How the art and literature of the British Empire reflected its dominion over the resources of tropical colonies.
2004 | 280 pages | Cloth $69.95
Literature | Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Introduction: Troping the Tropics and Aestheticizing Labor
1. Tropical Bounty, Local Knowledge, and the Imperial Georgic
2. Provisional Economies: Slave Gardens in the Writings of British Sojourners
3. Land, Labor, and the English Garden Conversation Piece in India
4. Picturesque Ruins, Decaying Empires, and British Imperial Character in Hodges's Travels in India
5. Seeing, Writing, and Revision: Natural History Discourse and Captain Cook's A Voyage towards the South Pole, and Round the World
6. Domesticating the Tropics: Tropical Flowers, Botanical Books, and the Culture of Collecting
Epilogue: Decolonizing Garden History
Troping the Tropics and Aestheticizing Labor
[W]e should not imagine that the world presents us with a legible face, leaving us merely to decipher it; it does not work hand in glove with what we already know; there is no prediscursive fate disposing the word in our favour. We must conceive discourse as a violence that we do to things, or, at all events, as a practice we impose upon them. . . ."—Michel Foucault, "The Discourse of Language"James Thomson's "Rule, Britannnia!" (1740) celebrates British naval power which ensured the expansion and dominance of British commerce across the globe. As a measure of British rule, the tropics are invoked as a site to be exploited by and harnessed to British commercial forces:
I see thy Commerce, Britain, grasp the world:The warm and fecund regions of the world are Britain's obedient servants, whose tributes are their natural riches. What constitutes these tributes (aside from the ubiquitous "spices") is made more explicit in his much longer poem, The Seasons, which catalogs the "dreadful beauty" and "barbarous wealth" (lines 643-4) found in the tropics. These regions, blessed and cursed with "returning suns and double seasons" (line 645), produce not only shining metals and gems, but also exotic fruits, flowers, plants, and animals. Suvir Kaul explains in his reading of The Seasons that though the sun is the "source of tropical abundance," it also "turns out to be a tyrannical and morally corrupting force there." With this ambivalent portrait of the sun's powers, Thomson conveys the excitement as well as the anxiety generated by Britain's assumption of imperial authority over the globe's natural resources. As this poem implies, mastery of tropical nature, and especially its potential for agricultural productivity, became key concepts in the formation of British imperial identity. This book is about how the tropics, as a region and as an idea, became central to the way in which Britons imagined their role in the world. I take as my subject the representation of tropical nature and tropical landscapes in a variety of media, from travel writing to botanical treatises and from family portraits to topographical illustrations, as a way to investigate how these modes of representation constructed the tropics as simultaneously paradisaical and in need of British intervention and management.
All nations serve thee; every foreign flood
Subjected, pays his tribute to the Thames.
Thither the golden South obedient pours
His sunny treasures: thither the soft East
Her spices, delicacies, gentle gifts . . .
Bounty and the Tropics
I begin with Captain James Cook's depiction of tropical landscapes in the South Pacific. What is remarkable about Cook is the attention he paid to Pacific Islanders' agricultural practices. As a writer, Cook did not do what most of his contemporaries did when they wrote about tropical nature. He did not recur to pastoral, georgic, or edenic tropes, nor did he aestheticize the worked landscape, transforming it into an object for visual consumption. Nor did Cook use what he had observed as a platform to construct theories about human difference and the civilizing process. Nor did he make extracts from his observations of tropical nature to slot into existing classifying schemas. As James Boswell said of Cook after having met him in 1776, he "was a plain, sensible man with an uncommon attention to veracity" and who "did not try to make theories out of what he had seen." Because Cook's writings about tropical landscapes eschew his contemporaries' rhetorical strategies of troping the tropics, aestheticizing labor, and decontextualizing plant life, his descriptions of Pacific gardens are a good place from which to explore the way in which writers and artists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries depict the tropics.
