Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal - V2I1 - Aljoe, Caribbean Slave Narratives...
Caribbean Slave Narratives: Creole in Form and Genre
by Nicole N. Aljoe
Slavery in the Caribbean and West Indian Colonies
According to Orlando Patterson, “Since Eric Williams, scholars have agreed that the Caribbean area is unique in world history in that it represents one of the rare cases of human society being artificially created for capitalistic purposes” (Sociology 37). Unlike the United States, the West Indian colonies were not intended to become permanent settlements by investors, for instance, on the island of Jamaica fully “9/10 of all the land under cultivation by plantations on the island before emancipation was owned by absentees”
(Patterson, Sociology 37). Furthermore, slaves in the West Indies were more likely to live on large plantations. In fact, “three-quarters of slaves in Jamaica were located on plantations of 50 or more slaves, whereas in the United States less than one-quarter of slaves were located on such plantations” (Engerman 265). Additionally,
Slaves in the US had more extensive contact with white society in their daily lives. Moreover, in the US, even in the South, the slaves were basically in a white society: even in those states with the heaviest concentrations of slaves, whites represented one-half of the population. In the West Indies, the share of whites was generally on the order of 10%. (265)
These distinctions, including the fact that more US slaves were native-born than were West Indian slaves (90% in US, versus less than 75% in Jamaica), make clear the marked differences in t
he conditions of slaves in the New World (265).
Yet, one of the most important distinctions was the Caribbean itself: “an island bridge . . . connect[ing] North and South America as well as the various traces of Old World points of departure,” the Caribbean developed as “a series of artificially created societies aimed primarily at production of resources as opposed to permanent settler societies, a meta-archipelago”
(Murray 177). Caribbean societies are marked by their nature as islands—foregrounding fragmentation, instability, uprootedness, cultural heterogeneity, contingency, impermanence, and syncretism (Benítez-Rojo 1). Numerous critics and writers agree that there is a connection between the geography and cultural context of the Caribbean and the writing that is produced there. Benítez-Rojo has argued, “the Caribbean text shows the specific features of the supersyncretic culture from which it emerges” (29). He goes on to explain, “Caribbean literature cannot free itself of the multi-ethnic society upon which it floats, and it tells us of its fragmentation and instability” (27). This syncretism of the Caribbean does not imply that all Caribbean cultures are the same. Indeed, as Benítez-Rojo argues, the “Plantation proliferated in the Caribbean basin in a way that presented different features in each island, each stretch of coastline, and each colonial bloc. Nevertheless, these differences, [do not] negate the existence of a pan-Caribbean society” (72).
This experience, writes Benítez-Rojo, includes cultural components that come from all over the globe: “European conquest, the native people’s disappearance or retreat, African slavery, plantation economies, Asian migration, rigid and prolonged colonial domination” (34). This distinctive feature of Caribbean societies developed into new cultural and social forms often referred to as Creole and had a major impact on cultural production, especially during slavery.
 These factors must be seen as contributing to the necessarily distinct publication history of Caribbean slave narratives, which is closely bound to the cultural history of Caribbean societies.
Caribbean and West Indian Slave Narratives
Such extensive employment of Creole is unusual. Indeed, most slave narratives like Prince's and Warner’s, confined Creole to the speech of slaves. In narratives by ex-slaves such as Harriet Jacobs or Frederick Douglass, formal English was a means of asserting intelligence. Yet in this passage, the deployment ofCreole asserts a sense of agency and intelligence.
Although narrated in Creole, Williams and his fellow apprentices were obviously very aware of their “right” under the law and were able to use their “native” language to assert and secure those rights.
1). However, because Creole in these narratives is expressive of an alternative worldview, it should be considered within the purview of the dialogic. Moreover, Creole captures and conveys what is distinctive about slave culture, and consequently provides evidence of a different dialogic angle. Bakhtin himself observed in several essays that languages have access to different systems of power. Therefore, translated Creole, as in some of the narratives, can be read as a sign of a different language because the implication is that without translation Creole would be incomprehensible to most readers. Indeed, both Pringle and Strickland implied in their respective prefatory remarks that translation was necessary in order to ensure readability.
Consequently, within these three narratives Creole subverts the consolidating and unifying power of formal English by affirming linguistic diversity. In lieu of a singular voice then, Creole attests to an inherent multiplicity within these narratives.
Some critics have argued rather forcefully for the connection between testimonio and place—as a genre of as-told-to life narratives that developed and flourished in Latin America, especially in the 1960s, beginning with Miguel Barnet’s Biography of a Runaway Slave
, a transcription of the life of the 105-year-old Cuban ex-slave Esteban Montejo. Although Barnet invented the term testimonio with the publication of Montejo’s narrative, in fact this format had existed long before the 1960s. Indeed as Raymond Williams has argued, there is a long history of oral autobiography by oppressed people that is not limited to Latin America (qtd. in Beverly 71). Additionally, arguments by Alberto Retamar and Orlando Patterson among others who draw geographic and cultural connections between the Caribbean and Latin America encourage reading these Caribbean slave narratives through a Latin American socio-historical context.
The multiplicity signaled by the polyvocality of the Creole testimony of Caribbean slaves illuminates the complexity of the slave narrative form. Far from a rigid or unchanging genre,
it incorporates numerous rhetorical and narrative strategies that develop out of each narrative’s particular cultural context. Plantation slavery was a complex and varied system of power relationships. I try to embrace this complexity by attending to the various ways in which slaves communicated their stories.
Although the dictated narratives do not provide easy interpretative access, they do have so much to communicate and to ignore them is to silence once again the voices of Caribbean slaves.