views updated Jun 27 2018


by Caryl Phillips


A novel set in the British West Indies in the early nineteenth century; first published in London in 1991.


Emily Cartwright, a young Englishwoman, journeys to her father’s sugar plantation in the West Indies, where she becomes Involved in a deadly contest of wills between the plantation’s manager, Mr. Brown, and a stave, Cambridge.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in 1958 on the West Indian island of St. Kitts, Caryl Phillips was raised in Britain, where his family immigrated soon after his birth. While studying English literature at Oxford University, Phillips took a five-week bus trip through the United States. During the journey, he read works by African American authors such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, which he found deeply inspiring for his own writing. After graduating from Oxford in 1979, Phillips began writing plays for stage, radio, and television. His works enjoyed immediate success, and on the proceeds Phillips was able to travel back to the West Indies for the first time. A subsequent tour of Europe in the mid-1980s resulted in a book of essays, The European Tribe (1987), criticizing European ethno-centricity. As a black man traveling in America and Europe, as during his youth in Britain, Phillips frequently encountered racism, which has been a central issue in his writing. From the plays with which he began his career to the novels, essays, documentary filmscripts, articles, interviews, and one screenplay that have followed, Phillips’s work combines moral and psychological insight with a keen interest in the black experience. His novels—including A State of Independence (1986), Higher Ground (1989), Cambridge (1991), Crossing the River (1994), and The Nature of Blood (1997)—focus on the centuries-old interaction between Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Of the novels, Cambridge has reached the widest audience and is generally regarded as effectively reflecting the historical complexities and moral ambiguities of this triangular relationship.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Slavery in the British West Indies

Like the Spanish before them, by the middle of the seventeenth century both the British and the French had established a number of plantation colonies in the West Indies. Following the Spanish model, the colonies employed slave labor imported from West Africa to raise cash crops that were shipped back to the mother country. While early crop experiments included tobacco and cotton (both grown more successfully on plantations in the southern United States), the West Indian plantations soon came to rely almost exclusively on sugarcane.

The first successful British colony in the West Indies was founded in the 1620s on the small island of St. Kitts, Caryl Phillips’s birthplace and the model for the unnamed island in the novel. By the early nineteenth century, when the novel is set, British plantations had been flourishing for nearly 200 years throughout the West Indies— from the Bahamas in the north (near Florida), to Barbados in the south (off the Venezuela coast), and from Jamaica in the west to the Leeward Islands (including St. Kitts, one of the most prosperous islands) in the east.

Historians estimate that altogether some 8-15 million Africans were transported to the Spanish, British, French, Portuguese, and other European plantations in the New World between the mid-seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. On top of that total, an estimated 2 to 3 million Africans died in chains during the harrowing “Middle Passage,” the brutal trip across the Atlantic Ocean. In the novel Cambridge survives this trip twice, returning to Africa after achieving freedom a first time, where he is again kidnapped and resold into slavery once more.

Conditions for slaves were particularly harsh in the Caribbean. Diseases—dysentery, diarrhea, smallpox, and others—flourished in the tropics, where medical care on the isolated estates was minimal. In the novel Emily Cartwright meets Mr. McDonald, who cares for a few whites and “many hundreds of blacks” on several plantations; McDonald charges more for doctoring the whites, which he says “demands closer attention,” and complains about the “bizarre imaginary diseases” he says the blacks use as a pretext for not working (Phillips, Cambridge, p. 34). Such sentiments both reflect contemporary white attitudes to slaves’ health and point to a subtle means invoked by slaves to resist slave labor.

Typically slaves worked in gangs according to strength and age. The gangs assembled at daybreak to begin work, then stopped at 9:00 a.m. for about a half-hour breakfast, after which they resumed work until 11:00 a.m. Next they left the fields for anywhere from an-hour-and-a-half to three hours, after which they resumed labor there until about 30 minutes before sunset, when they stopped to pick grass. Their workday thus amounted to at least 10 hours, at harvest-time longer, to keep the mill that ground the sugarcane operating all night. During the ten hours, they labored under the watchful gaze of slave drivers, as reported by an observer at a plantation on St. Kitts: “Every ten Negroes have a driver who walks behind them holding a short whip and a long one… . They are naked, male and female, down to the girdle, and you constantly observe where the application [of the whip] has been made” (Schaw in Goveia, p. 131).

According to another observer on Antigua,

The negroes are turned out at sunrise and employed in gangs from twenty to sixty, or upwards under the inspection of white overseers.; subordinate to these overseers are drivers … who are mostly black or mulatto fellows … and these men are furnished with whips, which they are obliged, on pain of severe punishment to have with them, and are authorised to flog wherever they see the least relaxation from labor.

