Translating Revolution into Spanish: British Romanticism and the Spanish-Speaking World

"Translating Revolution into Spanish: British Romanticism and the Spanish-Speaking World" offers ways of teaching British Romanticism through the lens of human rights. The proposed course covers the pamphlet wars of the 1790s in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindications of the Rights of Woman. Students also consider abolitionist literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Hannah More’s "Slavery, A Poem," and Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo. The goal of this approach is to address the cultural amnesia regarding the history of slavery and enslaved peoples, and to broaden students’ understanding of the era’s independence movements by introducing historical documents from Latin and South America.

Translating Revolution into Spanish: British Romanticism and the Spanish-Speaking World

1.        One of the most important developments in the study of British literature of the long eighteenth century in the past two decades has been the renewed focus on what Keith Hanley and Greg Kucich call the “global formations” of British literary culture (73). The proliferation of studies in global feminisms, cosmopolitan identities, travel writing, translation, and other transnational encounters has created new critical perspectives for reassessing early-nineteenth-century British literature as explicitly international and global in its concerns rather than isolated and insular. [1]  Similarly, in early American studies, the work of Gretchen Murphy, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, James Dunkerly, and Anna Brickhouse, among others, has been especially crucial to exploring the global dimensions of American literature by resituating its study within a broader Hemispheric and Pan-American perspective. [2]  Both disciplines are thus increasingly guided by the principles that national contexts alone can no longer provide the explanatory framework for literary analysis they once did and that new critical paradigms are needed if we are to more adequately investigate what Paul Gilroy calls the “system of cultural exchanges” taking place across the globe during the early nineteenth century (14).

2.        Yet despite the new critical imperative to explore global dimensions of romantic literature, the Spanish speaking world remains one of the most understudied cultural geographies of the period. [3]  Much of this neglect no doubt has much to do with the vast critical terrain only recently opened to us by the study of romantic globalism. But to some degree, we must also be aware of an English disciplinary resistance to all things Spanish and, in Joselyn Almeida’s view, a dangerous assumption underlying recent transatlantic critical practices, namely that the ideas, texts, and political thought circulating within the Atlantic world occur primarily between Britain and the US and are, as a consequence, conducted primarily in English. The consequences of such critical practices—of, among other things, continuing to think of the Americas in terms of North America alone—is that we not only risk marginalizing Spanish speakers as minor spectators on the world stage, but also risk confining transatlantic studies, as Almeida has written, within safe linguistic and disciplinary boundaries that ultimately work to reinscribe the disciplinary structures that transatlantic studies has worked so hard to break through. [4] 

3.        Building on David Simpson’s argument for translation as a critical paradigm within which romantic literature is encountered as an “estranged medium,” this essay answers the call for greater attention to the Hispanic dimensions of transatlantic studies by demonstrating some of the ways in which students can explore the meaning of traditional romantic concepts about the imagination, nature, and the rights of man, among others, from a ‘Spanish’ perspective (141). The objective of such reading practices is to open up the interpretive possibilities for understanding romantic literary texts as not only engaged with but also profoundly shaped by the ideas, cultures, and peoples of Spain and Spanish America. In order to get from here to there, I will briefly sketch in this essay the outlines of a course I teach on transatlantic romanticism that I have designed to introduce the complex issues related to the interconnectedness of Atlantic-rim cultures. Focusing on the ways in which cultures, ideologies, and political identities are reworked and reinscribed by the transatlantic movement of peoples, ideas, and cultural artifacts, the course seeks to expand accepted notions of romanticism (typically understood within exclusively British and US American contexts) to include transoceanic perspectives that rethink romantic literature as a global phenomenon. Given the limited space here, I will only consider the shifting forms and languages of revolution as they make their way from Britain to the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade. In order to bring the analysis into sharper focus, I shift the discussion in the final section of the essay from a consideration of historical to textual translation, presenting my own English translation of a key passage from Simon Bolívar’s "Carta de Jamaica" as a case study that highlights the limits and possibilities of linguistic interpretation as a pedagogical tool that challenges students to rethink the meaning of revolution within a Spanish American context.

