The English Creole Novel at the Origin of Caribbean Fiction

Candace Ward, Crossing the Line: Early Creole Novels and Anglophone Caribbean Culture in the Age of Emancipation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017); New World Studies series; 225 pages; ISBN 978-0813940007 (hardcover)

• June 2019

Candace Ward’s sharply focused monograph Crossing the Line: Early Creole Novels and Anglophone Caribbean Culture in the Age of Emancipation analyzes four Caribbean creole novels of the early nineteenth century. An introduction examines scholarly debates about the term creole, and each novel has a creole author, features creole characters, and involves itself in controversies concerning their place in the British Empire. Each author discussed (all men) by Ward crafted plots, scenes, and characters that in effect defended the white creoles of the British Caribbean against a European English claim that they had descended on the margins of the empire—across the line—into greed, cruelty, and voluptuousness, often of an interracial kind. Each author also countered abolitionist critiques of the necessary cruelty and inevitable exploitativeness of the slave system or its immediate aftermath. In doing so, they defended white creole dominance over blacks in, first, the Caribbean slave system and, then, postslavery society.

The genre of the novel was crucial. Caribbean creole novelists used the conventions of historical fiction to naturalize the claims of white people to the lands of the Americas and to the value of their produce. Ward selects her authors in order to consider such historical fiction not from a central perspective but from a peripheral one. In our scholarly moment, when British fiction is being considered geopolitically, especially in relation to slavery, abolition, and expansionism, Ward looks to Caribbean novels in order to avoid compounding the “metropolitan privileging” that already existed in English works (1). We can also see the creole novel as part of an imperialist project of defining all human reality as translatable. It was at the margin of translatability that British writers and readers argued over the nature of Caribbean slavery, but none of them ever doubted the possibility of translating the experience of the enslaved into the English language and with the conventions of English literature. Creole novels also incorporated the conventions of natural history as a way to attract readers, to emphasize resources and those who labored with them and thus could enrich the British Empire, and to bolster the realism of their plots and characters. Ironically, then, such novels—the same is true of so-called natural histories—are important in the archive of the African Atlantic. We might say that such authors were, despite their racism, committed to a method of observing and writing that left us records that we can seek to understand without racism, though the search becomes asymptotic. Or we might say that the archive of slavery or of race—and the novel as much as the natural history—was violent in its creation, so that we are in a situation of repudiating the violence yet participating in it.

Crossing the Line begins with an analysis of the anonymous 1812–13 novel Montgomery; or, The West-Indian Adventurer. The novel established important themes of the creole novel by appearing to be historical fiction, by casting the white creole character as humane and civilized in the midst of an abusive plantation system, and by using the resources of print culture to translate the violence of the slave system into a language for British readers. Yet it also revealed what Ward describes as “the particular anxieties generated by its white creole characters and scenes” and “the fragility of a white creole culture” (56). This fragility becomes a theme of Ward’s book.

Cynric Williams’s Hamel, the Obeah Man, first published anonymously in 1827, is the focus of the second chapter. With its action set in Jamaica in 1822, the novel identified white creoles’ cultivation of ameliorationist and gradualist views and their interest in geology. The former was a notion of making slavery less cruel and preparing the enslaved for freedom and a place in the British Empire. The latter was an elemental ingredient in natural histories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It entailed a desire for valuable commodities, enlightened curiosity about nature, and an understanding of history as long-term progress. Appropriately, Hamel, the obeah man and would-be revolutionary, lived in a cave. The threat of a black revolution felt like an earthquake to the white creole characters—an episode that disrupted gradual progress and, if successful, would replace white domination. Hamel thus represented an alternate history as well as African knowledge and social practices. He sailed to Africa at the end of the novel but left behind the possibility of black resistance.

Ward moves onto P. L. Simmonds’s Marly; or, A Planter’s Life in Jamaica, first published anonymously in 1828. Simmonds had absorbed British discourse on slavery and abolition, and he would himself relocate to Jamaica in 1831 to work as a plantation bookkeeper. The novel proleptically charted a course to an apparently liberal and enlightened form of emancipation after which ex-slaves would remain as laborers on white-owned plantations. This expectation that former slaves would be useful workers in the Atlantic-wide economy was widely articulated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and it has always been recognized in scholarship. It was a sequel to the related claim, made slightly earlier, that “legitimate trade” in goods could replace “illegitimate trade” in persons.

Edward Lanza Joseph’s 1838 Warner Arundell, the Adventures of a Creole is the last novel Ward treats in depth. An English-born Jew, Joseph cut his literary teeth as a boy translating parts of the Hebrew Bible into English; he later made transcriptions of the speech of black Trinidadians, and by the 1830s was known as “the bard of Trinidad.” The character Arundell was semiautobiographical. Indeed, parts of the novel are virtual quotations from Joseph’s History of Trinidad, a natural history of the island and nearby waters that has many autobiographical sections, also published in 1838, the year Joseph died. Both the novel and the history represented Trinidad as a place where neighborliness and cultural variation and hybridity thrive. (The history offered withering commentary on dueling, drunkenness, peremptory governance, and mistreatment of black soldiers stationed on the island.) The novel acknowledged black resistance to enslavement in the British Caribbean as well as the presence of African-born peoples. Yet it used plot devices such as the repentance of a murderous black rebel (a fictionalized version of Julian Fédon) and the death by drowning of an African-born former coconspirator of Toussaint Louverture’s to push black resistance into the past and clear the way for a dominant class of white creoles. A brief final chapter in Crossing the Line asserts that there remained “unfinished business” that was taken up by several works published between 1838 and 1854 (141).

The power of Crossing the Line is its placement of the early creole novel in the cross-currents of metropolitan prejudice against the margins of the empire, of English discussion of slavery and black resistance to enslavement, and of the birth of a distinct Caribbean creole culture in the early nineteenth century. Ward argues that early creole novels help us better read “more recent Caribbean fiction” (26). While this is a vast topic, it seems relevant to point out that these same currents swirl around the works of Earl Lovelace and are apprehended, often sardonically, from a Caribbean center. The conditions that formed the creole novel also form Lovelace’s characters yet haunt them and sometimes lead the reader to laugh at them. The themes and characters that Ward analyzes would ultimately be subject to scrutiny from an ironic distance by Caribbean novelists. That is in the nature of literary tradition, and Ward is right to look to early creole novels as a point of origin for Caribbean fiction.

 

 

John Saillant is a professor of English and history at Western Michigan University, offering foundational courses in early American and African American studies as well as seminars on the slave narrative and on the sea turtle in arts and history. His publications have analyzed African Atlantic religion. His current work is funded by the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church, the Congregational Library and Archives, and the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library.