Jane Eyre, Jamaica, and the Language of Rebellion

Jamaican House

Why was Bertha Mason “a fine woman, in the style of Blanche Ingram” in Jamaica and why did “all the men in her circle. . . admire her and envy [Rochester],” her suitor (Brontë 352)? How did her family have enough money (thirty thousand pounds!) to interest Rochester’s money-seeking father?

Nineteenth-century Jamaica was a British colony, where men like old Mr. Mason, a “West India planter and merchant,” would go to make their fortunes in the sugar industry (“Jamaica;” Brontë 351). The Masons’ mother was a Creole, a person of white European descent born in the Caribbean (“Creole”). Though Creoles could be of mixed heritage, young Mr. Mason’s description as “sallow” suggests that his mother was, at least, predominantly white; Jane’s description of Bertha as a “wild animal” with a “savage” and “purple face,” however, could suggest a more mixed background (Brontë 220, 327, 338). The whiteness of the Masons is important, as there was a distinct social hierarchy based on shade prejudice in Jamaica: the whiter you were, the higher your status (Gabriel 26-28). This explains why Bertha was the Blanche of Spanish Town – though she was not a member of British high society, her whiteness placed her at the top of Jamaican society.

But why would Charlotte Brontë include far-away Jamaica in a story about a young British governess?

Throughout its colonization, Jamaica was the site of numerous slave uprisings, including the largest slave uprising in the British West Indies. This rebellion, known as the Baptist War or Christmas Uprising of 1831, saw the deaths of hundreds of slaves – the darkest members of society, found at the bottom – and is considered one of the major causes of the total abolition of slavery in the British Empire (Andrews).

Now, it begins to come together.

Certainly, Brontë knew of these uprisings when she wrote Jane Eyre in 1847. Jane Eyre itself is full of the language of rebellion, and Jane continually finds herself in subservient positions. Even when leaving Lowood, she claims she only wishes to find “a new servitude” (Brontë 102). Jane’s story, then, is a story about “rebellions besides political rebellions [that] ferment in the masses of life” (Brontë 129). To Jane, a life of “custom” and “making puddings” – that is, the expected life of a nineteenth-century woman – would be a life of slavery, forcing her to “revolt against [her] lot” (Brontë 129-130). As the slaves in Jamaica rebelled and, eventually, won their freedom, so too does Jane continually rebel against society’s expectations for women, living instead as a “free human being with an independent will” (Brontë 293). Thus, the perhaps-small inclusion of Jamaica in the background of Jane Eyre subtly further emphasizes the theme of rebellion and revolution found throughout the novel.




Citations and Further Reading:
Andrews, Evan. “7 Famous Slave Revolts.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 15 Jan. 2013. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Stevie Davies. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.

“Creole.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.

Gabriel, Deborah. “Skin Tone Hierarchies in Jamaica.” Layers of Blackness: Colourism in the African Diaspora. Imami Media, 2017. 25-35. Academia.edu. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.

“Jamaica.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.




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