“In Short, I am a West Indian": Planters, Performance, Anxiety, and Abolition in Georgian Britain
Kathleen Wilson writes that the domestic elite of Georgian Britain sought a psychological "disavowal" of the West Indian planting class because elite flaws were reflected in the perceived degeneracy and excess of the planters, which aroused growing concern in the metropole. Though we cannot speak of an organized elite campaign in any sense, certain members of elite classes created and disseminated representations of West Indian planters that focused on perceived differences, especially as concerned the nexus of Caribbean climate, disease, and racial mixing. This public imagination, manifest in a set of tropes, codes, and expectations, entered British culture, and was firmly entrenched by 1771, as evidenced by Richard Cumberland's The West Indian. West Indian planters entered into this negotiation of identity in self-defense, promoting depictions of West Indian life that denied fundamental difference from Britain and rejected charges of miscegenation and the negative effects of Caribbean climate. In response to domestic perceptions of the threat posed by mixed-race individuals, West Indians hardened legal divides between the races, demonstrating to a metropolitan audience their ability to manage the confusing racial environment that had developed by the 1760s. Nonetheless, planters were unable to alter domestic perceptions in a significant way. As a result, abolitionists, emerging in force in the 1780s, deployed the existing cultural codes surrounding the planter in their own attacks on planter life in the West Indies. Though abolitionists broke new ground in attacking the brutality of slavery, planters featured centrally in their texts and in visual media that supported abolition. The planters portrayed in these documents were fundamentally legible to a British audience because of the existing understandings surrounding the West Indian planter. Such modes of representation, enacted largely by sectors of the British elite in the first part of the eighteenth century, are thus partly responsible for the successful abolitionist assault on planter character. This new understanding of the cultural dynamics of British abolitionism offers an explanation to the "curious" decline in planter social standing that Trevor Burnard dates to the 1780s: planter character had already been traduced by a negative code of representation in the decades leading up to abolition. Abolitionists then altered and redeployed this code to their own ends.