British representations of Latin America – An americanist discourse by Luz Elena Ramirez

For a number of years, I have been fascinated by a body of British literature that depicts the wonders and complexities of Latin America. After reading about remote treasures, sun-baked ruins, and rain-drenched lands, I could no longer avoid addressing a few key questions about the texts that captured my attention: Why did certain countries attract the attention of British writers? And to what extent does such writing about Latin America reflect historical conditions? What relationship might one identify between such literature and New World exploration, eighteenth-and ninetheenth century science and commerce, and the twentieth century’s search for self? What literary theory could help me to identify patterns in this corpus of writing? In formulating and seeking answers to these questions, I came to focus on Robert Schomburk’s 1848 editions of Ralegh’s Discovery of Guiana, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904), Arthur Donan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), and Graham Greene’s Americanist ouvre (1938-84). The authors of these texts write variously about Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, and Panama, or they base their fictional settings on these countries. And all of these narratives reflect and comment on the history of British activity in Latin America.

These works, and other texts discussed in the first chapter’s survey, constitute a body of work I all Americanist, a concept I develop in the course of my discussion. Throughout this book, beginning by highlighting the imperial impulses of the Elizabethan and Victorian periods as reflected in the works of Ralegh and Schomburgk, noting the emergence of an interest in development and science in the work of Conrad and Conan Doyle, tracing the concern over the fall of the British Empire in Lowry’s novel, and then discussing, the beginning of a modern consciousness in Greene’s work, I argue that these narratives portray an ambivalent picture of British and Latin American relations. This combination of doubt and hope, despair and exuberance belies the confidence generally associated with Britain as an imperial and capitalist superpower. But we must begin at the beginning, with a sense of Britain’s investment, actual and imaginative, in Latin America.

Since the days when Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Ralegh ventured to the Caribbean, the British have expanded their Latin American enterprises in tobacco, fruit, coffee, sugar, cotton, ore, rubber, and, most recently, oil. Rumors of gold, as manifest in the legend of El Dorado, contributed to development of such diverse trade. Columbus’s entry into the Caribbean in the 1490s, as well as Lope de Aguirre’s fateful Amazonian quest in the 1550s set the scene for the intrepid adventurers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean reigns. The search for El Dorado – a city of gold and an Arcadian paradise – ultimately became a rhetorical divide to argue for future enterprise in Latin America. In Ralegh’s endeavors to locate the golden city in what is now Venezuela, he explored and envisioned settlements in the basin of the Orinoco River. In Discoverie of Guiana (1596), Ralegh estabilished a precedent for the ambitions of naturalists, speculators, and travelers of the 1600s through the 1900s. The Elizabethan and Jacobean pursuit of the elusive El Dorado gave way in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to a more general quest for botanical and geographical knowledge. In the Victorian age, the myth of a lost city of gold was exposed as a fiction, though expeditions to Latin America by this time proved to hold value in the scientific exploits of Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace, Henry Bates, and Robert Schomburgk.

Writers of the 1900s conceived of the city of gold with an awareness of its unique place in the imagination of explorers and storytellers. Authors such as H. Rider Haggard, W.H. Hudson, and Arthur Conan Doyle used El Dorado loosely as a trope for their lost civilization or lost settlement narratives. For other writers, such as Joseph Conrad, Malcolm Lowry, and Graham Greene, El Dorado represented a dangerous illusion about the “New World”. El Dorado was stripped of its gilding; it was no longer a golden paradise in which the Elizabethan and Victorian self might find wealth. Instead, modern fiction exposed the story as sheer myth, one that had to be replaced by the reckoning of the modern self with a post-lapsarian, post-deluvian, and post-Arcadian world. Writers such as Greene and Lowry recognized the bankruptcy of the El Dorado myth, particularly as they took inventory of the pro-nationalist and anti-foreign movements in countries such as Argentina, Panama, and Mexico.

In what follows, I set the stage for this book’s argument by first discussing the economic relations between Britain and Latin America for the sixteenth century to the twentieth. I then discuss the extent to which postcolonial studies, in particular the work of Edward Said and “New World” scholars, adequately accounts for Britain’s entrepreneurial and literary forays into Latin America. We shall see that the specific Americanist narratives discussed in subsequent chapters contribute to an imperial discourse that is usually associated with Africa and Asia. This discourse includes both curiosity and anxiety about local culture, celebration of an entrepreneurial spirit, and, concomitantly, a dual justification and interrogation of British authority abroad. And yet, while acknowledging my debt to Said and other postcolonial critics, I argue that the works under consideration in this book both resist and complicate the category of imperial discourse and derail a postcolonial (usually Marxist) interpretation.

Let me offer a few qualifications about this study. First, though the British drew upon Spanish and French sources in their writing about Latin America, and though there is some overlap between the British representations of Latin American and those of the Spanish and the French, this book focuses on what is unique in British representations; scholars in Latin American studies have amply documented the ways Spain, France, and Portugal conceived of the New World and its colonies. Second, the terms Americanist and Americanism invite expectations about the British in North America. But this, too, it is outside of the scope of this study, as this book centers on the British commitment to territory already colonized by countries such as Spain and Portugal. The North American experiences, though related, constitute a different set of colonial activities. Finally, I generally use the terms English and England when discussing the Elizabethan period, when discussing international finance, which was generally arranged in London, or when echoing the voice of the writers themselves. British and Britain refer to the British Empire and to informal imperialism, particularly in Britain’s capacity to offer loans during Latin American efforts to gain independence. British also refers to the combination of Irish, Scottish, English, and Welsh activities and personalities represented in the Americanist texts.

Capitalist Imperialism in Latin America

Since Columbus’s discovery of the Caribbean in 1492 and the orchestrated efforts of Catholic missionaries and European adventurers in the sixteenth century, Latin America has been the locus of mostly Spanish, Portuguese, and French governance. Yet Britain did not exclude the possibility of an informal empire merely because territory was in the hands of another European power. Britain extended its influence in a number of ways: through the dissemination of English as one language of trade, especially in Brazil and Argentina; through the importing of its ideas, fashions, habits,; and through its Protestant missionaries. This last factor proved particularly important. A common goal of both Catholic and Protestant eighteenth-century Europe was to convert natives in the name of Christ, humanity, and progress. Once this task was undertaken, missionaries could guide native populations toward the practices of “civilized culture”; if successful, missionary work would safeguard regional commerce. European Catholics accomplished a good deal of the cultural work Britain needed to assemble its own resources and expeditions, despite its own anti-Catholic sentiments. In other words, Britain penetrated Latin America while Spain’s and Portugal’s colonies were agitating for independence, and after Spain and Portugal had set the scene for development through their conversions and conquests, both bloody and peaceful. Britain’s push for free trade in emerging Latin American republic is most significant for this study.

As it surveyed Central and South America and the Caribbean (the constituent regions of what I refer to as Latin America), Britain departed from the colonial practices it utilized in, say, Australia, Africa, and Asia, where is used military control and installed district commissioners to oversee territory. Accordingly, historians use the terms capitalism imperialism or informal imperialism to describe non-military forms of domination through finance (especially the granting of loans). Historians do not agree about the extent of British imperialism in the geographically and culturally diverse regions under consideration in this book. P.J. Cain and A.G Hopkins, two scholars who focus on the British Empire, identify two extreme positions taken on the debate about Latin America, with their own position somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, Gallagher and Robinson have “overestimated the extent of Britain’s informal in the mid-Victorian era”; on the other hand, Platt has underestimated British informal empire in the Edwardian period (Cain and Hopkins, 2000, 244). There is consistency, in any case, in the fact that historicans have come to use the terms informal empire, capitalist imperialism, and informal imperialism, somewhat interchangeably, and I follow this approach. Britain saw all sorts of economic possibilities in the independence of Latin America. Latin America, likewise, sought loans from Britain, going to great lengths to reassure British investors of its credit-worthiness, seeking “an open door for commerce and capital” (Cain and Hopkins, 2002, 244).



There are four trends in postcolonial theory that are relevant to my identification of British writing about Latin America as Americanist. The first is the influence of Marism on important Latin American thinkers such as José Martí (Cuba, 1853-95), José Carlos Mariátegui (Peru, 1895-1930), and Eduardo Galeano (Uruguay, 1940-). The second is the emergence of Caribbean studies and the negritude movement in the 1950s and 1960s, as initiated by Frantz Fanon (1925-61) and Aimé Césaire (Martinique, 1913-). The third is Edward Said’s two major contributions to postcolonial thought in Orientalism (1978; 1994) and Culture and Imperialism (1993;1994). Said, along with Homi Bhabba, and Gayatri Spivak, dramatically changed the way scholars teach the British and European canon, and the way literary critics and their audiences understand postcolonial issues in literature. The fourth and final is the emergence of empire studies, featuring he contributions of Mary Louise Pratt, Stephen Greenblatt, Anthony Pagden, and David Spurr. All of their cultural studies are interdisciplinary, engaging with disciplines (geography, archeology, sociology, history, and others) outside literature. What follows is a summary of each trend and its relevance here: I then address the lack of fir with these trends and what I see in Americanist literature.

