Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 2006
pp. 78-111 | 10.1353/eam.2006.0008
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ames Grainger's The Sugar Cane and the Bodies of Empire
Steven W. Thomas
It is not enough to be free of malarial fevers, fear of the hurricane, fear of invasions, crops' drought, fire's blisters upon the cane.
In his poem The Sugar Cane (1765), James Grainger explained why African slaves should be free but could not articulate what an empire of liberated subjects might look like. He asserted that all human beings "Of every colour and of every clime" should be given "Freedom, which stamps him image of his God" (IV, 237-38).1 He further explained how this might happen: the impartial rule of law would throw off oppression "To knit the whole in well-accorded strife: / Servants, not slaves; of choice, and not compell'd; / The Blacks should cultivate the Cane-land isles" (IV, 241-43). The reader of The Sugar Cane is left with unanswered questions. What laws might Grainger have been speaking of that would give the African the freedom to choose? Could Grainger have imagined an African who would be free to choose anything but servitude in the Caribbean? And more importantly, how could such a change in colonial administration actually come about? At this moment in the poem, Grainger abandoned his argument and began a new stanza with "Say, shall the muse the various ills recount, / Which Negroe-nations feel? Shall she describe / The worm that subtly winds into their flesh" (IV, 244-46).[End Page 78] For the next eighty lines, Grainger presented medical advice to plantation overseers on how to care for their slaves, after which he began to praise Britain's commercial empire. What does one make of the break in Grainger's argument since Grainger seems to have come to an impasse? And what does one make of the sudden shift from a political problem to a medical one?
In answer to these questions, I argue that Grainger's poem is not only symptomatic of the ideological contradictions of imperialism, but was also part of a medical discourse that attempted to symbolically resolve such contradictions and reform political relationships in the late eighteenth century. Grainger advocated freedom for the African slaves, but then he placed the entire black nation under the medical care of Europeans. In doing so, he blatantly ignored the many free blacks in the eighteenth-century Caribbean, such as Francis Williams, plantation owner and poet in Jamaica. Williams's fame traveled from the merchants in Jamaica to Dr. Alexander Hamilton in North America to David Hume in Scotland, and he died just two years before Grainger published his poem.2 The poem also ignored the prevalence of disease among planters, sailors, and white laborers. By suppressing all references to free blacks and diseased whites in the Caribbean, Grainger's poem racialized both servitude and disease as black problems. More significantly, the strange break in Grainger's poem indicates an inability to resolve the contradictory views on slavery during the peak of what is sometimes called the first British Empire in the mid-eighteenth century. The very sentiment of care for one's fellow man breaks apart in these lines: a political ethos of concern for the rights and liberties of all human beings can not correspond with a medical ethos of pity for—and control over—those who are perceived to be unable to care for themselves.
The subject for this essay is the relationship between the ideology of nascent British imperialism and the practice of medical care in the eighteenth century. The primary object of my study is Grainger's poem, The Sugar Cane. Grainger was a doctor on the sugar plantations of St. Kitts and Nevis from 1759 to 1766. He completed the first ever medical essay about caring for slaves the same year he completed his poem celebrating the plantation complex and Britain's empire of the seas.3 Thus...