Reason, Freedom, and Animality: Margaret Cavendish and Total Luxury Sovereignty

By 1666, the year Margaret Cavendish published her Blazing World and its companion volume, her Observations on Experimental Philosophy, the population of Barbados had risen, from the 100 souls of its first English settlement in 1627, to more than 60,000, slightly more than half of them Black and enslaved to sugar capitalism.[1] It is not easy to determine whether we can blame any of the Cavendish fortune on this, although it is not for want of knowing something about Margaret’s money. Her Life of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle devotes more than twenty pages to tallying what her husband’s estate lost in the civil war, his exile, the distribution of his property to soldiers, and his, largely, vain efforts to worry himself into his king’s generosity: £941,303 in all. That is 941,293 pounds more than John Milton received in 1667 for Paradise Lost. And the Cavendishes still had plenty: their stupefying losses left them enough for provisions, society, credit, and the writing of many books. With their estates looted chiefly in the decades when Barbados slavery was still coalescing, perhaps sugar is responsible for none of it. The Cavendishes may have been only landlords, wealthy through exploitations more local and traditional than New World slavery. But the temptation to insinuate should not be resisted. Why should we extend them or anyone like them the courtesy of purported innocence?

“Slavery,” though, appears only once in Blazing World, and that only in its second part, when the Empress and the Duchess of Cavendish combine to first destroy the enemies of the United Kingdom, and then every nation slow in submitting to the conflagrations of an interplanetary invasion:

But after a short time, those neighbouring nations finding themselves so much inslaved, that they were hardly able to peep out of their own Dominion without a chargeable Tribute &c

“Inslavement” here has nothing to do with the three prongs of slavery Orlando Patterson enumerated in Slavery and Social Death as the necessary features of the condition: powerlessness and a loss of honor, perhaps, in relation to the Empress, but not the denial of natality. There is nothing in this that even suggests the trade in humans stolen across an ocean to be worked to death, generally after some seven years’ labor turning cane into sugar and sugar into money. Cavendish’s fantasy is not of personal enslavement or of unpaid, abject labor, but of the monopoly of the sea and, more than that, feudal submission.  Blazing World gives London no more attention than a glimpse at its theaters, and no acknowledgement whatsoever to its merchants or their investments. Her political vision in no way acknowledges her present except to wish that what had gone awry be set aright, and only inadvertently, with her own naval fancies, does she anticipate England’s destiny as world-spanning conqueror and ruler of the waves.

Something still seems to have slipped by: the first two words of Cavendish’s scientifical fictions are these: “A Merchant.” In a foreign land, he falls for a rich, aristocratic, young, and beautiful lady, and snatches her from the strand as she gathers sea-shells. Though her thief is a merchant, nothing here suggests he intends to put her to any uses but his own personal ones; the threat Cavendish invokes directly is not slavery, but rape. The picture of a woman stolen by ship from her own land and stripped from her family by that new brand of mercantile kidnapping cannot, however, evoke anything but the crime being committed in Cavendish’s era by the tens and hundreds of thousands, into which English capitalists and their customers threw themselves with all possible enthusiasm.

Slavery skulks near the edges of the Blazing World, letting itself be seen only if we think to put the book to the question. That said, it is easy enough to absolve Cavendish of color prejudice – easy enough, but also largely irrelevant. The human inhabitants of Blazing World are “not white, black, tawny, olive, or ash-colored,” but rather blue, purple, green, and orange, with no hint of any color hierarchy, no whiff of any “state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” as Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism in her Golden Gulag. The problem of color in the seventeenth century, for Margaret Cavendish, is only the problem of the “continued agitation of little Globules,” or perhaps some other atomic cause. Avoiding all of the old climatic theory of skin pigmentation, which might impute cowardice or lassitude to those baked dark by the sun, and stupidity to those left pallid by its absence, Cavendish instead concerns herself chiefly with color as a purely physical problem, only indifferently concerned with humans. Her question is not why is skin colored, but rather why is color.

