'Us Creoles': Intersubjectivity, Empire and the Politics of Meaning-Making in Autobiography

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`Us Creoles': Intersubjectivity, Empire and the Politics of Meaning-Making in Autobiography

...significantly, the evidence of the maps hanging on the walls around give the lie to the image of the isolated sceptred isle, the little world all on its own. They make it clear that the nation [Britain] could only survive, be victualled, watered, armed, supplied through connection across borders, through the convoys which set out from the ports and entrepots of the empire, its allies and sympathisers. Here they are, marked out on the map -- Kingston, Jamaica; Port of Spain, Trinidad; Aruba, Curacao; Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Recife, Halifax, St. Johns, Sydney, Gibraltar, Oran, Algiers, Casablanca, the Azores, Dakar, Bathurst, Freetown, Reykjavik, and many others. Other islands, a constellation of islands, other harbours, a star map of interconnection, a necklace of many stones set in as many seas, the collaboration of many peoples and places and ports -- the antithesis of self-sufficiency in isolation.(1)

From 1801 to 1805, "in the shadow"(2) of the contemporary San Domingo slave rebellion led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, Maria Nugent, later Lady Nugent, `composed' her self in her journal -- a journal which documents the governorship of Jamaica, most lucrative among British colonies, by her husband George Nugent. Some years later in London in 1831, at the height of the anti-slavery campaign, a Bermudan-born slave named Mary Prince became the first person from the British West Indies to publish her story in the form known as slave narrative.(3) Although the two autobiographers, Prince and Nugent, never met, they are brought together here to trace what is an uneasy but intimate relation, a relation of implicated histories and imbricated subjectivities. I am not reading in tangent the history of a slave and the journal of a woman of privilege in order somehow to transcend or magically dissolve social divisions. Rather, my approach seeks to highlight the interactive production of meanings articulated within and between their imperially pre-scribed subjectivities and, in the process, to problematise homogenising conceptions of imperialism and autobiography.

One of the fundamental `subjecting imperatives' explicated in contemporary cultural theory has been the knowledge that there can be no subjectivity without intersubjectivity. However, this and other such imperatives of imperial rule have long been realised in the colonial complex, where the tenuousness of `self' brought about by displacement, dispossession, and cultural denigration was, and continues to be, enacted on a daily basis. The interrelationship of mistress and slave, for example, specifically that of Mary Prince and Maria Nugent, is located primarily, but not solely, within a subjectivity compact, wherein one form of subjecthood derives its meaning in relation or in opposition to, or at times despite an/other or others. That compact, however, is specifically located, and is played out within the inequitable dynamic of colonial power relations which (in both senses) articulate the British West Indies. Together then, with the `figurative' dynamic underscoring the texts of mistress and slave, the contingencies of the colonial creole Caribbean constitute a more grounded cultural connection that serves both to distinguish and to bind the lives and self-representations of women like Prince and Nugent.

The term `creole' has been used in different ways by different cultures to refer to a variety of societies. In his ground-breaking historical study, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica: 1770-1820, E. K. Brathwaite deploys the word in its original Spanish sense of criollo: born into, native to, committed to the area of living, and identifies four main inter-related cultural "groups" which make up the socio-cultural continuum in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century Jamaican society: European, Euro-creole, Afro-creole and "West Indian." Central to my argument is an understanding of the processes of "creolisation" as the tension between the palimpsestie colonial elements and the developing local (creole) cultural elements. …