Doomed Romance and Bonded Citizenship in A. R. F. Webber’s Those That Be in Bondage
Doomed Romance and Bonded Citizenship in A. R. F. Webber’s Those That Be in Bondage
By its dissolution in 1917, the only "serious" fictional treatment of the system of indenture in British Guiana had been Lutchmee and Dilloo (1877), written by John Edward Jenkins, a British colonial barrister who advocated for the reformation, not abolition, of bonded plantation labor. A. R. F. Webber’s Those That Be in Bondage: A Tale of Indian Indentures and Sunlit Western Waters (1917) is the first novel of its kind by a native “coloured” Guyanese author, published at a time when less than 10 percent of British Guiana’s population was under indenture and in the very year the system was abolished.1 Bondage is significant, therefore, given contemporary social pressure to abolish indenture and its reflection of anxieties surrounding the role(s) Indians resident in and native to British Guiana were to play in shaping the country’s fledging, “modern” society. Yet while Bondage does indeed suggest that indenture had no future in the West Indies, it also implies that the Indians who constituted and descended from indenture had no place in that imagined community either. Nationhood, it suggests, is not possible for those that be in bondage.
Only the first six of Webber’s twenty-two chapters are set on Plantation “Never Out,” and this plantation plot ends rather abruptly with the deaths of Edwin Hamilton, a young English (creole) overseer, and his Indian paramour, Bibi Singh. Edwin’s perspective dominates the storyline, and while Webber does take pains to denounce the “rotten system” of indenture, these chapters are mainly occupied with the narration of Edwin and Bibi’s love affair—or rather, of Edwin’s discovery of his desire for Bibi, with no known encouragement from and scarcely any interaction with the “smooth-skinned, bare-toed East Indian young lady.”2 The second, greater part of the novel takes place in Tobago fourteen years later, detailing the young womanhood of Bibi and Edwin’s daughter, Marjorie, and her affair with her cousin Harold. Bondage ends with Marjorie leaving the West Indies altogether (having assumed her mother’s English Christian name, Ursula), suggesting that there is no future to be found on these sunlit isles, tainted as they are by the corrupting legacy of the sugar plantation.
I propose to reexamine the first six chapters of Bondage, with particular attention to Edwin and Bibi’s “romance.” Both characters are presented as exceptional but are not rewarded for their apparent virtue—they enjoy scarcely a year together before they die and their child is taken away from the plantation to be raised in Tobago by Edwin’s sister, “brushing aside, with due conciliatives [sic], the stately protests of the infant’s maternal grandfather” (69). The narrative uses this exceptionalism to at once justify its originary romance and insinuate that a loving relationship between an Indian woman and an English man is both “abnormal” and doomed: the plantation cannot sustain idealized interracial romantic love. If we assume Leah Rosenberg’s conclusion that in early-twentieth-century Caribbean literary romances “the marriage of a man and a woman serves as a figure for uniting the different constitutions within nations,” then these lovers’ sad fate implies that East Indians had no place in this contemporary image of nation.3 At the same time, this romance conforms to conservative notions of the relationship not only between men and women but between Indian laborers and their English overlords. Most striking is that we never hear Bibi speak—she is quoted only twice, in Edwin’s reflections. The East Indian woman, she who was perhaps the most transformed by West Indian indenture, is not emancipated but further bound by her supposedly fortuitous marriage, despite her apparent sexual virtue. She has no say in the future West Indian identity her daughter comes to represent.4 Edwin and Bibi may be presented as ideal versions of English manhood and Indian womanhood, respectively, but their romance cannot build anything from the confines of the plantation. Instead of presenting a creolized future, Webber retreats into the ideals of the imperial English metropole, and even these are stifled on Guyanese soil.
