Creole women in the British imagination

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.

 

18th-century mulatto women of mixed descent
18th-century mulatto women

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’.

A white Creole plantation mistress angrily rebukes her household slaves (1837)
A white Creole plantation mistress angrily rebukes her household slaves (1837)

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]’.

Lady Maria Nugent, with her husband and children
Lady Maria Nugent, with her husband and children: the model of virtuous British domesticity

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’.

Creole women engage in lewd dancing, in "A Grand Jamaica ball! or the Creolean hop a la muftee" (c. 1800)
Creole women engage in sexually provocative dancing. – “A Grand Jamaica ball! or the Creolean hop a la muftee” (c. 1800)

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.’

Creole men and women being drunk and disorderly. - "Cigar smoking society in Jamaica" (1802)
Creole men and women engaging in drunken debauchery. – “Cigar smoking society in Jamaica” (1802)

 

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.


Further reading

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)

Toilet soap, cleanliness, and imperialism

Soap, in some form or other, has been used by humans for millennia, with the oldest surviving products dating back to the ancient Babylonian period. Come the Industrial Revolution and the growth of mass consumption, distinct brands were formulated and aggressively marketed. Yet how could an advertisement for something as everyday as soap possibly be exciting, or indeed distinctive?

 

Prominent manufacturers such as Pears’ Soap (still in existence today) tried every advertising angle when promoting their products. Pears’ depicted the most famous actress of the day holding a bar of their soap; they paid a leading pre-Raphaelite artist for the right to use his material in an advertisement; and they tapped into dominant narratives of racist imperialism in order to sell as much soap as possible. Their most famous advertising image is probably Millais’ whimsical painting, Bubbles, and their most infamous is the 1884 advertisement showing a white child scrubbing away the ‘blackness’ from another child, which appears jolly delighted with the result.

Bubbles: Millais' painting used to advertise Pears' Soap
Bubbles: Millais’ painting used to advertise Pears’ Soap
A Pears' Soap advertisement based on the fable Washing the Blackamoor White
A Pears’ Soap advertisement based on the fable ‘Washing the Blackamoor White’
More overtly political messages could also be found in Pears’ Soap advertisements. The concept of the White Man’s Burden – the duty of the superior white race to civilise the black savages – is illustrated in an advertisement from the 1890s in which spreading cleanliness is used as a justification for imperialism. The text reads: “The first step towards lightening the White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pears’ Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilisation advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.”
 Pears' Soap advert

 

A contemporary advertisement for an American brand, Ivory Soap, follows along in much the same vein, caricaturing Native Americans and featuring a cheery poem:

 

Said Uncle Sam: “I will be wise,
And thus the Indian civilize:
Instead of guns, that kill a mile,
Tobacco, lead, and liquor vile,
Instead of serving out a meal,
Or sending Agents out to steal,
I’ll give, domestic arts to teach,
A cake of IVORY SOAP to each.

 

“Before it flies the guilty stain,
The grease and dirt no more remain;
‘Twill change their nature day by day,
And wash their darkest blots away.
They’ll turn their bows to fishing-rods,
And bury hatchets under sods [earth],
In wisdom and in worth increase,
And ever smoke the pipe of peace;
For ignorance can never cope
With such a foe as IVORY SOAP.”

A Pears' Soap advertisement based on the fable Washing the Blackamoor White

 

An even more preposterous Ivory Soap advertisement from 1888 reads as follows:

 

“We once were factious, fierce, and wild.
To peaceful arts unreconciled;
Our blankets smeared with grease and stains
From buffalo-meat and settlers’ veins.
Through summer’s dust and heat content,
From moon to moon unwashed we went;
But IVORY SOAP came like a ray
Of light across our darkened way.

 

“And now we’re civil, kind, and good,
And keep the laws as people should.
We wear our linen, lawn, and lace
As well as folks with paler face.
And now I take, where’er we go,
This cake of IVORY SOAP to show
What civilized my squaw and me,
And made us clean and fair to see”.
The great irony is, of course, that the Native Americans are depicted as anything but ‘fair to see’; they are grotesque, bestial parodies.

 

Kolmanskop, a Namibian ghost town

Part of Kolmanskop, a ruined town in the Namib desert. ©Harald Süpfle
Part of Kolmanskop, a ruined town in the Namib desert. ©Harald Süpfle

The Namib desert in Namibia is a barren wasteland. The coastal edge of the desert in which the ruined town of Kolmanskop is located is particularly dry, receiving less than 50mm of rain a year. It seems an unlikely area for permanent settlement, yet a century ago Kolmanskop was a flourishing mining town. The town came into being just over a hundred years ago, when a labourer stumbled upon evidence of diamond deposits in the area. He showed his supervisor, who in turn informed the German government of this new source of potential revenue. The government subsequently declared the area a Sperrgebiet (a restricted area) to be devoted to diamond mining.

Lured by the promise of wealth, hundreds of German settlers and even more native Namibian workers moved to the area, establishing the town of Kolmanskop. The new German inhabitants built the town in a European style which looks highly incongruous in the desert landscape. Kolmanskop featured grand houses along with recreational centres such as a ballroom, a casino, a theatre, a gymnasium and a bowling alley. Public institutions and infrastructure included a power station, a school, a hospital with the first x-ray in the southern hemisphere, and the first tram in Africa.

Some of the European-style houses built for the German settlers. ©Bgabel
Some of the European-style houses built for the German settlers. ©Bgabel
The accountant's house. ©Harald Süpfle
The accountant’s house. ©Harald Süpfle
Kolmanskop featured a beautiful ballroom. ©Harald Süpfle
Kolmanskop featured a beautiful ballroom. ©Harald Süpfle
The town also boasted a bowling alley. ©Joachim Huber
The town also boasted a bowling alley. ©Joachim Huber

The boom was, however, short-lived. Kolmanskop declined after World War One as the price of diamonds started to drop and richer diamond deposits were found further south. The town was ultimately abandoned in 1954. Since then, the ruined settlement has been a magnet for tourists, filmmakers and photographers. In 1980, the de Beers diamond company set up a museum to preserve the ballroom and bowling alley and to recreate several domestic interiors which show how the German settlers lived. The Namibian government is eager to exploit this attraction, as tourism accounts for 14.5% of the national GDP. Yet in spite of the conservation efforts, the Namib desert is gradually swallowing up the town, and one day it will be a forgotten marvel only to be seen in photographs.

©Damien du Toit
©Damien du Toit
©SqueakyMarmot / Mike, Vancouver, Canada. Flickr
©SqueakyMarmot / Mike, Vancouver, Canada. Flickr