Emancipation in the British Colonies:
The History in Wide Sargasso Sea
By Kate Diedrick, Margaret Funk and Sarah Davidowitz
The emancipation of the slaves in the British colonies drastically altered the social climate of
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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
African 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
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
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
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
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.
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