Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804

Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804

by Srinivas Aravamudan

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In Tropicopolitans Srinivas Aravamudan reconstructs the colonial imagination of the eighteenth century. By exploring representations of peoples and cultures subjected to colonial discourse, he makes a case for the agency—or the capacity to resist domination—of those oppressed. Aravamudan’s analysis of texts that accompanied European commercial and imperial expansion from the Glorious Revolution through the French Revolution reveals the development of anticolonial consciousness prior to the nineteenth century.
“Tropicalization” is the central metaphor of this analysis, a term that incorporates both the construction of various dynamic tropes by which the colonized are viewed and the site of the study, primarily the tropics. Tropicopolitans, then, are those people who bear and resist the representations of colonialist discourse. In readings that expose new relationships between literary representation and colonialism in the eighteenth century, Aravamudan considers such texts as Behn’s Oroonoko, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Captain Singleton, Addison’s Cato, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and The Drapier’s Letters. He extends his argument to include analyses of Johnson’s Rasselas, Beckford’s Vathek, Montagu’s travel letters, Equiano’s autobiography, Burke’s political and aesthetic writings, and Abbé de Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes. Offering a radical approach to literary history, this study provides new mechanisms for understanding the development of anticolonial agency.
Introducing eighteenth-century studies to a postcolonial hermeneutics, Tropicopolitans will interest scholars engaged in postcolonial studies, eighteenth-century literature, and literary theory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822377764
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/17/1999
Series: Post-contemporary interventions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 440
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Srinivas Aravamudan is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington.

Read an Excerpt


Colonialism and Agency, 1688â"1804

By Srinivas Aravamudan

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7776-4


Petting Oroonoko

A book on colonialism and eighteenth-century literature cannot begin without invoking Oroonoko. In fact, recent critical attention has bordered on the obsessional. Why this figure? What animates recent fixations on Behn's Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688), especially as Southerne's playOroonoko (1695) and then Hawkes-worth's adaptation of that play (1759) were better known in the eighteenth century than Behn's novella? With the inclusion of Oroonoko in theNorton Anthology of British Literature and the subsequent release of a Norton critical edition in 1997 as well as several other competing editions in print, Behn's story of the transportation, resistance, and execution of the enslaved prince has truly arrived.

There are good explanations for this interest. According to Janet Todd, the Behn revival demonstrates the affinity of her texts with the concerns of many contemporary readers. Recent interpretations of Behn's writings have found the dispersal of the subject, multiple voices and positionings, expressions of ideological ambivalence, and clear assertions concerning the political construction of culture and gender. Her fiction and poetry are feminist experiments in genre and theme for the time, but Behn's earlier drama also interrogates femininity, commodification, and masquerade amid Royalist contexts. We are repeatedly told by critics that Behn was a sexual radical, a generic innovator, and the first professional woman writer in English literary history. Concerned with the hypercanonicity of Behn, Todd hopes that Behn critics will refuse to indulge the obvious themes that make Behn our contemporary.

But why refuse the obvious when it satisfies so many desires, especially through Oroonoko? Such formulations of the obvious lead to a veritable oroonokoism. British Restoration specialists and historians of prose fiction—as well as feminist literary critics and historians of slavery—are enthralled with a brief narrative about chivalric romance, colonial venture, and slave rebellion that follows its eponymous hero from Coromantien to Surinam. Laura Brown's "The Romance of Empire," an astute contextualization of Behn's colonialist ideology and Royalist sympathies, inaugurates The New Eighteenth Century and a critical oroonokoism with it. As Oroonoko combines Old World romance with New World travelogue, William Spengemann makes a compelling case for it as an early example of American fiction and ethnography. Heidi Hutner argues that Behn's writing "make(s) visible what puritanical ideology subsumed into language—nature, women, people of color." More generally, Oroonoko helps anchor readers interested in "juggling the categories of race, class, and gender," as Margaret Ferguson has put it. Moira Ferguson sees in Oroonoko "the birth of a paradigm" of anti-slavery discourse by British women writers culminating in the later abolitionist movements. Readily collocating a number of critical concerns within a historical frame, such oroonokoism reclaims Oroonoko from the racial clutches of Anglo-Africanist discourse.

