Chapter 3 — Settling an Isle, or an Englishman’s Color

[Print edition page number: 35]

Exilio 1599

Francisco Drake stood stoically as the rough noose slipped over his head. As the rope tightened about his neck he meditated on this, the day of his death — the end of his exile. He felt no remorse for his actions, only a profound regret that he would leave his wife and niño with no one to care for them. His brown eyes looked over the crowd gathered to watch him hang, finally discovering the tearful blue ones of his wife. Her white face pale, she held his infant daughter Elizabeth to her breast. His lips moved silently, speaking only to her, a smile forming to soften his handsome brown face as she nodded her understanding. Francisco bent his head, refusing to speak to the crowd, and the hangman earned his fee. No mas desterrado.
(Hendricks n.d., unpublished work)

Race is a phenomenon always in formation. Therefore whiteness, like other racial constructions, is subject to contest and change. Whiteness is historically located, malleable, and contingent .… [and], like culture, race is something whites notice in themselves only in relation to others.
(Mahoney 1997, 330–31)

In the aftermath of the English Civil War, the concept of race was to acquire a logic that had escaped earlier ideologues of English racism. Arguably, early modern ethnographers contributed much to England’s understanding of human difference; however, it would take the practitioners of “the New Science” to fully instantiate a scientific framework for[36] the adumbration of racial differences. One of these new scientists was Robert Boyle. In his treatise, “The Experimental History of Colours, Part II. Of the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness,” Boyle’s expressed purpose is to account for the properties of color in a rational, scientific way (Boyle 1965/1772). The sections of Boyle’s essay on color are organized according to two categories, “observation” and “experiment.” For Boyle, the distinction between the two terms is crucial. Observation is not limited to the specular; it can also comprise the written and the oral explications of others. The experiment, on the other hand, occurs under carefully controlled circumstances, with technology, and verified by what we can call the “modest witness.” Donna J. Haraway argues the “modest witness is the legitimate and authorized ventriloquist for the object world, adding nothing from his mere opinions, from his biasing embodiment. And so he is endowed with the remarkable power to establish the facts. He bears witness: he is objective; he guarantees the clarity and purity of objects” (Haraway 1996, 4).

Boyle’s treatise intrigues me not because it represents a scientific methodology, although his careful delineation of his scientific mode of analysis is engaging; rather, what draws me to Boyle’s work is his attempt to explain scientifically the difference between white and Black. Boyle begins the treatise by asserting,

When I applied myself to consider, how the cause of whiteness might be explained by intelligible and mechanical principles, I remembered not to have met with any things among the antient corpuscularian philosophers, touching the quality we call whiteness, save that Democritus is by Aristotle said to have ascribed the whiteness of bodies to their smoothness, and on the contrary their blackness to their asperity. (Boyle 1965/1772, 696–97)

In writing his account of the “experiment,” Boyle states categorically that his aim is to prove that the cause of whiteness is that “white bodies reflect store of light” (699) and Black bodies do not. He describes experiment after experiment of what we know to be physics until experiment XI. This experiment stands out as something of an aberration in Boyle’s essay. For, until this particular experiment, Boyle has largely confined his discussion[37] to physical phenomena other than animals. In experiment XI, Boyle introduces for the first time the question of color in human beings and, in typical early modern English fashion, he does so by invoking the peoples of Africa as his “proof”: “The cause of the blackness of those many nations, which by one common name we are wont to call Negroes, has been long since disputed of by learned men” (714). This dispute, Boyle contends, would have been resolved had these learned men “taken into consideration, why some whole races of other animals besides men, as foxes and hares, are distinguished by a blackness not familiar to the generality of animals of the same species” (714). In his experiment, Boyle seeks to satisfy himself in “matters of fact” as to the causality behind this phenomenon.

What is intriguing about Boyle’s experiment is not his conclusions (which are generally consistent with other early modern discussions on Blackness) but the method he employs to arrive at his conclusions. Boyle states that it is his “present work to deliver rather matters historical than theories, [that he] shall annex some few of [his] collections, instead of a solemn disputation” (714). In an unusual departure from his normal manner of proceeding, this experiment does not follow the interrogative model he uses with the other experiments. In fact, this experiment might better be termed an explanation by “authority.” What Boyle does in this section of his treatise is to summarize the different hypotheses which have been postulated over the centuries to explain Blackness in human beings. Like Thomas Browne, Boyle rejects prior theories (climatology, mythology, theology) and argues that the “principal cause (for which I would not exclude all concurrent ones) of the blackness of Negroes is some peculiar and seminal impression” (717). To support his argument of “seminal impression” Boyle (the scientist) draws upon what he terms the “testimony” of a countryman, Andrew Battel, “who being sent prisoner by the Portugals to Angola, lived there, and in the adjoining regions, partly as a prisoner, partly as a pilot, and partly as a soldier, near eighteen years” (718).

