Reconstructing a history:

A look at the development of English based West Indian Creoles during the 18th century

by Julie Reitsma


The development of West Indian English based Creoles in the eighteenth century cannot be discussed without considering the factors that contributed to the language from its onset. West Indian Creole, with a specific examination of Jamaica and some assessment of Barbados and Suriname, is examined in terms of scholarly articles, primary texts written by those who lived in the West Indies during the eighteenth century, and secondary or fictional texts written by Europeans.

The article examines the history of the slave trade, the way in which a pidgin first developed as a result of the "tower of Babel" effect created on the slave ships during the middle passage and the subsequent development of that pidgin into a Creole by the eighteenth century. Interpenetration between the islands and different Europeansí influences such as Scottish, Spanish and French, are examined as a part of the overall development of the language. Issues of power dynamics within plantation society as well as without are discussed in terms of alienation, isolation and racism. These issues are further broken down into discussions of identity; linguistic structures; and education.

Throughout the article a variety of literary works are examined for different purposes. Works by Robert Bage, Maria Edgeworth, Tobias Smollett and Samuel Pratt are considered in terms of how they shed light on certain British prejudices that existed at the time in regards to Creoles. Discussion of the texts revolve around matters of the both harmful and productive effects of the education of both white and black Creoles, and how that in turn affected their acceptance into British society. As well, the texts highlight the question of identity; where a Creole may consider him or herself to be both British and West Indian, thereby causing an inner struggle and split in self-concept.

The article argues that many of the texts that are available to scholars are untrustworthy and unpredictable, as many of the authors had personal or political factors to consider. The article emphasizes this through an examination of works by both white and black authors from Jamaica, including Francis William, the son of free blacks who was educated in England, and J.B. Moreton, a non-native of Jamaica who many scholars believe had abolitionist sympathies. The article acts as an overview of not only socio-political circumstances which contributed to the development of English based West Indian Creoles, but also considers how these circumstances are reflected in the literature, or lack thereof, of the period.