(Luffman in Goveia, p. 131)

The physical requirements of work in the sugarcane fields meant that men were in higher demand than women. Combined with poor nutrition, the other hardships suffered by Caribbean slaves raised their mortality rate and lowered their fertility rate, so that the slave population had to be replenished constantly with new shipments from West Africa. Modern estimates suggest that the “depletion rate” (that is, the rate at which death outstripped natural reproduction) among West Indian slave populations averaged between 20 percent and 30 percent before 1800 (Ward, p. 121).

Between c. 1650 and c. 1800, for example, British slave ships brought an estimated 1.5 million slaves to the British West Indies, but at the end of that time the slave population there stood at only about 500,000. In the American South, by contrast, where conditions were better and where women and children were in higher demand for lighter duties (such as domestic service), reproduction outpaced mortality beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, so that fewer slaves needed to be imported. Only in the early nineteenth century did the West Indian slave population’s reproductive rate begin to approach its death rate.

The British antislavery movement

Significant opposition to slavery did not arise in Britain until near the end of the eighteenth century, when the abolitionist leaders William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, together with their supporters, founded the Anti-Slavery Society in 1787. Opposing the abolitionists was the powerful lobby known as the West Indian Interest, a coalition of planters, merchants, and proslavery politicians. With Wilberforce leading the way in the British Parliament, after decades of political struggle the abolition movement achieved two major victories: first, in 1807 Parliament abolished the British slave trade; second, in 1834 Parliament abolished slavery itself on British territory, emancipating British slaves in the West Indies and elsewhere.

Cambridge takes place at an unspecified time between these two events, a period in which Wilberforce and others continued to press for emancipation. Wilberforce’s 1823 pamphlet “An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire, in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies” outlines the abuses of slavery and raises many issues touched on in the novel:

  • Wilberforce argues that the slaves remain “under-fed and over-worked,” lacking “due medical care and medical comforts,” and still suffering “a progressive decrease by mortality” (Wilberforce, pp. 7, 8). The white doctor in the novel, by contrast, claims that “lazy” slaves feign illness in order to “lie at ease in the sick-house” (Cambridge, p. 34).
  • Wilberforce objects to “the driving system” employed on the plantations, in which a black “driver,” a slave elevated by the white manager to a position of authority, uses a whip—“a dreadful instrument of punishment”—to force a gang of his fellow slaves to work harder (Wilberforce, pp. 12-13). The novel’s main conflict, between the slave Cambridge and the manager Mr. Brown, arises when Cambridge refuses Brown’s request that he act as Head Driver.
  • Wilberforce calls “absenteeship”—that is, the ownership of the plantations by Englishmen who never live in or even visit the West Indies—“perhaps one of the most injurious” aspects of the British system, because it allows the other abuses to continue unchecked (Wilberforce, p. 27). In the novel Emily’s father is an absentee owner, and she decries the practice, writing home repeatedly in hopes of persuading him to visit his estate.
  • The proslavery forces repeatedly claim, writes Wilberforce, “that these poor degraded beings, the Negro slaves, are as well or even better off than our British peasantry; a proposition so monstrous that nothing can possibly exhibit in a stronger light the extreme force of the prejudices which must exist in the minds of its asserters” (Wilberforce, pp. 33-34). In the novel Emily makes precisely this claim as her exposure to slavery’s degradation hardens her own prejudices: “If I were to be asked if I should enter life anew as an English labourer or a West Indian slave I should have no hesitation in opting for the latter” (Cambridge, p. 42).

Worst of all, according to Wilberforce, is the complete lack of “religious and moral instruction among the slaves” (Wilberforce, p. 19). Wilberforce was an Evangelical Christian whose anti-slavery views were rooted in his passionate religious convictions. In the novel Cambridge’s own story underscores the strong historical link in Britain between Evangelical Christianity, which underwent a major revival in the early nineteenth century, and the antislavery movement. Cambridge himself becomes an Evangelical Christian after being brought to England, receives “a Christian education” before being freed, and returns to Africa as a Christian missionary, hoping to convert those “in my unchristian native land” (Cambridge, pp. 144, 154).

British society, colonial society, and slave society

After victory over the French emperor Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, Britain’s national pride ran high and its mastery of the seas was unchallenged. Naval dominance boosted the British economy, opening new markets for British goods throughout the world—especially textiles, which the Industrial Revolution now allowed British weavers to make more cheaply in Britain than elsewhere. Having begun in British textile manufacturing in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution would soon spread throughout the British economy, making Britain the first nation to change from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing one. These developments ultimately brought greater freedom and new political power to a broader part of the population, as Britain took the first steps towards social reform and universal suffrage. Historians see the Reform Bill of 1832, which doubled the number of men eligible to vote in British elections, as an early sign of this new democratic spirit.

