Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Imperialism is one of the most defining features of the British political landscape. By the beginning of the 20th century the British Empire had become the most expansive and powerful global political force. In the course of this rise Britain profited from a number of imperialist relationships with colonies such as India, America, and Jamaica. These relationships, which provided vast amounts of economic wealth to the mother country, often utilized theories of racial superiority and other strategies to justify the exploitation of colonized societies. The Victorian Web provides an excellent overview about the economic and political causes and effect of empire (http://www.victorianweb.org/history/empire/Empire.html). The spoils of imperialism have been present in British society throughout the centuries in the form of raw goods, human cargo, and political prestige. Authors throughout the time of empire have written about the moral costs and benefits of Britain’s role as a world power. This post will explore the progression of thought from the time of Milton and Swift all the way until Kipling and Yeats as they write through the First World War. The progression should not be understood as a linear one where a single idea is progressed and developed over time. It is more appropriate to understand this project as an investigation of how imperialism plays out in every age and how the political understandings of the day and leanings of the author impact the texts that we analyze.
One of the earliest texts that we read that dealt with issues of empire and imperialism was Paradise Lost.  In her post Mary Beth brought up the framing of Satan by the author as a sympathetic character. This strange point is one that suggests the author’s rejection of absolute rule. Unsurprisingly, John Milton did in fact support Cromwell’s Republic rather than the Royalists during the Glorious Revolution (http://lion.chadwyck.com). While this sympathy for the
A more direct criticism of imperialism is found in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. This book presents itself as a travel narrative during a time that is ripe with exploration and the establishment of exploitative trade routes and relationships throughout the Atlantic World. Though the narrator of the book does in the end rule out colonizing any of the countries that he comes across for various reasons he does find some merit in a hierarchy system where one group of people is subject to another. The narrator is repulsed by the Yahoos he finds in the country of the Houyhnhnms and in favor of their subjugation. Ironically, the one group in the novel who Gulliver finds fit to totally disregard is actually the one of which he is a part. His condition as “a miserable Yahoo” disqualified him from life among the Houyhnhnms. This revelation suggests from an anti-imperialist reading that the peoples subjugated by the British government and other imperialist forces are most similar than different from the people who they exploit. In the closing of the book the narrator urges the British government to stay away from all his explored lands in order to preserve the best interests of all. During this section, Swift employs the sardonic wit for which he is famous to critique the nature of British colonialism. That passage reads as follows:

For instance, a crew of pirates are driven by a storm they know not whither; at length a boy discovers land from the topmast; they go on shore to rob and plunder, they see a harmless people, are entertained with kindness; they give the country a new name; they take formal possession of it for their king; they set up a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial; they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more, by force, for a sample; return home, and get their pardon.  Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title by divine right.  Ships are sent with the first opportunity; the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!
Directly following this passage the narrator (sarcastically) exclaims that the previous description “does by no means affect the British nation.”  This section in particular echoes the style of Swift’s masterwork, A Modest Proposal, by its thinly veiled shot at the greed and exploitation of the British. The relationship of Gulliver to the Yahoos is similar to Swift’s “contempt” for the Irish population (http://www.bartleby.com/219/0412.html). The English imperialism in Ireland was, for Swift, the most pressing example of a time where England should retreat to itself and not look to rule another land, for the good of justice to the subjugated as well as for the good of England.
            During the Romantic Period the conversation about the ethics of imperialism in literature became more heated. This was due in large part to the explosion of the slave trade and the subsequent abolitionist movement. Samuel Coleridge’s “Ancyent Marinere” and Southey’s “The Sailor who served in the Slave Trade” directly discuss the moral implications of imperialism in general and slavery in particular. Coleridge writes from a religious context to expose the sin of slavery and the slave trade. Russell Hiller writes that, “The Rime treats the Albatross and the Mariner as Jesus figures” (Hiller). Such a reading suggests specifically that the last stanza of Part I, which ends with the “I shot the Albatross”, is a moment in which the sailor becomes a Judas figure who denies the wisdom of the Jesus figure (Albatross) and betrays the will of moral right.