4.        One of the most important debates for exploring the historical context of romantic-era literature remains the pamphlet wars of the 1790s in which Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man form the twin pillars of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary thought of the period. Students typically have an easier time with Paine initially, readily identifying with the language of reason and natural rights, and often share Paine’s convictions about liberty, equality, and inalienable rights. When properly understood as a response to Burke’s arguments about the role of prejudice and prescription in maintaining order in society, itself a response to Richard Price’s A Discourse on the Love of our Country, students tend to become even more convinced of the validity of Paine’s argument about “the vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave,” which Paine views as “the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies” (74). Teaching the revolutionary debates thus more often than not involves mounting a vigorous defense of Burke. I usually begin by pointing out that in the U.S., appeals to a constitution written over two hundred years ago precisely define what it means to govern beyond the grave. Students who defend constitutional authority and legal precedence now find it difficult to support Paine’s essentially anarchist argument that “the more perfect civilization is, the less occasion has it for government,” a statement that assumes the perfectibility of man and the power of human reason to bring it about (193). After introducing a more nuanced discussion of political theory and the revolutionary politics of the romantic period, I reintroduce Burke’s and Paine’s arguments with a few select passages that yield new insights into the nature of the debate in a way that allows students to reflect on the Burkean and Paineite influences on their own political perspectives.

5.        Discussion of the contribution of women to the revolutionary debate helps prepare students for thinking about the complex ways in which the “regime of truth,” as Michel Foucault calls it, is challenged and transformed by groups and individuals excluded from the governing discourse (131). Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindications of the Rights of Woman, for example, makes the obvious point that the rights of man did not necessarily also translate as the rights of woman. In addition to outlining Wollstonecraft’s proto-feminist arguments about egalitarian marriage, rational love, and other issues of gender inequality, I highlight the rhetorical strategies through which she enacts her “imitation of manly virtues” that become in and of themselves a form of political engagement (110). [5]  For in stripping her prose intentionally of the “soft phrases” and “delicacy of sentiment” central to the rhetorical flourishes of Burke’s political reflections on the revolution, Wollstonecraft creates a metacommentary that exposes the reliance of Burke on what he himself defined as the feminine aesthetic of the beautiful in order to, as Tom Furniss argues, “remount a critique of the ancien régime . . . and turn its aesthetic theory against the politics of Reflections” (Wollstonecraft 111; Furniss 184). When Vindications compares the condition of women to slavery, Wollstonecraft further complicates the Revolution debate by introducing an unwelcome discourse into the discussion of what it means for all men to be equal. Without explicitly invoking the abolitionist movement of which women were key players, Wollstonecraft thus alters the hermeneutic context from which to interpret the principles of the French Revolution, illustrating for students how seemingly straightforward arguments become easily strained when ideas are placed in a context for which they were never intended.

6.        Having established the broad parameters of an essentially British perspective on political revolution, our discussion naturally moves on to consider romantic literature and the slave trade, a topic recently illuminated by the work of Deirdre Coleman, Debbie Lee, and Paul Youngquist. [6]  Before discussing the diverse, overlapping, and sometimes contradictory arguments for and against slavery during the romantic period, I remind students of our shared conviction of the inhumanity of slavery in order to focus our discussion more critically on how literature, as Edward Said writes in Culture and Imperialism, “allowed decent men and women to accept the notion that distant territories and their native peoples should be subjugated” (6). Again encouraging students to look beyond the surface of argumentation, I point out that poems about the slave trade often find themselves troubled by an awareness of the tension between their ideals of universal emancipation and the imperial imperative of the civilizing mission. Of the many abolitionist poems that could be cited, Hannah More’s "Slavery, A Poem" is one of the best in illustrating the structural entanglements of much abolitionist writing. Though she argues for the dignity of slaves as human beings, More, like many of her contemporaries, cannot escape her racist assumptions or imperialist attitudes. Africans, she argues, “have heads to think, and hearts to feel,” but their souls act with “erring zeal” (More 67; 68). Like the British radicals she curiously invokes at the beginning of the poem, Africans must consequently be contained, their “wild vigour of a savage root” civilized by Christianity (More 74). More difficult for students to discern, however, is More’s anxiety about the implicit critique of empire that unintentionally emerges as a result of her abolitionist arguments. Attempting to clarify her intentions, the poet at one point asks,

