The Americans in 'Expedition of Humphrey Clinker'
Sometimes people can be guilty of thinking about our connections with America only since the US became an independent country in the late-eighteenth century. We can default to thinking of them only when they become players on the world scene, or of returning to questions relating to the slave trade and the popularity of book’s like Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the UK, or of whether or not we were likely to intervene in the Civil War.
This overlooks the close cultural connections between Britain and the colonies on the American mainland. At this point the British Empire – the first British Empire as it’s sometimes called – was located almost entirely in the Americas, and as a cultural preoccupation it would often find it’s way into even the most unlikely of places.
One such example is The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), by the novelist Tobias Smollett. This early novel is written entirely in epistolary form – it is a series of letters from a group of related characters to their various friends – and is in many respects a fairly slight comic affair. One does not expect, in amongst the scatological humour and rude jokes, to find a huge amount of political commentary, it is fair to say. The family travel around Britain and it details their misfortunes and the provoking characters they meet along the way.
Even here, though, the colonies force their way into the novel. A close reading will reveal all kinds of places where trade and the new world are making their presence felt in domestic life in the UK (not without anxiety, it must be said), but one area that doesn’t need to be read too closely to get the same effect is the story of the solider, Captain Lismahago. This Scottish soldier fights in the Seven Years War for supremacy on the North American continent and talks about his adoption by a tribe of Native Americans called the Miamis.
The presentation of the Americas and of the Natives that we get is, predictably, fraught with a lot of the associations of the time. In a move that might mirror Jonathan Swift, there is a link between the Native Americans and cannibalism, something that seems to give this society part of its coherent character.
Lismahago and another soldier are tortured while in captivity, to the point where the other solider – originally considered the likely husband of a prominent Native woman – is rendered ‘unfit for marriage’ or emasculated by their treatment. Lismahago, then, is saved by the fact that he can still fill this role while his peer is killed and eaten as part of a ritual. As an adopted member of the tribe Lismahago potentially foreshadows the stereotype of the white man who joins the natives and becomes better than them at their way of life, when he is elected Sachem and ‘acknowledged as first warrior’ of the tribe. Eventually, he is traded away for another prisoner, and returns to England, where his experiences are marked on his body – including the revelation that he has been scalped, possibly the native practice around which Europeans displayed the most marked anxiety.
What this tells us is that the Americas, and the Empire, turn up even in places we might not expect to find them. British interests on the far side of the world led to encounters between soldiers and people of different cultures, and in a case like this we can see what happens when those soldiers return to their homeland. Here, in the eighteenth century, there is a fascination with the world – and how the increase of the empire, and the need to fight over those lands – is changing the lives of even the comfortable English gentry.