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  • Urbane and Rustic England. Cultural Ties and Social Spheres in the Provinces 1660–1780
  • David Levine
Urbane and Rustic England. Cultural Ties and Social Spheres in the Provinces 1660–1780. By Carl B. Estabrook (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. xiv 317pp.).

Bristol was a key nexus in the expansion of English hegemony which turned the global map into the pinkish hues of imperial domination. Bristol was also a place where some men got fabulously rich—“In the 1740s, at a time when almost fifty slave ships sailed out of Bristol every year, slave traders made £8,000 profit for each shipment of African slaves.” Eight thousand pounds was a lot of money in those days when labourers, the largest group in the English population, [End Page 482] earned 1s. 4d. per day. Four hundred thousand pounds a year (divided among the community of merchants who took shares in these ship in order to split up their involvement so as to control their risks) was a spectacular fortune at a time, as Peter Mathias has estimated, that the GNP was on the order of £120 million. Thus, the Bristol trade in human cargoes accounted for one-third of one per cent of the whole English national income. This was a truly massive influx of capital into a city of 50,000. It could hardly have avoided creating radically new modes of spending. Here, Estabrook virtually ignores the implications of Eric Williams’ arguments concerning Capitalism and Slavery; this avoidance is really surprising in view of the fact that so few of Williams’ critics have ever taken the time to look at how the influx of capital from the slave trade changed English society.

In fact, this truly massive influx of capital did just that. Perhaps the most interesting part of Estabrook’s story is his short discussion (260 ff.) of Caleb Dickinson’s activities in laundering his ill-gotten gains from the slave trade into real estate speculation and suburban development. Buying up farms and manors, putting the screws on tenants who owed him back rents and then dispossessing them for non-payment, amalgamating parcels into house lots, developing turnpikes, investing in spas, and generally irritating his new neighbours by ignoring the cultural codes that had held their rural communities together, Mr Caleb Dickinson is an all-too-familiar modern capitalist shark. In this regard, Estabrook’s point that “The contentious aspects of suburban development may have had less to do with nascent class antagonism than with collective identities and social divisions based on setting” (265) seemed to me to be bizarre. What could have been a more virulent expression of “nascent class antagonism” than Dickinson’s program to turn all social relations into the cash nexus?

I wanted to know more about Caleb Dickinson beyond the antiquarian fact that he had started his commercial life as a soapmaker. Where was he born? Who were his parents? Who were his partners? What were his religious and philanthropical activities? and so on. Furthermore, why was Mr Caleb Dickinson attracted to this particular form of money laundering—was it even more profitable than the slave trade? Why were his merchant-contemporaries so eager to leave Bristol in the 1740s when, for several generations, they had so resolutely turned their back on the suburbs and countryside. Indeed, the separation of town and country in the 1690–1740 period is one of the points that Estabrook makes with great force in the main body of his book. But, that said, why did this separation lose its urgency in the middle decades of the eighteenth century? Was the Bristol of 1740 a less-liveable place that it had been a generation earlier? Estabrook gives us hints about the estrangement of the big bourgeoisie from their cramped quarters in the alleys and warrens of this port city but he never provides a thoroughgoing analysis of the emergence of the new sensibility.

What, then, does the main body of Urbane and Rustic England set out to do? The work gets its inspiration from Peter Borsay’s The Urban Reniassance (1989) against whose arguments about the English cities’ growth and influence, Estabrook poses a close analysis of Bristol...

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pp. 482-484
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