Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History

Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History

by Ian Baucom

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In September 1781, the captain of the British slave ship Zong ordered 133 slaves thrown overboard, enabling the ship’s owners to file an insurance claim for their lost “cargo.” Accounts of this horrific event quickly became a staple of abolitionist discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. Ian Baucom revisits, in unprecedented detail, the


In September 1781, the captain of the British slave ship Zong ordered 133 slaves thrown overboard, enabling the ship’s owners to file an insurance claim for their lost “cargo.” Accounts of this horrific event quickly became a staple of abolitionist discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. Ian Baucom revisits, in unprecedented detail, the Zong atrocity, the ensuing court cases, reactions to the event and trials, and the business and social dealings of the Liverpool merchants who owned the ship. Drawing on the work of an astonishing array of literary and social theorists, including Walter Benjamin, Giovanni Arrighi, Jacques Derrida, and many others, he argues that the tragedy is central not only to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the political and cultural archives of the black Atlantic but also to the history of modern capital and ethics. To apprehend the Zong tragedy, Baucom suggests, is not to come to terms with an isolated atrocity but to encounter a logic of violence key to the unfolding history of Atlantic modernity.

Baucom contends that the massacre and the trials that followed it bring to light an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation based on speculative finance, an economic cycle that has not yet run its course. The extraordinarily abstract nature of today’s finance capital is the late-eighteenth-century system intensified. Yet, as Baucom highlights, since the late 1700s, this rapacious speculative culture has had detractors. He traces the emergence and development of a counter-discourse he calls melancholy realism through abolitionist and human-rights texts, British romantic poetry, Scottish moral philosophy, and the work of late-twentieth-century literary theorists. In revealing how the Zong tragedy resonates within contemporary financial systems and human-rights discourses, Baucom puts forth a deeply compelling, utterly original theory of history: one that insists that an eighteenth-century atrocity is not past but present within the future we now inhabit.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Specters of the Atlantic is quite possibly the most provocative scholarly work I have read in a decade. I really cannot praise this book enough.”—Mary Poovey, author of A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society

“A fantastically stimulating read, Specters of the Atlantic will be an extremely significant book. Its core strength is that it deals in such detail and in such an imaginative way with the primary texts associated with the case of the Zong. Nobody has read those texts in such a careful and stimulating way before, and nobody has used the case to construct such an ambitious historical schema.”—Peter Hulme, author of Remnants of Conquest: The Island Caribs and Their Visitors, 1877–1998

Charles C. Verharen
“This work is a compelling study of the roles of slavery and abolition in the origins of finance capital in the British Atlantic empire. The work is an interdisciplinary tour de force, with superb scholarship on slavery, modernity, the Enlightenment, postmodernism and contemporary literary theory. It is one of the finest comparative studies of the philosophy of history and liberation struggles that I have read.”

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Specters of the Atlantic



Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3558-0

Chapter One

Liverpool, a Capital of the Long Twentieth Century

The minute book for the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty for the month of July 1783 contains an absence, an item of business unattended to, a petition unacknowledged, an appeal for justice unaddressed. The petition came in the form of a letter and a bundle of accompanying documents that were sent to the Lords Commissioners sometime in the first few days of that month. There is, to be sure, no contemporaneous record that the letter was ever opened or read in the surviving log of correspondence to and from the Commissioners assiduously kept by the Admiralty's clerks, nor in the equally fastidious minutes of the Commissioners' daily meetings. That the letter was indeed sent is, nevertheless, attested to by its author, who mentioned it to several of his other correspondents at the time it was dispatched. It is a harrowing document.

