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Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

Number 50, May 2008

Managing Editor(s): Michael Eberle-Sinatra (founding editor [romantic]) and Dino Franco Felluga (editor [victorian])

Publisher: Université de Montréal

ISSN: 1916-1441 (digital)

DOI: 10.7202/018150ar

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“Conveying Away the Trash”: Sweetening Slavery in Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor, Kept during a Residence in the Island of Jamaica

Carl Plasa

Cardiff University


This article examines the role of sugar in Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834), arguing that, despite its relatively marginal position as an overt content, the commodity provides a felicitous means of understanding the formal dimensions of Lewis’s text, and its negotiation of racial violence, in particular. Throughout the Journal, Lewis figures the Caribbean sugar estate as a kind of utopia, divested of all that made slavery so anathema to its opponents and, in so doing, discursively echoes the processes of refinement entailed in the production of the very substance on which his wealth and status are predicated. Yet even as Lewis’s colonial record aspires towards a condition of discursive and ideological purity, it can never quite reach its goal: the material realities of racial conflict stubbornly obtrude themselves in stray moments, lingering on in fragmentary and vestigial forms, which vitiate the saccharine visions Lewis seeks to promote.

Disguise thyself as thou wilt, still slavery! . . . still thou art a bitter draught.

Sterne 60

Sugar as Allegory


As an overview of recent work on Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor would suggest, few critics have turned their attentions to the question of sugar in the text.[1] Such a situation is, in one sense, quite ironic, both in terms of the posthumous pointer conferred on the Journal by its Byronic epigraph—“I would give many a sugar cane, / Mat. Lewis were alive again” (1) [2]—and sugar’s status as raison d’être for the two sizeable plantations (Cornwall and Hordley) Lewis inherited from his father in 1812, and whose fortunes he documents during two Jamaican sojourns in 1815-16 and 1817-18. In another sense, though, this critical silence could be viewed as broadly appropriate, since, as Keith A. Sandiford has argued, Lewis himself “exhibits no compelling narrative interest in sugar either as an object of natural history or for its long tradition of engendering metaphysical and aesthetic ideas,” making “references to [it]” which are “by no means continuous or extensive” and “in fact . . . really quite disparate and . . . surprisingly few in number” (152).


Yet what appears to be of “no . . . interest” to a text’s author and hence critically negligible, can turn out, on closer inspection, to be central to an understanding of the text as a whole. Lewis’s overt allusions to sugar are indeed fairly lightly sprinkled across what is, generically and thematically, a highly eclectic work, and may even be easily missed in the quick switches between prose and verse and the frequent shifts of tone and focus, which whirl the reader from playful asides about water-melons and centipedes to serious reflections on the aesthetics of Caribbean landscape and the particularities of slave culture. But if Lewis’s text says little about sugar, sugar has a lot to say about the text, as can be gleaned from the Journal entry for January 11, 1816, written shortly after his arrival at Cornwall. Here Lewis dwells at unusual length on the subject of sugar, giving a meticulous description of a morning visit to the ingenio (or sugar-works) and the processes of production which go on inside it:

The ripe canes are brought in bundles to the mill, where the cleanest of the women are appointed, one to put them into the machine for grinding them, and another to draw them out after the juice has been extracted, when she throws them into an opening in the floor close to her; another band of negroes collects them below, when, under the name of trash, they are carried away to serve for fuel. The juice, which is itself at first of a pale ash-colour, gushes out in great streams, quite white with foam, and passes through a wooden gutter into the boiling-house, where it is received into the siphon or “cock-copper”, where fire is applied to it, and it is slaked with lime, in order to make it granulate. The feculent parts of it rise to the top, while the purer and more fluid flow through another gutter into the second copper. When little but the impure scum on the surface remains to be drawn off, the first gutter communicating with the copper is stopped, and the grosser parts are obliged to find a new course through another gutter, which conveys them to the distillery, where, being mixed with the molasses, or treacle, they are manufactured into rum. From the second copper they are transmitted into the first, and thence into two others, and in these four latter basins the scum is removed with skimmers pierced with holes, till it becomes sufficiently free from impurities to be skipped off, that is, to be again ladled out of the coppers and spread into the coolers, where it is left to granulate. The sugar is then formed, and is removed into the curing-house, where it is put into hogsheads, and left to settle for a certain time.

57; emphases in original

Echoing numerous earlier set-piece descriptions of “the business of sugar-making” (58),[3] this account is characterized by a language of separation and removal, even with regard to the personnel recruited to assist in the labour of sugar’s birth. As Lewis fastidiously observes, only the “cleanest” among the female slaves are “appointed” to the initial task of handling the “ripe canes . . . brought in bundles to the mill,” just as the “juice” “extracted” from the canes themselves is in turn subjected to the rigours of refinement, its “feculent” and “grosser parts” “drawn off” in favour of those which are “purer and more fluid.” Yet the irony is that this language of purity and contamination, selection and rejection, is marked by its own “impurities”: it is clouded by a signifying excess which allows it to be read not only in literal but also figurative terms. It is not simply, in other words, that the Journal describes the “process of sugar-making” (57) at this juncture, but rather that the process provides an allegory for the making of the Journal, which consistently portrays the Cornwall estate—the primary narrative focus throughout—as a milieu from which slavery’s “grosser parts” have been siphoned away. Such discursive cleansing is already evident even within this early Journal entry, whose final paragraph offers a vision of the master-slave relationship radically at odds with the conventionally adversarial model a reader might expect. Contrasting his initial impressions of Caribbean society with the “repulsive manners” of England, the newly arrived Lewis is in rhapsodies: his “heart . . . seems to expand itself . . . in the sunshine of the kind looks and words which meet [him] at every turn, and seem to wait for [his] as anxiously as if they were so many diamonds” (59).


There is, of course, an ideological dimension to the textual strategies facilitating such moments of glittering cordiality, a politics to accompany the aesthetics, so to speak. Writing in the transition between the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and full slave-emancipation in the year of his Journal’s publication, Lewis finds himself awkwardly placed, personally implicated in a system not only increasingly contested on moral grounds but also of gradually diminishing importance within Britain’s changing imperial economy.[4] By configuring the image of slavery on Cornwall in such clearly sentimentalized terms, as he does so often over the course of the Journal, Lewis is able both to legitimate his involvement in the system and defuse any emancipationist criticisms he might incur. After all, how could objections be raised against a plantation whose master is “surrounded” not by oppressed and exploited slaves, but lightsome “beings who are always laughing and singing, and who seem to perform their work with so much nonchalance” that Lewis “can hardly persuade [him]self that it is really work that they are about” (65; emphases in original)?


As further consideration of the sugar / text analogy suggests, however, the discursive refinement of racial violence is necessarily imperfect or incomplete, leaving the apparent utopia of existence on Cornwall adulterated by that which it attempts to cast out of itself. While the passage cited above claims to provide a complete account of how sugar is created, there is a sense in which the story it tells remains unfinished, since the sugar “left to settle” in those “hogsheads” would still be in a relatively crude condition at this stage of the cycle taking it from Caribbean “cane-piece” (217) to the spaces of domestic consumption: as opposed to the semi-refined white or clayed sugar manufactured in the French West Indies, the type produced on British plantations such as Lewis’s would be muscovado, a substance requiring additional treatments in metropolitan sugar-refineries before it could be sold to the general public. As John J. McCusker explains:

The production of table sugar from sugar-cane juice involves a series of stages during which progressively greater quantities of liquid are purged from the crystallizing sugar. The initial boiling of the cane juice result[s] in both a raw brown sugar called muscavado [sic] and a liquid by-product called molasses.

qtd. in Menard 75[5]

By the same logic, racial violence proves to be something which resists wholesale filtration: Lewis attempts to remove it from the portrayal of Cornwall by transferring it into a range of temporal and geographical spaces other to his own, but the success of such self-exonerating strategies is only partial. Traces of white-black conflict linger on as a kind of textual “scum,” working to trouble and contaminate an account of colonial governance which would otherwise be impossibly saccharine.

Strategies of Refinement


In a typically polymathic moment early on in the Journal, Lewis reviews the various kinds of snake inhabiting Jamaica, commenting that “The only dangerous species of serpent is the Whip-snake, so called from its exactly resembling the lash of a whip, in length, thinness, pliability, and whiteness” (45). If the detail of the “Whip-snake”’s “whiteness” smartly reprimands Lewis’s sugar-hungry readers for the cruelties carried out in the West Indies on their behalf, the observation taken as a whole sets up a certain correspondence between natural and colonial orders. Such a correspondence is not absolute, however, but disrupted by the anomalous forms of governance Lewis institutes on his plantation. In contrast to the normative practices of other Jamaican sugar estates, these, it seems, do not include a recourse to the infliction of bodily harm, a turn to the “lash.” As Lewis puts it in the Journal entry for January 19, 1816:

I am indeed assured by every one about me, that to manage a West-Indian estate without the occasional use of the cart-whip, however rarely, is impossible . . . All this may be very true; but there is something to me so shocking in the idea of this execrable cart-whip, that I have positively forbidden the use of it on Cornwall; and if the estate must go to rack and ruin without its use, to rack and ruin the estate must go.


Lewis’s interdiction of the white whip is a measure of which he is clearly proud and to which he repeatedly adverts. In this way, he projects an image of himself as a slave-owner who is humane and enlightened—however much a chimera such a thing may be—and one prepared even to sacrifice pecuniary self-interest to his slaves’ corporeal well-being by letting his property slide into “rack and ruin,” should the need arise (even as his text quietly opposes the prospect of such decline with its chiastic poise). There is a sense, though, in which the banning of the whip is as much for Lewis’s own benefit as that of his slaves, since the mere “idea” of it “shock[s]” the delicate-minded master—with his “nerves so fragile, and brain so light” (19)—just as much as the thing itself might scandalize the flesh of the slave on whom it descends.[6]


None the less, the veto placed upon the “lash” not only sets Lewis’s Cornwall apart from the ethos prevailing elsewhere in Jamaica but also distances his estate from its own recent history—specifically the period between the time when Lewis first inherits the plantation and the time of his eventual “arrival” thereat. As this Journal entry makes plain, this is an interval whose realities are very different from how they are portrayed by the “attorney” who is deputed to run the estate during the years of Lewis’s absence and who himself turns out to be far from what he seems. While the attorney writes Lewis letters pulsating with “the greatest anxiety and attention respecting the welfare and comfort of the slaves” (74) on Cornwall, it transpires that he is in fact neglecting the plantation in pursuit of his own colonial gain, either by “generally attending to a property of his own, or looking after estates of which also he had the management in distant parts of the island” (74-75). The results of such neglect prove to be bad for Lewis, but substantially worse for his slaves:

During [the attorney’s] absence, an overseer of his own appointing, without my knowledge, was left in absolute possession of his power, which he abused to such a degree, that almost every slave of respectability on the estate was compelled to become a runaway. The property was nearly ruined, and absolutely in a state of rebellion; and at length he committed an act of such severity, that the negroes, one and all, fled to Savannah la Mar, and threw themselves upon the protection of the magistrates.


As this passage indicates, the smooth transmission of colonial “power” from dead father to son to attorney is disrupted by the unsanctioned figure of the “overseer,” to whose vices Lewis is first awakened “one morning,” during a conversation with one of his slaves, John Fuller, brother to one of the original “runaway[s].” But if Fuller’s oral testimony contains the “hint” enabling Lewis subsequently to uncover the “whole truth” (74) about Cornwall’s past, the text itself seems in some sense to remask that “truth” and thus operate, ironically, in a similar though less deliberately duplicitous way to the attorney’s written records: while the overseer’s reign culminates in “an act of such severity” that it sends “the negroes” into mass flight, the precise nature of the “act” is not divulged, just as the “extreme ill-usage” to which Fuller’s brother is earlier exposed by “one of the book-keepers, who ‘had had a spite against him’” (74) remains undefined.[7] Lewis claims that had he not visited Jamaica in person, he would have lacked even “the most distant idea” of the offences conducted in his name, but it could be argued that the Journal he pens in situ keeps its readers at arm’s length anyway. As well as being historically displaced from Cornwall’s present to its past, the estate’s conflicts are muzzled by a language of evasion and take on, in the end, an air of caricature, as Lewis figures his “negroes” sonorously “groaning under the iron rod of [a] petty tyrant” (75).


The histories of Jamaican sugar plantations other than Cornwall provide additional temporal zones into which Lewis “draw[s] off” the material realities of racial violence from the ostensible purity of his own present. At times, the agents of such historically decanted violence are white, as, for example, in the narrative, located “some thirty years ago,” which Lewis briefly weaves around the unappealingly named Bedward, owner of “an estate in [Lewis’s] neighbourhood, called Spring-Garden” (203) and reputed to be “the cruellest proprietor that ever disgraced Jamaica” (203-04). On other occasions, though, the perpetrators are black, and responsible for violent outbursts represented far more explicitly than in the case of the unauthorized overseer considered above. This is clearly illustrated in Lewis’s Journal entry for February 21, 1816, which looks back some “five years” to the assassination of “a Mr Dunbar” by a group of slaves lead by Dunbar’s “head driver” (112). By way of aftermath to this event, the driver cuts off and “carrie[s] away” one of Dunbar’s ears, acting in accordance with “a negro belief that, as long as the murderer” takes such an organ from his victim, “he will never be haunted by his spectre.” But while these prophylactic rituals may stave off the master’s ghost, they are no match for the master’s law: the slaves are “all executed” and the driver himself decapitated, with his “head . . . fixed upon a pole in terrorem” (113; emphasis in original).


If the body of this unruly slave can be so spectacularly “fixed,” the murder he performs is less easily containable, repeating itself in acts of emulation carried out with varying degrees of success. As Lewis reports, even before the driver is executed, he comes to constitute a model for others, including the female slave on a “property” adjacent to Dunbar’s, who assaults her “overseer” not only with “the greatest fury” but also a cry which both echoes and celebrates the driver’s original “crime”: “‘Come here! come here! Let us Dunbar him!’” On this occasion, the “attack” upon the oppressor is not fatal, despite its “strength and . . . suddenness” (113), but the outcome is more decisive in the incident with which Lewis abruptly ends his day’s account:

[These events] happened about five years ago, when the mountains were in a very rebellious state. Every thing there is at present quiet. But only last year a book-keeper belonging to the next estate to me was found with his skull fractured in one of my own cane-pieces; nor have any enquiries been able to discover the murderer.


Lewis’s specification of the time when the initial events he describes took place—“about five years ago”—is, strictly speaking, unnecessary, since he has already supplied the same detail in the previous paragraph. It is none the less important precisely for this reason, suggesting an anxious reassertion of the very boundaries between past and present whose collapse is threatened by the unsolved killing of the “book-keeper,” occurring “only last year.” Such defensiveness is similarly evident in the metonymic slide transposing the energies of past rebellion from human to natural agents, slaves to “mountains,” as if Lewis were somehow perversely trying to disavow black violence in the very midst of its acknowledgement. This violence does not quite penetrate the immediacies of Lewis’s colonial incumbency: happening “last year,” it is held at one remove from the present in which he writes, just as the “book-keeper” who suffers it “belong[s] to the next estate” to Cornwall, rather than Cornwall itself. While the exact site of the “book-keeper”’s death remains uncertain, the discovery of his dislocated body “in one of [his] own cane-pieces” is an obvious warning to the Lewis who notes it in the book he himself is keeping, implying a doubling of identities between victim and scribe, as the one literally appears in the place of the other. Lewis himself, of course, was to die not as the result of a “skull fractured” by an untraceable slave but from yellow fever contracted shortly before the voyage home from his second Jamaican visit in 1818 (Peck 172-74). As might indeed be expected from his idealization of the interracial relationships on his own estate, the only kind of cranial injury he sustains takes the sublimated and semi-comic form of the “violent headache[s]” repeatedly caused by the protracted revelry of his slaves, who celebrate the extra holidays their master allots them by “danc[ing] and shout[ing] till two” (54) in the morning.


The removal of black violence into the past is complemented by its projection into a time to come, where it is figured as operating not in terms of the fairly parochial interpersonal conflicts already examined, but on a much more ambitious collective scale. Yet no sooner is the possibility of slave revolt opened up in the text than it is closed down, doubly neutralized by being cast into a future which does not take place:

a plan has just been discovered in the adjoining parish of St Elizabeth’s, for [the slaves to give] themselves a grand fête by murdering all the whites in the island. The focus of this meditated insurrection was on Martin’s Penn, the property of Lord Balcarras, where the overseer is an old man of the mildest character, and the negroes had always been treated with peculiar indulgence. Above a thousand persons were engaged in the plot, three hundred of whom had been regularly sworn to assist in it with all the usual accompanying ceremonies of drinking human blood, eating earth from graves, etc. Luckily, the plot was discovered time enough to prevent any mischief; and yesterday the ringleaders were to be tried at Black River.


It is no coincidence that the “focus of this meditated insurrection” should be the “property of Lord Balcarras,” given Balcarras’s controversial role, as a former Governor of Jamaica, in suppressing the Maroon rebellion of 1795.[8] But while this detail implies that the mass murder envisaged here has as much to do with the righting of past wrongs as with contemporary discontents, the “ringleaders” of the “insurrection”—the so-called “King of the Eboes” and his “two Captains” (139)—are unable to prosecute their aims. As it later emerges, their “plan” is drawn up with the mysterious help of “a black ascertained to have stolen over into the island from St Domingo” (139; emphasis in original), but they can muster no home-grown complement to the epic rebellion which began on that French colony in 1791 and culminated in its rebirth as the independent black republic of Haiti in 1804.[9] They are instead condemned to a revolutionary drama which can only be scripted but not staged and yet towards which Lewis is noticeably defensive, sweeping the ceremonies of allegiance the conspiring slaves perform into the expedient void of his “etc.” and reducing “complete massacre” (139) to the infantile bathos of “mischief.” The failure of the slaves’ “plot” to grow into anything much more beyond itself than the solitary rebel anthem chanted by the “Eboe King” (139) is not surprising, though, since it would appear to have been ill-omened from the first. This at least is one way of construing the fact that “the whole conspiracy” is instigated by a group of “supposed mourners” meeting under the cover of a “child’s funeral,” an “occasion” (138) at which the future could hardly seem more like a dead end.


Throughout the Journal, Lewis cultivates the impression that racial violence is either a thing of the past or part of an unrealizable future, but in any case altogether alien to the present state of affairs on his own plantation, where all appears largely convivial, harmonious and halcyon. The temporal demarcations he establishes are matched by geographical ones, as the violence informing his own contemporary moment is channelled into territories other than Cornwall itself. On a “considerable estate in the parish of Clarendon,” for example, a slave is “shot . . . through the head” by his master for stealing “a small quantity” (211) of coffee, while, on another unspecified plantation, a fifteen-year-old “female slave” (246) poisons her owner by “infus[ing] corrosive sublimate in some brandy and water” (110-11). But the most notable of the convenient alternative terrains at Lewis’s disposal is Hordley, his other colonial property, briefly visited during his second Jamaican residency and a place where “whites” and “blacks” (228) are united only by the enmity between them.


Lewis first alludes to this “other estate” (100) in the Journal entry for February 5, 1816, in which he articulates an “extreme anxiety” that it, like Cornwall, become a place whose slaves are managed outside the aegis of the “cart-whip.” Although “assured” by his “agent” that the whip is seldom wielded on Hordley and “then only very slightly” and that it is soon not to be “employed at all” (101), what Lewis in fact discovers on his final advent at the plantation is a situation thoroughly at odds with the expectations such reports have produced in him. Far from being the “perfect paradise” he anticipates, Hordley turns out to be a “perfect hell” (228), regulated by a mutual racial hatred poised to resolve itself in an apocalypse of dismemberment, as “black devils and white” threaten “to tear one another to pieces” (229). Such a radical difference from the genial etiquettes to which Lewis is accustomed is given curious symbolic expression in terms of geographical location, with the apparent Arcadia which is Cornwall situated in north-west Jamaica, and the countervailing dystopia which is Hordley positioned towards the island’s south-eastern coast. The additional and equally curious significance of the estate’s location at Jamaica’s “very furthest extremity” (225) is that it parallels the somewhat belated point in the text at which Lewis introduces his account of it, commencing the narrative only as the Journal is reaching its own closing margin and confining his remarks to a single entry. This latter detail suggests an attempt to subject the estate’s infernal tensions to a kind of textual quarantine, just as the entry’s own formal peculiarity—it consists of one breathlessly unbroken paragraph spread over some twelve pages—appears to reenact the desire for flight which Lewis’s initial encounter with Hordley strikes into him, as the pandemonium he finds there “nearly turn[s]” his “brain” and makes him feel “strongly tempted to set off as fast as [he] c[an]” (229) for home.


The “system of oppression” operative on Hordley as Lewis arrives there clearly defines the plantation as Cornwall’s other, its unspoken underside, corrective double or perhaps even its unconscious. By the time of his departure one week later, however, the two estates have assumed a miraculous resemblance to one another, as Lewis intervenes, like a colonial deus ex machina, to put things right on Hordley by “establish[ing] the regulations already adopted with success on Cornwall” (228), even as he recognizes that such order may only be temporary. But if Hordley is in the end made over in the image of Cornwall’s seemingly tranquil present, it is also figured textually with an evasiveness reminiscent of the way in which Lewis describes Cornwall’s past in the interregnum immediately following his father’s death. Even as Lewis emphasizes the extent to which racial violence is endemic to Hordley’s culture, he paradoxically renders it in a language which is more one of suggestion than statement and works to convey but at the same time obscure the “odious truths” (229) his “short stay” (231) discloses to him: slaves are “maltreated . . . with absolute impunity” and “atrocious brutality” (229), yet the particulars of the violence they suffer remain tantalizingly secret. They no more break the surface of the text in this part of Lewis’s Journal than they do in the section devoted to Cornwall’s history.

Remnants and Revenants


Yet there is a striking coda to the sequence on Hordley, which provides a fleeting but visceral taste of what it is that Lewis leaves unsaid about the exact conduct of slavery on his second estate, while at the same time seriously marring the carefully confected image of his first as the apogee of racial concord. This coda takes the form of the late Journal entry for April 9, 1818, in which Lewis challenges a cool dismissal of racial violence by mustering some powerful counter-evidence as to its reality. His disputant on the subject is the enigmatic “Mr Shand” (241), who initially appears at the very beginning of the Journal as one of Lewis’s travelling companions on the first voyage to Jamaica. In response to this complacent “planter in the ‘May-Day Mountains’” (6), in whose “long experience nothing of the kind has ever fallen under [his] observation” (241), Lewis comments:

Mr S. then ought to consider me as having been in high luck. I have not passed six months in Jamaica, and I have already found on one of my estates [Hordley] a woman who had been kicked in the womb by a white book-keeper, by which she was crippled herself, and on another of my estates [Cornwall] another woman who had been kicked in the womb by another white book-keeper, by which he had crippled the child . . . and thus, as my two estates are at the two extremities of the island, I am entitled to say, from my own knowledge (i.e. speaking literally, observe), that “white book-keepers kick black women in the belly from one end of Jamaica to the other”.

241; emphases in original

In this moment of ubiquitous uterine monstrosity, the two estates book-ending Lewis’s “island” become almost identical to one another. All that distinguishes them is the ironic twist defining the violence on Cornwall, supposedly the more decorous of the two plantations, as even “grosser” than that described on Hordley, as the second of the “book-keeper[s]” outdoes his womb-kicking twin by assaulting a black woman during pregnancy and “crippl[ing]” her “child.”


This is not the only juncture in the Journal when Lewis’s sugar-coated depiction of slavery on Cornwall comes to be tainted by the refractory traces of violence between white and black. Although it is undoubtedly the most hard-hitting example of such violence, the harm the book-keeper visits upon the slave-mother and her child takes its place alongside three earlier interrelated instances of white aggression, the first of which is to be found in the Journal entry for January 13, 1816. Here Lewis records an encounter with an African slave hospitalized as a result of “having fallen into epileptic fits, with which till then he had never been troubled.” Puzzling over the possible origins of the slave’s sudden malady, Lewis writes:

For my own part, the symptoms of his complaint were such as to make me suspect him of having tasted something poisonous, especially as, just before his first fit, he had been observed in the small grove of mangoes near the house; but I was assured by the negroes, one and all, that nothing could possibly have induced him to eat an herb or fruit from that grove, as it had been used as a burying-ground for “the white people”. But although my idea of the poison was scouted, still the mention of the burying-ground suggested another cause for his illness to the negroes, and they had no sort of doubt, that in passing through the burying-ground he had been struck down by the duppy [spirit] of a white person not long deceased, whom he had formerly offended, and that these repeated fainting fits were the consequence of that ghostly blow.


In this passage, the “symptoms” of the slave’s “complaint” become embroiled in a conflict of interpretations—natural versus supernatural—which is never definitively resolved, remaining precisely suspended in a “sort of doubt.” In one sense, though, the difference between white and black readings is irrelevant, since both have similar consequences for the status of the racial violence featured here. If Lewis is correct in his prosaic suspicion that the slave’s seizures are simply the result of “having tasted something poisonous,” such violence is rendered non-existent, thus absolving the master from any “part” in the convulsive spectacle of black pain. Equally, however, if the “negroes, one and all” are right in diagnosing the slave’s “fainting fits” as caused by the “ghostly blow” delivered by a “duppy,” the slave’s fall into suffering can be attributed to the machinations of another world. The suffering itself is material enough, even as it is brought about by a “spiritually terrific” (64) agent whose true provenance lies elsewhere.


The second vignette of white violence is structurally akin to the first, combining a certain ambiguity of representation with the ejection from Lewis’s estate of a supposed agent of violence. Tucked away in the Journal entry for January 30, 1816, this incident revolves around yet another of the text’s blank-faced “book-keepers.” The “man in question” is “accused of having occasionally struck a negro, of using bad language to them [sic], and of being . . . hasty [and] passionate” (96), but responds with counter-claims of his own:

The book-keeper had denied positively the charge of striking the negroes, and ascribed it to the revenge of the Eboe Edward, whom he had detected in cutting out part of a boiling-house window, in order that he might pass out stolen sugar unperceived; for, to do the negroes justice, it is a doubt whether they are the greatest [sic] thieves or liars, and the quantity of sugar which they purloin during the crop, and dispose of at the Bay for a mere trifle, is enormous. However, whether the charge of striking were true or not, it was sufficiently proved that this book-keeper was a passionate man, and he said himself, “that the negroes had conceived a spite against him”, which alone were reasons enough for removing him.


Here the spectral attack from the previous passage takes on fleshly form, even as its precise ontological status remains just as indeterminate. But the question of whether the “charge of striking the negroes” is “true or not” is broached by the text only to be side-stepped, as the book-keeper is anyway cashiered from Lewis’s estate on the more nebulous grounds of being merely “passionate.” At the same time, his expulsion places him in a similar situation to that occupied by the duppy, whose persecutory actions allegedly occur within the sublunary realms of Lewis’s plantation, but which itself belongs to another order.


Lewis’s dismissal of the book-keeper is in theory a sign of resourceful management, since it is intended to ensure that, even in the moment of sacking, he remain “serviceable to the estate” (96) by becoming an admonitory figure. But the terms of the book-keeper’s release are so lenient—as well as receiving his “double salary,” he “stay[s] out his quarter” (97) on the plantation—that it is not surprising when his story fails to have the desired effect and transgressions similar to those he himself is said to have committed continue to occur. These are reported in the Journal entry for February 26, 1816, which provides the last of the three occasions when Lewis overtly dramatizes white violence on his estate—prior, that is, to the atrocious revelations about the womb-wounding book-keeper in his text’s final pages:

this evening another [book-keeper] had a dispute in the boiling-house with an African named Frank, because a pool of water was not removed fast enough; upon which he called him a rascal, sluiced him with the dirty water, and finally knocked him down with the broom. The African came to me instantly; four eye-witnesses, who were examined separately, proved the truth of his ill-usage; and I immediately discharged the book-keeper.


The “ghostly blow” originally struck by the duppy materializes for a second time here, though, in this instance, it is dispensed in a “boiling-house” rather than former “burying-ground.”[10] But in contrast both to the duppy’s assault and that allegedly performed by the previous “book-keeper,” there can be no “dispute” at all about the “truth” of the “ill-usage” suffered in this particular snapshot of white violence, confirmed as it is by the independent testimonies of “four eye-witnesses.” As Lewis notes, the slaves go on to celebrate their unequivocal “triumph over the offending book-keeper” with “songs and rejoicings” which keep their master “awake the greatest part of the night” (121). In so doing, they perhaps enjoy a victory all the sweeter for the ironic reversal of power on which it turns: the book-keeper “knock[s] . . . down” the slave because of his inability to clean up “a pool of water . . . fast enough,” only to be himself removed from Lewis’s plantation with all due expedition when he is “immediately discharged.”


As this series of examples suggests, when white violence manifests itself within Cornwall’s immediate bounds, it tends to do so in fugitive and evanescent forms which are sometimes quite equivocal, and is consistently denied anything approaching an expansive narrative presence. But the appearance of black violence on Lewis’s plantation is still more markedly attenuated and, even in its most dramatic expressions, firmly contained. The process of containment is discernible with particular clarity in relation to the most disaffected slave on the estate, the “negro . . . called Adam” (86), whose story is briefly introduced in the Journal entry for January 25, 1816 and then amplified some two years later, in a four-page entry for February 25, 1818 exclusively given over to him. As Lewis genteelly understates it elsewhere, Adam is “a most dangerous fellow” (92), plotting revenge against “a book-keeper whose conduct had been obnoxious” (86) and “attempt[ing] to poison [Lewis’s] former attorney” (91) when he is “displaced by [him] from being principal governor” (220). In the end, however, these intrigues come to nothing and turn out, indeed, to pose a threat less to their designated white targets than the two slaves, Edward and Bessie, who respectively resist and betray Adam’s schemes, and who are duly punished by means of his recourse to the arts of obeah: Edward’s closest friend is gradually tricked into rejecting him, while Bessie becomes rather more seriously “cursed” with leprosy and is left to watch “her poor pickaninies . . . all die[ ] away, one after another” (91). But the canalizing of Adam’s rebellious energies away from his white oppressors and towards his black peers opens out beyond these individual conflicts into a generalized “warfare” with his “companions” (92), whose weapons not only include the “supernatural powers” (222) concentrated in obeah, but also the “great bodily strength” (224) Lewis ascribes to him. By the time of Lewis’s return to Jamaica, Adam has had “no less than three charges of assault, with intent to kill . . . preferred against him.” He has “endeavoured to strangle” one fellow-slave “with the thong of a whip,” “thrown [another] into the river to drown” (220) and, most shockingly of all, attacked “a poor weak creature called Old Rachael,” against whom, quite capriciously, it seems, he has “taken offence”: “on meeting her by accident he struck her to the ground, beat her with a supple-jack, stamped upon her belly, and begged her to be assured of his intention (as he eloquently worded it) ‘to kick her guts out’” (221).


The wanton corporeal power articulated here links its agent to the intimidating book-keepers who “kick black women in the belly from one end of Jamaica to the other” and in so doing highlights just how badly misaligned Adam has become as would-be colonial rebel. But whether the threat Adam represents derives from supernatural or physical sources, the containment with which it is met is finally twofold. Even as his actual rather than potential victims are black rather than white, Adam’s narrative ends, just for good measure, with transportation, “probably . . . to Cuba,” and it is on this exilic note that he is simultaneously written out of the text. The only wound he is able to inflict upon his white masters (and Lewis in particular) is financial: in compensation for the loss of Adam’s labour, Lewis receives a mere “one hundred pounds currency,” which, as he calculates, “is scarcely a third of his worth” (224).


The problems Lewis faces throughout his Journal are, in the end, though, less to do with the economy of his plantation than the economy of his text, whose accounts never quite add up. Although it may be easy enough for him to cast a menacing slave or an ill-disciplined book-keeper beyond Cornwall’s idyllic thresholds, the task of eliminating the marks of racial violence from his portrayal of the estate itself proves to be rather more difficult. Such formal limitations are not surprising, given the analogy between the production of sugar and the production of the Journal with which this article began, and result in what might be called a muscovado textuality, whose main characteristic is the tension between refinement and residue. They also bring to the fore the irony of Lewis’s antipathy towards those who try to sweeten the sour truths of slavery with false reports, either about Cornwall’s past or Hordley’s present, since it is in the work of these unreliable narrators that the reflections of his own textual practice can be glimpsed.

Biographical Notice

Carl Plasa is a Reader in English Literature in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University. He is the author of Charlotte Brontë (Palgrave, 2004) and Textual Politics from Slavery to Postcolonialism: Race and Identification (Macmillan, 2000). This article is a shortened version of a chapter to appear in Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literatures of Sugar (Liverpool University Press, 2009). His current project is a book on the white and black writing of cotton in America from the 1840s to the present.




For examples of how even the most perspicacious critics of the Journal tend to give the topic of sugar short shrift, see Bohls, Harkin, Heiland and von Sneidern. For a rare though cursory departure from this trend, see the remarks on sugar in Lewis’s text in Sandiford 152-54.


In its original version, Byron’s epigrammatic lament for Lewis is slightly different from the one given as the Journal’s epigraph, reading “I would give many a Sugar Cane / Monk Lewis were alive again!” It appears in the course of Byron’s “Detached Thoughts” (1821-22), just after the description of the deceased as one whose paternal and colonial legacy proves to be the death of him: “Poor fellow—he died a martyr to his new riches—of a second visit to Jamaica” (Byron 9: 18). The image of Lewis as sugar’s eventual victim stands in sharp contrast to the playfully regressive (and perhaps even playfully vampiric) terms in which Byron couches the news of Lewis’s first Jamaican voyage in a letter of November 4, 1815 to Thomas Moore: “Lewis is going to Jamaica to suck his sugar-canes” (Byron 4: 330).


These stretch back to the early stages of the British colonial settlement of the West Indies and include, most notably, Ligon 89-91; Grainger 135-39; Edwards 2: 230-35; and Nugent 62-63.


Excellent accounts of the various interlocking factors contributing to emancipation are provided in Hochschild 309-32 and Blackburn 322-26 and 419-72. As both commentators point out, the growing threat to the slave-owner’s position on moral and economic grounds is compounded by the rhythm of unrest marking colonial relations in the British Caribbean during this period, as manifested in major slave rebellions in Barbados in 1816, Demerara in 1823 and Jamaica in 1831-32.


For an additional flavour of these technical procedures, see Jones 4: “Muscovado was contaminated with gluten, lime and caramel and it was the task of . . . sugar refiners to expel the impurities and produce various grades of pure white crystalline sugar.”


It should also be remembered that Lewis’s apparently magnanimous recoil from the “detestable lash” takes place within the context of the other disciplinary techniques at his fingertips, the most effective of which, as he later reveals, is “confinement, solitary or otherwise.” It is this, to the crude connoisseur of colonial power, which truly “make[s] a lasting impression” upon the “minds” of slaves and is to be cherished as “the best and easiest mode of governing negroes (and governed by some mode or other they must be).” It far outclasses the “lash,” whose effects are as weakly epidermal as they are ephemeral, producing an impact which is registered “but upon [the] skins” of the enslaved and “lasts no longer than the mark” (238). Ironically, the psychic scarring the whip occasions on Lewis himself refutes the argument he is making here—unless, that is, it were somehow to be conceded that there is, in his pseudo-scientific formulation, “a very great difference between the brain of a black person and a white one” (243).


The numerous “book-keepers” populating Lewis’s text are as sinister as they are anonymous. For a fascinating insight into their characteristic role within plantation culture, see Craton 255-59. Craton’s analysis is based on the life and career of Robert Ellis, employed at Worthy Park, Jamaica, as book-keeper (and briefly later overseer) for some six years split over two periods between 1787 and 1795. It combines archival materials with imaginative reconstruction to produce a portrait which is far from flattering: Ellis himself emerges as “a promiscuous miscegenator,” while the “young white men” (257) of whom he is the type are described as being not only “ignorant of sugar technology, field husbandry, and slave management” (256) but also “mutinous, lazy, and drunken” (257). As von Sneidern observes, “Lewis fires bookkeepers with abandon” and “at even a hint that his slaves are unhappy with their ‘situation,’ . . . immediately scapegoats some nameless white employee” (79). Yet the last letter Lewis was ever to write breaks dramatically with the seemingly impulsive managerial habits of the Journal, displaying a touching personal sympathy for the fate of “a young Book-keeper on Cornwall, named Blackeston,” who is “wasting away hourly” as a result of a recurring mental illness, “and must die, unless He leaves The Island.” See Lewis’s letter of May 4, 1818 to T. Hill, quoted in Peck 171.


For a succinct account of this conflict, see Hochschild 281-85. The controversy surrounding Balcarras arises chiefly from his enlistment of one hundred bloodhounds from neighbouring Cuba, together with their handlers, in order to put down the Maroons. As Hochschild notes, this tactic provoked some unease among the British, even eliciting the disapproval of no less a personage than King George III himself, who regarded it as “improper.” What Hochschild does not note, however, is the irony shadowing the monarch’s outrage: the king condemns the use of these “‘tremendous animals’” on the basis of their “‘ungovernable ferocity,’” even as the ferocity of the colonial power their deployment is designed to uphold of course remains unchallenged (283).


For a classic analysis of this violent epochal struggle, see James. See also Blackburn 213-64 and, most recently, Dubois and Garrigus. Lewis nervously alludes to this bloody revolutionary history elsewhere in the text, as, for example, in the Journal entry for February 11, 1816, in which he frets about “Wilberforce’s intentions to set the negroes entirely at freedom,” speculating that the direct consequence of such a step for Jamaica “would be . . . a general massacre of the whites, and a second part of the horrors of St Domingo” (107).


These spaces are, generally speaking, less dissimilar to one another than they might at first appear, since the slaves assigned to the boiling-house could sometimes lose their lives in the course of their daily routines, a possibility most famously dramatized in James Gillray’s abolitionist cartoon, “Barbarities in the West Indies” (1791), with its harrowing image of a slave submerged in a huge copper filled with boiling cane-juice. In the case of Lewis’s Journal, however, it is in fact Cornwall’s “mill-stream” which comes to be associated with slave-death, it being in these waters that a four-year-old slave-girl is accidentally “drowned before any one [is] aware of her danger” (71), a fate disingenuously attributed, by implication, to a natural rather than colonial order of things. Cornwall’s boiling-house remains a place of peril even so, particularly for those slaves exhausted by late hours. As Lewis puts it, in a breathtaking disavowal of black pain:

Last night a poor man, named Charles . . . was brought into the hospital, having missed a step in the boiling-house, and plunged his foot into the siphon: fortunately, the fire had not long been kindled, and though the liquor was hot enough to scald him, it was not sufficiently so to do him any material injury.



Works Cited


Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. London and New York: Verso, 1988.


Bohls, Elizabeth A. “The Planter Picturesque: Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor.” European Romantic Review 13 (2002): 63-76.


Byron, Lord George Gordon. Byron’s Letters and Journals. Ed. Leslie A. Marchand. 13 vols. London: John Murray, 1973-94.


Craton, Michael. Searching for the Invisible Man: Slaves and Plantation Life in Jamaica. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP, 1978.


Dubois, Laurent and John D. Garrigus. Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804: A Brief History with Documents. Boston and New York: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2006.


Edwards, Bryan. The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies. Vol. 2. London: J. Stockdale, 1793.


Grainger, James. The Sugar-Cane: A Poem. In Four Books. With Notes. The Poetics of Empire: A Study of James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane. John Gilmore. London and New Brunswick, NJ: The Athlone P, 2000. 87-198.


Harkin, Maureen. “Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor: Surveillance and Space on the Plantation.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 24 (2002): 139-50.


Heiland, Donna. “The Unheimlich and the Making of Home: Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor.” Monstrous Dreams of Reason: Body, Self, and Other in the Enlightenment. Eds. Mita Choudhury and Laura Rosenthal. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2002. 170-88.


Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. London: Pan, 2005.


James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Introd. James Walvin. London: Penguin, 2001.


Jones, Donald. Bristol’s Sugar Trade and Refining Industry. Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association, 1996.


Lewis, Matthew. Journal of a West India Proprietor, Kept during a Residence in the Island of Jamaica. Ed. Judith Terry. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1999.


Ligon, Richard. A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes. London: Frank Cass, 1970.


Menard, Russell R. Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados. Charlottesville and London: U of Virginia P, 2006.


Nugent, Lady Maria. Lady Nugent’s Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805. Ed. Philip Wright. Foreword by Verene A. Shepherd. Barbados: U of the West Indies P, 2002.


Peck, Louis F. A Life of Matthew G. Lewis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1961.


Sandiford, Keith A. The Cultural Politics of Sugar: Caribbean Slavery and Narratives of Colonialism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.


Sterne, Laurence. A Sentimental Journey and Other Writings. Eds. Ian Jack and Tim Parnell. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.


Von Sneidern, Maja-Lisa. “‘Monk’ Lewis’s Journals and the Discipline of Discourse.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 23 (2001): 59-88.

Author: Carl Plasa
Title: “Conveying Away the Trash”: Sweetening Slavery in Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor, Kept during a Residence in the Island of Jamaica
Journal: Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, Number 50, May 2008
URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/018150ar
DOI: 10.7202/018150ar

Copyright © the authors and , 2008

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