THE EROTICS OF MERCANTILE IMPERIALISM: Cross-Cultural Requitedness in the Early Modern Period

By Nocentelli, Carmen | Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

THE EROTICS OF MERCANTILE IMPERIALISM: Cross-Cultural Requitedness in the Early Modern Period


Nocentelli, Carmen, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies


Early in the fall of 1617, an elaborate civic pageant was performed in the English capital to celebrate the installation of George Bowles as Lord Mayor of the City of London.1 Titled The Tryumphs of Honor and Industry, it had been penned by Thomas Middleton and paid for by the "noble Society of Grocers"-a guild whose business in exotic drugs and "other rich Aromatick Commodities" (Ravenhill 1) was intimately linked to the still-uncertain fortunes of England's expansion overseas. After an opening show of "dauncing Indians" bagging pepper and harvesting fruits, there followed an emblematic arrangement composed of India, Trafficke, and Industry-the latter holding in her hand a golden globe surmounted by a Cupid. "Behold this Ball of Gold, upon which stands/ A golden Cupid wrought with curious hands" (A4v), urged Industry in her address, lest the significance of her insignia be lost on the audience. She went on to explain, "The mighty power of Industry it showes,/ That gets both wealth, and love" (B1r).

Considered by itself, Industry's "Ball of Gold" recalls the golden pomes of Hesperidian memory, a recurring symbol for the precious spices, foodstuffs, and minerals that early modern Europeans were busily trading and plundering across the globe. In his 1598 translation of Jan Huygen van Linschoten's influential travelogue, for instance, the Englishman William Phillip turned Hercules's theft of the golden apples into a mercantile exemplum, encouraging his countrymen to seek the "importation of those Necessities whereof we stand in Neede: as Hercules did, when hee fetched away the Golden Apples out of the Garden of the Hesperides" (A4r). The little Cupid standing atop Industry's pome, however, links this insignia to a globus cruciger, the cross-surmounted orb that was a quintessential sign of temporal authority. Conjoining golden apple and royal orb, the "Ball of Gold" aligns the special interests of the merchant classes with those of the monarchy, equating profits with royal concerns. Yet even as Industry's orb derives its suggestive power from the symbolic valence of the globus cruciger, it also differs from the latter in profound ways: it is not a cross, but an emblem of love, that surmounts it; it is not from God, but rather from Cupid, that Industry derives its authority and legitimacy. At the imbrication of empire and desire, Industry's "Ball of Gold" sentimentalizes Europe's geopolitical onslaught, metaphorizing expansion as a quest for erotic as well as material rewards.

In hindsight, Middleton's transmogrification of imperialism into amatory courtship is all too ironically descriptive of England's early experiences abroad. A belated entry into the expansionist race, the fledgling empire had found itself everywhere beset by rivals and confronted by its own inadequacy. "England may well spare many more people then Spaine, and is as well able to furnish them with all manner of necessaries . . . it is strange we should be so dull, as not maintaine that which wee have, and pursue that wee know" (42), noted John Smith in 1616, contrasting Spanish successes with England's colonial difficulties in America. "Heere wee found the people very rude, following us . . . and flinging stones at us," wrote John Saris in his account of the first English voyage to Japan, "the gravest people of the Towne not once reproving them, but rather animating of them, and setting them on" (142). Letters to the East India Company, in particular, brimmed with tales of unrequitedness: "[T]he Governor and chief brokers with all the rest of the people . . . are much addicted to the Portingalles and slightly esteem of our English," complained an English merchant in India; unless the Portuguese were rooted out, he concluded despairingly, there would be "no hope of any good to be done there for us" (Foster 38). "[A]s yet our condition and usadge is so bad . . . that [it] will require much patience to suffer, much Industry to sett upright," echoed Thomas Roe in a 1616 letter from the Mughal court (120). …

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