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Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting

Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting

by Beth Fowkes Tobin

ISBN: 9780822323389

Publisher Duke University Press Books

Published in Arts & Photography/Painting, History/World

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Sample Chapter


CHAPTER 1

Bringing the Empire Home


THE BLACK SERVANT IN DOMESTIC PORTRAITURE

I am the sugar in the bottom of the English cup of tea. STUART HALL, "Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities"

Several eighteenth-century portraits and conversation pieces contain the figure of the black servant. Most frequently a boy or an adolescent male, the servant is dressed in livery and wears either a turban or a skullcap. Both head coverings are exotic and allude to the Turkish, Moslem, and Mughal cultures of the Levant, northern Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. This conflation of Arabic, African, and Indian origins is typical of many eighteenth-century representations of black servants. What seems to matter is not that these servants are African, Muslim, or Indian, but that they are exotic, that they originate in tropical, fertile, and remote lands. Their status as exotics is reinforced by the frequency with which they are associated in prints and paintings with the consumption of foreign luxury goods such as sugar, tea, tobacco, and coffee, all commodities associated with the dark others of the world. In Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress (1732), for instance, the liveried, turbaned black child is carrying a pot of hot water, and the overturned table is spilling tea cups and tea accessories onto the floor (Fig. 1). In the conversation piece portraying Elihu Yale and his friends (1708), a black boy, also liveried and turbaned, is serving the four tobacco-smoking gentlemen (Fig. 2). The black figure exoticizes the activities of these English subjects, calling attention to the foreignness of their activities.

Closely associated with the consumption of exotic commodities, the figure of the black servant in domestic portraiture is emblematic of overseas trade and colonialism. As David Dabydeen argues, images of Africans and African Caribbeans were included in portraits of British aristocratic men and women as a way to indicate the colonial connections of these wealthy and powerful people. Images of black people were also placed on signs, advertisements, and business cards of sugar and tobacco merchants; in this way, the black figure came to be associated with New World colonies and the production of commodities such as sugar and tobacco. As attitudes toward the consumption of exotic commodities shifted over the course of the century from intense feelings of anxiety and/or excitement to a complacent acceptance of coffee, tea, and sugar as naturally belonging to the English domestic scene, so did attitudes change toward the figure of the black servant. In the early part of the century, the black page is often portrayed as naughty or disruptive and is frequently placed in scenes that contain innuendoes of sexuality or moral laxity. However, as the century progressed, the figure of the black servant was placed in closer proximity to children and mothers, signaling the incorporation of the exotic into the everydayness of the domestic scene. In this chapter I explore the figure of the black servant as an emblem of the exotic, tracing the eventual incorporation of the exotic into domestic life, and I suggest that the black servant in eighteenth-century English painting is best understood in the context of the eighteenth-century response to Britain's mercantile and imperialist activities.


The Exotic

Frances Burney's play A Busy Day (1801) opens on a scene of confusion, with the entrance of the heroine, a rich heiress, who has just arrived in London after a long voyage from Calcutta. Her coach has overturned, her baggage is scattered, and her black servant, Mongo, is in need of assistance. Anxious about Mongo's welfare, Eliza says, "Poor Mongo! my care of you shall be trebled for the little kindness you seem likely to meet with here." Mongo, who never materializes on the stage, serves as a device, as Tara Ghoshal Wallace argues, to display Eliza's "moral superiority" to those who surround her in this London setting (2). The English servants cannot believe Eliza is in earnest when she asks them to help Mongo; they keep repeating in disbelief and disgust, "What, the Black?" Even Eliza's English maid cannot understand why Eliza lavishes so much concern on him: "after all, a Black's but a Black; and let him hurt himself never so much, it won't shew" (32-33). Mongo, "a semiotic present absence," confers on Eliza the role of responsible imperialist; her enormous wealth—£80,000—is purified of the taint of corruption and rapacity often associated with returning nabobs by the workings of her sympathetic heart and her benevolent regard for Mongo.

What is interesting about Mongo aside from his blackness and his absence is his name. As Wallace points out, Mungo was a common name for African slaves, and Burney may have had in mind Isaac Bickerstaff'sThe Padlock (1768) and his "Negro servant called Mungo" (32). The name Mongo implies that the servant is African, and yet, this servant is described by the hero of the play as "an inexperienced black servant just imported from Calcutta" as part of Eliza's legacy from her adoptive father, a rich merchant. This Mongo seems to be both Indian and African, and it does not seem to matter whether he is from Africa or India, for "a Black's but a Black," as Eliza's servant says. Mungo stands in for Britain's colonial possessions in the West and East Indies and acts as a reminder that colonies create wealth for Britons while also creating responsibilities associated with governing subject peoples and with stewardship of the colonial resources.

