In The Intimacies of Four Continents, Lisa Lowe illuminates the missing connection between the emergence of European liberalism, settler colonialism found in the Americas, the transatlantic African slave trade, and the East Indies and China trades during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Many disciplines have done extensive research on each of these topics, however, their work focuses entirely on one aspect, and inconsistently exhibit the links between colonies and various countries. Through her analysis, Lowe finds archives, and historical narratives create an economy of affirmation and forgetting, which perpetuates the image of liberalism, and liberal ways of thinking and understanding in a more formal manner. In this way, writing and specific types of narratives subsumes or omits calamitous activities, colonial violence, and cultural perspectives. Liberalism advocated and guaranteed a contemporary way of thinking and application of ethics, which included universal rights, emancipation of slavery or forced labor, and free trade. However, liberalism created a paradox that gave increasing liberties to specific individuals and organizations and denied them unconditionally to others. Various tenants such as promotion of civility, mobility, free enterprise and individual autonomy, Liberalism rationalized the aggrandizement of government power. Colonial powers created adroit ways of placing subjects under administration, surveillance and abuse. Understanding narrative, colonial archives, and forms of literature in a different manner, Lowe elucidates the hidden and unconscious meaning between objects, methodology, and historical framework that has been surreptitiously canonized by nations under Liberal ideology.

Liberty, wage labor, free trade, and emancipation was delineated as a means of opening up man’s capacity to create and obtain opportunities for himself. Intellectuals proposed that Liberalism was justifiable because the movement from the state of nature to a more political society contains the natural state of war. This ensured that human life and various interests in property, etc. were protected from harm and threat of violence. In one of John Locke’s principle works, Two Treaties of Government, he outlined man’s rights to property and against tyranny. Introducing narrative supporting principles of freedom, John Stuart Mill, Locke, and others of their time became the purveyors of an enlightened age of thinking, where the individual had the world was open for his taking.

Liberalism proclaimed that one’s entitlement was contingent upon the individuals work and “everyone has a right to punish the transgressors of the law… to preserve the innocent and restrain offenders.” became a myth in regards to others non-caucasians in the Americas and West Indies. Jurisprudence became a means of rationalizing war and suppressing Indians or better known as “infidels” and “savages”. Through various tenants, liberalism justified colonialism and defined America as “uninhabited”. This implied that it was outside of sovereignty and legislation, therefore Europeans were rightfully entitled to expunge the indigenous people of that land. “This ‘appropriation of any parcel of Land, by improvising it’, implies a principle of “vacante soyle,” or vacuum domicilium, similar to terra nullias in international law, the term used to describe territory that has not been subject to the sovereignty of any state. The representation of the so called new world as vacant and uninhabited by Christian civilized persons, was a central trope of settler colonialism, employed to banish, sequester, and dispossess indigenous peoples of their lands.”

Although Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham, James and John Stuart Mill were vehement supporters and symbols of the abolitionism,  their advocacy would become a contradiction and a myth. The enactment of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 condemned acts of slavery, but also became a requirement that had to be fulfilled for liberal utilitarian laissez-faire economics. Allowing an individual to become liberated through various ethical principles such as education, liberalism paradoxically created a condition where it supported the ambitions of others while rationalizing and obscuring behavior of the British government. Furthering their justification of imperial government, both James and John Stuart Mill built upon Adam Smith’s critique of mercantilism and David Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage as a way to expand both industrial production and beliefs in social reform. However, instead of providing humanitarian principles for many, the editorial found and charged the Company with maintaining profits for the government by exploiting the working class.

In Of the Laws of Interchange Between Nations, John Stuart Mill stated that Ricardo’s definition was myopic and had to include other economic aspects as well. In addition to costs of production, demand of the good and cost of acquisition determined comparative advantage. Mill’s critique and solution to Ricardo, may have been directly implemented into the East India Company’s strategy to maintain an equilibrium between the unbalance in India and China. His involvement and certain level of influence is also noted when he was appointed the Chief Examiner of Indian Correspondence in 1856. In the 30 year tenure, he authored documents that would defend the company’s actions and absolve them from guilt, which is shown through the 1858 Company Petition to the Parliament, and Memorandum of the Improvements in the Administration of India.

Although the basic tenants of liberalism seem to have subjugated despotic governments and legislation, Mill believed that it was the integral condition for liberty to emanate from. Improvement of an individual’s thought, speech and autonomy, Mill defined liberty in societal terms where it could it could be define jurisprudence and authorized specific acts against “savages” and “backwards” cultures “this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children… We may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as its nonage.” Liberalism also stressed that freedom included discipline and education, where only educated citizens could represent and participate in society and the government. This would justify governments to rule over the underdeveloped and savage individuals in order to bring them to a more enlightened civilization that was found in Europe.