If Oroonoko is the poster boy of Behn appreciation, there is more to him than meets the eye. His character suggests an ample negative capability. Catherine Gallagher sees Oroonoko's "blackness" as a model for "nobodiness," a personhood emulated by eighteenth-century women novelists. Behn thereby indirectly explores agency in a marketplace that denigrated women writers. Gallagher's sophisticated oroonokoism singles out Oroonoko's inky sheen as signifying writerly exchange and sovereignty within a Royalist value system. Women writers confront exchange in the marketplace even as the concept of sovereignty interrogates female autonomy amidst women's social objectification. Inevitably, it is the transferential relationship between the novella's female first-person narrator (equated with the historical Behn by many readers) and its black hero that drives oroonokoism. As Robert Erickson points out, Behn was forty-eight, ailing, and shortly to die when the novella was written, whereas the unnamed character who narrates the story is around twenty-three. We need to distinguish between the diegetic character of 1663 and the nondiegetic author of 1688. The autobiographical narrator straddles the divide between the Surinam story world and the English-speaking audience's time. Rediscovering a perfectly positioned text, published in the year of the Glorious Revolution, oroonokoism dramatizes transitions from early modern to eighteenth-century literary culture and the present. A historiographical transference (orretroactive focalization) may occur from several vantage points: Moira Ferguson's search for precursors of late-eighteenth-century abolitionist writers, Gallagher's hypothesis that Oroonoko is an intriguing disembodiment of the later "nobodiness" of women novelists, and Spengemann's post-Americanist desire to undo (or aggrandize?) the nationalist boundaries of U.S. literary history.

However, there are countermoves of ritual self-abnegation in this oroonokoist feeding frenzy, critical versions of the self-mutilations of the war captains in the Peeie Indian village and Oroonoko's own. More recent interpretations have challenged oroonokoism with imoindaism. Focusing on the novella's—and perforce the narrator's—marginalization of Oroonoko's lady love and common-law wife, Imoinda, who is killed by Oroonoko in a suicide pact before his recapture and execution, critics nominate Imoinda as the ideological crux. Ros Ballaster, perhaps the first imoindaist, criticizes the "new hystericism" of those who collude with white feminist herstory (Behn's celebrated "Female Pen") and the creation of black male fetish objects. We are to understand that oroonokoism has actively constructed the black woman as hysteric. Because the deputy governor of the fledgling colony, Colonel Byam, is wounded by Imoinda's arrow during the revolt but saved by his Indian mistress, who sucks the poison out of the wound, Margaret Ferguson identifies a narrative process in Behn's text that splits "'other' women into the extreme roles of dangerous rebel and erotically complicitous slave." Similarly, Stephanie Athey and Daniel Cooper Alarcón decipher Imoinda's predicament and the silence of contemporary critics as yet another instance of the presumed "rapability" of the black woman. However, all this recent discussion means that Imoinda is no longer ignored. Using the historiography of "gynecological rebellion" by female slaves, Charlotte Sussman proposes that "Imoinda's womb might be the focal point of a rebellion against slavery." Oroonoko, by cutting a piece out of his neck and disemboweling himself, acts out upon his own body what he had already done by killing the pregnant Imoinda and their unborn child. Susan Andrade's imoindaism identifies the narrator's sexual desire for Oroonoko being vicariously fulfilled by the black woman's decapitation. Imoinda's death takes place so that "the narrator may explore—literarily if not literally—new sexual territories."

For critics who rely on oroonokoism to construct narratives of Behn's progressive ideology, feminism, and empathy for slaves, imoindaism is the stumbling block, revealing unrecognized complicities. If oroonokoism emphasizes the positive transferential value of a novella that explores the subjection of women and slaves in the contact zone, imoindaism points to elisions that are revealed when literature constructs, as Suvir Kaul puts it, "sentimental community [as] an antidote to the realities of slavery and colonialism." One could anticipate further developments in the criticism that so far has emphasized Anglo-Africanist discourse and the institution of African slavery. The colonial history of Surinam could be further investigated along with the orientalist antecedents of Behn's Coromantien. Whether or not these other lines of inquiry become recognizable reflexes of thought, imoindaism and its hybrid descendants continue to question the original transference at work in Oroonoko.

In the context of oroonokoism's attempts to make Oroonoko exemplary and imoindaism's problematization of that exemplariness, this chapter emphasizes the logic of pethood in the transition from Oroonoko as personal fetish to the literary canonization of Oroonoko. Oroonoko responds to trends in new historicism, criticism of empire, and race and gender studies, and these approaches rely on it, in turn, to satisfy a checklist of political concerns. This rush toOroonoko as a convergence point for criticism and coalition politics, literary history and cultural studies, oroonokoism and imoindaism is ultimately ironic. The process by which literary critics are engaged in canonizing Oroonoko is neither coincidence nor conspiracy. By uncovering the petting that is part of the text's inaugural dynamics, I highlight scholarship's ironic continuation of Behn's celebratory intentions. The title character's implication as personal fetish, status symbol, virtualized hero, and even domesticated animal—as well as the bathetic and tragicomic aspects of his plight alongside the heroic and tragic strains—should give readers pause. The provisional nature of Oroonoko's subjectivity needs historical testing and theoretical reflection. Oroonoko has become a desirable origin for postcolonial eighteenth-century studies. Unlike the useless exemplariness of the blackamoor in Chambers's Cyclopaedia, this origin becomes virtualized as useful. Reading Oroonoko is a fruitful undertaking even if it now promises deferred rewards rather than instant gratification. Tropology has come full circle here, from symptomatic denial, to sentimental identification, to ironic distancing.

Further circumspection is warranted. Petting Oroonoko—or Imoinda—can result in "mak[ing] the heathen into a human so that he can be treated as an end in himself," enacting what Gayatri Spivak has called "the terrorism of the categorical imperative." Readers seek far too earnestly, in an ironic text, for a renewed purchase on agency. I discuss the logic of Oroonoko's humanization in three stages. First, I assess the complex juxtaposition of Oroonoko—novelistic character and interpretive figure—within contemporaneous discourses of pethood and virtual subjectivity. Second, I discuss the implications of Southerne's adaptation, especially with respect to the limited analogies it creates between the sale of slaves and the marriage market for Englishwomen. I conclude with a discussion of the varied implications that arise when representing Oroonoko, whether as sacrificial figure or parodic butt. Although the virtualization of Oroonoko as origin makes the trope of the royal slave available for eventual nationalization by Equiano, Toussaint, and others discussed in later chapters, a closer attention to Behn's and Southerne's generic protocols shows that redemptive readings are undercut by tragicomic, parodic, and satirical strains. Oroonoko is a treacherous text to place at the origin. It shows us that a decolonized eighteenth-century studies can advance only by relentlessly pitting identification and disavowal against each other.


In his fascinating book, Man and the Natural World, Keith Thomas discusses how petkeeping became widespread in Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Legal and social practices accommodated this newly emergent category. Pets exist for emotional gratification, and the special dispensations increasingly granted to this class of animals challenged assumptions about the boundaries between them and human beings. Thomas documents battles around the admissibility of pets into church, the appropriateness of humanizing them with personal names, and the taboo that developed around eating them. Pets were often fed better than servants in the same household. Concluding that "by 1700 all the symptoms of obsessive pet-keeping were in evidence," Thomas also discusses various aesthetic practices that developed to commemorate the death of a pet through epitaph, elegy, and portraiture. Wills began to recognize pets through bequests for their maintenance if they survived their owners.

Simultaneously, Africans seized for the slave trade were also transported to England and sold as pets and domestic servants. Several historians of slavery have documented cases of Africans as exotic possessions in addition to their more general use as a captive workforce for plantations. The ownership or service of an African represented privilege and status among the English aristocracy in the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century. A variety of cultural mechanisms collocated Africans with domestic pets in seemingly innocuous and bathetic sociocultural contexts. African children were especially prized as flesh- and-blood status symbols among those who could afford them. As The Character of a Town Misse recommends satirically in 1675, a fashionable young woman "hath always two necessary Implements about her, a Blackamoor, and a little Dog, for without these, she would be neither Fair, nor Sweet." By 1710, Richard Steele writes a spoof letter, purportedly sent to The Tatler by a black boy called Pompey, asserting that his mistress's parrot who came over with him "is as much esteemed by her as I am. Besides this, the Shock-Dog has a Collar that cost almost as much as mine." The portraiture of this period amply confirms the fashion for Africans as props. Van Dyck's portrait Henrietta of Lorraine (1634) and Dandridge's Young Girl with Dog and Negro Boy (n.d.) are good examples.

Especially significant for the discussion that follows are Pierre Mignard's portrait, Louise de Keroualle, The Duchess of Portsmouth (Fig. 2), Benedetto Gennari's portrait,Hortense Mancini, the Duchess of Mazarin (Fig. 3), and the mezzotint of Anne Bracegirdle in the title role of Dryden'sThe Indian Queen (Fig. 4), all of which feature glamorous female contemporaries of Behn with black pages as props. Behn was close to Mancini and disliked Keroualle intensely. Their portraiture suggests a pervasive Restoration cliché that she must have known well. Given Behn's service to the king as a spy around the time of and perhaps during her Surinam voyage and her persistent Royalism despite disappointments over continuing patronage, it is my claim that Oroonoko is an authorial act of self-portraiture that transcreates the ideology animating these images into literary form.

Charles II had bought a black boy for £ 50 in 1682, and, according to some accounts, this slave was later presented by him to Louise Renée de Penancoet de Keroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth. Another account identifies the slave in the portrait as originating in the present of a boy to the king by the Moroccan ambassador in 1681, but in the Mignard image the child seems to be a girl (or is at least dressed as one). Whatever the provenance and the gender of the black child, the Mignard portrait (which was painted in France and was probably in England only briefly in the 1680s, if at all) conveys all the exoticism of colonial venture and commodity acquisition, identifying a female consumer who is herself an object of display. The child proffers some exquisite red coral and pearls to the duchess, and the window in the background suggests the overseas origins. The ground lapis lazuli that went into the striking blue paint of the robe suggests a more costly chromaticism than royal portraitist Peter Lely's more typical use of reds and browns.

Gennari's portrait of Mazarin, the niece of the famous French minister and cardinal, is a remarkable contrast to Portsmouth's. Replete with baroque fantasy and the erotics of bondage, the sitter is allegorized as Diana the huntress even as her black pages are conflated with her hounds; a parallel reading of Portsmouth's portrait sees her as Thetis, thus also alluding indirectly to her royal bastard, the Duke of Richmond, as Achilles. The gentle exoticism of Portsmouth's portrait is in contrast to the sadomasochistic eroticism of Mazarin's. These two women were jealous rivals of each other in the mid-1670s, when Mancini came to England dressed as a man with a little Moorish page given her by the Duke of Savoy and promptly alienated the king's affections from Keroualle for a couple of years; but Mancini soon fell into disfavor after an affair with the Prince of Monaco. There is evidence that Mazarin was lampooned as coupling with a black man as was Charles's daughter, the Countess of Sussex. The physical ease of the juxtapositions of the pages in the two portraits of Charles's mistresses, however, suggests an erotic complicity and uneasy violence that leads transitively through the black bodies to the king himself.


Excerpted from Tropicopolitans by Srinivas Aravamudan. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents




1. Petting Oroonoko

2. Piratical Accounts

3. The Stoic's Voice


4. Lady Mary in the Hamman

5. The Despotic Eye and the Oriental Sublime


6. Equiano and the Politics of Literacy

7. Tropicalizing the Englightenment




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