Wealth, like Eliza's inheritance, derived from colonial possessions and overseas trade, was regarded by many as morally suspect and as potentially destabilizing of England's social, economic, and political order. Oliver Goldsmith, for instance, in his poem "The Deserted Village" blames the devastation of the rural economy and peasant communities on the infiltration of the old society by merchants, "trade's unfeeling train," who, in Goldsmith's estimation, lack civic virtue, valuing "unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp" above all else. Angered by the "devastation" of "rural virtues," Goldsmith points the finger of blame at "Luxury." He argues that the city, with its dazzling commodities and garish entertainments, had seduced the gentry from their rural responsibilities, making room for a new class of owners associated with "trade" to take their place. The word "luxury" was associated with money generated by speculation and with the consumption of expensive and useless commodities produced by overseas trade, colonial ventures, and the slave trade, commodities such as tea, china, silk, coffee, chocolate, mahogany, ivory, and sugar. Condemning London for its corruption, materialism, and avariciousness, Goldsmith is particularly upset by the city's production of new men, who invade the countryside and pollute its rustic beauty by building ornate palaces and artificial gardens, destroying the economic and social fabric of the old agrarian society. Attacking luxury and the corroding effect of money on the morals of the nation was a favorite theme of eighteenth-century writers.

This discourse on luxury provided a useful and persuasive explanation for the social and economic changes that were occurring in the countryside: the enclosure of common property, the pauperization of the small farmer, the disenfranchisement of the laborer, and the depopulation of rural communities. Historians argue over whether Goldsmith and others were right to blame the erosion of the paternal order on the destabilizing effect of mercantile capital, yet it is clear that such formulations about the unsettling effect on the old society of new money derived from the colonies and overseas trade were commonplace in eighteenth-century art, drama, poetry, prose nonfiction, and fiction. Nabobs, or the recently returned and enriched servants of the East India Company, and their West Indian counterparts were regularly ridiculed on stage and in cartoons. The landed upper classes looked askance when ordinary men of the middle and lower classes, the sons of curates, lawyers, estate managers, and tradesmen, who had made fortunes as sugar planters in the West Indies or as factors of the East India Company, returned to England, bought country estates, and moved into their set. Sons of the upper class married the daughters of this class of nouveaux riches to help ease the pinched cash flow that plagued many landed families. This is the plot not only of Burney's A Busy Day but also of Richard Cumberland's The West Indian (1771). Both plays open with a chaotic scene depicting the bustle and commotion surrounding the arrival in London from the colonies of the wealthy children of such nabob figures. In The West Indian the heir of a sugar magnate arrives with an entourage of black servants carrying boxes, parrots, and monkeys; in A Busy Day, Eliza, the adoptive heiress of an East Indian merchant, arrives at an inn with her baggage, her black servant, and £80,000 with which to buy a husband, preferably the eldest son of a baronet, which she does succeed in doing over the course of the play. Even though Eliza and her West Indian counterpart, Belcour, make disruptive entrances and contribute to the confusion typical of comic plots of mistaken identities, both protagonists possess warmth, charm, and charitable dispositions that mitigate against the chaos they bring with them. Eliza's and Belcour's sympathetic hearts are meant to sweep away the reservations an audience might have about the origins of their wealth and to make a place for these colonial subjects in the upper tiers of British society.

The processes whereby colonial wealth, products, and peoples were absorbed into British society aroused anxiety in some late-eighteenth- century observers. However, in comparison with the earlier part of the century, such anxieties were mild, for overseas trade and colonialism had been a volatile issue in the first third of the century, provoking a range of responses from righteous condemnation to eager acceptance. With the expansion of colonial domains, the exploitation of colonial resources, and the global circulation of merchant capital, early-eighteenth-century critics and admirers of empire focused their attention on the impact of the consumption of foreign commodities on the English character and domestic economy. Some delighted in the acquisition of wondrous exotic objects—sugar, chocolate, tea, coffee, tobacco, china, and silk—while others were less enthusiastic about what they perceived as dangerous substances destructive of native English virtues. As Louis Landa, J. G. A. Pocock, Laura Brown, and David Solkin have demonstrated, the consumption of exotic luxury goods was not an ideologically neutral activity in the early eighteenth century. Some writers saw the exotic as insidious, sapping native enterprise and ingenuity and spreading the seeds of moral and economic decay; others argued that the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods was not necessarily antithetical to virtuous conduct; and still others celebrated England as the center of a global system of exchange. Pope, for instance, in the "The Rape of the Lock," registers ambivalence toward the beau monde's consumption of exotic commodities with his portrait of Belinda, who sits at her dressing table admiring not only her own image in the mirror, but the trinkets and perfumes, culled from around the globe, that are arranged on the table:

This Casket India's glowing Gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breath from yonder Box.
The Tortoise here and Elephant unite,
Transform'd to Combs, the speckled and the white.


