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

[Week 6] Colonial Anxieties and Abolitionist Impulses in "Obi; or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack"

Insofar as William Earle’s 1800 novel Obi; or The History of Three-Fingered Jack emerges as a text with an abolitionist political bent, its heroic portrayal of a slave rebel in a narrative of vengeance – much like that of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko – seems to be a project of remarkably different style from the sentimentalist moral appeals (like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and autobiographical testimonies of black humanity in the face of institutional inequity (like the narratives of Mary Prince and Frederick Douglass) that would come to define abolitionist genres through most of the nineteenth century.  Though the national and historical contexts of those text’s production differ from Obi’s, its general appeal to an audience in a country wrestling with its participation in the slave trade positions it on a similar axis, and yet its narrative techniques are remarkably different.

As Srinivas Aravamudan writes in his introduction, “colonial historians of rebellion mingled admiration with fear” (20), and Earle wrote his novel at a period when “the British West Indies were in considerable ferment, facing internal revolt as well as intensified colonial competition at the commencement of the Napoleonic Wars” (23) – to say nothing of the major colonial anxieties surrounding the then-ongoing Haitian Revolution.  To celebrate Jack’s narrative “as a combination of unabashed revenge tragedy and sentimentalist morality tale” (22) alongside a sympathetic and potent depiction of obeah – per Aravamudan, “the cause of great anxiety in colonial writing” as “a mysterious religious practice” that ignites rebellious fervor (15) – is to exploit or even exacerbate, not ameliorate, the disquiet implicit in the colonial slave economy.

In some ways, perhaps, the text participates less in the larger political discourse and more as an adventure tale contextualized by history, but its abolitionist sensibilities still emerge:  in his original preface to the text, Earle describes Jack as “a bold and daring defender of the rights of man” (68) and ends the text with an assertion by his narrator, George Stanford, that Jack “died as great a man as ever graced the annals of history (157).  Though he to some degree attempts to contain the full potency of Jack’s rebellion with the declaration that “Jack died deservedly,” he also poses the question as to “[w]ho drove him to the deeds of deperacy and cruelty” (157), engaging in the moral interrogations that challenged the peculiar institution.  Earle also contains the unnerving valences of obeah in the end by infusing Quashee/James Reeder with the “White Obi” of having been “christened” and thus able to “overcome” Jack (156).  Nonetheless, in attesting to the threatening potential and valorization of rebellious motivations and technologies, Earle’s text embraces certain slippages of power.

The inclusion of Earle’s descriptions of obeah in particular alongside other colonial texts imbricated in its haunting as well as postcolonial texts that embrace it as a paradigmatic and poetic trope would give a fuller picture of the ways in which obeah appears or does not appear in the post/colonial imagination.

Works Cited

Aravamudan, Srinivas. Introduction. Obi; or The History of Three-Fingered Jack, by William Earle, 1800,
     Broadview, 2005, pp. 7-51.

Earle, William. Obi; or The History of Three-Fingered Jack, 1800, edited by Srinivas Aravamudan, 2005.

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