Emancipation in the British Colonies:

The History in Wide Sargasso Sea

By Kate Diedrick, Margaret Funk and Sarah Davidowitz

Sargassum weed



            The emancipation of the slaves in the British colonies drastically altered the social climate of Britain in the early-mid 1800's.  Religious leaders, writers, artists, and activist groups were all influenced, and the presence of abolitionist arguments is obvious in many 19th century works.  In the novel Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys deals directly with issues involving race and emancipation by setting the story in the 19th century West Indies.  In fact, Rhys manipulated the temporal setting of the novel from that of Jane Eyre in order to include a discussion of post-emancipation issues in the West Indies and Britain.  However, based on her position in society and within the issue of emancipation, Rhys' novel reflects the viewpoint of a Creole citizen, and often fails to accurately portray the struggles of the former slaves.   

The emancipation of the slaves in the British Colonies did not come quickly or easily.  William Wilberforce was one of the leading abolitionist voices in Parliament, openly against slave ownership and a strong advocate for the end of the slave trade.  He was an instrumental figure in bringing about the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, which outlawed the transportation of slaves.  Wilberforce used moral rhetoric in order to convince parliament of the evils of slavery.  He attacked the slave-owners' ridiculous arguments that they were saving the lives of the natives by removing them from war-stricken areas and taking them to safe places in which they could pursue better lives. Wilberforce sent researchers all over Africa, the Caribbean and even to the southern United States to explore the severity of slavery and the extent to which it had become a global phenomenon.  After collecting both extensive research and heartbreaking experiences, Wilberforce reported the facts to parliament, concluding by saying, "having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know" (BBC homepage).  Although Wilberforce was a leading abolitionist, he was by no means the only one.  Some other important and influential abolitionists include: Hannah More, Thomas Fowell Buxton, Thomas Clarkson, and the writer of a famous slave-narrative, Olaudoah Equiano 



William Wilberforce


Even though the Slave Trade itself was abolished in 1807, it was not until 1833 that the slaves were actually emancipated in the British colonies.  In fact, Wilberforce himself supported the gradual abolition of slaves, as he did not think that it would be advantageous to free them at once.  He believed that this would be destructive to both the slaves and their masters, and that the slaves needed to be trained and educated before they were emancipated.  But finally, in 1833--about one month before Wilberforce's death--the slaves were emancipated in the British colonies (Spartacus). 





Emancipation in Spanish Town, Jamaica


In England, abolitionists and activists were vehement about emancipation, but in the colonies the attitude was a completely different one.  The planters in the West Indies were struggling: not only were many plantations going through hard times, they were also dealing with a sense of hatred that existed in Britain and among recently migrated Bitish in the West Indies towards the colonial slave owner.  In an essay entitled "Navigating the Wide Sargasso Sea: Colonial History, English Fiction, and British Empire," Laura Ciolkowski explains, "By 1830, there was virtually a national consensus in England regarding the  immorality of slavery. The abolitionist movement in England was steeped in the rhetorics of Christian fellowship, human rights and moral law that not only aided in excluding the slaveholder from the community of respectable English men and women   but also clearly invested him with the moral and sexual indecencies attached to the hateful system he espoused" (Ciolkowski, 341).  This depiction of the slave trade, and the West Indies in general, is extremely relavant and important in understanding the intricate relationships and heirarchies presented in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea.  The novel introduces us to a number of characters and relationships that present opposing viewpoints regarding the negative depictions of the ex-slaves of the West Indies, the slave trade itself, and the place of the Creole within English culture.  The idea that the British colonies, the planter class, the Creoles, and especially the ex-slaves were smearing the good image and name of England was widespread.  This was a result of the percieved immorality, sexual promisciousness, and the unheard of practice of inter-racial "mixing" present in the colonial system.  In Wide Sargasso Sea, before Antoinette's mother gets remarried, gossipers remark about her first husband, "Emancipation troubles killed old Cosway?  Nonsense, the estate was going downhill for years before that.  He drank himself to death.  Many's the time when well!  And all those women! She never did anything to stop him, she encouraged him.  Presents and smiles for the bastards every Christmas" (17).  This statement is particularly representative of the stereotypical (but often factual) picture of the British planter as continously drinking, raping his slaves, and enforcing an abusive patriarchal system onto all of those in his life.  Yet, this statement also illustrates the fact that this immorality was not completely acceptable.  Cosway's behavior, while allowed in the colonies, was looked down on by people who felt a strong British identity, connection and political alliance. 

