Paul Youngquist, ed.

Race, Romanticism and the Atlantic

Paul Youngquist, ed. Race, Romanticism and the Atlantic, Farnham: Ashgate, 2013. 267pp. £65.00. ISBN 9780754669272. £65.00.


Reviewed by Michael Morris, University of Dundee (online, March 2019)


This volume of nine essays participates in a large body of work which has, over the last few decades, critiqued the sense of a steady Romanticism of ‘the big six’: Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats. Such critiques have focussed on questions of class, gender, marginal voices and subject matter. For his part, Paul Youngquist, the editor of this volume, has been central in bringing Paul Gilroy’s arguments in his 1993 book The Black Atlantic to bear on the largely white world of Romantic studies. While there have been a number of admirable books on Romanticism and slavery, Youngquist is amongst those who look to advance the argument: in Spring 2017, he co-edited a special issue of the Studies in Romanticism journal on the topic of ‘Black Romanticism’, arguing that the extraordinary cultural flowering we call British Romanticism ought to be understood as produced by the mutual contribution of European and African cultures generated by the violence and creativity of the Atlantic world.

This excellent and provocative collection is divided into three sections on ‘Differences’, Resistances’, and ‘Crossings’, each containing three chapters. The subject matter ranges across literature, travel narrative, contemporary print, ethnography, portraiture, caricature, performance of self and the boxing ring. The introduction opens in Youngquist’s swashbuckling style: ‘Histories of Romanticism should be written in blood: the slave trade, war with France, colonial rebellions, the Peterloo massacre’ (p. 1). He is tired of accounts which ‘read like promotional material for paradise’ which hail the ‘revolutionary potential’ of Romantic literature as exhibiting a certain ‘ideological complacency’ (1–2). Instead he emphasises that the ‘Romantic era’— roughly 1780–1830—

witnesses both the abolition of the African slave trade and the emergence of a biological racism…Note too the simultaneity of the Abolitionist movement’s early successes in the 1780s and the first state-sponsored plan to resettle London’s population of destitute Africans to Sierra Leone… Why this link between liberty and subjection – liberty as subjection – during an era often glossed by the sacred trinity of liberté, égalité, et fraternité (2–3).

The introduction then negotiates its path through touchstone theorists: Eric Williams’ conceptualisation of slavery’s intimate and enabling relationship with British capitalism; Roxanne Wheeler, Paul Gilroy and, unusually, Foucualt on the vexed question of race and racialisation in the early nineteenth century; Linebaugh and Rediker’s notion of the Atlantic proletariat; Ian Baucom and Joseph Roach on circulations of finance capital, atrocity, and creative performance. This is the material which yields Romanticism’s strange fruit.

This collection is at its strongest when most engaged in a sense of uneven and unruly Atlantic circulations. Marlon B. Ross’s often dense chapter which opens Part I takes a different tack. The first part makes the case that British Romanticism is best read through American Critical Race Theory; the second part reads Oulaudah Equiano and Mungo Park through that lens, with Ross keen to emphasise the ‘Africanness’ of Equiano’s textual strategies. Youngquist’s chapter on ‘The African Queen’ expands on the concept of racial whiteness as a disavowed presence through a discussion of the representations of Queen Charlotte, George III’s consort who is believed to have some African ancestry. The figure of Queen Charlotte also appears in C. S. Giscombe’s lyrical and thoughtful essay on the ‘Black Loyalist’ descendants in Nova Scotia, some of whom use a portrait of the Queen as a landmark of identity.   

Part II contains three accomplished essays on literature. Peter Kitson gives a sophisticated analysis of two of the more intriguing British abolitionist writers, Robert Southey’s Poems on the Slave Trade (1797) and Charlotte Smith’s ‘The Story of Henrietta’ (1800), measuring their protests against chattel enslavement against their coding of racial difference. This is developed further by Grégory Pierrot’s skilful analysis of the under-appreciated Liverpool writer Edward Rushton. Although his striking biography tends to gain most of the attention, Pierrot insists on taking his literary strategies seriously and reads his work, for example on the Haitian revolution, in the context of the Atlantic proletariat, highlighting his searing indictment of conditions for sailors, slaves and commoners. Frances Botkin’s fascinating essay on Jack Mansong plunders the historical record on this Jamaican outlaw, known as Three-Finger Jack, and traces the literary and stage representations of him, he was once played by the legendary actor Ira Aldridge.

Part III opens with Debbie Lee’s affecting discussion of the figure of the Black single mother in history and representation. Lee examines archival Slave Complaints alongside literary representation arguing that the trope of the despairing, distressed ‘lone’ mother in sentimental abolitionist literature runs against the sense of a strong networked community of mothers which emerges from the archive. Lee shows that the mother figure is present in well-known poem’s Blake’s ‘The Little Black Boy’ (1788–89) and Wordsworth’s ‘The Mad Mother’ (1798) underscoring ‘that even the canonical core of Romanticism was a site of hybridity and difference’ (180). Elise Bruhl and Michael Gamer reveal a racial sub-text to Emma Hamilton’s notorious ‘Attitudes’, particularly in relation to her North African servant Fatima. The ancient world ‘extended beyond Greece and Rome to Africa and the Orient’ and Hamilton’s performances of classical figures ‘explored and juxtaposed this frisson of pale and dark antiquity…Fatima was a presence at these performances, usually walking behind Emma in public as an aesthetic counterpoint or joining Emma in an impromptu pas de deux (199). Finally, the underlying point that race in the Romantic era goes beyond the most obvious treatment of slavery is confirmed in Daniel O’Quinn’s chapter which closes the collection with a suitably unpredictable discussion of the boxing matches between white Englishman Crib and African American Molineaux. In a startling comparison, O’Quinn reads the political coding of race, nation, empire and masculinity produced by these bouts against Johann Zoffany’s celebrated painting Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match (1784–86). Zoffany’s depiction of imperial failure in India is redeemed by Crib’s heavy fists, a reminder that British Romanticism’s racial economy is not confined to the Atlantic world.        


© Symbiosis, 2019