Edwin, at twenty-two, is “young and impressionable.” Had his “temperament and learning been carefully measured by some accurate instrument,” claims the narrator, he “would have been the last person to be sent on a sugar estate.” Edwin was raised in England, "far from Colonial influences” and is therefore unprepared for the daily degradation of plantation life, which is rigidly defined by color and class (6). He is incompatible with, and better than, his surroundings, and his peculiarity perhaps foreshadows his death. Moreover, Edwin is inexperienced in matters of love, vulnerable to the temptation that Bibi unwittingly presents, with her clothes “so scanty, yet modestly covering her literally from her head to her heels” (31). Edwin is initially unaware of his desire for Bibi, with whom he has only exchanged greetings. When he “discovers” and then acts on his desire, he chooses marriage rather than the lesser crime of “illicit intercourse” (10); his nobility, we are led to believe, in addition to his naiveté, prevents him from besmirching both his personal honor and Bibi’s.
Yet Edwin comes to this decision only after learning of his sister’s plan to remove Bibi and her family from the plantation—when he is faced with the prospect of the object of his desire being taken away from him. “At that moment,” claims the narrator, “Edwin Hamilton . . . was suddenly seized with the fierce, savage jealousy of the male animal. . . . Gradually he felt every bulwark of convention, and every ligament of tradition, crumbling and rending away from him” (34). The narrative is invested in demonstrating how much Edwin stands to lose in his choice of Bibi—including his reason. He is scarcely aware of the “leap” (36, 36) he is about to make that will effectively isolate him from his “civilised” society and Bibi from hers. Yet Webber’s narrator offers us a “rational explanation” for Edwin’s “madness”: despite being an “Englishman by traditions and upbringing” (35) our hero is not an Englishman by blood. The narrator repeatedly refers to “the accident of his birth” in the mother country (40, 52; italics mine); while Edwin may be “white to all intents and purposes” (40), the “sure index of some negro-blooded ancestor” that manifests itself in his sister’s raven, wavy hair (18) both excuses his actions and keeps idealised English manhood inviolate.
Edwin may be “ennobled” by his “sense of martyrdom,” but throughout his deliberations Bibi is silent. We are to infer “the girl’s” consent by her obeying Edwin’s order to “come close,” leaning against his knee “unaffected by any artificial coyness”—which suggests that beneath her timid exterior Bibi may be the kind of “forthright” woman so feared by colonial authority. Furthermore, the description of Bibi as “bold and shy by turns” rehearses the double stereotypification of the Indian woman as at once demure and debauched (36). “At times her full luminous eyes would look straight into Edwin’s,” we are told, and at others they were “veiled and swept by their long lashes,” causing “Edwin’s heart [to] race the blood through his veins” (37). Bibi is at once silenced and sexualized by the narrator, who reduces her to an “un-speaking, un-thinking” object of narrative violence and dominance.5 By informing us that Bibi “had long secretly loved ‘the Sahib Hamilton’” (36), the narrator also apologizes for Edwin’s rashness, for which our hero is scarcely to blame given Bibi’s nearly absolute signification of male colonial fantasies.