In August 1774, Captain James Cook in the second year of his second circumnavigation, guided his ship, the Resolution, to Vanuatu, or as Cook called this group of islands, the New Hebrides. He, along with his team of artists and scientists, disembarked to explore the island and take stock of the plants, animals, and people. He wrote the following about the island of Tanna in his journal:
Here and there we met with a house, some few people and plantations, of these latter we found in different states; some of long standing, others lately clear'd and some only clearing and before any thing was planted. The clearing a peice of ground for a plantation seem'd to me to be a work of much labour, considering the tools they have to work with, which are of the same kind but much inferior to those at the Society Isles. Their methods is however judicious and as expeditious as it can well be. They lop off the small branches of the trees, dig under the roots and there burn the branches or small shrubs and plants which they root up and by this means destroy both root and branch of every thing.Such a matter-of-fact statement about how Vanuatuans cleared their land for planting appears to contain nothing of special import to make Cook's statement noteworthy. And yet, Cook's careful observation of how the Vanuatuans worked their land is remarkable because he is one of the few eighteenth-century European travelers to acknowledge the labor, skill, and knowledge that Pacific Islanders employed when practicing tropical agriculture.
Cook also expressed admiration for the way in which taro was cultivated in New Caledonia, a much drier climate than Tonga or Vanuatu. Noting that one village had "about it a good deal of cultivated land, regularly laid out in Plantations, planted and planting, with Taro or eddy roots, yams, Sugar Cane and Plantains," Cook provides a detailed description of the methods used to plant and water taro.
They have two methods of planting these roots, some are planted in square or oblong plantations which lie perfectly horizontal and sunk below the common level of the adjacent lands, so that they can let in as much Water upon them as they please or is necessary; I have generally seen them covered two or three inches deep, but I do not know that this is always necessary. Others are planted in ridges about 3 or 4 feet broad and 2 or 21/2 high, on the middle or top of the ridge is a narrow gutter in and along which is conveyed, as above described, a little rill which waters the roots planted in the ridge of each side of it . . . .The attention that Cook gave to how Pacific Islanders grew the food—taro, yams, plantains, and breadfruit— that these British voyagers depended upon for sustenance is unique amongst those who traveled with him on his three voyages. Even those charged with the duties of naturalist and botanist did not attend to the details of Pacific Islanders' agricultural practices and horticultural techniques the way that Cook did. For instance, surprisingly indifferent to Pacific Island agronomy was Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Cook on the first circumnavigation and was given permission by the Admiralty to oversee the collection and classification of new plant life. An avid amateur naturalist rather than a professional botanist, Banks financed much of this part of the expedition, employing a professional taxonomist, Daniel Solander, and botanical illustrator, Sydney Parkinson. Banks wrote of the culture of breadfruit trees in Tahiti:
In the article of food these happy people may almost be said to be exempt from the curse of our forefather; scarcely can it be said that they earn their bread with the sweat of their brow when their cheifest sustenance Bread fruit is procurd with no more trouble than that of climbing a tree and pulling it down. Not that the trees grow here spontaneously but if a man should in the course of his life time plant 10 such trees, which if well done might take the labour of an hour of thereabouts, he would as completely fulfull his duty to his own as well as future generations as we natives of less temperate climates can do by toiling in the cold of winter to sew and in the heat of summer to reap the annual produce of our soil, which once gathered into the barn must be again resowd and re-reapd as often as the Colds of winter or the heats of Summer return to make such labour disagreeable. O fortunati nimium sua si bona norint may most truly be applied to these people; benevolent nature has not only supplyd them with nescessaries but with abundance of superfluities.Though in the above passage Banks quotes Virgil's Georgics, a poem about the necessity of hard labor in husbandry and agriculture, his sentiments belong to the pastoral vision and the belief that Nature, at least in these tropical zones, is bountiful. According to this myth, those who dwell in the tropics have nothing more to do than to gather Nature's bounty. Banks was convinced that the easy living he thought he observed in Tahiti was due to the abundance of breadfruit. "Idleness the father of Love reigns here in almost unmolested ease, while we inhabitants of a changeable climate are obliged to Plow, Sow, Harrow, Reap, Thrash, Grind, Knead, and Bake our daily bread. . . These happy people who[se] bread depend