As the limited focus of the Reform Bill suggests, however, not all Britons were immediately included in the political and social reforms. While the Reform Bill expanded voting rights, it extended the vote only from upper-class men to some middle-class men, about 1 million voters in all: working-class men and all women remained disenfranchised. These groups were socially repressed as well as politically marginalized, and in the novel both Emily Cartwright and Cambridge object to the deference that, as a woman and a freed black slave respectively, they are constantly expected to show in British society. Society generally demanded that women defer to their fathers and later their husbands, and that middle-and upper-class women limit their activities to the household. In the novel, Emily’s father has arranged for her to marry an older, wealthy man whom she has never met, an arrangement she bitterly complains about but with which she plans to comply. This was the dawning though, of advocacy on behalf of women’s rights; they were increasingly being considered in public debate, and Emily’s hopes for a writing career accurately reflect a climate that, a few decades later, would result in the onset of the Women’s Suffrage movement in Britain. By contrast, the racism that Cambridge encounters in Britain (for example, he and his white wife are ostracized by the townspeople after settling in a small English village) would remain more firmly entrenched despite legal and political reforms. In an interview Caryl Phillips has commented on the irony of a situation in which racial prejudices are held by Emily, a woman of her times who herself objects to the prospect of “a life sacrificed to the prejudices which despise my sex” (Cambridge, p. 113).

White society in the plantation colonies was isolated and often reactionary; it generally lagged behind the social changes that occurred at home. Cultural institutions were sparse and the white population largely transient, especially after profits declined in the 1820s. With the end of the British slave trade, the cost of slaves from other sources than British ships had nearly tripled. Combined with depressed sugar prices, higher costs drove a number of plantations into poverty. The rise of absenteeism—between the 1760s and the 1820s the proportion of plantations owned by absent landlords rose from about one-third to about two-thirds—meant that many were run by managers who were young, single men. White female company was rare, so that the planter, regarding female slaves as property to do with as he pleased, often engaged in sexual liaisons with slave women, as the manager Mr. Brown does in Cambridge. “Faced with conditions such as these,” writes one historian, “it was not remarkable if planters sank into torpor, and spent too many evenings drinking alone”—a picture reflected by the uncouth Mr. Brown (Ward, p. 266).

The slaves themselves most often lived in small villages on or near the plantation, as described in the novel by Emily and Cambridge. It was the owner’s responsibility to care for and feed the slaves, whose living conditions varied somewhat according to the owner’s or manager’s character. Minimum standards were specified by law, but slaves on owner-operated plantations were generally better cared for than those on absentee-owned estates. Particularly after the end of the British slave trade, slaves were encouraged to cultivate their own food and to live in family units, practices that were seen as “producing healthy, fertile, and contented slaves” (Craton in Beckles, p. 235). Slave marriages were generally informal arrangements, unsanctified by the church, as Cambridge’s is to his second wife, the slave woman Christiania, in the novel. The Anglican Church, which until 1827 was the only church in which formal weddings could occur under law, made no attempt to convert slaves to Christianity. In the novel Cambridge, echoing Wilberforce’s complaint quoted above, is contemptuous of an Anglican priest who has no interest in the slaves’ religious beliefs.

Both among themselves and by whites, slaves were divided into two classes, Africans (those born in Africa) and Creoles (those born under slavery in the New World). By the time of the novel Africans were numerically few, and Creole slave culture, more closely modeled on European cultural patterns, predominated. Yet many African cultural traits persisted, and within the slave society Africans tended to be chosen over Creoles for positions of leadership or authority, as Cambridge is in the novel. Of surviving African folkways, the most important were in the related areas of medicine and religion. The two areas blended together in the practice of obeah, the Caribbean slaves’ African-based folk religion. In the novel Cambridge’s second wife Christiania is an “obeah woman,” a healer and occult practitioner whose powers cause other slaves to fear her (Cambridge, p. 74).

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The main body of the novel is narrated in two first-person accounts: the first and longer of the two is cast as the journal of the young Englishwoman Emily Cartwright; the second is a shorter statement made by Cambridge. A third section of just a few pages takes the form of a lurid, journalistic account, perhaps from a newspaper, of the conflict between the manager Mr. Brown and the “insane” slave Cambridge (Cambridge, p. 171). These three nineteenth-century voices are framed by a Prologue and an Epilogue, both presented in modern, contemporary language.


In West African folklore the obeah is a huge animal that, under a shaman’s control, sneaks into villages and kidnaps young girls. In West Indian slave culture, the term was extended to designate the slaves’ shamanic fotk religion as a whole, Obeah practitioners functioned as healers and priests, though the white slaveowner associated them with superstition, witch craft, and poison. Indeed, obeah constituted one of the slaves’ scant retaliatory recourses; obeah practitioners were known to corse whites, and even poison them (in Cambridge the obeah woman Christiania utters spells against Emily Cartwright). Obeah also served as a rallying point for more direct slave resistance, as when obea h men led the 1760 Tacky Rebellion in Jamaica.

