Early Caribbean Literature: Narratives of the British West Indies (An Introduction to the Field)

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Dania Dwyer
Northeastern University

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Early Caribbean Literature: Narratives of the British West Indies

November 2015

The field of Early Caribbean literature considers texts written in or about the Caribbean, written by natives or creoles who resided or were otherwise invested in the region during the period of slavery to the mid nineteenth century. Examination of the field reveals a wide array of genres, from letters to diaries and travelogues, but one fact is consistent: it is a body of literature grounded in empire and the imaginations of empire in the West Indies. Much of the criticism on early Caribbean works is quite recent, and all acknowledge that the field encompasses more than literary genres, from  genres of official records, poetry, travelogues, revealing a history that is who sets out to not only produce a record of social, economic and geographical realities, but to justify and forward the mandate and imperialism. This examination provides an overview of the main theoretical underpinnings of the scholarship on these texts and the current concerns, debates and directions. I begin with a critical genealogy of the scholarship, including key questions the field considers, and end with a focus on how contemporary Caribbean women writers genre their uptake of antecedent colonial genres.

Early Anglophone Caribbean literature is a relatively new field, not because the works it examines are new, but because the scholarship on them has only recently burgeoned. Indeed, scholarship on works of the Caribbean has largely attended to works produced after 1950, and has more or less acknowledged that the overwhelming bent of Caribbean literature is the “attempt to construct new cultural identities that escape the domination of the colonial past” (Booker and Juruga 4).[1] Early Caribbean scholars seek to unearth this “colonial past” through more thoughtful examination of its documents, and this, I would argue,  is the backdrop against which this field exam on Early Anglophone Caribbean literature, and its focus is set. As Cynthia James highlights in arguing for the formulation of a literary history for Anglophone Caribbean literature, “so far, Caribbean literature is usually conceptualized in regional, thematic, and post-independence ideological terms, important areas being  “a West Indian reality,” a quest for identity, a colonial resistance, and the aesthetic of the folk” (1).[2]  Simply put, the field I here examine represents a turn back to decipher exactly what amounts to that “history” with which many so vehemently quarrel, and what might be gained from rummaging through it. Additionally, “the shift away from national frameworks for literary study in general has also drawn early Caribbean literature into the ambit of research projects that would previously have been exclusively either “British” or “American” (Watson, Oxford Bibliography).

The field is Imperialist; Let’s dismiss it

Scholarship on narratives from the early Caribbean that emerged from the 1950s and 60s and the decades after, tended to resist or discount the field’s value for sustained scholarly engagement, primarily because it was deemed imperialist, and therefore one to be written against or deviated from in creative and scholarly endeavours of the Caribbean at a time that scholars were very aware of constructing and defining what it was to be Caribbean and to engage in Caribbean scholarship. Cynthia James (2002) concurs in her introduction to The Maroon Narrative, entitled “Toward Formulating a Literary History for Caribbean Literature in English” :

At the end of the twentieth century, there is still no comprehensive anthology of Caribbean literature in English (also called West Indian literature), partly because current practitioners of West Indian theory and West Indian literary criticism shy away from one of the literature’s enduring taboos - how and where to place the large quantity of literature in English about the Caribbean before the twentieth century (1).

More recently, however, literature of the early Caribbean has undergone “a  more favorable reassessment (at least in academic circles)”,  John Gilmore (1999) argues in his work on the varied responses to John Grainger’s The Sugar Cane (53). Similarly, other scholars imply that the growth in postcolonial criticism since the 1980s has resulted in a revival of interest in the “colonial” aspect informing it, and importantly, that changes in the way these texts are written about has also altered the kind of interest paid to the field.[3] Indeed, as James further contends, “few scholars would disagree...that not merely a dialogism, but a continuity exists on either side of the colonial/postcolonial divide” (1). For me, my interest in twentieth century West Indian literature necessitates some exploration in the field that arguably preempts it. While I must be careful to not establish an uncritically teleological account of seamless intellectual progress or enlightenment, the field’s critical trajectory is one that moves largely from ambivalence regarding how exactly to talk about these texts, and a general dismissal of the field for its hegemonic bent, to acknowledging value in what new interpretive approaches might afford.

