Rebecca Cole Heinowitz

Rebecca Cole Heinowitz, Spanish America and British Romanticism, 1777–1826: Rewriting Conquest. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. 254 pp. ISBN: 9780748638680 (hardback). £65 (UK), $85 (USA).

Reviewed by Susan Valladares, University of Oxford (Online, August 2011)


Spanish America and British Romanticism, 1777-1826: Rewriting Conquest is an intricate and compelling study of the ways in which British Romantic writers responded to the political, cultural, and economic attractions associated with a Spanish American empire. In six well-rounded, and chronologically arranged chapters, this book explores the British interest in mainland Spanish America, taking the publication date of William Robertson’s History of America (1777) and the South American debt crisis of 1825–6, as the defining parameters for its narrative.

The already impressive body of writing on Romantic imperialism, which includes scholarship by Tim Fulford, Peter Kitson, John Barrell and Alan Bewell, has, in recent years, been supplemented by a rapidly developing interest in Anglo-Hispanic Romanticism. Robert Aguirre, Joselyn Almeida, Nigel Leask, Mary Louise Pratt, Nanora Sweet, Diego Saglia, and Charles Rzepka form a notable group of scholars whose writings testify to the rewards of exploring previously neglected geographies. Heinowitz undoubtedly deserves her place among these well-established authors. Her recent book on British interest in Spanish America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries offers fascinating insight into the ways in which the region featured ‘in poems, plays, operas, cabinets of curiosity, political tracts, news reportage, reviews, stock market quotations, and even in the fashionable ladies’ magazines that announced the arrival in London of the “Bolivar hat”’ (1).

In the absence of any formal imperial strategy that might have informed Britain’s relationship with Spanish America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, scholars have tended to characterise the transatlantic rapport as commercial, rather than colonial. This re-conceptualisation of ‘empire’ provides the fulcrum for Heinowitz’s argument, which develops John Gallagher’s and Ronald Robinson’s identification of an ‘underlying unity’ between formal and informal imperialisms. Heinowitz’s book alerts readers to the British-Spanish American similitude that this encouraged, but also to the fact that Britain’s commercial pre-eminence in Spanish America was, more often than not, considered tantamount to possession. The consequence of this, as Heinowitz’s book beautifully unfolds, is that problematically related to any continuities between formal and informal imperial strategies, there were significant, and at times, irresolvable tensions.

The book begins by explaining how the loss of the ‘Thirteen Colonies’ heightened British interest in Spanish America, with the Peace Treaty of 1783 explicitly legitimizing British trading rights in the region. The most important political and sentimental tropes of the 1780s are brought together in her opening chapter, ‘Naturalizing Empire: Helen Maria Williams’ Peru and the British Ascendancy in Spanish America’, which identifies Jean-François Marmontel’s Les Incas as a crucial source narrative for many eighteenth-century British writers. The text’s generic indeterminacy (at once a ‘Romance’ and a ‘History’) implicitly signals Heinowitz’s larger concern with the blurring of formal and informal imperial designs during this formative period. Les Incas, as Heinowitz carefully shows, was one of the main sources for Helen Maria Williams’ Peru (1784), a poem whose endorsement of Tupac Amaru II’s Peruvian revolt (1780–1782) was set against the backdrop of Britain’s increasing economic and political involvement in Spanish America. The chapter highlights the ways in which Williams’ poem proposes Euro-American identification by showing how Peru, like Britain, was a maritime nation characterised by policies of benevolent conquest.

Chapter One is at its most interesting in its identification of Williams’ breaks from her earlier Enlightenment source narratives. Most notably, Heinowitz suggests that in Peru, Williams omits any explicit discussion of commerce because of her distrust that Enlightenment policies of free trade would result in the promised rewards of human benevolence and amelioration. The chapter reveals that Williams, in her awareness of the dangers (i.e. selfishness, competition, and jealousy) as well as the benefits attached to commercial relations, chose to protect her poem’s investment in genuine sympathy by excluding any explicit engagement with the theme of free trade. Peru is then compared to Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘On Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams Weep at a Tale of Distress’ to spotlight ‘the affective unity of the suffering subject and the sympathetic, observing writer’ and the ways in which contemporary sentimental poetry seemed to take advantage of that unity in order to ‘foreground the author’s unique sensibility’ (16). The overt aim of Peru may have been to encourage the ongoing struggle for Spanish American independence, but, according to Heinowitz, this political goal becomes inextricably associated with the poet’s own ambitions (50). The significance attached to Williams’ self-referentiality certainly adds a convincing dimension to the poet’s descriptions of her Peruvian protagonists as if they were British. Heinowitz, who draws attention to Aciloe’s ‘snowy arms’ and Alzira’s ‘auburn hair’ (51), provokes a host of interesting questions when she offers her final analysis of Peru as a poem implicated in the ‘effort to redefine European colonialism as natural, even while advocating revolution in Spanish America’ (64). This exploration of intercultural intimacy overlapping with colonial domination, defines Chapter One’s focus on ‘British poetry and policy’ (36) of the 1780s, but also informs the book more generally, setting up all sorts of interesting inter-chapter connections (both implicit and explicit) for Heinowitz’s readers to explore. A good example of this fluidity of argument is her extension of Chapter One’s examination of Les Incas and the politically and affectively charged comparisons made between Britain and Peru, to Chapters Two and Three of the book, where Heinowitz offers a particularly engaging analysis of Sheridan’s dramatic tragedy Pizarro (1799) and Southey’s epic poem Madoc (1805).