Pope's catalogue extends from the contents of Belinda's dressing table to Hampton Court's social gatherings, where the queen "Doth sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea" (3:8) and her guests play cards, take snuff, and drink hot chocolate and coffee. The sensory language that Pope uses to describe Belinda, her attendants, and her activities conveys the seductive beauty of the exotic, and yet Pope registers with his ironic linking of oppositions—"stain her honor or her new brocade" (2:107)—his concern that the social rituals of the beau monde are at best merely beautiful and at worst empty, trivial, even immoral.

Less ambivalent about the consumption of luxury goods, Pope's contemporaries Joseph Addison and Richard Steele praised the new merchant class for their efforts in transforming London into the center of global exchange. Addison wrote in The Spectator that the overseas merchant was a "Citizen of the World" and that London was "a kind ofEmporium for the whole Earth":

Our Ships are laden with the Harvest of every Climate: Our Tables are stored with Spices, and Oils, and Wines: Our Rooms are filled with Pyramids of China, and adorned with the Workmanship of Japan: Our Morning's-Draught comes to us from the remotest Corners of the Earth: We repair our Bodies by the Drugs of America, and repose our selves under Indian Canopies. My Friend Sir Andrew calls the Vineyards ofFrance our Gardens: the Spice-Islands our Hot-Beds; the Persians our Silk-weavers, and the Chinese our Potters. Nature indeed furnishes us with bare Necessaries of Life, but Traffick gives us a great Variety of what is Useful, and at the same time supplies us with every thing that is Convenient and Ornamental.


Addison and Steele assured their audiences that "there are not more useful Members in a Commonwealth than Merchants"; as Mr. Sealand says in Steele's The Conscious Lovers (1722), "we merchants are a species of gentry that have grown into the world this last century, and are as honorable, and almost as useful, as you landed folks." An even more aggressive promoter of the idea that merchants were useful, nay exemplary, citizens of the nation was George Lillo in his tragedy The London Merchant (1731). The great merchant Thorowgood, whose generosity and hospitality rivals that of the aristocracy, remarks that "honest merchants" such as himself "contribute to the safety of their country." Echoing Addison's panegyric on the merchant who knits "Mankind together in mutual Intercourse of Good Offices," Thorowgood instructs his apprentices in the "science" of trade. It is not "merely ... a means of getting wealth," he says; "it is founded on reason and the nature of things": "I have observed those countries where trade is promoted and encouraged do not make discoveries to destroy, but to improve, mankind; by love and friendship to tame the fierce and polish the most savage; to teach them the advantages of honest traffic by taking from them, with their own consent, their useless superfluities, and giving back to them in return what, from their ignorance in manual arts, their situation, or some other accident, they stand in need of."

While Addison, Steele, and Lillo praised mercantile capitalism, other writers, such as Jonathan Swift, were highly suspicious of England's consumption of foreign luxury items. Swift's hostility to the importation of luxury goods—"those detestable Extravagancies of ... Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, China-ware"—emerges in Gulliver's description of the Yahoo (English) economy. Gulliver explains to his Houyhnhnm master that "this whole Globe of Earth must be at least three Times gone round, before one of our better Female Yahoos could get her Breakfast, or a Cup to put it in. ... In order to feed the Luxury and Intemperance of the Males, and the Vanity of the Females, we sent away the greatest Part of our necessary Things to other Countries, from whence in Return we brought the Materials of Diseases, Folly, and Vice, to spend among ourselves." The link between imported luxury goods and moral decay is made explicit in Mandeville's controversial The Fable of the Bees (1714) and its lengthy explication of his thesis that prosperity is contingent upon vice:

Luxury
Employ'd a Million of the Poor,
And odious Pride a Million more.
Envy it self, and Vanity
Were Ministers of Industry;
Their darling Folly, Fickleness
In Diet, Furniture, and Dress,
That strange ridic'lous Vice, was made
The very Wheel, that turn'd the Trade.

(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting" by Beth Fowkes Tobin. Copyright © 2013 by Beth Fowkes Tobin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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