One consequence of the expansion of European colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries was that many Europeans came into closer contact with African peoples as the slave trade boomed alongside the plantations of the West Indies and the American colonies. With European planters and their slaves living in close proximity, it was inevitable that mixed-race unions should occur, the children of which were known as ‘mulattos’. For many anxious observers, this development called into question the racial and moral purity of West Indian planters. White Creoles (this being the term used to differentiate West Indians of European descent from white people living in Europe) became a much-maligned group in literature and the popular imagination, particularly in Britain.
The everyday experience of white Creoles in the West Indies was certainly very different from that of white people living in Britain, but differences in personal character were much exaggerated by British commentators. Notably, the diaries, histories and travelogues written by British people in the West Indies tended to reserve special criticism for white Creole women. A web of mainly negative assumptions and stereotypes grew up around Creole women, which deeply influenced their reception in Britain, whether in person or in literature (see for instance the treatment of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre).
“The ladies, they appear to me perfect viragos”
One longstanding stereotype about white Creole women was that they were cruel and autocratic. Edward Long, author of History of Jamaica (1774), believed that Creole women developed a temper which would frighten away even the most obliging of spouses ‘whose misfortune it may be to be linked in the nuptial bonds’. Maria Nugent, wife of the governor of Jamaica from 1801-1806, said that
‘The ladies, they appear to me perfect viragos; they never speak but in the most imperious manner to their servants, and are constantly finding fault. By nature they are arrogant people…and quick to anger. They give orders with great authority so that their underlings tremble and shake every time they are called and asked to do something. They are ill-tempered, harsh, sour-looking and quite severe towards anyone subordinate to then. They are nasty and lazy, which is why they call anyone a slave whom they observe being industrious’.
British observers thought that this behaviour stemmed from the way Creole girls were raised in the West Indies. Nugent explained it by the fact that Creole children were usually raised not by their mothers, but by a bevy of slaves who were ordered to obey the child’s every whim. The result, as Maria contended, was that children were:
‘…allowed to eat every thing improper, to the injury of their health, and are made truly unamiable, by being most absurdly indulged. Since the native Whites, or Creoles, have been accustomed from childhood onward to be served by slaves, as well as to give those same slaves orders, they, therefore, become aware quite early of their external superiority over those poor creatures. From there, the transition to pride and a domineering character is quick and easy. Neither does the example which they witness on all sides in the treatment of slaves by others lead to the development of humanitarian sentiments’.
As the anti-slavery movement gained steam in Britain, the stereotype of the cruel Creole woman was exploited in abolitionist propaganda. Children’s stories such as The Barbadoes Girl: A Tale for Young People (1818) played on popular Creole stereotypes in order to evoke sympathy for mistreated slaves. In this particular morality tale, a young Creole girl named Matilda is sent to England following her father’s death. She is portrayed as a spoilt child who treats her female slave companion in a cruel and derogatory manner. Gradually, however, Matilda is transformed by the English characters into a humble and compassionate child who understands that slavery is an evil in the sight of God and man. At the end of the novel, Matilda exclaims that ‘European children know everything, but I am little better than a negro; I find what your mamma said was very true – I know nothing at all’.
“Mrs. C. is a perfect Creole, says little, and drawls of that little”
In The Barbadoes Girl, Matilda is sent to England for her education. Many planter families did send their daughters to expensive British boarding schools, primarily in order to acquire social polish and suitable husbands. Although the education offered to girls in most British schools was narrow by today’s standards, contemporary British observers felt that their system was superior to the West Indies. Educational opportunities for girls in the West Indies were in fact very limited. Every now and again, perhaps, a school would be established by a British schoolteacher who had moved to the West Indies in search of adventure, freedom or financial security. J.B. Moreton, author of the 1793 work West India Customs and Manners, thought that such schools, with ‘proper English masters and mistresses’, were desperately needed, as British visitors argued that the lack of education made Creole women vacuous, ignorant and idle. Edward Long was particularly concerned that by failing to develop their ‘excellent talents’, Creole women would not attract husbands due to their ‘gross ignorance’.
The developmental influence of black slaves on white Creole girls was thought to be particularly iniquitous. Moreton deplored the behaviour of ‘those who receive their education amongst negro women, and imbibe great part of their dialect, principles, manners and customs’; ‘cultural deterioration’ was experienced as a result of ‘constant intercourse’ with black slaves. Maria Nugent thought that white Creole women were ‘ninnies’, and claimed that she was incapable of enjoying intellectual conversation with them. She criticised their lack of education and described a certain Mrs. C. as ‘a perfect Creole, [she] says little, and drawls of that little, and has not an idea beyond her own [plantation]’.
Nugent found the different speech pattern of Creole women especially grating, complaining that those who had not been educated in England ‘speak a sort of broken English, with an indolent drawling out of their words, that is very tiresome if not disgusting’. She gave as example a Mrs. S. who would regularly say “dis, dat, and toder” (this, that and the other), and a lady who, in response to Nugent’s observation that the air was much cooler than usual, answered “yes ma’am, him rail-ly too fra-ish‘. Moreton also mocks the Creole speech pattern; he recounts dining out on one occasion, where upon asking one girl if she would like some turkey, she replied ‘tank you sir, with all my hawt’.
“Creole miss when scarcely ten: Flash their eyes and long for men”
British observers commonly described Creole women as immoral, possessing pronounced lascivious tendencies. Moreton maintained that women who lived in Jamaica from their infancy amounted to little more than ‘ambitious, flirting play-things’. He was shocked at their behaviour at home and found that ‘if you surprise them [during the day]…you will find [them]…on a clumsy, greasy sofa, in a dirty confused hall…with a parcel of black wenches…singing obscene and filthy songs, and dancing to the tunes’. A common saying had it that ‘Creole miss when scarcely ten: Flash their eyes and long for men [sic]’. Worst of all, Creole women were thought to completely neglect religion; Moreton said that instead of going to church, they sat at home learning ‘jilting, intrigues, and scenes of obscenity’.
White Creole women were, moreover, believed to be indolent and incapable of amusing themselves in any rational manner. Bryan Edwards, author of an 1807 history of the West Indies, remarked that ‘except in the exercise of dancing, in which they [Creole women] delight and excel, they have no amusements or an avocation to impel them to much exertion of either body or mind’. Their idle disposition was thought to result from their dependence on slaves to perform even the most menial tasks. One British cartoon portrays a Creole woman sitting at an upstairs window calling to her slave, demanding that the slave come up to her room and take her head in from the window. As a result of such slothfulness, the very voices of Creole women would become ‘soft and spiritless’, with their every movement betraying ‘langour and lassitude’. Writers conjured up domestic scenes of indolence and impropriety: ‘we may see in some of these places, a very fine young woman awkwardly dangling her arms, with the air of a negro servant lolling almost the whole day upon beds or settees…her dress loose, and without stays [without corsets – this being a signal of loose virtue]’.
The historian Jon Sensbach, while eschewing the moral judgments of earlier writers, does write of the planters’ daily schedule that it:
‘…could not be said to be taxing. They slept late each morning, rose for a bit of light work – women sewed, men tended to business – then, exhausted after the midday meal, they napped for an hour in their hammocks, fanned to sleep by a slave waving a palm branch. Afternoon tea was followed by card games lasting long into the night, the men often repairing as well to a tavern for extended bouts of billiards. Observing this routine, some European writers concluded that planters, particularly Creoles, were a feeble lot, enervated by climate and luxury, torpid of spirit and physical energy except in sexual excess, indolent and cruel.’
As Sensbach remarks, many Britons attributed the supposed indolence and lewdness of Creole women to the climate in which they grew up. The idea was that while British women were as cool and moderate as the British climate, Creole women were influenced by the tropical humidity and lush abundance of the West Indies. Edward Long thought that in the West Indies, ‘women attain earlier to maturity and sooner decline, than in the Northern climates’. Moreton wrote that ‘Creole ladies, who have been properly educated and polished in England from their infancy in polite schools…[are] no doubt, as prudent, chaste and fine women as any in the world, save only what difference of climate produces’. Thus – unfortunately for Creole women – even with the best education, their propensity for improper conduct still remained, due to the exotic West Indian climate.
Barbara Hofland, The Barbadoes Girl: A Tale For Young People (1818)
Edward Long, The History of Jamaica (1774)
J. B. Moreton, West India Customs and Manners (1793)
Philip Wright (ed.), Lady Nugent’s Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801-1805 (2000)