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Informal Empire: Mexico and Central America in Victorian Culture.

Informal Empire: Mexico and Central America in Victorian Culture. By Robert D. Aguirre. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. xxix + 198 pages.

When Peter Sherringham, a lovelorn diplomat in Henry James's The Tragic Muse (1890), needs distraction from his hopeless passion for an actress, he delights in his appointment to a new post, as "minister to the smallest of Central American republics," where the unpleasant climate and political instability ensure a successful career: "it was serious, it was interesting, it was exciting, and Sherringham's imagination, letting itself loose into the future, began once more to scale the crowning heights" (393). Why would James select Central America as the ultimate career move for his ambitious hero? Without mentioning James, Robert D. Aguirre, in Informal Empire: Mexico and Central America in Victorian Culture, suggests some answers, by exploring how the region was represented--in travel narratives, pamphlets, correspondence, and exhibitions--in Britain between 1821 and 1898.

Aguirre cites two texts as crucial to his project--Edward Said's Orientalism and Richard Altick's The Shows of London, both published in 1978. In fact the convergence of these works has given rise to a tremendous amount of valuable work on the ideological implications of British museum displays and exhibitions. Works such as Annie Coombes's Reinventing Africa (1994), Tony Bennett's The Birth of the Museum (1995), and Donald Malcolm Reid's Whose Pharaohs? (1997), as well as numerous anthologies have exposed the story behind the museum display, to show how assumptions about colonized peoples shaped the British effort to obtain artifacts, and how the display of those artifacts in turn reinforced Britons' sense of national and imperial identity during the nineteenth century.

While Mexico and most of Central America were not, of course, British colonies, they are sometimes considered part of Britain's "informal empire": land culturally and economically dominated by British interests although not literally under British rule. John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson argued in an influential essay that in promoting free trade, Britain in fact promoted its own influence and economic advantage, and thus extended its power far beyond its formal colonies ("The Imperialism of Free Trade," Economic History Review 6 [1953]: 1-14). This is the assumption shaping--and giving its title to--Aguirre's book. The term "informal empire" is itself controversial, however: Some historians argue that if imperialism is "informal"--that is, separated from direct political or military intervention--it is not really imperialism. Others argue that the term underrates the degree of collusion between local elites and British diplomats and investors; if a relationship serves the needs of both trading partners, according to this argument, it is not really imperialism. But Aguirre, citing Robinson and Gallagher among others, finds the concept a useful way of describing the unequal trade relationship between Britain and Latin America during the nineteenth century.

Aguirre's thesis, then, is that "the British quest for and representation of pre-Columbian antiquity became a crucial cultural arm of the larger political and economic strategy historians call informal imperialism" (xv). His goal is to show how British depictions of Central America and Mexico, as manifest in "travel narratives, museum exhibitions, panoramas, diplomatic correspondence, ethnological freak shows, and adventure novels" helped create "an audience receptive to the influx of British power in the region" (xvi), an audience that would see the area as culturally inferior yet potentially wealth-producing.

Critics of the term "informal empire" worry that it overstates Britain's influence and control (see, for example, Martin Lynn, "British Policy, Trade, and Informal Empire in the Mid-Nineteenth Century," in The Oxford History of the British Empire III [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999]: 101-21). But one of the strengths of Aguirre's book is his recognition that the center-periphery relationship was complex and two-way. In part because it was "informal," Aguirre suggests, British control was often haphazard and ineffectual. And for a variety of reasons, the Latin American ruling class--the "Creole elite," in Aguirre's terms--played a constitutive rather than passive role as receiver of British influence. This elite tended to identify with British culture, look down on the indigenous population, and invite British investment as eagerly as the British sought markets and goods. But they were also occasionally resistant to European efforts at despoliation. Thus rather than conceptualizing Britain's "informal empire" as a one-way street, sending out influence from a stable center, Aguirre argues, we need to see center and periphery as "mutually constitutive" (xxi). Left out of the picture entirely, he acknowledges, is the indigenous population, whom he evokes only as "a kind of colonial unconscious, an anxious, ambivalent reminder of violent or symbolic dispossession" (xix). But he is careful to conclude each chapter with a discussion of whatever resistance he can detect among either the elite or indigenous populations.

