EMPIRE OF NEGLECT: THE WEST INDIES IN THE WAKE OF BRITISH LIBERALISM by Christopher Taylor, Reviewed by Martha Schoolman
 

EMPIRE OF NEGLECT: THE WEST INDIES IN THE WAKE OF BRITISH LIBERALISM
By Christopher Taylor
(Duke, 2018) xi+307 pp.
Reviewed by Martha Schoolman on 2019-08-27.

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This is a brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed study of British West Indian writing between approximately 1776 (the year that The Wealth of Nations was published among other world-historical occurrences) and 1860. The study's key archival "attunement," to use one of the author's favored terms, is to the various ways that West Indian Anglophone writers rejected the liberal market ideologies then ascendant in metropolitan Britain. Whereas Atlanticist criticism of the late 1990s and the early aughts tended to emphasize the emancipatory possibilities attending the flow of capital and the rise of liberalism, this book does precisely the reverse: it highlights the perspective of those (black and white, formerly enslaved and enslaving) who experienced market liberalization and the felt attenuation of imperial "care" that attended it as a world-shattering loss.

This approach is meant to feel counterintuitive. While many other critics have sought to expose the hollowness of the claims made for empire, this book takes them seriously as a way of exposing something else: the founding inhumanities of the liberal nation state that emerged to replace it. As Taylor writes in one particularly thorough statement of the methodological case:

Today, this political-economic nationalism [that emerged with the liberal order] survives in the methodological nationalism that continues to underwrite scholarship across diverse disciplines. This methodological nationalism is particularly apparent in scholarship on Britain's turn to free trade, but this deworlding of empire is more or less a deep structural feature of social-science epistemologies and the cultural critical work that draws on them. Empire appears as an exceptional deviation from the classically liberal, and then postcolonial, institutional norm of the nation-state, as something lacking the political, social, affective, and ideological density of the latter. We can only understand liberalization as the saturated crisis that it was for West Indians if, in a kind of antiliberal Verstehen, we grasp empire [...] as the quotidian frame of reference by which people organized their relationship to the world (110-11).

As scholars and subjects, in other words, we continue to live and think within liberalism's teleologies of national sovereignty based on free flows of capital. We read for their emergence and, in a certain way, root for their success, whether from the liberal-universalizing perspective of the Age of Revolutions, or from the anti-racist liberationist perspective of anti-colonial nationalisms, or even from the point of their apparent convergence in the case of the Haitian Revolution. In order to see the rise of liberalism as the tragedy that it was for many British West Indians--and, by implication, the tragedy that its neo-liberal iteration continues to be for vast majorities of the world's people today--we need to read through the eyes of liberalism's losers, that is, with the very points of view that liberalism wanted to suppress. We need to do so, Taylor argues, starting from the very moment at which creole voices--even some repellant ones--rose to protest their "abandonment" and "neglect," and often, as this book so thoroughly demonstrates, in so many words.

Indeed, this study is driven by the urge to find a way to listen to those voices. While liberal metropolitan economic thinkers, literary artists, and less aesthetically-ambitious contributors to the colonial archive came to describe the former economic jewels of the British Caribbean as both forgettable and dispensable, British creoles railed against their fate with affective intensity. In arguing for market liberalization, political economists including Smith and his intellectual heirs also argued precisely against the political inclusion and trade favoritism that had defined imperial belonging under mercantilism. Liberal thinkers now called these administrative features both needless and wasteful. To liberal thinkers, Taylor argues, the details of imperial governance became matters of entire indifference: "Provided imperial ties did not tie up Britain's market with preferences and protections," Taylor writes, "it did not matter whether the West Indies remained within the empire, revolted against it, or sank into the sea" (Taylor 37). From such a perspective, the possible or actual upheaval of decolonization is entirely beside the point because, even here, a century and more before the wave of independence movements in the British Caribbean, the empire had already moved on, its underperforming periphery summarily--if oddly undramatically--lopped off.

The West Indian planters whose interests this new line of thinking opposed were especially quick to perceive and protest its emergence. They responded, Taylor shows, with a new genre of writing meant to critique their marginalization. Though known to few scholars other than Taylor, their works include the letters written to metropolitan merchants by a widowed plantation owner named Catherine Harding in the 1780s, Thomas Roughley's The Jamaican Planter's Guide (1823), and Marly; or a Planter's Life in Jamaica (1828), a novel published by an anonymous plantation driver. In succession, they exemplify the long-distance but intimate dialogic of epistolary writing, the pedagogical solicitude of the planter's guide, and the novel's embrace of exhaustive microeconomic and subcultural detail. Together, as Taylor presents them, they construct a discursive web of care and attentiveness that formally and thematically critiqued metropolitan Britain's new posture of aversion and indifference.