not on an annual but a perennial plant [breadfruit] have but to climb up and gather it ready for baking from a tree." Banks' belief that breadfruit could sustain a large population without requiring labor to produce that food source resulted in one of his earliest and most famous plant transfer schemes, involving Captain Bligh, the ship Bounty, and breadfruit seedlings, which ended up being thrown overboard. The mutiny on the Bounty thwarted Bligh's first attempt to bring breadfruit to the Caribbean to feed enslaved Africans laboring on sugar plantations, slaves, who were starving by the thousands due to the interruption in the flow of foodstuffs from the thirteen colonies during the American Revolution. But Bligh returned to Tahiti and on his second attempt was successful in putting Banks's plan into action. Banks believed that breadfruit could help maintain slave populations as he thought that the large populations of the "Society Islands" were due, in part, to breadfruit. Banks did not seem to realize that the plentiful food supplies of Tahiti were the product of careful management of resources by skilled agriculturalists. It may seem ironic that Banks, who thought of himself a naturalist, was oblivious to the skill and labor that went into the making of the tropical landscape. Banks' inability to see labor in a landscape that looked lush and green can be explained, in part, by the European belief that tropical landscapes, due to warmth and moisture, are naturally bountiful.
Even the astute naturalist Georg Forster, who accompanied Cook on the second circumnavigation, fails in his travel narrative to describe as fully as Cook the agricultural techniques employed by Pacific Islanders. Comparing Cook's description of the taro irrigation system in New Caledonia with Forster's, we find that Cook's are more detailed. Forster notes that the "coco-palms, destitute of fruit, some sugar-canes, bananas, and eddoes" were "supplied with water by several little trenches. Some of the eddoes were actually set under water, in the same manner as is customary throughout the South Sea islands." As we can see from this passage, Forster does indeed note native agricultural practices; however, his description lacks Cook's eye for detail and his appreciation for the islanders' elaborate method of taro irrigation. Perhaps Forster was so heavily invested in current protoanthropological theories about hierarchies of civilization and their relation to agriculture that he underestimated the sophistication of the irrigation systems that Pacific Islanders constructed to water their taro gardens. Cook, on the other hand, is generous with his admiration for the ingenuity displayed in these "little rills":
The Taro plantations were prettily watered by little rills continually supplied from the Main Channel, where the Water was conducted by art from a River at the foot of the Mountains. . . . [T]hese plantations are so judiciously laid out that the same stream waters several ridges. These ridges are sometimes the divisions to the horizontal plantations, when this method is used, which is for the most part observed, when a Path way or something of that sort is not necessary, not an inch of ground is lost.In describing the elaborate irrigation systems of New Caledonia as "judiciously laid out," Cook acknowledges native knowledge and agricultural expertise.
To be fair to Forster's skills as a naturalist, it is important to note that Forster does indeed notice native horticultural practices and the climatic conditions under which native agriculture is conducted. Forster is consistently much more perceptive about native horticultural practices than the other "gentlemen" on this or the other voyages. Forster recognizes that the tropical climate does not ensure agricultural bounty since pests and weeds are constant threats to food-producing plants in warm and wet regions. Forster writes: "The excellence of the soil, instead of being an advantage to cultivation in its infant state, is rather of disservice; as all kinds of wild trees, bushes and weeds, are with the greatest difficulty rooted out, and propagate with luxuriance, either from seeds, or from the roots. Cultivated vegetables, being of a more weakly and delicate nature, are easily oppressed and suffocated by the indigenous wild tribes, till repeated labours succeed at last to bring them to a flourishing state" (539). Not only does Forster recognize the difficulties inherent to farming in tropical climates, he, like Cook, is struck with the infertility of New Caledonia: "it was plain they had barely enough for their own subsistence. The soil of New Caledonia is indeed very unfit for agriculture, and poorly rewards the labours which the natives bestow upon it" (558). Unlike Banks, who assumed that tropical climates were naturally abundant, Forster recognized the difficulties of growing food-producing plants in the tropics. And yet, Forster was not interested in learning Pacific Islanders' agricultural methods for the sake of knowing this information. Instead, their practices became evidence to support his ideas about climate as the origin of human variation. Forster's interest in Pacific gardens extends only so far as his observations would fit into his (and his father's) stagist notions of human evolution.