Emily’s journal opens as she and her maid Isabella embark on their voyage to the West Indies, where Emily’s father has sent her to report on the state of his sugar plantation. On her return her father has arranged for her to marry a wealthy man some 30 years for her senior, whom she has never met. Emily’s discomfort during the sea voyage is compounded by grief and loneliness when Isabella dies only a few days after they set sail from England.

Arriving on the island, Emily finds that Mr. Wilson, her father’s plantation manager, has mysteriously disappeared and has been replaced by a subordinate, Mr. Brown, whose coarse manners shock her. However, before she can make any inquiries she falls ill with fever. After a severe month-long illness, she takes as her new maid the estate’s housekeeper, a slave named Stella, who has tenderly nursed Emily back to health. She also meets Mr. McDonald, the local physician. Her health recovered, Emily questions Mr. McDonald and Stella closely about the circumstances in which the plantation’s slaves live and work. With Stella as her guide, she begins to explore the plantation. While walking through the grounds she is appalled to encounter Mr. Brown ruthlessly whipping “a black Hercules of


“A central concern in Phillips’s later novels has to do with loss of speech, and distortions of self ihrough borrowed languages Cambridge (f99f), seeksfsl to re-fashion and re-enter varieties, of voices and written language, and ID show characters who struggle to communicate through them, or whose vision is obscyred throygh the language they attempt to use.”

(Lee, p. 26)

a brute,” an older man who despite the whipping “steadfastly refused to flinch away” (Cambridge, pp. 41-42). She learns later that the aged slave’s name is Cambridge.

On her first evening at the Great House (the common term for a plantation’s main residence), Emily had been irked by the inappropriate presence at the dining table of a strangely bold black woman, to whom Stella, though nominally in charge of the household, seemed to defer. While ill Emily had dined alone in her room. Now rejoining Mr. Brown at dinner, she is again offended by the unaccountable presence at the table of “the same insolent negro woman,” whose name is Christiania (Cambridge, p. 58). Emily’s attempts to make the slave woman leave escalate into a shouting match when Christiania refuses, claiming that Mr. Brown (who is absent when the altercation takes place) has allowed her at the table. After Emily flees from this disconcerting and humiliating situation, Stella tells her that Christiania is an obeah woman, an occult practitioner whose powers make the other slaves fear and respect her. Emily also suspects that Brown has been enjoying a sexual relationship with Christiania, which explains her presence at the table. Emily orders Brown to keep the woman away, and Christiania no longer appears at the table.

Subsequently Emily finds a new closeness developing between herself and the increasingly attentive Brown, as he walks the estate with her and explains the process of growing the sugarcane and extracting the sugar from it. He also defends his brutal punishment of the slaves as the only way to keep them from rebelling, a concern that he says was underestimated by the lax Mr. Wilson, whom he also accuses of stealing from the estate.

At the same time, to her growing alarm, Emily repeatedly discovers Christiania muttering imprecations and scratching symbols in the dirt at night under Emily’s window. Only Cambridge seems to have any influence over the woman, and he is appointed to stand watch at Emily’s bedroom at night. Emily is surprised to find him— a supposedly uneducated heathen slave—reading the Bible as he does so. When she quizzes him about it, his self-assured response seems to lack suitable deference, offending her.

Emily’s relationship with Mr. Brown, whom she begins calling “Arnold” in her narrative, becomes more intimate. One day they return from a picnic to find Cambridge charged with stealing meat from the kitchen, “an opportunity,” Emily says, “for the testing of Arnold’s theories on negro punishment” (Cambridge, p. 111). Brown goes to confront Cambridge with the accusation and returns enraged, claiming that the slave has attacked him. Several weeks later, as Brown considers Cambridge’s punishment, Christiania disappears, creating a second topic for gossip among both whites and blacks on the plantation. Adding to the increasing tension, Mr. Wilson suddenly reappears and appeals to Emily, claiming that he stole nothing from the estate, and that “his only crime” in running the plantation was to pursue “the maximum profit compatible with humane decency” in his treatment of the slaves (Cambridge, p. 125).

Unsure of how to handle the matter, Emily collapses emotionally and physically, fearing that Mr. Brown will abandon her if she takes Wilson’s side (we later learn that their relationship has progressed to one of sexual intimacy and that she is in fact carrying Brown’s child). A final journal entry on Christmas Day relates starkly that Brown has been killed, ambushed by Cambridge while returning from church, and that Cambridge himself has been hanged for the murder. As Mr. McDonald attends her bedside, Emily records that Wilson has resumed his old position as manager. Ashamed for reasons she does not specify, she fears her father’s arrival will result in “a major scandal” (Cambridge, p. 128).

