Academic journal article ARIEL

"What Time Has Proved": History, Rebellion, and Revolution in Hamel the Obeah Man

Academic journal article ARIEL

"What Time Has Proved": History, Rebellion, and Revolution in Hamel the Obeah Man

Article excerpt

A number of early Caribbean novels written in English have been reprinted over the past several years, from Lise Winer's critical edition of E. L. Joseph's Warner Arundel, or the Adventures of a Creole (1838) to Karina Williamson's edition of the anonymously published Marly; or, a Planter's Life in Jamaica (1828) and John Gilmore's Creoleana (1842) by J. W. Orderson. (1) Much of this publishing activity arises from interest in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British Caribbean colonialism as scholars examine discourses of slavery and abolition through the critical lenses provided by current postcolonial studies and critical theories of race. (2) Certainly a reconsideration of early Caribbean fiction has contributed to this project, particularly the recognition that these texts are Creole rather than metropolitan productions. They are, as Kenneth Ramchand describes the West Indian novel, "written by West Indians about the West Indian reality" (qtd. in Winer xi).

To a large degree, construction of West Indian "reality"--that is, white West Indian reality--depicted in novels like Hamel the Obeah Man depends on a dramatic confrontation between Old and New World constructions of the Caribbean past, its present, and the future that white Creole authors meant to shape. Indeed, the intensity of these confrontations reminds us to be wary of our own historiographic practices. As David Scott argues in Conscripts of Modernity, scholars need to reexamine conceptions and representations of history that have led to "the facile normalization of the present" (2). We need, in other words, to complicate our readings of the past--as embodied in textual artifacts produced at particular socio-political moments--by going beyond simple acts of resurrection and commemoration, acts that discount the ongoing dialectic between historical moments. Such oversimplifying gestures encourage us to relegate the texts to a completed past even as we grant them limited currency by bringing them back into circulation. Thus, while we happily read novels like the anonymously written Hamel, an anti-abolitionist, pro-planter work, as proof of an unenlightened colonial past and search for evidence of imperial discursive strategies within them, we ignore the ways such readings promote essentializing distinctions between "us" and the largely monolithic historical "them" of our enquiry.

One way to overcome such a temptation is to look at these early Anglo-Caribbean works not as static recordings of a completed historical moment. Rather, they should be seen as part of a colonial discourse that on one level is shaped by hermeneutical concerns over the reader's role in the production of textual meaning and on another level by wider epistemological concerns over schooling readers to produce the texts' "true" meaning, one that conforms to a colonial way of knowing. Central to both concerns are conceptions of history, temporality, and futurity and the role they play in dictating and assessing political events in the Caribbean. Among the most striking of these events were the numerous slave insurrections that took place in the years leading up to Emancipation. The most obvious response by proslavery writers to slave rebellions was to nurture fears of black violence. In this essay, however, I want to focus on another, more subtle response that can be found in works like Hamel, one that effectively displaces images of violent revolutionaries in order to privilege "revolutions in the manners and condition of mankind" (Williams Tour 75). Revolutions in manners, unlike the revolts that were part of British West Indian history from the beginning of Caribbean colonization, are represented as the "result of ages," the product of advancing "civilization." By arguing that enslaved populations were not ready for freedom, white Creole writers at once denied the possibility that rebellions were provoked by political motives, and positioned themselves as the promoters of peace, stability, and rational order. …

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