decorated initial 'B' ertha Mason's ambiguous racial background has become the subject of various postcolonial debates regarding Jane Eyre, particularly after the publication of Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. Rhys' work "retells" portions of Brontë's story through the voice of the oppressed Bertha, whose imprisonment in Thornfield's attic arguably represented the oppression of a racial inferior, a half-Jamaican Creole. Neither Brontë nor Rhys reveal Bertha's racial lineage, but the possibility of African blood within her veins has fostered a variety of criticism about the racist connotations behind her portrayal as a madwoman and even her suicidal act of "burning down the house" to make way for the white female protagonist (Ghose 4). While such racially conscious criticism by postcolonial scholars is hardly new to today's reader of Jane Eyre, two articles from Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, published one and five years after Brontë's novel, respectively, provide a social and economic context, more contemporary with the publication of Brontë's novel, as to the relationship between Britain and her West Indian colonies. Such historical and social background lays a foundation for the literary (postcolonial) analyses which have added complexity to the identity of Bertha Mason along racial lines.

"Five Years in the West Indies" (Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine V71 1852), is an unimpressed review of Thomas Day's book of the same title, wherein Day essentially attempts to counter various "imaginative literatures" with a more "observational," less "idealized" travel narrative. Day's stay in Jamaica began in 1847, the same year that Brontë's novel was published, and attempts to refute supposedly popular notions of a Caribbean paradise, describing instead a kind of Caribbean hell full of lunatic "Negros." Although Blackwood's criticizes Day's adamant intolerance toward anything non-British, the parallels between Day's ideas and those of Rochester are worth examining.

Day's pseudo-scientific analysis of "Negro inferiority," like statements by the later Social Darwinists, attributes this supposed inferiority to both genetic and environmental conditions. It parallels Rochester's attitude toward Bertha. Both illustrate how "racism" entailed a mixture of British self-superiority with a fear toward the madness and violence of "Negroes," Creoles, and other racial inferiors. Blackwood's review includes several of Day's claims that "Negroes, and the coloured tribes generally, are given to immoderate bursts of laughter, without any sufficiently exciting cause . . .[and] their blood is inflamed . . .by their climate and by their" inherent nature.

Like Day, Rochester loosely associates "madness" with Bertha's racially "impure" lineage as well as the tropical West Indian climate in which she grew up. He mentions "the fiery West Indian" place of Bertha's upbringing (ch 27) and her Creole blood as the roots of her insanity. He claims that "Bertha Mason is mad [because] she came of a mad family;--idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman and a drunkard!" (ch 26). Later, Rochester specifically mentions that Bertha's family wished for him to marry Bertha because of his "racial" superiority. "Her family wished to secure me because I was of good race, and so did she" (ch 27). After offering a variety of associations between madness and "impure" racial composition, Rochester, like Day, reverts to West Indian climate as a cultivating force of such madness, a kind of hell for the "civilized" Englishman. Regarding his stay in Jamaica, Rochester states,

The air was like sulphur steams . . . I could find no refreshment anywhere. Mosquitos . . .the moon was setting in the waves, road and red, like a hot cannon-ball . . .[it was] a world quivering with the ferment of tempest. (ch 27)

Thus, the arrogant attitudes of the British, as illustrated by Rochester and Day, are mingled with vulnerability and an inability to conquer the unruly madness of the choleric "Negro" as well as the climate within a land which supposedly belongs under the flag of Empire. The tension between fear and belittlement reflect the ambiguity in a racialized power dynamic between the Negro and Day's fellow Englishmen, between Rochester and his Creole "madwoman."

Although Blackwood's 1852 article criticizes Day's xenophobia and intolerance, "Our West Indian Colonies," published one year after Jane Eyre (Volume 63, 1848), supports popular notions British superiority. Here, Blackwood's focus is British legislation, both the Emancipation Act of 1833 and the "liberal," "free-trade oriented" equalization of tariffs between various imports of sugar. According to the article, these acts have supposedly undermined the increasingly popular notions of British "humanity" and anti-racism which pervaded nineteenth century "liberal" thought. Blackwood's states that the emancipation of slaves and the enforcement of free trade have oppressed and exploited the British working classes and colonial planters. First, Emancipation left the colonial planter short of labor, destroying his productivity and rendering his property essentially worthless.

No one thought of the condition of the colonists" when the British government decided to "emancipate blacks within her colonies [or] when the following years of apprenticeship were curtailed in 1838 to grant "unqualified freedom . . .to the negro population. [224]

The article adds that such economic suffering had extended to Englishmen in the country as well. "The capital now jeopardized in our West Indian colonies, is the property of fellow citizens in this country," he states (231). Blackwood's continues by describing the adverse effects of such a sudden embrace of emancipation and free trade, which amounts to "oppression" of planters and British working classes.

The country became aware of the cruelty and injustices of that infamous traffic, and abolished it. Years afterwards, she awoke as from a dream, and began to abuse the planters for possessing slaves; declared they had no right to hold them in bondage (although she sold those slaves to them;) had them valued by commissioners whom she appointed; paid eight shillings in the pound of this valuation, and set them free, without any consideration whatever for the landed property, buildings, and machinery, amounting to much more than the aggregate price of the slaves, which were to be rendered useless and valueless form want of laborers. [222]

In addition to rendering the planter's property worthless, Emancipation has, according to the article, worsened the inherent laziness of the newly freed Negroes. "The primal curse now lights upon the emancipated negro, who has no ambition" and instead wallows in "universal idleness" (226). Thus, the article portrays the freed slave as a contributor to the oppression of the white planter, who is the victim of both the British government's hypocrisy and the "Negro's" indolence. Such a racialized opposition and economic rivalry, between the emancipated slaves and the oppressed planters, problematizes the situation of Bertha, who is either racially mixed, or, at the very least, perceived as "racially inferior" because of her birth and upbringing in the West Indies. As the daughter of a planter she would be a victim according to Blackwood's, but as a "Creole," she is part of the planter's problem. When one reads Jane Eyre through the lenses of this article, the dichotomy between white planter and inferior race, melded within Bertha, raise issues as to her "identity" and even suggests that her madness may stem from a socially and racially constructed incoherence within her own sense of self. This "incoherence" also destabilizes her status as either victim or oppressor, complicating the question of power dynamics as raised by the 1952 review of Day's book.

Each article takes a different tone toward slavery, the colonies, and race, but both illustrate prevalent relationships between planters and the colonized peoples, between Creoles and "true" Englishmen. They demonstrate how Bertha Mason's West Indian background is subject to a multitude of interpretations in relation to racial attitudes and to economic relations between Britain and her colonies.


Ghose, Indira. The Power of the Female Gaze. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. (London: Wallace Literary Agency, Inc, 1966)

"Our West Indian Colonies." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine February 1848: 63.

"Five Years in the West Indies." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine June 1852: 71.

Last modified 17 April 2003