Key Text: Obi; or the History of Three-Fingered Jack
William Earle Jr.’s epistolary novel, Obi was first published in 1800 in London. While little is known of Earle Jr. outside of his published works, which elicited some controversy in his time, little is known of Earle Jr.
Obi is a sentimental interpretation of Jack Mansong, a runaway slave and Maroon leader. There is a good amount of evidence suggesting that Mansong was an actual person (including newspaper articles and other documentation), however, little is known of the accuracy of his novel. Mansong was the subject of several other novels and plays, including works by Benjamin Moseley, whose work can be found in our archive. Earle Jr., who spent a significant time as a Physician in Jamaica, was also well acquainted with the life in Jamaica and had insight into what the lives of the slaves were like. This is a dimension that made his work particularly "authentic" to slave life, even if the story is not an accurate representation of Mansong himself. Additionally, as project alumna Liz Polcha and Dr. Elizabeth Hopwood, point out in the Scholarly Introduction to the text, "Earle Jr. drew on numerous sources for details concerning Jamaica, West Africa, and Mansong, including Bryan Edwards’ History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies (1793), Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799), and Benjamin Moseley’s A Treatise on Sugar (1799).
Earle’s epistolary novel begins with the story of Mansong's mother Amri. The tragic story of her capture and further enslavement in Jamaica (which includes her horrific travel across the Middle Passage, and the subsequent loss of her husband) convinces Mansong to seek revenge on the colonizers, using the "magical art of resistance" that is Obeah. Mansong mission quickly extends not only to seeking revenge for his mother and father but for all of the enslaved across the island.
Reception to the novel was both positive to negative, and was (as mentioned), quite controversial. Interestingly, the representation of Mansong in the novel was known for both quelling the fear of the colonizers and further instilling fear, due to Mansong's unpredictable nature and his intense fights with his attempted capturers.