Cambridge’s statement, at just over 30 pages about one-quarter the length of Emily’s narrative, purports to be recorded as he awaits execution. Aside from his “true Guinea name, Olumide,” Cambridge remembers little of his early life on the Guinea coast of West Africa, just a vague impression of loving parents before his abduction, at about age 15, by African slave traders who sold him to the English (Cambridge, p. 134). Turned over to the mysterious “men of no color,” he and his fellow captives wonder if they are going to be eaten (Cambridge, p. 135). Cambridge survives the harsh Middle Passage, arriving in the Carolinas, from where, having been sold to a London sea captain, he immediately sails for England. During this journey a kindly English clerk teaches him a little English, introduces him to Christianity, and persuades him to answer to his new name as a slave, Thomas.

For most of the next decade he lives in London, serving his master, a retired slave ship captain (the narrative fixes this time as shortly after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807). At the same time, with his master’s approval, he studies English and the Bible under an Evangelical Christian, Miss Spencer. Taking the name David Henderson, he eventually marries a fellow servant in the household, a Christian Englishwoman named Anna. Freed after his master’s death, at Miss Spencer’s suggestion Cambridge travels the country with his white wife. As David Henderson, he lectures on Christian salvation and the evils of slavery. After Anna dies, Miss Spencer suggests that Cambridge extend his Christian mission to his native Africa, but en route to Africa Cambridge is robbed and enslaved by the ship’s corrupt captain. He again finds himself in chains, enduring the psychological and physical traumas of the Middle Passage—which are made all the worse by his continuing grief for Anna, and his deep indignation at his treatment as a free English Christian. This time he arrives in the West Indies, where he is purchased by Mr. Wilson, who gives him the name Cambridge.

As the years pass Cambridge at first holds out hope of achieving freedom and returning to his former life in England. Forming a bond with a strange and unpopular slave girl whose sufferings have left her mentally ill, he eventually takes her as his wife, giving her the name Christiania. When Brown replaces Wilson as the plantation’s manager, Cambridge’s dignified demeanor provokes Brown’s bullying, and Cambridge relates how Brown eventually takes out his anger at Cambridge by repeatedly forcing himself on the increasingly deranged Christiania. This escalating


How real was the threat raised in the novel by the plantation manager Mr. Brown, of slaves fomenting a rebellion around the time of the novel? Slaves of the region launched a successful revolution in French-controlled Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791, so the fear was well-founded. British-controlled areas in the region would not experience a similarly successful revolution. In St. Kitts and the other Leeward islands, white society prevented slaves from associating with one another and from challenging it, which kept the slaves divided, weak, and unable to mount a large-scale rebellion, They, however, did plan insurrections, including one on St. Kitts in 1778, whose perpetrators intended “to murder the Inhabitants, to deliver the island to the French, or any Persons who would make them Free (Goveia, p, 95), Elsewhere, in Barbados, Demerara, and Jamaica, rebellions broke out in 1816, 1829, and 1831, respectively. The Barbados rebellion seems to have been part of a new pattern of rebellions aimed at forcing local governing assemblies to implement reforms which were suspected by slaves of having been ordered by Great Britain” (Beckles and Shepherd, p. 383),

conflict sets the stage for their violent confrontation after Cambridge is accused of theft (he presents his act as borrowing). In the ensuing struggle, Brown is killed. Cambridge now awaits his execution for Brown’s death.

Part III relates these events in sensational journalistic style from the perspective of the white West Indian slaveowner. Brown’s sexual predation of Christiania is called “an innocent amour,” like that carried out by “many other white men on this island,” while Cambridge’s marriage with her is labeled the “fanciful notions of a Christian life of moral and domestic responsibility which he, in common with his fellow slaves, was congenitally unsuited to” (Cambridge, pp. 171-72). The account ends with Cambridge’s trial, hanging, and gibbeting (the display of an executed criminal’s body). In the Epilogue we learn that Emily, having lost Brown’s child in childbirth, lives in disgrace and poverty off the plantation. Cared for by the loyal Stella and supported by the charity of the slaves who live nearby, she hopes only for a quick death.

Levels of racism

In its opening pages the novel makes explicit reference to the changing political atmosphere that permitted the abolitionists to prevail over the planters’ coalition. Emily Cartwright’s father owns a large plantation that he has never visited, and may be presumed to belong to the West Indian Interest, the political lobby opposing the abolitionists. As she sets out on her voyage to survey the estate on her father’s behalf, Emily has the following hope:

Perhaps my adventuring will encourage Father to accept the increasingly common, though abstract, English belief in the iniquity of slavery. It is increasingly … argued with much vigour, that the lordship over one’s own person is a blessing far beyond mere food and shelter.

(Cambridge, pp. 7-8)

Yet her exposure to slavery’s degradation soon modifies the liberal outlook with which she began her journey. Within days of arriving, she concludes that the antislavery movement has in fact been misguided in assuming that the slaves would value freedom: “It would appear that Mr Wilberforce and his like have been volleying well wide of the mark, for the greatest fear of the black is not having a master who they know they can turn to in times of strife” (Cambridge, p. 37). Soon after that, she writes to her father suggesting that on her return she undertake a lecture tour and a writing career in support of slavery.

