Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800 
edited by Nicholas Canny and Anthony Pagden.
Princeton, 290 pp., £22, September 1987, 0 691 05372 3
Show More
Show More

New York, Nueva Leon, Nouvelle Orléans, Nova Lisboa and Nieuw Amsterdam – already in the 16th century, Western Europeans had begun the strange habit of naming remote places in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania as ‘new’ versions of (thereby) ‘old’ toponyms in their lands of origin. Moreover, they retained the habit even when these places passed under different masters, so that Nouvelle Orléans calmly became New Orleans, and Nieuw Zeeland New Zealand. Just how odd this practice was can be seen from the fact that although Arabs settled, and sometimes set up statelets, all round the perimeter of the Indian Ocean, and speakers of various Chinese dialects spread all over South-East Asia during the same period (say, 1500-1800), we find no traces of any New Baghdad or New Damascus, New Wuhun or New Tientsin. What we do find are toponyms like Chiangmai (New City) or Pekanbaru (New Market), for which no ‘old’ comrades exist, and which, in any case, by using the general words ‘city’ and ‘market’, imply none of the specific bondings that link York to New York – for the oddity of the pairing was that the two places existed contemporaneously in homogeneous time, and that their inhabitants could easily and peaceably communicate with one another. They might, one day, fight each other, but the outcome of the struggle would always leave their respective titles unchanged: New York would never obliterate York, or vice versa.

Precisely, however, the doubleness of these ‘New’ toponyms, which combined emphasis on novelty with fealty to the familiar, signalled the historic emergence of a new social type: the creole (créole, criollo) of North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, South and East Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and many other places. It is these creoles, ‘colonials’ as opposed to the ‘colonised’, who form the subjects of Canny and Pagden’s intelligent new book, Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800. In its compact pages we watch the crioulo Portuguese in Brazil, the criollo Spanish in ‘Latin America’, the créole French in Quebec, and the creole ‘English’ in Ireland, Barbados and the Thirteen Colonies, attempting to work out ‘who’ and just how ‘new/old’ they were during centuries unhaunted by the spectre of nationalism.

What were the conditions for criollismo? Certainly, nothing eternally ‘European’. We have only to think of all those devoutly Buddhist-Singhalese Da Souzas, those piously Catholic-Florinese Da Silvas and those cynically Catholic-Manileño Sorianos who play unproblematic social and political roles in contemporary Ceylon, Indonesia and the Philippines to recognise that, under the right circumstances, ‘Europeans’ could be gently submerged in non-European cultures. Yet what is instructive about such examples is that in each case the condition for submersion seems to have been the extrusion of the original imperial power (Portuguese or Spanish) by another (British, Dutch or American). This pattern suggests that one condition for non-submersion, i.e. criollismo, was the long survival of genuinely trans-oceanic, monolingual imperial systems. We know, in addition, that the great Chinese migrations to South-East Asia were almost always carried out against the wishes of the Ming and Ch’ing dynasts (who, however, could do little about them except ritually bluster); and that the ‘Arab’ rulers of Zanzibar and Pontianak set up shop, willy-nilly, on their own. In other words, criollos emerged only where the imperial centre disposed of such naval strength that it could prevent by military-administrative means any terminal localisation – a condition only made possible by the technological innovations of 17th-century Europe. Two further conditions suggest themselves: first, that the trans-oceanic migration be on a sufficiently formidable scale that the migrants can form a reasonably self-contained social community; second, that the distance from the metropole be vast enough to prevent easy absorption into metropolitan culture. By the end of the 18th century there were no less than 3,200,000 ‘whites’ within the 16,900,000 population of Spanish America. On the other hand, as reported in Michael Zuckerman’s splendid essay ‘Identity in British America’, the journey across the Atlantic was hellish, quite unlike (in the right monsoon) the trip from the Hadramaut to Zanzibar, or from Canton to Johor. As late as the 18th century, Eliza Pinckney averred that she ‘would not cross that frightful ocean’ again ‘for the best fortune in England’.