This book is a history of that unacknowledged letter, the events it recounts, the appeal it makes, the business the Lords Commissioners left unfinished in not responding to it, the silence it writes into the histories of empire and the modern, and the efforts that have been made to broachthat silence. A history of a gap in the archive, this book also assembles a counterarchive, an archive that, over the past two hundred years, has collected itself around this piece of writing and the event whose history it attempts to write. This is, as might be expected, a variegated archive: a convoluted assortment of letters, bits of journalism, court documents, financial records, snippets of biography, speeches in Parliament, obituary notices, novels, insurance contracts, collections of poetry, pieces of art, nineteenth- and twentieth-century essays in art history, and a wide range of treatises in social, cultural, and political theory-all of which have, in some way or another, been party to, born upon, or found themselves haunted by the event whose news that initial, unacknowledged letter sought to communicate. That this counterarchive constitutes more than an effective history of that event, that secreted within it are the trace elements and perhaps also some of the secrets of our own contemporary experience of history and the modern, that the materials assembled within it might be to a long twentieth century what Walter Benjamin discovered the artifacts gathered within the Parisian arcades to be to the nineteenth, is also, as the title of this chapter suggests, part of my argument. As is it my argument that to read this archive so-to read it as worth reading, worth uncovering, worthwhile, because the utterly singular history it assembles can be seen to find its general equivalent in a reassembled history of the modern-is to risk repeating in abstract form (and in the form of abstraction) the profound human damage it so convolutedly documents.

But those arguments come later, not only after the process of assemblage is complete (or, at least, after I have completed my own necessarily particular, necessarily partial, acts of assemblage), but after one or more of the pieces have begun to fall into place. Perhaps, then, these are not so much arguments that come after the archive as ones that can begin to articulate themselves only after the work of archiving has begun, arguments that can situate themselves, or discover themselves, only in the interstices of the elements assembled here, arguments that can enact themselves as aftereffects of the work of assemblage, arguments, thus, that will find themselves serially disassembled and reassembled as that archive unfolds itself.

* * *

To begin then: with silence. But also with chatter, with the endless business of an empire that in 1783 found itself passing from what historians identify as its first to its second stage, with the phenomenal busy-ness of the naval masters of a global military power that was just on the point of losing thirteen of its colonies on the American mainland even as it was exerting a broadened hegemony over the Caribbean. Indeed, the reader's first impulse on encountering the Lords Commissioners' silence on the matter of a civil dispute arising from the voyage of a Liverpool slave ship some two years earlier (a civil dispute that had already been taken up and, apparently, settled at trial earlier that summer) is to attribute that silence to the many, infinitely more pressing matters of state that must have occupied the Commissioners' attention during that decade of great defeats, victories, and uncertainties. The minutes, however, do not support that reading. The dominant sense they convey is not of epic history or the grand narrative but of the minutiae of imperial management, the trivial daily business of global rule, the submemorable chatter of sovereignty by committee. The Lords Commissioners do not emerge from these records as the architects of history, but as its petty clerks, accountants, and small claims adjusters. They did, certainly, find time to direct the movement of ships from one Caribbean, Mediterranean, or North Atlantic port to another, but they seem to have spent the better part of their days paying bills, awarding pensions, managing personnel, investigating minor crimes, and overseeing the upkeep of the fleet.

In the two-week span from July 2 to July 16-the fortnight during which the unexamined letter was most likely to have arrived-they found time, among other things, to appoint a Mr. Landers as schoolmaster to the Irresistible; assign pursers and a master of arms to the Terpsichore, the Helena, and the Europa; order their victualing agent in Jamaica to dispose of his wares in a manner "most advantageous to his Majesty"; pay off a wide range of bills of exchange (in amounts ranging from the 19,000 pounds owed to a Mr. Robbins, naval storekeeper of the East Indies, to the 15 pounds and 15 shillings due the clerk of the House of Commons); refuse to honor numerous other bills (including one submitted by Mr. Lewis, the crown's agent for prisoners of war in Jamaica); debate and order the further investigation of a letter from a Mr. Armstrong of Uppingham who claimed to have invented a waterproof paint; entertain a report on the deleterious effects of copper on iron bolts (the report suggested that copper degraded the bolts, causing ships' planking to fall off); and order, pursue, and ratify the court-martial of Thomas Morley, boatswain of the Bombay, for "conveying out of" his ship "certain coils of rope."