Still, her very list of standard human skin tones registers her awareness of the differences that would become the obsession of our era. She shows herself aware of these, and then refuses to say more. It is as if Cavendish is actively avoiding the problem of slavery, of the possibility of her husband repairing his estates through the profits of new world investments, of the new systems of human control that would, certainly by the end of the seventeenth century, coalesce into white supremacy. Hers is a utopian novel of other worlds that wants nothing to do with the complications of European involvement in Africa or the Americas. Nowhere in the Blazing World does Cavendish hint at new species of plants or animals. Nowhere does it acknowledge new foods, nowhere do the words “tea” or “coffee” appear, although they do in her Further Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, when it dismisses each as “mode-drinks,” whose “chief effect is to make good fellowship, rather than to perform great cures.”[2] “Sugar” appears only elsewhere in her writing, as when she complains, in her Sociable Letters, of the expense of sugar and coal that might better be spent on servants than on making confectionary. It is as if Cavendish were shying from the issue, or as if literature lags, and that not even the book commonly called the first science fiction novel is quite up to catching the horror of its own present.

The Blazing World does not concern itself with labor, with agriculture, with justice or punishment or child-rearing, none of the concerns of More’s Utopia. All Cavendish wants from her perfect world is adulation, and the space to be taken seriously as a natural philosopher, without the scorn of men and their professional societies. She wants unity, not an economy, and she wants wealth to come to her without anyone or anything admitting to any effort or work.

I’m struggling, I admit, to build my case against her. In the decades shared with Cavendish, the English slavers of Barbados also sought unity. The laws proclaimed in the 1650s by Daniel Searle, Barbados’s colonial administrator, forbade dueling and the private carrying of weapons; he commanded that all “Freeholders within this Island” with more than 25 acres should each furnish one man, armed with musket and sword, for the “just defense” of the island; that any indentured servant be punished with two additional years of service if they dare to strike their master; and that all “Masters of Families and Overseers” are required not only to apprehend any wandering “Negro,” and “moderately to whip and correct them,” but also that they must do so or be fined. Peaceable participation in the unity of Barbados requires all masters to beat any “Negro” who seems out of place: here is an island that knows one cure for dissension and for making unity.

But I’m unsure whether The Blazing World knows yet that Cavendish is white and or knows yet the costs of whiteness. The Empress conquers the Blazing World, but only with her beauty and wit. She joins with it, and never leads an army against it. The one merchant the novel allows is made to freeze to death. She appears to our world a final time like so:

upon the face of the Water in her Imperial Robes; in some part of her hair, near her face, she had placed some of the Starr-Stone, which added such a luster and glory to it, that it caused a great admiration in all that were present, who believed her to be some Celestial Creature, or rather an uncreated Goddess, and they all had a desire to worship her.

She is innocent and terrible, having joined with a world where she bears no responsibility except to her own reasoning, and where she owes no one anything but her own grandeur. The money she lets take care of itself.

In sum: if the novel is paradigmatically the genre of the market, and if the novel and the world market occasioned by New World Plantation slavery were born in the same effort, as Sylvia Wynter asserts in her “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” what do we do with The Blazing World, suspended as it is between the mere use value of premercantile economies and the exchange value of capitalism? What kind of use does Cavendish make of her world, as indifferent or even as hostile it is both to the muck of merely making use of and to the embarrassment of having to make one’s own money? Where do we put Cavendish’s spectacular use?

  1. I gathered these figures from various sources. I have used, at times, the chapter on Barbados in Edward B. Rugemer’s Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World (Harvard UP, 2018). In my seminar, Judah Rubin pointed out that Margaret Cavendish’s husband’s uncle, also named William Cavendish (1552-1626), the First Earl of Devonshire, was among the first subscribers to the Somers Island Company, which is to say, he was an investor in the settlement of Bermuda. One of Bermuda’s tribes — which roughly correspond to today’s parishes — bears his name: at first called Cavendish, then Devonshire.  I cannot determine as yet whether Margaret’s husband William profited from this connection; furthermore, Bermudan slavery — household slavery and the enslavement of families — was quite distinct, and generally less brutal, from the plantation slavery of, say, Barbados. Bermuda slavers, for example, faced far fewer insurrections than their peers in Jamaica and Barbados. See, with certain cautions, Virginia Bernhard, Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782 (University of Missouri Press, 1999).
  2. Searches conducted through EEBO Text Creation Partnership: