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Canadian Review of American Studies 34.2 (2004) 167-183

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Hiram Powers's America:

Shackles, Slaves, and the Racial Limits of Nineteenth-Century National Identity

The allegorical theme of the four continents has functioned for centuries as a visual representation of a world conveniently compartmentalized into racialized geographical categories. The western cultural tradition of the four continents provides an important site for the reading of colonial ideals of race—what differences were understood to separate Europeans from other peoples and the process through which these racial differences were signified and visualized. Although, most obviously, the allegorical tradition of the four continents reflects western ideals of a feminized nature and geographical space, art works in the tradition also reveal the continents as a thematic tool for the representation of colonial ideals of race. The confluence of race and geography is critical, since, within colonial discourse, differences—and indeed the presumed racial inferiority—of colonized populations was often explained as a by-product of the peculiar climatic and natural differences among the colonized regions they inhabited. The allegorical tradition of the four continents was a cultural conflation of the colonial idea of race and racial difference as a product of geographical location.

This western tradition of representing the racial/geographical Other is centuries old. However, the specific manifestation of the theme of the four continents was impossible in the west prior to a knowledge of "other" lands and peoples on a global scale. The four continents became a dominant allegorical theme only after many European nations had sent colonizing forces into Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Within this politicized colonial context, representations of the [End Page 167] four continents became a thematic tool for the visualization of imperial ideologies that, at their core, shared a dependence upon the production of racial difference. As Albert Boime has said, "In the Allegory of the Four Continents, codified by Ripa in his handbook of 1600, Africa is personified by a black woman in a formal sign system that developed out of the Age of Exploration and the burgeoning traffic in slaves" (9). Prior to the fifteenth century, which witnessed sustained colonial European contact with and colonization of other continents, the allegorical theme of the four continents was an impossibility. According to Hedy Backlin, "From the sixteenth century on, allegories of the Four Continents take their place beside those of the Four Seasons and the Four Elements in the imagery of the arts" (6).

Representations of the four continents were adapted for the decorative arts, popular culture, and "high art."1 The four continents were as visible as decoration for porcelain ware, engravings, and literary frontispieces as for maps, paintings, and sculpture. The key stable aspects of this cultural thematic were the predominance of female allegories and the repeated inclusion of the usual suspects: Europe, America, Asia, and Africa. While these four female allegories were often represented together, they also made solo appearances and were represented in smaller groupings. The continual visual performance of the four continents produced the four allegorical subjects as distinct, yet inter-connected, parts of a greater whole. The difference that separated each allegory from its counterparts, although often symbolically encoded, was ultimately racial. Africa, as it was performed within the guise of a black female body, did not merely function as an allegory of a continent but performed blackness and black femaleness in ways that reinforced imperial Europe's political, religious, moral, and cultural claims to Africa and (even after the abolition of slavery) the bodies of Africans. Meanwhile America, oscillating between a white "New World" woman and a "primitive" Native woman was often harnessed in the service of a mythologized vision of a modern democratic nation. The key to the function of this allegorical quartet was that every allegory knew her place and place was most definitely determined by race. Inevitably, the theme of the four continents was race itself and the performance of western normative ideals of race, which were hierarchical and determinative of human value. Indeed, the limits of...


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