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Small Axe 7.2 (2003) 150-158

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Fishers of Men:
Catherine Hall's Narrative and the Framing of History

Rhonda Cobham

Good history, like good literature, arrives trailing metaphor, which, like the fisherman's seine in Dennis Scott's poem "Letters to My Son VIII," allows the writer to "tie words into rough threads / and drag with them / not what falls through, what leaves salt upon the face, / but those quick, lovely images / that mind catches, leaping among the day's drift / the heart's hurl / the blood's breaking / the web twist of / this world's wet dazzle." 1 In Catherine Hall's Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, the metaphorical seine is the notion of the constructed self—specifically the self that is Catherine Hall: daughter of Baptist missionaries, mother of mixed-race children, feminist, socialist, agnostic, activist and historian. For Catherine, race and gender are the (barely) repressed signifiers that tie together these separate threads in her life, generating the continuities between her formative experiences and those of an earlier generation of English subjects whose emergence this monograph chronicles.

Hall's period is 1830 to 1867; her case studies are the English men and women, many of the Baptist persuasion, whose sense of self was shaped by the religious, political and scientific currents of thought that produced both the abolitionist and imperialist [End Page 150] sentiments that characterize this period. By examining how this cohort embraced and distanced successive instantiations of a racialized other, represented by black Jamaica, in order to construct a shared English identity, Hall attempts to move beyond a Manichean history of remorse and revenge that "leaves salt upon the face." She captures, instead, the hurl and twist of power and dreams and desires that make each act of dismemberment of the racialized other a splitting of the self. The "world's wet dazzle" thus stranded in Hall's seine are the private lives of public figures: not scandalous revelations about who slept with whom but the private anxieties and public rhetoric about who could possibly sleep and eat and pray and vote with whom, anxieties and rhetoric that shaped the era's most intuitive notions about imperial destiny, national character, gendered spheres and class-inflected political destinies. Hall's net pulls in the Dickens of A Christmas Carol (p. 277), James Phillippo's rewritings of Robinson Crusoe in Jamaica, Its Past and Present State (p. 175ff), Mary Oughton's verses on "Uncle Tom Made Free" (p. 248), and the oration of her husband, Samuel Oughton, on the death of William Knibb.

As a literary critic, I was fascinated by Hall's use of Catherine's personal narrative to showcase the kind of interplay between political currents and personal identities for which this historical study argues. Catherine's narrative anchors Hall's choice of case studies firmly in the biographical, a move that anthropology has taught us is essential if the ethnographer is serious about holding up to scrutiny the frame through which she scrutinizes the other. The narrator's others, from this perspective, can thus be read as earlier instantiations of Catherine's social selves—men and women who were part of nineteenth-century dissenting communities similar to those that nurtured Catherine during her formative years in postwar England. Catherine's account of how her intellectual interests and personal choices were shaped by this community, even as it changed internally and as she changed in relation to the beliefs it upheld, sets the stage for the study's careful documentation of the institutional schisms and personal life choices through which the "characters" in Hall's history shape and are shaped by their worlds. Thus, Hall presents Catherine's social activism as a direct legacy of her Baptist roots—at least those aspects of it that characterize her mother's interest in the United Nations and her father's embrace of the notion of the great Christian family of man. It is these Baptist-inflected ideals that propel Catherine into the maelstrom of political radicalism and cross-racial fraternizing...


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