Despite this, Bibi is still presented as above her world too, which is vital if she is to be a suitable mate for the Sahib. She is “bare-toed” (4, 17, 21, 27, 28, 34, 44) and works “like Ruth in the fields,” but she is “refined” (28); her mere presence causes “a great deal of dissension” (25) on the plantation but she is above reproach, having refused her many and varied proposals “with more or less grace” (26). Bibi’s preternatural beauty can be explained, however, by “the soft clear tint of her skin” that “proclaimed her parentage to be far beyond that of the average East Indian immigrant,” as do her “bold luminous eyes and strong Caucasian features” (25). Bibi is thereby “nobler” than the average cane-cutter and destined for greater if more tragic things. On the night Edwin decides to marry her, Bibi’s father explains that he is the son of a wealthy landowner, but had indentured himself in order to escape the wrath of his father-in-law, a “Hill Chief.” Bibi is heir to her grandfather’s wealth and title, and Edwin’s sacrifice is thus much reduced: he can even “daringly” refer to his wife “as a Ranee and a Princess” (38–39). Nevertheless the colonial dynamic remains—while as an overseer Edwin is little more than hired help, Bibi’s aristocracy counts for little more than to make her “good to mate with” (37). Edwin, an “outcast” (36), finds Bibi “vastly different, in every particular” to women of his own race and class—this marriage allows him to escape the constraints of colonial society, while further binding her to them (31). When they are married, Bibi shines as “an Indian lady of grace and refinement,” not a Caribbean one (59; emphasis mine). Although Bibi shows “wonderful aptitude for Western ideas,” Edwin “resolutely set[s] his face against any westernising of her dress” (59). By keeping her culturally isolated—preventing her from creolizing—Edwin once again denies this East Indian woman participation in Caribbean identity formation. He thus fixes his wife (whose service he has literally bought, with her contract of indenture) as “a never-ending source of delight” (59)—an object of his outdated fantasies, not an agent of an imagined future.6
Webber’s novel is addressed to the colonial metropole, to “stay-at-home people” who know nothing about British Guiana and may have little to no interest in either East Indian or West Indian consciousness (1). It does not imagine such a consciousness, however, except as silent acquiescence to British imperial desire. The brevity and tragedy of Edwin and Bibi’s colonial idyll is of course an indictment of Guyanese indenture, but Webber does not simultaneously indict imperial Victorian England, the source and mother of this “new system of slavery.”7 Bibi and Edwin’s exceptionalism distracts from the greater violences their relationship reenacts, and their marriage, while it may at first be seen as a hopeful indication of a racially integrated future for British Guiana, in fact reinforces metropolitan ideology, particularly in relation to racist ideas about the “Oriental” or “Asiatic.” The Guyanese landscape is merely an exotic tropical background to Edwin’s irrational fantasies, and the members of the community who raised and fostered Bibi play virtually no role in this narrative. We do not even see them bury her, and they are quickly forgotten when Marjorie is taken away from the plantation, never to return. The “incoherence” identified by the few critics who have engaged with this novel may be attributed to Webber’s inability to imagine a cohesive Guyanese nation or a solution to the question of Indo-Caribbean identity. The true tragedy of Bibi’s exceptional marriage is that it cannot save her from the degradation of the plantation, nor can it enable her to inherit the nascent West Indian nation. The plantation is no place for novelistic, much less nationalistic, romance.
Janelle Rodriques completed her doctoral thesis at Newcastle University (UK) and is now a postdoctoral researcher in Caribbean and black Atlantic literature at Universität Bremen, Germany. She has published in Anthurium, Wasafiri, and Atlantic Studies, and is currently working on a scholarly monograph on representations of Obeah in anglophone West Indian fiction.
1 Jeremy Poynting, “Literature and Cultural Pluralism: East Indians in the Caribbean” (PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 1985), 1:85.
2 A. R. F. Webber, Those That Be in Bondage: A Tale of Indian Indentures and Sunlit Western Waters (Wellesley: Calaloux Publications, 1988), 4, 5; hereafter cited in the text.
3 Leah Rosenberg, “Modern Romances: The Short Stories in Una Marson’s The Cosmopolitan (1928–1931),” Journal of West Indian Literature 12, nos. 1–2 (2004): 172.
4 Marjorie, who does speak, can only write her story after she leaves the West Indies for England.
5 Joy Mahabir and Miriam Pirbhai, “Introduction: Tracing an Emerging Tradition,” in Joy Mahabir and Miriam Pirbhai, eds., Critical Perspectives on Indo-Caribbean Women’s Literature (New York: Routledge, 2013), 4.
6 Edwin’s actions recall colonial “vagrancy” laws designed to keep Indian laborers on plantations and away from the rest of society.
7 Hugh Tinker refers to indenture as a “new system of slavery,” in A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830–1920 (London: Oxford University Press, 1974).