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

Anonymous - "The Woman of Colour, A Tale" - 1808

Olivia Fairfield, as a mulatto heiress sent to England to marry and thus claim her wealth, serves as an intensification of metropolitan anxieties surrounding Britain’s image in its own cultural imagination by literally embodying miscegenation yet possessing wealth.  Per Lyndon Dominique, Olivia enjoys “a well-balanced, rather than conflicted, identity” of “‘African-British’ subjectivity” (“Introduction” 25), much to the contrary of contemporaneous portrayals of white creole women as alienated, unsettled, or mad.  Olivia emblematizes a horror regarding the “permanent signifier of the white paternalist’s failed whiteness [and moral character]: his dark offspring” (Imoinda 234) – and Bertha’s literal “dark other” – and so her appearance on the British scene as a wealthy heiress becomes a racial assault on British self-identification.  Indeed, the text “makes clear that the mulatto heiress in England is a real threat to the ascendancy of paternalism” (Dominique, Imoinda 228):  she “blackens” the wealth attached to her and could literally “blacken” the Merton family line with her progeny.  The fact that contemporaneously “the black population was steadily increasing and an active black community was forming” contributed to “the developing fear of the black presence in Britain” and anxieties surrounding threat of contamination to the British cultural imaginary (Gerzina 24).  Olivia becomes a figurative apotheosis of that anxiety as she possesses a “social and political racialization [that] is mobile and relative” (Fielder 172).  Olivia enjoys potential access to an Englishness – a citizenship – previously purely and securely Anglo-Saxon.

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  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” (Anonymous 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.

Meanwhile, however, the text also prefigures themes that would become recurrent in nineteenth-century Caribbean literature.  From the moment Olivia writes that she is "not afraid to acknowledge my affinity with the swarthiest negro" (53) to the moment she has the wherewithal to refer to her Jamaican slave-based plantation as filled with "that placid happiness, that calm tranquility, which surrounded me" (88) to the conclusion of the text when she vows to work "in mending the morals of our poor blacks" (188), Olivia's access to class and privilege and the remove at which that places her from her Jamaican slaves foreground the class- and color-based divides between the middle-class and the folk in two generations of Caribbean writing.

Works Cited

Anonymous. The Woman of Colour, A Tale. 1808. Broadview, 2008
Dominique, Lyndon J. Imoinda’s Shade: Marriage and the African Woman in Eighteenth-Century
     British Literature, 1759-1808
. Ohio State UP, 2012.
---. Introduction. The Woman of Colour, A Tale, by anonymous. Broadview, 2008, pp. 11-42.
Fiedler, Brigitte. “The Woman of Colour and Black Atlantic Movement.” Women’s Narratives of the
     Early Americas and the Formation of Empire
, edited by Mary McAleer Balkun and Susan C.
     Imbarrato. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, pp. 171-85.
Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook. Black London: Life before Emancipation. Rutgers UP, 1995.

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