In addition to using what he saw in the Pacific to help construct theories to explain the problem of human variety, Forster also used tropical landscape as a source of romantic inspiration and aesthetic appreciation. Cook and Forster witnessed the same method of clearing land on Tanna, "a work of much labor" in Cook's description. Forster, in contrast, dwells on himself and the feelings he experienced as he viewed "rich plain" and "vast number of fertile hills" (533). Though he begins his description by noting that "I frequently saw the natives employed in cutting down trees, or pruning them, or digging up the ground with a branch of a tree," his imagination is caught when he hears "a man singing at his work" (532); his narrative quickly shifts tonal register as it moves into a romantic appreciation of this "rich plain" (533).
Those who are capable of being delighted with the beauties of nature, which deck the globe for the gratification of man, may conceive the pleasure which is derived from every little object, trifling in itself, but important in the moment when the heart is expanded, and when a kind of blissful trance opens a higher and purer sphere of enjoyment. Then we behold with rapture the dark colour of lands fresh prepared for culture, the uniform verdure of meadows, the various tints upon the foliage of different trees, and the infinite varieties in the abundance, form, and size of the leaves. Here these varieties appeared in all their perfection, and the different exposure of the trees to the sun added to the magnificence of the view. . . . The numerous smokes which ascended from every grove on the hill, revived the pleasing impressions of domestic life; nay my thoughts naturally turned upon friendship and national felicity, when I beheld large fields of plantanes all round me, which, loaded with golden clusters of fruit, seemed to be justly chosen the emblems of peace and affluence. The cheerful voice of the labouring husbandman resounded very opportunely to complete this idea. (533)In Forster's prose, Tanna's gardens become a pleasing prospect, echoing the aestheticizing tropes of harmonized variety and happy husbandmen that frequently structure English georgic poetry. It is a prospect inflected with a romantic sensibility, which transforms beautiful objects into emblems of transcendental feeling. "The mind at rest, and lulled by this train of pleasing ideas, indulged a few fallacious reflections, which encreased its happiness at that instant by representing mankind in a favourable light" (534). New Caledonia and Tanna, respectively, become in Forster's journal an opportunity to ruminate on the relationship between agriculture and civilization and to express lofty ideals about intercultural exchange.
