- The Intimacies of Four Continents by Lisa Lowe
Lisa Lowe’s book indicts ‘‘the tyranny of world history, whose categories and frameworks have not permitted understanding of the connections among various peoples, differentially affected by empire’’ (174). The very phenomenon that promised emancipation but brought misery, she says, also obscured the geographical interpenetration of its racialized forms of domination. In five disparate chapters, Lowe responds to this calamity by recovering how African racial slavery accompanied European settler colonialism in the Americas and elsewhere, and how Asian labour was sometimes viewed as African slavery’s obvious successor. The continents were not separate, so a single framework is required to recover their ‘‘intimacies.’’
One chapter introduces the argument, while also reflecting on an archival document that explicitly introduces the link between African slavery and Asian ‘‘free labour.’’ Through a close examination of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, the second chapter shows how a classic liberal genre cannot escape traces of racialized unfreedom that liberalism claims to have surpassed. Next, Lowe reads William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (London, 1848) to demonstrate how racialized labour allowed exotic commodities to be popular in novelized metropolitan interiors. The penultimate chapter analyzes John Stuart Mill and claims that his famous liberal theory of politics is part of the same syndrome. Finally, the book shows how, in unmasking the false pretense of racialized capitalism to spread freedom, heroic pioneers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James struggled but failed to transcend an ultimately European story of human liberation, which points toward the need for the more expansive approach in Lowe’s own book.
It is, indeed, a very important intervention. The most revelatory parts come when Lowe, a literary critic, practices the reading of literary texts. Other parts, which have a very high quotient of theoretically sensitive expression to empirical contribution or novel claim, prove less compelling.
Indeed, historians will find a few of Lowe’s claims and procedures straining credulity. For one thing, Lowe works with an approach to liberalism that does not take very seriously the major debates that have raged since Uday Singh Mehta, whom Lowe rightly cites approvingly, opened up the topic of ‘‘liberalism and empire.’’ Thus, I could not tell what, if anything, in Lowe’s extended interpretations of G.W.F. Hegel, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, adds to the more recent and subtle discussions by Jennifer Pitts and others. An excellent counterpoint to Lowe’s book in this regard is Andrew Sartori’s Liberalism in Empire (Oakland, 2014), which attempts to renew a Marxist approach to the relationship between liberalism [End Page 426] and empire, and pays predominant attention to the place of Asia while expressing appreciation of liberalism’s multiple dimensions, and the distinction between theory and practice.
A further point of interest for historians is Lowe’s protocols for using archival evidence to think through the succession of African slavery and Asian immigrant labour. If historians sometimes often take empiricism too seriously, they still have a more skeptical attitude compared to more recent arrivals in archives who — for all their awareness of the power that goes into constructing imperial holdings — treat documentary finds as if they were more representative and significant than they are. Lowe often writes of her archival forays very abstractly, and more to establish authority for vast generalizations than to offer granular novelties. In an illustrative statement, Lowe writes, ‘‘The archive indicates that the colonial government was constantly preoccupied by the possibility of rebellion’’ (129). Lowe’s opening moves in her first chapter are largely based on a single interesting 1803 letter by a colonial official in Trinidad musing that Chinese labour might well provide a racially distinctive but still subordinate class to be preferred to potentially insurrectionary Black slaves (22–23). What matters to Lowe, however, is not who read the letter, what significance it had in imperial governance, or even whether once Chinese labour began its large-scale transit to the Caribbean thirty years later, the same reasoning was obtained. As she explains...