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Empire of Neglect: The West Indies in the Wake of British Liberalism

Empire of Neglect: The West Indies in the Wake of British Liberalism

by Christopher Taylor

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Following the publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, nineteenth-century liberal economic thinkers insisted that a globally hegemonic Britain would profit only by abandoning the formal empire. British West Indians across the divides of race and class understood that, far from signaling an invitation to nationalist independence, this liberal economic discourse inaugurated a policy of imperial "neglect"-a way of ignoring the ties that obligated Britain to sustain the worlds of the empire's distant fellow subjects. In Empire of Neglect Christopher Taylor examines this neglect's cultural and literary ramifications, tracing how nineteenth-century British West Indians reoriented their affective, cultural, and political worlds toward the Americas as a response to the liberalization of the British Empire. Analyzing a wide array of sources, from plantation correspondence, political economy treatises, and novels to newspapers, socialist programs, and memoirs, Taylor shows how the Americas came to serve as a real and figurative site at which abandoned West Indians sought to imagine and invent postliberal forms of political subjecthood.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822371151
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/18/2018
Series: Radical Americas Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.67(d)

About the Author

Christopher Taylor is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago.

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Jamaica preferred "Yankee Doodle" to "God Save the Queen." Who cared?

— ERIC WILLIAMS, Capitalism and Slavery

Scenes of Imperial Abandonment

In his An Essay on the Production of Wealth (1821), Robert Torrens introduces his chapter on colonial wealth with a thought experiment. Imagine, Torrens asks, an unmet demand for sugar in the British market. Imagine, too, that in response to this demand, English gentlemen convert land best suited to sheep pasture into plantations of root vegetables from which sugar can be processed. For Torrens, the result would be "a small supply of sugar at great expense." The English proprietor could "obtain a much more abundant supply" of sugar by trading with tropical colonial producers than "by raising it at home" — as, indeed, British sugar consumers did. Theorizing colonial trade through the lens of Ricardo's doctrine of comparative advantage, Torrens's chapter seems poised to celebrate the utility and value of Britain's colonial empire. But a disconcerting question intervenes. If a "territorial division of employment" necessarily optimizes the British economy, is it necessary that this division take the institutional form of a colonial empire? Britain needs the tropics, sure — but does it need colonies?

Here, perhaps, it may be asked, — If it is by establishing divisions of employment that the colonial trade promotes the formation of wealth, what can be the utility of incurring the expense of maintaining colonial establishments? Might not the trade which is carried on between a mother country and her colonies, be equally extensive and beneficial, though the connection between them were dissolved, and the colonies acknowledged as independent states? Torrens's questions propose a startlingly transformed world in which Britain would have commerce without colonies, a trade empire without the "expense" of political sovereignty. Yet the great transformation invoked in the passage is obscured by Torrens's resolute evacuation of authorial and political responsibility for the process of withdrawal he projects. Given in the passive voice,

Torrens's questions emerge from a discursive possibility ("it may be asked") at a logically necessitated point in his argument ("Here"), a point that is itself immediately qualified ("perhaps"). Torrens's rhetorical evacuation of authorial responsibility functions as a model for the counterfactual regime of postimperial trade that it imagines: although the political bonds between colony and metropole "were dissolved," trade "is carried on" between them. In the world conjured by Torrens's hesitant sentences, the active intentionality of political sovereignty is absorbed into the agentless passivity of everyday commercial relations. Even colonial independence does not arrive with the bang of a political declaration but weakly derives from another's acknowledgment of an accomplished state of affairs. Sovereignty has been evacuated of any decisive effectivity it might once have been held to possess; it cannot even decide on its own abdication. Rather, a market calculus will determine whether West Indian sugar is worth Britain's squeeze of colonial cane.

If Torrens's questions appear revolutionary, they were so in a generic way by their publication in 1822. Imperial skepticism was the stuff of encyclopedia entries. James Mill concludes his supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica (simply entitled "Colony") by wondering how colonies, "so little calculated to yield any advantage to the countries that hold them," continue to court the "affection" of "modern Europe." Indeed, political-economic speculations regarding imperial dissolution had become so common that Torrens, otherwise a promoter of colonial empire, must write the empire's end when writing a political economy. Where a number of intellectual historians have attended to the anti-imperialism that is constitutive of and coextensive with the origins of classical political economy, in this chapter I explore elite West Indian responses to the discipline's accumulating argument that the West Indies could be lost without a loss to Britain. It is only through recourse to colonial responses, I contend, that we can understand the transformations that political economy wrought throughout the empire. Superficially, political economy changed little: the age of political economy was an age of global imperial expansion, not retraction or dissolution. Read alongside the ongoing expansion of Britain's formal and informal empire through the nineteenth century, the anti-imperial orientation of political economy is understood to have been at best feckless. This interpretation tracks broader claims that liberal political economy had minimal impact on the pragmatics of policy framers, who were more likely inspired by evangelical social thought. At worst, the emergent discipline appears as nothing more than a new ideological mask for old imperial aims. In each case, putative structural continuities — between the first and second British Empires, between mercantilist empire and the empire of free trade, between policy makers and, well, policy makers — make ironic any claim that the emergence of political economy marked a discontinuity in the political reality of empire. This historiographical emphasis on continuity has stuck, however, only because it quietly assumes metropolitan Britain as its organizing subject. To put a figure to the analytic frame, we might say that this historiography adopts the gaze of the City banker, one of Cain and Hopkins's gentlemanly capitalists, who is fairly indifferent as to whether his money is invested in colonial Jamaica, colonial Bengal, or Portuguese Brazil, provided the returns are good. For British subjects on the other side of the Atlantic, however, this indifference was the discontinuity between imperial dispensations, and political economy incorporated this indifference as its politico-epistemological principle. Of course, this indifference did not register through an abandonment to independence or with anything like the positivity of a big historical event. It registered instead as a deactivation of the discursive and epistemological parameters within which colonial subjects could become legible and exert power as political subjects.