As if to further valorize Battel’s legitimacy as a “modest witness,” Boyle writes that the[38]

same person as elsewhere a relation, which if I have made no use at all of the liberty of a traveller, is very well worth our notice; since this, together with that we have formerly mentioned of seminal impressions, shews a possibility, that a race of Negroes might be begun, though none of the sons of Adam for many precedent generations were of that complexion. For I see not, why it should not be at least as possible, that white parents may sometimes have black children, as that African Negroes should sometimes have lastingly white ones; especially since concurrent causes may easily more befriend the productions of the former kind, than under the scorching heat of Africa those of the latter. (Boyle 1965/1772, 719)

Despite his claim to deal only in what can be empirically proven, Boyle ends up reproducing the same problematic paradigm as the learned men he declares have gone awry as he uses arguments based on climate, geography, and myth to substantiate his suppositions and hypotheses.

Boyle ends his “experiment” by declaring that “it is high time for me to dismiss observations, and go on with experiments” (719). A puzzled reader, believing that what she read was an experiment, discovers that what Boyle has in fact been about is not experimentation but observation — that highly subjective, occasionally untrustworthy, and usually problematic mode of investigation. Anyone familiar with the body of writing produced in early modern European cultures concerned with explanations of Blackness in human beings would not be surprised by the direction Boyle’s experiment took. What is noteworthy is that the scientist Boyle, when it comes to treating color differences among humankind, disappears, to be replaced by the Englishman Boyle. The organization and discussion of the colors Black and white in Boyle’s essay suggestively reproduce the subtle and problematic antithesis marked in George Best’s explanation nearly one hundred years earlier (see Hakluyt 1903/1600).

By the end of the seventeenth century, scientific investigation took up the task of explaining the suppositions that Best and John Pory adumbrated as they endeavored to grapple with the contradictions of existing differences between human beings. In matters of human reproduction, it was presumed that maleness and whiteness will always prevail — unless[39] there is a “wild seed.” It is this anomaly that triggered writers, whether literary, philosophical, or ethnographic, to explore this anomaly — that nature or the imagination could, with a single act, negate the understood “truth” of presumably fixed natural categories. Through the publication of texts such as Boyle’s treatise on color or Browne’s Pseudodoxica Epidemica, as well as the many travel narratives, English culture was defining itself more and more in terms of colorism. As Kim F. Hall astutely surmises in her analysis of the powerful hold that Blackness, and its material body — the sub-Saharan African — had on the early modern English social, literary, and cultural imagination,

descriptions of dark and light [or, more specifically, Black and white], rather than being mere indications of Elizabethan beauty standards or markers of moral categories, became in the early modern period the conduit through which the English began to formulate the notions of ‘self’ and ‘other’ so well known in Anglo-American racial discourses (Hall 1995, 2).

Early modern colonial enterprises engendered a new dynamic in gender and sexual relations, one shaped by an emerging concept of race based on colorism and physical appearance, which would come to define modern capitalism. Emerging concomitantly with this new gender dynamic is a growing anxiety over what was being produced in the sexual relations between Europeans and non-Europeans. In an attempt to explain rationally a puzzling situation — the fact that the offspring of a Black and white couple will not assume the color of the white partner — Best appears to set into motion what would become a general and pervasive anxiety about miscegenation. It is useful to reiterate in toto Best’s anxiety-laden attempt to explain the perceived anomalies that derive from miscegenation:

I my selfe have seene an Ethiopian as blacke as cole brought into England, who taking a faire English women to wife, begat a sonne in all respects as blacke as the father was, although England were his native countrey, and an English woman his mother.… And the most probable cause to my judgement is, that this blackeness proceedeth of some natural infection of the first inhabitants of that[40] Countrey, and so all the whole progenie of them descended, are still polluted with the same blot of infection … by a lineall discent they have hitherto continued thus blacke. (Hakluyt 1903/1600, 262–63)

Best’s language presupposes the superiority of whiteness and that in reproduction maleness and whiteness will always prevail unless there is some “natural” transgression. What goes unsaid however is that, with further miscegenation, Blackness can be effaced by whiteness, producing the white-presenting Clorindas.

