The Colonial Mentality, Past and Present
By Ronjaunee ChatterjeeSeptember 3, 2021
The Global Indies: British Imperial Culture and the Reshaping of the World, 1756–1815 by Ashley L. Cohen
I found myself thinking quite a bit about Thackeray’s rack punch as I read through Cohen’s bracing study. Punch, an alcoholic drink popular with colonial officers of the East India Company, was usually made with a combination of five ingredients including sugar cane and spices, and probably derives from the Sanskrit word “pancha,” meaning five (and invites an etymological link with the Persian panj and with Bengali five-spice mix, panch phoreen). Rack punch’s association with Vauxhall, with India, and with Vanity Fair’s narrative construction was hardly a stretch for Thackeray’s Victorian readers, and probably registered as quite natural, though it carried more than a whiff of the unseemly. But then again, to 18th-century Britons, “natural and a little unseemly” could easily describe the “worldwide empire that stretched from the East to the West Indies,” the subject of The Global Indies.
At Vauxhall Gardens, Cohen explains, giant paintings were erected in the “Pillared Saloon” of seemingly geographically opposed colonial wars: one painting of The Battle of Plassey (1757), which secured Bengal for the British East India Company, hung next to another symmetrical work that portrayed the British capture of Montreal and, later, Canada itself. That these and other sizable aesthetic works were “designed to be an immersive virtual-reality experience” testifies to Cohen’s larger claim in The Global Indies that 18th-century fashion, rank, sociability, and class were intimately bound up with race and colonialism, particularly through the period’s joint imaginary of the “Indies.”
The Indies describes a shared fantasy — and unquestionable material reality — of wealth accumulation that yoked together the “West” (the Caribbean and North America) and “East” (the Indian subcontinent) Indies in late 18th-century British culture, a conceptual proximity so thorough and unrelenting that its effects reverberate throughout the contemporary, though they have yet to be fully untangled. The Global Indies repurposes the early 20th-century critical historical term “mentalité” to theorize the 18th-century’s fictions of race and class together from within the period’s own analytic and social frameworks. To do so, Cohen argues, is not to reproduce the British fantasy of the globe at its imperial heyday but to defamiliarize it through its own critical vocabulary — to take in some of the rack punch and rid the colonial hangover that the Indies mentality induced for the whole world.
It’s tricky business to think seriously inside of the 18th-century’s analytic tools, but The Global Indies pulls it off, not least because Cohen is appropriately blunt in moments, reminding readers of the everyday racism of the Georgians and their fashionable sociability. The book benefits, too, from a rich body of existing work on the linkages between different colonial sites by 18th-century and postcolonial scholars like Edward Said and Srinivas Aravamudan. In Cohen’s thoughtful handling, the “Indies mentality” enters a critical landscape that has lately taken up the connections between geographically far-flung events in modernity: North American settler colonialism, Atlantic slavery, colonialism in India, and the migration of Chinese and South Asian indentured labor. Lest these all seem like separate histories that have produced separate discursive notions of race, critics like Lisa Lowe, Jodi Byrd, Tao Leigh Goffe, and now Cohen assure us that they are not, and that our modern ideas about race are intimately shaped by the interconnected and forced movements of Black and brown people across the world. These critics invite us to rethink the stability of “whiteness” and British and European identity, as they simultaneously question the simple collapse of these colonial histories into a diluted entity known as the “global.”
Cohen’s method is to move through a range of British literary and cultural texts, including popular theater productions, satirical clippings, women’s diaries, and colonial life-writing. Together, these texts provide a tapestry of evidence for some of the book’s more urgent claims about “the global circulation of racial thinking between the Americas and Asia” in the 18th century. Theater, for example, becomes the site in which compacted, often contradictory ideas about race are literally played for Britons against the backdrop of a burgeoning empire. For instance, Cohen analyzes The Cozeners, a 1774 comic production by Samuel Foote, at length. The play is a satire of the upper classes, in which blackface makeup is used to connote both African and South Asian figures — to show how British aristocratic class anxieties were newly charged by the expansion of imperialism across the Indies, and how “rank was a determinative factor in the representation of race.”
