The Woman of Colour
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The Woman of Colour

Lyndon J. Dominique, Lyndon J. Dominique

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eBook - ePub

The Woman of Colour

Lyndon J. Dominique, Lyndon J. Dominique

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About This Book

The Woman of Colour is a unique literary account of a black heiress' life immediately after the abolition of the British slave trade. Olivia Fairfield, the biracial heroine and orphaned daughter of a slaveholder, must travel from Jamaica to England, and as a condition of her father's will either marry her Caucasian first cousin or become dependent on his mercenary elder brother and sister-in-law. As Olivia decides between these two conflicting possibilities, her letters recount her impressions of Britain and its inhabitants as only a black woman could record them. She gives scathing descriptions of London, Bristol, and the British, as well as progressive critiques of race, racism, and slavery. The narrative follows her life from the heights of her arranged marriage to its swift descent into annulment and destitution, only to culminate in her resurrection as a self-proclaimed "widow" who flouts the conventional marriage plot.

The appendices, which include contemporary reviews of the novel, historical documents on race and inheritance in Jamaica, and examples of other women of colour in early British prose fiction, will further inspire readers to rethink issues of race, gender, class, and empire from an African woman's perspective.

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“He finds his brother guilty of a skin not colour’d like his own,” COWPER.1
1 The William Cowper epigraph is from The Task (1784), Book II, “The Time Piece”: “He finds his fellow guilty of a skin / Not colour’d like his own; and, having power / To enforce the wrong, for such a worthy cause / Dooms and devotes him as his lawful prey” (12-15).
2 The list of titles assumes E.M. Foster’s authorship; however, Peter Garside et al.’s work on the English novel refutes this claim as well as other writers mistakenly recorded as The Woman of Colour’s author. See The English Novel 1770-1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles. Vol. II 1800-1829 ed. Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schowerling (Oxford: OUP, 2000) 69-70.
3 With some isolated exceptions, James Black, Henry Parry, and John Kingsbury operated under this business relationship most consistently between 1808 and 1812.