That narratives of the early period have largely been written from the condescending and hegemonic point of view of the colonizer is arguably the most prevalent observation among scholars. In examining the scope and limits of West Indian historiography in her work on historical thought and literary representation in the West Indies, Nana Wilson Tahoe writes of one such colonialist text, Edward Long’s seminal work on Jamaican history, that it is as a “failure of historical interpretation.” Its “eurocentric perspective and framework is...the most characteristic aspect of West Indian historiography in the eighteenth century”, and a limitation, Wilson-Tahoe argues. Of course, this fact has been central to dismissive argument concerning the field. As Tim Watson highlights in his introduction to the Oxford Bibliography on early literature of the British Caribbean, “Caribbean literature in English before 1850 has received relatively little attention from critics and historians of British and American literature—and even from critics of 20th- and 21st-century Caribbean literature, who have tended to reject an affiliation with a set of texts that, for the most part, were written by Creole (Caribbean-born or resident) whites who either took slavery for granted or positively endorsed it.”

This sentiment, I would argue, also applies to Caribbean critics as well. Kenneth Ramchand is reluctant to promote such texts beyond their social relevance to in understanding colonial anxieties regarding decolonization, on the basis that they were either “the production of planters and planter-types, government officials, visitors, missionaries and other birds of passage writing from alien perspectives, [or] the writing of a small group or class either pursuing its own narrow interests or committed to the idea of Europe as home and center (95). Perhaps equally as dismissively, Gareth Griffiths (1987) discounts early texts as embodying views of the “colonizing center” whose writings “have been born hand in hand with the Imperial enterprise” (13). Many of these texts, Anthony Boxill (1995) argues, bear varying degrees of condescension, with a work like Anthony Froude’s The English in the West Indies (1888) “so offensively ethnocentric and so convinced that the black West Indian’s only hope lies in being looked after by the Mother Country that it is difficult to see what contribution his writing could have to the growth of West Indian literature.[4] Kamau Brathwaite, in his examination of early creative literature of the West Indies in Roots, writes: “The people who wrote about the West Indies during the period of slavery were Englishmen or English--oriented creoles who accepted slavery as something “given”, even though some of them might have disapproved of it as a “system”.  The work they produced was therefore not West Indian, but “tropical English” (130).  Indeed, “no European writer, however critical of the status quo, could avoid, at that time, expressing a hierarchy which positioned themselves ‘above’... and others ‘below’... It was the discourse providing the culturally available means of ordering and representing their thought” (Haggis in O’Callaghan 13). Indeed, this limitation pervades early narratives of the West Indies - from those that purport to offer objective histories to more informal first-person accounts -  and is one that has been commonly written about (albeit sometimes dismissively), in earlier scholarship on West Indian literary history.

“Not so fast”: New Directions

Still, there are scholars, most within the past two decades, who argue that there is more to these texts than the fact of their imperial authorship, and reason that critics must move beyond cursory observation to more contrapuntal examinations of these texts. Perhaps the main tension that exists in the field, therefore, is between those who discount its importance and those who see it as essential to completing the canon of Caribbean writing and historiography, and in extending literary interpretation even outside the field. Somewhere in between is the school of thought that acknowledges the fundamental ideology of imperialism informing these works, but still see value in it. As Evelyn O’Callaghan argues in her own project on unearthing women’s narratives of the period, the archival value of early colonial narratives of the West Indies is significant as they constitute “a record of a vanished physical and social geography, and [preserve] valuable linguistic and ethnographic data” (149). [5] Here O’Callaghan challenges what she feels is a limitation in the perspective of Brathwaite (Roots) and others who view these early narratives as merely what was done to “us” by “them.” Watson concurs, noting, “these works have...shown themselves to be important historical and cultural documents—despite their tendentious origins—for the recovery of the experiences and voices of those at the bottom of the power structure of the colonial Caribbean, who left few archival documents and records to which the historian might otherwise turn.” 

Central to the field of early Caribbean writing in this moment, then, is the question of the archive and how to read it, ably summed up by Saidiya Hartman in “Venus in Two Acts” : “how might it be possible to generate a different set of descriptions from this archive [of slavery]?” It begins with resisting the finality of the damning imperialist nature of the texts within the archive. Numerous scholars advocate for this. For O’Callaghan, in order to find the voices of women in these early narratives, it is necessary to push back against the notion that the masculinity inherent in imperialism inadvertently muted female accounts, thus rendering a project like hers null and void. Instead, she suggests adjusting the expectations and interpretive strategies with which we approach this field, and proceed with what might be unearthed within inescapable archival constraints. In finding the voice of the (female) Other, for instance, one ought not ignore the echo by privileging the definitive voice of self-representation. Taking issue with Spivak’s claim that the subaltern cannot speak because s/he is essentially spoken for in colonial discourse, O’Callaghan notes, one “simply cannot access any “pure” or essential or originary subaltern consciousness, because “subaltern consciousness” cannot be reached independently of the colonial discourses and practices which have in fact constructed that subject-position (161).

Increasingly, then,  the field not only calls for scholarly attention to be paid to works of a particular historical moment, however crucial that moment has been for a variety of reasons. It is making a convincing case for seriously questioning inherited ways of reading, interpretation and literary categorization. Gustafson, highlights, there is an “uneasy fit between the texts that we study and current definitions of “the literary” (Gustafson in Gikandi 86). The radical departures the field is making in interpretation-- arguably because existing methods prove inadequate or inapplicable -- is in turn revealing new potential in these early narratives.  The work Nicole N. Aljoe on creole testimonies and slave narratives is crucial in this respect. In a field that assumes the ubiquitous power of white imperialist editorship, Aljoe’s work, like O’Callaghan’s, argues for rethinking definitive notions of authenticity that is premiced on a singular, identifiable authorship, and on the process of production. She suggests suspending the “vexed and unanswerable question of authenticity” and to instead read the West Indian slave narratives as “testimonios”, allowing one to focus “on the experiences narrated within the text without sacrificing the authority of these narratives” (18).

Additionally, Aljoe makes an argument for the legitimacy of a poetics of fragmentation. Rather than look for these voices as a whole -- the way we are accustomed to reading, which can no longer apply to so unique a field of texts -- look for them in fragments embedded in these narratives:

The fragmentary [slave] narratives operated as a crucial foundation for much pro and anti abolitionist rhetoric because they offered vital information about the nature and experiences of slavery. Furthermore, like the singular narratives, they offered “the written and dictated testimonies of the enslavement of black human beings” (Davis and Gates 1985: xii). The fragmentary narratives that appeared in church archives, Parliamentary documents, travel narratives, and diaries by whites such as those by Lady Maria Nugent, Janet Schaw, Matthew “Monk” Lewis, and Robert Madden and in articles in newspapers such as the Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter...intended to provide authentic evidence about the world of the slave plantation (29).

Aljoe argues that, unlike the singular, fuller narratives of well-known slave writers like Jacobs and Frederick Douglas, the slave testimonies of the Caribbean are fragmented and “are generated from inherently hybrid sources.” Importantly,  they challenge “historical singularity because they appear in the colonial archive without the contemporarily verifiable and requisite details of historical provenance. Consequently, because these portraits are literal fragments in the colonial archive, they provide a necessarily representative picture of slave subjectivity.” By turning the archive on its head, Aljoe aims to do  for slave subjectivities  what O’Callaghan and Hartman attempt for female voices, essentially ferreting out impulses that existing systems of interpretation unwittingly suppress.

Digital Humanities endeavors like the Early Caribbean Digital Archive (ECDA), “an open access archive dedicated to the sustained, collaborative study of pre-twentieth-century Caribbean literary and cultural texts and images”, aid in this process, and are increasingly integral to revealing to full potential of the field.[6] Acknowledging that the shape of the archive “enables certain kinds of knowledge and forecloses others”, the ECDA is invested in “methods of revisionary recovery, rereading, disembedding, and recombining.” Such methods help bring resistant and latent knowledges to the surface of texts whose prior interpretation might have pushed such  knowledges to the margins. They help one discover “moments of epistemological and discursive disruption” that might “make new knowledges intelligible.”

Indeed, scholars in the field are invested in archival recovery, for many reasons. For one, archival recovery does just that: it recovers texts that are at risk of becoming extinct from factors like improper cataloguing, preservation failures and ruination over time. Farquhar (1981), deCaires Narain (1995) and O’Callaghan(2004) highlight their issues with accessing and otherwise reproducing early Caribbean texts, many too fragile to be of use, prompting necessitating on to make “an urgent case for proper archival attention to this vanishing corpus of texts” or “many other “silenced” voices will, unfortunately, become quite literally so” (O’Callaghan 16). Digital archiving is crucial to the survival of such materials, and arguably of the field, a fact O’Callaghan also acknowledges. She writes, “technological innovations have ensured some texts will be reproduced and survive” (16).

