“My Master” : Interracial colonial encounters in Women Writers Online

“My Master” : Interracial colonial encounters in Women Writers Online

By Elizabeth Polcha, English Department PhD Candidate and WWP Research & Encoding Specialist

This publication set calls attention to the complexity of settler colonialism and imperialism in women’s writing between the early eighteenth and the mid nineteenth-centuries, particularly in regards to representations of interracial relations.

One of the earliest texts in this set, Elizabeth Hanson’s God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s Cruelty (1728), is a captivity narrative in which Hanson shows both gratitude and affection for the indigenous people who have taken her captive, particularly the man she refers to as “my Master”:

…in this Journey we went up some very high Mountains so steep, that I was forc’d to creep up on my Hands and Knees, under which Difficulty the Indian, my Master, would mostly carry my Babe for me, which I took as a great Favour of God that his Heart was so tenderly inclined to assist me

However, Hanson also details the many ways she is vulnerable to his means of bondage, such as in this passage:

my Master, being provoked, catches up a Stick very sharp at one End, and with great Violence threw it from him, at my Son, and hit him on the Breast, with which my Child was much bruised, and the Pain, with the Surpize, made him turn as pale as Death

In contrast to Hanson’s complicated relationship with her Master, Catherine Williams’ The Neutral French (1841) has a more aggressively hostile stance towards indigenous people, as the novel largely advocates for settler colonialism and perpetuates the myth of indigenous peoples as a vanishing race. Williams includes a footnote detailing her observations on interracial reproduction in a settlement in Nova Scotia:

In the former village, saw several pretty half-Indian girls, dressed in tolerable taste, and chattering in French. The females in this region paddle their canoes about without any fear, often in only a hollow log, called a Dug-out Standing up with straw hat, confined to the head by a narrow black string…In this guise, they will shoot a canoe through the rapids of the St. John with inimitable dexterity, and with as much ease as a boy would manage a wheelbarrow. There is a melancholy interest attached to these poor half-casts in the minds of reflecting persons, when we think of their origin, as most of them are descendants of wretched Acadian mothers, who threw themselves into the arms of savages to escape a worse fate.

Crossing the Atlantic to London, Eliza Hamilton’s orientalist epistolary novel, Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796), written from the perspective of a fictional Raja, showcases a white, European woman’s fantasy of colonial India. In this fantasy, the Raja has much admiration for English women’s prospects for education and marriage:

When the females of England have completed their education in these seats of science, these nurseries of wisdom, they come forth like the mother of Krishna, the torch of reason enlightening their minds, and the staff of knowledge supporting their virtue! In that enlightened country, a wife is the friend of her husband….these women are at liberty to choose, or to reject offers of marriage, and educated as they are, we may well suppose how wisely they will always choose!

These texts, and the rest of the collection will be free for the month of March in celebration of women’s history month. For more on getting started with WWO, see here.

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