aristocratic, feudal political system. And the central issue of the French Revolution, including its subaltern report in the Haitian Revolution of 1791, and including the anti-Revolutionary, and later anti-Napoleonic determination to consolidate an alternative mode of control of capitalist-democratic pressures inBritain and of imperial geopolitics on the world stage.

Haiti constitutes one of the lines of flight of Jamaican (and other British Caribbean) insurgent culture(s), as is indeed noted in Watson’s study of the inauguration of “a new kind of black migrancy in the 19th century”, travelling between the Americas and Europe. Just as the French Revolution, and the associated figure of Bonaparte, are major haunting presences in Romantic and Gothic literature and art in Europe, the question of the parallel developments of subaltern Caribbean life and culture in Haiti (as window at least onto the added alternative histories of the other islands) passes through the book at several points like a spectral reminder of the fruitfulness and the necessity of comparative history. Comparative cultural and literary history in the last decade has already turned the attention of postcolonial criticism towards these trans-colonial effects, and the polylinguistic, translatory nature of the Atlantic World; the work of Brent H. Edwards (for the black internationalisms of the interwar years of the 20th century) and Charles Fordsick, David Murphy and Alec Hargreaves (for trans-colonial revisions of the postcolonial perspective on cultural history), of Michael Dash, Kathleen Gyssels and James Arnold (for modern and contemporary inter-Caribbean and trans-American crossings), has fashioned a number of entry points into this transhistorical mesh. The recent interest in comparative studies of empires, with Jane Burbank and Fred Cooper’s landmark Empires in World History, or other projects in America or Europe focusing on “inter-imperial transfers”, are also a clear sign that the whole framework is shifting. But it is clear that the “revolutionary Atlantic” will greatly benefit from further comparative forays into the enunciative history of this highly pertinent time span which Tim Watson has selected for his critical revaluation of the fundamental cadences of the 19th century.


(1) Gillian Beer is general editor for the Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture series, launched in 1994.


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