- Slavery and the Culture of Taste
Antebellum southern slaveholders prided themselves on being men of culture and distinction. To their critics, and to people ever since, this claim seemed to be contradicted by the brutality of the institution of slavery over which the slaveholders presided, an institution that gave them wealth and social status. How could slavery and aesthetic pleasure go together?
The principal value of Simon Gikandi’s stimulating, theoretically sophisticated, and ambitious study of the connections between the eighteenth-century development of cultures of taste and the growth of British North American and West Indian slavery in the period before abolition is that he shows how the sensibility associated with the Enlightenment was intimately associated with an increasingly brutal system. Gikandi makes a compelling argument that in order to understand the discourses of modernity that transformed ideas of beauty and modified notions of the self, we have to pay attention to slavery not as an aberration but as a fundamental constituent part of the development of gentility, respectability, and the various cultures of taste. He places great importance on how ideas and ideals about taste and beauty were constructed around notions of black difference. Beauty and ugliness were contrapuntally related, just as were violence and sensibility. Gikandi provides a host of examples, drawn from art, architecture, literature, and travel narratives, that illustrate how the foundational narrative of modernity was the coming into being of a European self in relation to the racially defined other. For scholars of slavery in the nineteenth century, this closely argued and innovative study of slavery and the culture of taste provides an explanation of how slaveholders could claim to be cultivated. Gikandi also shows, however, that ideals of taste were not always compatible with slavery and slaveholders. In the eighteenth-century Caribbean, for example, the brutality of slavery was so overwhelming that it contradicted claims of Englishness and cultivation.
The textual readings in this book are remarkably sophisticated. It is a shame, however, that Gikandi’s skillful close reading of texts is not accompanied by an equally firm understanding of temporality. On numerous occasions, he gets chronologies wrong. William Beckford’s first ancestor in Jamaica, for example, could not have arrived in Jamaica in 1643 given that England did not seize Jamaica from the Spanish until 1655. Moreover, [End Page 598] the Beckford property in Jamaica, Drax Hall, was not, despite its name, a country house. Some mistakes are just careless: Janet Schaw did not travel in Antigua in 1724 but in 1774. It was not slaves who were asked by researchers in Jamaica in the 1960s about remembering the history of slavery but rather the descendants of slaves. A more serious issue is errors that betray unfamiliarity with eighteenth-century history. Edward Long did not, for example, write his defense of the Jamaican plantocracy in 1774 as a response to abolitionism, because abolition did not become important as a political movement until after the American Revolution. In addition, asking how Long could explain new technologies of punishment for slaves such as the treadmill makes little sense given that the treadmill was not instituted as a form of punishment until twenty years after Long’s death.
Of most moment, however, is Gikandi’s carelessness with dating his major themes. The development of cultures of taste was a historically significant event that can be pinpointed to the middle years of the eighteenth century. The timing of how these changes occurred is crucial to explaining the shift. It is difficult, therefore, to see how Gikandi can explore how Christopher Codrington (1668–1710) can be seen as a “man of taste” when he died a year before the first work that helped develop taste as a formal category, Lord Shaftesbury’s disquisition on manners, was published. Comparing Codrington with the playboy novelist, spendthrift, and collector William Beckford (1760–1844) also makes little sense given that Codrington was a contemporary of Joseph Addison while Beckford was associated with the Romantics. Throughout the book, texts that are separated by many years are treated together...