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Elizabeth A. Bohls - Slavery and the Politics of Place: Representing the Colonial Caribbean, 1770-1833. Review by Peter Hulme

Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 14:52

Elizabeth A. Bohls, Slavery and the Politics of Place: Representing the Colonial Caribbean, 1770-1833, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-107-07934-2

Peter Hulme

Emeritus Professor

University of Essex

The literature of Romanticism ran parallel to the British movements for the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself.  What Elizabeth Bohls calls “the capacious genre of travel writing” (3) provided several of the key texts that fuelled these debates, most of them centred on the West Indies.  These books, by John Gabriel Stedman, William Beckford, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Edward Long, Bryan Edwards, Marcus Rainsford, Olaudah Equiano, Janet Schaw, Maria Nugent, and Mary Prince, provide the material for Slavery and the Politics of Place.  The books are well-known, at least to Caribbeanists, but the fine-grained analyses offered here are welcome additions to the scholarship on Romanticism, slavery, and travel writing.

As always in travel writing, description of place plays an important part, so it’s no surprise to see the language of the picturesque featuring so strongly in all the books Bohls discusses: she homes in on what she calls “the bifocal capacity of aesthetics to enact imaginative intertwinement between colony and metropole, at the same time obscuring the ugliness of slavery’s site-specific practices” (9).  Aesthetics provides the focus of Chapter 1, in the process giving useful introductions to the books which will feature in more detail in the five chapters that follow.

Two notions of place run through the book.  There is the familiar imaginative geography triangulating Britain, Africa, and the West Indies.  All the writers had first-hand experience of the first and third, and strong views about the second.  Their different backgrounds and affiliations – they include two soldiers, three women, and two ex-slaves – ensure lively disagreement about the qualities attached to Africa and the West Indies.  This provides the placial nub of the debates about the abolition of slavery.

Beyond the imaginary geography of the Atlantic, the book occasionally highlights particular places – so effectively that one wishes there were more instances.  Bohls’s prime example in Chapter 1, taken from James Hakewill’s A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica (1820), is his painting of the Montpelier Estate in St James, one of the largest plantations on the island.  In 1833, in the immediate aftermath of the Western Liberation Uprising of 1831-2, also known as the Baptist War, a local engraver called Adolphe Duperly scandalously added to the foreground of a lithograph of the picture the figures of the captives who had fought at Montpelier in one of the major battles during the uprising.  Bohls returns to this powerful image in her concluding remarks.

Edward Long’s History of Jamaica (1774) contains one of the most infamous defences of slavery, based on openly racist arguments; but it also offers a lengthy and valuable account of the island’s features by way of demonstrating its value for the mother country.  Bohls is alert to the book’s complexities and skilled at finding those moments – such as Long’s account of a cave – where a “stubbornly local feature” (99) resisted assimilation by his larger imaginative map.  A more obsessive placial analyst would not have omitted the precise location of the cave – just outside Dry Harbour, to the west of Mandeville.  A true obsessive would probably have gone there to check Long’s description.

The narratives of the two formerly enslaved authors, Equiano and Prince, are convincingly read as pieces of travel writing which, in Equiano’s case, allows more weight than usual to be given to his travel as a free man when he was working as a deep-sea sailor (which compromises some two fifths of the length of his book).  Bohls’s last chapter deals with The History of Mary Prince, a powerful abolitionist autobiography whose trenchant credibility made its author a target for pro-slavery activists.  Bohls rightly notes – and it’s a strong point to end her book on – that what pro- and anti-slavery writers had in common was a desire to separate off the West Indies from Britain, either because the islands were home to an inferior African-descended population or because they were controlled by decadent and unsophisticated plantation owners.  In her person and her travels, if not in her arguments, Mary Prince embodied the intimate links between the increasingly inextricable worlds of Britain and the West Indies, however reluctant all actors were to recognise those links.

Elizabeth Bohls joins a very select group of scholars to have had two books published in CUP’s prestigious Cambridge Studies in Romanticism Series, but Slavery and the Politics of Place makes equally valuable contributions to Caribbean studies and travel writing studies.