Imperialism

A close reading of V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979).

 

Bigburger pictures looked like smooth white lips of bread over mangled black tongues of meat. (97)

 

Bigburger: Singular pronoun. Bigburger—“The Big One,” (ibid) curiously set opposite the Big Man, the president—is not merely a brand, product or franchise, it's a pseudo-state, assuming the role of accommodating refugees (99) and constituting the "New Domain" by rivaling the state's role in growing local real estate. Indeed, Bigburger represents Mahesh's "coup", (97) presumably displacing, or at the very least challenging, the Big Man's authority with the backing of international capital's new colonialism.

Pictures: Plural noun. Graphic representations of the Bigburger universe, conceived, manufactured and shipped in from the white outside. These representations interestingly condition our narrator's perception of that outside—in the end, after all, Bigburger becomes a sort of outside, resembling his notions of the U.S., (98) at least in that it provides a space of escape from "real Africa" (100).  These pictures contrast the photographs of the State Domain, which serve the same function in reverse, following an Africa-Europe trajectory.

Looked: Verb, preterit tense, indicating vision, or more generally, perspective. In this case the perspective can be assumed to be that of the narrator, wrapped up in all the complexities of his very fluid subjectivity.

Like: Conjunction, grammatically indicative of union between two clauses: here the representations (i.e photos) and our narrator’s interpretation of them. This term also embodies a sense of approximate resemblance, qualifying that interpretation as subjective and dependent upon the narrator's subject-position as a third-generation African of Indian descent whose loose use of the subject pronoun ‘us’ often includes characters of Indian, Middle-Eastern or European origins as well as Africans. At different times, all of these subjects are equally set up as others depending on the narrator's chosen point of view.  

Author: 
Carney, Judith Ann

Carney, Judith Ann. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001.

I would argue Carney is successfully doing with agricultural knowledge what Sweet tries to do with spirituality. That is, she challenges theses of creolization and Middle Passage erasure to further the work of Peter Wood (African slaves participated in the development of the Carolina rice economy as more than just a source of labour) and Daniel Littlefield (their contributions came from experience in Africa) Carney’s argument is that African knowledge of irrigated rice cultivation crossed the Middle Passage in tact and was utilized to the benefit of Carolina rice plantations, constituting a significant asset to the antebellum economy, while also introducing methods of landscape transformation and gendered knowledge that came from Africa.

In both cases—Carney and Sweet—the argument necessarily deals with origins. Here Carney convincingly debunks the myth that irrigated rice cultivation was introduced in Upper Guinea by the Portuguese, and demonstrates how an indigenous species of rice—Oryza glaberrima— was domesticated independently of the more widely studied Asian species, O. sativa. She does this in two ways: first she offers a rereading of Portuguese chronicles; then she uses the concept of landscape gradient to illustrate a major fissure in the Portuguese-origin argument.

Author: 
McNeill, J.R.

McNeill, John Robert. Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Aedes aegypti = yellow fever
Anopheles quadrimaculatus = malaria
Let creole ecology = Aedes aegypti or Anopheles quadrimaculatus

(Any colonial encounter + creole ecology) / differential immunity = winner

I’ve got to admit I feel slightly mistreated. If you want to know the basic argument of Mosquito Empires read this, because it is little more than an elaborated version of what McNeill has already said. However, McNeil’s elaborations tend to mean more breadth, not more depth. Thus, despite his protest to the contrary I have to say his formulaic approach to geopolitical events can be reduced to mosquito determinism. (compare p. 6 with p. 234) And my qualms with his framework—namely, his belief in the power of stats and his unwillingness to explore the cultural components of individual stories—remain strong.  

He deals with the same cases: Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Surinam and the revolution in Nueva Granada. But he also expands his scope, exploring the “greater Caribbean.” Most notably, he recounts the case of the southern colonies during the American Revolution, where the creole ecology that emerged was generated by the rice economy—not sugar—but the outcome was the same nonetheless: the local combatants, armed with malaria resistance, were able to besiege Cornwallis’ beleaguered forces at Yorktown until the French could intervene. While McNeill is still very much enamored of sieges and stand-offs, he also includes episodes of settlement deterred when he examines the disasters of the Scots in the Darien (1698) and the French in French Guyana (Kourou, 1763).

Author: 
Grandin, Greg

Grandin, Greg. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010.

Expanding on the opening vignette presented in Empire’s Workshop, Fordlandia gives a detailed narrative history of Henry Ford’s escapades in Amazonian Rubber production. Grandin tells the story of Ford’s attempts to transfer his Dearborn successes to large-scale monocropping off the eastern bank of the Tapajós in the 1920s and 30s. Always pushing the irrationality of the endeavour, Fordlandia the book (also the name of the first plantation, est. 1927) tells of the obstacles that stunted and eventually overcame Ford’s obsession with propagating Fordism in the tropics. From Villares’ swindle in the concession negotiations, to the labour riots, failed attempts at social regulation and the lost battle against Microcyclus (cause of South American Leaf Blight), the plantations at Fordlandia and Belterra (est. 1936) are presented as embodying the contradictions of Fordism itself, a utopian ideal that represented “Ford’s efforts conceived in disregard or ignorance of Ford’s limitations” (17, quoted from the Washington Post).

Thus, Grandin offers a pathology of Fordism, beginning with its roots as a project to engineer a consumer class with the 5-dollar day and demonstrating its evolution into the efficiency obsessed private autocracy governed by Harry Bennett’s iron fist (e.g. 1932 Bennett massacre, Chapter 16). To tell the story of Fordlandia’s rise and decline against the backdrop of an evolving Fordism, Grandin resorts to numerous analytical frames, a tactic that gives the reader an archeology of defeat rather than suggesting one explanation for this quixotic project’s failure (like Dean does).