Kathryn and Peter’s presentation on the Slave Trade and Coleridge also clearly established through research about his nonfiction writings what his stance on the issue of slavery was. With his antislavery stance well established it is clearly plausible that he use his poetry as tool to the same political ends.

This image that was also used in the presentation is one that directly ties the poem to slavery. The image of bodies being thrown overboard is an abundantly common image in discussion of the Middle Passage and even shows up in Southey’s poem with the woman. This picture’s image of the female nightmare of death shows up in the 11th stanza of part III of Coleridge’s piece Her lips are red, her looks are free, “Her locks are yellow as gold:/Her skin as is white as leprosy,/And she is far liker Death than he;/Her flesh makes the still air cold.” The reaching of the victims to the mariner suggests to me the same argument that Coleridge made in his appeals against slavery that the British should operate from a position of strength to exercise mercy upon the weaker races.

            Southey’s piece also appeals to religion. Its appeal is less supernatural and more textually obvious. This piece actually takes place as a confession from a sailor to a priest. The sailor repeats the word “cursed” three times during his recounting of the scene on the ship. He suggests that the spoils of imperialism, in this case slaves, are corrupting forces that breed evil in men. He talks about the Devil’s presence on the ship in lines 38-40 when he writes that, “The Wicked One is there;/From place to place, from rope to rope,/He follows every where.” Southey’s emphasis on the guilty nature of those who participate in imperialism is apparent when the narrator laments “Would that the sea had swallow'd me/When I was innocent!” (63-64).

            This emblematic image of the packing in a British slave ship is among the most famous scenes we have to illustrate the trade. This image brings to life the abhorrent conditions discussed by Coleridge and Southey. Such a condition as the tight packed cargo space shown in the model gives an explanation of how unbearable the conditions were for Southey’s “hundred negro slaves” and how it makes sense for the disobedience of the poor woman who is killed (66).

            In the modern era the question of imperialism took a decidedly different turn. Through a number of economic motivations and technological innovations the British Empire was able to expand rapidly from 1870 to 1900 (http://www.victorianweb.org/history/empire/ljb2.html). With that expansion came forth a generation of writers who were deeply entrenched in the lifestyle of imperialism and who found themselves at a crossroad of history in WWI.
            Kipling stands out specifically because he was born and spent much of his life in colonized lands and not England. Kipling also stands as one of the lone imperialist in our course of study. As a result of this stance, a scholar has argued that Kipling’s work remain controversial because those who don’t share his view will experience a  “feeling of tension” at the prospect of Kipling “dragging us into a position which isn't ours” (Lackey).
Though Kipling does create a difficult context for the present-day reader to read his material by endorsing imperialism and racist ideology so heartily there is a distinction to be made between his poems that directly support imperialism and his poems that chronicle the harshness of military service. Despite that distinction I still think that his military poems are in many ways only veiled supports of imperialism. In his poem “Tommy” Kipling uses a first-person narrative to speak out against the “makin' mock o' uniforms” that he felt was commonplace in English society. This stance, I think, speaks to his imperialist tendencies because presumably the soldiers are most visible and active means by which British superiority is shown across the world, particularly in the colonies of the Empire. Kipling’s portrayal of a late nineteenth century soldier (not WWI because the “redcoat” was not worn then) shows the soldier as a knight who has fallen from grace.
Imperialism as a theme is prevalent in many other pieces of literature. From the sad cycnicism of Yeats’ realization that “the center cannot hold” to Doyle’s use of the KKK as a consequence of British greed in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This post simply displays three different manifestations of imperialism in British history (early imperialism with the Irish and others, slavery, and colonialism) and how the writers of those times responded.

Hillier, Russell M.: Coleridge's Dilemma and the Method of 'Sacred Sympathy': Atonement as Problem and Solution in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Papers on Language & Literature: a quarterly journal for scholars and critics of language and literature (Southern Illinois Univ., Edwardsville) (45:1) [Winter 2009] , p.8-36.

Lackey, Michael (ed.).: Kipling's Poems: lecture by E. M. Forster.
Journal of Modern Literature (Foundation for Modern Literature, Bloomington, IN) (30:3) [Spring 2007] , p.12-30.

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