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Small Axe 7.2 (2003) 159-167
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How the English Became English:
Catherine Hall's Civilising Subjects
For some readers, Catherine Hall's contention that metropole and colony helped to constitute one another, in her massive new study of the Englishness of the English in the middle of the nineteenth century, will be an obvious one at this moment in post colonial studies. For others of us this point cannot be stressed enough, notwithstanding the last decade or so of scholarship along these lines (including Hall's). The idea of a self-sufficient English (sometimes British) identity—freedom loving, fair, independent, generous, invincible—that has violently or benevolently imposed itself upon other cultures without significantly altering itself in the process is still very much with us. On the other side of the equation, there is still the strong sense that in formerly British territories we can make clean distinctions between those persons, ideas, practices that are "black," "oppositional," "radical," and those that are "anglophile," as if the very constitution of "blackness" or "the folk" is somehow divorced from Englishness, instead of, as Belinda Edmondson has shown us for figures such as George Lamming and Claude McKay, deeply inflected by it. 1
In Civilising Subjects, we see how events in Morant Bay, Jamaica, in 1865 resonated not just in the halls of London's Colonial Office or in the editorials that prominent Victorian men wrote condemning or supporting Governor Edward Eyre, but in the very [End Page 159] heart of the midlands, when George William Gordon's widow attended a public breakfast in Birmingham, when effigies of Governor Eyre were burned in Clerkenwell, and when public meetings about events in eastern Jamaica were held in Bradford, Liverpool and Leeds. In a series of portraits of middle-class men of Birmingham, and to some extent a biography of the city itself, Hall shows us how strongly Jamaica registered in the consciousness of some mid-century Brummagems as they struggled to assert themselves as men, as white, as English, as solidly upper middle class. She shows how these identities were forged, over a period of almost four decades, out of their relationships with white women in England and Jamaica, white planters and black congregations in Jamaica, with Australians and Indians, Kossuths, Italians and Irish Catholics, and with each other. After the hopeful afterglow of the 1830s and 1840s, when the religious working and middle classes of the Baptist Church basked in what they considered to be their triumph of Emancipation, and sought to usher black Jamaicans into the family of man, the 1850s and 1860s witnessed a hardening of racial attitudes as Maori wars in New Zealand, the Great Rebellion in India, and Irish Fenianism elicited doubts about the capacity of "inferior" people for civilization.
This is the culmination, then, of Hall's work on English middle-class identity, the racialization of masculinity, and nationalism and empire more generally over a number of years. I still remember the excitement of discovering her article on Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill and Morant Bay in graduate school. 2 Having sat history at A levels, I was certainly aware that the abolition of Caribbean slavery was vigorously debated in England, but the impact of the Morant Bay Rebellion on British public life, and in particular on intellectual prestige and masculinity: this was something else again. In Civilising Subjects Hall focuses first on Baptist ministers from Birmingham who served in Jamaica during what may be termed a critical transition period from just after Emancipation to just after the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, and then, in the second section, moves to Birmingham for the same period to examine Baptist ministers and other male public figures as they sought to turn the city into a force to be reckoned with in national and imperial terms. The prologue is a portrait of Edward Eyre, who emerges as a complex figure in his transformation from settler to settler-administrator in Australia, his participation in a double wedding with a Maori couple in New Zealand, and his stint as...