Context on Wide Sargasso Sea: Emancipation Act and marriage laws

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In 1833 Wilberforce's efforts were finally rewarded when the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed.
Wilberforce, on his deathbed, was informed of the passing of the Act in the nick of time. The main terms
of the Act were:
· all slaves under the age of six were to be freed immediately
· slaves over the age of six were to remain as part slave and part free for a further four years. In that
time they would have to be paid a wage for the work they did in the quarter of the week when they
were "free"
· the government was to provide £20 million in compensation to the slaveowners who had lost their
In the West Indies the economic results of the Act were disastrous. The islands depended on the sugar
trade which in turn depended on slave labour. Ultimately, the planters were unable to make the West
Indies the thriving centres of trade which they had been in the eighteenth century.
The British West Indiesan overview. At the time of Wide Sargasso Sea, Jamaica and the Windward
Islands (Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada, and the Grenadines) were governed by the British.
Spain had been first among the European nations to gain a foothold in the New World in the late fifteenth
century. Many of the Caribbean islands, including Jamaica, Trinidad, and Hispaniola, were settled by the
Spanish in the wake of Christopher Columbus's voyages of exploration. However, Spain's dominance as a
world power waned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, allowing other nationsEngland, France,
and the Netherlandsto acquire territories in the Americas and the Caribbean. The British settled Barbados
in 1625, then seized Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. Initially regarded as an inferior acquisitiona poor
consolation for Britain's failure to capture Hispaniola or CubaJamaica became the most important of
Britain's Caribbean colonies by 1750.
Jamaica's rise to prominence was mainly attributable to two factors: the establishment of sugar plantations
and the importation of African slaves to work those plantations. Originally, British colonists in the
Caribbean had cultivated tobaccoa popular New World crop. Caribbean tobacco, however, could not
compete in quality or quantity with that produced elsewhere, necessitating the introduction of sugar cane.
During the 1700s, the British colonies in the Caribbean gave themselves over to the production of sugar,
which became virtually the only crop. Large plantations requiring vast tracts of land and amounts of capital
replaced the small farms that had produced cotton and tobacco. Jamaica, which possessed abundant land
and an ideal climate, had become the greatest sugar producer in the British Empire by 1750, a distinction it
retained until the 1830s, when the Emancipation Act of 1833 freed the slaves.
As an inevitable result of the thriving sugar industry, the transatlantic slave trade increased. Between 1700
and 1810 the number of slaves brought to the New World more than tripled, and between 1811 and
1830, about 32,000 slaves per year were imported. An estimated 17 percent of 10 million Africans
brought to the Americas were sent to the British Caribbean (Meditz and Hanratty, p. 18). While the whites
held a superior social position and all the real power on the islands, the population of the British West
Indies became predominantly black. The earliest white colonists had aspired to recreate British society in
the West Indies by bringing their law, political institutions, and religion to the tropics, but the dream of
making the West Indies a culturally British part of the world never materialized. Instead the sugar industry
established a plantation society, in which a white minority presided over a nonwhite majority: "In the early
nineteenth century, whites constituted less than 5 percent of the total population of Jamaica, Grenada,
Nevis, St. Vincent, and Tabago and less than 10 percent of the population of Jamaica, Montserrat, St.
Kitts, St. Lucia, and the Virgin Islands" (Meditz and Hanratty, p. 18).
Not surprisingly, British Caribbean society was divided along lines of class, caste, and color. The three
main divisions consisted of free white persons, free nonwhite persons, and slaves. Subdivisions existed

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free nonwhitesa group that originated from miscegenation between European masters and African
slavesranked below even the poor whites, but many, especially those who had been free for generations,
had made places for themselves as artisans, merchants, and even planters and slave owners. The degree of
success and acceptance that free nonwhites found, however, often depended to a large degree on skin
color nonwhites with fairer complexions usually had an advantage over those with darker complexions.…read more

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The death of Mr. Cosway and the emancipation of the slaves in 1838 have led to the ruin of the family
plantation. The local blacks, now free, jeer at the widowed Mrs. Cosway as she becomes increasingly
poor and shabby her daughter, Antoinette, is similarly mocked and called a "white cockroach" by black
children (Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, p. 23).…read more


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