In keeping with his insistence on complexity, Aguirre focuses only on "select episodes" in Britain's relation to Mexico and Central America between 1821 and 1898 (xiv): William Bullock's writings about and displays of Mexican landscapes and antiquities; the effort of the British Museum to acquire Mayan ruins; the display of "Aztec children" in late-nineteenth-century London; and a novel by Rider Haggard set in Mexico. This episodic approach, which allows for lots of nuance but little synthesis, is both the book's greatest strength and its weakness.

Aguirre is at his best in close readings of texts and images. Chapters I and 2 deal primarily with Bullock, who, on his return from an 1822 visit to Mexico, produced a five-hundred-page book (Six Months' Residence and Travels in Mexico), a museum exhibit at his Egyptian Hall, and a panorama, all to great acclaim. Aguirre shows convincingly how Bullock's representations set the terms in which later exploitation took place, depicting a lush landscape populated by docile natives incapable of developing their own land or protecting their own antiquities. Bullock's display thus presents itself as a disinterested effort to preserve what would otherwise be lost, even as it encourages "ways of looking and perceiving that reinforce imperial subject positions" (22). The panorama, in particular, Aguirre shows, reinforces the polarity between British center and Latin American periphery, putting the viewer "in a superior position over the represented landscape" (40-41, emphasis in original), and thus giving the sense that even distant lands can be controlled from a position of centrality. Bullock's narrative and displays inspired both investors and travelers, setting the exploitation of Mexico's natural resources and its antiquities on "parallel tracks" (28).

But how, one might wonder, does Aguirre's inquiry into the cultural manifestations of "informal" imperialism differ from any postcolonial reading of ethnological museum displays and exhibitions? Aguirre does point out aspects specific to the anomalous, noncolonial position these countries bear to Britain. The museum exhibit's catalog, for example, implicitly contrasts the brutality of the Spanish conquistadors with Britain's benevolence; evoking sixteenth-century competition between Britain and Spain for the "new world," Bullock implies that the British are both more ethical and more forward-looking, carefully preserving antiquities and bringing progress rather than destruction in their wake. The panorama's guidebook, Aguirre points out, invites the viewer to identify with earlier travelers--among them, Hernando Cortes--catching their first glimpse of the Mexican plain from the mountains above. But the guide steeps its account in language borrowed from British landscape painting, thus linking the visual domination offered by the panorama not to Spain's brutal conquest and greed but to "aesthetic appreciation of land as an index of civilization" (47).

The "informality" of its empire, then, allows British representations to set Spain up as imperial foil. It also, presumably, allows local elites somewhat more control over their artifacts. Chapters 1 and 2 both conclude by turning to a "counterimperial consciousness" evident in the efforts of some Mexican and Central American officials to protest and even pass laws against "cultural robbery" (30), and to critique European accounts of their culture as overly dichotomized oppositions between "civilization" and "savagery." Despite the fact that these elites were themselves manipulating "the indigenous past for their own political ends--ends that denied the indigenous as rightful inheritors of that past" (32), Aguirre finds in their protests the "emergence of a powerful anti-imperial discourse" (58).

Direct opposition, silent resistance, and British ineffectuality shape the plot of chapter 3, the most entertaining and revealing in the book, with its account of the Mayan ruins that remained where they were. Aguirre found, in Foreign and Colonial Office archives, a trove of letters and dispatches concerning the British Museum's efforts--between 1841 and 1855--to acquire Mayan antiquities. These efforts failed, in part because of rivalries within the small, shared world of museum trustees, government officials abroad, and parliamentary leaders at home; in part because relevant dispatches took too long to reach their recipients. The administrative machinery, in other words, fueled by homosocial bonds and dispatches, was undercut by these very same elements. While Mayan artifacts did eventually reach the British Museum, the ruins originally sought by the Museum remain in Central America, partly because of the efforts of Guatemalan and Honduran elites to create their own national museums and pass laws protecting the ruins.