Does thirst of empire, does desire of fame,
(For these are specious crimes,) our rage inflame?
No: sordid lust of gold their [slaves] fate controls,
The basest appetite of basest souls. (More 125–28)
More’s resistance to the idea that the “thirst for empire” is inherently wrong and her attribution of the evil of slavery instead to “sordid lust” allows her to champion the cause of emancipation without upsetting the logic of empire. The parenthetical aside, however, at once deflecting attention from the poem and yet integral to its meter, delays the formulation of the poem’s central question, creating an uneasy tension between the poet’s nervous interrogation and resolute reply. The emphatic “no,” made more determined by the syntactical deductive colon separating the monosyllabic answer from the more involved explanation that follows, not only abruptly interrupts the iambic pentameter of the poem, but in doing so calls attention unintentionally to the so-called “specious crimes” the poet works very hard to deny. This passage in particular can thus help students explore how language and form can express unspoken anxieties, or, in Fredric Jameson’s terms, reveal the “political unconscious” (9).

7.        No discussion of the cultural impact of the slave trade on romanticism is complete without a reading of any number of the many slave narratives of the period of which Helen Thomas’s Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies (2000) provides an excellent selection. I continue, however, to remain partial to The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano because of the way in which it allows students to discuss the complex process of what Homi Bhabha calls the “ambivalence of mimicry” occurring at the intersection of the various discourses brought together in what Angelo Contanzo describes as “a new genre of writing that became known as the slave narrative” (129; 10). From its frontispiece and opening address to the British Parliament to its narrative of spiritual conversion and naval adventure stories, The Interesting Narrative establishes Equiano as a civilized, self-made man whose natural inclinations toward masculine British values grant him the authority to speak on the national stage from which he would normally be excluded. Yet, Equiano’s anecdotal accounts as a free man of his persistent mistreatment at the hands of British slave owners remind readers that he will never be more than “almost an Englishman,” one who is free but not free, “almost the same, but not quite” (Equiano 92; Bhabha 123). For some students, Equiano’s attempt to establish an authentic African voice is compromised by a “stronger desire to resemble” his English masters, resulting in an ambivalence over his own identity that he registers in the title of his narrative (Equiano 93). The question of Equiano’s identity is further complicated by notable passages revealing his participation in the slave trade, his support of the British colonization of Africa, and the still controversial arguments discounting his African birth. In order to generate further discussion, however, I typically introduce a counterargument that suggests that such ambivalence is intentional. By engaging in a form of “self-invention,” as Vincent Carretta describes it, Equiano not only displays what W. E. B. Du Bois calls double consciousness, but also in the process returns the mobility of his identity back within his control, which he formally expresses in the title as a choice he allows readers to make in constructing their own meaning of his narrative in a way that spotlights the artificiality of such constructions (6). Interesting Narrative is, in other words, a perfect example of colonial mimicry, a discursive process that depends on its own indeterminacy to disrupt normalized knowledge, not only for slave owners who rely on racist assumptions about the capacity of Africans for rational thought and moral feelings, but also for abolitionists who continue to deny equal rights for Blacks attempting to assimilate into British society.

8.        Equiano’s text provides an excellent introduction to what Paul Youngquist and Frances Botkin have called “Black Romanticism,” a critical focus in romantic studies that seeks to restore certain geographies, particularly the West Indies, back to the center of literary analysis. Although some students will have encountered Equiano before, such encounters will have rarely led to alternative perspectives for reading romantic literature in which the Maroon War, the Haitian Revolution, and the Independence movements of South America form the natural historical backdrop to a literature just as invested in translation and cross-cultural exchange as it is in national formation. According to Youngquist and Botkin, the problem is a disciplinary one, which they provocatively articulate in no uncertain terms in the opening statement of their introduction to the recent volume of collected essays Circulations: Romanticism and the Black Atlantic (2011): “With notable exceptions, studies in British Romanticism remain pretty white” (1). [7]  For Youngquist and Botkin, “the whiteness of Romantic studies is a symptom of amnesia . . . a massive act of forgetting on the part of contemporary scholarship” that has blinded us to “the complex network of exchanges circulating people, ideas, practices, and things throughout the Atlantic” (1; 8). In transatlantic studies more broadly defined, this form of amnesia is especially evident in the general neglect of the intersections of romanticism and the Spanish-speaking world in which the voices of Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, and a whole host of other geographies of the Spanish Atlantic commanded the world stage.

