“I was tempted to tell him- ‘Do not say that again; say you are my negro, but do not call yourself my slave.’”
-Matthew Lewis, Journal of West India Proprietor, p. 62.
As the slave owner of two plantations, Lewis found himself in a difficult position of power at a time of political reform. His autobiographical Journal of a West India Proprietor, depicting his travels in 1818 to his two inherited Jamaican plantations, provide an account of slavery from the perspective of the slave owner. From the very beginning of his travels, it becomes apparent to the reader that Lewis’s conduct and subsequent treatment of his slaves is heavily influenced by the changing social climate; he essentially performs his own act of ‘resistance’, revolting against the norms of the typical slaveowner. Elucidating on the position of the colonial slaveowner during the nineteenth century, Carl Plasa argues that Lewis is ‘awkwardly placed’ ‘in a system increasingly contested on moral grounds whilst its importance was ceasing to exist within Britain’s changing imperial economy (p. 59).1 This awkward placing significantly influences the representation of both Lewis’s interaction with his slaves, as well as his resistance in presenting his enslaved workers as oppressed individuals. As a result of this, Lewis introduces his audience to his Cornwall plantation as place of Utopia. Throughout his account, Lewis continually seeks to affirm the happiness and ease of his slaves:
‘Whether the pleasure of the negroes was sincere may be doubted; but certainly it was the loudest I had ever witnessed: they all talked together, sang, danced, shouted.’2
Despite clearly recognizing his own hand in the oppression of his slaves, he appears to rely greatly on the delusion of his slaves being liberated human beings. Lewis frequently attempts to justify his actions and position as slave owner throughout journal, which has resulted in the text being highly controversial and heavily critiqued since its first publication. As Maureen Hankin outlines, Lewis’s journal ‘exemplifies how under pressure of contradictory impulses, the text hovers between uncertainty and aggressive self-justification as a representation of the British colonial slaveholder’ (p. 141).3 Lewis certainly epitomises the morally-torn slaveholder. He frequently seeks to justify how idyllic his ‘workplace’ plantations are through comparisons with the western world. As he remarks, ‘I believe their [the slaves] condition to be much more comfortable than that of the labourers of Great Britain’ (p. 62). These comparisons, deployed with the purpose of diminishing the concept of slave suffering, are inconceivable to the benevolent reader’s knowledge of slavery and its distressing history.
Lewis continues to resist the concept of both slavery, as well as his own part in its history, through his repeated attempts to persuade his audience of the equal rights that his slaves obtain. He frequently alludes throughout the journal to his attempts to give his slaves a ‘voice’; this is shown through a court hearing, in which Lewis states that ‘they are not obliged to believe a negro witness, but I maintain that he ought to be heard’ (p. 222). In doing so, however, Lewis presents the slaveowner as a figure of respectability and reasonableness as opposed to a gate-keeper of liberty. His delusions continue through his attempts to defend his own position of power; he states that ‘I am not conscious of having omitted any means of satisfying my negroes, and rendering them happy and secure from oppression’ (p. 203). His continual bribes of holidays, presents from England and his granting of wishes to the slaves reinforces his notion of the plantation being a stable and safe environment to its workers; this Utopic vision is in stark contrast to the legitimated place of imprisonment that Lewis continues to upkeep.
This resistance to slavery and his own personal collusion with the trade is furthered in Lewis’s censorship of the word ‘slave’. His loathing towards the term is documented in his introduction to a black servant, who remarks to Lewis ‘Massa not know me; me your slave!’; this results in Lewis feeling ‘a pang at the heart’ (p. 62). It is in this exchange that the reader begins to see how elements of the plantation life weigh heavily upon Lewis’s conscience; this results in his refusal, and subsequent denial, of the suffering inflicted by his actions upon the lives of his slaves. Lewis, humiliated by this conversation with his servant, writes that he was ‘was tempted to tell him- ‘’Do not say that again; say you are my negro, but do not call yourself my slave’ (p. 62). However, Lewis appears oblivious to the clear hypocrisy of his suggestion; despite replacing ‘slave’ with ‘negro’, he still justifies this with the qualifier ‘my’.
As the journal progresses, Lewis furthers his attempts to relieve his slaves of some of their discomforts. Further into his stay, Lewis demands that the use of the cart-whip be diminished, an instrument used as a means of punishment and control over the slaves. In this way, Lewis resists the expected conduct of the slaveowner; he states advice from one of his own slaves, remarking ‘he said that kindness was the only way to make good negroes and that, if that failed, flogging would never succeed’ (p. 165). In considering an opinion from one of his ‘inferiors’, Lewis attempts to distinguish himself from the nature of many atrocious slaveowners in history that sought to silence and oppress the people they ruled. However, despite resistance on Lewis’s part to inflict violence on his ‘workers’, this act of resistance is still fraught with contradiction. Although his refusal to inflict ‘any punishment’ on a slave ‘however great the offence might be’ (p.196) is deemed a humane gesture, it remains an inherently contradictory one as he still uses his white privilege to enslave other humans against their will.
Regardless of Lewis’s repeated attempts to resist the concept of slavery and the position of slave owner, his Utopian vision is ultimately demonstrated to be little more than a delusion built by the author in an attempt to free himself of his torment and guilt in participating in the horrific trade of human lives. Lewis’s Utopian vision is undermined throughout by his devotion in recording incidents of slave revolts. One such account details the rebellion of a ‘black servant girl’ who ‘stood by the bed to see her master drink the poison’ (p. 179). These accounts of rebellion against white oppressor figures, although only briefly mentioned in Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor, clearly demonstrate the horrific sufferings of the victims at the very heart of the transatlantic slave trade.
Featured Image- Cover Image taken from HardPress Publishing’s 2012 edition of Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor.
1. Carl Plasa, Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literatures of Sugar (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009) p. 54
2. Matthew G. Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2008) p. 61. All further references to Lewis’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.
3. Maureen Hankin, ‘Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor: Surveillance and Space on the Plantation’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 24 (2002), 139-150 (p. 141)
Written by Ashleigh Edwards.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.