west indian writers

Planters or “gentlemen" of the West Indies, their wives and children, and their black servants were the specific “subjects” of nonfiction works such as History of Jamaica. Yet these texts’ debasing effects were operational across class and racial divisions and tended to create the impression that all West Indians - rich and poor, black, white, and mulatto - were to varying degrees a degenerate or inferior species of humanity. As suggested above, West Indian histories like those authored by Long and Wards were not the only cultural texts in the Atlantic world marking the West Indian creole in such ways. Broadly defined, literary traditions throughout the Anglo-American Atlantic world reinforced the dominant assumptions regarding West Indian creole degeneracy, though frequently for conflicting ideological purposes. For instance, British literature and drama published prior to the nineteenth century - including William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, George Colman’s Inkle and Yarico, Robert Bage’s Man as He Is, and Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda - depend for their literary and ideological  effects on figurations of creole degeneracy. Many such works enjoyed widespread appeal with readers and audiences in North America. A review of any major U.S. theater’s play lit in the 1790s, for example, reveals that American audiences were particularly drawn to “New World” dramas featuring degenerate West Indian characters[.]

North American literature authored before (and after) 1800 also was imagined, in part, through and against the West Indies. Venerable writers such as John Smith, William Bradford, Cotton Mather, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Noah Webster, and, as we have seen, Benjamin Franklin; poets and essayists like Phillis Wheatley, “Connecticut Wits” Timothy Dwight and Joel Barlow, and Republican Philip Freneau; New England “Augustans” such as Fisher Ames; turn-of-the-century novelists including Leonora Sansay (Mary Hassal) and Charles Brockden Brown: these and many other writers refashion the figure of the degenerate creole for formal and ideological purposes. In most cases, they do so in order to assert an anxiously superior and discrete North American identity, even as they betray its dependence on an actual, as well as a stylized, West Indies. In addition, a group of writers “circulating” throughout the Atlantic world sought to capitalize on their own “exotic” circumatlantic identities by seizing on the degenerate creole type in their works. One such writer, the novelist Helena Wells, emigrated from South Carolina to England during the American Revolution and published two pro-British novels that center on West Indian characters and settings, Constantia Neville and The Step Mother. Her use of the West Indian type, though ultimately debasing, subtextually suggests possible alliances between North American and West Indian creoles against the British empire. Also, Charlotte Smith, a friend of Abigail Adams, emigrated from the United States to England in the late eighteenth century and published two novels, Desmond and The Wanderings of Warwick, which are set in the West Indies and portray degenerate West Indian characters, albeit for abolitionist purposes.

The West Indian histories of Long and Edwards; the literature and drama of native and foreign, emigrant and immigrant British, North American, and West Indian writers and playwrights: these works conspired to create - and in several instances challenge - a stylized, circumatlantic West Indian creole type. In many of these texts the “creole” is swarthy, scheming, libertine, reckless, and above all, a sign of contagion. Thus the figure of the West Indian was manipulated not just by European colonialist discourse but also by North Americans intent on asserting an Anglo-American superiority while simultaneously justifying an important though threatened paracolonial relationship with Europe’s West Indian colonies. Accordingly, it is inconceivable to that anyone, especially Alexander Hamilton, would have been insensitive to the variable meanings signified by the term “creole” in the various port cities along the routes of the circumatlantic trades. Nearly dead on arrival, having narrowly escaped the burning merchant vessel that transported him from St. Croix to the rebellious North American colonies, Hamilton thus developed out of necessity a facility for negotiating the cross-cultural currents of creole degeneracy. As he did so, he charted a course for the nation’s political economy according to his vision of the United States as an empire for commerce, all the while challenging traditional republican assumptions about virtue and national identity. His sweeping reforms sparked widespread discussion about Hamilton’s own and the nation’s origins that pivoted, predictably, on repressed fears about creole degeneracy.

—  Sean Goudie, Creole America: The West Indies and the Formation of Literature and Culture in the New Republic