Political economy made a revolutionary break with empire by quietly depoliticizing it. To be sure, this quiet discursive shift was buoyed by and referred back to louder revolutionary transformations in the British Empire. For his British readership, Torrens's generic speculations would have recalled the doubled anti-imperial revolutions of 1776 — the year in which the thirteen northern colonies declared independence from the empire, on one hand, and the year in which Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published, on the other. As we will see, these political and discursive events were intimately linked. The American Revolution occupies a privileged position in Smith's inquiry: it offered empirical proof of the market system whose functioning Smith could elsewhere only assume as an aprioristic given to authorize chains of deductive reasoning. In The Wealth of Nations and in a position paper written for Parliament in 1778, Smith insisted that the costs of maintaining sovereignty were too high and that Britain's economy would expand following political severance from the colonies. By the 1820s, and even before, Smith's prophecy had been confirmed by reality; it was a bit of common sense to note that British trade with the former colonies had only multiplied in value following independence. This common sense was mobilized to affirm the soundness of Smith's predictions regarding the war's effects and, by extension, to confirm the scientificity of a discipline whose commitments to abstraction and deduction courted scorn from multiple political and epistemological communities — Tories, creoles, statisticians, historians. Political economy's repetitive scenes of imperial abandonment would cite this history, transforming the American Revolution into an "epistemological figure" for the overwhelming sovereignty of the discipline's organizing abstraction, the market. In the process, the aftermath of the American Revolution came to serve as an allegory for the future of the empire's Atlantic remnants — with the difference, though, that this time it was Torrens, John Ramsay McCulloch, or the Edinburgh Review declaring independence for the colonies.

Ironically, the West Indies so well served as a present-day metonym for the erstwhile colonies because the islands' economies were so disrupted by their revolution. The year 1776 ushered in a period of profound economic turbulence for the West Indies, which by the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars would register as terminal decline. As accumulating debt, disrupted commodity chains, reduced market access, and the political force of abolitionism diminished the profitable reproducibility of the islands, British capital began a course of expansion beyond the boundaries of formal empire to sites of high-growth potential such as Cuba and Brazil. Dale Tomich writes, "To the extent that it came to control commerce outside the bounds of its own empire, Britain became relatively indifferent to formal colonialism as the means of defining the nature and direction of commodity flows and the division of labor between core and periphery." Yet the structure of Britain's markets lagged behind commercial possibilities and commercial realities: mercantilist protections in favor of West Indian producers directed capital to these declining islands even as these protections inflated the price of cheaper sugar from extra-imperial producers. Britain had to develop a market structure that could translate the "increasingly negligible" value of the West Indies to global capitalism into an effective economic reality. In this context, political economy's fantasy of a future abandonment of empire functioned less as an institutional program for the present than as a conceptual prolepsis that translated the free market's indifference to political ties into an immediately available and actionable perspective. By thinking empire to its end, in other words, political economy assembled an epistemological framework in which Britain's markets could be thought (and organized) on postimperial lines, whether or not Britain retained formal sovereignty over its colonial possessions. Provided imperial ties did not tie up Britain's market with preferences and protections, it did not matter whether the West Indies remained within the empire, revolted against it, or sank into the sea.

I want to think about this residual inclusion of subjects within a world that is indifferent to their presence within it as a condition of neglect — a condition, as I noted in the introduction, that carries the etymological connotations of "not being read" and "not being gathered together." I draw this term from the wide range of texts I explore in this chapter, in which neglect names the slow corrosion of the frames of legibility that allow subjects caught up in a world to become meaningful for it. States of neglect do not assemble themselves in dramatic events of political expulsion or pathos-laden declensions into social abandonment. Rather, to recall Eric Williams, neglect is what you have when no one cares if you are humming "Yankee Doodle" or "God Save the Queen"; when a sovereign indifference depletes the very meaning of a subject's dependence or independence, autonomy or allegiance. Almost immediately, elite West Indians lamented the extent to which the emergence of liberal market rationality entailed the dissolution of empire as a robust polity and castigated the emergent political economy for its "anticolonial" impulses. Writing through the boom in Smith's popularity in the 1790s, the planter-historian Bryan Edwards was already complaining about those "Political economists" who "theorize concerning the utility of colonies" and who imagine that "Great Britain might derive advantages from [the West Indies'] commerce" even if the islands were declared independent or allowed to enter into "a state of dependence upon some other nation." These complaints would gain in intensity and volume through the early nineteenth century, as the West Indian economy steadily declined within and Britain's economy steadily grew beyond the political boundaries of its Atlantic empire. Naturally, these complaints were charged as much by economic self-interest as by imperial patriotism. But what concerns me is the anxious sense, accompanying each creole complaint and each creole petition, that empire no longer constituted a politico-discursive horizon within which colonial subjectivity could become legible. Who was listening? Who cared?

