‘Domestic manners and social conditions of the white, coloured and negro population of the West Indies’ by Mrs. A. C. Carmichael (1833)

2 volumes, 1833 available through the Internet Archive

What a silly sausage I am! Here I was, rejoicing at the cessation of slavery in the West Indies in 1834 but I need not have worried.  Why, slaves received a weekly allowance, a home, they were fed, their clothes were washed and mended, they received free medical care and their children need not be a burden to them! They ate well from their own allotments and if they dressed in rags in the fields- well! they had plenty of rich, colourful clothes at home! They looked forward to the sugar harvesting time and the boiling-house, instead of being a satanic hell-hole was instead a scene of great merriment with young and old gathering there, singing songs, telling jokes, sitting down enjoying themselves, roasting and eating yams and plantains.  Who wouldn’t want to be a slave?

Well, that’s the way that Mrs A. C. Carmichael tells it, anyway.  This two-volume book was published in 1833, eight years before her Tales of a Grandmother that I reviewed earlier.  This is in effect the ‘grown-up’ version of her later children’s book: I find myself wondering at a world where there was a perceived need for a children’s pro-slavery tract.

So who was this Mrs Carmichael?  According to a very interesting article by Karina Williamson, published in the International Journal of Scottish Literature in 2008 (see here) she was Alison Charles Stewart who migrated to the West Indies with her two young daughters to live on the plantation owned by her husband John Wilson Carmichael, who had been assigned to St Vincent with the 53rd regiment in the 1790s.  He had married his first wife in St Vincent and became an absentee proprietor when he returned to England.  He was considerably older than Mrs Carmichael, and had two daughters from his first marriage.  Mrs Carmichael was married in Edinburgh, where she lived prior to her shift to the West Indies and on her return ‘home’, she spent the rest of her long life as an expatriate Scot in England or the Channel Islands.

Although the title of the book suggests that it will deal with the white, coloured and negro races of the West Indies, in fact it deals only with St Vincent and Trinidad, with a very heavy preponderance of attention paid to the negro races. However, she says, her observations are “applicable to many, and in a great degree to all the West India colonies” (p. 15) because the “negro character is the same” and

…the circumstances in which the white and black population are relatively placed- their respective occupations; their interests; the climate- are all so similar, that no very marked dissimilarity can exist in the character and conduct of the population of the different islands (p. 15)

Although clearly written for a ‘home’-based readership, apparently the book  came to be viewed with suspicion in the West Indies itself for its inaccuracies and misrepresentations.  Williamson cites an English traveller in the 1840s and 50s who tried to find a copy in the West Indies so that he could read it on the spot, as it were:

Throughout the islands that I have as yet visited, she is denounced continually by some mendacious epithet or other, and even her own relations, both in Trinidad and in St. Vincent, disclaim connection with her, asserting that she was notorious in her own family for habitually not speaking the truth. Whenever I endeavoured to borrow her book, some excuse was made to prevent my seeing it—‘It was mislaid,’ or ‘lost,’ or ‘destroyed,’ and never forthcoming.[…] At last I obtained a loan of it from a nearly white young man, who, however, did not fail to caution me that it was ‘full of lies.’[Charles William Day, Five Years’ Residence in the West Indies, 2 vols. (London: Colburn and Co., 1852), I, p. 129.]

The book was written with the clear intent to rebut the abolitionist rhetoric about slavery circulating in England, and is best regarded in that light.  Hence the heavy emphasis on the ignorance of English commentators, the great progress that had been made in ameliorating the conditions of the slaves, the unreadiness of the slaves for emancipation, and their happiness with conditions as they were.  It is very much a book of its time, written for a particular political purpose, and it comes across to a modern reader as a missive from a discombobulating  parallel universe.

Additional reference: Karina Williamson ‘Mrs Carmichael A Scotswoman in the West Indies’ International Journal of  Scottish Literature Issue 4, Spring/Summer 2008.

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3 responses to “‘Domestic manners and social conditions of the white, coloured and negro population of the West Indies’ by Mrs. A. C. Carmichael (1833)

  1. I do always like to hear of happy natives. Ah, they weren’t natives, were they. Happy staff then.

  2. Pingback: ‘Cambridge’ by Caryl Phillips | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  3. Pingback: ‘The Colthurst Journal’ by John Bowen Colthurst | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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