Lost Worlds: Latin America and the Imagining of the West

Lost Worlds: Latin America and the Imagining of the West

by Kevin Foster




Think of Latin America and what do you see? Escape? Adventure? Chaos? Oblivion? In Lost Worlds Kevin Foster explores how these and other stereotypes about the continent came into being and what their continuing currency tells us about ourselves.

Foster argues that over the last 200 years Latin America has served the English speaking west as an imaginary realm where its highest hopes and deepest anxieties might be realised or assuaged.

Examining a range of texts, from Southey's epics to Naipaul's essays, from Conan Doyle's gentlemen adventurers to Kerouac's restless hipsters, from the ruined Missions of Paraguay to the urban chaos of 1970s Argentina, this book examines the role that Latin America has played in British, US and Australian endeavours to resolve the key moral and political crises facing the English speaking west in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745315133
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 11/10/2009
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kevin Foster teaches in the School of English, Communication and Performance Studies at Monash University, Australia. He is the author of Fighting Fictions (Pluto, 1999).

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Leadership and Legitimacy

In the late 1780s, Britain and Spain went to the brink of war over possession of the north-west coast of North America. The crisis had its focus on Nootka Sound, one of the bays carved out of the coast of Vancouver Island. During the 1780s Nootka had become a centre for fur and fisheries and Russian, French, American and British traders flocked to exploit its natural bounty. Their arrival was greeted with consternation by the Spaniards, who claimed exclusive sovereignty over the whole continent from the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). In 1789, in a belated effort to assert their authority, Spanish ships entered Nootka Sound and seized four vessels belonging to the British adventurer, Captain John Meares. When Meares turned to his government for assistance, Britain's Prime Minister William Pitt responded with alacrity. In the throes of imperial expansion abroad and economic and military reform at home, Britain was eager to recover the political momentum it had lost after the humiliation of the American War of Independence. Pitt saw in Nootka Sound the opportunity to balance the losses on the east coast of the continent with new gains on the west, and thereby restore national pride. Troops were dispatched, the Royal Navy prepared for action and the destabilisation of the broader Spanish imperium set in train, to which end: 'Francisco de Miranda was summoned' to lead the 'liberation of South America' (Williams, 1979: 4). Though the crisis soon passed, the Nootka incident did have a lasting effect on the course of Latin American independence. Francisco de Miranda, the father of Latin American liberation, came when he was called. From 1789–92 and 1801–5, 'El Precursor' lived in London, travelling widely in Europe in the intervening years. He immersed himself in national and European politics, met monarchs and statesmen, philosophers and economists, cut a dash in polite society and pursued a number of notorious love affairs, all the while seeking to advance the cause of Latin American independence. The impact of his two extended periods of residence in Britain on the imagining of the independent republics of Latin America can hardly be overstated. For more than two decades after he brought his 'continental consciousness-raising campaign' to London, 'disaffected Spanish Americans from all regions of the empire' beat a path to Miranda's door at 27 Grafton Way in Bloomsbury (Racine, 2000: 4). The list of his visitors – Bernardo O'Higgins, Andrés Bello, the Mexican Friar Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín, his friend and rival Carlos María de Alvear, and Bernardino Rivadavia – is a who's who of the Latin American liberation struggle.

Britain had obvious attractions for the 'independence generation'. Not only had its opposition to Napoleon's continental expansion and its denunciation of Spain's commercial monopolies made it a de facto proponent of Latin American liberation. Its own programme of political, economic and industrial modernisation made it both a model and an ideal partner for the continent's projected republics: 'Although the United States and France both offered fascinating experiments for Spanish Americans' consideration, it was early nineteenth-century Britain, the home of Adam Smith and the Industrial Revolution, that most captured their collective imagination' (Racine, 2000: 3–4). Like most modern visitors to London, the fathers of Latin American liberation mixed business and tourism with shopping and the pursuit of pleasure. Soliciting financial aid, political recognition or military assistance, in search of generals, bureaucrats, teachers, printing presses and the odd constitution, these 'purposeful travellers' took time out to dine with Jeremy Bentham, visit Robert Owen's model farms and factories and discuss the merits of the monitorial system of education with one of its founders, Joseph Lancaster (Racine, 2000: 5). Accordingly, when they made their way back to South America, whatever goods they stowed in the ship's hold, it was their mental baggage, their vision of Britain as a 'free society of law, order and material progress' that exercised a more pervasive influence over the subsequent forging of the Latin American republics (Racine, 2000: 5).