Cook's attention to the agricultural practices of Tanna (Vanuatu) and New Caledonia is not only more acute than that of his fellow travelers, it is also typical of his ongoing concern with gardens and gardening in the South Pacific. Though one might not expect a mariner to be so interested in agriculture, Cook himself planted English gardens in New Zealand, gave out seeds for turnips, parsnips, and carrots in Tonga, and tried to stock New Caledonia with pigs. In May 1773, he notes in his journal that "My Self with a party of Men employed digging up ground on Long Island which we planted with Several sorts of garden seeds," and "This day I employ'd in clearing and digging up the ground on Motuara and planting it with Wheat, Pease, and other pulse carrots Parsnips and Strawberries." Maritime historians, who have noticed Cook's enthusiasm for planting gardens in the Pacific, have explained this behavior as altruistic and pragmatic, which are, in fact, the explanations that Cook gave in his journals. "We meant to serve," he says of his planting of gardens in New Zealand, and of the seeds he gave to Tongans, he writes: "I probably have added to their stock of Vegetables by leaving with them an assortment of garden seeds and pulses." He sees this act of plant transfer as benevolent, giving to Pacific Islanders such plants as carrots and turnips, which Europeans have found beneficial. In addition, these gardens were also meant to provide needed nutrition for British mariners, who tended to be dependent on islanders' generosity (and often nonexistent surpluses) to survive the years at sea. In The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, Gananath Obeyesekere counters these interpretations which stress Cook's humanitarian motives by arguing that Cook's planting of gardens is driven by an imperialist and expansionist agenda and a Eurocentric dogma that made European-style cultivation the key to "civilizing" process. The eighteenth-century impulse to conflate English gardens with civilization does indeed haunt Cook's proceedings, but it does not explain Cook's intense interest in how Pacific Islanders grew food-producing plants. The Eurocentric and imperialistic motives that Obeyesekere ascribes to Cook do not allow for Cook's appreciation of native practices and knowledge traditions concerning agriculture. Cook's admiration for the "little rills" so judiciously laid out does not fit into Obeyesekere's paradigm of Cook as an imperialist bent on bringing English values and customs to benighted "savages."
I believe that Cook's enthusiasm for planting gardens on various Pacific islands can be explained, in part, by his background. While Cook was growing up, his father had been an agricultural day laborer, who eventually rose into the ranks of farm management as an overseer of the local squire's estate. Cook's ability to see the effects of labor in a landscape, even landscapes of coconut groves and taro patches, can be attributed to his having first-hand knowledge of what was involved in the growing of food-producing plants. That he was able to see that agricultural laborers possessed knowledge and skill in their production of food-producing plants can also be attributed to Cook's limited formal education. With only a few years in a country school, Cook acquired, as an apprentice, the sophisticated skills he needed in mathematics and geography to become the master mariner and navigator that he was. The education that Cook received was, therefore, artisanal, and was not derived from a Latin-driven and classics-based curriculum, which was received by college-educated gentleman, nor was it informed by curriculum based in natural philosophy and political economy that was offered by dissenting schools. While it is impossible to know for certain why Cook took such an interest in South Pacific gardens, his lack of a gentleman's polite education may have freed him from serious misconceptions, such as those entertained by Banks, about the edenic nature of the tropics. Cook is unique among his peers in possessing a clarity of vision and understanding when it came to seeing who planted what and how in the Pacific region.
In calling Cook a remarkable observer, I do not mean to suggest that he, unlike the well-educated "gentlemen" who accompanied him, was able to step outside rhetorical conventions and mystifying discourses to see unmediated reality. Rather, I am suggesting that his thinking operated within a different discursive frame, which I will call (in keeping with Marx) "artisanal," a term used by historians of science to distinguish this form of knowing that is embedded in praxis from polite science, which became the dominant scientific mode under Banks's decades-long presidency of the Royal Society. Artisanal science can be thought of as a remnant of pre-Enlightenment engagement with the physical world, based on older systems of knowledge, such as the guild system where expertise is based on praxis; it can also be thought of as a precondition for Enlightenment science, which even in its most abstract, was constructed in relation to and even directly derived from work and thought of artisans themselves. The point of comparing Cook's rhetorical strategies with those of the gentlemen scientists on board his ships is to highlight the differences between discursive formations, and, for the purposes of this book, to assert that the dominant discourse on the tropics in the late eighteenth-century was not Cook's, but rather Banks's and Forster's, typified by their use of pastoral and edenic tropes and the deployment of aestheticizing representational practices. This polite discourse on tropicality, in assuming authority and achieving the status of "truth," became "true" and, as such, was used to regulate people and to manage natural resources. Emblematic of how state-sponsored ventures and government policies were constructed wholesale from pastoral visions of tropical nature is Banks's plan to send Bligh to Tahiti for breadfruit. This act signaled the beginning of Banks's busy career orchestrating the movement of plants and people around the globe. Tea plants carried out of China and planted in Bihar and Bhutan for English tea drinkers, breadfruit trees transplanted from the Pacific to the Caribbean for starving slaves who produced the sugar for the Englishman's tea and jam, and populating Australia with England's superfluity of human beings are only a few of the highlights in Banks's long career of managing the globe's resources for England's benefit.
