Book Review

Aravamudan, Srinivas. Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by Jeen Yu | August 14, 2001

In Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804, Srinivas Aravamudan embeds the study of the eighteenth century within a wide history of colonialism. This book is urbane, difficult, and ambitious in scope. By the way it incorporates and develops central debates that precede it, this book marks a significant fruition of nearly 20 years of colonial and “post-colonial” study of the eighteenth century. The difficulty of this book arises from a certain abstractness of conceptualization, as well as stylistic indulgences: the use of neologisms (you may have to practice to pronounce the title of this book), and specialized terms like “virtualizations” and “levantinizations,” the headings for the first two of the three parts of this book. What are “tropicopolitans?” The term is the result of Professor Aravamudan’s fusion of “the idea of the tropic” (both figural troping and the geographical locations of the tropics) and “cosmopolitan.” Professor Aravamudan explains “[tropicopolitans is] a name for the colonized subject who exists both as fictive construct of colonial tropology and actual resident of tropical space, object of representation and agent of resistance. In many historical instances, tropicopolitans…challenge the developing privilege of Enlightenment cosmopolitans” (4). The words “resistance” and “challenge” in the last quote suggest the political desire that motivates this study: to show how the colonialism practiced through discursive systems, fiction, policy, and finally powerful facts on the ground, between 1688 and 1804, did not overwhelm, but in fact provoked an “agency” that could challenge and resist that colonial project. However, Aravamudan’s analysis of all that qualifies and vitiates Romantic narratives of resistance is both subtle and shrewd. This book is less a sequential narrative than an arc of analytical readings of texts and events, from Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) to the rebellion in Haiti led by Toussaint Louverture. I can characterize the strength of this book, and illustrate the general traits of the thoughtful readings in Tropicopolitans, by noting the pivotal elements of Professor Aravamudan’s reading of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. Aravamudan begins with a savvy overview of previous criticism, which betrays those sentimentalizing and totalizing tendencies labeled “oroonokism” and “imoindaism.” Aravamudan offers a witty thematic focus to his reading by describing how Behn’s narrator’s solicitude for Oroonoko resembles the cultural practices by which black children became pets for upper class English ladies in this period. Throughout this reading (and all the others in the book) there is a rich and nuanced analysis of historical context (of trade, race, and the generic coordinates for the novel). The second half of the reading pairs Behn’s text with another text – in this case, Thomas Southerne’s adaptation of the novel for the theatre – so as to think through the analogy between slaves and white women. What results from this reading, and the many others in this long and rich study, is a more comprehensive view of the stakes of reading Oroonoko: The Royal Slave: the eponymous hero is both tragic victim and pet, a surrogate for Charles I/James II, the plight of white women, and the fictional residue of a real slave. Aravamudan’s ability to keep these many different possibilities in balance suggests the urbanity and sophistication of this study, its refusal of both a facile moralism and political neutrality. In readings that range through Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Cato’s Letters, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, William Beckford, Olaudah Equiano and the Abbe de Raynal, Professor Aravamudan always manages to offer a fresh view of familiar (and sometimes surprising) texts. At the same time this book documents the centrality of the colonial and imperial projects to a vast band of eighteenth century literature. After the compelling logic and perspective of this sort of study has been accepted, the eighteenth century looks very different: one of its grandest accomplishments – the conquest of the world – is also its greatest crime.

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