Colonial Imperial Domination: Trauma, Gothic, Revolution

David Punter
David Punter

Perhaps we can see this most obviously in the multitude of acts of othering that constitutes the history of place names, which are regularly conferred by the other. There is a village near where I live in the United Kingdom called Chew Magna.

“Chew” is the name of a river, but it is not as though the villagers of this settlement near the river woke up one morning and thought, yes, we are bigger than the other villages along this river, and even if they had they would not have then thought, I know, let us add a nice, if rather grandiose, Latin suffix: the name was imposed from outside, in a non-native language, in order to fix the place on a map. Or, more grandly, we might think of the process by which the area including the island of Manhattan found its name changed from “New Amsterdam” to “New York”.

That was the consequence of a transaction of what might be called “commercial colonialism”: a new imperial master required a new imperial name, reflective of the change of dominion. And these acts of naming and renaming are all around. States of Australia called “New South Wales” and “Victoria”; states of the USA called “New Hampshire” and, rather more complexly, “New Mexico”. The list would be endless as we survey the effects of colonisation and what we now tend to call “global flows”.

There are similarly numerous attempts to rename in order to reverse namings that have come to be seen as overtly violent. The renaming of ‘German Southwest Africa’ as ‘Namibia’, of ‘The Gold Coast’ as ‘Ghana’: merely within Africa, this list too is long. In India the city until recently known as ‘Calcutta’ is now referred to as ‘Kolkata’: this is an unusual example, because the issue is that when other Indian cities were trying to throw off colonial naming, they searched for names that might reflect previous indigenous communities, but for Calcutta that was a problem, because there was no previous indigenous community; until European traders arrived, nobody had thought that a swamp on the banks of the Hooghly was a habitable place of any kind, and so the city fathers had to resort to making ‘Calcutta’ sound a little more local.

There are a number of processes at work here: colonial settlement; imperial domination; the need to impose order on what would otherwise be seen as chaos. One of the most resonant literary works to reflect, and reflect upon, this situation is Brian Friel’s famous play, ‘Translations’ (1980).

The scenario concerns the attempt, in 1833, to provide an intelligible cartography of Donegal in Ireland; here “intelligible”, of course, means “intelligible” in the English language, and thus all the place names need to be literally “replaced”. It is an added irony of the play, which Friel himself has pointed out, that in order to be intelligible to an international audience, the play had itself to be written largely in English (Friel, 1981).

This is only one small part of a wider process through which, in three distinct stages, English has taken over as what, following HSBC’s canny advertising campaign as “the world’s local bank”, we might call “the world’s local language”: the first stage was imperial domination; the second was the Americanisation of capitalism; the third, still ongoing, is the reduction of the functioning internet to the norm of a single language.

HSBC, incidentally, is itself a further interesting example: I am not sure that many of its “local” customers in England, while perhaps occasionally aware of its malfunctions and frauds, are similarly aware of what HSBC actually stands for: the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, a relic of colonialist opportunism if ever there was one.

I want to begin by moving through a number of literary examples of the connections between othering and nationalism, and then to move on specifically to the Gothic, because the Gothic, in its engagements with European national differentiations and its powerful, if sometimes displaced, accounts of national trauma, offers a particularly apt repertoire of images of nationalism of many kinds.

If we were to doubt for a moment that this remains a relevant vocabulary for the expression of national identification in Britain, we would need only to look at the television news, and the continuing focus on the Palace of Westminster, that great neo-Gothic pile, which still figures as the home of what is sometimes referred to as “the mother of Parliaments”.

A land of innocence is what we have here; a country where nothing bad can ever happen, and man — specifically the English man — is free to enjoy the love and protection of God. This isle is “so long unknown”, we hear, although we might fairly ask, “unknown to whom” — it would certainly have been known to the Caribs who lived there, but then as Derek Walcott so wonderfully laments across a whole series of poems, the Caribs have been long since exterminated; they have endured, or rather failed to endure, their own trauma (Walcott, 1986, 59–60).

The “grassy stage” is a resonant phrase, turning the island into a stage set, as is the phrase “prelate’s rage” — what is being alluded to here is an escape from the whole traumatic legacy of European religious strife. All the fruits, the vast beneficence of nature, are here, we note, free for the taking, in a specific ideological inversion of the profit-oriented mercantilism which in fact governed these early stages of empire — currency and trade as features of a benighted European past, to be superseded in this brave new world.

We may now find this fantasy portrayal of island life supremely ironic, or at best naïve, the idea, for example, in “proclaim the ambergris”, that we the colonisers are led to our treasure by divine will — we see here one of the origins of the still-potent mythemes of Treasure Island, of Coral Island, of The Pirates of the Caribbean, so viciously exploded in William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ (1954).

Trauma at home is replaced by a vision of peace abroad, and a well-deserved peace at that. The designs of God and the designs of England are in perfect harmony; and a notion of nationalism is founded on its other, the other reincorporated into what Benedict Anderson calls the “imagined community” as part of a seamless whole (Anderson, 2006). But of course such an illusory whole is never actually seamless, and we can learn much by turning to the savage disillusionment of Daniel Defoe.

In 1701 Defoe wrote a poem called ‘The True-Born Englishman’, on the occasion of King William III’s attempt to retain the military services of his Dutch Guards, and specifically in response to a xenophobic pamphlet by one Mr Tutchin, who has been happily consigned to the darkest recesses of history.

Whether Defoe’s scorn for nationalist myth would have increased if he had known that “Norman” is only a corruption of “Norseman” in the first place and represents a still further twist in the history of England, not as an invading but as an invaded nation, I do not know; however, the main thrust of his argument is obvious.

The so-called “English”, those custodians of purported national and indeed ethnic purity, are in fact a mongrel bunch, the results of centuries and generations of invasion and interbreeding. There are very complicated matters at stake here, as there so often are, in the relationship between the “English” and the “British”; suffice to say that one of the ingredients in the stew of the English is the “Painted Britain”, which assumes that the British, whomever Defoe conceived them to have been, occupy a subservient historical and cultural space to the English — although all this is grist to his mill, which is designed to deflate a sense of ill-founded national pride.

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