Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population

Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population (London: Princeton University Press, 2016) 368 pp. £35.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780823272990

The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus offers a timely reappraisal of Malthus’s writing on population within the context of eighteenth and early nineteenth century colonial expansion. ‘Long decried as scourge of the English poor’ (4), Malthus and his assessment of exponential population growth as leading to inevitable starvation have been thoroughly examined by critics from a European standpoint. Yet, as Bashford and Chaplin demonstrate, his (in)famous principle of population is to be seen in a whole new light when reread from the perspective of new world locations. Indeed, one of the great strengths of New Worlds is that the authors achieve a truly global scope, focusing in detail on the Americas, Australia, and the islands of the South Pacific.

The book is split into three parts, over which the authors work broadly chronologically to examine Malthus’s extensive writings on population. Part one spans two chapters and outlines the historical and intellectual context shaping Malthus’s work, specifically in terms of new world places. His principle of population combines pre-existing intellectual strands, which, for Basford and Chaplin, Malthus synthesizes to arrive at ‘his own singular and original contribution’ to the science of population, ‘placing new world places at the heart of population analysis’ (17). Chapter one, ‘Population, Empire, and America’, contextualises these intellectual traditions as they pertain to new worlds, with secular recognition of the importance of population to states, scientific methods of statistical analysis, and the influence of political economy on theories of stadial development all of particular importance. As a borrower and synthesizer of these intellectual traditions, Malthus is linked to another foundational thinker on population, Benjamin Franklin. Chapter two, ‘Writing the Essay’, comprehensively covers Malthus’s early writings up to his expanded Essay of 1803, where he first acknowledges his central claims concerning rapid population growth in the Americas as stemming from Franklin. The formative influence of Franklin undoubtedly strengthens the argument that new worlds are integral to Malthus’s work, although non-specialist readers would benefit from a greater attempt to stress the originality and significance of this position with reference to an existing corpus of Malthus criticism. However, this is a minor criticism of an opening section which offers a rigorous chronicling of Malthus’s intellectual development within a new world context. 

In part two, Basford and Chaplin consider Malthus’s Essay of 1803, focusing in detail on the chapters covering New Holland, the Americas and the South Sea. Chapters three to five of New Worlds thus neatly mirror Malthus’s own third, fourth and fifth chapters, taking each of these new world locations in turn. Across the section, the authors ably demonstrate how interactions between settler and native populations became intrinsic to Malthus’s thinking, providing the data to support his theory while embodying the very question he sought to answer. They meticulously trace Malthus’s extensive sources to show that in the 1803 Essay – and in every subsequent edition of the text – Malthus quoted what he wrongly believed to be James Cook’s consideration of ‘by what means the inhabitants of this country [New Holland] are reduced to such a number as it can subsist’ (97). In fact, this foundational question stems not from Cook, but from Joseph Banks, naturalist aboard the Endeavour. Banks’s journals were subsequently acquired and embellished by author, editor, and director of the East India Company, John Hawkesworth, and it is via this circuitous route that Malthus came in 1830 to himself ‘characterize the entire project as one long response to “Cook”’ (98). Through such attentive scholarship, the authors make a convincing case that interactions between native and settler populations in new world locations should be seen as integral to both Malthus’s conception of his principle of population and to contemporary understanding of his work today. For those new to Malthus’s writings and equally for scholars long familiar with his work, part two of New Worlds will prove to be interesting reading.

The final part consists of three thematic chapters, over which the authors resituate their revised consideration of Malthus within related historical contexts. Chapter six, ‘Slavery and Abolition’, examines how Malthus’s principle of population was invoked in contemporary discussions over the slave trade. Reviewing parliamentary debates from 1807, Bashford and Chaplin demonstrate that Malthus’s failure to address plantation economies and particularly the new-world trade in sugar, to which he had personal connections in the West Indies, led to his name being invoked in support of both sides on the abolitionist debate. 

Chapter seven, ‘Colonization and Emigration’, similarly complicates received understanding of Malthus. For example, the authors’ nuanced reading of Malthus’s arguments for political solutions to relieve chronic food shortages in Ireland asks that dominant assumptions of his principle as naturalizing poverty and famine be revised. Both chapters are built upon the same rigorous scholarship which characterizes New Worlds, yet the scale of the debates being considered, spanning multiple decades and global locations, necessitates a clearer structure. Subtitles applied within these chapters would help to signpost the important reappraisal of Malthus’s work that Bashford and Chaplin’s scholarship often suggests.

In their final chapter, ‘The Essay in New Worlds’, the authors examine the reception of Malthus’s work in the popular press of the Americas and Australia. This nuanced critique uncovers a complex engagement with Malthus’s writings in the very locations that had such an important shaping influence on his thought. Their claim that this suggests a ‘global presence for the text that scholars for other parts of the world might profitably explore’ (238) is certainly justified. Indeed, this final chapter and the closing coda offer multiple avenues for future scholarship, which, as the authors propose, could focus on literary representations of Malthusian new worlds or even consider how his principle may apply in new worlds yet to be realized, perhaps on other planets. Equally, and closer to home, Bashford and Chaplin’s rereading of Malthus offers a fresh gaze with which to consider the population pressures of the twenty-first century.

Jim Scown, Cardiff University