Actually Emily reveals a tendency to racial prejudice before her shift from opposing slavery to supporting it. As soon as she lands on the island, she shows a willingness to accept the white racism that prevails there: “Generally speaking, the lighter the shade of black, the nearer to salvation and acceptability was the negro. A milkier hue signified some form of white blood, and it should be clear to even the most egalitarian observer that the more white blood flowing in a person’s veins, the less barbarous will be his social tendencies” (Cambridge, p. 25). Later Emily endorses similar views that she hears expressed by the “intelligent and humane” Mr. McDonald (Cambridge, p. 33). She calls him “a man of impartial mind” because he argues against those who believe that Africans are inhuman, though he at the same time maintains their “self-evident inferiority” and inherent suitability for labor under the superior and more civilized white Europeans (Cambridge, p. 35).

Two levels of racism are thus at work: the prevalent strong form, which holds that blacks are subhuman (a common belief was that, like animals, they did not possess souls); and the more “intelligent and humane” racism that accepts blacks’ humanity but still maintains their inferiority to whites. This last is the racism held by McDonald and Emily, who look down on the other form as unenlightened. Yet there were a few white voices in the early nineteenth century that rejected racism in whatever form it took. Often they were the voices of Nonconformist (Non-Anglican) Christians, such as the Quakers in both England and America, who in the late eighteenth century began condemning slavery and proclaiming the equality of blacks in the eyes of God. In his 1823 pamphlet Wilberforce too explicitly attacks racism, which he refers to as a “contemptuous aversion to the Negro race” found “in the minds of Europeans in general” (Wilberforce, p. 9).

Sources and literary context

Phillips has explained that the inspiration for Cambridge came to him in the British Library in London, where he discovered the Journal of a Lady of Quality, an account by a Scottish woman named Janet Schaw of her trip from Edinburgh to the Caribbean in the early nineteenth century. She went, in fact, to Phillips’s native St. Kitts, and Phillips realized that his brother had once lived next door to the ruins of the Great House at which Schaw recorded attending a large formal dinner. In recreating the experiences of both Emily and Cambridge, Phillips relied heavily on similar historical documents, often incorporating substantial portions of text word for word. Emily’s narrative draws on the published accounts such as Matthew Gregory (“Monk”) Lewis’s Journal of a West Indian Proprietor (pub. 1834) and Lady Nu-gent’s Journal of her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805, among several others, while Cambridge’s statement is closely modeled on the popular autobiography of the African-born abolitionist and former slave Olaudah Equiano (1750-97). Critic Evelyn O’Callaghan has suggested that by incorporating such verbal echoes and structural parallels, the novel attempts “to interrogate and, possibly, rewrite the European record of the West Indies” (O’Callaghan, p. 34).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Immigration and racism in Britain

After World War II, leaders in the West Indies and elsewhere in the British Empire increasingly demanded the right of self-government. In the Leeward Islands, the subsequent process of decolonization resulted in the creation of the independent West Indies Federation in 1958. However, economic problems caused massive emigration, mostly to Britain. In 1962 the federation was replaced by the West Indies Associated States, in which the individual states (Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts-Nevis and Anguilla, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent) retained internal self-government, but voluntarily gave Britain authority over foreign affairs, defense, and fiscal policy. The associated states each achieved full independence in the 1970s and early 1980s, except for Anguilla, which opted to remain under British control.

Meanwhile, the British government had promoted immigration under the 1948 British Nationality Act, which permitted citizens of Commonwealth nations to settle in Britain as a way of ameliorating a shortage of labor in the expanding postwar economy. By the late 1950s, however, racial hostility from the white British population had become front-page news. In the summer of 1958, for example, violent riots erupted between crowds of mutually antagonistic whites and blacks in London’s Notting Hill area. Such events made immigration a burning political issue. Meanwhile, newcomers continued to arrive, so that by 1962 over 300,000 black West Indians had immigrated to Britain, Caryl Phillips’s family among them. In that year the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants’ Act removed the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens to settle in Britain, a reversal that many observers have seen as aimed at excluding blacks from immigrating to Britain.

Race relations continued to be a divisive problem in Britain into the 1990s, aggravated by events that had transpired since but dating back to the developments at mid century. As one historian noted in 1988, “the decade between 1948 and 1958 was formative in the development of Britain’s modern race relations, and the seeds of many of today’s conflicts and challenges were sown then” (Pilkington in Panayi, p. 172).


Critics almost uniformly applauded Cambridge, singling out Phillips’s sensitive recreation of the nineteenth-century voices—one female and upper-class, one enslaved and Evangelical Christian—which tell the bulk of the story. While praising the book as “a virtuoso exercise in narrative voice,” Rita Ciresi sounded a dissonant note, finding that the story “loses some of its emotional grip” when the focus shifts to


Cambridge’s story closely parallels that of Olaudah Equiano whose autobiography, published posthumously in 1798, was a bestseller in Britain in the early nineteenth century. Like Cambridge (whose original name, Olumide, recalls Equiano’s first name), Equiano was born in Africa, captured as a boy, en slaved under various names, converted to Christianity, and freed. Also like Cambridge, Equiano married an Englishwoman and traveled in England lecturing against slavery. Throughout the novel, Phillips paraphrases or quotes verbatim from Equiano’s writings and other historical sources, as when Cambridge Is reenslaved while returning to Africa:

  • CAMBRIDGE: My former passage rose in dreadful review and showed only misery, stripes and chains. In one moment of weakness I called upon God’s thunderous avenging power to direct the sudden state of death to myself, rather than permit me to become a slave and be passed from the hand of one man to another…
  • EQUIANO: My former slavery now rose in dreadful review to my mind, and displayed nothing but misery, stripes, and chains; and, in the first paroxysm of my grief, I called upon God’s thunder and his avenging power to direct the stroke of death to me rather than permit me to become a slave, and be sold from lord to lord,

(Adapted from Q’Callaghan, pp. 34-47)

Cambridge himself (Ciresi, p. 127). Yet Maya Jaggi found Cambridge “a masterfully sustained, exquisitely crafted novel” that achieves “a profound marriage of stylistic virtuosity and artistic purpose,” writing in the Times Literary Supplement that it “offers a startling anatomy of the age of slavery and of the prejudices that were necessary to sustain it” (Jaggi, p. 10). Another critic found that “Events and ideas matter in this fictional world, but not as much as the humanity, with all its depths and nuances, of the characters,” going on to assert that with Cambridge, Caryl Phillips “takes a firm step towards joining the company of the literary giants of our time” (Garrett, p. 1).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Beckles, Hilary, and Verene Shepherd, eds. Caribbean Slave Society and Economy. London: James Currey, 1991.

Ciresi, Rita. Review of Cambridge, by Caryl Phillips. Library journal 117 (1 February 1992): 127.

Garrett, George. Review of Cambridge, by Caryl Phillips. New York Times Book Review, 16 February 1992, 1.

Goveia, Elsa V. Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1965.

Harrison, Brian. Peaceable Kingdom: Stability and Change in Modern Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Jaggi, Maya. Review of Cambridge, by Caryl Phillips. Times Literary Supplement, 15 March 1991, 10.

Lee, A. Robert. Other Britain, Other British: Contemporary Multicultural Fiction. London: Pluto, 1995.

O’Callaghan, Evelyn. “Historical Fiction and Fictional History: Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge.” journal of Commonwealth Literature 39, no. 2 (1993): 34-47.

Panayi, Panikos. Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Leicester University Press, 1996.

Phillips, Caryl. Cambridge. London: Bloomsbury, 1991.

Solow, Barbara L., and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Ward, J. R. British West Indian Slavery, 1750-1834: The Process of Amelioration. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Wilberforce, William. “An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire, in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies.” In Slavery in the West Indies. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.


views updated May 18 2018


CAMBRIDGE , English university city. Cambridge harbored a fairly important Jewish community in medieval times though the report that it dates from 1073 is unfounded. The original synagogue, already apparently disused, was assigned to the Franciscans in 1244. Nearly 50 householders figure in the Cambridge Jewry lists during the period from 1224 to 1240. In 1266 during the Barons' Wars, a band of "Disinherited Knights" carried off the *archa and held some of the community's wealthier members to ransom. In 1275 Edward i empowered his mother, Eleanor of Provence, to banish all Jews from her dower-towns, including Cambridge. The community was ultimately sent to Huntingdon. Magister Benjamin, whose house on the site of the present Guildhall was granted to the town by the king in 1224 as a jail, was an early Cambridge Jewish notable. He is to be identified with R. Benjamin of Kantabria (קנטבריא; *Benjamin of Cambridge). In the 16th century, the university records list two converted Jewish teachers: John Immanuel *Tremellius of Ferrara (1510–1580), "King's Reader of Hebrew" in 1549, and Philip Ferdinand, originally from Poland, who published Haec sunt verba Dei (Cambridge, 1597). After the Resettlement the names of a number of Jewish teachers are known. These include: Isaac *Abendana; Isaac Lyons, a silversmith, who gave Hebrew lessons to members of the university (1732–1770); Joseph *Crool (c. 1812–1837); and Herman Bernard (formerly Hurwitz; 1837–1857). S. *Schiller-Szinessy taught talmudic literature (1869–1890) and S. *Schechter acted in a similar capacity (1891–1901). He was succeeded by Israel *Abrahams and the latter in 1931 by H.M.J. *Loewe. Hebrew manuscripts collected by the Dutch Orientalist Thomas Erpennius (1584–1624) were donated to the university library in 1632, and in 1647–48 the collection of Hebrew books of the Italian rabbi Isaac Faragi was bought by parliamentary vote. The Hebrew manuscripts in the university library are estimated at more than 3,000, including the unique collection of the Taylor-Schechter Cairo *Genizah fragments. It attracts Jewish scholars from all over the world, and many significant works of Jewish scholarship are based on its material. Trinity College has the Aldis Wright Collection of Hebraica and there are a number of Genizah fragments in Westminster College. Until 1856 religious tests prevented Jews from obtaining degrees, though not from studying at the university. There have since been many Jewish teachers and fellows and a high number of Jewish undergraduates. Toward the middle of the 18th century, a short-lived Jewish community existed. It was reestablished in 1847 and again in 1888. In 1908, when Selig *Brodetsky, a young Jewish immigrant from London's East End, was bracketed senior wrangler (the highest-ranking student in the university's mathematics examinations, a very prestigious result), a sensation was created in the Jewish East End. A significant number of Jews have been elected to the Cambridge Apostles, the semi-secret discussion society, among them Leonard *Woolf, Victor Rothschild, and Eric *Hobsbawm, while five Jews served as presidents of the Cambridge Union Debating Society between 1850 (before practicing Jews could not yet graduate from Cambridge) and 1952. In 1968 the number of residents was small and the congregation was supported almost entirely by students. As of the mid-1990s the Jewish community consisted of approximately 500 permanent residents and a similar number of students. By the early 21st century there were believed to be about 850 Jews in Cambridge, of whom about 500 were students. An Orthodox and Reform synagogue existed. William Frankel and Harvey Miller, eds., Gown and Tallith (1989) contains many essays on Jews at Cambridge University.


