“Everyone knows that the colonial world was a haven for the godly, a refuge for the oppressed, a challenge to the adventurous and the last resort of scoundrels. ” (A. E Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labour)
The history and legacy of slavery is deeply intertwined within British colonial history, and is still to this day the source of some animosity between Britain and her colonies. It has always been the case that the wealthy exploit the poor, and Britain was by no means an exception to the rule.
Her colonies, particularly those in the Caribbean were referred to as the “Sugar Colonies” and added much wealth to Britain. According to Arthur Young, an estimated three million pounds per year was added to the wealth of Britain, wealth which was not transferred onto the Caribbean islands. The more successful entrepreneurs designed systems of exclusion to ensure they could dominate colonial society at the expense of middling and smaller entrepreneurs as well as all non-whites.
These systems included having property qualifications, membership of professional bodies and the possession of a university degree.
As we can see already, exploitation was rife. Although the sugar colonies did wonders for the wealthy, it has generally been agreed that the colonies were dismal social failures. The work associated with sugar production was burdensome because it involved a considerable manufacturing input on the plantation, as well as harsh agricultural labour. That is to say, it was very labour intensive. It was for this reason that the slave trade developed and thrived.
Natives, other Caribbean people and West Africans were all brought in to fuel the riches greed.
The mortality of the slaves was high and overwork, malnutrition and resistance to their owners contributed to this. Planters needed an annual input of fresh slaves to keep up their stock, and the slaves were merely seen as a cog in the machine, and not human beings. Interestingly, no legal provisions were made for the Christianisation of slaves; they were generally regarded by the established Anglican Church as intellectually unable to comprehend the concept of the faith and Christian vision. To me, this was just an excuse to mal-treat the slaves.
If they were Christian they would have to be looked after and cared for, but as heathens, it is only right to be treated how they “deserved”. Wide Sargasso Sea was set soon after the emancipation act of 1833, an act which banned slavery, and the date became important to all the colonies, and their inhabitants. Finally they were “free” from their suppressors, but at a price. Even after Emancipation in 1838, the unequal system continued. The first indication of this came with the awarding of some twenty million pounds to the planters by way of compensation, with nothing being awarded to the former slaves.
The system tried to force them to continue the arduous work on the plantations by introducing high taxes on smallholdings, high rates for licences or small traders, and contracts to shackle the labourers to the large plantations. The problems associated with the uneasy post-Emancipation time form the backdrop for the novel. However, the hatred and the animosity continued between the planters and the poor locals, and it is this which Rhys focuses on in the novel. There are deep underlying racial nuances throughout the novel, mostly focusing on the lead character, Antoinette Cosway.
Antoinette can be accepted neither by the Negro community nor by the representatives of the colonial centre. As a white Creole she is nothing. “I never looked at any strange Negro. They hated us. They called us white cockroaches. One day a little girl followed me singing, ‘Go away white cockroach, go away, go away,’ I walked fast, but she walked faster, ‘White cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you. Go away'” The taint of racial impurity, coupled with the suspicion that she is mentally imbalanced brings about her inevitable downfall.
The black community does not accept her because she is white, and because of her Creole background, she does not fit in to the world of her English husband, Rochester. As a result of her disassociation with identity, she suffers a mental breakdown and descends into “madness. ” Society’s refusal to accept her, her mother’s unsupportive example, and her failed marriage are all separate components of the reason for this disassociation and her eventual loss of sanity. Even Antoinette’s friend, Tia, chooses to abandon her.
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