Made in the book's first full chapter, this argument is an impressively and almost perversely heavy lift. As Taylor acknowledges, the writings of West Indian planters make up a discourse that we have taught ourselves to ignore and neglect. "It is comforting to think," Taylor writes, "that we do not care about creole elites; our sympathies are elsewhere, with the enslaved" (71). The "management" and "care" for which planters are almost always famous among themselves are generally better known as protocols of dominance and exploitation. For readers of the archive of slavery and abolition, therefore, Taylor's turn to this archive of "creole complaint" demands a significant change in perspective. But in opening up scarcely known sources of anti-liberal thought in the Caribbean, in grappling with the suspicion that free trade may not be remotely the same as liberation, Taylor offers a great deal more fodder for our own political exigencies than mere sentimental apologetics for slavery.

In the four substantial, challenging, and deeply satisfying chapters that follow, Taylor reads for the idiosyncratic flares of antiliberal argument in the textual production of West Indians of color. In James Williams's 1837 dictated account of the horrors of apprenticeship (A Narrative of Events, since the First of August, 1834, by James Williams, an Apprenticed Laborer in Jamaica), Taylor finds the formerly enslaved Williams grappling with the violent contradictions generated by the economic transition from enslavement to wage labor. Williams, Taylor argues, successfully addresses his testimony to a caring imperial audience of abolitionists. Indeed, abolitionists worked successfully with Williams to publish the Narrative as a brief in support of apprenticeship's early demise.

Abolitionists composed and packaged the text, however, to make a liberal point: that apprenticeship was too much like slavery. From the liberal perspective, the solution to the violence of apprenticeship was to hasten the arrival of a more thoroughgoing self-ownership for the formerly enslaved. But in providing planters with just a few more years of enslaved Africans' uncompensated service, Taylor argues, apprenticeship (in Williams's account of it) more closely resembled the temporal logics of an emergent liberal capitalism's own definition of freedom. Here as ever, liberal capitalism is an economic regime in which market success for some entails austerity, deregulation, and maximum labor extracted from the many. As a founding document of antiliberal black thought, in other words, Williams's text not only critiques economic liberalism but also shows how knowledge of its exploitative mechanisms was suppressed by freedom's own champions.

Chapter Three marks a double transition. While West Indian slaves were fully emancipated after 1838, the Sugar Duties Act of 1846 marked the moment of full "abandonment" from the British creole perspective because it eliminated favorable tariff terms for British West Indian sugar. Notably, Taylor sidelines the stories of the emancipated themselves. Instead he highlights the complicated positioning of those creole subjects--planters, already-free people of color-- who likewise understood themselves as having gained what Eric Foner, writing in a post-Civil War US context, described as "nothing but freedom." To be emancipated in this context was to be thrust into deep material want, dispossessed by the market itself as the main theaters of both capitalism and slavery moved elsewhere. As the absentee planter-pamphleteer Matthew Higgins would point out, the combination of emancipation and the Sugar Duties Act meant that British economic policy was supporting the expansion of sugar markets and the attendant flourishing of slavery almost everywhere but the British Caribbean. "The turn to liberal globalization," Taylor writes, "thus appears as a return to a pre-emancipation economy of slavery--the difference here being that British West Indian planters were prevented from participating in this reversal" (125).

Do these planters deserve our sympathy? Whether or not they do, Taylor reminds us that "free markets" continued and indeed continue today to rely on forced labor, even if across different and indeed ever-fluctuating geographical scales and political boundaries. British creole planters were painfully aware that after the Sugar Duties Act, new wealth was accumulating without them: they had been excluded both politically and economically. But it was not only planters who felt this way. In Chapter Three, Taylor extensively probes the early Trinidadian pirate romance Emmanuel Appodocca (1854) by the mixed-race writer Michel Maxwell Philip. In Taylor's reading, this novel thoroughly explores the affective and political consequences of the British West Indies' new "freedom from" imperial favoritism. Using the heightened conventions of the pirate romance, Taylor argues, Philip represents the plight of the creole person of color as a story of paternal abandonment. And like a son abandoned by his father, the creole person of color is excluded from the political participation that he had been led to expect as the outcome of emancipation. The novel canvasses some of the possible hemispheric alternatives to the political consequences of this allegorized imperial abandonment, including speculatively unfolding a Trinidadian "leyenda blanca [white legend] that fancifully posed Spanish rule as a period of racial equality and economic justice" (136), before determining--pirate style--to avenge that abandonment instead.