Chapter Two, ‘Creole Patriotism and the Discourse of Revolutionary Loyalism, 1792–9’, opens with an acknowledgement of the many Spanish-themed dramas and spectacles staged in London during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With astute critical scrutiny, Heinowitz contrasts the political impact of Samuel Morton’s Columbus; or, A World Discovered with John Thelwall’s The Incas; or, The Peruvian Virgin. These two theatrical pieces about Spanish America were submitted to Covent Garden in 1792; but whereas Morton succeeded in appealing to the theatre’s then-manager Thomas Harris, Thelwall did not. After identifying how Thelwall’s ‘radicalism’ and ‘explicit anti-imperialism’ figure in his play, Heinowitz makes the extremely interesting claim that Sheridan can be seen as a successor of Thelwall’s, who, in his immensely popular Pizarro, successfully takes up the intertwined narrative of liberation overseas and dissent at home which seems to have kept The Incas offstage. Throughout, Heinowitz strikes a careful balance between the historical and literary contexts that inform her argument. In the subsection ‘Justifying Revolution’, for example, she shows how the Peruvian patriot Juan Pablo Viscardo y Guzman took advantage of the French Revolution debate in order to enlist British support for the Spanish American colonies’ revolt against Spain.

Viscardo’s clever rhetoric was ‘as effective in the hands of Tories as in those of liberal Whigs’ (78). Heinowitz’s articulate analysis of Creole patriotism in 1790s Britain usefully illuminates her subsequent, more detailed discussion of Sheridan’s rhetorical strategies in Pizarro. This section of the chapter is especially valuable for its nuanced consideration of how the play’s accusations of treachery might approximate the character of Alonzo to Arthur O’Connor, leader of the United Irishmen. Heinowitz thus posits fascinating links between British and Spanish American nationalist hopes, in a chapter that successfully illustrates how Thelwall, Viscardo and Sheridan helped strengthen the perceived similarities between Britain and Spanish America explored in her opening analysis of Helen Maria Williams’ Peru and other sentimental poems.

In line with the extensive body of criticism (both modern and contemporary) on Pizarro, Heinowitz draws attention to the ways in which Sheridan took advantage of the dramatic medium to recycle his parliamentary speeches against Warren Hastings, the Governor General of India. Heinowitz thus foregrounds the more geographically expansive concerns about empire which undoubtedly affected eighteenth-century responses to British relations with Spanish America, and identifies Hastings’ acquittal in 1795 as one of the severe political disappointments experienced by the first generation Romantic writers. Her third chapter, which focuses on Southey’s Madoc, discusses the similarities between the poet’s schemes for Pantisocracy and the Peruvian ‘isocratic system’ (99). Taking the lead offered by James McKusick and Carol Bolton in their studies of Romantic colonialism, Heinowitz highlights the problematic overlap between Southey’s and Coleridge’s idyllic scheme and patterns of colonial expansionism. The chapter shows that despite Southey’s investment in a course of action defined by Welsh-Indian collaboration, this ‘good model’ of British colonialism could all too easily slip into unwanted similarities between the imperial policies of sixteenth-century Spain and contemporary Britain. Employing Said’s ‘median category’ and Homi Bhabha’s Nation and Narration to good effect, Heinowitz explains how ‘Madoc’s hybridity’ entailed a dangerous loss of ‘stable, authoritative European identity’ (114). She is, nevertheless, careful to maintain that Madoc retains its ideological coherence, since ‘[o]nly by themselves becoming imperial victims can the Welsh expiate their colonial violence’ (120). It would be interesting, however, to see the author engage more comprehensively with Southey’s various re-workings of his epic; taking up the opportunity, perhaps, to discuss how her interpretation of the poem in relation to ‘British intervention in America as a war of reconquest’ (120) would, in 1812, have been refigured by the Peninsular War—a modern reconquista in its own right.