This last case is something of an anomaly, however, at least for the brief period in question. For on the matter of justice, the Commissioners' interest was more frequently compensatory than punitive. Indeed, they seem to have spent the majority of their time calibrating a fine and exact scale of recompense for those far-flung workmen of the empire whose bodies had been wounded in the service of the crown. On the single day of July 3, 1783, the Commissioners took the time to address six such cases:

To the widow of Captain George Wilkinson (late of the Ville de Paris) and her four children: 100 pounds a year and half pay. To a Lieutenant Furnival, who had received a wound in his shoulder from the "rebels" the previous May: 5 shillings a day and half pay. To Lieutenant John Willis, "who had the misfortune to lose his right thigh in action against the French and Spanish Fleets" the previous October: 5 shillings a day and half pay. To William Smith, Master in the Navy, "who, in an action with the French frigates in July 1778, had the misfortune to have his left foot shot off": half pay. To Thomas Sutton, clerk in the storekeeper's office in Jamaica, who lost his sight by a "violent inflammation" in January 1782: 40 pounds. To Captain John Thomas, who had received "many dangerous wounds," including "one through his lungs, one through his bladder, and has now seven balls lodged in his body which cannot be extracted": 150 pounds a year and half pay.

There is something more than a little macabre about this list, something unnerving that exceeds the finicky mince of bureaucratic language, the formulaic translation of the loss of a foot, a thigh, a lung, or a bladder into a misfortune. If such formulations unnerve because of the obvious incommensurability of "misfortune" with "had his left foot shot off," then it is the imperturbable search for an alternate, alinguistic grammar of commensurability, the casual pursuit of a financializing, decorporealizing logic of equivalence that so confidently translates a lieutenant's foot into 5 shillings a day, a clerk's eyes into a one-time payment of 40 pounds, a captain's bladder and lungs into 150 pounds plus half-pay for life, that lends the counting-house scene chronicled in this record book its fully surreal quality. To my mind that surrealism attaches less to the exquisite-corpse or Frankenstein-like quality of the proceedings, less to the image of a composite imperial body being stitched together (and priced) as this foot is added to this thigh, this bladder, this lung, this set of eyes (and the bill for the whole is presented to the Admiralty) than to the triumph, over the whole enterprise, of this monetarizing anatomization of the body-the triumph, over an embodied knowledge of history, of something like double entry bookkeeping. The specter of money and money management hangs over the entire minute book, a text which functions to convert history, for the most part, into a calculable matter of credits and debts, to reduce the vast business of empire to a column alternately labeled debt or misfortune and another labeled payment, with, in the debt column, not only a list of accounts due but a schedule of wounds received, bodily parts lost, lives surrendered, and in the paid-out column an undifferentiated array of numbers. In switching from the business of settling their 19,000 pound account with Mr. Robbins, Naval Storekeeper in the East Indies, to signing off on the 150 pounds for Captain Thomas's bladder and lungs, the Lords Commissioners were thus not switching business at all, merely applying the logic of one case to the particularities of the other:

Debt/Misfortune Payment To Mr. Robbins, Naval Storekeeper, E. Indies 19,000.0s.0d To Mr. Cuthbert, Naval Storekeeper, E. Indies 12,000.0s.0d To Clerk of the House of Commons 15.15s.0d To John Willis, right thigh 5 shillings per diem To William Smith, left foot 5 shillings per diem To Thomas Sutton, eyes 40.0s.0.d To John Thomas, bladder, lungs 150.0s.0d

If they had paused to pull back from the business at hand, the Lords Commissioners might have been troubled by something else also. For what haunts this record book, what haunts the accounting procedures and the econometric logic of justice explicit in the Lords Commissioners' attempt to do justice to those who had suffered on the empire's behalf, is not only the specter of a modern principle of bookkeeping and a modern system of finance capital capable of converting anything it touches into a monetary equivalent, but the specter of something else such financial protocols made possible, something the Admiralty would decidedly not have wished to associate with its loyal, suffering, subjects: the specter of slavery, the slave auction block, the slave trader's ledger book; the specter, quite precisely, of another wounded, suffering human body incessantly attended by an equal sign and a monetary equivalent.