H.P. Stokes, Studies in Anglo-Jewish History (1913), 103–240; Rigg-Jenkinson, Exchequer, index; Abrahams, in: jhset, 8 (1915–17), 63–77, 98–121; idem, in: jhsem, 1 (1925); J. Jacobs, Jews of Angevin England (1950), 4, 222, 374–5; C. Roth, Rise of Provincial Jewry (1950), 42–46; idem, England, index. add. bibliography: R.C. Dobson, "The Jews of Medieval Cambridge," in: tjhse, 32 (1990–92), 1–24; R. Deacon, The Cambridge Apostles (1985); M. Jolles, A Directory of Distinguished British Jews, 1830–1930 (2002), 141–45. Under 'canterbury': M. Jolles, Samuel Isaac, Saul Isaac and Nathaniel Isaacs (1998).

[Cecil Roth (2nd ed.)]


views updated Jun 27 2018


CAMBRIDGE, a town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony originally known as Newtowne, was settled in 1630 by a group of seven hundred Puritans from England who were determined to create a pure religious foundation in the New World. Originally governed by John Winthrop, who abandoned the town for Boston, Newtowne was a well-organized town, with a system of streets laid out in a grid pattern, including a marketplace, Winthrop Square.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the town was bounded by Eliot Square, Linden Street, Massachusetts Avenue, and the Charles River. In 1636, Harvard College was founded to educate young men in the ministry. By the time of the American Revolution, Cambridge had become a farming community, but after the fighting began on 19 April 1775, more than twenty thousand armed militia members from New England arrived in Cambridge. Soldiers, including George Washington's army, camped on the Cambridge Commons and were quartered in the Harvard College buildings until April 1776.

In 1846, Cambridge became a city, unifying three towns: rural Old Cambridge; residential Cambridgeport, home to William Lloyd Garrison; and East Cambridge, developed in 1809 after the completion of the Canal Bridge. This town would be the chief industrial center of the city until the 1880s. The growth of urban housing and the influx of eastern European and Irish immigrants, as well as the construction of the East Cambridge jail, led to an impetus for prison reform, with Dorothea Dix at the forefront of this movement. Cambridge has always been an innovator, including the integration of its school system, which enticed many African Americans to move there. Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ran a boardinghouse in the 1870s in Cambridge.

Twenty-first-century Cambridge has retained its charm and maintains a culturally diverse population of approximately ninety-five thousand. Home to Harvard, Radcliffe, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Lesley College, Cambridge attracts students from all over the world and has become a center for biotechnology and software research.


Burton, John Daniel. Puritan Town and Gown: Harvard College and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 16361800. Ph.D. diss. Williamsburg, Va.: College of William and Mary, 1996.

———. "The Awful Judgements of God upon the Land: Smallpox in Colonial Cambridge." New England Quarterly 74 (September 2001): 495–507.

Paige, Lucius R. History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630–1877. Boston: Houghton, 1877. Rev. ed. 1930.


See alsoHarvard University ; Massachusetts Bay Colony .


views updated May 14 2018

Cambridge City on the River Cam, county town of Cambridgeshire, e England. The University of Cambridge is one of the world's leading institutions. Industries: precision engineering, electronics, printing, publishing. Pop. (2002 est.) 99,900.

About this article

Cambridge (Canada)

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic