F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

[Week 12] British Anxieties in the Colonial Space: Race as Moral Contagion and Intervention in "The Woman of Colour"

Metropolitan anxieties surrounding colonial creole subjects in the West Indies metastasized during the long eighteenth century – emerging from what Rex Nettleford dubs “negrification” and Stephen Frenkel calls “tropicalization” – whereby the Africanness of the Caribbean and exoticism of its landscape taints the Europeanness of the creole colonizer.  This contamination, coded in racial terms, dovetailed with fears of moral decay.  As Faith Smith notes, even the colonial planter class “worried about white degeneracy and unnatural combinations of species” in the West Indies, producing the taboo of miscegenation as fundamental to the axiomatics of imperialism – a taboo that coalesced metropolitan anxieties even as it failed to contain colonial behavior.  Per Nettleford, negrification “implies a metropolitan European perspective of the African essence in the New World and more generally of the creole culture” (184), thereby rendering the black slave population of the West Indies the symbolic source of European anxiety even as that same population fueled imperial wealth.

The depiction of the creole planter class in The Woman of Colour reflects and confirms these anxieties in the English imagination.  Olivia notes that miscegenation “was considered as a venial error by all” of the planter class and suggests that “the difference of climate, or of colour” are partially influential (54) to the lacking “tone of morals” on the “island” (55).  Meanwhile, Olivia herself occupies a perhaps hitherto inconceivable place in that same imagination:  the product of miscegenation who gains the position of heiress because her slave-holding father claims her.  If “West Indian planters, their families, and their descendants were regarded as conspicuously rich by anyone’s standards in early modern Britain” (Ryden 19), that conspicuous wealth – sixty thousand pounds in the text – now belongs to a mulatta (insofar as wealth of the era could belong to a woman).

Though Olivia thus literally embodies English fears about creole moral turpitude, she also performs morality better than the English she meets, who either disdain or try to use her.  As Lyndon Dominique emphasizes, Olivia enjoys “a well-balanced, rather than conflicted, identity” of “‘African-British’ subjectivity” (25), much to the contrary of contemporaneous portrayals of white creole women as alienated, unsettled, or mad.  Insofar as the text has a didactic moral aim – insofar as it seeks to inflame English abolitionist sympathies – Olivia’s emphasis of her lack “of equality by the English planters” (53) in Jamaica plays at ironic odds with the racism she encounters in supposedly virtuous England.  Olivia thus embodies a certain set of stereotypical metropolitan anxieties but functions as a mechanism by which to inspire new, more politically efficacious disquiet by way of her virtuous racialization and its class interventions.

A digital archive of contemporaneous creole stereotypes, society records, and literary representations of class and racial slippages might properly contextualize The Woman of Colour – as it might also help contextualize those documents.

Works Cited

Anonymous. The Woman of Colour, A Tale. 1808. Broadview, 2008.
Dominique, Lyndon J. Introduction. The Woman of Colour, A Tale, by anonymous, Broadview,
     2008, pp. 11-42.
Frenkel, Stephen. “Jungle Stories: North American Representations of Tropical Panama.”
     Geographical Review, vol. 86, no. 3, 1996, pp. 317-33.
Nettleford, Rex. Mirror Mirror: Identity, Race and Protest in Jamaica. 1971. LMH Publishing,
Ryden, David Beck. West Indian Slavery and British Abolition, 1783–1807. Cambridge UP,
Smith, Faith. Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean. UVA P, 2011.

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