Cultural Explication of Empire
By Dr. Rebecca
Jamaica was an enigma to Lady Nugent. Although many of her references are to her love for her husband and children, a good portion of the journal documents her attempt to come to some understanding of the unique form of society she encountered. This interest led her to go beyond trivial comments such as "only our family at dinner tonight," and "to bed at eight" to provide actual documentation of the cultural impact of Empire on colonial administrator/colonizer and slave. As such her journal stands as much more than a record of her personal life. It contains an anthropological slant that is a rare find in primary sources.
NUGENT'S EARLY LIFE
Lady Nugent's Journal can be considered a subtle method of cultural explication a piece of ethnography. It is in effect a piece of cultural analysis involving observation, recording, assembling and analysing what was said and done. Because her ideas were so influenced by British society she is often unable to arrive at a fair analysis of actions and events, but occasionally she evidences insight that escapes the boundaries of conformity to the social norms of her time period. In the world of ethnography she could be said to move between "thick and thin descriptions," alternatively seeing beneath the surface and seeing only what is on the surface (Geertz, 1973).
Documenting her life at what is now called Old Kings House in Spanish Town (where the ruins of Lady Nugent's bathroom the size of a small pool can be seen) her journal presents a dichotomy to any ethnographer/historian attempting to do research on early nineteenth century Jamaican history. That is, in part, what makes it so compelling. At times her thoughts are very conservative and conformist. At others, they are blatantly liberal and abolitionist. Although she continually refers to the slaves derogatorially as "blackies," she questions the harsh treatment of slaves by their masters stating her belief, unpopular though it was at the time, that slaves were human and did indeed have souls (p. 203).
In her account of a visit to a sugar estate she reveals her dismay at hearing how the slaves stood at a cauldron for up to 12 hours stirring the sugar. On that same visit, she learned that sometimes the slaves fell asleep and got their fingers caught in the sugar mill which is why a hatchet was always nearby in case the need arose to sever an entire limb in order to save the slave's life. She ends this account by attempting to distance herself from such inhuman practices declaring, "I would not have a sugar estate for the whole world!" (p. 86). At other times, however, even though she perpetuates the injustices of slavery by merely living within the system itself, she does make an effort to do her small part to speak out against the injustice of the system such as when she shocked the straight-laced Jamaican colonial society by choosing to begin a ball by dancing with an elderly Negro slave. Knowing that this action could have precipitated a major social crisis, she simply states, "I did what I would have done in England at any servant's hall birthday" (p. 204).
Lady Nugent's Journal is a prime example of the process of creolization a process with which anyone interested in the cultural experience of Empire must be familiar. Creolization is defined as the cultural changes that occur when people of two different backgrounds come together in a new environment and are so affected by interactions with each other and the environment that a new culture is born. (Brathwaite, 1971). The main components of creolization are acculturation and interculturation. Lady Nugent's Journal gives examples of both.
Interculturation is defined as the unconscious (due to close environmental contact) and somewhat conscious, but always willing assimilation of aspects of another's culture. For Lady Nugent much of her private life was made public because "the white man ate, conversed, dressed, fell sick, took their baths, quarreled, courted, bore children and died before a large interested audience" (Hearne and Nettleford, 1970, p. 14). Lady Nugent recounts: "the blackies in attendance seems so much interested that they hardly change a plate, or do any thing but listen. How very impudent, and what must it all lead to!" This excitement was clearly related to her concern about the repercussions of events in early nineteenth century Haiti, the site of the only major successful slave revolt. Her excitement was tempered however by her belief that the slaves, although they listened, could not have possibly understood the full import of what was being said.
The slaves' involvement with practices such as Jonkonnu signal a conscious effort to mix African and European retentions. Lady Nugent expressed her pleasure at what she considered childish processions (due to the exaggerated costumes). Never once did she seem to consider that the activities provided slaves with a much needed escape from the harsh reality of their lives as well as a link to festivals celebrated at home in Africa. In that sense, they may have ironically acted as a pressure valve, helping to maintain the social order as it stood.
In relation to the effect of creolization on the English, whose links to home were based more on the possession of material goods than memories, as was the case with the Africans who came into slavery with no possessions, Lady Nugent notes cynically that the only elegance in sight was often lavish food displays. In general, she found colonial gentlemen noticeably lacking in manners, over-indulgent and lazy: "I wish Lord Balcarres would wash his hands and use a nail brush for the black edges of his nails really make me sick. He has besides, an extraordinary propensity to dip his fingers into every dish...I must not omit to mention...an extraordinary pet of Lord Balacarres' which makes its appearance every day in the dining room. It is a little black pig that goes about grunting to every one for a tid-bit" (p. 14). Lady Nugent also declared her regret at the poor example they tended to set for the slaves. It was not unusual, she stated, to see young women lazing about all day on settees, their heads wrapped up in handkerchiefs, their dresses flowing loose, against all elements of British style (but certainly better suited to the hot environment).
Lady Nugent, like her husband, was harshly critical of these departures from what she considered to be the norm. She placed a great deal of importance on dressing appropriately for each occasion in attempts to uphold a certain standard. She was fond of describing her clothes in great detail: "I put on my smartest dress with a gold tiara and white feathers, and made myself look as magnificent as I could" (p. 57).
it came to language, a subject of particular fascination to Lady Nugent,
she noted pejoratively that many of the ladies "speak a sort of broken
English with an indolent drawing out of their words" (p. 20). When at
social functions where the air might have been cooler than usual, statements
such as, "Yes,
to herself and her family as Creoles, she signifies her own cultural experience
of Empire. Just as Jamaica left a lasting impression on her, she and her
husband left a legacy of their own. Reminders of George Nugent's governorship
are present in Nugent Street in Spanish Town, and in Fort Nugent near
Rockfort. The most important legacy of all, however, is Lady Nugent's
journal. It is simultaneously interesting and
* Lady Nugent's Journal has recently been republished by UWI Press and is available at bookstores islandwide.
Sources: Brathwaite, E.K. (1971). The Development of Creole society in Jamaica, 1770-1820. Oxford: Clarendon Press., Brathwaite, E.K. (1974). Cultural diversity and integration in the Caribbean. Great Britain: Savacou., Cundall. E. (1934). Lady Nugent's journal. (London: The West India Committee). Hearne, J. and Nettleford, R. (1970). Our heritage European and Asian influences in Jamaica. London: William Collins and Sangster Jamaica Ltd., Nettleford, N. (1970). Mirror, mirror - Identity, race and protest in Jamaica. London: William Collins and Sangsters Jamaica Ltd.
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted June 09, 2003.
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