Cultivated tropical and subtropical nature is the focus of this book, not the romanticized or spiritualized pristine landscapes of untouched nature, but land that has been harnessed to commercial and market forces. This book is about how a combination of British knowledge and ignorance about plants enabled them to colonize huge parts of the globe, harnessing nature to serve imperial interests. The role of agriculture is under theorized in the study of colonial expansion. The economics of imperialism is usually discussed in terms of the forging of trade routes, the rise of mercantile capitalism, and the concomitant military conquest of territory. This book insists that agriculture is crucial to understanding the British empire. The vast plantations devoted to the monoculture of sugar in the Caribbean and Pacific, and the cotton, tea, and indigo estates of India not only transformed these regions, but also radically altered their populations through genocidal policies and the massive movement of peoples from one region of the globe to another. These agricultural practices also had a huge impact on the social fabric of Britain, shaping daily rituals of consumption central to the formation of a national identity. Because tropical plants as food (e.g., sugar, tea, chocolate) have been key in the construction of British identity, those who grew the plants in the tropical regions of the empire are therefore implicated in this identity formation. The Afro-Caribbean slaves (and in the postemancipation era, East Indian indentured workers), who labored on West Indian sugar plantations, and Indians, who grew tea and cotton for British planters, produced commodities that defined British character. As Stuart Hall has said about the centrality of the Afro-Caribbean experience to British life, "I am the sugar in the bottom of the English cup of tea."
My goal is to recover eighteenth-century ideas about the tropics so that we may better understand how Britain came to dominate the global circulation of tropical plants (and people) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With its sugar plantations in the Caribbean, its domination of India's agriculture and natural resources, and its colonial botanical gardens, Britain made itself the center of a global economy based on agricultural production and exchange, specifically the production of such commodities as sugar, tea, coffee, indigo, and cotton. Though much postcolonial criticism (my own work included) has focused on colonial and postcolonial subjectivity, little attention has been paid to the representation of nature within the colonial context. Only in the field of history of science, in the subdiscipline of colonial science, are these issues being taken up and discussed with the seriousness they deserve. Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature, a collection of interdisciplinary essays edited by David Philip Miller and Peter Hanns Reill, and Richard Drayton's Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the 'Improvement' of the World represent the best of these efforts to document colonial science and its goal of mastering natural resources for Britain's benefit. While literary critics and art historians have produced extensive studies of the representation of English landscape, few, with the exception of Peter Hulme, Mary Louise Pratt, and Elizabeth Bohls, have focused their attention on colonial landscapes. Though I draw upon Pratt's Imperial Eyes and Bohls's Women Travel Writers to analyze the rhetorical strategies of natural history and travel writing, my project differs from Pratt's and Bohls' in my combined emphasis on visual and verbal texts, which extend beyond natural history and travel writing to other genres to include georgic verse, the garden conversation piece, and botanical books such as floras and hortuses. I agree with Pratt's brilliant analysis of natural history writing "as a way of taking possession without subjugation and violence." However, I would qualify her characterization of travel writing and natural history as triumphal and dominated by the trope of "master-of-all-I-survey" to suggest that present in the array of visual and verbal texts that represent colonized nature is an anxiety about the potential for failure of the colonial project. What was at stake in the various representations of the tropics was ultimately the question, not necessarily the assertion, of British mastery over the globe's natural resources, a mastery that, though not always complete, was crucial to the formation of British cultural identity and sense of imperial mission.