Second, archival engagement allows for recovery in another sense. By reframing and rearranging texts, the archive allows for reassessment of structures of power and knowledge. Simon Gikandi’s article “Rethinking the Archive of Enslavement”, ably sums up key questions that scholars in the field are considering with respect to the archive:

How are we to read evidence in the archive outside our own (presentist) set of interests and desires? On what authority are we to recover the voices of those who inhabit these archives especially when they were enslaved and hence silenced? Can we isolate literary beginnings that are not mere projections of our own desire for a singular archive and a seamless canon of letters? These questions are particularly pertinent to fields that are defined as early where questions of beginnings and genealogy inform and haunt literary history.

Though Gikandi’s comments refer to the field of Early American Studies, similar concerns attend the early Caribbean field, even as the latter also deals with questions of beginnings, genealogy and literary history. One such is on the kinds of texts being considered against traditional critical methodologies that do not quite fit. The project of unearthing “lost” texts has of necessity gone hand in hand with the creation of interpretive methodologies for reading works that do not match current critical conceptions of the literary or fit into critical narratives that have been laboriously pieced together over the last few decades (Gustafson in Gikandi 81).

taxonomy. subversive taxonomy. Reading the archive backward.

The central metaphor in Walcott’s 1992 Nobel lecture is one that is commonly used to illustrate the role of Antillean art and fragmented Caribbean history, and justifiably so. The Caribbean is arguably better defined by its historical gaps, loopholes and fragments than any historical centeredness or unison. Indeed, many an account of Caribbean history and cultural experience speaks to its cyclical seasons of catastrophe and the sociological apocalypse of slavery. In fact, the entire institution of colonialism levied such trauma and brutality in the New World that it is said to have effected a kind of cultural vacuity, a history that is more fragmented than whole, and one with which Caribbean writers wrestle through their writing. The Caribbean writer gives voice to the ones suppressed or somehow left out of dominant colonial discourse and grand historical narratives of the West Indies. My exploration of texts in the field of early Caribbean literature and the recent scholarship informing the archive, however,  now cause me to question whether contemporary Caribbean writing that seeks to restore and to reassemble is misconceived. Specifically, the work of Aljoe, O’Callaghan and Hartman in their respective projects, reveal that the when the system of interpretation is revamped, those silenced voices become more apparent. I think this revelation has implications for how contemporary Caribbean writing defines itself and its collective project in a postcolonial context.

Works Cited

Aljoe, Nicole N.. New Urban Atlantic : Creole Testimonies : Slave Narratives from the

British West Indies, 1709-1838. Gordonsville, VA, USA: Palgrave Macmillan,

2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 4 December 2015.

Brathwaite, Kamau. “Creative Literature of the British West Indies During the Period of

Slavery.” In Roots . Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993: 127– 170.

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic

World, 1649–1849. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. Print.

---, Doyle, Hopwood. Obeah and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive.

Gikandi, Simon. “Rethinking the Archive of Enslavement.” Early American Literature 50, no. 1 (2015): 81–102.

Gilmore, John. Poetics of Empire : A Study of James Grainger's the Sugar Cane.

London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 1999. ProQuest ebrary. Web.

10 October 2015.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 26 (2008): 1–14.

O’Callaghan. Evelyn. Early Colonial Narratives of the British West Indies.

Copyright © 2012. Palgrave Macmillan. All rights reserved.

Senior, Olive. Gardening in the Tropics. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994.

 ---. “The Poem as Gardening, the Story as Su-Su: Finding a Literary Voice.” Journal of

West Indian Literature 14.1 & 2 (2005): 35-50.

Tobin, Beth. Colonizing Nature : The Tropics in British Arts and Letters, 1760-1820.

Philadelphia, PA, USA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. ProQuest ebrary.

 Web. 10 December 2014.


[1] M. Keith Booker and Dubravka Juraga. The Caribbean Novel in English: An Introduction. 2001

[2]James, Cynthia. The Maroon Narrative: Caribbean Literature in English Across Boundaries, Ethnicities, and Centuries.

[3] Carl Plasa is one such. See notes on Chapter 1 of Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literatures of Sugar. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2009.

[4]  Of course, more recent scholarship (Dillon, Aljoe, O’Callaghan) in early Caribbean literature seeks to move beyond mere dismissal to ways that these texts might be illuminating to even the very voices and perspectives they silence. I address this later in the paper.

[5] “Early Colonial Narratives of the West Indies” in Routledge companion., 49

[6] “Obeah and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive”

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