Academic journal article Transnational Literature

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

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

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

Article excerpt

In Black London: Life before Emancipation, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina writes of how, on discovering that 15,000 people of African descent were living in London in 1768, she was struck by a vision of her present-day London as 'suddenly occupied by two simultaneous centuries'1 - 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: Thomas Wharton and Lawrence Hill both published historical novels featuring female ex-slaves that end up in London after long and circuitous ocean journeys.2 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?

The four novels examined in this essay - Martin's Incomparable World (1996), Hill's The Book of Negroes (2007), Dabydeen's A Harlot's Progress (1999), and Wharton's Salamander (2001) - collectively offer a rich set of correspondences and contrasts in their portrayals of the black urban subject.3 Two of these texts are by black British authors (Martin and Dabydeen), and two are by Canadians (Hill and Wharton); two are written in a traditional realist mode (Martin and Hill), and two are postmodern metafictions that generate dizzyingly speculative ontologies (Dabydeen and Wharton); two are individual life stories modelled after the slave narrative genre (Hill and Dabydeen), and two are adventure novels about small groups of people, with no single protagonist or focalizing consciousness (Martin and Wharton). However, none of those six pairings matches any of the others: a foursquare arrangement of the texts reveals multiple and complex similarities and contrasts between every possible pair. What does unite them all is that to varying degrees in all four books travel is constant: dislocation prevails over settlement (or unbelonging over belonging) and characters' affiliations are intercontinental and transoceanic rather than local or national - though slavery being what it was, their internationalism is not by choice.

These relational aspects of narrative and identity are reinforced by three central elements common across the novels that become identified in them with such interrelated concepts as the boundless, the endless, the inclusive, and the infinite. First of these common elements is London itself; the port city and international gathering-point not only presided over a global empire on which the sun shone ad infinitum, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries London was seen to contain, in Peter Ackroyd's words, 'the great world itself':4 the city Addison called 'an aggregate of various nations' included, it was imagined, 'no less than everything. …

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