This book's goal is to call attention to the discursive processes by which labor and history were elided from the representation of tropical nature, and to suggest ways to reconstruct the conditions under which tropical plants, flowers, and fruit as well as landscapes were produced and consumed. Tropicality, the way in which the category of the tropical operates in the European imagination, is touched upon in this book in so far as those European fantasies of fertility and abundance shaped material practices and were deployed in depicting nature. This book critiques the mystifying practices of poets, painters, natural historians, and botanists, their decontextualizing and aestheticizing practices that, in the process of offering up beautiful images of discrete items, erased the conditions under which tropical commodities were produced, and in the process substituted their own literary and artistic efforts in the place of local producers' work.
Troping the Tropics
In my analysis of artists' and writers' representations of tropical nature, I examine visual and verbal texts that range from georgic poetry to country house portraiture, from natural history writing to picturesque topographical prints, and from garden conversation pieces to floras and hortuses. Colonizing Nature begins with an examination of the traditional English georgic's capacity to transform physical labor (hoeing and shearing sheep) into its discrete material effects (wheat fields and pastures of sheep). In aestheticizing labor, the georgic and the picturesque shift the emphasis from the agricultural producer to the poet or writer who occupies the subject position in the text. This book also examines the ideological effect of the cataloguing that occurs within georgics as well as in natural history and botanical writing. Coupled with the concept of bounty, the catalog decontextualizes tropical nature and erases the material conditions and cultural significance of the local production of tropical commodities. The knowledge and skill of the local producer are lost in the catalog's celebration of Nature's bounty and the elevation of the writer as expert about agriculture, botany, geology, and the natural world. The chapter on Anglo-Indian gardens exposes the processes whereby country house portraits and garden views work to mystify the material conditions that inform landholding practices in Britain and in India. The popularity of the genre of garden conversation pieces with East India Company employees stems from their wishes to be portrayed as if they were the gentry, the garden imagery lending them a landed social status, that they coveted as merchants, bureaucrats, and military men. Indian landscape was represented in these garden views as under the command of British authority. In contrast, in the picturesque landscape paintings and topographical prints that William Hodges produced on his tour of Bengal, Bihar, and Oudh, Indian landscape is portrayed as timeless and ancient. The conflict between British and Indian armies for control of these territories is masked by the serenity and stasis of Hodges's picturesque illustrations that fill his book, Travels in India. The picturesque banishes labor and history from its frame in much the same way that the georgic, in aestheticizing labor, suppresses the materiality of work.
Genre is key to this study, for genre played an important role in shaping the expectations and desires of artists, natural historians, sojourners, and colonial agents who were confronted with the new and the different in the tropical regions of the world. The central argument of this book is that popular forms of eighteenth-century art and literature played an important role in developing eighteenth-century ideas about land, labor and natural resources in the tropical regions of the world. Eighteenth-century ways of seeing, describing, and portraying tropical nature were determined, to a large degree, by preexisting notions of what constituted the pastoral and the picturesque. As we have seen, Sir Joseph Banks, gentleman botanist on board Captain Cook's Endeavour voyage, saw Tahiti through the lens of pastoral poetry and painting, ascribing to Nature's benevolent powers the abundance of breadfruit, taro, and yams that were, in actuality, cultivated by the Tahitians, who were expert agriculturalists, not the leisured swains Banks mistook them for. This way of thinking was shaped, in part, by the loco-descriptive poetry of writers such as Pope, Gay, Dyer, and Thomson, by country house portraits both verbal and visual, and by picturesque landscape paintings, drawings, and illustrations. Though these forms of cultural production were distinctly English, growing out of particular sets of social, economic, and artistic concerns that were specific to England at this time, they were used repeatedly by writers and artists to describe regions beyond England's shores, in particular Britain's colonies in the West and East Indies. That poets, painters, travel writers, and naturalists should employ familiar idioms and formal conventions to convey their impressions of these tropical and subtropical regions is not surprising, for, as Giambattisa Vico suggests in The New Science (1725), the strange and new can only be understood and articulated within the framework and language of the known and familiar: "poetic geography" is "when people can form no idea of distant and unfamiliar things, they judge them by what is present and familiar." The intellectual and visual mastery of the tropics, as exercised in genres as different as georgic verse, botanical illustrations, and garden views, preceded and accompanied such material appropriations of land, labor, and natural resources as the Pacific voyages of discovery, the sugar plantations in the West Indies, and the indigo, cotton, and tea estates in Bengal.