Author: 
Grove, Richard

Grove, Richard. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996.

Grove gives an account of the rise of early environmentalism as a corollary to the maritime colonial expansion that began in the late fifteenth century. His focus is on the importance marked by islands, not only in the spread of the Portuguese, Dutch and English empires, but also as symbolic and practical manifestations of the possible course of human-triggered ecological change.

Grove’s periodization ranges broadly from Ancient Greece—with Theophrastus’ linking of climate alterations and deforestation— to the rise of capitalist modes of production and to Worster’s post-Romantic imperialist scientists in the mid nineteenth century. More specifically, he concentrates on the period between 1660 and 1860, marking 1700 as a crucial turning point when observation of environmental decline was turned into conservationist policies based on scientific theories of environmental decline and climate change. During this period he focuses on the expansion of the Dutch, French and British empires, particularly as regards the measures taken by colonial governments anf the English and Dutch East India companies in India, St Helena, Mauritius and the Eastern Carribbean. 

Squeezed within a World System frame, Grove highlights the interplay between various poles: the Humanist vision of writers like Daniel Defoe or that Edenic portrayals of island paradises and the dessicationist theories of an emerging scientific elite; that scientific elite as opposed to the colonial state; the policy of the metropole and the resistance posed by the periphery; etc.

Author: 
Sweet, James

Sweet, James. Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship and Religion in the African-Portuguese World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

There are two main arguments being advanced here: one of which I accept and I feel is in line with other thinkers whose ideas I embrace—Taussig, Mbembe, Bakthin, Rouch—the other, as much as I resist, I cannot help but qualify as rubbish. Sweet’s far-reaching gloss of a main argument rejects ideas of hybridity, creolization and syncretism to instead claim that African religious and cultural practices crossed the Middle Passage in tact, and were reproduced in colonial Brazil in a way that reflected resistance more than assimilation. The first part of this—that Africa was “recreated” in Brazilian slave societies—is the rubbishy part; the second idea—that religious and cultural customs could serve a counter-hegemonic function—sits better with me.

To try and support his argument, Sweet introduces a rich swath of material that forces us to ponder the significance of Africa in Latin American history. Divided into three parts, the presentation of inquisition cases and engenho records offers up some fantastic fodder. First he demonstrates the existence among Brazilian slaves of kinship networks and gender constructions (the case of the jinbandaa) that had their equivalents in Africa. In a drastic betrayal of his own thesis, however, he shows how both were retooled to fit the new and brutal circumstances that slaves faced under Portuguese colonialism.

Author: 
Grandin, Greg

Grandin, Greg. Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. The American Empire Project. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006.

Here Grandin argues Latin America served as the crucible in which what he calls the new American imperialism was forged. Imperialism being the lens through which he frames things, his narrative uses case studies from Latin America to tell what is, in essence an American story: that of the convergence of free-market fundamentalism, militarism and right wing populism into what has become the Bush doctrine of intervention (155, 194).

In each chapter Grandin advances his narrative by posing a set of opposites that demonstrate important shifts in relationship between US politics and Latin America. As context, we see how the pendulum of American diplomacy shifted between blunt interventionism and Roosevelt’s good neighbor policy for the first half of the twentieth century. The next dichotomy addressed is of an ideological nature: one of Hobbesian hard power and Kantian notions of progress, a binary successfully fused in Jean Kirkpatrick’s approach to Central America. Next Grandin address the Cold War context posing the Regan-era “rollback” approach to communism against Nixonian containment / détente. On the political front, the Regan Administration’s tripartite strategy of using the office of “Public Diplomacy” to wage the PR struggle while circumventing domestic surveillance laws and forging a New Right grassroots mobilization is credited with marking a shift in American foreign policy from a starkly anti-millitarist post-Vietnam position to one of outright militarism. The final dichotomy emerges on the economic front as the ideological predilection for markets over states.

Author: 
O’Brien, Thomas

O’Brien, Thomas. The Century of U.S. Capitalism in Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

As an encyclopedia of multinational activities in Latin America, The Century of U.S. Capitalism in Latin America is a useful tool. However, beyond that, the book’s scale, treatment of actors and focus and the framework of imperialism leave it lacking any substantial utility. O’Brien takes on the intervention of US business elites since the mid-part of the XIX, periodizing almost a century and a half as a linear progression from the time of initial individual interventions (before 1872), through a “golden age” of corporate growth—the second conquest eluded to by Grandin—from 1876 to 1921, the emergence of resistance first in the form of populist and later nationalist state action, and finally closing with the rise of neoliberalism, which O’Brien suggests looks eerily like the late XIX golden age.

For such a wide breadth to be covered in 170 pages, O’Brien has to resort to a cursory telling of the feats of great men—US robber-barons like James Stillman and Michael Grace, or Latin American leaders from Porfirio Diáz to Haya de la Torre, Allende, Castro and Perón—in which all other actors are reduced to the essentialized categories of “Latin Americans” or “workers” or “small business men.”

As the title suggests, this is a story of US capitalism, and Latin America only appears as one of many stages on which American businessmen and corporations acted. While the vignettes of striking workers at Cerro de Pasco and the Cuban sugar plantations, or of nationalization under Cárdenas, Velasco—never mentioned by name—Castro and Allende, do make this a Latin American story, the general narrative arch subordinates those vignettes to the larger tale of American corporate imperialism and the efforts of business elites to shape Latin Americans to fit a US corporate mould.

Pages