             Many of the historical inconsistencies that exist in Wide Sargasso Sea spur from the fact that, although the main character Antoinette has grown up in the West Indies and is a Creole, her family and her connections embody the planter class, slavery, and the oppression of the native blacks.  As a result, Rhys chose to emphasize the suffering of the planter class.  She gave a voice to Antoinette, a Creole woman who was voiceless and locked away in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, but the author did not go as far as to passionately and emphatically portray the oppression, suffering and real perspective of the former slave class of the West Indies.  Perhaps this is due to Rhys' own opinion about the blacks she was surrounded by while growing up in Dominica.  In a conversation with David Plante, Rhys stated that "I hate.  I hate [the blacks in Dominica].  We didn't treat them badly.  We didn't, I hate them. And yet, I was kissed once by a Nigerian, in a café in Paris, and I understood a little.  I understand why they are attractive.  It goes very deep.  They danced, danced in the sunlight, and how I envied them" (Plante, 248).  This extremely naive, confused sentiment presented publicly by Jean Rhys is indicative of her portrayal of the relationship between the Creole planter class and the black ex-slaves in Wide Sargasso Sea.  These relationships and depictions, although eye-opening, are also deeply troubling.  The novel contains much of this kind of racist sentiment and undertone. 


                      Jean Rhys                Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys


             Rhys, as a witness to the effects of slavery in the West Indies, was troubled by the system.  Even so, instead of empathizing with the black ex-slave class in her novel, she chose to portray the Creole woman struggling for an identity, rejected by both the blacks and the white British, and consequently the ultimate victim.  In neglecting the voice of the former slaves in Wide Sargasso Sea, it can be argued that Rhys, in attempting to give a voice to Bertha, removes the identity of the black race in the same way that Charlotte Bronte does to Antoinette in Jane Eyre.  Rhys, as a victim herself to the racialized stereotypes and discriminations from people considering her inferior, should empathize and fight for the true voiceless, the former West Indian black slaves, oppressed and abused by those from Rhys' very own colonial, planter class.  


              West Indies      

The West Indies: notice Jamaica, where Wide Sargasso Sea takes place and Dominica, where Rhys was born                         



Rhys, however, is not completely to blame for her slightly lopsided account of the post-emancipation West Indies.  Because emancipation was such a triumph for human rights, it is easy to overlook the less pleasant aspects of the years after the abolition of slavery.  In order to understand Rhys' novel and her perspective on racial issues, it is important to recognize the struggles of a post-emancipation society.   Support for emancipation in the West Indies was strong, especially in mainland Britain, but there was a considerably large group who opposed the movement.  Many Jamaicans, for example, worried that the economy of the island would be destroyed by the abolition of plantations (Carrington, 209).  Sadly, this concern was not unwarranted.

  Slave emancipation was concurrent with a transition in the British sugar market, which was slowly shifting toward beet sugar.  The fact that emancipation and the market shift occurred simultaneously was not coincidental; in fact, the decline of sugar exports from the West Indies was a strong argument in favor of the abolition of the plantation system.  In the 19th century, it slowly became unprofitable to produce sugar in the West Indies; it could be bought at a much lower price from Spanish colonies (Harrison, 107).  The combination of emancipation and the severely reduced demand for sugar from the Caribbean dealt a strong blow to the planter class.  It would have been nearly impossible for the West Indies to adapt their economy to the market changes: the sugar industry had been established nearly three centuries before, and had become an integral part of their social structure (Harrison, 108).  Plantation owners tried desperately to stay afloat and recover their businesses, bringing in workers from Asia (usually under a program of indentured servitude).  These attempts were largely unsuccessful, both because indentured slavery was outlawed in 1916, as well as the fact that the islands had already lost many of their buyers (Harrison, 109). 


African Slaves in the West IndiesAfrican Slaves in the West Indies

 Economic issues for the planter class persisted until at least half a century after emancipation, which can be seen from a revolt in Dominica in 1883.  This incident occurred after the government failed to provide their communities with basic public amenities that would allow the laborers to transport and sell their crops, which had since been diversified slightly.  The lack of bridges and proper roadways, in addition to soaring property taxes (also government-induced), threatened the survival of many working-class families.  The government was unable to afford the installation of new roadways, but out of sheer frustration and a communal feeling of disenfranchisement, a mob rose against the local government, resulting in four fatalities (Burn, 146).  While the planter class suffered immensely with the changing economy, it would be irrational to ignore the issues that former slaves had to grapple with.  The Emancipation Act did not inspire such widespread change as one might expect.  In fact, all former slaves over the age of six were forced to partake in an "apprenticeship" system for years after the Emancipation Act, which was a program where former slaves would work for no pay; it was obvious to all that this was slavery, only under a different name.  This program was enforced by the British government until 1838 in order to ensure a "smooth transition" www.country-studies.com). In addition, the colonial economic and social structures in the West Indies were discouragingly stable, and many former slaves found it difficult to break free from their old identities as plantation workers.  It is no coincidence, therefore, that in Rhys' novel Antoinette and Rochester must travel over hills; many former slaves would choose to live in mountainous areas because they were not planted, and therefore they were able to remove themselves from the plantation system (Harrison, 111).  It was rare for black men and women to have any place to live off of plantations--post emancipation, former slaves encountered a disturbing social dynamic which victimized all former slaves: racism.  Post-emancipation, the West Indies (especially Jamaica) encountered an unprecedented level of racism, which has been partially explained by the plantation owners; fear that former slaves would gain total control.  After all, white men and women made up a minority of the islands' population (Dubois, 288).  European immigrants and Creoles still controlled the government, and impeded the development of a non-colonial system by refusing to sell land to most former slaves, and charging ridiculous prices for those pieces of land which they did sell.  The economies of some islands in the Caribbean are still suffering from the colonial plantation system, which has been diluted but refuses to be completely exterminated.  Rhys no doubt witnessed the aftermath of these economic and social issues while writing Wide Sargasso Sea.   

