Colonialism and Agency, 1688–1804


Post-Contemporary Interventions

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Book Pages: 440 Illustrations: 28 b&w photographs Published: May 1999

Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In Tropicopolitans Srinivas Aravamudan reconstructs the colonial imagination of the eighteenth century. By exploring representations of peoples and cultures subjected to colonial discourse, he makes a case for the agency—or the capacity to resist domination—of those oppressed. Aravamudan’s analysis of texts that accompanied European commercial and imperial expansion from the Glorious Revolution through the French Revolution reveals the development of anticolonial consciousness prior to the nineteenth century.
“Tropicalization” is the central metaphor of this analysis, a term that incorporates both the construction of various dynamic tropes by which the colonized are viewed and the site of the study, primarily the tropics. Tropicopolitans, then, are those people who bear and resist the representations of colonialist discourse. In readings that expose new relationships between literary representation and colonialism in the eighteenth century, Aravamudan considers such texts as Behn’s Oroonoko, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Captain Singleton, Addison’s Cato, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and The Drapier’s Letters. He extends his argument to include analyses of Johnson’s Rasselas, Beckford’s Vathek, Montagu’s travel letters, Equiano’s autobiography, Burke’s political and aesthetic writings, and Abbé de Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes. Offering a radical approach to literary history, this study provides new mechanisms for understanding the development of anticolonial agency.
Introducing eighteenth-century studies to a postcolonial hermeneutics, Tropicopolitans will interest scholars engaged in postcolonial studies, eighteenth-century literature, and literary theory.


Tropicopolitans is a challenging and ambitious intellectual achievement, one that demands philosophical and conceptual engagement from its readers even as it offers a rich series of readings of texts and historical events. Indeed, it is fair to say that each one of the ‘acts of reading’ Aravamudan performs here is informed by, and exemplary of, some larger theoretical or intellectual problem highlighted in contemporary critical-theoretical inquiry more generally. Reading Tropicopolitans is thus also a high-level introduction to definitive problems in postcolonial studies—its enduring achievement will be its illumination of eighteenth-century British and French colonial cultures via the conceptual lenses provided by debates within postcolonial theory and criticism.” — Suvir Kaul , Diaspora

Tropicopolitans presents a sophisticated discussion of English and French literary works and of the theories of literary critics, which scholars of literature about South Asia may find suggestive. . . . Displaying masterful control over literary-critical, and especially postcolonial, theory, Aravamudan demonstrates how complex were European uses of the changing concept of the Orient.” — Michael H. Fisher , International Journal of Hindu Studies

“[An] often brilliant . . . study of colonialism and agency. . . .” — Alan Richardson , B.A.R.S. Bulletin and Review

“[Aravamudan is] an agile and theoretically sophisticated critic. . . . This book takes many gambles and is likely to excite and provoke those involved in postcolonial and eighteenth-century studies in equal measure. With the publication of Tropicopolitans, it is clear that the stakes have been raised.” — Kate Teltscher , TLS

“[T]his book marks a significant fruition of nearly twenty years of colonial and ‘post-colonial’ study of the eighteenth century. . . . Aravamudan’s analysis of all that qualifies and vitiates Romantic narratives of resistance is both subtle and shrewd. . . . [His] ability to keep . . . many different possibilities in balance suggests the urbanity and sophistication of this study, its refusal of both a facile moralism and political neutrality. . . . Aravamudan always manages to offer a fresh view of familiar (and sometimes surprising) texts.” — Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

“Aravamudan displays astonishing erudition on subjects from slavery and literacy to smallpox inoculation and sailors’ customs. This book is an important synthesis of 18th-century and postcolonial studies.” — T. Ware, Choice

“Aravamudan’s subtle readings of a range of eighteenth-century texts . . . proceed through a prismatic complex of historical, theoretical, and interpretive positions. . . . Aravamudan’s bold foray into incipient specular positions yields a powerful example to a cultural analysis aiming to keep history, materiality, theory, and institutional discourses in productive tension.” — Deepika Bahri , College English

“In a superbly argued book, the author casts a refreshing new look at eighteenth-century literature through a postcolonial lens. . . .” — Stephanie M. Hilger , Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature

“Srinivas Aravamudan’s important book opens up possibilities and is notable both for its archival strength and for the skill and sophistication with which it brings postcolonial thinking into the landscape of eighteenth-century scholarship.” — Balachandra Rajan , MLQ

“The strengths of this sprawling study emerge both from its sophisticated theoretical approach to anti-colonial critique and from individual insights into ‘tropicalizing’ movements. . . . Aravamudan has made a worthwhile contribution to a field in manifest need of more such sophisticated work.” — Elizabeth A. Bohls, Journal of English and Germanic Philology

“This often brilliant book deserves a wide readership, both by those who know already that they share its ethical aims, and those who value rigor and insight wherever they are found.” — Jennifer Thorn , ASECS Book Reviews Online

“Through its tropicalizing of a number of eighteenth-century European texts that are richly contextualized within colonial history, Tropicopolitans is indeed a valuable contribution to the re-mapping of the relationships between literary representations and colonialism.” — Marie-Paule Ha, Research in African Literatures

"[A] densely argued, richly suggestive text that amply demonstrates its multi-pronged thesis. . . . [C]hart[s] fresh routes for postcolonial engagements with the challenges of the present."
— Diana Brydon , Canadian Literature

"[A]n invaluable historical archive and a richly complex theoretical apparatus for understanding colonialist rhetoric and anticolonial agency . . . . We are in need of a pragmatic tropicopolitan who could raise a mirror to our collective consciousness and remind us constantly to avoid premature orthodoxies. Aravamudan’s book may well offer one such reflection."

— Mary Kelly Persyn , European Romantic Review

Tropicopolitans might initiate a school of “tropicalization” studies. In the emerging field of what we have learned to name Black Atlantic writing, Aravamudan has made substantial contributions in his chapters on Equiano and Toussaint Louverture, in which each figure is richly, contextually read. The wrenching from a Euro-Christian framework into a tropicalizing one opens up these figures to new critical investigations instead of merely freezing their heroic status for all time. Aravamudan’s book should go some way toward helping us maintain our vigil against premature orthodoxies.” — Donna Landry, author of The Muses of Resistance: Laboring Class Women’s Poetry in Britain, 1739–1796

Tropicopolitans is the most theoretically sophisticated study yet of colonialist texts in the eighteenth century.” — James Thompson, author of Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and the Novel


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Srinivas Aravamudan is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington.

Table of Contents Back to Top



1. Petting Oroonoko

2. Piratical Accounts

3. The Stoic's Voice


4. Lady Mary in the Hamman

5. The Despotic Eye and the Oriental Sublime


6. Equiano and the Politics of Literacy

7. Tropicalizing the Englightenment



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Winner, 2000 MLA Prize for a First Book

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2315-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2283-2
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