A complex portrayal of the 18th-century beau monde emerges in these early chapters that is as engaging as anything one might find on Bridgerton — a Netflix show that some have charged with generating fantasies of the “postracial.” In fact, Bridgerton seems to (accidentally?) telegraph what Cohen wants to argue in The Global Indies: that British ideas of class and elite identity were highly racialized and drew extensively on both Indies, rather than on one or another colonial space alone. In this aristocratic world of scandal and satire, genteel masculinity is grounded in orientalist tropes of Eastern royalty and “despotism,” while also toggling between the “whiteness” of rank and the Blackness associated with enslaved Africans and the South Asian poor.
And then there is also the obvious fact (fictionalized by Netflix but evidenced by Cohen) that many nonwhite people populated Britain and especially London — including its fashionable circles — in the 18th century. Scholars in Black British and postcolonial studies have worked to reverse their persistent absence from the historical archive, and Cohen adds to this work, writing, for instance, about the London fop Julius Soubise, nicknamed the “Black Prince.” Soubise was born on St. Kitts to an enslaved Jamaican mother. Brought to England as an enslaved child, he was given to the Duchess of Queensberry in England, who trained him in the courtly arts. Soubise eventually fled to Calcutta, where he taught fencing and riding until his death in 1798. While his life trajectory obviously spans the two Indies, Soubise’s biography constitutes an opening for Cohen to show how preexisting ideas of race and colorism in India (shaped by caste, Mughal rule, and other complex factors) collided with the increasing presence of British imperialism seeking to justify its own racial capital on the continent.
Some may find the sheer number of sources and fields of study that Cohen draws on to illustrate the Indies mentality overwhelming. But it’s clear that the Indies mentality, while offering something of a neat summation of 18th-century colonial circuits of racialization, was a complex geographical, historical, and ideological phenomenon that requires extensive unpacking. It also seems to hold many uncomfortable truths. In “The Geography of Freedom,” one of the book’s best chapters, Cohen spells out how British liberal reformers and abolitionists found a solution to ending West Indian slavery in the continuation of so-called “free” wage labor in Bengal. Sugar produced by Bengali peasants laboring under the threat of starvation came to replace sugar produced on West Indian plantations well into the 19th and 20th centuries. One only has to look up the multiple Bengal famines (1769–1770, and 1943) to calculate its effects. That liberal politics and the abstract values it continues to exploit — namely freedom and progress — show themselves to be “anemic and emaciated,” in Cohen’s words, is a well-worn scholarly argument from the vantage point of Black and postcolonial studies. Yet it is one that must be made again and again, and especially in fields like 18th- and 19th-century British studies where liberal values and terms continue to exert a central, and sometimes uncritical, hold.
Cohen’s study is lively as well as methodical, and it carries a broader intellectual urgency for our current moment. The book’s coda locates the demise of the Indies mentality in the 1870s with the establishment of the American transcontinental railroad. Cohen here observes that the architects of the railroad “imagined the new era of US hegemony in a mold cast by the imaginative geographies of British imperialism.” With the recent withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan — a region invaded and occupied both by the British and by the United States military — this claim could not be clearer. We need a fuller reckoning with these “imaginative geographies” and their meaningful alternatives — not only from within disciplines like postcolonial studies, but also in others too. And we need that reckoning now. I hope that readers across fields might take something away from Cohen’s study about British and American histories — and shared colonial mentalities — and want to take this work further too.
Ronjaunee Chatterjee lives in Montreal and teaches feminist, queer, and critical race theory, as well as courses on the 19th century, at Concordia University. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, ASAP Journal, The New Inquiry, French Studies,Victorian Literature and Culture, and other venues.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Priya Satia on how the fascism analogy may help reveal what fascism always owed to Americanness and to empire.
Patricia A. Matthew examines the multicultural Regency era of Shonda Rhimes's new Netflix series Bridgerton.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!