In 1655 Britain captured Jamaica from Spain, the Spaniards fled, and their slaves escaped to various parts of the island. These former Spanish slaves were known as the Maroons. They not only encouraged other slaves to run away but raided plantations and set slaves free. Escaped slaves often joined the Maroons. In 1738, the British negotiated a peace treaty with the Maroons after failing to conquer them by military force. To the left is a color-lithographic print from 1801 entitled "Pacification with the Maroon Negroes" that illustrates these peace negotations.Jamaican sugar plantationDrawing of slaves in Jamaica from Notes on the present condition of the Negroes (1825), the book published by De la Beche after his long visit to Jamaica.


Historians have long disputed whether the health of the West Indian sugar industry had an effect on the decision to abolish the slave trade, and whether it was faltering in profitability. (see Marietta Morrissey's Towards a Theory of West Indian Economic Development [JSTOR; must be on campus to view])The Marxian view that the causes of the British anti-slavery movement in the first years of the nineteenth century were purely economic has been subject to some historical controversy. Recent historians, according to David Beck Ryden in his essay Does Decline Make Sense? [Project Muse; must be on campus to view] deny any economic hardship at all in the colonies. Their research focuses on how the social and political climate sowed seeds for reform, and that the move to abolish slavery was a "major philanthropic agenda" of the day. To ignore the role of market factors is a decidedly anti-Marxist and perhaps idealist and romantic look at the British social and politic views of slaves and slavery. Howard Temperley, in Capitalism, Slavery and Ideology [JSTOR; must be on campus to view] examines the role of economics, the invisible hand, as a motive for attacking slavery. To prove such a theory it becomes necessary to show how these economic motives translated into political actions and finally into legislative acts. To respond to the argument, Ryden points out that "both sugar prices and estimated slave prices culled from the Jamaica Archives confirm the contemporary commentary that outlines the problem of overproduction which led to a financial crisis on the eve of the slave trade's abolition." (p. 347-48) Whatever the motives, the end of slavery was a move towards the end of an economic era, and, Marx or not, it would change everything.

We see in Wide Sargasso Sea a deliberate anachronism that utilizes all the resulting implications to articulate the identity of the West Indian Creole of the post-slavery period, and this shifting of dates is crucial. In one of her letters, Rhys wrote of the importance of linking facts with fiction and of putting fiction in reference to specific social and historical events to get to a "truth" through the reconstitution and reordering of facts. (Gregg, 84) In a way, Wide Sargasso Sea for Rhys is making a case for the white female Creole character, using history, her imagination, and facts, albeit rearranged, to her advantage. Veronica Marie Gregg writes:


Rhys's reworking of historical data, cultural references, and literary allusions suggests that in rewriting the Victorian novel, she is calling into question the entire Book, the metatext of the dominant, metropolitan discourse. In order to demonstrate the implausibility and the "lie" of the English portrayal of the West Indian Creole woman, Rhys performs the cultural criticism that insinuates Bronte's text into the larger discursive practices; and she reads the precursory novel as a production of its cultural and social ethos. Furthermore, Rhys' text works upon a repertoire of strategies and discursive acts engendered by British imperial control of the West Indies. (p. 84)


There are historical allusions embedded in the novel's events and characters, and we see the effects of Emancipation on both. The novel is defined by the history, but the history is also told through the novel, a history to which the characters and situations are stitched. The history is ever-present in the novel.

