Introduction | British East India Company | The Trial of Warren Hastings | Sir William Jones | Blood Sugar | Mungo Park | Missionaries | Pantisocracy | Southey and Ireland | Oriental Tales | Orientalism

The Romantic and Empire: A Turning Point

Many Romantic figures show an interest in the radically foreign, despite the apparently Eurocentric politics which inform their works. While there was a great amount of internal upheaval taking place in Britain between 1780 and 1830, the various ways in which other cultures were legislated, conceptualized, and portrayed in literature reveal a changing conception of the role of Great Britain, and England in particular, in the administration of imperial practices throughout the colonies.

The British domination of mercantile trade was established early on through the British East India Company. Despite the popularity of imported goods from the Eastern Hemisphere, however, critique of imperial policy was also present, evidenced by the impeachment of the Governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, despite the writings of his defender, Sir William Jones. Additionally, the partnership between the import of Indian tea and Caribbean sugar (as sweetener) was complicated by the Blood Sugar movement, with its grotesque depiction of plantations fertilized by human blood. The workings of these, and other small cogs in the larger mechanism caused movement toward the abolition of slavery in Great Britain.

While the Company dominated trade in the Eastern hemisphere, and the question of slavery posed a moral dilemma in the West, British relationships with other parts of the world were also in flux. The explorer, Mungo Park, made a valuable foray into the interior of Africa, and popularized his voyage in print form after his return, marking the first European encounter with indigenous African people which was free of the goal of taking or purchasing slaves. Park's depiction of the benevolent nature and innocent ignorance of the "black African" people (as opposed to the Islamic Moors) paved the way for missionaries to be able to emigrate to colonial spaces.

In the meantime, many of the period's greatest thinkers were also considering emigration. The unpredictable political situation in Europe prompted Coleridge and Southey to envision the creation on American soil of a utopian society that they called "Pantisocracy." Besides the functional impossibility of the establishment of such a community, the political ambivalence of Robert Southey is another caveat to consider. While lauded for the quality of his work, and even crowned Poet Laureate of Great Britain, Southey was guilty of changing stances over time (see Wat Tyler for evidence) as well as unconscionably prejudiced attitudes toward Ireland.

As the Romantic period continued, the British populace's fascination with the exotic seemed to grow as well. While poets like Keats and Shelley sought solace in art and history, Byron was busy staking out new territories. Byron composed a group of popular and renowned works collectively referred to as his "Oriental Tales," which conflated Western identities with Eastern value structures, including, most notably, his fragmented narrative poem, "The Giaour."

The poems which comprise Byron's Tales, along with many of his other works, including several Cantos of his magnum opus Don Juan, demonstrate his devotion to an ideal for which he coined a term himself. "Orientalism" as he understood it was a cultural comparison by which British identity was best imagined, much in the way that Wordsworth imagined it in confrontation with omnipotent nature.

Jody Dunville