9.        The students I teach usually become excited by this ‘confession’ of sorts, often citing this fact as the main reason for initially enrolling in the class. When asked to provide a brief account of major events in the South Atlantic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, some students will remember the Haitian Revolution and fewer still will mention the South American Independence movements, let alone provide more than cursory details to these events. Employing visual aids, provocative excerpts, and online resources, I outline the important events of the period from the 1780s Andean rebellion through the Bolívar Wars of the 1820s, introducing students to the fiery brilliance of revolutionaries like Antonio Nariño, Francisco de Miranda, San Martín, and the libertador himself, Simon Bolívar. With republics springing up first in Venezuela in 1810, soon followed by Buenos Aires and New Granada, then Chile and finally Mexico, Latin America soon rivaled their North American neighbors in political innovation and radical change. Back in Europe, I explain, Spain was experiencing its own revolution of sorts. With the invasion of Napoleon in 1808, Spain not only found itself locked in a life and death struggle for national independence, but also became deeply engaged in its own political experimentations. The liberal intelligentsia in Spain, self-dubbed liberales, fought to secure their national sovereignty against Napoleon, but they also viewed the political crisis as a rare opportunity for political and social reform, an opportunity to completely revamp and modernize the Spanish government, transform its traditional social structure, and draft a constitution along more liberal and revolutionary lines.

10.        As the site of wars and invasions, revolutions and constitutional inventions, the Spanish Atlantic opened up a new space for political and ideological discussion in Britain that touched on key issues of national and imperial concerns. The imperial relationship between Spain and its colonies at a time when both the colonies and metropole were formulating new ideas about individual autonomy, national sovereignty, and civil liberties brought into full view the inescapable conflict between liberal thought and the logic of empire. As an early sympathizer of Latin American independence and now an ally of Spain, Britain found itself caught between its moral obligation to support Latin American claims for freedom against tyranny and oppression, and their political responsibilities to honor their new alliance with Spain. Yet, Britain had ulterior motives at play. Long coveting Latin American markets, Britain understood the implications of Spanish American independence for the expansion of its commercial empire. Thus, placed in a position of savior to Spain and Latin America’s hope for independence, Britain became an increasingly significant and politically charged space of converging and conflicting interests: the place of revolutionary plotting on the one hand—Miranda, Bolívar, and others all developed their revolutionary programs in London—and the source of a growing pro-Spanish sentiment on the other. [8] 

11.        To introduce students to the interconnections between romantic literature and the history of the struggle for Haitian independence, I assign the Broadview edition of Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo (1808), a text that interweaves the events of the Haitian Revolution with a romance plot that explores the gender and race implications of interracial love, violence against women, and desire for female community. I require students to read the introduction, which provides an excellent initiation to the history of the Revolution from the 1791 slave revolt and the rise of Toussaint Louverture to the establishment of the world’s first black republic in 1804 and the massacre of white French colonists at the hands of Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The introduction also provides a helpful discussion of racial politics in the Americas and their complex relationship to constructions of gender and sex exemplified in the interactions between mixed-race mulatto women, white Creole women born in the Caribbean, and white European women. I think Gretchen Woertendyke is absolutely correct to suggest that “Sansay’s tale joins the domestic terror of Clara’s marriage to St. Louis to the revolutionary horror of Saint-Domingue,” a point I tease out by highlighting the ways in which the text deploys similar strategies of elision to hide both the violence of revolution and the violence against women (256). Attempts at textual erasure are immediate. In the opening letter to the novel, Mary expresses a desire to bury her memories of the Revolution in the past, preferring instead to dwell on the “profound tranquility of the ocean, the uninterrupted view, the beautiful horizon . . . with a new world opening to my view” (61). Mary’s romantic reflections at sea, however, are violently interrupted on landing by the “terrible picture of desolation” that itself “cannot be imagined” (61). Recognizing the tension between the romantic imagination and the reality of revolution helps students organize their reading of the ways in which history consistently interrupts the romance narrative of Sansay’s text in order to, one might argue, dramatize the limits of the imagination and reveal the secret process by which some histories become hidden.