When Napoleon's 1808 invasion of Spain precipitated the abdication of Charles IV and the fall of the Bourbon monarchy in Madrid, the resulting crisis of imperial legitimacy triggered revolutionary uprisings throughout South America as Royalists and Republicans struggled for control of the colonies. During the Peninsular campaign of 1808–13, Britain fought side by side with loyalist Spaniards to dislodge the French and restore the monarchies to Spain and Portugal. After Napoleon's surrender and exile to Elba in 1814, Britain intervened more directly in Latin American affairs, capitalising on the opportunity to extend its influence in the continent at the expense of its erstwhile ally. Soon after Ferdinand VII reclaimed his father's throne in Spain, he focused his resources on subduing his rebellious Latin American colonies and the nascent republics suffered a series of reverses. The first Venezuelan Republic fell as early as 1812 and in the succeeding years Spain launched a series of vigorous counterattacks in the Viceroyalties of Peru and New Granada. At this juncture, just as the republics had looked to Britain for inspiration and example as they struggled to establish themselves, they now looked to her for arms and assistance as they fought for their survival. Numerous missions crossed the Atlantic to sue for moral support, materiel and manpower. The timing of these appeals was uncommonly propitious. 'The end of the Napoleonic Wars resulted in large numbers of underemployed troops in Europe, and many newly discharged British soldiers jumped at the opportunity to fight in America' (Racine, 2000: 7). Britain's first recruits left London for Venezuela in December 1817 followed over the next three years by a further 50 sailings carrying more than 8,000 men, most bound for Venezuela, some destined for Chile and Peru.

This influx of British military personnel and their families into Latin America engendered intimate contacts between the two cultures at all social levels, providing a beachhead from which British goods, manners and ideas could spread their influence through the continent: 'the most visible influence of the increasing British presence in Spanish America was the introduction of new kinds of machinery, weapons and consumer goods to everyday usage'. Of longer lasting significance, however, were 'the tastes, habits and preferences formed in Europe' that these men and women brought with them and which subsequently exercised such a profound influence over 'local consumption and design patterns' (Racine, 2000: 16–17). The local elites adopted British innovations in architecture, interior design, table manners, dress, recreation, education and print publications. In doing so,

the patriotic creole upper classes literally wore their allegiances on their person; English-manufactured calicoes and jerseys, Irish linens and Scottish woolens ... Even the poorer classes, who admired some of the exotic imported colours they were not able to produce locally, purchased Manchester flannel, picked it to pieces, respun the wool yarn and wove it sparingly into their own hand-produced fabrics to approximate the desired colour. (Racine, 2000: 20)

While British and European models exercised a pervasive influence through Latin American society, Mary Louise Pratt claims that 'By the 1820s, the South American revolutions ... had become a source of immense interest in Europe', a claim echoed by David Sinclair, who observed that 'newspapers and magazines' throughout Britain 'were full of news, opinion and optimistic forecasts about the future of South America' at this time (Pratt, 1992: 146; Sinclair, 2003: 49). However, the evidence suggests that beyond the press, the coffee houses and the stock exchange, neither the continent nor its liberation struggles 'preoccupied the British consciousness' at any deeper level (Watts and Davies, 1979: 44). Despite Sinclair's claim that in Britain 'There was much airy talk of the cause of liberty and republicanism' and that 'leaders of the independence movement ... were feted as heroes in London', English literature of the period yields not a single portrait of a liberation hero – indeed hardly any mention of Latin America at all. Thus, the greatest revolutionary movement of the century left scarcely a mark on the imaginative culture of early mid nineteenth-century Britain.

Why was this? V.S. Naipaul suggests that the liberation of the Latin American republics, most specifically Venezuela, was more a basis for uncomfortable self-reflection than a cause for celebration among the British, who were busy in the Caribbean, and elsewhere, establishing colonies 'remarkably like the Spanish province' they were helping to liberate (Naipaul, 1973: 333–4). From this perspective it was less the emergence of the independent republics than the decline of the Spanish empire that exercised Britain. A further explanation arises from the fact that British forces were engaged on multiple fronts at the time, combating the French on land and at sea, fighting a brief war with the United States of America and consolidating power in India through wars against Nepal and the Rajput states. With so much of the nation's military resources engaged elsewhere, it is hardly surprising that the British had little time for events that seemed to lie far beyond their material interests. The only occasions on which South America occupied the nation's collective imagination was when Popham and Whitelocke's raids on Buenos Aires, in 1806 and 1807 respectively, ended in humiliation for the British forces. Thereafter, 'Britain in the main avoided formal empire in Latin America', preferring to 'exercise a kind of informal paramountcy' through its domination of trade and commerce (Knight, 1994: 4). One of the central consequences of this reluctance to take on an overtly political role in Spanish America was, as already noted, the entrenchment of British ignorance about the continent and its peoples. The imperial condescension this expresses, and the lexicon of disparagement it underwrote, further explains the failure of British literary culture to engage with Latin America in the early nineteenth century. While it was felt that Spanish America lay beyond the sphere of British interest, it was believed that there was little there to sustain cultural engagement. Ironically, the conviction that Latin America was an irrelevance gradually brought it into the British cultural mainstream. Signifying nothing, Latin America could be made to mean just about anything. Britain's refusal to engage with the origins or processes of the republics' rebellions against Spanish colonial rule made Latin America the ideal locus for examining its own transformation into an imperial power. Robert Southey's epic poem, Madoc (1805), offers an instructive, if early, case in point, as Southey uses his eponymous hero's adventures in the New World to address the anxieties raised by Britain's expanding imperial role in the early nineteenth century.

