Review of The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus

Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin. The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. 353. $49.50.

“For more than two hundred years,” the authors of this timely new book state, “people have loved to hate Thomas Robert Malthus” (1). The formulator of the bitterest principle in modern global life, Malthus has certainly attracted his fair share of haters—from the perfectibilian anarchists with whom he originally sought to engage to the hard-line economists who thought he did not go far enough. But the popularity of Malthusian ideas today among groups as far apart as resource-focused environmentalists to migrant-fearing Brexiters reminds us that Malthus has also always attracted admirers. His ability to compel both Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, both John Maynard Keynes and Adolf Hitler, makes it unsurprising that he should once again speak to people across various political spectrums.

In The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population, Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin are less interested in tracking the conflicting ways that Malthus’s key idea has been received through history than they are in opening up fresh fields through which to read it in the first place, specifically the fields of colonial and indigenous history. In their effort to break Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) out of the strict bounds of intellectual history, however, the authors have evoked a need to return at some point to the work’s reception, which may help to answer some questions newly raised by their volume.

The premise of this book is to address a strange omission in studies of Malthus. While Malthus claimed to offer a universal principle based on his study of all humanity, he has been considered almost exclusively in European contexts. The blame might partly rest with Malthus himself. Even in his much expanded 1803 edition, the majority of his examples still derive from European scenarios. The authors prefer to point the finger at “publishing logistics” (10), noting that most readers, then and now, refer to the shorter, even more Eurocentric, 1798 precis edition. We might add a third reason—the still predominately Eurocentric focus of the subdiscipline of intellectual history, which has “owned” Malthus for so long.

Whatever the rationale, Bashford and Chaplin have now admirably filled the lacuna. They show how Malthus developed his theory through his abundant reading of New World populations (colonial and indigenous) just as much as through his study of European conditions. The key chapters are the middle five (chaps. 3–7). Chapters 3 to 5 discuss the place and role of Australia, the Americas, and Oceania respectively in the Principle, while chapters 6 and 7 set Malthus’s work among the two key New World debates of his age—slavery and settler colonialism. Together, they represent a bold, original, and fascinating social and political history of an idea, and inarguably the best text on understanding Malthus in a twenty-first-century globalized era.

The authors’ exposés, however, also raise some queries, even while they present fresh vistas. The chapter on Australia details the surprising extent to which Malthus read up on British ventures there—texts by James Cook, Joseph Banks, and most especially David Collins. The authors argue that this material gave Malthus the baldest evidence for how indigenous, or “savage,” populations always faced the cruelest checks: disease, dearth, and deadly customs. But they also light upon Malthus’s unexpected willingness to personalize these populations through the figure of Bennelong, the first indigenous Australian to travel to Britain (although Malthus never met him). And they note that it was in the 1803 edition that Malthus voiced his unease about the colonizing forces that indigenous people faced: their extermination or removal by other means “will be questioned in a moral view,” Malthus opined (138). These two aspects lead the authors to suggest that along with its grim prophecies, the Essay was also, paradoxically, a critique of the colonial project and even a “defender of native peoples” (4). Much of the proceeding pages then set to worrying about how Malthus could be both: How could he be both a stadialist dealer in stereotypes and a critic of the political consequences of such thinking? Later, when discussing Malthus and settler colonialism more generally, the authors suggest he was “torn” on the fantasy of white emigration—on the one hand, seeing its temporary utility but, on the other hand, seeing its long-term futility as well as its “violent” ruination of indigenous people (207, 236).

The authors provoke and destabilize common understandings of Malthus with this suggestion of a paradox, but readers might wonder about the strength of Malthus’s so-called radicalism in the first place. Totted up together, the examples of his political criticisms do not amount to a huge chunk of a six-hundred-page opus. As well, Malthus’s well-known dedication to clarifying his principle above all other considerations might also help explain his minimalist approach to the propriety of empire.

The same wonderings occur during the discussion of Malthus in the American New World. The chapter on Malthus’s reading of American materials is very strong, making the case for his debt to American observers such as Benjamin Franklin, as well as his understanding that the central question for the new republic was as much about Indian decline as it was settler increase. The authors note, however, that while Malthus identified what we might call a metalogic of native elimination at play in America’s success, his phrasings were always “timid” (138). At the very moment that he criticized displacement, his imagery and tone “naturalized native population decline” and “exposed his underlying racist assumptions” (117). Likewise, the authors note that Malthus treated the other great racial topic of contemporary America—slavery—with a near deafening silence. They conclude that such silence indicated that he was “indifferent” to black exploitation, which squares awkwardly with a man so much more astute, well-read, and thoughtful than has been hitherto seen (200).

As with the authors’ worries about Malthus’s take on Pacific colonization, their puzzlement about his attitude toward American empire might be countered with a return to Malthus’s chief aim. While additional chapters brilliantly detail Malthus’s intellectual and personal heritage, as well as his fascinating afterlife in nineteenth-century fiction, they are a bit short on how Malthus dealt with the reaction to his incendiary 1798 edition. Although Malthus did include more evidence from the world in the 1803 edition, he did so in order to push forward his core mathematical calculation ever more powerfully. Such determination may well account for his otherwise curious omissions. Alternately, the hammering that the retiring parson received for the 1798 work may also account more for his shyness than any slack politics. It is hard to know without the crucial missing sub-topic of initial response.

I raise these queries not to cast a shadow on this eye-opening book, but out of due respect for the next level of questions to which it unfailingly lifts its readers. This book will surely stand as the central history for understanding Malthus in a world now truly globalized by the imperial processes through which he lived.

Kate Fullagar, Macquarie University. Published in American Historical Review 122/2 (April 2017): 490-491.




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