Unhomely Empire: A Forum, Part 2

Published: Posted on

By Liz Egan (University of Warwick)

With just four letters, “home” carries a diverse set of connotations ranging from comfort and belonging, to resistance and violence. In framing their book around the ‘unhomely’ nature of empire for the eighteenth-century British elite, Gust carefully interrogates the centrality of home and belonging to ideas about human difference and development.

As each chapter focuses on a different case study, we move between the Americas, Scotland, and India as well as across genres. This methodology powerfully demonstrates the circulation of ideas about home, and with it whiteness, as they permeated across textual sources such as moral philosophy, literature, political pamphlets, and personal correspondence. Combined with the biographical sketches that locate each of the writers within what Gust calls the ‘British-imperial literati’, Unhomely Empire maps the centrality of home and homeliness to broader discourses of empire and race firmly in conversation with Scottish Enlightenment thought. The chapters dedicated to Adam Smith and Dugald Stewart introduce the development of Enlightenment thinking about home, race, and gender in an informative and accessible way that illustrates how belonging was connected to notions of racial difference.

In light of my own research interests in the Caribbean, I was most interested in Gust’s chapter on slavery and abolition which encompasses both the British Caribbean and Brazil. The case studies of Maria Edgeworth and Maria Graham demonstrated the wider and more popular distribution of these ideas about home and race. Abolitionist discourses, as Gust notes with reference to Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, emphasised the dislocation of slavery and its destruction and prevention of familial life. Similarly, research on the Caribbean during this period has demonstrated how belonging and Englishness were problematised in abolitionist discourse, with the Caribbean constructed as an ‘un-English, aberrant’ space.[1] However, through Edgeworth and Graham, Gust offers an important contribution by drawing connections between evolving abolitionist and ameliorative designs and Scottish Enlightenment thought.

Considering the extent to which enslavers in the Caribbean also responded to abolitionism by expressing their rights as Englishmen further suggests how alternative articulations of home may have been in conversation and tension with those Gust interrogates here.[2] It is a tribute to the richness of Unhomely Empire that it provokes these questions for further research and enquiry. As Gust notes that Edgeworth likely read Bryan Edwards’s The History of the West Indies, we perhaps get a glimpse at the exchanges that were taking place in both directions across the Atlantic. For me, this prompts further questions about how the growing population of people of mixed ancestry, particularly in Jamaica, affected these ideas about home and whiteness. As free people of colour in Jamaica complicated and actively challenged binary conceptions of race and rights, making legal claims to both whiteness and English subjecthood, how far did they also speak to the discourses that Gust examines?[3] How did members of the British imperial literati make sense of their place in empire? Addressing these questions is beyond the scope of the book, but Unhomely Empire offers a basis from which to consider further these complex transatlantic interactions.

These questions also feel pertinent in light of the slippages Gust identifies between ‘white’, ‘European’, ‘English, and ‘British’. Initially, I was at times cautious about these slippages. However, Gust’s case study of Scottish Highland emigration and the racialisation – or perhaps whitening – reinforced both the increasing synonymity emerging between these terms and the messiness of this process. By addressing the articulations of whiteness in tune with ideas of home, belonging, and empire, Unhomely Empire offers an important route for understanding how whiteness emerged, as Gust concludes, as the ‘silent reference, the normative idea through which the self was configured’.

[1] David Lambert, White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity during the Age of Abolition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.12.

[2] Christer Petley, ‘“Home” and “This Country” Britishness and Creole Identity in the Letters of a Transatlantic Slaveholder’, Atlantic Studies, 6:1 (2009), 43-61.

[3] Gad Heuman, Between Black and White: Race, Politics, and the Free Coloureds in Jamaica, 1792-1865 (Westport: Greenwood, 1981); Daniel Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833 (Chapel Hill; University of North Carolina Press, 2018); Brooke N. Newman, A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *