Table of contents
Chapter I: How institutionalised slavery was made possible
Chapter II: The ideologies presented by Emily Cartwright and Cambridge
What role did the emerging system of capitalism play in the dehumanising and enslavement of people of African origin from the 16th century onward and what impact did its ideology have on the lives and thoughts of the main characters in Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge ?
Caryl Phillips’ 1991 novel Cambridge shines a light on the harsh realities of slave labor on plantations in the Westindian colonies. The practice of slavery itself has not been historically new when the transatlantic slave trade took off in the 16th century. This enterprise, however, gave rise to slavery as an institution of unprecedented magnitudes and brutality and would later prove to have colossal ramifications for the African continent and its future development.1 An institution like that of slavery could not exist if it weren’t for an ideology supporting it. The crucial aspect that ultimately distinguished this new kind of slavery from indigenous forms of servitude was capital.2 The mechanisms constituting this enterprise can be attributed to the rising cultural systems of capitalism and consumer culture, exploiting cheap labor in order to satisfy the demand for foreign goods such as sugar in European societies. Trading and exploiting African people came to be understood as a business venture, degrading human beings to a mere commodity and means of production, owned by businessmen such as the father of one of Cambridge ’s main characters, Emily Cartwright. Her experiences and her thoughts on the enslaved people working on the unnamed Caribbean Island home to her father’s estate give insight into the racist perception of black people in distant Europe. In contrast, the reader gets to see the cruelties of slavery trough the eyes of the novel’s namesake, Cambridge. Together, these completely distinct perspectives create a profound image of slavery as an institution, the capitalist forces behind it as well as the prejudices necessary to facilitate and maintain this atrocious enterprise. Cambridge succeeds at presenting to the reader the horrors and injustices that slaves on the West Indies, like Cambridge, had to endure and the self-deception with which the European colonisers, like Emily Cartwright, explained their crimes. Their characters show that these crimes were only made possible by a capitalist ideology that taught people even an institution as cruel as that of slavery was justified as long as it proved to be profitable and the slaves exploited for this profit were not to be regarded as equal human beings.
Chapter I: How institutionalised slavery was made possible
Carly Phillips’ Cambridge is rich in historical facts and the protagonist’s thoughts and actions give insight into the ideologies prevailing at the time it is set. This can be attributed to the fact that Phillips incorporated authentic travelogues and slave autobiographies, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, into his novel.3 Although the novels main characters, Emily Cartwright and Cambridge, are fictitious, their thoughts communicated to the reader are often based on documents of real people, drawn from at least twenty sources such as the journals of European travellers like Janet Schaw or Mrs. Carmichael and narratives of formerly enslaved Africans like Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano.4 The reader is thus offered first-hand accounts of the ideas that supported institutionalised slavery in general, as well as the realities of Westindian plantation labor in particular; documented by both the exploiter and the exploited.
Despite Cambridge being published in 1991, the power structures displayed in the novel are not those of the late 20th century, but those of the late 18th and early 19th century, the time marking institutional slavery’s heyday. While the author stylistically revised some of the original texts in order to make them suitable for a modern-day audience,5 the opportunity still presents itself to view these texts as contemporary witnesses of the society and the system in which they were produced. In the case of Cambridge, this is a capitalist system with a deep embedded racist worldview as ists basis, which affects both of our protagonist’s ways of thinking. This marxist approach to literary interpretation offers a view of the novel as evidence of its underlying ideology.6 Caryl Phillips, as the author of Cambridge, had a political motive himself in writing this book. Phillips expressed the opinion that as an author, he carries a certain social responsibility7 and beyond that hopes the reader will „consciously seek out the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century originals“8 after reading Cambridge. Such a statement indicates that Phillips wanted to educate his readers on the topics of the transatlantic slave trade and the plantation slavery in the Caribbeans to raise awareness for that dark chapter of human history. Equally interesting are the political motives and ideologies of the original writers whose texts he incorporated into his work. Most of the historical travelogues and other forms of historiographic writings were produced during the 1770s until the 1830s,9 it is therefore safe to assume that all of the authors put forward an opinion on the matter of Abolition or were at least aware of the discourse around it. The ones suffering under the institution of slavery, such as Olaudah Equiano, did not disguise their political motives for telling their story: Their goal was to convince the readers of the injustice of slavery and consequently the need for its abolition.10 The writers of the travelogues providing texts for Emily’s character, on the other hand, had a very privileged view on society and reality. While their various motives are at this point subject to speculation, the power imbalance between the two classes, those profiting from and those suffering under slavery, as well as their ability to share their story with the world is tremendous. Formerly enslaved Africans like Olaudah Equiano or Frederick Douglass, who had both the education as well as the freedom required to write down their narratives and to publish them, were after all the exception, not the rule.
Race does not exist as a physical, anthropological, or genetic fact.11 Racism, however, was an idea necessary to justify and maintain the enslavement of African people in order to exploit their workforce on the plantations in European colonies. In the 16th century, capitalist production was still in its infancy and „slave“ had not yet become synonymous with „black“.12 Instead, this equation was constituted to support the myth of racial superiority and ultimately legitimise the system of slavery and the crimes committed in its name. Enslaved Africans in the Caribbean colonies and elsewhere formed a unified class of slaves which allowed no real social mobility outside its caste. Due to the hereditary status of slavery, a child born to a slave mother, even when the father was a free, white man, which was often the case due to slave masters raping female slaves, the child was always doomed to be a slave because its mother was one.13 The notion of race necessary for such a law, as Achille Mbembe put it, „made it possible to represent non-European human groups as trapped in a lesser form of being“14, ultimately „dissolving human beings into things, objects and merchandise“.15 The western world, in contrast, was portrayed as „the center of the earth and the birthplace of reason, universal life, and the truth of humanity“.16 The colonial enterprise was even depicted to be a humanitarian act, with which the alleged savages would be civilised and rescued from their pagan way of life.17 This is a belief Emily Cartwright comes to be very convinced of throughout the story, claiming that „the greatest fear of the black is not having a master whom they know they can turn to in times of strife“18, apparently thinking enslaved Africans to be unfit for life’s challenges on their own and in need of guidance by their white masters. This racist notion of white supremacy was the prerequisite for a capitalist system build on private ownership and the exploitation of the slave’s workforce.
The practice of slavery, as well as colonies, already existed in pre-capitalist societies. With the rise of capitalism, however, colonies were now integrated into a new economic system.19 Karl Marx stated that the goods produced in the colonies were crucial to a capitalist way of production because they were later transformed to capital on the „motherland“.20 Since the establishment of the Triangular trade of slaves and goods between Africa, Europe, and the Americas, the economy was now „global in scope and required the movement of capital, labor, and products across long distances. In other words, [it was now] a capitalist economy“ with slavery as its foundation.21 Marx also pointed out that, even though the plantations lacked a central aspect of capitalism, which was wage labor, the businessmen who conducted the slave trade and profited from slave labor were capitalists and slavery itself ultimately a necessary condition for European industry.22 This shows how closely connected the success of capitalism in Europe and the system of slavery in the colonies were. Furthermore, Marx famously argued that all capitalist profit is ultimately derived from the exploitation of the worker,23 a truth painfully obvious in Cambridge and the circumstances of the plantation system in which it is set.
The plantation itself was a practical organisational form of agriculture and slavery its labor organisation. Its focus lay on a few export products, among them sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton, and indigo. Cultivating and trading these goods as profitable as possible was capitalist plantation slavery in its purest form.24 Sugar plantations, such as the Cartwright estate in Cambridge, cultivated the most important cash crops in the West Indies following the „sugar revolution“ in the 17th century. The increase of production correlated significantly with the number of slaves brought to the Caribbean Islands at a time where capturing a person in Africa, shipping them to the West Indies and selling them as a slave was cheaper than raising a slave in the colony.25 The causality between sugar cultivation and slaves brought to the Caribbeans manifests itself in the illuminating statistic that more than 50% of all slaves transported to the Americas were brought there in the 18th century, during the apex of sugar cultivation.26 Emily Cartwright emphasised this fact in Cambridge when she noted that „without King Sugar none would be here, neither black nor white“,27 considering this specific condiment to be the only reason why the West Indies were of any interest for its European colonisers in the first place. That is why the plantation owners from England did not come to the West Indies to make themselves a home on these tropical islands, but rather to earn money and later return to their motherland. This resulted in a huge number of absentee landowners, like Mr. Cartwright, and the Westindian politics being focused on foreign trade, dominated by the powerful „Westindian interest“lobby in Westminster;28 a condition that is not at all unusual for a colony incorporated in a capitalist system concentrating only on profit.
Another aspect crucial to a capitalist way of production is that of complex hierarchies. Management Systems fixed on productivity, as they are still present in economy today, originated on the plantations.29 While the concepts of organisation and hierarchy were not new to the enslaved Africans brought to the Americas, they were forced into a new economic system. The clan and tribe and the chief were, as W.E.B. Du Bois argued, replaced by a plantation organisation and a white master with „far greater and more despotic powers.“30 The slaves were henceforth subject to an overseer’s cruelty, which was part of the plantation’s design and aimed to get the slaves to work at their highest level of productivity.31 The maltreatment of slaves by the ones above them on the hierarchic ladder hence became the norm. This can most likely be traced back to a production system designed to be as efficient as possible, as opposed to individual evil. Brutality and frequency of the punishments furthermore depended on global market fluctuations. In the instance of cotton in the mid-19th century, a formerly enslaved African remembered that “[w]hen the price rises in the English market, the poor slaves immediately feel the effects, for they are harder driven, and the whip is kept more constantly going.”32 The slaves of the plantation were therefore subject to the ups and downs of a globalised market which they had no influence on but were very much affected by. Although the overseers took advantage of the racist ideology which put them above those whose skin was not as light as theirs and allowed them to treat slaves like cattle, they often maintained sexual relationships with black women; such as Mr. Brown did with Cambridge’s wife Christiania in Cambridge. This ultimately led to the story’s tragedy. Instances like this, however, show the hypocrisy of those deeming other people inferior to them due to the superficiality of skin color.
1 Heinrich Loth, Sklaverei - Die Geschichte des Sklavenhandels zwischen Afrika und Amerika p.12
2 Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason p.13
3 Mirja Kuurola, Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge: Discourses in the Past and Readers in the Present p.4
4 Lars Eckstein, Re-Membering the Black Atlantic: On the Poetics and Politics of Literary Memory p.74-75
5 Mirja Kuurola, Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge: Discourses in the Past and Readers in the Present p.3
6 Aditya Kumar Panda, Marxist Approach to Literature: An Introduction
7 Lars Eckstein, Re-Membering the Black Atlantic: On the Poetics and Politics of Literary Memory p.105
8 Ibid. .107
9 Ibid. p.75-76
10 Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African p.144-145
11 Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason p.11
12 Heinrich Loth, Sklaverei - Die Geschichte des Sklavenhandels zwischen Afrika und Amerika p.10
13 Albert Wirz, Sklaverei und kapitalistisches Weltsystem p.105
14 Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason p.17
15 Ibid. p.11
16 Ibid. p.11
17 Ibid. p.12
18 Caryl Phillips, Cambridge p.37
19 Heinrich Loth, Sklaverei - Die Geschichte des Sklavenhandels zwischen Afrika und Amerika p.10
20 Ibid. p.10
21 Matthew Desmond, I n order to understand the brutality of A merican capitalism, you have to start on the plantation
22 Heinrich Loth, Sklaverei - Die Geschichte des Sklavenhandels zwischen Afrika und Amerika p.12
23 Jonathan Wolff, "Karl Marx", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
24 Albert Wirz, Sklaverei und kapitalistisches Weltsystem p.93
25 Ibid. p.98
26 Albert Wirz, Sklaverei und kapitalistisches Weltsystem p.93
27 Caryl Phillips, Cambridge p.82
28 Albert Wirz, Sklaverei und kapitalistisches Weltsystem p.102
29 Matthew Desmond, I n order to understand the brutality of A merican capitalism, you have to start on the plantation
30 W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk p.183
31 Matthew Desmond, I n order to understand the brutality of A merican capitalism, you have to start on the plantation
32 Matthew Desmond, I n order to understand the brutality of A merican capitalism, you have to start on the plantation