- The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population by Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin
With expertise anchored in the Pacific and Atlantic worlds, respectively, Alison Bashford and Joyce Chaplin have combined their talents to offer a fresh perspective "on the most famous book on population ever written, or ever likely to be" (p. 2). Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), a British moral philosopher, clergyman, and later professor of political economy, is generally thought to have proposed his bleak assessment of the natural checks on excess population growth in a largely European context. After all, he composed the work in 1798 when Britain and France were at war; he published it at the peak of the Irish Rebellion; and he couched it as a response to the utopianism of William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet. Acknowledging this European context, Bashford and Chaplin argue that the much-enlarged second edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population (1803) began with, and continued to develop the importance of, the [End Page 664] extra-European world. Never venturing on either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, Malthus nevertheless drew on information from both oceanic worlds. These New Worlds, these two authors maintain, profoundly shaped Malthus's central claim that population always existed within natural limits. Furthermore, "Malthus spent most of his adult life at the core of Britain's institutional imperialism: the East India Company" (p. 10).
Their book is divided into three major parts. The first situates the Essay in prior population studies, and explores what inspired Malthus to write the Essay in 1798, and especially its expanded second edition five years later. The work would eventually merit four more editions in Malthus's lifetime. Describing Malthus as a "magpie" (p. 17), a borrower rather than an inventor, the authors outline four main intellectual traditions—natural theology, statecraft, political arithmetic, and political economy, especially stadial theory—on which he relied. The second part, consisting of three chapters, examines the initial subjects of Malthus's second edition: the indigenous people of New Holland, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands, respectively. In places the authors tabulate the texts that Malthus cited. The final section, comprising another three chapters, moves forward in time, covering the last thirty years of Malthus's life as he grappled with slavery and abolition, colonization and emigration, and the reception of his work in the Americas and Australia.
The authors recognize that Malthus had his blind spots, and pay attention to his silences. They note, for example, that the West Indies were largely absent in his thinking, despite family holdings in Jamaica. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, West Indian sugar cultivation constituted about two million so-called "ghost acres" to Britain, a contribution that escaped Malthus's notice. "For Malthus to ignore the Caribbean," the authors observe, "was to ignore the central place of a new world food within everyday British diet, and the way in which the ghost acres of empire therefore complicated the relationship between a nation's population and its material resources" (p. 142).
This is a timely work, since 2016 was the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of Malthus's birth. This volume might be compared to the essays in Robert J. Mayhew, ed., New Perspectives on Malthus (Cambridge, 2016), to which Bashford and Chaplin also contribute. We are still haunted by fears of natural limits to economic growth, of Malthusian wars of resource scarcity when populations explode, even if some of Malthus's gloomier prognostications have not proven correct. It is good to be alerted to the global dimensions of his thinking, although perhaps it would have been instructive to think about New Worlds in local, intra-European, as well as universal, extra-European contexts. After all, even though Malthus never crossed the Atlantic or Pacific, he journeyed to Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, France, and Switzerland, as well as to Scotland and Ireland. A consideration of internal as...