12.        Despite Mary’s attempt to narrate the reestablishment of polite society in St. Domingue in which new fashions, plays, and, most importantly, balls transform the “heap of ruins” throughout the city into “a fairy palace” of pleasure and love-making, sporadic attacks by marauding former slaves and daily accounts of gratuitous violence on both sides soon convince Mary that “[t]he romantic visions of happiness I once delighted to indulge in, are fading fast away before the exterminating touch of cold reality” (61; 74; 93). The links between revolutionary and sexual politics are tangible in the novel, from Mary’s comparison of the masculinity of slave insurrectionists with the effeminacy of French men to Rochambeau’s literal deployment of the military to secure his sexual conquest of Clara. Yet, Mary’s scattered anecdotes of domestic abuse against her sister Clara, like the episodes of revolutionary violence punctuating the text, convey the “silent horror” experienced by not only Clara, but all women in general, Mary remarking at one point that “Clara is not the first wife that has been locked up at St. Domingo” (103; 87). The parallels between Clara’s confinement and the “brutal subjection” of slaves, who “have at length acquired a knowledge of their own strength,” formally justify Clara’s own revolt not only from the tyranny of her husband, but arguably also from the oppressive moral codes Mary herself invokes to judge her sister’s sudden elopement with Don Alonzo (76; 26). Although students may not always grasp all of the nuances of the complex intersections between race, gender, sexuality, and revolutionary violence in the novel, most will begin to understand how different forms of oppression are often linked in romantic literature, recalling, for instance, Wollstonecraft’s comparison of the institution of marriage to slavery, and how new contexts almost always alter meaning, even of self-evident truths about the inalienable rights of man.

Bolívar, Latin American Independence, and the Case for Translation

13.        In turning to Bolívar and the Independence movements of South America, I conclude this essay with a case study exploring the pedagogical value of translating texts written in Spanish for students who typically encounter the transatlantic and romantic concepts of revolution exclusively in English. I begin by posing the question David Simpson asks in his evaluation of Romantic cosmopolitanism: “can what is written in one language make sense in another; can what is felt by one person be the same as what is felt by someone from a different place or time?” (146). The question is a helpful one because it not only speaks to the purpose of literary interpretation in general, but also seeks to understand that purpose in terms of important questions about the value of translations in literary analysis. According to C. C. Wharram, “translation changes—or might prompt us to change—the way we approach the teaching of texts of British Romanticism in particular, and literature in general, within a planetary context” (1). Although readings of translations, as Lesa Scholl notes, can help students understand how British romantic literature “incorporates foreignness” into its very structures of meaning, I find myself consistently returning to Simpson’s notion of “translation not as the fantasy of dialogism but as the impasse of blocked communication” (Scholl 17; Simpson 151). The key to the pedagogical strategy I have adopted for this course is finding ways to demonstrate how seemingly straightforward romantic concepts like the imagination, nature, liberty, and the rights of man not only acquire new meanings when interpreted and read from one context to the next, but also how the concepts themselves take shape in response to intentional misreadings, unauthorized interpolations, contextual obfuscation, and other forms of textual distortions.