Further tracking the imaginative possibilities opened up by Trinidad's complicated inter-imperial history, Chapter Four investigates--in a fascinating and consistently surprising way-- the literary and political career of George Numa Des Sources, an emigrationist, Trinidadian activist, newspaperman, and fiction writer. As Taylor tells it, the shape of Des Sources's career as victim and critic of emergent liberalism's racialized exclusions emerges in three episodes. First, he vainly attempted to assert post-emancipation political agency in a free Trinidad by leading a petition movement in 1849 against a new ordinance that recalled disciplinary methods common under slavery: in a notable convergence of liberalism and racialized exclusion, the ordinance required that "petty debtors in the Royal Gaol were to have their heads shaved like common criminals" (154), a punishment that targeted poor blacks who survived on petty debt in the cash-starved post-"abandonment" economy. Second, he fought against liberal political exclusion by joining the surprisingly vast European socialist diaspora in the Americas and devising a specifically Fourierist alternative to life in Trinidad: emigration to Venezuela. Third, he adapted Uncle Tom's Cabin in a novel called Adolphus that was serially and anonymously published in 1853. By retelling Stowe's story of flight as the story of an enslaved Trinidadian's escape to a residually-imperial, Bolivarian Venezuela, this novel is said to link the grammar of metropolitan abolitionism with the anti-liberal Trinidadian nostalgia for Spanish rule.

This fourth chapter, pointedly titled "Uncle Bolívar's Children," serves to epitomize the whole study. Within the writings of Des Sources Taylor finds what we might call, following Zygmunt Bauman, a "retrotopian" urge: the urge to salvage a thread of political possibility lost when the liberalizing British Empire took Trinidad from the seemingly more protective and attentive Spain. Yet, as Taylor keeps reminding us, Empire of Neglect is not itself invested in recovering the glories of empire. It is rather a leftist cultural analysis of the alternatives to free market liberalism buried in the archives of empire. It is thus deeply emblematic that Des Sources's anti-liberal explorations became enmeshed with the transnational flowering of socialist and communist thinking circa 1848. The chapter not only traces Des Sources's engagement with Fourierist utopian socialism, but also uncovers a diasporic implantation of the European left in today's current locus of communist imagining in Venezuela.

The fifth and final chapter returns us to the somewhat more familiar ground of the Jamaican memoirist Mary Seacole, author of The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857). According to Taylor, Seacole takes an entirely different approach to the cruel optimism of liberal subjectivity. Burrowing as deeply as possible into the corner of imperial culture available to her as a Jamaican woman, Seacole embeds herself with the British Army as a nurse and sutler during the Crimean war. On one hand, Seacole's writings underline Taylor's claims about the overlooked appeal of imperial subjectivity to creoles of African descent. On the other hand, her commercial activities--as innkeeper and then sutler--operate against capitalist logics of profit and accumulation as a function of their imperial context. Whereas Seacole can be and has been read as something of a petty capitalist who profits from scarcity, Taylor argues that hers is the illiberal economic activity of the periphery. "Within Seacole's text," Taylor writes, "social relations such as friendship, maternity, and citizenship structured, regulated, and expressed the nonmarket institutional logics through which her sutlering integrated an ephemeral but vibrant collectivity in Panama and the Crimea. [...] Seacole's enterprise aims not to 'make a profit' [. . . but] rather, to 'create debts'--debts susceptible to greater or smaller degrees of calculability and quantification: debts that organize care work and peddling in a common frame" (191). Whereas liberalization argues for the replacement of "care" in the economy with "self-interest," Seacole practices a kind of economic activity that, perhaps by virtue of its very peripherality, refuses to accede to the shift.

Simply put, Empire of Neglect is a field-making book. Because it sets itself so resolutely against not only the methodological protocols, but even the typical discursive structures of work explicitly or tacitly aligned with economic liberalism, it is by no means an easy or accessible read. Rather, it insists upon the dissonance that comes with questioning the basic premises of existing Americanist and Victorianist understandings of the Atlantic and the Hemispheric discursive frames. But for that reason, this remarkable piece of scholarship rewards careful reading and rereading, and promises to gradually but inexorably shape all that comes after it.

Martha Schoolman is the Butler Waugh Professor of Literature and Associate Professor of English at Florida International University, Miami.


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