Infinite Worlds: Eighteenth-Century London, the Atlantic Ocean, and Post-Slavery in S.I. Martin's Incomparable World, Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes, David Dabydeen's A Harlot's Progress, and Thomas Wharton's Salamander
Clement Ball, John
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In Black London: Life before Emancipation (1995), Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina writes of how, on discovering that 15,000 Africans and their descendants were living in London in 1768, she was struck by a vision of her present-day London as 'suddenly occupied by two simultaneous centuries' (2) - an eighteenth-century city of black pageboys and entertainers, of black beggars and prostitutes and autobiographers, overlaying the late twentieth-century one like a ghostly palimpsest. In the same decade as Gerzina was articulating these spectral imaginings, four prominent black British novelists were similarly looking back to the eighteenth century - to the final decades of the British slave trade, to the Atlantic Ocean across and around which it took place, and to London, where the abolitionist cause was advanced. Caryl Phillips, S.I. Martin, David Dabydeen, and Fred D'Aguiar all published novels in the 1990s that have black protagonists and are set entirely or partly in the eighteenth-century metropolis. In the subsequent decade, two Canadian novelists did likewise: Lawrence Hill and Thomas Wharton both published historical novels featuring female ex-slaves that end up in London after long and circuitous oceanic journeys.[i] Since historical novels are always prompted by present-tense obsessions and therefore frequently gaze at two centuries simultaneously, how does this outpouring of eighteenth-century-oriented narrative reflect and enhance our contemporary understanding of slavery, the Atlantic world, and London? What geographies and identities, what forms of mobility and dwelling, what personal quests and local or global communities do these novels imagine for the imperial capital's black inhabitants at a time when the prevailing winds were blowing abolition and revolutionary political change across the Atlantic world? And how do these texts - transhistorical, transnational, circum-Atlantic visions of London echo - or anticipate - other postcolonial writings about the world city of our time and the black person's place in it?