Joselyn M. Almeida, ed.

Reimagining the Transatlantic: 1780-1890.

Joselyn M. Almeida, Reimagining the Transatlantic: 1780-1890. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011. 294 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6967-8 (hardback). £60.00 (UK), $104.95 (USA).


Reviewed by Nanora Sweet, Universty of Missouri-St. Louis (March 2012)


In Joselyn Almeida’s new construct ‘the pan-Atlantic,’ ideas and their textual transmissions circulate in undulating currents among Europe, Africa, and the two Americas, islands included. Within these currents a range of writers prompts Almeida to correct Benedict Anderson’s assessment that South American republics did not simultaneously develop a (text-based) ‘imagined’ community. She traces instead a cohesive and dialectical discourse among that continent’s most influential ‘imaginers,’ a discourse that Britain’s advanced print culture converts to its own financial and geopolitical opportunities.

Between 1780 and 1890, the New World’s great empires, the Spanish and British (and French as well) were pulled to the left and right by the French Revolution, until Spanish America devolved under a neo-liberal British hegemony. By 1820, Britain’s attention turned from its lost ‘thirteen colonies’ and flagging ‘sugar’ Indies to the Southern continent’s emerging ‘republics.’ These after all were already in Britain’s debt for help against Spain’s (re)occupying armies. Prince William’s deployment in the fall of 2011 to the Falkland Islands off southern Argentina reminds us that British interests in the pan-Atlantic remain territorial as well as commercial.

In the revolutionary and post-revolutionary currents of her pan-Atlantic, Almeida discovers new actors of impressive scope such as Francisco de Miranda and José Blanco White and finds better-known figures like Charles Darwin playing new roles. Discovery is indeed the first term in her discourse, followed by conquest, with slavery and liberation forming another pair, Almeida’s discourse ringing changes on these four terms and pursuing a critical dialectic among them. Familiar figures and topics like Cortez, Bentham, Dickens, the French Revolution, and abolition are defamiliarized and freshly ‘Atlanticized.’ From 1780 to 1890 Almeida plunges into an alternative history that turns on such forgotten crises as that at Nootka Sound (off present Vancouver Island) and is stocked with close readings of opinion-making texts. Quickly passing over obvious titles for her topic—such as Helen Maria Williams’s Peru and Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo – Almeida favors figures and texts submerged in memory but bearing official or quasi-official links to Britain’s pursuit of influence, investment, and trade in South America.

Her chapters on these texts are remarkable for their dynamic design. In the first, William Robertson’s History of America, written on the heels of the thirteen colonies’ revolt, renders the Southern continent the ‘America’ of interest and a ‘metonymy’ for the whole (21). For Robertson, conquest and enslavement are necessary evils in the ‘‘progress of improvement’’ (30). Checking Robertson here is Francisco Clavijero, a Spanish-Mexican Jesuit exiled to Italy who conveys indigenous, Nahuatl, pre-conquest history to the Old World. (The exile of Jesuits from Spain and its empire in 1767 was a defining event for Blanco White as well as Clavijero.) Clavijero’s Storia antica del Messico is translated into English with the encouragement of Robertson’s erstwhile patron, the Earl of Bute, then Prime Minister. Entering the most active print culture of his world, Clavijero is reviewed in leading British journals. Simultaneously, Ottobah Cugoano’s London-published Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery echoes Robertson, with a deconstructive difference, and calls up Africa’s queens to stand with Hispaniola’s embattled cacica Anacoana. Almeida’s readers may know Cugoano’s prophetic rhetoric and its oceanic resounding at the shores of Africa, America, and Asia.

In her second chapter, the heroic efforts of Toussaint Louverture exemplify ‘emancipation’ and ‘liberation’ in the Americas and follow immediately upon the indigenous revolt of 1780 led by Túpac Amaru in Peru. The activities of Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda receive a more mixed review. Almeida has treated Miranda’s far-flung exploits and real accomplishments in her collection Romanticism and the Anglo-Spanish Imaginary. Here, in a sifting of his voluminous communiqués to the likes of John Adams, the French National Assembly, and William Pitt, she critiques Miranda for cordoning off the ‘liberation’ of criollo republics from the ‘emancipation’ of slaves.

Refusing the governorship of St. Domingue in the early days of Louverture’s revolt, Miranda instead sought British support for a mainland country of South America. In creating and textualizing an idea of America yet failing to include the emancipation of slaves, Miranda prefigures the book’s later tension between Britain’s ‘liberal empire’ based in trade and finance (and promoting free labor) and its trade with the region’s remaining slave economies (the United States, Brazil, and Cuba). Almeida has clearly read her Eric Williams, David Brion Davis, and Paul Gilroy on the priority of slavery in New World economies; broadly, her bibliography is a curriculum unto itself. (A rare misquote mars a peripheral citation, to Mary Wollstonecraft’s second Vindication, here called Defense of the Rights of Women.)

Moving into the nineteenth century, the book turns to José Blanco White, Irish-Spanish cleric and refugee in England after 1810. An Anglican and subsequently Unitarian convert, White was a substantial contributor to Britain’s anti-clerical press and a critic of constitutional reform in Spain that did not eradicate religious and racial prejudice. Turning his sights to Latin America, Blanco White composed the transatlantic journal El Español where, among many other things, he translated and compiled British abolitionist writing, published separately as Bosquejo del comercio en esclavos (1814). As in her work with Cugoano, Almeida studies the subversive potential of translation in Blanco White, finding a ‘space…which evokes the unstated,’ which in this case exposes the limitations of British abolitionism (114). Readers of Blanco White’s fictive autobiography Letters from Spain (by ‘Don Leucadio Doblado’) will know his critique of Spain’s racial pureza de sangre; and Almeida rightly contrasts his eloquence against slavery with Miranda’s elision of it. This chapter closes with an incisive account of Juan Manzano, a ‘twice-trafficked’ slave whose poems filled a book by a British colonial magistrate while simultaneously paying off Manzano’s ‘debt’ for manumission from his nominally abolitionist Cuban owner (148).

Britain’s ‘liberal empire’ in the Americas involved commercial as well as textual trade, and the voyage of the Beagle, made famous by Charles Darwin, was originally charged with surveying the southern continent’s coast for trading purposes. Darwin and the Beagle’s hydrographer captain Robert FitzRoy make up another of the book’s provocative doubles. Almeida finds that Darwin’s roles as evolutionary biologist and ethnographer of enslaved and indigenous peoples (especially the Fuegians) blend all too seamlessly and also share a set of loaded antinomies: animal-human, savage-civilized, extinction-extermination. In a tour de force of close intertextual reading, Almeida traces changes from Darwin’s diary to his published version of the Beagle’s voyage and other later writings.

Almeida’s final chapter opens with Victorian opinion-makers who clearly assume a journalistic hegemony over South American developments. Building on the recent notoriety of Carlyle’s ‘Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,’ she excavates his equally reactionary ‘Dr. Francia’ in praise of Paraguay’s dictator. In contrast with Carlyle’s tale of control, Edward Eastwick, a correspondent for Dickens’s All the Year Round in Venezuela, highlights the instability of a South American polity at Caracas. Paradoxically, this very instability generates fresh financial profit for London in the form of renegotiated loans—one of which Eastwick was negotiating in 1864. Tax and custom receipts were sometimes offered as collateral, demonstrating a dimension of ‘liberal empire’ that resembles today’s order around the IMF and World Bank.

Reimagining the Transatlantic closes with the naturalization of Britain in South America in the person of W. H. Hudson, Argentinian-born and later British icon as the quintessential bird-lover. Best remembered for his novel Green Mansions, Hudson is represented here by the earlier The Purple Land (1916) whose protagonist Richard Lamb is a Juan Sinterra, recalling one of Blanco White’s alter egos. As an Anglo in a hispanophone world, Lamb is buffeted by events and shifting in his own allegiances yet always within reach of a British passport. The novel alludes to Britain’s involvement in the war between Argentina and Brazil during the 1820s, with Uruguay as the prize between them.

Almeida offers a corrective to those who would ‘minimize the role of slavery and emphasize Britain’s role as liberator of South America’ (235)—and those who might separate literary texts from the printed matter essential to capital and commodity exchange. Occasionally, as readers move through her thick description begun in medias res, they may wish for more backstory. An example is the book’s handling of Bartolomé de las Casas, sixteenth-century reformist historian in Mexico. While his work appears as a benchmark against which Robertson especially is measured, both he and his work are more alluded to than established in the text (his first name not given in the text, his title Breve Relación de la destrucción de las Indias Orientales not given until page 115). That Almeida sends us out in further searches may be a good outcome, given that ‘discovery’ is her own first term.

© Symbiosis, 2012

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