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American Literary History 14.1 (2002) 131-140

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Transatlanticism, Slavery, and Race

J. R. Oldfield

The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture By Roxann Wheeler University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000
Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies By Helen Thomas Cambridge University Press, 2000
American Slaves in Victorian England: Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture By Audrey Fisch Cambridge University Press, 2000
Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 By Marcus Wood Routledge, 2000
Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America By Hazel V. Carby Verso, 1999

In the past decade there has been an explosion of interest in what might be loosely described as "transatlanticism." Prompted by Paul Gilroy's immensely influential book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), scholars have eagerly sought to chart the exchange of ideas, peoples, and cultures across and within the Atlantic world. As Gilroy argued, the African Diaspora was the site of one of the most important of these exchanges. Whether as slaves, sailors, or abolitionists, blacks shaped and transformed the dominant white culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often in unforeseen ways. Of course, in turn they were shaped by it. But how these negotiations took place, and at what speed, is only now emerging.

The African Diaspora, and the introduction of slavery in the Americas, created a relatively cohesive international economy that bound together the interests of people on both sides of the Atlantic. Although all the major European powers had a stake in the Atlantic slave system, the role played by the British was crucial. Overall, between 1662 and 1807 British Empire ships carried approximately 3.4 million slaves from Africa to America. At the height of the slave trade, Britain exported more slaves than any other nation, her slave colonies produced vast quantities of tropical goods, and the country as a whole grew rich on the profits of African slavery.

Until recently, historians have tended to assume that slavery and colonialism went hand in hand with the emergence of modern racist attitudes that emphasized blackness and African origins. But in The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture, Roxann Wheeler offers us a very different understanding of racial differences. Eighteenth-century Britons, she argues, did make distinctions between themselves and "others"; however, those distinctions did not involve race, at least not in the modern sense of the term. Christianity, for instance, was an important register. As Wheeler puts it: "To be a Christian was to be fully human, an association that reverberates throughout the [End Page 131] seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in global confrontations" (16). Another obvious distinction was dress. Nakedness signified "a negation of civilization"--that is, savagery (17). Clothing, on the other hand, meaning Europeanized dress, functioned as an index of character; "it was supposed to reflect a person's quality of mind" (17).

Equally important, certainly after midcentury, was cultural relativity. Societies were understood to develop in a series of steps or stages, usually four, each characterized by "increased protection of private property, refined treatment of women as companions, not servants, and participation in commerce" (182). Exactly where one stood in this scheme of things was determined by climate or geographic situation, and not innate abilities; indeed, many assumed that the "natural genius of mankind" was the same in all ages and in "almost all countries" (186). Nevertheless, as Wheeler acknowledges, four-stages theory did sometimes lead scholars to very different conclusions. David Hume, for example, was prone to explain cultural differences in terms of race and, more particularly, in terms of black inferiority.

By the 1780s and 1790s Britons were beginning to pay much more attention to physical or racial characteristics. Yet Wheeler explicitly rejects the notion that racism as we understand it--that is, explanations of racial differences based on biology or determinism--was widespread in the eighteenth century. Instead, she argues that the principal form taken by eighteenth-century racism was "the conviction that people in remote parts of Europe and Asia, most of Africa, and the...


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