Specters of the Atlantic

Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History

Specters of the Atlantic

Book Pages: 400 Illustrations: 2 illus. Published: December 2005

Author: Ian Baucom

Cultural Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In September 1781, the captain of the British slave ship Zong ordered 133 slaves thrown overboard, enabling the ship’s owners to file an insurance claim for their lost “cargo.” Accounts of this horrific event quickly became a staple of abolitionist discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. Ian Baucom revisits, in unprecedented detail, the Zong atrocity, the ensuing court cases, reactions to the event and trials, and the business and social dealings of the Liverpool merchants who owned the ship. Drawing on the work of an astonishing array of literary and social theorists, including Walter Benjamin, Giovanni Arrighi, Jacques Derrida, and many others, he argues that the tragedy is central not only to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the political and cultural archives of the black Atlantic but also to the history of modern capital and ethics. To apprehend the Zong tragedy, Baucom suggests, is not to come to terms with an isolated atrocity but to encounter a logic of violence key to the unfolding history of Atlantic modernity.

Baucom contends that the massacre and the trials that followed it bring to light an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation based on speculative finance, an economic cycle that has not yet run its course. The extraordinarily abstract nature of today’s finance capital is the late-eighteenth-century system intensified. Yet, as Baucom highlights, since the late 1700s, this rapacious speculative culture has had detractors. He traces the emergence and development of a counter-discourse he calls melancholy realism through abolitionist and human-rights texts, British romantic poetry, Scottish moral philosophy, and the work of late-twentieth-century literary theorists. In revealing how the Zong tragedy resonates within contemporary financial systems and human-rights discourses, Baucom puts forth a deeply compelling, utterly original theory of history: one that insists that an eighteenth-century atrocity is not past but present within the future we now inhabit.


Specters of the Atlantic is illuminating, provocative and original.” — Anita Rupprecht, Patterns of Prejudice

Specters of the Atlantic possesses rare strengths. One is that the theoretical ruminations, like much writing in the Hegelian and Marxian traditions, can spark new insights. The most important of these—here, necessarily, different readers will prize different sections—is Baucom’s commentary on the swelling of state power that ironically followed upon efforts to protect individual rights. A second valuable insight comes in his trenchant analysis of the eighteenth-century benevolentist ethics as a counterdiscourse to the liberal individualism from which nineteenth-century abolitionism would spring. Scholarly awareness of the fluidity of the ideas, values, and religious beliefs underneath abolitionism is still new enough that a new treatment is welcome. A third important insight is a striking articulation of moral outrage over the system in which the Zong massacre occurred—an articulation that seems to be made possible by the author’s interests in theory.” — John Salliant, Journal of the Early Republic

“[A] magisterial, impressively readable study. . .” — Jeannine Marie DeLombard, Law and History Review

“[Monumental. . . . [T]his is a book which will, in its multifarious components and theoretical exuberance, inevitably inform and stimulate debate on the Atlantic world.” — Royal Holloway, Textual Practice

“Baucom . . . brilliantly renews, and relocates to the eighteenth-century Black Atlantic, methods Walter Benjamin designed to investigate the mysteries of nineteenth-century capital. . . . For me, the passion of this proposal that the Atlantic slave trade made modernity, that it constituted as central a "historical event" as the French Revolution, made reading the book an event in itself.” — Deidre Lynch SEL, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

Specters of the Atlantic is a fine example of interdisciplinary scholarship. It draws on a wide array of sources—historical, literary and philosophical—to weave a text that compels and provokes.” — Corey Capers, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

Specters of the Atlantic is an impressively imaginative and erudite work. . . . [T]his challenging book richly rewards the reader who lingers in its midst.” — W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Business History Review

“The originality and creativity of the text by Baucom . . . suggest[s] that the Atlantic remains an extremely productive – though dark – space for theoretical and historiographic inventiveness about our world.” — David Lambert, Cultural Geographies

“This is an ambitious book that attempts to historicize the Zong case while at the same time probing its deeper cultural meaning. It is also intellectually ambitious.” — J.R. Oldfield, International History Review

“This work is a compelling study of the roles of slavery and abolition in the origins of finance capital in the British Atlantic empire. The work is an interdisciplinary tour de force, with superb scholarship on slavery, modernity, the Enlightenment, postmodernism and contemporary literary theory. It is one of the finest comparative studies of the philosophy of history and liberation struggles that I have read.” — Charles C. Verharen, Interventions

Specters of the Atlantic is quite possibly the most provocative scholarly work I have read in a decade. I really cannot praise this book enough.” — Mary Poovey, author of A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society

“A fantastically stimulating read, Specters of the Atlantic will be an extremely significant book. Its core strength is that it deals in such detail and in such an imaginative way with the primary texts associated with the case of the Zong. Nobody has read those texts in such a careful and stimulating way before, and nobody has used the case to construct such an ambitious historical schema.” — Peter Hulme, author of Remnants of Conquest: The Island Caribs and Their Visitors, 1877–1998


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ian Baucom is Associate Professor of English at Duke University. He is the author of Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity and a coeditor of Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Part One: “Now Being”: Slavery, Speculation, and the Measure of our Time

1. Liverpool, a Capital of the Long Twentieth Century 3

2. “Subject $”; or, the “Type” of the Modern 35

3. “Madam Death! Madam Death!”:Credit, Insurance, and the Atlantic Cycle of Capital Accumulation 80

4.”Signum Rememorativum, Demonstrativum, Prognostikon”: Modernity and the Truth Event 113

5.”Please decide”: The Singular and the Speculative 141

Part Two: Specters of the Atlantic: Slavery and the Witness

6. Frontispiece: Testimony, Rights, and the State of Exception 173

7. The View from the Window: Sympathy, Melancholy, and the Problem of “Humanity” 195

8. The Fact of History: On Cosmopolitan Interestedness 213

9. The Imaginary Resentment of the Dead: A Theory of Melancholy Sentiment 242

10. “To Tumble into It, and Gasp for Breath as We Go Down”: The Idea of Suffering and the Case of Liberal Cosmopolitanism 265

11. This/Such, for Instance: The Witness against “History” 297

Part Three: “The Sea is History”

12. “The Sea is History”: On Temporal Accumulation 309

Notes 335

Index 377

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3596-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3558-0
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