Elite West Indian writers responded to the rise of political-economic neglect by attempting to consolidate a political theory of empire. The materials covered in this chapter are generically various; I read across plantation correspondence and husbandry manuals, volumes on colonial history and novels. The multiplicity of genres I treat is part of my argument. For creoles, there could be no independent genre of economic writing because (what we now call) "the economy" was neither a self-sufficient zone of social life nor an autonomous epistemic object; economic relations were always mediated by the political and social structures of empire. The generic ecology of creole economic thought is thus remarkably distinct from that which was emergent in Britain — where the epistemological (and increasingly institutional) separation of the economy from its political, social, and cultural casings resulted in what Mary Poovey describes as an increasing differentiation of economic from other genres of writing. Indeed, not writing a political economy was a foundational feature of creoles' argument with political economy: creoles enacted their critique by only ever approaching economic relations at second hand, through forms of generic mediation that could not present the economy as an immediate epistemic object. Correspondingly, literary writing possesses a different function from that which it possessed for their Romantic contemporaries. If, as the old story goes, the Romantics responded to the autonomization of economic writing and economic value by delineating an autonomous sphere of literary value, creoles used literary genres to re-embed the economic within superordinate social and political frames. Like a previous generation of colonial Americans, creole writers "saw their literary productions as potential economic interventions." Indeed, the novel form enabled creoles to theorize political economy without conceding to the generic and epistemic norms of the discipline of political economy.

Elite West Indians came to redefine the exercise of sovereignty as a hermeneutic attunement characterized by an aneconomic, hyper-empirical attention. As I show in the first part of this chapter, political economy's anti-imperialism was intimately linked to its critique of inductive accounts of economic life and its corresponding valorization of methodological abstraction. I am concerned here with the political effects of this epistemological shift: as the market replaced mercantilist theory's sovereign state, empire became illegible within theoretical accounts of the British polity. It appeared, in Smith's terms, as an "appendage," not a constitutive component of a Greater British state. I then explore how, against political economy's curious splintering of the political and the economic, creole writers turn to the plantation to model the subordination of the economic to the sovereign. This representation of the plantation was not merely ideological. As I argue through an archive of epistolary exchange between a widowed plantation proprietress in Jamaica, Catherine Harding, and her metropolitan agent, William Gale, the aneconomic attentiveness of metropolitan subjects to planters was necessary for empire to work. As political economy epistemologically abandoned empire, creole writers saw in the organization of the plantation a surrogate for displaced rationalities of imperial rule. Within this body of work, the planter comes to name a form of sovereign presence that supplements any abstract textualization of the social — be it in the form of a letter to an agent, Custom House receipts, or a treatise on political economy. I conclude with the anonymously published novel Marly; or, A Planter's Life in Jamaica (1828), a novel written by a former plantation driver. Narrating the career of a young orphan attempting to reclaim his ancestral plantation, I argue that Marly in fact narrates the restoration of the hyper-attentive imperial sovereign to his proper estate.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
Part One: Managing Neglect
1. The Political Economy of Neglect  33
2. "Them Worthless Ones": Emancipatory Liberalism in Jamaica  72
Interregnum: Between Worlds
3. Imperial Abandonment and Hemispheric Alternatives  107
Part Two: Building New Worlds
4. Uncle Bolívar's Children  147
5. "A Purely 'Mercial Transaction"  187
Coda. Americas That Were and Americas to Come  229
Notes  239
Bibliography  275
Index  301

What People are Saying About This

Creole America: The West Indies and the Formation of Literature and Culture in the New Republic - Sean X. Goudie

"This startling work is the first study to examine the institutional effects of West Indian emancipation, which it does in systematic, insightful, and original ways. Christopher Taylor makes it impossible to think of nineteenth-century literature and culture by and about British West Indians as separate from its entanglement with the free trade policies predicated on West Indian neglect and abandonment. Empire of Neglect will be of enduring relevance and importance."

David Scott

Empire of Neglect is a searching inquiry into one of the central paradoxes of British slave emancipation in the West Indies, namely, that the arrival of the seeming boon of liberal freedom was actively shaped by an imperial policy of racial disavowal and free market indifference. In its careful attention to the uneven terrain of the late colonial project, Christopher Taylor's book is also a study of how to properly rehistoricize liberalism's often contradictory governing powers. It is a fine achievement of scholarship and imagination.”

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