And perhaps that is the reason why the Lords Commissioners did not attend to the letter that Granville Sharp had sent them. For if they had opened that letter, if they had read it, what they would have discovered related there was not something wholly alien to their way of doing business but something, rather, that would have seemed like a grotesque parody of their own activities, something relating the tale of a British ship, its trans-Atlantic voyage to the Caribbean, the loss of life aboard that ship, and the monetary amount a British court had parsed as just compensation to those whom it determined to have suffered this loss. That the ship, the Zong, was not a Royal Navy but a merchant vessel, that the dead were not British sailors but the 132 slaves the ship's captain had thrown overboard, that the petitioners were not bereaved family members but those drowned slaves' Liverpool owners who had sued their insurance agents for the underwritten value of the slaves and convinced a jury in the Guildhall Court that in drowning the slaves the ship's captain, Luke Collingwood, was not so much murdering them as securing the existence of their monetary value-all these things might, of course, have convinced the Lords Commissioners that the matter was none of their business, nor, in any important sense, that of the empire's.

* * *

"Liverpool, a capital of the long twentieth century," I have claimed, though, of course, not yet established. It is a queer claim, even with the qualification that I do not thereby intend that Liverpool is the capital of this extended period of historical time but should be numbered among the shipping, trading, and financial entrepôts that I understand to have dominated and ushered into existence our long contemporaneity, and even if the type of argument this claim suggests is more than familiar from the two essays to which it alludes: Walter Benjamin's "Exposé" of 1935, "Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century," and his 1939 revision of the essay which serve as introductions of sorts to the materials that compose his Arcades Project. Paris makes an immediate, if disputable, sort of sense, not only as the capital of the nineteenth century but, potentially, as the capital of any number of other historical periods. Paris, capital of the nineteenth century; Paris, capital of the eighteenth century; Paris, capital of modernity-the idea is not, on the face of it, ridiculous. What remains is for that idea to substantiate itself, to define the contours of its argument, to tell us how and why we might accede to it, or quarrel with it.

* * *

As concerns Benjamin's claim, the fundamental argument is clear enough. As he quite pithily put it in a letter he wrote to Gershom Scholem in May 1935, an exploration of "the fetish character of commodities [stands] at the center." The two exposés, if more oblique in their presentation of Benjamin's interests, are equally insistent on the centrality of the commodity form not just to nineteenth-century Parisian life but to an increasingly global culture system whose key principle was the production of exchange values, whose chief labor was the production of those commodities in which such exchange values were "petrified," whose central activity was the display, inspection, collection, and consumption of these commodities, and whose signature aesthetic object was, for Benjamin, the allegorical fragment. Allegory, he suggested, enacts the central logic of commodification by conferring on its subject matter an abstract signification analogous to the economic value that capital processes of exchange confer upon the commodity. "The key to the allegorical form," as he puts it in the 1939 exposé, "is bound up with the specific signification which the commodity acquires by virtue of its price. The singular debasement of things through their signification, something characteristic of seventeenth-century allegory, corresponds to the singular debasement of things through their price as commodities." Thus, the nineteenth century emerges as a definable epoch because it is in that century that the commodity is not merely "enthroned" as an article of consumption and display but that moment in which even those who are economically excluded from the circuits of consumption, even "the masses [who are] forcibly excluded from consumption, are imbued with the exchange value of commodities to the point of identifying with it." And Paris identifies itself as the capital of that commodito-centric century because in the boulevards cleared by Haussman, in the World Exhibitions the city staged ("World exhibitions are places of pilgrimage to the commodity fetish"), in the allegorical poetry of Charles Baudelaire (and the "flaneur's gaze" that poetry turns upon "the streets of Paris"), and, above all, in the Arcades, those "centers of commerce in luxury items," Benjamin discovered the French metropolis to be staging itself as the world center of commodity fetishism.


Excerpted from Specters of the Atlantic by IAN BAUCOM Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Ian Baucom is Associate Professor of English at Duke University. He is the author of Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity and a coeditor of Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain, also published by Duke University Press.

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