The Caribbean

The Caribbean Sea is located in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central America. The term West Indies refers specifically to the islands of this sea, as does the term Antilles.

Columbus
Public DomainColumbus

The Caribbean got its name from the indigenous Carib people, the dominant tribe at the time of Columbus's discovery of America. After European settlement, Eurasian diseases and warfare soon wiped out most of the Carib population.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the islands of the Caribbean, and he made four voyages to the area between 1492 and 1502. Columbus's professed intent, on his first voyage, was to sail to the Indies, then the term for South and South East Asia; no one in Europe knew of the existence of the American continents. When he hit land, he thought he had reached the Indies – hence the name West Indies. Spain claimed the entire Caribbean, but initially only settled the larger islands.

An 1897 medallion commemorating the centenary of the capture of Trinidad and Tobago by the British under Sir Ralph Abercromby in 1797
Public DomainAn 1897 medallion commemorating the centenary of the capture of Trinidad and Tobago by the British under Sir Ralph Abercromby in 1797 - Credit: Roger Griffith

As the Spanish empire weakened at the beginning of the seventeenth-century, other European nations soon claimed a slice of the West Indies. The British colonised St Kitts in 1623 and Barbados in 1627, then Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat, Anguilla and Tortola and Jamaica in 1655.

The French too started colonisation in St Kitts in 1625. It was split between the British and the French until, in 1713, it was ceded to the British. The French also claimed Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique and Haiti. Between 1763 and 1783 Dominica changed hands between the French and British three times, with eventual British victory. The last French attempt to reclaim Dominica was in 1805, only about thirty years before the time in which Wide Sargasso Sea is set.

The Dutch took Saba, Saint Martin, Saint Eustatius, Curaçao, Bonaire, Aruba, Tobago, St. Croix, Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda, and Anguilla.

These colonial powers were often at war with each other, both in Europe and in the Caribbean. To view a video map of the political evolution of the Caribbean, click here.

This map shows how the colonies were divided at around the time of Wide Sargasso Sea:

 The Caribbean islands offered the perfect climate and landscape for sugar plantations. Sugar was a major staple food, used as a preservative as well as a sweetener, and the sugar trade boomed. By the eighteenth century, sugar was Britain's primary import, and the British Caribbean one of the Empire's most important colonies.

As all the sugar produced was for export, there was no need to stimulate local demand with wages. At first, the indigenous people were used as slaves, but their immune systems could not cope with European diseases and soon this workforce was decimated. The solution was to import slaves from African colonies: the Caribbean was a key focus of the Transatlantic slave trade. By the middle of the eighteenth century, British ships were transporting 50,000 slaves a year.

The British Caribbean emancipated its slaves in 1833; the French islands followed suit in 1848.

 

Auguste Francois Biard, The Slave Trade (1840)
Public DomainAuguste Francois Biard, The Slave Trade (1840)
Coulibri, Jamaica
Devon House, a Jamaican Georgian style Great House

Coulibri is based on Rhys's old family estate, Geneva, at Grand Bay, Dominica.

A Great House on a sugar cane plantation in Jamaica would have been built in Jamaican Georgian style (1760-1830), based on the English Georgian architecture that was popular from 1720 to 1760. As ever, Jamaica lagged behind Europe in terms of fashion.

The houses were usually two storeys high – Coulibri's house 'was on different levels. There were three steps down from my bedroom and Pierre's to the dining room and then three steps down from the dining-room to the rest of the house'. The houses would often have a base of brick, stone and mortar, and the top floor would be made of wood. Less grand houses might be made almost entirely of wood.

Jamaican Georgian architecture adapted English Georgian to the Caribbean climate, with wide wrap-around verandas (glacis) and sash windows, both of which feature at Coulibri. French colonial houses (Coulibri is based on Rhys's Dominican family estate – she never actually went to Jamaica) were built on a similar model, with wrap-around verandas. Great Houses often had no indoor hallways – the glacis would be used to navigate between rooms, which might explain why it is referred to so frequently in Wide Sargasso Sea. Click here for more information.

Jamaica National Heritage Trust has restored some of its great houses. To go on a virtual tour around Devon House, with Jamaican Georgian interior, click here. Devon House is one of Jamaica's grandest Great Houses – Coulibri would be much smaller in scale.

Before Abolition, Coulibri's sugar plantation would have looked something like this picture. However, at the time of Wide Sargasso Sea, the estate has run to wild.

Google Map
A 1774 engraving of Spanish Town's colonial offices
Public DomainA 1774 engraving of Spanish Town's colonial offices

Jamaica is the third largest Caribbean island. It was first claimed by Spain in 1595, and the first Spanish settlers arrived in 1509. Britain took Jamaica in 1655. Spanish Town (so named after the British arrived) was the capital until 1872.

Granbois, Dominica
Morne Nicholls
Creative Commons AttributionMorne Nicholls - Credit: Jean & Nathalie

Granbois is based on Rhys's father's estate of Bona Vista. Located between the mountains and coastline in the interior of Dominica, it had views of the heavily forested Mornes in the deep interior – now the Morne Trois Pitons National Park – and over the valleys to the coast.

Thornfield, Yorkshire, England

Finally, Antoinette is imprisoned in the attic at Thornfield Hall, where she is to be found, as Bertha, in Jane Eyre. Thornfield is the family estate, which Rochester inherits after the death of his father and older brother. It is an isolated country mansion, with Gothic battlements and foreboding empty rooms.

It has been suggested that Brontë based Thornfield on Haddon Hall, near Bakewell, Derbyshire: both the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli film  and the 2006 BBC adaptation set Thornfield at Haddon Hall.

North Lees Hall
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeNorth Lees Hall - Credit: J147

North Lees Hall in Hathersage is a more likely inspiration for Thornfield. The fictional town of Morton is thought to be based on Hathersage, and Brontë stayed in the area before writing Jane Eyre.

 

   

 

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The Sargasso Sea

 

Location of the Sargasso Sea
Public DomainLocation of the Sargasso Sea - Credit: Antur

 

The Sargasso Sea doesn't actually appear as a location in the book, but its symbolic shadow lies over the whole work. It is a stretch of water in the North Atlantic Ocean between the Caribbean and Europe.

The area is abundant in sargassum seaweed, after which it was named by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. This seaweed floats on the surface and, in nautical mythology, was said to entangle passing ships, causing them to drift endlessly in this mysterious ocean.

The myth has no basis in reality – sargassum has never been a threat to shipping – but sailing vessels did occasionally become stranded here due to the characteristically calm winds of this subtropical latitude.

 

Diagram of global atmospheric currents, with the Sargasso Sea located in the southern horse latitude
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeDiagram of global atmospheric currents, with the Sargasso Sea located in the southern horse latitude - Credit: Burschik