West Indian Characters

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Introduction to Character Type

West Indian characters appear infrequently in this collection of plays. Only two characters -- Priscilla Tomboy in Bickerstaff's Love in the City (1767) and Belcour in Cumberland's The West Indian (1771) -- are of West Indian origin. In both cases, the characters have returned to family in London. Although their language is not especially different from their relatives' (aside from a few errors in Priscilla's speech), both characters find that their West Indian assumptions do not hold true in England. Although he sports the best of intentions, the hot-blooded Belcour causes street fights in London and mistakes a virtuous and retiring girl for a prostitute. Likewise, Priscilla's inhumane treatment of her black servant Quasheba is frowned upon by her English friend Penelope:

Pris. Lord you are mighty precize---Quasheba, get out, I want to talk with Miss Penny alone---or stay, come back, I will speak before her---But if ever I hear, hussy, that you mention a word of what I am going to say to any one else in the house, I will have you horse-whipp'd till there is not a bit of flesh left on your bones.

Pen. Oh, poor creature!

Pris. Psha,---what is she but a Neger? If she was at home at our plantations, she would find the difference; we make no account of them there at all: if I had a fancy for one of their skins I should not think much of taking it.

Pen. I suppose then you imagine they have no feeling?

Pris. Oh! we never consider that there--- (Bickerstaff 5).

Despite the lack of language variation in their speech, the West Indian characters are distinguished by their incongruous behaviour. Part of the action of the plays is thus directed at Priscilla and Belcour's educational reform. Although West Indian characters occur so infrequently within the plays, the inability of these characters to fit in to London society satirizes certain elements associated with this profitable colony. The West Indian satirizes the reputed health effects of the heat on British colonists (causing them to be hot-blooded), while Love in a City exposes a hypocrisy of the colonial practice: the English object to the practice of slavery, but continue to support the colonists who consider it necessary. These social comments foreshadow the anti-slavery trends of the nineteenth century in English colonies.

Works Cited:

Bickerstaff, Isaac. Love in the City. London: W. Griffin, 1767. Literature Online. 14 August 2008. http://lion.chadwyck.com/toc.do?action=new&divLevel=0&mapping=toc&area=Drama&id=Z000057653&forward=tocMarc&DurUrl=Yes

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List of Plays

Love in the City (Bickerstaff)

The West Indian (Cumberland)

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©2008 Arden Hegele