Let us consider the first of the four trends: the impact in cultural studies of Marxism, and the degree to which a Marxist lends is helpful when reading British representations of Latin America. The Cuban revolutionary José Martí, the Peruvian social critic José Carlos Mariátegui, and the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano offer provocative analyses of development in the Americas. A cosmopolitan thinker and well-traveled writer – like many Cuban patriots, he had lived in New York and published his work there – Martí argues that the mestizo, back, and Indian Spanish-speaking Americans should make themselves known to their predominantly white English-speaking neighbors. He does not reject capitalism per se, but rather domination by foreigners. Martí’s work has since become a platform for Fidel Castro’s regime, which recently has sought to diversity its industries and move away from the mixed blessings of sugar and tobacco commerce. The essence of Latin America, if the “Apostle” may act as a spokesman, is hybridity. His essay “Our America” (1891) warns about the threat of northern expansion in to the Caribbean, in the Americas. He contends that the trunk of America must be American, but foreign ideas and elements may be grafted onto this tree if they are good and relevant, if they serve the American spirit. The point bears emphasis for Martí’s acceptance of outside influence is often overlooked by readers of his work.

Meanwhile, the Marxist intellectuals Mariátegui and Galeano engage in specific arguments aout land use in their respective regions; in doing so, they track the transition from colonialism to independence and from independence to the modern nation-state. They look at the strictures imposed on the peasantry by the latifundism (a serf-like system) and the caudillo (the military leader) in order to assess the impact of capitalism. Mariátegui came to write Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928) after his tenure in France and Italy, where he studied the labor problem in radical socialist circles. Like Martí, Mariátegui does not categocially dismiss capitalism, but he does lament the fact that Pery yielded its interests to foreign administration. He observes that the British Empire stood as a model for Peru of “capitalist civilization” with “its industry and machinery” and “clear sense of destiny” (Mariátegui, 1971:9). As I have written elsewhere, “Mariátegui credits England for funding Spanish American independence through its banking. Yet, all of this progress came with a cost. In signing the Grace Contract, for example, Peru lost administration of its railroads to England, which had financed them. Further, Peru grew sugar and cotton on the Coast for export, rather than producing crops for local consumption” (Ramirez, 2000:289). Though critical, Mariátegui is not wholly against British commerce and involvement in technology; instead, he advocates for more Peruvian involvement in the country’s business. This side of the colonial-postcolonial equation often is dismissed in postcolonial circles in order to sustain an unwavering assault on foreign development.

Second, let us consider the emergence, in the Caribbean, of a recognizable body of anti-colonial criticism in the work of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon. Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism (1955) and his adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1969), as well as Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952; 1991) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961; 1963) tackle what have become known in postcolonial circles as “master narratives. “Using a combination of Marxist and psychoanalytic theory, as well as a set of striking binaries, Césaire and Fanon deconstruct many of the patrician and self-justifying narratives about slavery and colonialism in the New World. Black Skin, White Masks exposes the dual positions of colonial desire with its essays “The Woman of Color and the White Man” (41-62). For its part, Discourse on Colonialsim exposes the raw motives of the Spanish Conquest with focus on Caribbean life before Columbus’s arrival. Cataloguing what will become the basis for the future condemnations of the encounter in the New World studies, Césaires writes, “I am talking about natural economies that have been disrupted – harmonious and viable economies  adapted to the indigenous population – about food crops destroyes, malnutrition permanently introduced agricultural development oriented toward the benefit of the metropolitan cuountries, about the looting of products, the looting of raw materials” (Césaire, 1972, 21-22). What champions a romantic view of the land and its people, one that somehow supposes no conflict existed among them before the encounter with Europeans, and no treachery. Yet Arawaks and Caribs trafficked in slaves (who were sometimes subject to cannibalism) through tribal warfare before Columbus and his fleet landed on their shores. On a related note, we can read Césaire’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Une Tempête (1969), as a refinement of his Discourse on Colonialism. In his Caribbean version of the play, Césaire renders Prospero as the colonizer figure and Caliban and Ariel as the colonized to illustrate axes of power based on language, race, and law (Porter, 1995). With his adaptation of Shakespeare and his polemic on colonialism, Césaire enacts on stage the process of hegemony. Popularized by Antonio Gramsci and then Raymond Williams, the process of hegemony reveals control of one group by another, a dominance; but the process of hegemony entails a tugging and pulling of colonial, imperial, or cultural relations, a phenomenon that became one line of inquiry for Said’s Orientalism (1978; 1994).

