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A Cultural Explication of Empire
Lady Nugent's Journal

Engraving of Lady Nugent by G. Adcock

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello
Lady Maria Nugent's Journal, written during her stay on the island from 1801-1807 as the wife of Governor General George Nugent, is perhaps one of the most intriguing primary sources of Jamaican history available today. Recently re-released by the UWI press, Lady Nugent's Journal, clearly unintended for publication and written without literary pretensions, provides an insight into domestic life in early nineteenth century Jamaica.

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.

Lady Maria Nugent was born in the British colony of New Jersey in 1771 to a strong loyalist family. By the end of the Revolutionary War in 1776, her family had returned to England. As a result of spending her formative years in the seat of the British Empire she considered herself as British "as they come" and proud of it. However, her journal records elements of transformation in the ethnocentric attitude she brought with her to Jamaica. She goes from seeing herself as British at the beginning of her writing to Creole at the end. This transformation is a direct result of her natural curiosity about Jamaica and its people.

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).

Kings House, Spanish Town. From Adolphe Duperly, 'Daguerian Excursion in Jamaica', 1844.

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.

Acculturation is the forced acceptance of aspects of another's culture. Lady Nugent addresses this in her discussion of the slaves' religious practices. Religion is certainly one of the areas in which African retentions remained (and still remain) strongest, yet never in her journal does Lady Nugent recognize the existence of remnants of African religions because to her they were not religions. The slaves were to be Christianized by whatever means necessary and taught to adopt proper forms of worship. She sees this as part of her duty as a good citizen of Empire. Never for one moment does it cross her mind that the slaves might not want to be Christianized and that her actions were a form of coercion. Instead Lady Nugent recounts her efforts to read prayers to them and teaching them how to perfect the saying of the prayers in somewhat of a self-congratulatory manner.

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).

When 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,
Ma-am, him rail-ly too fra-ish" never failed to surprise her (p. 20).

A painting, by John Downman, of Sir George Nugent, his wife Lady Maria Nugent and their children. Reproduced by the Institute of Jamaica, courtesy of Sir Guy Nugent, Bart. All illustrations taken from book 'Lady Nugent's Journal', published by the Institute of Jamaica, editions 1934 and 1966.

The Lady Nugent writing at the end of her journal preparing for an imminent return to England is a different Lady Nugent. She ceases to complain about the heat, the mosquitoes, the laziness of the slaves and the colonials. She states how painful it was to say goodbye to her slaves. Once back in the seat of Empire, Lady Nugent pines for the Creole-style breakfast of "cassava, cakes, chocolate, coffee, tea, fruits, all sorts of pigeon pies, hams, tongues, rounds of beef...." (p. 77). She is amused by her friends' amusement at her children's "funny talk as well as their Creole ideas and ways" (p. 332, 338). She even states that the weather seemed "cold to us Creoles... Louisa (her daughter), did not seem to feel it as much as (her brother) George, who looked very grave at first and then said his fingers were sore, which was a very natural idea for a child who had never before known what cold was" (p. 320).

By referring 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
educational, biased and honest, idealistic and realistic, trivial and relevant as much of history is.

* Jonkonnu is a celebration linked with the traditional African Yam festivals that occurred at the end of planting season (near Christmastime). Main actors and dancers include the Cowhead, Horsehead, Devil, different categories of warriors and Indians as well as a character known as Pitchy-Patchy. In the past and in some areas today, Jonkonnu dancers parade through the streets
bellowing at doors with great force.

* 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.

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The First 500 years in Jamaica

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted June 09, 2003.
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