The abolishment of the transatlantic African slave trade throughout the empire from the Slave Trade Act in 1807 designated a new milieu for the empire. In order to display dominance and stabilize its place in European continent, the empire created new innovative legislation, which included creating a newfangled maritime nomos. At the beginning of this transitionary period, a secret investigation by the Secretary of State Lord Hobart took place. Hobert surreptitiously dispatched Kenneth MacQueen who captained the Fortitude, a ship that carried goods from the East India Company and a cargo of Chinese workers. The ship’s cargo, and crew were eventually seized and an official investigation regarding the legality of the voyage was held. This ship signified that at one point in time that maritime jurisprudence was ambiguous, and it defined a new nomos. “In other words, what surfaces in the historical record as the first British shipment of Chinese to the West Indies owes its appearance in the state archives to the ambiguous status of the voyage; the smuggled cargo was suspected of constituting a violation of the normative laws of maritime trade, suggesting the degree to which, in this period, the seas were an open, uncharted, and yet undetermined domain for mercantile expansion and imperial experiments beyond the nation-state.” Under the mercantile system and in conjunction with Liberal ideology, Britain’s transition to Chinese labor accommodated the apparatus of plantation slavery and maintaining its colonial dominance, as well as laying provisions by rationalizing it’s imperial sovereignty over the seas, and ports.

Transferring and displacing African slaves with new indentured Chinese labor, also marked a transition in economic rationality that allowed Britain to control, and dominate other colonial mercantile powers. Through legislation that was applied in several different milieus, Britan adroitly maintained its existing modes of government, while meticulously removing trade restrictions. This allowed Britain to selectively promote and sustain an open trade system with both Asia and across the world. Increasing it’s naval forces, Britain asserted its dominance in Asia by gaining access to ports in India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and coastal China, which allowed them to expand their trading in opium. “While the principle of ‘free trade’ aimed to lift mercantilist trade barriers and to break up the East India Company monopoly, it also became the means for the expansion of the opium and ‘coolie’ trades in India and coastal China…. The two traffics in ‘poison’ and ‘pigs’, as they were termed, were ‘perversely integrated,’ and each flourished as the administration of the opium trade reiterated and permitted the expansion of the circuits of the ‘coolie’ trade.” By the end of the 19th century, Britain was able to expand its empire vastly outside of its old economic models.

In addition to the new founded nomos, the British employed utilitarian rationality in order to move from a more “primitive slavery” to “free labor” where the Chinese became a racial barrier between the citizens of Great Britain and negroes. This also created a new division of labor “in which the black slaves would continue to perform fieldwork, and imagined the Chinese as ‘a free race of cultivators’ who could grind, refine and crystallize the cane.” Political development and legislation surrounding “freedom” became a major tenant to social and economic hierarchies of society, where “free” Chinese workers became an instrument in political discourse and created a paradoxical myth where they were racialized and coerced into labor. This symbolized freedom as the introduction of free labor and the abolishment of negro slaves, was shown through the parliamentary papers where the Chinese workers were termed “coolie”.

Used as a term to define or refer workers of Chinese and or South Asian descent that were coerced and imported to work in various aspects of the world such as Cuba, Peru, and the western United States, “coolies” were more than a way to reference ethnicity. In British colonial achieve, “coolie” references the instrumental use of a particular category of labor, which shows the instability of the terminology. As an intermediary form of labor, “coolie” became a term that defined an imaginary metaphysical state in order to make the lines between enslavement and freedom ambiguous, as well as normalize both terms. “As Moon-Ho Jung eloquently states, coolies ‘were never a people or a legal category. Rather coolies were a conglomeration of racial imaginings that emerged worldwide in the era of slave emancipation, a product of the imaginers rather than the imagined.”

Great Britain continued with its imperial strategy on land with various methods of colonial seizure, which included occupation and slavery through its newly expanded global trades in goods and people, and adroit ways of classification and criminalizing the asian population. Shortly after the Treaty of Nanjing was implemented and the First Opium War had ended, the newly colonized Hong Kong required new government measurements to improve its military and police regulations, emergency capabilities, and a way to register non-European citizens. In this way, liberal rule laid the provisions that were necessary to legitimize its own measures of violence that it subjected various individuals to, and defined “illegitimate” violence from others as it seemed fit. Imperial strategy and jurisprudence were also able to take advantage of the Chinese population due to other circumstances such as famine, and poverty that displaced individuals from their homes. “By the latter half of the nineteenth century, a large migrant Chinese population, displaced by famine, poverty, and the war with England, was criminalized in Hong Kong by English law, producing a significant part of the population of ‘coolies’ exported from the treaty ports to North and South America, the Caribbean, Australia, Hawaii, and other parts of Asia. Needless to say, these connections are not represented as such in the colonial archive. Rather, through unlikely, contiguous methods of reading correspondence, treaties, and legal ordinances, we may find a genealogy of liberal governance that discloses its role in imperial innovation.”