At Sea, on board the **.**
LAUNCHED on a new world, what can have power to console me for leaving the scenes of my infancy, and the friend of my youth? Nothing but the consciousness of acting in obedience to the commands of my departed father. Oh, dearest Mrs. Milbanke! your poor girl is every minute wishing for your friendly guidance, your maternal counsel, your sober judgement!—Every day, as it takes me farther from Jamaica, as it brings me nearer to England, heightens my fears of the future, and makes my presaging heart sink within itself! You charged me to confide to you its every throb; and till it ceases to beat, it will turn with the warmest affection to my earliest and best friend; my governess, my instructress!—and I cannot help asking why am I sent from her? why was it necessary for Olivia Fairfield to tempt the untried deep, and untried friends?—But I check these useless interrogatories, these vain regrets, by recollecting that it was the will of him who always studied the happiness of his child.
My dear father, doatingly fond as he was of his Olivia, saw her situation in a point of view which distressed his feeling heart. The illegitimate offspring of his slave could never be considered in the light of equality by the English planters. Such is their prejudice, such is the wretched state of degradation to which my unhappy fellow-creatures are sunk in the western hemisphere. We are considered, my dear Mrs. Milbanke, as an inferior race, but little removed from the brutes, because the Almighty Maker of all-created beings has tinged our skins with jet instead of ivory!—I say our, for though the jet has been faded to the olive in my own complexion, yet I am not ashamed to acknowledge my affinity with the swarthiest negro that was ever brought from Guinea’s coast!—All, all are brethren, children of one common Parent!
The soul of my mother, though shrouded in a sable covering, broke through the gloom of night, and shone celestial in her sparkling eyes!—Sprung from a race of native kings and heroes, with folded hands, and tearful eyes, she saw herself torn from all the endearing ties of affinity, and relative intercourse! A gloomy, yet a proud sorrow, filled her indignant breast; and when exhibited on the shores of my native island, the symmetry and majesty of her form, the inflexible haughtiness of her manner, attracted the attention of Mr. Fairfield. He purchased the youthful Marcia; his kindness, his familiarity, his humanity, soon gained him an interest in her grateful heart! She loved her master! She had not learnt the art of concealing her sentiments, she knew not that she was doing wrong in indulging them, and she yielded herself to her passion, and fell the victim of gratitude!2—But as her understanding became enlightened, and her manners improved, she was eager for information; my father yielded it to her from the rich stores of his own capacious mind; and while he poured into her attentive and docile ear, those truths for which the soul of Marcia panted, he made her start with horror at the crime of which she had been innocently guilty: and the new Christian pointed her finger at him, who, educated under the influence of the Gospel, lived in direct opposition to its laws!
My father felt the justice of the reproof; for though his offence was considered as a venial error by all with whom he lived, yet his conscience was not so easily appeased. He knew that the difference of climate, or of colour, made no difference in the crime; and that if the seducer of innocence was always guilty, the case must be greatly aggravated where benefits and kindnesses were the weapons employed against untutored ignorance and native simplicity. Marcia was not “almost but altogether a Christian!”3—with the knowledge of her crime she abjured a continuance in it; with tears and sighs she confessed her love for her betrayer, at the same time that she deplored her fall from virtue! The scholar taught her master—The wild and uncivilized African taught a lesson of noble self-denial and self-conquest to the enlightened and educated European.
Mr. Fairfield dared not combat a resolution which appeared to him to be almost a command of Heaven. He loved Marcia with fervour; but the pride of the man, the quick feeling of the European, the prejudices which he had imbibed in common with his countrymen, forbade his making this affectionate and heroic girl his wife. Marcia’s was a strong soul, but it inhabited a weak tenement of clay. In giving birth to me she paid the debt of nature and went down to that grave, where the captive is made free!
You will ask me why I recapitulate these events? events which are so well known to you. It is that I love to dwell on the character of my mother; it is that here I see the distributions of Providence are equally bestowed, and that it is culture not capacity, which the negro wants! It was from my father that I adopted this opinion of my mother—I caught the enthusiasm of his manner and learned to venerate the memory of this sable heroine (for a heroine I must call her) from the time that my mind has been enabled to distinguish between vice and virtue!
My father saw the sensibility of my disposition; he saw that it was daily wounded, at witnessing the wrongs of my fellow-beings; his wishes, and his principles, would have led him to reform abuses, but his health was daily declining, and he could not give the tone of morals to an island; he could not adopt a line of conduct which would draw on him the odium of all his countrymen: he contented himself, therefore, with seeing that slaves on his estate were well kept and fed, and treated with humanity,—but their minds were suffered to remain in the dormant state in which he found them!4
I see the generous intention of my father’s will; I see that he meant at once to secure to his child a proper protector in a husband, and to place her far from scenes which were daily hurting her sensibility and the pride of human nature!—But, ah! respected Mrs. Milbanke! in guarding against these evils may he not have opened the way to those which are still more dangerous for your poor Olivia?
I sometimes think, that had my dear parent left me a decent competence, I could have placed myself in some tranquil nook of my native island, and have been happily and usefully employed in meliorating the sorrows of the poor slaves who came within my reach, and in pouring into their bruised souls the sweet consolations of religious hope!—But my father willed it otherwise—Lie still, then, rebellious and repining heart!
Mrs. Milbanke, I yet behold your tearful eye—I yet hear your fond adieu—I yet feel your fervent embrace! The recollection is almost insupportable; for the present, I lay down my pen!
WAS my mind in any other state, I could be much amused and entertained by the novel customs of a ship’s company, and the novel situation (to me) of a sea voyage. How wonderful is the construction of this vessel, which is now ploughing its way on the ocean! but how much more wonderful that Almighty Pilot, which steers it in safety through the horrors of the deep!