14.        One of the most compelling texts to advance the case for romantic translation as a pedagogical strategy is Simon Bolívar’s "Carta de Jamaica" (1815), a letter written originally in Spanish but immediately translated and published in English. [9]  Composed during his exile in the British colony of Jamaica and addressed to the British resident Henry Cullen in an effort to solicit British support for independence from Spain, Bolívar’s "Letter from Jamaica" finds itself at the center of a transatlantic textual network triangulating between Britain, Spain, and Spanish America during the early nineteenth century. Students who read this letter expecting to find a revolutionary document worthy of Bolívar’s reputation as El Libertador are surprised by what appears to be clear anti-democratic statements. In addition to supporting the rise of dictatorships throughout South America, Bolívar mounts a powerful argument against the adoption of a “democratic and federalist model” of government based on pragmatic considerations, arguing that “institutions which are wholly representative are not suited to our character, customs, and present knowledge” (23). Although Bolívar cites a number of Enlightenment philosophes throughout his political writings, it was Montesquieu not Rousseau that Bolívar preferred to rewrite when imagining the future of Latin America. Within a colonial context in which the colonized are excluded from “the science of government and administration of the state,” a process Bolívar argues has “left us in a kind of permanent infancy with respect to public affairs,” the right to self-determination, Bolívar argues, trumps the right of individuals to political equality (20; 19).

15.        Burke, I remind students, advances a similar pragmatic argument when he suggests that “all men have equal rights; but not to equal things,” particularly with respect to “the share of power, authority, and . . . the management of the state” (218). Like Bolívar, Burke also endorsed the idea that the form of government of a nation ought to “emanate” from its “national character” (249). Burke, after all, supported the American Revolution, a fact that his opponents interpreted as hypocritical but Burke defended by citing the differences of the American situation. If the share of power, authority, and management of the state is at the crux of the Revolution debate, what are we to make of Bolívar’s wholesale dismissal of such an idea? What are we also to make of Bolívar’s class- and race-based skepticism of the masses, particularly the “African hordes” who “rarely manage to appreciate the wholesome condition of freedom”? (qtd. in Bolívar xl; 27). If time allows for the inclusion of other writings of Bolívar, this line of inquiry can be sharpened by questions concerning Bolívar’s denunciation of the “ideal of tolerance” and “exaggerated notion of the rights of man” in The Cartagena Manifesto (1812), his preference for “correct” elections over “popular elections” in the same document, and his inclusion of provisions for a lifetime presidency in the 1826 Bolivian Constitution (3; 7). A brief survey of the rise of caudillos—local strongmen among whom historians include nineteenth-century figures like Juan Manuel de Rosas and Antonio López de Santa Anna, dictators of Argentina and Mexico respectively, and modern dictators like Fidel Castro, Manuel Noriega, and Augusto Pinochet—emphasizes the contemporary relevance of such questions by alerting students to the long history of authoritarian violence in Latin America that renowned historian John Lynch argues “was essentially a product of the wars of independence” (5). Admittedly intended for dramatic effect, one might ask how it is possible to get from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to death squads, dictators, and desaparecidos?

16.        Bolívar’s political writings, especially the "Carta de Jamaica," can open up important questions about the nature of translation, not only in the way in which it challenges traditional readings of influence, but also in the way in which it defamiliarizes and estranges concepts we think we know. By explicitly citing the works of Enlightenment thinkers like Abbé Raynal, Baron von Humboldt, and Montesquieu, and translating his letter into English, Bolívar suggests that he and his interlocutor are speaking the same language. Ulterior motives aside, Bolívar understands the importance of translating the Spanish American experience within the perceived parameters of a shared discourse, a strategy of “enforcing meaning” that is noticeably absent in texts like The Angostura Address, despite the fact that it essentially develops the same ideas as his "Carta de Jamaica" (151). Intertextuality, consequently, is essential to the construction of its meaning, a fact that is problematized by Bolívar’s intentional misreadings of many of the texts he cites in his letter, most notably José María Blanco White’s El Español, which Bolívar refers to as evidence of broad support for the cause of independence in Spanish America. Although he initially defended Latin American autonomy while Spain itself fought for its own independence, Blanco White made it clear that he did not intend for his arguments to be interpreted as support of independence. [10] Reading against Blanco White’s ‘original’ intentions, Bolívar selectively reconstructs a transatlantic discourse in order to fashion a political statement that is familiar in its form but peculiar in its implications.

