The Upstart and the Empire: The West Indian Entrepreneur in the English Cultural Imagination, 1697–1815

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 9:10 AM
Manchester Ballroom H (Hyatt)
Amie Filkow , University of California, San Diego
This paper examines changing representations of West Indian “upstarts” or entrepreneurs in eighteenth-century English literary and cultural discourse.  Its historical context is the relationship between England and the Caribbean in the powerful economic universe created by the Atlantic trade, where the success of colonial upstarts was both welcome and disdained by the metropole.  From Daniel Defoe’s roguish merchant-adventurer, to John Gay’s callous capitalist slave owner, to Sarah Scott’s sentimental planter-reformer, the paper traces and theorizes the cultural significance of the entrepreneur who pursues profit and property in the West Indies. Although the risks taken by these entrepreneurs often led to individual and imperial economic gain, the perceived degeneracy of their “idle” and “indolent” Creole lifestyle challenged their identification with metropolitan British “sensibility” and “civility.”

Of particular interest are portrayals of West Indians as self-interested, economic agents, whose actions and ambiguities exceed and complicate their position in the cultural imagination.  In the eighteenth century, the merchant-planter initially figures as an adventurous risk-taker, representative of liberal progress and the emergent middle class.  How, then, do the undeniably adventurous and often successful entrepreneurial activities of pirates, criminals, former slaves, and other disenfranchised colonial subjects  demand a reevaluation of the liberal economic man as a British national hero?  The paper demonstrates how the West Indian upstart can be positioned as both an “Other” who confronts and informs English identity, as well as a self-determined subject whose presence in metropolitan culture problematizes a developing Creole identity and a Caribbean proto-nationalism.

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