Sex, Death, and Virtue in the Colonial Setting

In Charlotte Smith’s The Story of Henrietta (1800), the eponymous heroine either contemplates or attempts suicide, not once, not twice, but four times over the course of the 150-page novella. She threatens to stab herself to death before marrying the unctuous and banal Mr. Sawkins. During a hurricane, she tries to find the most unsafe room in the house, pleading to be swept up in a deadly fury (also trying avoid the slimy Sawkins). When captured by the servant Amponah, who is set to make her his wife, she considers plunging herself off a cliff into a swift-moving river. Finally, when captured by the Maroon leader to be taken as the “bukra” wife, Henrietta thinks of nothing else but who will save her from her miserable and horrid condition.

By the end of the narrative, however, Henrietta marries her beau and moves back to civilized England. She lives to see a happy ending to her narrative, but most importantly her virtue remains intact. Time and again, when Henrietta’s virtue is compromised by a corrupt planter, a black servant, or a Maroon leader, she goes straight to suicide.  The apparent two options for her were: rape (veiled through eighteenth-century discourse of “marriage”) OR a violent self-murder.

Smith’s novella is not the only work that features the compromise of a woman’s virtue set against suicide. In Jacque-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1788), the young Virginie refuses to be saved from a sinking ship as it would require her to remove her heavy-laden gown in front of male sailors and black servants. While she maintains her feminine nobility, she does indeed drown, and her lifeless body is washed ashore. And in the 1820 novel Zelica the Creole, the dazzling Clara perpetually chooses death over the affections of one of the leaders of the black Haitian army, Glaude.

In these instances, not to mention the early captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson (1682), there is a recurring trope of compromised female virtue within a colonial setting. This trope is not only pertinent to the virtuous white woman in a predominantly non-white colony, but even Imoinda and Yarico plead for death rather than to be subject to the violent rapaciousness of slavery. While the latter two female figures serve as mouthpieces against the brutality of the slave trade, the virtue of the compromised creole woman is a subject worth further contemplation, given the predominantly slavery ameliorationist or apologist mode in which these works were written.


Agosto Bruias (1728-1796) Linen Market, Dominica, Oil on Canvas


Historically, European creole women were few and far between in the colonial environment. The tropical climates, diseases, and physical proximity to the atrocities of slavery were considered corruptive of a genteel woman’s constitution. Succinctly put in Jane West’s The History of Maria Williams (1793), “the planters, generally speaking countenance each other in irregularies, at which and English libertine would blush. The redundant ferlitity of these tropical climes, and the bad habits which slavery introduces, are not favorable to the cause of virtue” (140). Thus, emotionally fragile women, whose very identity is contingent upon their perceived virtue, are at an extraordinary risk of having that virtue compromised. Even mortally so.

A final contemplation of a more genetic nature. White creole anxiety about the loss of a white creole woman’s virtue is feasibly connected to fears of miscegenation within the empire. While male planters were given sexual license over their female slaves (often citing the absence of white women to satiate their sexual urges); white women had no such option. Indeed, many female authors equated the patriarchal restraint over women’s sexual and marital choices as a kind of slavery. But! There was a particular colonial fear, manifest in certain narratives, that a white woman would become the sexual object of a black man. This trope rests within a larger racist discourse of eurocentric dominance, where white women become the very marker of the “thing” that is to be kept sacred, pure, unviolated–a minor pawn within the larger rhetoric of white supremacy. This idea recalls Spivak’s trenchant phrasing of white men fighting brown men for brown women. Yet, within the eighteenth-century colonial environment founded on the plantation-based economy (i.e. heavily populated by slaves), it was white women that needed saving.

Hence, the suicide. With the plantocratic fear of dismantled white authority, it would be far better for a heroine to end her life than to risk the fragility of the colonial order. There seems to be very little patriarchal virtue in that conclusion.


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