Although Aguirre shows how, to some extent, the "informality" of Britain's involvement affected its relation to and depiction of Central America, his analysis also turns up some of the same binaries and paradoxes typical of more formal imperialism. Take, for example, his fascinating account of the 1853 exhibition of two microcephalic "Aztec" children, Maximo and Bartola. The exhibition of "exotic" people in London was a popular trend throughout the nineteenth century, described in works by Altick, Coombes, Sander Gilman, and Robert Bogdan (Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit [1988]), among many others. Aguirre argues the display of Maximo and Bartola marked a new stage in freakery because it was the first time non-Africans had been exhibited as "specimens" rather than "spectacles"--that is, as objects of "scientific" scrutiny. Placing their display in the context of late-nineteenth-century racial theory, he uses popular and scholarly accounts as well as illustrations to show that representations of Maximo and Bartola served to reinforce British assumptions about the reality of racial difference, the inferiority of mixed races, and their inevitable demise in the face of racially superior Europeans. His conclusion, that "ethnological spectacle" worked to support informal empire by "vilifying indigenous peoples" with one hand, "while stripping away their 'sculptured remains' for exhibition abroad" (106) with the other resembles that reached by Coombes about the more formally colonized Nigerians and their bronzes (7-28).

As he does in each chapter, Aguirre concludes with a discussion of resistance, but in this case he is stymied by the total absence of information about Maximo's and Bartola's viewpoint. Instead he describes a 1992-93 performance protesting the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage, in which two performance artists act the part of exhibited specimens, critiquing "an entire tradition of viewing and dissecting the Other" (132). Here Aguirre appends a crucial warning that cultural critics themselves, eager to expose "history's dark places" are themselves reinforcing the structures they seek to critique. "The critique of colonial discourse," he concludes, "... must become itself an object of investigation, must be willing to look at itself looking, without abandoning its ethical imperative: to dismantle Western practices of othering" (134).

Instead of supplying this kind of self-scrutiny in his conclusion, however, Aguirre ends with a brief "coda," a reading of Rider Haggard's 1894 novel Montezuma's Daughter as compensation for various losses: Haggard's bereavement over his son, who died while he was traveling in Mexico; England's "belatedness" in relation to Spain's Latin American empire; and, in the 1890s, the loss even of Britain's "informal" empire in the face of growing United States domination, which culminated, in 1898, in the Spanish-American War. While providing closure by alluding to the demise of British influence, this final chapter does not offer any reflections on the larger issues raised by Aguirre's work. The book remains a collection of episodes, meticulously researched, and thought-provoking enough to leave a number of unanswered questions. How significant, finally, are the differences that Aguirre points out between the cultural manifestations of informal versus formal empire? Did representations of Honduras, where the British did have formal jurisdiction, differ from those of Guatemala, where they did not? How might Aguirre's notion of a British imperial subject be complicated by consideration of social class and gender? To what extent are his insights transferable to other parts of Britain's "informal empire"--to China and Turkey, for example?

All of these questions, of course, suggest that Aguirre has written an important book that usefully expands and complicates our notion of colonial discourse. And his account goes a long way toward explaining why James's Peter Sherringham would see Central America, with its primitive-sounding "swamps and jungles" as a "stepping-stone" to his own future (392, 393). Underlying Sherringham's paradoxical stance of repugnance and desire is almost a century of British exhibitions and narratives which, Aguirre convinces us, depict Mexico and Central America in precisely those terms.

Ruth Hoberman

Eastern Illinois University

Charleston, Illinois
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Author:Hoberman, Ruth
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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