Academic journal article Humanities Research

Confronting Genocide: Latin America, Adventure Fiction and the Moral Crisis of British Imperialism

Academic journal article Humanities Research

Confronting Genocide: Latin America, Adventure Fiction and the Moral Crisis of British Imperialism

Article excerpt

Adventure fiction was widely employed by British writers during the nineteenth century to address serious questions of politics and morality, particularly those arising from the nation's imperial responsibilities. The nineteenth-century adventure tales that argued for or justified the extension of empire were, in Martin Green's well-worn phrase, 'the energising myth of English imperialism. They were, collectively, the story England told itself as it went to sleep at night, and, in the form of its dreams, they charged England's will with the energy to go out into the world and explore, and conquer and rule/1 By the mid nineteenth century, however, some of these adventure narratives, particularly those set in Latin America, were less likely to bring on a reassuring slumber than they were to engender nightmares of self-doubt before waking the sleeper with a nasty start. At a time when the popular literature of empire was slavishly heroworshipping or blindly propagandists and high culture all but refused to acknowledge the existence of an imperial frontier, adventure fiction set in Latin America furnished a unique critical and intellectual space within which the political, social and moral consequences of empire might be thought through or imaginatively enacted.2

This employment of Latin America in nineteenth and early twentieth-century British adventure fiction grows out of a long-established pattern of discursive relations between the two. J. H. Elliott identifies its precedents in the earliest European responses to the New World. Surveying a wide array of texts from the late sixteenth into the seventeenth centuries, Elliott observes:

[I]t is difficult not to be impressed by the strange lacunae and the resounding silences in many places where references to the New World could reasonably be expected. How are we to explain the absence of any mention of the New World in so many memoirs and chronicles, including the memoirs of Charles V himself? How are we to explain the continuing determination, right up to the last two or three decades of the sixteenth century, to describe the world as if it were still the world as known to Strabo, Ptolemy and Pomponius Mela...

The reluctance of cosmographers or social philosophers to incorporate into their work the new information made available to them by the discovery of America provides an example of the wider problem arising from the revelation of the New World to the Old. Whether it is a question of the geography of America, its flora and fauna, or the nature of its inhabitants, the same kind of pattern seems constantly to recur in the European response. It is as if, at a certain point, the mental shutters came down; as if, with so much to see and absorb and understand, the effort suddenly becomes too much for them, and Europeans retreat to the half-light of their traditional mental world.

There is nothing very novel about the form of this sixteenth century response. Medieval Europe had found it supremely difficult to comprehend and come to terms with the phenomenon of Islam... Nor is this a matter for surprise for the attempt of one society to comprehend another inevitably forces it to reappraise itself. ..This process is bound to be an agonizing one, involving the jettisoning of many traditional preconceptions and inherited ideas. It is hardly surprising, then, if sixteenth-century Europeans either ignored the challenge or baulked at the attempt. There was, after all, an easier way out, neatly epitomized in 1528 by the Spanish humanist, Hernán Perez de Oliva, when he wrote that Columbus set out on his second voyage 'to unite the world and give to those strange lands the form of our own'.3

Elliott's vision of sixteenth-century Europeans dazzled by the prodigality of the New World, retreating to 'the half-light of their traditional mental world' from where they seek to understand 'those strange lands' by imposing on them 'the form of our own', furnishes a key image for the processes determining Britain's cultural relations with Latin America and the persistence of its seemingly perennial ignorance about the continent. …

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