Raphael Hörmann – The Artisan Writes Back? John Thelwall (1764–1834) and his Proto-Socialist Critique of the British Empire

Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below

An international & interdisciplinary conference

Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney


Event Dates: 25 June 2010
Bristol, UK

Raphael Hörmann (University of Rostock) 
The Artisan Writes Back? John Thelwall (1764–1834) and his Proto-Socialist Critique of the British Empire

This paper aims to investigate John Thelwall’s radical, anti-colonial critique of imperialism. As I will argue, he marries his fierce attacks on the British Empire with an equally outspoken condemnation of the socio-economic oppression that the British lower classes suffer. Taking into account his artisanal background and, particularly, his close links with the evolving British working-class movement (e.g. the London Corresponding Society), I will discuss in how far Thelwall’s exposure of colonial and domestic exploitation anticipates later socialist arguments about the interrelation between a rapacious capitalism and colonial expansion.

Both in his political writings and speeches and his anti-colonialist fiction Thelwall identifies the same socio-ideological rationale behind colonialism and capitalism. What fuels Britain’s industrial/financial ‘take off’ as well as its imperial expansionism, are the aspirations of the emerging bourgeoisie: the “aristocracy of the Royal Exchange” and “aristocracy of commerce,” as Thelwall calls it in artisanal-radical parlance in his Tribune in 1795. Colonialists and capitalists have formed an unholy alliance which has embarked on “a profligate crusade of the powerful and wealthy, against the poor and weak” in Britain as well as in its colonies, as he alleges in The Rights of Nature (1796). Presciently, he also predicts the geographical shift in British expansion from the West (in particular the Caribbean) to the East (especially the Indian subcontinent).

His fiction, for instance his anti-imperialist libretti Incle and Yarico and The Incas, as well as his Gothic novel The Daughter of Adoption (1801), also reflect his anti-colonialist stance. In the novel, of which about a third is set in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (todays Haiti) Thelwell depicts the outbreak of the Haitian Slave Revolution in 1791. He displays considerable sympathy for the rebellious slaves; and this at time when Britain was still reeling from its inglorious defeat by the black armies (largely made up of ex-slaves) that it had suffered when it had tried to invade the French colony in 1793. In the novel the British lower-class character Edmunds serves as the link between the rebellious slaves and the – largely quiet – British masses. He not only greets the slave revolt with enthusiasm, but, at same, also suggests that a lower-class social revolution in Britain was also direly needed. Although in the course of the novel Edmunds’ unequivocal revolutionary commitment is shaken by the excesses of violence that both sides are guilty of (the rebellious slaves as well as the slave-holding planters), he nevertheless continues to principally endorse the slave revolution. However, the urgent question remains: Does the servant Edmunds in his lower-class, proto-socialist stance on revolution also act as Thelwall’s mouthpiece?

Raphael Hörmann, University of Rostock, email
Raphael Hörmann studied German and English Literature at the University of Constance, Germany and the University of Edinburgh. In 2007 he gained his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Glasgow with a thesis on 19th-century German and English Revolutionary Literature. Currently, he is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Graduate School “Cultural Encounters and the Discourses of Scholarship” at the University of Rostock, Germany. His publications include essays on German and English radical literature, Marx and British colonial discourse and literature. His revised thesis will be published under the title Writing the Revolution: German and English Radical Literature, 1819–1848/49 (Münster etc.: LIT, 2010).








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