In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Caribbean/West Indies

  • Introduction
  • Literary History
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Anthologies and Digital Collections

Victorian Literature Caribbean/West Indies
Carolyn Vellenga Berman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0209


The West Indian islands circling the Caribbean Sea—and other nearby colonies—were a key locus of the British Empire. They were also a major source of wealth for Great Britain from the 17th century until the early 19th century. As historians have shown, the Atlantic trade furnishing slave labor for plantations was a generator of capital, enabling the British transition to an industrial economy. But the dependence of Caribbean colonies and the British government on slavery and the African slave trade was also a source of anxiety and national shame. A series of colonial rebellions, revolution in Haiti, and the rise of an antislavery movement in the United Kingdom culminated in the parliamentary prohibition of the trade in 1807 and the subsequent emancipation of all those enslaved in British colonies (passed in 1833, but not effective until 1838). By this law, reparative payments were made not to the enslaved but to their former “owners,” including many in the highest ranks of government. In subsequent decades, the British navy’s rebranding as an antislavery force ironically offered an alibi for colonization in Africa. Even as sugar production migrated elsewhere, rivalries with other imperial powers and the replacement of emancipated laborers by the transportation of South Asian workers kept the Caribbean closely entwined with the expanding British Empire. Complex struggles between local and imperial rule arose in the violent suppression of an 1865 uprising in Jamaica; the restriction of local self-governance; and the establishment of “free” trade networks bypassing the colonies. Long neglected in both histories of 19th-century British literature (as a distant outpost) and in Caribbean literature (as colonial, often expressing pro-slavery views), early anglophone Caribbean literature is now coming into the forefront, recognized as containing the seeds of a future Caribbean literature as well as major features of a globalizing Victorian literature. British writers of the 19th century repeatedly turned to “Creole” characters (those raised in the Caribbean) and West Indian settings to canvas not only geopolitics, but also sex, gender, race, class, labor, national governance, and ideas of freedom. Meanwhile, writers in the region developed distinctive perspectives. This entry focuses on anglophone writing in and about the Caribbean, although literary production in French and Spanish was more widespread in the region. This body of literature allows scholars and students to reckon with the legacies of slavery, the blurring of national and linguistic borders, and voices previously excluded or marginalized in the isolationist view of Victorian literature—including authors of African, South Asian, East Asian, Irish, Scottish, English, Jewish, and Indigenous descent in the anglophone Caribbean.

Literary History

Once viewed as marginal to histories of British, American, or even postcolonial literature, the history of 19th-century anglophone Caribbean literature has come into its own in recent decades. O’Callaghan and Watson 2020 marks the culmination of this work, offering a gateway to the field along with major scholarly collections such as Arnold, et al. 1994–1997 as well as Aljoe, et al. 2018. Important monographs tracing the literary history of the region include James 1999, James 2002, Cudjoe 2003, and Dalleo 2011, which offers a comparative context on the multilingual Caribbean. The relation of anglophone Caribbean and British literature is clarified by examining the sociolinguistic history in Roberts 1997. The larger context of the evolving British Empire in relation to the Caribbean is scrutinized in Watson 2008 and Taylor 2018. On the relation of Caribbean to British Victorian literature, see Edmondson 1998 (under Sex, Gender, and Empire). See also Smith 2023 (under Caribbean Americas.)

  • Aljoe, Nicole N., Brycchan Carey, and Thomas W. Krise, eds. Literary Histories of the Early Anglophone Caribbean: Islands in the Stream. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    Collection of essays offers a fruitful critical context for early anglophone Caribbean literature. Most of the essays examine writing before the Victorian period; see chapter 8 by Candace Ward and Tim Watson on early-19th-century fiction.

  • Arnold, A. James, Julio Rodríguez-Luis, and J. Michael Dash. A History of Literature in the Caribbean. 3 vols. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1994–1997.

    DOI: 10.1075/chlel.x

    Extensive collection of essays on literature in all Caribbean languages. See Volume 2 on anglophone literature, including essays on language use in West Indian literature, the literatures of Trinidad and Jamaica, Guyanese identities, and theater in the anglophone Caribbean.

  • Cudjoe, Selwyn R. Beyond Boundaries: The Intellectual Tradition of Trinidad and Tobago in the Nineteenth Century. Wellesley, MA: Calaloux, 2003.

    Major literary history of Trinidad and Tobago across all genres, including fiction, drama, poetry, and travel narratives. Offers analysis of authors such as John Jacob Thomas and the cultural practices of Carnival. On Joseph’s Warner Arundell, see pp. 68–87.

  • Dalleo, Raphael. Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere: From the Plantation to the Postcolonial. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011.

    Comparison of anglophone, francophone, and hispanophone literature in the Caribbean from the early 19th century to the present. Includes writing from Barbados, Bermuda, Guyana, and Jamaica, with works by Mary Prince, Mary Seacole, and Michel Maxwell Philip.

  • James, Cynthia. The Maroon Narrative: Caribbean Literature in English across Boundaries, Ethnicities, and Centuries. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002.

    Literary history considering anglophone Caribbean writing together with literary representations of the Caribbean in English from the 17th century to the present. See chapter 4, “Nineteenth-Century Narratives.”

  • James, Louis. Caribbean Literature in English. London: Longman, 1999.

    Thoughtful history of anglophone Caribbean literature, attentive to commonalities and discrepancies in the region. See Part 1, “Distorting Mirrors: The Slave Era,” and Part 2, “Anancy’s Web: The Caribbean Archipelago.”

  • O’Callaghan, Evelyn, and Tim Watson, ed. Caribbean Literature in Transition. Vol. 1, 1800–1920. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

    Collection of essays by top scholars in the field. An essential resource on Caribbean literature in the Victorian period.

  • Roberts, Peter. From Oral to Literate Culture: Colonial Experience in the English West Indies. Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1997.

    Sociolinguistic history of West Indian English in relation to other languages, including British varieties of English. Useful on sources of distinctive language as well as education, literacy, publishing, and cultural heterogeneity.

  • Taylor, Christopher. Empire of Neglect: The West Indies in the Wake of British Liberalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv11smtx3

    Examination of West Indian literature in the context of British imperial neglect after the emancipation of enslaved people. Considers key texts and voices, including Emmanuel Appadocca, The Trinidadian, Mary Seacole, and Anthony Trollope.

  • Watson, Tim. Caribbean Culture and British Fiction in the Atlantic World, 1780–1870. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    Fascinating study of Caribbean culture with British writing about the West Indies, focused on the two key moments of slave emancipation and the Morant Bay rebellion. In-depth consideration of neglected texts and British fiction. An earlier version of the reading of George Eliot’s Felix Holt as a response to Morant Bay is in Watson 1997 (under British Empire).

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