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ELH 67.2 (2000) 515-537

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"Bales of Living Anguish": Representations of Race and the Slave in Romantic Writing

Peter J. Kitson

Representation of racial difference is common in the writing of the British Romantic period, largely for two reasons. First, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed the beginnings of the sustained British imperial expansion that was to dominate the nation's history. This expansion occasioned a sometimes anxious awareness of other cultures and societies, most notably expressed in the vast scholarly venture which Edward W. Said has characterized as "Orientalism." 1 Second, this was the period when criticism of the slave trade was at its most intense, finally leading to the formal abolition of the trade within the British colonies in 1807. 2 Between 1680 and 1783 more than two million African slaves were transported to the British colonies alone, and by 1775 British ships carried nearly sixty-thousand slaves a year across the Atlantic. 3 Most of the writers associated with the first generation of British Romanticism and a host of other, non-canonical, writers wrote against the slave trade; their work inevitably engages in representing African peoples and cultures, often in terms of those peoples' perceived alterity. In this essay I shall explore several representations of African slaves in a variety of writings of the period with a view to problematizing some of the insights of recent post-colonial theory, although I shall also argue that this body of theory is not simply of negative relevance to the Romantic period but is of use in providing languages and methodologies which aid in explicating its writings. The main focus of this essay is on three authors perceived to be influential in their discussions of race and slavery: Edward Long, Anthony Benezet, and Thomas Clarkson. These writers are seen as creating and participating in a debate about race. In addition, they are thought to provide a context in which to situate the writings of Coleridge, whose 1795 "Lecture on the Slave Trade" preempts, in its strategies of representation, some of the leading ideas of post-colonial thought. John Thelwall's remarkable and neglected novel The Daughter of Adoption (1801), which exploits the slave revolt of 1791 in French St. Domingue, is also considered as a kind of terminus ad quem of the Christian and [End Page 515] Enlightenment universalist views of race that are present in Benezet and Clarkson. Additionally, this essay will chart a transition from an Enlightenment to a Romantic view of race driven by the imperatives of science and slavery.


Edward Said argues in Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993) that "European writing on Africa, India, parts of the Far East, Australia and the Caribbean" is part of a "general European effort to rule distant lands and peoples." 4 He charges that there exists a totalizing Orientalist or Africanist way of looking at the world which is, in essence, a "Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority." 5 Said's basic equation of Africanist and Orientalist discourse is problematic. 6 Orientalist scholarship is based on the substantial research of sophisticated scholars, such as Sir William Jones, Jules Mohl, Constantin Volney (and those associated with Napoleon's Institut d'Egypte), into the riches of Eastern culture and language. Jones excitedly describes Asia as "the nurse of sciences, the inventress of delightful and useful arts, the scene of glorious actions, fertile in the productions of human genius, abounding in natural wonders, and infinitely diversified in the forms of religion and government, in laws, manners, customs and languages, as well as in the features and complexions of men." 7 Africanist discourse in the period, with a few notable exceptions, is predicated on the denial of any sophisticated linguistic, literary, or artistic excellence in its object of study. Thomas De Quincey tellingly makes this point in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822) when he contrasts his complacent view of Africa with the sheer terror that the East had inspired in his opium dreams:

No man can pretend that the wild, barbarous...


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