Said’s work is relevant to this discussion of what I call an Americanist ouvre for a number of reasons. Latin America, historically, was deliberately compared to or mistakenly conflated with eastern lands, the geographic area that is Said’s focus. In deciding whether to interfere in Latin American affairs, imperial officials could draw on what they learned in places such as Egypt or India. And even before Britain got involved in Latin American development, Columbus had collapsed the geographical space between West Indies and the East Indies in his writing. With expectations of finding a quick route to the East, he misread the island of Cuba (also known as Juan) for the mainland of China (Cathay); similarly, he misidentified Hispaniola as Japan (Chipango). He observes this about his first voyage: “When I reached Cuba, I followed its north coast westwards, and found it so extensive that I thought this must be the mainland, the province of Cathay [China]” (Cohen, 1992, 115). Cohen, one of Columbus’s editors and translators, elaborated on this problem: “Having assumed that the island of Hispaniola was in fact Japan, the Chipango of Marco Polo, he [Columbus] was compelled to accept Cuba as the Asiatic mainland, ‘the extreme end of the East’ (16). This construal of [Cuba] was beyond any doubt the mainland of Asia” (16). This construal of events signals in the European imagination the convergence of the East and the West – hitherto, two hemispheres diametrically opposed to one another. Beyond this important error on Columbus’s part – although this mistake seems deliberate – the Orient and the Americas taken together were places to colonize and, in time, try out new kind soft business. The admiral’s worldview, and that of others who followed him, stemmed from the impulse to appropriate and settle “blank spaces” on the imperial map. Thus, Latin America is one sense “the Orient”, and Columbus’s understanding of what was to be done in the Orient is the kind of worldview that Said’s work confronts.

Said’s Orientalism (1978; 1994) and Culture and Imperialism (1993; 1994) prompted a generation of scholars to investigate the influence of imperialism – whether that of the French, Spanish, or British – on literature. Thus, Said’s work provides a way to explore the nature of British imperial activities in Latin America and to read British literature that deals with commercial, political, and scientific endeavors in Latin America. Two key aspects of Said’s theory about imperialism – that is, his postcolonialism – bear on my discussion. The first is Said’s analysis of power. The second is his conception of the ways by which identity – whether national or imperial – is constituted. While acknowledging the persuasiveness of Said’s writing about Orientalism, indeed by making clear my debt to it, I consider each issue in turn.

According to Said’s Orientalism, nineteenth-century Western scholars in their translation sof Eastern texts and later in their scholarship about the East, constructed, rather than described objectively, a vision of the Orient based on a series of biases that depicted the Orient as the antithesis of the sophisticated West. This vision portrays the Oriental as the opposite of the virile, colonizing Westerner, and Orientalism as an ideology perpetuates a discourse of dichotomies that describe the West’s relationship to the East in terms of strict binaries: superior/inferior, masculine/feminine, and colonizer/colonized. The linguist Ernest Renan, the novelist Gustave Flaubert, and the emperor-trafficker in the exotic, Napoleon I, are, according to Said, key figures in fixing the Orientalist perspective. The British traveler-scholars Edward Lane, Sir Richard Burton, and Sir Hamilton Gibb also contributed to the making of the Orient in their wielding of colonial power in the Near East. According to Said’s analysis the West can only successfully colonize the Orient by knowing it, by putting it into a familiar framework. Thus, Orientalism – the West’s construction of the Orient as inherently other, the foreign object to be studies and then dominated – can be understood as constituting a body of knowledge. In knowing the other, and in being in the position to ground this knowledge as truth, the West yields power over those defined as other.


Said, E. W. (1985) Orientalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Spivak, G. (1988) In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge

Cohen, J. M. trans. (1992) Christopher Columbus: The Four Voyages. New York: Penguim.

Fanon, F. (1964) The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Charles Lan Markman. New York: Grove Press.

Excerpt from:

Ramirez, L. E. (2007) British Representations of Latin America. University Press of Florida. Chapter 1 – A Survey of Americanist Literature.