By FRANK BIRBALSINGH
Lise Winer, Ed., The University of the West Indies Press, 2001,
pp. 364. ISBN: 976 640 133-0
Adolphus, A Tale by an anonymous author and The Slave Son by Mrs. William Noy Wilkins are mid-19th century Trinidadian works of fiction now republished in the second volume of the Caribbean Heritage Series of “historically significant works” of West Indian fiction edited by Professor Lise Winer with annotations and an introduction by the editor and fellow scholars: Bridget Brereton, Rhonda Cobham, Mary Rimmer and Karen Sanchez-Eppler.
Adolphus first appeared in serial form, in 1853, in a newspaper The Trinidadian owned and edited by George Numa Dessources, a Trinidadian of mixed (African/European) blood. By the end of slavery in 1838, and especially during the Spanish colonial administration that ended in Trinidad in 1797, many among Dessources’s ethnic group had emerged as affluent and educated free Coloureds or free Blacks. But after the British takeover in 1797, restrictions to their freedom appeared, and both Adolphus—no more than a novella at seventy-five pages, and Slave Son—a full fledged novel —lament these restrictions.
The author of Slave Son is believed to be Dessources himself or one of his free coloured or black associates. The novella tells the story of an orphaned child of escaped slaves—Adolphus – who, in the first decade of the nineteenth century, is raised in Trinidad as an educated, free Black by a Catholic priest Padre Gonsalez. Adolphus falls in love with Antonia, daughter of a free, well to do black family—the Romelias— but she is abducted by a mulatto/white reprobate Jean de Lopelle Pierre Paul De Guerignon . Such are the restrictions imposed by class and colour prejudice that when Antonia resists De Guerignon’s attempted rape, he simply taunts her with: “it is all money—money can make the stiff laws to bend—and make you love me too.” (p.38)
DeGuerignon’s dark designs are foiled partly by Antonia’s quick wit and stubborn resistance, and partly by the bravery of Adolphus who rescues her. But so pernicious are the laws that Mr. Romelia – Antonia’s father – is arrested through false evidence and dies in prison, while an equally false accusation for robbery against Adolphus forces him to take refuge in Venezuela. Only later, through the help of friends, is De Guerignon punished and Adolphus able to return to Trinidad.
In Slave Son, the hero Belfond is the son of a white plantation owner St. Hilaire Cardon and a female slave. As a mulatto who enjoys freedom with restricted rights in Trinidad, Belfond feels bitter about his divided existence both racially and socially: “sneered at by my mother’s people – hunted like a wildcat by my father’s. “ (p.224) Not only that, when he is sent by his father to Europe for education, he is turned off by the harshness of European culture, their “avarice, their hardness of heart, their inhospitality.” (p.259)
The result is alienation from his father and flight to find refuge among maroons (slave rebels) who, by the end of the novel, launch an insurrection in which Belfond’s father is killed. Through all this turmoil Belfond finds satisfaction only in his love for a young coloured woman Laurine, who is also free and with whom, at the end of Slave Son, like Adolphus in the previous novella, he escapes to Venezuela.
As we see, Adolphus and Slave Son tell stories whose principal function, for all their high drama, is to serve as scaffolding for details about slave society in a British Caribbean colony shortly before full Emancipation in 1838. Details include restricted rights for mulattoes; rules that “Negroes or coloured people … are never permitted to eat or be seated in the presence of the higher race”; (p.136) and most of all, the core injustice of slavery itself which defines one group of people – Africans – merely as beasts of burden, and assigns to another group – Whites – the power virtually of life and death over the former. But Slave Son does not simply expose such hardship and injustice or reveal dates, facts and statistics in the manner of a history text: its imaginative, true-to-life rendering of actual individuals in regular, day-to-day relationships with each other engages our thoughts and feelings in the same way as people in our own lives, thus communicating a more complete understanding of the whole experience of slavery.
For example, we simply shrink when we hear slaves being loudly addressed in animalistic terms like “good for nothing old raccoon” (p.193), “shrivelled bat” (p.194), “crooked ape” (p.215), or “black monkey” (p.230); or learn that Cardon is considered “merciful” when, instead of execution, he orders a slave “to be bound and flogged till not an atom of flesh on his back remained whole.” (p.198) It is one thing to learn about such inhuman abuse from the reported account of a documentary narrative, quite another to visualise it enacted, before our very eyes, on individuals with whose personalities, relationships and activities we have become familiar.
Whereas the author of Adolphus is a native Trinidadian, the author of Slave Son (1854) was born Marcella Fanny Nugent in Ireland in 1816, and probably lived in the West Indies and got married there. Her novel is one of several fictional works written by expatriate or creole Whites about early periods of West Indian history, but only recently unearthed and republished, for example, Creoleana a novel about Barbados written by J.W. Orderson in 1842.
In a society rigidly structured on criteria of race, class and colour it helps to get social portraits from members of more than one ethnic group. Mrs.Wilkins, for instance, sees similarities between restrictions against free West Indian Coloureds and laws against Irish Catholics in the seventeenth century. But if her support of Coloureds is based on “the grafting of the European intellect on the warm strong feelings of Africa,” (p.132) it reflects paternalism rather than genuine belief in racial equality.