17.        What would it mean to read Bolívar’s letter in Spanish? Would we find an original text with clarified concepts and meanings or would we find new problems of interpretation as we subject the text to the new distortions of our own translations? Consider, for example, Bolívar’s discussion of the reasons why Spanish Americans are unfit for a federal republic. First in English:

Slave states are identified as such by virtue of their constitution or the abuse of it. People are slaves when the government, by its essence or through its vices, tramples and usurps the rights of the citizen or subject. Applying these principles, we will find that America was not only deprived of its freedom but deprived as well of the opportunity to practice its own active tyranny. (19)
From this translation, it is unclear what precisely Bolívar means by “slave states.” The analogy of citizens as slaves under an oppressive government hardly clarifies the issue. Unlike oppressed subjects, slave states enslave themselves unless Bolívar means for the second statement to elaborate his first, suggesting then that states in which the government tramples on the rights of the people are the slave states alluded to in the previous statement. Even if this latter meaning is granted, it is difficult to see how these “principles” help us to understand the American situation. Depriving one of rights does appear tantamount to depriving one of freedom, but how is that the same as depriving one of the opportunity to practice tyranny? This last question is of course resolved if we agree that Bolívar is suggesting that citizens have the right to govern themselves and by depriving them of rights in general, the slave state deprives them of this right as well. But Bolívar does not believe citizens have the right to govern, a point he repeatedly makes throughout his writing. We still have yet to touch on the bizarre notion of participating in one’s own active tyranny, an idea that returns us to the concept of slave states that enslave themselves, which we were supposed to have already clarified. Add to this the history of Bolívar’s relationship to the recently independent black republic Haiti, where he travelled and received military support on the promise he would incorporate abolition as part of his revolutionary program (hitherto not a part), and Bolívar’s discussion of the slave state becomes even more curious.

18.        Let us now turn to the passage in Spanish to see if we can sort out some of these issues:

Los estados son esclavos por la naturaleza de su constitución o por el abuso de ella; luego, un pueblo es esclavo cuando el gobierno, por su esencia o por sus vicios, holla y usurpa los derechos del ciudadano o subdito. Aplicando estos principios, hallaremos que la América no solamente estaba privada de su libertad, sino también de la tiranía activa y dominante. ("Carta")
Translating with the intent to clarify the questions I posed, I might rewrite this passage in English in the following way:
States are subject to despotic rule when they are formed as subject states or when those in power elsewhere act despotically toward it. Tyrannical governments, however, enslave their own people when they reduce and usurp the power of their citizens or subjects to participate in the administration of the state, regardless of whether these governments were formed to do so or not. Applying the principle of subject states, we can see how America as a state has been deprived of its political autonomy. Applying the principle of enslaving governments, however, we can see how Americans have also been deprived of the possibility of participating in the active and dominant tyrannical rule of the state.
In this interpretation, I seek to clarify the comparison between states and governments by removing the reference to states as slaves in the first statement, which to me creates confusion with regard to another possible analogy between enslaved states and enslaved people. I then mark a contrast between states as political entities sometimes subject to external rule and the mechanisms of governments concerned with the administration of the state in order to create two principles and two applications: the principle of subject states explaining America’s loss of political autonomy and the principle of tyrannical governments explaining the people’s inability to rule themselves. In some ways, I have ironed out some of the wrinkles of confusion; in other ways, I have created more than I began with and have most certainly contained some of the dynamism of the passage. If we reinsert the analogy between enslaved states and enslaved people, for example, we recover Bolívar’s sublimated and far more disturbingly racist view that although Spanish rule has enslaved America, some Americans, like the constitution of subject states, are naturally formed for slavery. Although we do not have time here to tease out the nuances of Bolívar’s view of race in the Americas, it is enough to point out that the racial diversity of the Americas created great anxiety for Bolívar who even in this letter represents race as a stumbling block to unity in the Americas.