But was this enough to create the peculiar synchronicity of Hampshire/New Hampshire? Probably not. The six authors in Colonial Identity rightly stress the immediate political, religious and economic links between the criollos and the metropole. The conquistadors of Spanish America saw themselves as extending the feudal structure of 16th-century ‘Las Españas’ to the New World; the Puritans hoped to re-establish in New England righteous communities which Stuart England harshly suppressed; the functionaries of Louis XIV’s Paris made endless risible plans for the ‘French’ community in the St Lawrence estuary. But it is unlikely that any or all of this would have worked without an idea of synchronicity to which the authors of this volume make only glancing reference. Here we may recall, not only the existence of a long-established world-chronometry such that people in Caracas and Madrid knew they were simultaneously acting out their roles in, say, ‘1627 AD’, but that, in its very essence, time was now ‘man-made’ and ‘man-co-ordinated’. From David Landes’s work we know that in exactly the same year in which the Thirteen Colonies declared their Independence, London’s Gentlemen’s Magazine included this brief obituary for John Harrison: ‘He was the most ingenious mechanic, and received the 20,000 pounds reward (from Parliament in London) for the discovery of the longitude.’ In other words, Harrison had invented the technology for measuring, with precision, a long-imagined general space-time grid comprehending the planet. The echt-criollo paradox – eight o’clock in the morning here, ten o’clock in the evening there, it’s all the same time – had arrived.

The authors in Colonial Identity do not reflect long on these broad factors behind the global rise of criollismo, but they do offer much instructive material on its changing substantive content in different geographic, economic and social settings. Crucial everywhere were the Creoles’ relationships with indigenous and imported (slave) populations. Where the conquering settlers were Catholic, as in Spanish, Portuguese and French America, miscegenation was widespread and missionary campaigns actively pursued. Increasing religious homogeneity, and, in the tropical settlements at least, a complex social hierarchy based on finely-calibrated degrees of métissage, produced in due course the possibility of identities coloured by indigenismo. Anthony Pagden, in an illuminating essay on the Spanish Americas, shows that even before the end of the 16th century the local Creoles had adopted for themselves, from the subjected Mexicas, the name of Mexicanos. A triumphal arch erected by Siguenza y Gongora in the Ciudad Mexico of 1671 already proudly included representations of former Aztec adversaries in a local Creole pantheon. In Peru, too, certain Creoles continued to boast ancestral connections to Inca royalty. (But Mexico and Peru were probably the exception in having had ‘princesses’ available for status-conscious, upwardly-mobile conquistadors to marry.) In Stuart Schwartz’s account of colonial Brazil, mention is made of a broadsheet appearing on the streets of Santo Amaro, Bahia, in 1830, demanding the resignation of Emperor Dom Pedro I, and the accession of his little son, described as cabra como nos (coloured, like us) – though neither the lad nor, probably, the broadsheet’s author were of mixed race.

Protestantism, characteristically, showed an uglier face (it would have been uglier still if the authors had included the Atlantic Creoles of Zuid-Afrika). Zuckerman’s account of the Thirteen Colonies stresses not merely the rigid prohibition of miscegenation, but the icy Manichaeanism of the Puritans’ culture, and their total lack of interest in missionary endeavour. The ‘Indians’ were to be kept fully Other, and as far as possible obliterated. Not until the days of Fenimore Cooper did a sort of timid indigenismo appear, and the homoerotic blood-brotherhood of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook (Chicago!) was sealed safely off-stage in the unsettled wilds. In the 17th and 18th centuries, North American identity, such as it was – and it was never understood as ‘North American’ – came to be couched in the superstitious language of exceptionalism: God’s country, so to speak. Zuckerman notes that up to the very eve of the Revolution of 1776 there was still no real idea of ‘nation’ – the Declaration of Independence was cast in strictly universal terms. Only the experiences of the War of Independence created a self-consciously American identity.

The peculiarities of Protestantism come out still more strongly in those cases where the settlers found it profitable to import large quantities of African slaves. It is a little unlucky that this volume contains no essay on the American South, but Jack Greene’s grimly amusing account of ‘identity formation’ among the sugar-planting English creoles of Barbados shows that every feeble attempt at self-assertion in relation to the metropole foundered on their abject terror of an insurrection by these slaves, with whom no meaningful bonds, sexual or religious, were established. London’s warships would always be needed to rescue the Creoles in the event of Creoledämmcrung. Ironically enough, it was precisely among the descendants of those slaves that a genuinely Barbadian identity would eventually arise.