A negotiator and drafter of the Treaty of Nanjing, Sir Henry Pottinger would eventually become the First Governor of Hong Kong in 1842. His ideals, and envisioning of the ports of China would be similar to those that supported liberal political philosophy, in a way that it would provide protection for British citizens, various merchants as well as allow business to thrive. “The retention of Hong Kong… every single hour I have passed in this superb country has convinced me of the necessity and desirability of our possessing such a settlement as an emporium for our trade and a place from which Her Majesty’s subjects in China may be alike protected and controlled.” In a way it would become a “Little England” and a “real British colony… planted on the very threshold of China” said Sir John Francis Davis the second Governor of the colony. Liberalism rationalized colonial administrators to alter laws that allowed police and military arbitrary emergency powers. This enabled enforcement to designate land and displace residents at will, as well as manage social protests and unrest through corporal punishments that became legally bound. In collected Colonial Office papers, Pottinger and Davis discussed and criminalized Chinese offenses that ranged form theft and assault, to piracy and murder, in order to justify the need to establish intrusive buildup of police brutality and force, as well as maintain the presence of the military although the war had already ended. Beginning with the construction of the prison, Victoria Goal in 1841, Britain begun integrating itself into many aspects of Chinese life. Adding Police Force, Supreme Court, and an Attorney General’s Office, English Law became a powerful enough to supersede Chinese authorities and existing laws.

Sir John Francis Davis passed roughly twenty ordinances that would include the mandated registration of Chinese persons, policing of social spaces where Chinese citizens inhabited, and inspection of Chinese bodies. An additional revision of these ordinances occurred in 1846, where it strengthen the need to inspect and register Chinese individuals in order to protect the citizens of the colony. These legislative acts would allow Great Britain to become the rightful inhabitants of the area while displacing the Chinese into a nomadic statehood. “Chinese were required to carry a registration card at all times and faced imprisonment or deportation if not registered. Other ordinances criminalized a wide variety of activities in which the Chinese were said to engage, from loitering, violating curfew, and petty theft, to gambling, or simply being caught on the street without a registration card. Police were given wide authority to fine, arrest, and seize property, as well as to dole out beatings and humiliations like queue cutting, and to carry out deportations. The series of ordinances controlling Chinese through registration, curfew, and petty theft, to gambling, or simply being caught on the street without a registration card. Police were given wide authority to fine, arrest, and seize property, as well as to dole out beatings and humiliations like queue cutting, and to carry out deportations.” Justified by liberalism, the abuse and manipulation of legislation by the colonial government veiled and displaced its own violence to commit atrocities.

Lowe emphasizes the need to unveil the masked meaning found in various historical documents, literature, and other writings. In a way, her study shows an emergent meaning behind the social or cultural formations that show that they are not necessarily subjectively new, but comprise of elements that are enduring through the exegesis of narratives, and specific forms of literature. The varieties of contacts between laboring peoples, legislation, and continents is not explicit, but implicitly show that there are illogical gaps, tensions and occults in order to protect or rationalize coercion or colonization. Language is a constant reminder that the constitution of knowledge in attempts to mask history’s ill gotten gains often obscures the conditions that it creates itself. Terminology and differences of “nation” and “race”, the geopolitical coordinates of the “south”, “north”, “east”, and “west”, are remnants and constant reminders of liberal history and attempt of forgetting the past.

Consistent with the liberal era of political philosophy of Locke, Smith, and Mill, the autobiography became medium to portray individual liberty through education and by becoming a more ethical individual. In this sense, it is the liberal genre par excellence. This ideology is exemplified in Equiano’s Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, where the main protagonist, Equinao, details his upbringing and indentured servitude. He moves from slave ship to plantation and master to master and along his journey he obtains various skills such as learning how to write, measure and do arithmetic. Through his education and hard work on commercial ships and fighting in battles, Equiano accrued enough money to purchase his freedom. Equiano’s narration of enlightenment and self autonomy represented and encapsulated much of the antislavery movements and formal abolition of trade upheavals that were expressed in France, and the United States. In addition, the depiction of individual redemption epitomizes liberal institutions that upheld the various arguments by other slave narratives such as Frederick Douglas. “His [Equiano] narrative stylized the so-called transition from slavery to freedom and dramatized a conversion from chattel to liberal subject that at once negotiated the voices of abolition and slave resistance, and mediated the logics of coloniality in which trade in people and goods connected Africa, plantation Virginia, the colonial West Indies, and metropolitan England. It exemplified a fluency in the languages for defining and delimiting humanity, from liberal political philosophy and Christian theology, to the mathematical reason necessary for economy, trade, and navigation.”

