Sugarcoating the Unsavory Side of History

Sugarcoat history? Of course we can, but should we? Not in my opinion. Still, it’s a fine line to straddle when writing romantic historical fiction—particularly a story that takes place in brutal 18th-century Jamaica.

Sugarcoating History

Kara Walker’s Sugarbaby

I know romance readers have certain expectations of the genre. Romances offer happy endings and emotionally satisfying escapes from our everyday concerns. Voices Echo is a romance at its core. Yet I struggled writing it, knowing I might alienate some Voices series fans by straying from the ‘sweet’ corner of the genre.

Voices Echo I hope not, as in the end, I felt compelled to give Jamaica its due, disturbing though it might be. Because Voices Echo is historical fiction as well as a romance, and I believe the authenticity of a historical setting is paramount to creating a believable world about what “could have happened.” Also, I think my readers enjoy learning about history and expect to be drawn into a deeper understanding of the historical forces shaping a given setting and the characters’ lives within it.

Why Jamaica?

Though it can be read on its own, Voices Echo follows Voices Beckon and Voices Whisper, both of which take place in eighteenth-century Philadelphia. Given my reservations, you may question why I would consider transporting my characters at all. Philadelphia doesn’t suffer a lack of compelling historical themes. Why begin another year of research if I didn’t have to?

I chose Jamaica because I wanted an exotic setting for Liam and Rhiannon’s story-an exceptional setting that would challenge their individual strengths and flaws to the greatest degree. Jamaica offered all that and more. Many intriguing possibilities for conflict came to light in my research—conflict that provided opportunity for a relationship between them to progress. I’m actually not sure their relationship could have progressed in a tamer setting. It took more than a gentle nudge for Rhiannon to question her values.

Add to that, I was curious; by the late 1700’s, the United States and Jamaica had shared a colonial history dating back a century. Philadelphia’s newspapers referenced the island frequently. At the time, many Americans had family and business connections in the British colony, making the island seem somehow closer to America in 1791 than it is even in today’s jet age.

The Reality of Plantation Life in British Jamaica

That said, day-to-day life on a Jamaican plantation differed greatly from day-to-day life in post-revolutionary Philadelphia. Readers often question how much of a story is based in fact. The characters in Voices Echo, of course, are purely fictional, but period diaries and historical narratives provided inspiration for most of the book’s events and conflicts, especially those involving overindulgence, plantation discipline, obeah, and the exploitation of women. (Trust me, my mind is not that dark on its own.)

Saint-Domingue’s Long Shadow

In 1791 Jamaica was second only to neighboring French-held Saint-Domingue in supplying the world’s sugar. When the French Assembly declared political equality for all freeborn men, white or mixed race, news of the decree created an upheaval in Saint-Domingue that reverberated throughout the West Indies. August 1791 marked the beginning of a colony-wide insurrection that would last until 1804.

While I doubt the British military actually flooded the streets of Montego Bay within days of the insurrection’s first outbreak as Liam noted in Voices Echo, the military did respond to the islanders’ call for reinforcements within months, if not weeks. It was imperative the infectious rebellion not spread south; the loss of Jamaica would be an economic catastrophe for Britain.

As for Rhiannon’s overwhelming fear of a rebellion occurring one hundred miles north of the Ross plantation, that unease was keenly felt by most of the whites on Jamaica. The enslaved comprised the vast majority of Jamaica’s population, and they were not a satisfied lot for obvious reasons–the threat of Jamaica’s own rebellion was real. As in the novel, while the government and white residents actively encouraged more white men to make the island their home, their efforts were largely unsuccessful.

“See that ship under half sail? It’s a slaver, Mr. Brock. Over a hundred fresh Africans are on that ship. I can guarantee you the other ships moored in the bay don’t carry more than five white men among them who plan to stay. Do you know what that means?”

“I expect it means you’re woefully outnumbered, Mr. Airth.” He ought to take Mr. Ross aside and speak to him regarding his mate’s high-handed recruiting. If he’d had plans to stay, he’d be second-guessing them about now.  ~ Voices Echo

History’s Stories

In summary, the 18th-century Caribbean slave trade is a story filled with horror. While I don’t advocate dwelling on things we cannot change, I believe it serves no one to gloss over the horror as if it never occurred.

“Let us therefore study the incidents in this as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.”   ~ Abraham Lincoln (November 1864, in reference to the Civil War)

New York artist Kara Walker tackled the story in a most unusual exhibit earlier this summer–one that took place in a sugar refinery, no less. I’ll share some pictures of the exhibit in my next post.

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