- Faces of Perfect Ebony: Encountering Atlantic slavery in imperial Britain
The visual and literary representation of British colonial slavery in the metropole as a cultural phenomenon is the subject of a growing number of studies. Such studies tend to have an uneasy relationship with the examination of the African presence in Britain (which both predated and postdates Atlantic slavery) as a social phenomenon, which also has a burgeoning literature, albeit one contributed noticeably from outside conventional academia. Both cultural and social variants address, for the period of slavery, how slavery came home to Britain from the Atlantic world, and both serve importantly to provide different evidence for the constitutive role of slavery in the formation of modern Britain, which remains contested.
Catherine Molineux's new book, firmly in the cultural tradition but deftly incorporating the African presence in key sections, follows Susan Amussen's provocative Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the transformation of English society 1640-1700 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) and comes very close behind Simon Gikandi's Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011). The three books share some common objects of analysis and of approach. It would be a shame, however, if the reception of Molineux's work were to suffer by the coincidence of its publication with that of Gikandi. While Gikandi ranges from the Caribbean to Britain to the antebellum south, Molineux is focused on the British metropole, and indeed within that almost exclusively on London. Molineux presents seven chapters analysing in turn: servitude, through an examination of portraiture; anxieties, through readings of two texts, a ballad and a novel turned play; race, through analysing a minor periodical; the tensions between religion and slavery, again through scrutiny of the same periodical and a selection of pamphlets; commercial culture, through tobacco cards; the African presence, through Hogarth; and resistance and antislavery, through a comic opera. The bold claim (2) that the book "recovers a popular consciousness of empire, mostly neglected by other cultural historians," is not fully borne out by the material, but Molineux's individual chapters do bring new evidence to the table for the permeation of images of race and empire within at least the commercial centre of London. Her analysis alone of John June's View of Cheapside should establish incontrovertibly that images of race and empire were everywhere in the visual landscape of Georgian London.
The book, however, raises a number of questions about the kind of cultural criticism it undertakes. None of these is a new objection and Molineux would have been perfectly well aware of all of them, but neither does Faces of Perfect Ebony entirely refute any of them. First, her readings of the images and texts, suggestive as many of them are, represent Molineux's own, informed as she inevitably is by knowledge of how the story unfolded and by a whole raft of modern perspectives on race and empire. It may well be true that "an idealized hierarchical relationship [between Black "subordinates" and White "masters"] became vernacular, inoculating the general public from the responsibilities of slave-ownership as artists turned mastery into an iconographic formula" (21), but what evidence do we have for the contemporary reception of such images? Again, how do we know that "Georgian Britons connected the stability of their imperial possessions with the balance of European power" (135)? Second, how are we to gauge the differing importance of particular forms of representation? One can accept the claims for the reach of Hogarth's work, but which other texts had wide enough reach to make a difference to Britons' world-views, and how do we know? Only in a handful of cases, as with her exemplary tracing of the figure of Mungo from Bickerstaff's opera into cartoons and political rhetoric, does Molineux analyse the salience of an image or trope. Thirdly, greater comfort with paradox is perhaps more characteristic of this type of cultural criticism than of other forms of history writing. Acknowledgement of the complexity of history is one of the great shibboleths of...