Text, Testimony and Gender

An Examination of some Texts by Women on the English-speaking Caribbean from the 1770s to the 1920s
  • Bridget Brereton


In seeking to probe the gender dimension in the history of the Caribbean since European contact, one is largely dependent on documentary evidence generated by men. Whether one relies on official records of different kinds, newspapers and periodicals, correspondence and other materials produced by private citizens, missionaries or travellers, or published accounts by residents and visitors, the sources are mostly written by men.1 There is little recorded testimony from women. This creates a methodological problem not very different from the issue which has concerned historians of the Caribbean for decades: how to approach the social history of the majority of the region’s peoples — Amerindians, Africans and East Indians, creoles of African or Indian or mixed descent — on the basis of evidence largely created by Europeans (expatriate or creole) separated from the majority by deep gulfs of ethnicity, culture (including, often, language and religion) and class. Clearly, documents generated by men will always be crucially important to the reconstruction of the history of women and gender in the Caribbean precisely because they form by far the greatest part of what has survived. But there are a few precious texts by women who recorded their experiences as residents of, or visitors to, the islands. Did these articulate and literate (often literary) women express feminine perspectives on Caribbean society?


Corporal Punishment Assistant Teacher Caribbean Woman Female Slave Slave Woman 
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  1. 1.
    It seems fair to say that the three best-known studies on women in the slave societies of the British Caribbean all depend largely on male-authored sources: H. Beckles, Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Black Women in Barbados (London: Zed Press, 1989), B. Bush, Slave Women in Caribbean Society, 1650–1838 (London: James Currey, 1990); M. Morrissey, Slave Women in the New World (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990). Of course all three scholars are sensitive to the issues of evidence and methodology involved in using androcentric (as well as ethnocentric) sources.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The texts, in chronological order, are: Janet Schaw, Journal of a Lady of Quality; being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the years 1774 to 1776, edited by E.W. Andrews and C.M. Andrews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939); Maria Nugent, Lady Nugent’s Journal of her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805, edited by P. Wright (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1966); A.R Fenwick (ed.), The Fate of the Fenwicks: Letters to Mary Hays, 1798–1828 (London: Methuen, 1927), pp. 161–217 contain letters written by Elizabeth Fenwick while living in Barbados between 1814 and 1821; Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave Related by Herself, edited by Moira Ferguson (London: Pandora, 1987; originally published London and Edinburgh: Westley and David, 1831); Mrs A.C. Carmichael, Domestic Manners and Social Condition of the White, Coloured, and Negro Population of the West Indies, 2 vols (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969; originally published London: Whittaker, Treacher, 1833), Carmichael lived in St Vincent and Trinidad between 1820 and about 1830; Frances Lanaghan, Antigua and the Antiguans, 2 vols (London: Spottiswoode, 1967; originally published anonymously, London: Saunders and Otley, 1844); M. Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, edited by Z. Alexander and A. Dewjee (Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1984; originally published London: James Blackwood, 1857); Y. Bridges, Child of the Tropics, Victorian Memoirs, edited by N. Guppy (London: Collins and Harvill, 1980) which deals with the author’s childhood in Trinidad between 1888 and 1902; A. Mahase, My Mother’s Daughter. The Autobiography of Anna Mahase Snr 1899–1978 (Claxton Bay, Trinidad: Royards, 1992). All page references are to the editions cited above; I am grateful to Hilary Beckles for telling me about the Fenwick letters and providing a copy. A tenth work by a woman — Maria Riddell, Voyages to the Madeira, and Leeward Caribbean Isles (1792) — was examined, but it dealt exclusively with landscape, flora and fauna. Of course, I am aware that other ‘women’s texts’ might be considered; Edna Manley’s Diaries come immediately to mind. And after revising this essay for publication, I came across M. Ferguson (ed.), The Hart Sisters: Early African-Caribbean Writers, Evangelicals and Radicals (Lincoln, Nebraska and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993). This includes various writings by Anne Hart Gilbert and Elizabeth Hart Thwaites, free coloured Antiguans prominent in the Methodist movement in the last three decades of the slave period. This article makes no claims to being a comprehensive survey.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Introduction by M. Ferguson, pp. 1–41, and Preface to first 1831 edition by Thomas Pringle, p. 45. Prince’s work is also discussed in Ferguson, Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670–1834 (Routledge: New York: 1992), pp. 281–98. Prince’s text may be usefully compared with the celebrated book by the American, Harriet A. Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (edited by Jean F. Yellin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1987; originally published anonymously in 1861).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    None of the texts was written as fiction: they are letters, a journal, autobiographical works or ‘factual’ accounts of Caribbean societies. But one should note that autobiographical fiction by Caribbean women constitutes another, potentially rich source of women’s testimony about the region’s past. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Dominica-born Jean Rhys, is justly famous, and several of Rhys’ short stories are set in the Caribbean. Two other examples, interesting but far less known, may be mentioned here. Eliot Bliss was born in Jamaica in 1903 of English parents and spent her early childhood in the island, later returning as a young adult for a few years in the early 1920s. Her Luminous Isle (London: Virago, 1984; originally published London, 1934) is the story of her return to the island and her struggles with the narrow prejudices of expatriate society and of her own relatives. Lakshmi Persad’s Butterfly in the Wind (Leeds: Peepal Tree Books, 1990) describes her childhood in the 1930s and 1940s in a wealthy upper-caste Hindu family of Trinidad. Her portrayal of the child’s socialisation as a Brahmin, as a well-to-do Indo-Trinidadian and (above all) as a girl in a rapidly changing colonial society, is a valuable personal history in novel form. For a recent discussion of Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a ‘story of women’s experience of slavery’, see Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, ‘Unspeakable things unspoken: ghosts and memories in the narratives of African-American women’, The 1992 Elsa Goveia Memorial Lecture, (University of the West Indies, Mona).Google Scholar
  5. 26.
    Seacole, pp. 67, 97–98; cf also pp. 105–07. On Seacole, see C. Craig, ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands: Autobiography as literary genre and a window to character’, Caribbean Quarterly, 30(2), (June 1984), pp. 33–47.Google Scholar
  6. 32.
    Seacole, pp. 55–57, 59–61, 78, 100. For the Jamaican tradition of brown and black women keeping lodging houses which doubled as private nursing homes, see A. Josephs, ‘Mary Seacole: Jamaican nurse and “doctress”, 1805/10–1881’, Jamaican Historical Review XVII (1991), pp. 48–65.Google Scholar

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© Department of History, U.W.I., Mona, Jamaica 1995

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  • Bridget Brereton

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