Counter-narratives of survival

Amerindian and African women in early Caribbean literatures

Authored by: Julie Chun Kim

Routledge Companion to Women, Sex, and Gender in the Early British Colonial World

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  October  2018

Print ISBN: 9781472479945
eBook ISBN: 9781315613772
Adobe ISBN:


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Early modern works about the Caribbean do not offer unmediated portrayals of Amerindian and African women, who were frequently deployed by authors as figures of conquest. Nevertheless, there has been a growing consensus that these texts contain multiple and conflicting perspectives about the ability of colonists to exert mastery over non-European subjects. This essay will argue that portrayals of non-European women are particularly fraught and highlight the inability of colonists to survive without others’ help. It also will argue that these portrayals point to the presence of counter-narratives within texts challenging the assumption that colonies were destined to succeed. Survival was a significant problem that faced early colonists, who arrived in the Caribbean with little knowledge of tropical diseases or agriculture. As a result, textual considerations of health and subsistence often reveal both an awareness of the threats posed by the unfamiliar environment and an acknowledgment of dependence upon Amerindian and African women for food and medicine. While these observations are sometimes scattered throughout a work, considering them together can unearth submerged lines of thought about colonial weakness even in such promotional works as Richard Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657). Examining Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave (1688) demonstrates that other texts foreground counter-narratives of colonial danger even more explicitly: drawing her readers’ attention to Imoinda, Behn suggests that she, rather than the title character Oroonoko, truly embodies the possibility of resistance against slavery.

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