Resisting Slaveowner Stereotypes in Matthew Lewis’s Journal of West India Proprietor

“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.

Purging the ‘Unconventional’ in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

‘What is’t distracts you?/
This is flesh, and blood, sire;/
‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster/
kneels at my husband’s tomb.’
-The Duchess, The Duchess of Malfi (l.386-387)

In John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess finds herself condemned for crossing the conventional position of widow deigned appropriate for her by figures of male authority. Rather than adhere to her brother’s orders, the Duchess utilises the small amount of independence proffered to her in widowhood to defy them. The Duchess rejects her subordinate patriarchal position, subverting this inferiority to become both wooer and head of her household.1 However, this insubordination is not celebrated; rather, it is viewed with disdain and anger by almost all of the characters in the play. The Duchess is viewed as a figure of treasonous radicality, threatening not only the private family model but the very status and order of the governing state. As she declares her decision to marry Antonio, the Duchess announces ‘let old wives report/ I winked and chose a husband’.2 In using ‘I’, the Duchess places herself in a position of autonomy; she makes it apparent that she ‘chose’ (l.281) Antonio out of her own free will. Furthermore, the Duchess clearly distances herself from the ‘old wives’ (l.280) of conventionality in favour of a more masculine assertion of personal choice. However, in Webster’s allusion to the Duchess having ‘winked’, defined as ‘to indicate that something is a joke or a secret’, the Duchess is presented as irresponsibly naïve.3 She seemingly fails to register the severity of her subversion; rather, she instead becomes collocated with the archetypal ‘lusty widow’ figure, driven by rampant sexual appetite and desire.

Although the Duchess repeatedly asserts that her actions are the result of the pure love she feels for Antonio, Webster consistently undermines this through a discourse of lust and desire. This language is first evoked by her brothers, who suggest that her wish to remarry is inevitable as she ‘is a widow’ and knows ‘already what man is’ (ll.225-226). The Duchess is further advised that she must not allow her ‘high blood’ to be ‘sway[ed]’ (l.228). The bawdy nature of Ferdinand and The Cardinal’s speech bears striking similarities to the language used in the 1650 conduct book The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living. In this text, it is stated ‘for widows, the fontanel of whose desires hath been opened by the former permissions of the marriage-bed’, they must remember ‘that God hath now restrained the former license’ and ‘bridle[d] […] their desires.’4 Through such paralleling, the Duchess is thus presented as a figure whose actions are founded on gross self-interest and lust. This results in both the aristocracy and the ‘common rabble’ ‘directly say[ing]/ she is a strumpet’ (l.26).

Denounced as a ‘strumpet’ (l.26), the Duchess becomes a radical figure that is viewed with disdain by figures of lower and higher-class social status. As Sarah Steen argues, ‘in light of Renaissance social standards […] the Duchess flouted patriarchal authority […] violated decorum by remarrying and by choosing a man below her in station’; she also demonstrated ‘an overt and dangerous female sexuality, all of which threatened the social order.’5 In this subversion, the Duchess ultimately comes to radically usurp not only the rigid social positions afforded to men and women in society, but also their positions within the private family model. Due to the class difference between Antonio and the Duchess, the Duchess ultimately subverts the traditional framework by becoming both the orchestrater and instigator of their union. In doing so, she usurps Antonio’s role as head of the private domestic family. It is she that proposes marriage to Antonio, telling him ‘raise’ himself’ with her ‘hand to help’ (ll.351-352). Through subverting the strict family model, the Duchess not only threatens the patriarchal social structure of the family but also the very foundations of the governing body. At the time of the plays first performance, as Dympna Callaghan expounds, advice books such as A Godly Form of Household Government depicted the family structure as ‘a microcosm of the state.6 In this reading, the Duchess not only threatens private social order, but also rigid political order. Her actions are denounced as politically radical and monstrous; ‘desperate physic’ must, as Ferdinand declares, be applied ‘to purge infected blood, such as hers’ (ll.23-26). The threat of the Duchess must, as Webster’s play comes to suggest, be ‘purged’ from society at whatever cost.


Featured Painting: Paris Bordone, The Venetian Lovers, circa 1530, Oil on Canvas, 80 x 95cm, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy.

1. For more information on the position of the widow in Renaissance England, see Sandra Cavallo and Lyndan Warner, Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).

2. John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, I.ii.l.280-281, in Renaissance Drama: An Anthology of Plays and Entertainments, ed. by Arthur F. Kinney (London: Blackwells, 2004). All further references to The Duchess of Malfi are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the body of the essay.

3. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: [Accessed 1/04/2018].

4. Jeremy Taylor, ‘The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living’ in The Whole Works of the Reverend Jeremy Taylor: Volume I (London: J.R and C. Childs, 1836), pp.399-515, p.427.

5. Sara Jayne Steen, ‘The Crime of Marriage: Arbella Stuart and the Duchess of Malfi’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 22 (1991), pp.61-76, p.61.

6. Dympna Callaghan, ‘Loving and Marrying’ in Romeo and Juliet: Texts and Contexts, ed. Dympna Callaghan (Boston, New York: Bedford Books, 2003), pp.245- 248, p.247.


Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.