19.        Similarly, in seeking to normalize the strange reference to the desire of the people to tyrannize themselves, I, like the translator before me, invent a phrase to prevent readers from interpreting this passage as an advocacy for tyranny: in Fornoff’s translation, “opportunity to practice” and in mine, “possibility of participating.” Yet, tyranny is precisely what this passage is advocating. Since Americans have been kept “in a kind of permanent infancy,” they have never learned how to use the mechanisms of power to control entire populations, especially those as vast and diverse as those in the Americas. Although the "Carta de Jamaica" is at its heart a solicitation for British aid, Bolívar understands its role as a statement of his revolutionary agenda, which for him always involves imagining post-colonial rule. Arguments against representative republics are not simply enlightenment speculations on the best form of government; they are in many ways an anticipation and justification of the authoritarian rule that Bolívar believed must be established while the population is educated and gains experience in managing a state. The letter’s disproportionate attention to the process of decolonization and the post-colonial state makes sense when viewed as an assurance to a potential ally concerned about the implications of an independent America in light of anxieties occasioned by nations like Haiti. Yet, as Bolívar’s letter made clear, revolution must be translated into Spanish. In the sentence immediately following this passage, Bolívar writes, “Me explicaré” [Let me explain what I mean]. Translation may never be able to fulfill such a promise, but as a “core Romantic paradigm,” Wharram might be correct in suggesting that “translation changes everything” (Simpson 152; Wharram 1).

Works Cited

Almeida, Joselyn. Reimagining the Transatlantic, 1780–1890, Routledge, 2016.

Annesley, James. Fictions of Globalization: Consumption, the Market, and the Contemporary American Novel. Bloomsbury Academic, 2006.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.

Blanco White, José María.El Español, En la Imprenta de C. Wood, Poppin’s Court, 1810–1814. 8 vols.

Bohls, Elizabeth A. and Ian Duncan, editors. Travel Writing 1700–1830: An Anthology, Oxford UP, 2005.

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[1]Since the 1997 special edition of European Romantic Review on "British Romanticism: Global Crossings" (Fay), romantic-era studies have experienced an explosion of critical work on the global dimensions of romantic literature. For foundational work on British romantic imperialism, see Makdisi, Fulford and Kitson, and Leask. For work on romantic travel writing, global feminisms, and cosmopolitanisms, see Mellor, Simpson, Wohlgemut, and Bohls and Duncan. In recent years, investigations into the global contexts of British romanticism has moved steadily away from the postcolonial frameworks of earlier studies toward a broader understanding of romantic literature’s relationship to the history of globalization. As Evan Gottlieb argues, “romantic globalism,” Gottlieb’s term for the globalizing tendencies of romantic-era literature, “took shape as an alternative to, rather than merely an elaboration or anticipation of, imperialism” (10). For more on this particular critical trend, see Annesley, Cooppan, Gupta, and Jay. BACK

[2]For more on the transnational trend in American literary scholarship, see Manning and Taylor. BACK

[3]Notable exceptions include Diego Saglia’s Poetic Castles in Spain: British Romanticism and Figurations of Iberia (2001), Joselyn Almeida’s Reimagining the Transatlantic, 1780-1890 (2011), and Rebecca Cole Heinowitz’s Spanish America and British Romanticism, 1777-1826: Rewriting Conquest (2010). BACK

[4]See the introduction to Almeida. BACK

[5]Regarding the style of Vindication, Wollstonecraft writes, “Animated by this important object, I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style. I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods, or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings” (112). BACK

[6]See, for example, Coleman, Lee, and Youngquist and Botkin. BACK

[7]In-text citations refer to paragraph numbers. BACK

[8]See Nanora Sweet’s article on the influence of British interests in Latin America on British literary practices was among the first to consider the relationship between the Spanish-speaking world and the development of British romantic literature. BACK

[9]All English translations of "Carta de Jamaica" are from Frederick H. Fornoff in Bolívar. For instructors considering teaching other Bolívar texts in English, David Bushnell’s edited collection of Bolívar’s writings is the most accessible to students. BACK

[10]In 1811 Blanco White wrote in El Español, “La América española no ha pasado aun el noviciado de la libertad, y quererlo hacer todo de repente y á la vez, paredes, techos, y cimientos es exponerse á no hacer mas que un edificio de apariencia que se vendri abaxo al primer soplo. La América Española por necesidad será independiente en algun tiempo (no sabré decir qundo) . . . Pero si los americanos quieren no retardar este período; no lo apresuren” (3:303). BACK


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