1. Short Introduction to West Indian Literature & Overview
2. Brief History of Jamaican Literature
3. Women & Female Characters in West Indian Literature ..
4. An Example for Jamaican Female Writers - Mary Seacole’s “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands” .
5. Conclusion and Outlook .
1. Short Introdcution to the West Indian Literature and Overview
The West Indies share the common experience of colonisation, displacement, slavery, emancipation and nationalism - this particular West Indian experience is part of the West Indian culture and of their arts1. Even though slavery was abolished between 100 and 150 years ago, it lives on in the memories of the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. The experience of slavery lead to cynicism and despair as well as to hope and positive thoughts which inspire the West Indian dream of individual freedom and collective independence. Those dreams are shared in the literature of the West Indies.
A development of literature on the Caribbean islands first started in the 18th and 19th century. An explosion of it followed in the 1930s and the late 50s. Topics at this time were an anti-colonial perspective and a search for new definitions and values. However the West Indian literature grew into new dimensions in the late 20th century2. Caribbean writers dealt with historical, social and political adjustments on their islands, which were part of their own problems with identity and aesthetics. West Indian literature shows its variety in poetry, prose, fiction and drama. The poetry of the early 70ths was motivated by the Black Power movement and therefore radical and revolutionary. Back then and still nowadays the greatest influence of West Indian literature is the complementary relationship of oral and written traditions of the Caribbean inhabitants 3.
In this work I want to provide a brief overview of the literature development in the West Indies, especially in Jamaica. Therefore I will discuss the language and literature situation in Jamaica and talk about the author Mary Seacole as an example for a female Jamaican writer. A part of my work will be that I discuss the role of women and female characters in Jamaican literature. That is why I decided for Mary Seacole’s book
“Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands”. At the end of this paper I want to give an outlook of Jamaican literature and the situation of black literature in the Caribbean.
2. Brief history of Jamaican literature
Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1494 Jamaica is now the biggest English-speaking country in the Caribbean. It was occupied by the Spaniards in 1509 and the import of West African Negro slaves started with the arrival of the Spanish settlers. Therefore Spanish became the first European language spoken in Jamaica. In 1655 England captured the island and continued the import of West African slaves. By 1690 eighty two percent of the population in Jamaica were African slaves4. The influence of African languages on the developing languages was tremendous5. English-based pidgin languages developed together with the influence of Modern English and the African tribal languages. In the 18th century Jamaican Creole English finally developed from the existing pidgin languages. In the 19th century the slave trade stopped and brought an end to the African language influences. Eventually pidgin speakers started to decrease and Jamaica became creolised.
Jamaica became independent in 1962, until this time the British colony had English language influences. Nowadays we have two major languages in Jamaica: the Standard Jamaican English, which is the official language of the country and the Jamaican Creole English, often referred to as Jamaican Patwois. Both languages still influence each other as they coexist on the island and are in contact everyday. Understanding the language history of Jamaica is crucial to understand the history of literature on the Caribbean island.
Nowadays and back then Jamaican writers struggle with the choice of writing in Jamaican Patwois or Standard English. Standard English is universally better understood and accepted, however Patwois is an important part of Jamaican culture and so distinctly Jamaican, that it cannot be ignored. Famous authors like Joan Andrea Hutchinson or Louise Simone Bennett-Coverly (“Miss Lou”) were using Jamaican Patwois and standard English in their writing, showing the high value of Jamaican Patwois sayings and phrases and to express a unique Jamaican essence. Inspite of Patwois being understood and used by most of the Jamaicans it is not the official written language in the country. Therefore poetry and prose written in Patwois always differs in orthography. Although many Jamaican people pledge for an official acceptance of Patwois as a language of education in school, Standard Jamaican English has still the higher prestige in the country. It is only recently due to the popularity of Reggae music, that Patwois gained recognition also in countries outside the Caribbean.
Jamaican art and culture is a mixture of many ethnicities that came to the island over the last centuries. Besides the different European settlers coming to the island and the slave trade forced by the British government, Jamaica also had Chinese and Indian immigrants, who came as indentured workers. Therefore Jamaica has not only a multilingual situation, but also shows its diversity in arts and culture.
3. Women & Female Characters in West Indian Literature
Historically the West Indian women were the repositories of oral tradition and folk wisdom in their community. However they only have recently been able to project themselves in written literature. Usually the images of them appearing earlier in the West Indian literature were created by men. But the women of the Caribbean had a central role in history and in their communities of the islands.
For the European settlers women were central for the continuation of the slave system, since they had the ability to produce the labor force. The reality was, that slave women were workers and mothers in an almost spiritual sense6. The bond between mother and child was sacred and slave women did everything to protect their children from the planter’s utilitarian and commercial view. George Campbell portrayed the Caribbean women in his 1940 poetry as “history makers” or “women stonebreakers”7. This image of strong, spiritual women changed into various other images due to historical and social changes in the Caribbean region. Some writers created the image of a rural woman, which was usually a poor, hardy and abandoned mother with an optimistic view and lovingly committed to her child and her own community. Those rural women possessed a strength and meaning deriving from their sense of shared confidences between her and the people around her. Also the community of the women played a crucial role here8.
Another image of women in the West Indian literature is the image of an aggressively ambitious urban prostitute or the image of a rural woman in the urban areas trying to survive and earn a living. This new image came up by a disintegration of Caribbean people and separations brought by migration and urban settlements. However the degraded women of the slums often possessed a generosity of spirit despite all their poverty and desperation9. Inspite of the bad experiences with slavery and the suffering caused by the oppressors, very few West Indian women have specifically explored social or psychological problems. Caribbean women usually commented on their life and their general social situation.
In the 1940s the Jamaican poet Louise Simone Bennett-Coverley commented on women’s view of marriage, racial attitudes or the strength and vulnerability of the Jamaican society. However she saw herself as social commentator and oral performer - her commentary was presented through consciousness of the rural women in Jamaica.
1 cf. Dabydeen, David & Wilson-Tagoe, Nana. A Reader ’ s Guide to the Westindian and Black British Literature. Hatfield: The Bracken Press, 1997. Print p. 13
2 cf. Dabydeen, David & Wilson-Tagoe, Nana. A Reader ’ s Guide to the Westindian and Black British Literature. Hatfield: The Bracken Press, 1997. Print p. 13
3 Dabydeen, David & Wilson-Tagoe, Nana. A Reader ’ s Guide to the Westindian and Black British Literature. Hatfield: The Bracken Press, 1997. Print p. 21
4 Cassidy, F. G. (1971). The Pidgin Element in Jamaican Creole. in Hymes, D. H. (eds.), Pidginization and creolization of languages; proceedings of a conference held at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, April, 1968. (pp. 203-221). Cambridge [Eng.: University Press. p. 205
5 Viereck, Wolfgang, and Karin Viereck. dtv-Atlas englische Sprache. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co.KG, 2002. Print. p- 19
6 cf. Dabydeen, David & Wilson-Tagoe, Nana. A Reader ’ s Guide to the Westindian and Black British Literature. Hatfield: The Bracken Press, 1997. Print p. 43
7 Dabydeen, David & Wilson-Tagoe, Nana. A Reader ’ s Guide to the Westindian and Black British Literature. Hatfield: The Bracken Press, 1997. Print p. 43
8 Dabydeen, David & Wilson-Tagoe, Nana. A Reader ’ s Guide to the Westindian and Black British Literature. Hatfield: The Bracken Press, 1997. Print p. 43
9 Dabydeen, David & Wilson-Tagoe, Nana. A Reader ’ s Guide to the Westindian and Black British Literature. Hatfield: The Bracken Press, 1997. Print p. 44