Wil Verhoeven. Gilbert Imlay: Citizen of the World. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-85196-859-6. Price: £60[Notice]

  • Marie Mulvey-Roberts

…plus d’informations

  • Marie Mulvey-Roberts
    University of the West of England, Bristol

Gilbert Imlay was a man not of one, but of many lives. His shifting identities equipped him as “a prototype of the American conman” (1), whose survival depended upon the continual reinvention of himself. Imlay has been described as “unscrupulous, independent, courageous, a dodger of debts to the poor, a deserter, a protector of the helpless, a revolutionist, a man of enlightenment beyond his age, a greedy and treacherous land booster” but as his biographer, Wil Verhoeven points out, he was “all of these and more” (1). This is the first book length biography of a man who is more commonly marginalised as the infamous lover of Mary Wollstonecraft. For nearly a decade, Verhoeven has been on the trail of the elusive Imlay, who spent much of his life in clandestine trafficking, dodging creditors and absconding from his responsibilities. Verhoeven has tracked down rare archival materials, ranging from legal transcripts to the family papers, secreted away in a relative’s proverbial drawer or shoe-box. Missing correspondences have been unearthed, along with traces of his business relations with better-known American comrades including James Wilkinson, Daniel Boone, John Filson, George Rogers Clark, and Benjamin Sebastian. Lost connections have been forged, absent contexts restored, family histories resurrected and Imlay’s surreptitious movements mapped A more sinister crossing of the Atlantic in which Imlay was implicated, was that of the enforced emigration of African slaves. Verhoeven is the first person to lay bare his involvement in the triangular trade as half owner of a slave ship, previously published in the William and Mary Quarterly (October 2006). This was Imlay’s passport to escape the Kentucky land-bubble, which had been precipitated by the end of hostilities between Britain and her colonies. Imlay was not unaccustomed to the sight of slaves during his upbringing in New Jersey, which had been a major transit port for slave labour shipped out to other colonies, while his second cousin John Imlay was a slave owner. Verhoeven has revealed how in 1786 Imlay tried using four slaves as human currency instead of cash money. His fellow slavers had hoped to procure 150 Africans from the Guinea Coast, provided that their cargo did not mutiny. They succeeded in exceeding their estimates by nearly thirty but due to particularly harsh conditions at sea, over half were wiped out by disease. Imlay, along with two other slave-owners, sustained massive losses even after attempts to salvage the damage. His machinations led to him being pursued by sheriffs for debt and fraud. Outlawed, Imlay fled to Europe, arriving in England around the autumn of 1787, the year which saw the founding of the London Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. One of its most avid supporters was Mary Wollstonecraft, who would write seven years later to Imlay about “speculating merchants….These men, like the owners of negro ships, never smell on their money the blood by which it has been gained, but sleep quietly in their beds, terming such occupations lawful callings” (83). There is no evidence that she was aware of her bed-fellow’s earlier trafficking in this bloody trade. It is more likely that she regarded him as a fellow abolitionist, as he had also written against the slave trade. It was not only Imlay’s career in commerce which was marked by such contradictions, but also his approach to sexual politics as Verhoeven reveals. In his arguments against the subjugation of women in marriage, Imlay continued to reinforce traditional stereotypes of female subordination. For example, in A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (1792) which envisioned a utopia across the Allegheny Mountains, …

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