It takes a brave writer these days to approach the subject of slavery in the Caribbean. Look at the many novels published by contemporary Caribbean authors, and you’ll have difficulty in finding more than a handful that deal with the theme. Exile, mixed identity, an uncertain place in the world: these are the motifs that seem to recur in much modern fiction from the region, but slavery — arguably the single most profound influence on what the Caribbean was and is — is conspicuously absent. Is it that its very memory is almost taboo? That it is simply too difficult to write about such horror? Or is it that it is impossible to say something new about a period of history that many would just rather forget?
St Kitts-born novelist, Caryl Phillips, clearly thought not. His novel Cambridge, which appeared in 1991, is perhaps a little young to have earned the status of classic, but its original and challenging treatment of Caribbean slavery singles it out as a bold attempt to confront the demons of the past. On one level, it is an unflinching reconstruction of life on a Caribbean plantation in the first half of the 19th century, in the period between the end of the slave trade and the emancipation of the slaves.
The plantation offers a strange mixture of brutality, promiscuity and danger. We see how black slaves were treated as mere commodities, dehumanised assets in the economic equation of sugar production and profitability. We also see how the sugar baron’s fiefdom, at the beginning of its slow decline, was a place of grotesque luxury and intellectual emptiness.
But Phillips’s ambition extends further than an anatomy of this doomed and decadent colonial world. His novel sets out to recreate the attitudes and prejudices that sustained slavery by passing the narrative voice to a character who is herself a beneficiary of the system, and then to a victim of that same system. In doing so, the book counterbalances the voice of the master — or more properly mistress — against that of the slave, creating an unsettling contrast of viewpoints. In the process, we end up not knowing who to believe and, most curious of all, we realise that the two voices have much in common, not least their delusions.
The main narrator is Emily Cartwright, a young woman sent from England to visit and report on the estate of her father, an absentee proprietor. She recounts her departure from home, leaving behind a stern father and the unappetising prospect of an arranged marriage to an older man. The two-week crossing is a torment, turned into tragedy by the illness and death of her servant Isabella, and Emily finally arrives in the unnamed Caribbean island in a poor state of physical and emotional health.
Things, moreover, are not as Emily expected them to be. Her father’s overseer has mysteriously disappeared, replaced by a sullen and apparently unprepossessing successor, Mr Brown. Emily is shocked to witness this uncouth individual beating a slave (who we later know to be called Cambridge), but worse follows when she realises that Brown has previously allowed a female slave to dine with him in the great house. Such apparent intimacy is anathema to the English outsider.
Slowly and imperceptibly, Emily’s already tenuous grasp on this alien world begins to unravel. Just as she repeats the old clichés about racial inequality and the moral rightness of slavery, so her prim, even repressed, instincts are threatened by what she sees as a hotbed of danger and exotic sensuality. While dismissing abolitionist thought back home as pious ignorance, she also unwittingly points to the real nature of the “white man’s burden”: “Such untravelled thinkers do not comprehend the base condition of the Negro. Nor do they appreciate the helplessness of the white man in his efforts to preserve some scrap of moral decency in the face of so much provocation and temptation.” So convinced is she of the validity of her opinions that Emily resolves to engage in a speaking tour on the subject of slavery — a necessary evil, she believes — on her return home.
Blinded by a mix of self-righteousness and naiveté, Emily tells but does not understand. We, the readers, must try to make sense of what she sees, despite, rather than because of, the narrator. And as the genteel old maid seems gradually to cast off her inhibitions, so her narrative becomes even more unreliable. Mr Brown, hitherto a disagreeable character, suddenly becomes the attentive and handsome Arnold; words like loneliness, romance and freedom unexpectedly appear among her normally starchy platitudes. The reader can only vaguely make out that Emily has fallen in love, that in that well-known euphemism, intimacy has taken place.
But no sooner has Emily discovered a sort of sensual liberation than Brown is dead, apparently murdered by Cambridge, the slave whom he had beaten. At this point, events become even more confused, for Phillips introduces a second narrator, Cambridge himself. His extraordinary story, unlike that of Emily, is one of hardship and suffering. Born in Africa, he was snatched by slave traders and taken to Carolina, from where he was shipped to London as a domestic servant. Educated and baptised, David Henderson (as he was then known) marries and becomes a spokesman for the abolitionist movement in England. (Note the ironic counterpoint to Emily’s public speaking plans.) But his rise to respectability is mirrored by a dramatic fall as his wife dies, and he is sold into slavery once more as he heads for Africa to continue his proselytising work. Rebaptised Cambridge by his new master, Mr Brown, he is every bit as convinced of his own moral righteousness, and perhaps justifiably so, as Emily. And like her, he is really blind to reality, incapable of escaping his fixed view of the world.
The skill of Phillips’s technique now lies in the fact that we have two versions of the same set of incidents. Christiana, the apparently malevolent female slave who had dined with Brown and who terrifies Emily with what she assumes to be witchcraft, is the same person whom Cambridge takes as his “wife”. This woman is either an insolent temptress (Emily’s version) or the vulnerable and emotionally unstable victim of a predatory Mr Brown (Cambridge’s version).
In any case, it is she who lies behind Brown’s beating of Cambridge, and it is she who seems to cause the final bloody confrontation between slave and overseer. But even here we cannot be sure. According to Cambridge, Brown dies in a struggle as the slave tries to disarm him; according to a third narrative voice, that of a local newspaper report, “this insane man had long lain in wait for an opportunity of completing his crime.” All that the poor, blinkered Emily can conclude is that “the haughty black woman, Christiana, was in some way involved.”
In the end, we know that Brown is dead, Emily has given birth to a stillborn child, and Cambridge has been hung for murder. But motives, explanations, in short, the truth, remain elusive.
As Emily finally descends into an hallucinatory madness, we can sympathise with her inability to hold on to reality, for Phillips’s manipulation of the narrative viewpoint has effectively undermined our trust in any version of events. Instead, his haunting fiction points to its own ambiguities, to the uncertainties and deception at the heart of any storytelling. And so the novel’s structure, built around a framework of delusions and prejudices, is a fitting reflection of its central theme — slavery, an institution that fed on all such human weaknesses.