Slavery, in its backhanded way, did, however, contribute to a peculiar aspect of many ‘Atlantic’ Creole societies: what one might call their ‘frontier feudalism’: a sham precapitalist status-system erected on a solid capitalist foundation (it is a pity that capitalism, as such, never gets a mention in Colonial Identity). The settlers were aware, from at least the start of the 17th century, that slavery was largely barred from their respective metropoles. It was, in a sense, a New World novelty. But it made possible, for people of dubious or mediocre origins, the fabrication of a ‘seigneurial’ life on plantation or hacienda. And if, in Gerhard Masur’s words, ‘little reading interrupted the stately and snobbish rhythm of men’s lives’ – in Barbados, Jamaica, Venezuela, Georgia, it made little difference – its place could be taken by the famous hospitality and ostentatious extravagance of the creole nouveaux riches (the same could be said of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy here wittily dissected by Nicholas Canny).

The combined provinciality and wealth of the Creoles (with the notable exception of the French Canadians) gave rise to another element which shaped their identity: the common contempt in which they were held by the metropoles and their emissaries. ‘Virginia and Barbados were first peopled by a Sort of loose vagrant People, vicious and destitute of Means to live at Home (being unfit for Labour, or such as could find none to employ themselves about, or had so misbehav’d themselves by Whoring, Thieving, or other Debauchery, that none would set them to work),’ wrote the ‘economist’ Josiah Child in the later 17th century. The contempt was quite often agonisingly internalised. A contributor to the Barbados Gazette in the 1730s bewailed the fact that ‘Barbadians’ (i.e. English creoles) had become ‘foolish, ridiculous, inconsistent, scurrilous, absurd, malicious and impudent’ people, who in their ‘extravagant Passion for Riches’ had abandoned all civilised standards, including ‘Honor and Probity, Modesty and Chastity’. The greedy New English carpetbaggers of 17th and 18th-century Ireland, who bribed and politicked their way to titles of nobility, nevertheless found themselves dismayingly despised by their English counterparts. Rancour was one reason why, in the 18th century at least, many of the New English decided that after all they were ‘Irish’ – until the developing threat of uprisings on the part of the Irish Catholic peasantry encouraged them to change their minds. In the Spanish Americas, peninsular scorn for ‘Americans’, debased genetically through miscegenation, and corrupted by tropical abundance, was inevitably answered by hatred of maturrango arrogance and avarice.

Colonial Identity, confining itself to the period 1500-1800, only in passing raises the question of the relationship between emerging creole identities and the nationalisms that emerged first in the New World at the end of the 18th century. Schwartz wonders whether the absence of any printing presses in Brazil until 1800, and the persisting flow of Brazilian creole youngsters to the University of Coimbra (in the absence of a credible Brazil-located university), accounts for the very slow emergence of Brazilian nationalism, and the toleration, unique to the Americas, of a European dynast in local charge of Brazilian affairs up till 1889. Conversely, Pagden stresses the importance for ‘American’ identity of the universities founded in Ciudad Mexico and Lima as early as 1553. But this identity appears still diffusely ‘American’, and gives no substantial hint of the forces that would in the early 19th century produce people convinced that they were Bolivians, Argentinians, Hondurans and Columbians. In the same way, Zuckerman’s account of British America gives us little clue why the Thirteen Colonies banded successfully together and created the world’s first real nation-state, or, no less important, why so many of their resident Creoles trekked north to escape nationhood, leaving their much later descendants to imagine themselves, cautiously and ambiguously, as Canadians. Gilles Paquet and Jean-Pierre Wallot point out how, long-ensconced, and detached from metropolitan France, the French Canadians developed an identity of antique solidity, without, until very recently, producing a nationalism of their own. Today’s Protestants in Northern Ireland, also with a deep-rooted colonial identity, still cling Barbadianly to a contemptuous metropole.

Can one argue, on the basis of this book, that these ambivalences were peculiar to the creole societies that created Nueva Granada and New Jersey? The answer is probably no, for while the authors insist on the historical, religious and geographical fatalities forming ‘colonial identities’, they also, rightly emphasise the fluidity of such identities, the possibilities of rejection, transformation and combination. What would come later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, were the much more self-consciously political, imaginative and transformative ideas of nation, nationality and nationalism. We can see the ambiguous consequences in the ex-metropoles of Western Europe. For ‘home’ to England, after World War Two, came not only the disgruntled ‘Barbadian’ Creoles of Kenya, Rhodesia and Ceylon, but real Barbadians, Jamaicans, Pakistanis, Malaysians, and so on. A whole generation of ‘colonials’ have, however painfully, imagined themselves English. Yet across the Channel proliferate the enraged and desperate children of the Moluccas – ‘black Creoles’ of the old Dutch East Indies, whose still strong ‘colonial identity’ bars them from both Dutch and Indonesian felt nationality.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences