On Barbados and “English Trader, Indian Maid”: An Interview With Dr. Frank Felsenstein

By: Isabel Vazquez

Recently, I had the privilege to interview Dr. Felsenstein, author of the Inkle and Yarico reader titled English Trader, Indian Maid (1999). In his anthology, he provides numerous translations and variations of the story of Inkle and Yarico as it developed throughout the late-seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries. Because of his work on this story, Dr. Felsenstein and his wife were invited to take a trip to Barbados in January, where he viewed the dedication of a monument to Yarico on Kendal Plantation (where the flesh-and-blood Yarico supposedly lived). He also traveled to London from March 4 to March 8 to lecture on the history of Inkle and Yarico at a pre-performance event for the opening of the musical Yarico by Yarico Productions.

downloadFor those of you not familiar with the story, it tells the tale of Inkle, an English merchant shipwrecked in the Americas, and Yarico, the beautiful Indian maiden who rescues him. Yarico and Inkle begin a romantic relationship, and when Inkle returns to the European world with Yarico (promising to take her as his wife if they were to return safely), he immediately sells her into slavery, despite the fact that she is bearing his child.

The fictive story is based on the factual account of Richard Ligon’s expedition to the English colony in Barbados. In his memoir of A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657), he tells of his encounter with a freeborn Indian slave by the name of Yarico who is pregnant with a white servant’s child. It is from this historical recollection that Richard Steele drew inspiration for the tale of Inkle and Yarico in the Spectator #11 (1711).

To open the interview, I asked Dr. Felsenstein to speak generally about English Trader, Indian Maid and the Inkle and Yarico story:

The story became popular during a time when people in the eighteenth century started to be concerned about the treatment of African slaves and started to ask the question: how do you demonstrate the wrongness of slavery? One way in which you can is to appeal not to the head, not to the economic considerations, but to the heart. And I think that one should recognize that sentiment was something that was extremely powerful, it was going to appeal to the heart. Many of the “Inkle and Yarico” stories did appeal to the heart and to the idea that the selling of Yarico was so wrong—and the dramatic versions of the play from the late 18th century really emphasized this strategy. So these versions of the story were an important factor in helping to sway opinion in favor of the abolition of the slave trade from the British Isles, which took place in the early 19th century and then the abolition from the British colonies in the 1830’s, which let’s remember, is about thirty years before the United States fought a terrible war over the question of slavery.

Would you mind beginning by telling me a little bit about the trip to Barbados in itself, an overview of sorts?

The invitation to do this arrived relatively late on. I had actually already committed to going to a conference in La Jolla, California the weekend before, and I was asked to talk in Barbados the following Tuesday. The talk was sponsored partly by the people involved with the Inkle and Yarico play (Yarico Productions) and partly by the Barbados Museum, which is very interested in trying to restore and make sense of Bajan history. So when I got there the day following the La Jolla conference, I was asked to go straight to the museum. I met the curator there and our meeting was televised. The following day I went in the morning to where the monument was being mounted.

Can you tell me about your experience on Kendal Plantation?

Kendal Plantation is the plantation where the historical Yarico actually existed. There is a pond there, known as Yarico’s Pond. There are a number of ponds there, and one doesn’t know for sure whether this was the pond, though we do know that she gave birth to her child, “a lusty boy, frolick and lively,” by a pond on the estate, and that she was enslaved in that plantation.

When my travel was arranged, the plan had been that the unveiling of the monument to Yarico by Freundel Stuart, the Prime Minister of Barbados and my talk would be on the same day (Tuesday). What the planners did not take into account was that the Barbadian Parliament was due to have its ceremonial opening session on that Tuesday, so that the P.M. could not unveil the statue that day, and the formal dedication was postponed to Wednesday morning, when my wife and I were already committed to flying back to the U.S. So, on the Tuesday morning, we traveled to the Kendal Plantation, and were present when the plaque to the monument was mounted/installed. As I saw the monument being installed, there was a house just next to us, and an elderly man and his sister-in-law beckoned to us and said, “I recognize you. Yeah, I saw you on television earlier this morning!”

Yarico Monument

Yarico Monument

We actually stayed at Holder House, a traditional Barbados Plantation house owned by Wendy Kidd. Her son, Jack Kidd, hosted us and we had a terrific time. He was very generous as a host and in showing us parts of the island and taking us to see the Kendal Plantation. I think if they had sufficient money from private sponsors and from the United Nations they could make the Kendal Plantation into a world heritage site. You could renovate the still intact factory to show how this was a main source of sugar to feed the lucrative Caribbean trade with Europe, and how people were cruelly enslaved to enhance the production of this much in demand commodity. And you’d have that wonderful story of Yarico which belongs specifically to that plantation. So I don’t know whether that will ever happen but it would be quite brilliant if it did!

How was your talk received by the audience?

I thought it was so interesting. It was very much a mixed race audience, and there was a great question and answer session. I had several people who objected to my saying that the African people who were brought over were sent as slaves because they believe—and they call themselves Pan-Africans—that they came to Barbados as free people and that they were only enslaved after their arrival. And the historical evidence goes entirely against that, but apparently there are a number of people who believe this. I had to be sort of diplomatic and say, well, there must be more than one point of view. But apparently this is quite deeply entrenched in Black Caribbean and Barbadian culture, this idea that African people came over freely, of their own volition, and then were cruelly enslaved. I thought that was very fascinating, and I did not know about it before hand.

I think it is interesting how a story that is historical can then transform to something almost kind of mythological over the course of the eighteenth century. It is just fascinating how it works. What do you make of this process?

Well, I think the term I use to describe this process is not my own originally, but it is called “factual fiction.” It’s one of the most interesting things about literature, the relation between fact and fiction. Another adjective which I use to describe the Inkle and Yarico story is “ductile,” the fact that it can transform into so many different media if you like. That to me is enormously fascinating. And that transformative aspect accounts for the fact that it’s still very much a story that appeals to the present generation.

Would you say the story is past its glory days or will it become popular again?

Well, I don’t agree that it’s past its glory days. I think that, as with any good story, it needs to be retold in a present-day context, and I think that is essentially what’s happening. When we compare the parallel American story of Pocahontas that has become mythologized in all sorts of ways through to the Disney cartoon version of it, we see that these fictional accounts are a very long way away from what actually happened at that time. And, the story of Yarico has a twist to it in a way that the Pocahontas story does not.

In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between audiences today seeing the play vs. George Colman’s late eighteenth-century version of the play? What does the modern version represent to modern viewers?

Colman was a relatively young dramatist at that time; this was his first big hit. He’d had other plays before, but this was the first one which really had an impact. I’m not sure that he was fully aware of the impact that it would have. But the evidence is that it was performed everywhere in Great Britain and in North America, and also in the Caribbean. People responded to it as a play that was topical. Some scholars have contended that maybe we could see Colman’s Inkle and Yarico (1787) as the first social problem play because it deals with the question of slavery, albeit in a fairly light-hearted manner. You might feel that, in some ways, Colman ducked the issue by bringing Inkle and Yarico together again at the end of the play. But again, it was something which was tangible and emotive, it appealed to the heart, so I think that worked for the audience at that time. But for a present day audience, Yarico The Musical may allow them to become aware of the fact that slavery has not disappeared and that it is something that exists now.


Playbill Cover

I was privileged that when I went to London I was one of the speakers at the pre-performance panel of Yarico. Another speaker was James McConnell, who was the composer of the music. It was very interesting to hear his thinking about how he created the music. The other person was Aidan McQuade, executive director of Anti-Slavery International. The point that he was putting out was that slavery remains endemic across the world, and that here is a powerful play which makes us aware of that fact, even though it’s historical in its setting.

When you began researching and compiling together this obscure but fascinating tale of Inkle & Yarico, did you ever think it would lead to this event in London, in that the story would be revived in such a way?

Well I didn’t necessarily think it would do that, but I had to pursue the story. One of the things that I found totally fascinating, and you probably read that in English Trader, Indian Maid, was how the historical Yarico was an Amerindian and, as one sees the story develop, she becomes Africanized in later accounts. I think that is very important because it ties in with the transatlantic slave trade. There are various explanations that denote people’s indifference to this transformation or suggest their inability to discriminate between groups. Many eighteenth-century Europeans must have felt that native peoples, irrespective of their origin, were all “others,” that they’re all “inferior.” You could relate that to politics today: do people really know what’s truly happening? Are we sufficiently aware of racial and ethnic differences?