All the relationships within the post-slavery West Indies were socially constructed according to slavery and the plantation society; Christophine was a wedding gift to Antoinette. When Antoinette describes "all the people in [her] life" at the beginning of the novel, text has already folded into the substance of the character's life centuries of West Indian history, calling attention to the continuity between slavery and post-slavery conditions "the presence of the past." (Gregg, 86) In addition, events in the novel are results of social pressures that could only result from slavery and post-slavery life. The suicide of Mr. Luttrell is a result of the British government failing to give him compensation for his loss of slaves after the Emancipation, a compensation that was not always received.  Here we see how the economic environment, as it flowed from pre- to post-slavery, affected the lives of the plantocracy in the West Indies. The racial superiority of the whites depended on the economic superiority they achieved through unpaid black labor, but this economic superiority itself, conversely, depended on their assumed racial superiority. Gregg explains this with Frantz Fanon's assertion that "the cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich." (89) Again, the end of an economic era changed everything, because the economic substructure of the colonies also determined the social superstructure of class. The ending of slavery take Antoinette and her family down the ladder, because "real white people" have money; their racial superiority is determined solely by money which the ending of slavery takes away.

            Critics have argued that the friendship between Antoinette and Tia would not have been likely because of the ideological barriers embedded in the colonialist discourses of white supremacy. (Gregg, 87) We see the textual divisions between black and white in the Tia/Antoinette relationship, and those marks of race undermine the narrative construction of their friendship. The text constantly brings up references to racial divisions:


The narrative function enacts a sentimental fiction of friendship between the black and white girls even as the textual function demystifies and undercuts it. In this way the Rhys text displays its own contradictions, offering its own internal critique." (Gregg, 89)


Their friendship, or rather its termination, exemplifies the effects of Emancipation on the novel and how the novel uses historical referents. When Tia takes the three pennies from Antoinette, it is framed by considerations of race, class, and colony, which Rhys comments on through the event. Instead of being a transcendental relationship in the context of the reality of colonial history, the relationship between Tia and Antoinette "is a direct engagement with the roles that have been historically and discursively assigned to black and white people in the West Indies." (Gregg, 91) The dress episode, when Tia takes Antoinette's dress, is a similar trope for dismantling the terms "white" and "black" in relation to who exactly the "victim" and the "victimizer" are, relationships that directly relate to slavery. Who are we to feel sorry for in each situation? Antoinette goes home in Tia's dress, and her mother is embarrassed in front of her guests. Christophine comments that the notion that slavery is over is a farce, a reference to the reality of post-slavery "slavery."

If we consider the economic effects on the planter class post-slavery, it is not surprising that masters would, by whatever means possible, attempt to reduce the small amount of "free time" decreed in the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833.  Economic troubles fueled these actions; the question is whether economic troubles fueled the abolition of slavery. The slave economy of the West Indian colonies shaped life there, for the ruling whites, the enslaved blacks, and we see archetypes of those lives in Rhys' s novel. We see how the poor Creole white fits in to these racial roles, we see that the economy has shaped the characters, relationships and events. We see the transition from slavery to post-slavery and the effects of such a huge economic transition on the class structure. Wide Sargasso Sea is informed by the history while simultaneously informing us of the lives in that history.




Wide Sargasso Sea by Paula Rego

Wide Sargasso Sea by Paula Rego


Works Cited

Burn, William Laurence.  The British West Indies.  London: Hutchinson Publishing  Group Ltd, 1975.

Carrington, Selwyn H. H.  The Sugar Industry and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1775-1810. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. 


Ciolkowski, Laura E.  "Navigating the Wide Sargasso Sea: Colonial History, English Fiction, and British Empire." Twentieth Century Literature 43.3 (Autumn, 1997):    339-359.


Duboios, Laurent.  A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean.  Williamsburg: UNC Press, 2004.


Gregg, Veronica Marie. Jean Rhys's Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.


Harrison, Michelle.  King Sugar: Jamaica, the Caribbean, and the World Sugar Industry. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 


Morrissey, Marietta. "Towards a Theory of West Indian Economic Development." Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 8, No. 1, The Caribbean and Africa (Winter, 1981) , pp. 4-27. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0094-582X%28198124%298%3A1%3C4%3ATATOWI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-8


Plante, David.  "Jean Rhys: A Remembrance."  Paris Review 21.76 (Fall 1979): 238-84. 


Ryden, David Beck. "Does Decline Make Sense? The West Indian Economy and the Abolition of the Slave Trade."  Journal of Interdisciplinary History - Volume 31, Number 3, Winter 2001, pp. 347-374 http://muse.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/access.cgi?uri=/journals/journal_of_interdisciplinary_history/v031/31.3ryden.html&session=78505249


Temperley, Howard. "Capitalism, Slavery and Ideology." Past and Present, No. 75 (May, 1977) , pp. 94-118 . http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0031-2746%28197705%290%3A75%3C94%3ACSAI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-C


"Historic Figures: William Wilberforce".  BBC Homepage.  May 1, 2005 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/features/wilberforce/page2.shtml>


"The Post-Emancipation Societies."  Country Studies.  May 3, 2005.  http://www.country-studies.com/caribbean-islands/the-post-emancipation-societies.html


"William Wilberforce."  Spartacus Educational.   May 4, 2005 <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/REwilberforce.html>