This book explores the cultural and political work that genre performs by shaping the way in which we think and see. Each genre possesses particular formal codes that operate selectively, organizing that which is being represented, so that an ideologically coherent and aesthetically pleasing visual or verbal image is produced. However, genre, more than a collection of formal features, is also an epistemological tool, a way of knowing and seeing that asserts mastery over the object represented. As Karen O'Brien suggests in her overview of eighteenth-century georgic poetry, "genre is both a set of conventions and mode of social understanding." I use the term genre in its most inclusive and expansive form to refer to both a mode of thought and a range of visual and verbal practices that speak beyond the strictly poetical and painterly to social practice and epistemic mastery. In this book, I examine the discursive strategies and representational practices that particular genres license and prohibit, focusing on the boundary work that genre performs as it calls into play various tropes and figures in its attempt to give shape and coherence to the new and different.
Though this book is about visual and verbal generic modes and tropes that were prevalent from the 1760s to the 1830s in British colonial settings, the significance of my case studies reaches beyond the long eighteenth-century and British studies to have larger implications about cognition and culture. British colonists and travelers when confronted with the foreign and strange used familiar tropes and genres to make alien places and people more familiar, more recognizable, and more palatable, or conversely, to dismiss, erase, or contain disturbing differences. For instance, Lady Nugent, wife of the Lieutenant Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Jamaica, upon her arrival on that island employed the well-worn pastoral trope of "paradise" to describe the tropical landscape, which, with its mountains, vegetation, sugar estates, and "negro settlements," was "all so new to the European eye." Describing the gardens surrounding the house of a sugar estate, Lady Nugent searches for words to convey what she sees: "it is quite impossible to describe the great variety of beautiful plants, trees and shrubs, that at this moment delight my eyes and regale my nose." Relying on similes and English equivalents, she declares that one plant "is something like the geranium" and another is "like a full blown rose."30 Using cognitive categories learned at home, these Britons abroad negotiated the otherness presented by the tropical, denying or recognizing the disruptive qualities of difference in ways that assimilated or incorporated the strange and unfamiliar into existing categories of thought. In this book I demonstrate that such genres modes as the pastoral, the georgic, and the picturesque modes and such tropes as bounty and paradise were integral, even key elements in colonialist ideas about the tropical and subtropical regions of the British empire.
I am aware that some may think that I am claiming too much for the power of literature and art to shape cultural beliefs and practices, that I have got it backwards as belle lettres and visual culture are superstructural, dependent on the larger determining forces of economics and politics. But, as a cultural materialist, I believe that poetry and painting, which could be dismissed as the most frivolous because the most elite forms of cultural production, can actually shape thought and influence how people interpret the world, and, in turn, can affect the kind of material practices they put into action. As Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argue, the assumption that discourse is "mental" and not "material" has led to a dismissive attitude toward the analysis of discourse as a form of meaningful political intervention. They counter such critiques that are often marshaled by traditional Marxists (and by traditional humanists), by insisting on discourse's materiality. Discourse, "embodied in institutions, rituals, and so forth," is "a real force which contributes to the moulding and constitution of social relations." Because social relations are therefore discursively constructed, representational techniques such as metaphor and metonym are not merely "forms of thought that add a second sense to a primary, constitutive literality of social relations; instead, they are part of the primary terrain itself in which the social is constituted." By examining the semantic codes of representational practices, we gain access to social and material relations that informed the colonial project of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. . . .