Author(s): Jane Ford (University of Liverpool)
This article examines the work of critically neglected colonial writer, essayist and cultural critic Bertram Mitford, with particular reference to his novel The Sign of the Spider (1896). Taking an economic approach to fin de siècle imperial politics, I argue that Mitford offers an important yet sadly overlooked counter-narrative of imperial expansionism. To an extent, Mitford undermines figures like H. Rider Haggard whose narratives betray a particular insensitivity to the depredatory conditions of Empire. Exploring Derridean formulations of Hauntology, I suggest that Mitford’s success lies partly in his ‘spectralisation’ of fiscal realities. The narrative, featuring apparitions of erstwhile economies, allows for a dialogue between past and present that problematizes Britain’s position in global markets at the fin de siècle. I further illustrate that Mitford’s depictions of anthropophagy offer a scathing cultural critique of late nineteenth-century imperial enterprise. From the indigenous tribes in an evolutionary state of economic nature to the merchant or financier at the end point of our financial evolution, ‘economic man’ shares a primal, archetypal desire to consume. In conclusion, I suggest Mitford attempted both to destabilise the popular myth of Britain’s ‘beneficent’ patronage of occupied South Africa, and bravely to undertake the work of inheriting the legacy of Britain’s predatory economic past.
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