Repressions of the open sea : contesting modernity in nineteenth century literature of Brazil, Britain, and the United States




DeStafney, John Watford

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Comprising a cold war that endured from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade held the promise of a new phase of modernity in which the principles of the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution would be realized so that human liberty, rights, cosmopolitanism, and social justice would flourish at the center of an increasingly international politics. However, nineteenth century maritime literature from the imperial Atlantic nations of Brazil, Britain, and the United States -- all of which were deeply and distinctly involved in the controversy over the traffic -- decried the frustration of these ideals both before and after official acts of abolition and emancipation. As the sea offered unique perspectives on the transnational coloniality underlying the growth of western nations, maritime writers succeeded in disclosing the clandestine colonialist exploitation that sustained the progress of these empires during slavery and after abolition. This comparative dissertation explores literary interrogations of the ideals of western modernity through a synthesis of authors of different race, nationality, and literary status in order to sketch a generic field of western maritime literature. Each of the dissertation’s three chapters focuses on four authors -- Adolfo Caminha, Joseph Conrad, and Herman Melville receive repeated concentration -- and Brazil, Britain, and the United States are represented in every chapter. Race and the identity of the subject constitutes the central dialogue of the fictions explored in chapter one, which attempt to reconstruct fluid ontologies that evade the strictures of colonialist thinking. Personhood confronts the fluidity of the law in chapter two as maritime texts chart contests and circumventions of law in the extra-sovereign space of international waters. Chapter three examines the intersection of ontology and law through the moral concepts of natural law and crimes against nature, incorporating maritime texts that dramatize the employment of these rhetorical tools of meta-jurisprudence in pursuits of justice that ultimately liberate and oppress. Throughout, the mobile maritime environment and the slave trade foster the imaginative setting through which late-nineteenth century authors reveal the fluctuations of coloniality in western modernity.


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