Heinowitz’s recognition of the centrality of the Peninsular War to British schemes for Spanish America is the focus of Chapter Four, where the preponderance of forceful adverbs (such as ‘suddenly’ and ‘rapidly’) in the author’s opening remarks point to Napoleon’s invasion of Spain as a crucial turning point in British-Spanish American history. Hemans’ England and Spain (1808) and Walter Scott’s Vision of Don Roderick (1811) are accordingly read as narratives that support the Anglo-Spanish military alliance by commemorating a new spirit of ‘identification’, rather than enmity, with Spain itself. The pressure this placed on Britain’s political support for Spanish American independence is admirably delineated, with Heinowitz making particularly effective use of the figure of Columbus as productively representative of both Spain and Spanish America. Her geographically specific argument reads particularly well in relation to Fiona Robertson’s excellent article on ‘British Columbiads’ as a literary phenomenon importantly linked to American history, and usefully suggests how Heinowitz’s study contributes to existing work in the field. 

The book’s penultimate chapter examines Byron’s letters and 1823 poems The Age of Bronze and The Island in order to grasp the implications of his abandoned project of emigration to Venezuela. Chapter Five is, for me, the real crowning point of this compelling and original study. Heinowitz starts by offering a historical outline of Spain’s weakening hold over its American colonies in the wake of the Bourbon restoration, Byron’s philhellenism, and the common associations made between the movements for independence in Spanish America and Greece. She then signals an independent departure from the existing literature on Byron and Greece in order to explore his pointed decision not to travel to Spanish America (a decision which she persuasively identifies with the poet’s own financial and class insecurities, as much as larger historical and cultural factors).

If, in the 1810s, British speculation in Spanish America was booming, by the early 1820s it had reached its peak. The final chapter of this book, ‘The Spanish American Bubble and Britain’s Crisis of Informal Empire, 1822–6’, provides a fascinating account of the fables and myths created to dazzle and seduce Britons into investing in Spanish American stocks and bonds. Making an astute decision to return to Hemans and Southey, Heinowitz provides sensitive readings of The Forest Sanctuary and The Tale of Paraguay (both 1825) as poems that register the sense of disillusionment and fear associated with a Spanish American landscape, for which, in spite of the plethora of subject-specific publications, investors knew dangerously little. In response to this, Heinowitz successfully pinpoints the absences, negations, and general obscurity which define both Hemans’ and Southey’s long poems. Arguing that Southey’s Taleunmakes the Enlightenment vision of benevolent colonialism’ (193), and that Hemans’ poem offers not so much the hope of renewal with death, but a representation of the perceived ‘failure of culture’ (195), Heinowitz convincingly charts how the 1820s saw a sense of repulsion replace the earlier attraction to an informal British empire in Spanish America. She closes her argument, therefore, by identifying yet another important turning point in British-Spanish American relations, which, in the wake of failed liberal economic schemes, forged new parallels between British and Spanish imperialists (overwriting the earlier tendency to identify with the Spanish Americans). The point is beautifully clinched by Heinowitz’s discovery of a letter to the Morning Chronicle dated January 1826, in which one failed investor in Peruvian bonds signs himself ‘Pizarro’—a ‘British ‘Pizarro’’ (209) who, for Heinowitz, emblematizes how the devastation caused by the bursting of the financial bubble collapsed the distinctions (always tentative) which earlier writers had attempted to impress upon informal and formal imperialism.

Heinowitz’s engaging prose style contributes significantly to this book’s appeal. There are one or two instances of vagueness, such as her casual reference to an ‘unnamed’ British daily (52) which sits uncomfortably with her claim that the paper in question played a key role in the print war surrounding the Amaru revolt. But this is an exception to the richness of detail that informs both her main argument and the chapter endnotes. In fact, it is fair to say that Heinowitz’s comprehensive endnotes, which both complement and significantly supplement her main argument, offer rewarding reading in their own right. The author’s ability to draw upon the interconnectedness of Romantic-period history, literature, and politics makes Spanish America and British Romanticism an interdisciplinary work of note, interesting to a range of readers, and especially so in the 200th anniversary (5 July 2011) of Venezuela’s declaration of independence. It is certainly a valuable addition to the ‘Edinburgh Studies in Transatlantic Literatures’ series, whose editors’ declared aim is to ‘explore the multiple way in which ideas, texts, objects and bodies travel across spatial and temporal borders, generating powerful forms of contrast and affinity’. Heinowitz’s monograph achieves that goal most impressively, by delineating an intriguing narrative of Romantic Britain’s complex responses to Spanish America.  


 © Symbiosis, 2011