The rite of passage to liberty shown by Olaudah Equiano was shown to be at the crux of the British abolition movement. In parliamentary records, The Interesting Narrative was praised and used by contemporary abolitionists William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, John Wesley, and Thomas Clarkson. “Wilberforce praised it not only as a treatise against the slave trade, but for its eloquence as an autobiography written by an African with memories of a West African childhood, the Middle Passage, and the tortures and abuses of slaves in the West Indies, whose education, religion and exceptional determination culminated in earned freedom.” In a 1789 speech that discussed the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Wilberforce’s narrative depicted the palpable aesthetics of the Interesting Narrative in order to appeal to the inconceivable abuse of slaves. Finishing his passionate narrative, Wilberforce presented Euqiano’s Interesting Narrative along with petitions to end the slave trade to the Parliament. Since then multitudes of critics have called the autobiography the purveyor of demonstrating the overcoming of slavery and fitness for freedom.

Equiano’s autobiography holds tremendous social value due to it being the first autobiography in English by an enslaved African. Through it’s allegorical tale, Interesting Narrative created a structural paradox that became a paradigm for liberal ideology, on which that freedom rests. The autobiography illustrated how liberal emancipation required a literary narrative that was written by an autonomous individual to be eviscerated out of a heteronomous collective subjectivity of colonial slavery. Although the biography and historical reference of text stems from our comprehension and interpretation whether it be a story of education and liberty, or a way to expose the contractions regarding parts of colonial archives, it sets precedence in liberalism narrative. This mediation through aesthetics form portrays the individual to show that it was an overarching principle of emancipation instead of a man’s prominence from the bonds of slavery. “When abolitionists like Willberforce promoted Equiano’s tale of individual liberty as the representative slave narrative, the exemplary qualities selected to illustrate the humanity of the slave may have subsumed the persistence of slavery, for those still in bondage at the time of the autobiography, as well as for those who would be “emancipated” in the aftermath. The exemplary tale of individual freedom had the power to defer the larger scale transformation of slavery as a collective condition in the empire.” In this way, the autobiography allows liberalism to select political narrative to remove the ills associated with colonial slavery.

Other forms of literature showed the residual colonial imperialism in a way that it expressed the dominate view points of bourgeois society by thematizing issues, but simultaneously suppressed historical contradictions. In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair depicted the emerging dominate culture of the British bourgeois consumer society as well as the aspirations of a world empire. The marketplace was at the crux of the novel, where it depicted the new consumer society in which various materials such as furniture, clothing and jewelry became symbols and used as for an allegorical tale of greed and moral decline within society hierarchy. Variations in taste became a signifier of classification, where language, immoderate way of consumption and display a new way of differentiating oneself in a more civil manner. Although Vanity Fair ostensibly depicted a lavish lifestyle, but it becomes a way to intimately connect the bourgeois household with outside forces such as slavery. “Rather, the novel mediates the ‘political unconscious’ of the age and, particularly through colonial commodification, portrays the ‘intimacy’ of the bourgeois home in relation to the occluded ‘intimacies’ of slavery, colonialism, and the imperial trade in goods and people that constituted an unacknowledged social formation of the era.”

Vanity Fair also depicts the moving of social conventions, where goods, services, and social conventions cannot escape commodification. Emerging social rituals such as drinking tea with sugar became more widely available and embraced by middle class households. In addition to symbolizing social status, the relationship between sugar and tea masked the connection between the four continents. “Yet the colonial relations on which the ‘English’ ritual depended-sugar from the West Indies, tea and china service imported from China, tables made of hardwoods from the West Indies, splendid dresses made of Indian cottons-these are subordinated as drinking tea becomes the quintessentially ‘English’ custom.” The inescapable commodification of goods and services also extended inward to the bedroom where a bed curtain obscures the relationship between India’s cotton manufacturing and production. During the 1800s India had become the most important manufacturer for cotton in the world, and was instantly recognizable by specific cultural patterns and colors. Unavailable to European manufacturers, India furnished fabric for draperies, quilts and bedcovers with elaborate chintz designs and vibrant dyes. Cotton therefore became another masked commodity that displaced the imperialist strategy of liberalism and British colonial government.