On the death of his father, King Owain of Gwynedd, Madoc gathers a band of followers, takes ship and leaves Wales, in search of 'Some happy isle, some undiscovered shore,/ Some resting place for peace' (Southey, 1909: 471). After crossing the Atlantic, the Welsh discover an Edenic country inhabited by a defeated and demoralised people, the Hoamen. Subject to their warlike neighbours, the Aztecs, they are compelled to surrender an annual tribute of children for human sacrifice. Madoc determines to end this savage practice, liberate the Hoamen and establish a new world of peace and plenty. When battle is joined, divine favour and superior leadership ensure a Welsh victory. Under the resulting peace treaty the Aztecs pledge to abandon human sacrifice, the worship of their idols and to free the Hoamen. His work of pacification complete, Madoc returns to Wales to collect more settlers for the colony. However, on his return to North America he finds that the Aztecs, coerced by their priests, have broken their compact and returned to idolatry and human sacrifice. A series of climactic battles ensues. The Welsh once again vanquish the Aztecs, whose defeat is compounded when a volcanic eruption and accompanying earthquake devastate their settlements. Abandoning their homes, the survivors head south to Mexico, leaving the Welsh and the Hoamen to prosper in this new Eden.

If this seems a rather expansive precis it is worth noting that the poem itself comes in at a little under 9,000 lines, a narrative stretch which even Southey's more sympathetic critics felt 'unjustified' (Curry, 1975: 161). Other reviewers derided the poem as 'interminable'; one thought it 'as long a labour as any twelfth-century Atlantic crossing' (Williams, 1979: 189, 195). Southey's epics did go on. When Shelley made the pilgrimage to Greta Hall to visit his idol, he reportedly 'slipped beneath the table, unconscious with boredom, during Southey's rendition of one of his own epics' (Storey, 1997: 213). Madoc's critical reception mixed panegyric with disdain. The Imperial Review felt that the poem 'would hardly yield to Paradise Lost' (quoted in Madden, 1972: 105). The classical scholar, Richard Porson, was an intemperate admirer, affirming that 'Madoc will be read – when Homer and Virgil are forgotten' – 'and not till then', Byron reputedly added (quoted in Carnall, 1971: 14). For the prosecution, John Ferriar lamented 'The dull tenor of mediocrity' which characterised the poem. In Madoc 'we behold the author mounted on a strange animal, something between a rough Welsh poney [sic] and a Peruvian sheep' (quoted in Madden, 1972: 103–4). The Eclectic Review thought the poem 'grossly improbable ... considerably too long' and disgraced by 'sundry [linguistic] fopperies and singularities' (quoted in Madden, 1972: 107). Time has done little to soften such opinion. Contemporary critics have found it uninteresting, bloated, contradictory and ideologically inconsistent, with its protagonists dismissed as 'mere righteous ciphers' (Franklin, 2003: 83).

Ironically, the poem's inadequacies have come to be regarded as its greatest strength. Caroline Franklin has noted that the 'discordant voices' which render Madoc an 'artistic failure' also make it 'a poem of great interest to the cultural historian' (Franklin, 2003: 70, 71). Composed through the years of Southey's extended grappling with the effects of the French revolution on British liberty and his resultant transformation from Jacobin firebrand to establishment imperialist, the poem celebrates the nation's expanding colonial role while addressing the anxieties to which it gave rise. As Linda Colley notes, Britain's successes in the Seven Years War (1756–63) vastly extended its imperial power and enhanced its international prestige. However, 'having acquired too much power too quickly over too many people' its success also had a profoundly destabilising effect (Colley, 1996: 110–11). As the eighteenth century drew to a close Colley reflects, 'like the frog in the Aesop fable which exploded in trying to compete with the ox' Britons 'made nervous and insecure by their colossal new dimensions ... were left wondering if they had overstretched themselves' (Colley, 1996: 109). The story of Madoc addressed these concerns, having itself 'entered history as an instrument of imperial conflict' (Williams, 1979: 67). First appearing in Sir George Peckham's True Reporte (1583), 'a pamphlet written by an Englishman to promote a British colonization of America', it arose from Elizabethan England's struggle with Spain over possession of the New World (Williams, 1979: 35). Two hundred years later, as the two countries squared-off over Nootka Sound, Madoc was once again invoked in support of British title to North America. The intermittent prominence of the Madoc myth has clearly rested on its serviceability to British imperial and cultural ambitions. As these have shifted so Madoc has drifted in and out of the cultural mainstream, tracing 'the ebb and flow of imperialism, trade rivalry and colonial settlement' while also helping to manage the anxieties that they have occasioned (Williams, 1979: 67). The specific anxieties that Southey addresses in Madoc focus on two questions that preoccupied Britons at the time. Does the nation have the personal and collective qualities to conquer and run an empire – can we do it? And, is it a morally defensible exercise – is it right? While the second of these arose from an ongoing debate about the moral and political grounds for colonial rule, a crisis of legitimacy, the former addressed what seemed to be a matter of more immediate concern in Britain in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century: a perceived crisis of leadership.


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Table of Contents

Preface Lost Worlds
Introduction The Half-Light
1. News From Nowhere
2. Adventures and Anxieties
3. The Last of England
4. South of the Border
5. Dreaming of Pelé
6. Fearful Symmetry
Conclusion Southward Ho!
Works Cited

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