Mrs. Honeywood is all that your skill in physiognomy predicted. Separated from my beloved Mrs. Milbanke, I question if I could have met with a preferable Compagnon du Voyage. I fear that her native country will not restore her health; but I dare not hint an idea of the sort to her watchful and attentive son. Honeywood possesses all the enthusiasm of your Olivia; and when I hear his sanguine hopes of his mother’s recovery, and his visionary schemes of long years of happiness to be enjoyed in her highly-prized society, I sigh with prophetic sadness, and, looking on the colour of my robes, I remember such was the fallacy of my own wishes!
Mrs. Honeywood seems perfectly acquainted with the particulars of my father’s will, and frequently and studiously refers to my intended marriage with my cousin. If you will not accuse me of vanity, my dearest madam, I should be almost tempted to fancy, that she sometimes wished to remind her son of this; and yet there is nothing to fear for him. An unportioned girl of my colour, can never be a dangerous object; but in the habits of intimacy which our present situation naturally produces, confidence usurps the place of common-place politeness, and I insensibly talk to Honeywood as I should do to a brother. Had his familiarity any thing of boldness in it, was there any thing assuming in his manners, my sensitive heart would shrink, and I should then feel as reserved and constrained as I now do the reverse.
YOU bid me tell you every thing that should occur; and, in the absence of events and incidents, I must give you conversations and reflections, even at the hazard of appearing in the character of an egotist. I am just returned to my own little cabin, after a pretty long tête-à-tête with Mrs. Honeywood; I call it a tête-à-tête for though my faithful Dido formed the third of the party, yet her half-broken language did not bear a principal share in the conversation; but, as you well know, she will be heard on all occasions when she deems it right to speak. Honeywood had retired to study; he usually passes a great portion of the morning amongst his books: and that he reads with advantage and improvement, a more superficial observer than your Olivia would soon discover. He possesses a discriminating judgement, and a fine taste; and, without attempting at wit or humour, he never fails to please when he wishes it.
But to return to my proposed detail:—I was seated with my drawing implements before me, finishing a little sketch which I had taken from the Fairfield Plantation a few days before I quitted it; Mrs. Honeywood sat opposite to me, knitting; while Dido, ever officiously happy and busy about her “Missee,” was standing behind the sofa (which she had drawn towards the table), and very assiduously watching for the colours I wanted, and rubbing them on the slab, pretending to be occupied, in order to retain her station; and at intervals I felt her removing and replacing the combs of my hair, and smoothing it gently down with her hands, then looking over my shoulder, marking the progress of my pencil, and exclaiming, “Ah, my goody Heaven! if my dear Missee be not making the own good Massee’s plantation, and all of dis little bit of brush, and dis bit of paper!”
Mrs. Honeywood lifted her head; looking at us through her spectacles, “I would give something to be able to take dat brush and dat bit of paper, Dido,” said she, laughingly imitating her, “and paint your lady and yourself, as you are now placed before my eyes.”
Dido grinned, while Mrs. Honeywood still looking at me, said,—
“I never view you on that seat, with Dido standing in her place of attendance, without figuring you in my imagination as some great princess going over to her betrothed lord.”
“Iss, iss,5 my Missee be de queen of Indee, going over to marry wid de prince in England,” said Dido, nodding very significantly.
“Such alliances do not very often turn out happily,” said I, sighing.
“And how should they?” asked Mrs. Honeywood; “A total ignorance of persons can indeed be, in some measure, set aside by the painter, but the manners, the customs of different countries are so widely different, and there ought to be so many corresponding traits of character, to form any thing like comfort in the connubial state, that it is my wonder when any one of these matches turns out merely tolerable.”
“You are looking grave, Miss Fairfield.”
“Indeed, my dear madam, I am; and have I not cause? My manners, my pursuits, my whole deportment, may be strange and disagreeable to him whom I have pledged myself to receive as a husband! and further,—oh, madam!—my person may disgust him!”
“No, not so, Miss Fairfield: your sensitive mind, and delicate imagination, lead you to see things in too strong a light.”
“No light can be too strong to convey to me a knowledge of that wretchedness which would be my portion, were I to be beheld with disgust and abhorrence by the man whom I have sworn to receive as my husband!”
“Sworn, my dear girl?”
“Yes, madam, sworn!”
“You astonish me!—and could Mr. Fairfield, could your father extort such an oath, such a blind submission from you?—you, whose understanding he must have seen superior to the generality of your sex,—you, whose judgement could only have elected where it had approved!”
“My father acted from the best of motives. If he erred, madam; if the sequel should prove that he has erred, give him credit, I conjure you, for the best intentions; his whole soul recoiled at the idea of leaving me in Jamaica, or of uniting me to any of the planters there: for to them he knew that his money would be the only bait. In England, in his native country, he deemed, that a more liberal, a more distinguishing spirit had gone abroad;”—(dear Mrs. Milbanke, I thought a sceptical expression overspread the marked countenance of Mrs. Honeywood)—“a connexion with his own family, with the son of a dearly beloved sister, was what his most sanguine hopes rested on for the security of his Olivia’s happiness!”
“Your father knew this nephew?”
“No, madam, only by report; and that that report was very liberal in praise of his accomplishments and virtues, I need not say, when my father resolved to hazard the happiness of his child to his care. Mr. Merton, the husband of my deceased aunt, is, as you may have heard, a wealthy merchant, and has maintained a character of strict honour and probity. Mrs. Merton died within the last two years; she always spoke highly of her husband, and expressed the most fervent fondness for her son, Augustus, whom she frequently styled, in her letters to Jamaica, the ‘image of her dear brother.’ It was easy to perceive that Augustus was the mother’s favourite; and I fancy, that my ...

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