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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 389-409

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Mercantile Deformities:
George Colman's Inkle and Yarico and the Racialization of Class Relations

Daniel O'Quinn


Of all the late eighteenth-century comedies set in colonial spaces none is as important as George Colman's highly successful comic opera Inkle and Yarico (1787) for understanding the relationship between shifts in British imperial policy and the racialization of class on the London stage. 1 Of crucial importance is the apparent contradiction between the play's supposed abolitionist gestures and its explicitly racist representations of Africans and Native Americans. 2 These ostensible political contradictions and confusions regarding racial identity are part of a larger re-calibration of colonial relations that is thoroughly enmeshed in the stabilization of the white middle class body in the metropole. This radical re-orientation of the narrative's historical function can be excavated from the opera's reception history. Inkle and Yarico opened on August 4, 1787 at the Haymarket and is thus one of the latest manifestations of a tale that was repeated so often during the eighteenth-century that it has been described as an archive for a history of colonial thought in the period. 3 The early reviews and accounts of the first runs tended to focus on the performance of affect in the character of Yarico and how the feeling elicited by her character was mobilized in a condemnation of Inkle's mercantile greed. However, these understandings of the play as a critique of mercantilism were superceded by assertions that the opera was an example of abolitionism avant la lettre. When Inchbald anthologized the opera in the early nineteenth-century, she applauded Colman's prescient concern for humanity in chains:

This is a drama, which might remove from Mr. Wilberforce his aversion to theatrical exhibitions, and convince him, that the teaching of moral duty is not confined to particular spots of ground . . . . [The opera] was popular before the subject of abolition of the slave [End Page 389] trade was popular. It has the peculiar honour of preceding that great question. It was the bright forerunner of alleviation of the hardships of slavery. 4

However, this attempt to ascribe abolitionist intent to Inkle and Yarico is strained by the critical contortions required to direct Colman's play at the African slave trade. As Inchbald herself recognizes, Yarico is not an African and the first act is set in the Americas. 5 Her suggestion that this is a lapse in composition only has merit if one wants the play to be specifically about the African trade. It is difficult not to read her gesture as part of a large scale re-writing of colonial history following the American Revolution aimed at suppressing the prior relationship between the American and the Carribean colonies. My suggestion is that Colman's Inkle and Yarico addresses a spe-cific historical moment in colonial economics that has been superceded by the time Inchbald anthologizes the play. In subtle ways, Colman is much more concerned with a critical yet exculpatory reading of mercantile ideology that paves the way for precisely the kind of arguments against the slave trade which simultaneously highlight its economic obsolescence and its moral turpitude. Thus Colman's play performs a re-adjustment of the colonial encounter to fit emergent forms of biological state racism and as such plays a crucial mediating role between the constructions of race endemic to England's mercantile economy and those which come into full hegemonic force in the early nineteenth century.

Exculpatory Acts

The entire archive of Inkle and Yarico tales can be traced back to Richard Ligon's brief rendition of the story in his True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657) and to a lesser extent to Jean Mocquet's Travels and Voyages into Africa, Asia, America, the East and West Indies (1617). 6 However, it was Richard Steele's 1711 adaptation of Ligon in the Spectator that initiated a cascade of sentimental narratives of sexual betrayal whose importance to the consolidation of...


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