The possibility, and likelihood, of the white Ethiopian is disturbing not because there is some fundamental difference between the Ethiopian and the English, but because it substantively proves that there is no difference beyond the superficial. It is this epistemological reality that makes white passing both problematic and desirable in a social order where the color of one’s skin determines the condition of one’s existence: whether an individual is enslaved or free, raped or honored, viewed as property or as human. If Blackness can disappear into whiteness, the white Ethiope becomes indistinguishable from the “white” English. Miscegenation makes porous the very core of Englishness, and its white supremacist thinking.

In this, I am reminded of Hayden White’s argument in Tropics of Discourse, that although the forms of literature and history may at times differ, the rhetorical tropes deployed are the same (White 1978). If the function of the observer is to serve as “modest witness” to the experiment, then Best’s narrative/authorial subject are indeed an exemplary “modest witness.” More importantly, when we consider our own interpellated subjectivities, we cannot help but recognize that our own positions as “modest witnesses” to the empirical truths of history have been occasional acts of complicity in the perpetuation of discrete boundaries between “experience” and “knowledge.” This is especially true in the case of the white-presenting, or white-passing, subject whose very presence points to the illogic of race and racism.

The real and hypothetical narratives of problematic whiteness, especially when produced by miscegenation, alluded to in the first “epigram” that opens this chapter are present throughout this chapter. The epigram[41] is drawn from an unpublished fictionalized romance manuscript I wrote based on a “document of history” — the account of the “Negress Maria” taken by Francis Drake. In the manuscript, I posed a “what if” and fashioned a story of events that took place, in different ways, with different agents, in various configurations — all capable of producing a white-passing subject who might have been Aphra Behn. The imagined history which I have envisaged for Anne, the daughter of Elizabeth and Francisco Drake, whose rape and abduction by Francis Willoughby, Baron of Parham, mimics Francis Drake’s rape and abduction of the Negress Maria, is a narrative whose genesis originates in the miscegenous space spawned by early modern English settler colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, rape, and other forms of violence enacted against a people solely on the basis of skin color. And in the interstices of seventeenth-century English racism and settler colonialism, white passing inevitably leaves its traces.

Peopling an Island

In his introductory essay for the journal Settler Colonial Studies, Lorenzo Veracini outlines several key differences between colonialism and settler colonialism. According to Veracini, “colonialism is primarily defined by exogenous domination” and “thus has two fundamental and necessary components: an original displacement and unequal relations” (Veracini 2011, 1). While settler colonialism is an element of colonialism, “colonisers and settler colonisers want essentially different things” (1). As Veracini writes,

in the case of colonial systems, a determination to exploit sustains a drive to sustain the permanent subordination of the colonized.… This permanence is not present under settler colonialism, which, on the contrary, is characterised by a persistent drive to ultimately supersede the conditions of its operation. The successful settler colonies “tame” a variety of wildernesses, end up establishing independent nations, effectively repress, co-opt, and extinguish indigenous alterities, and productively manage ethnic diversity. (2–3).[42]

In essence, “colonialism reproduces itself and the freedom and equality of the colonised is forever postponed; settler colonialism, by contrast, extinguishes itself” (3). Settler colonialism’s erasure of an indigenous presence rather than displacement is a key element in the process.

The erasure of indigenous peoples during the colonizing process requires, on the part of the colonizer, the racializing of both colonized and colonialist. The colonizer must also structure the interactions and representations of those interactions to justify the process. On the surface, Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines (2009/1668) may appear an odd text to add to a discussion of settler colonialism, colorism, and the romance genre. While Neville’s text speaks to issues of colonialism, and settler colonialism specifically, an eyebrow or two might be raised at labeling The Isle of Pines a romance. The few scholars to write about Neville’s text focus on the novella as a dystopian tale/allegory attached to the reign of Charles II and/or an engagement with patriarchal ideologies. For example, Amy Boesky writes, “The Isle of Pines allowed for the presentation of a new kind of utopia — one in which national identity is built out of the very act of interracial crossing established by the colony as most taboo” (Boesky 1995, 166). Will Stockton’s reading, on the other hand, sees in the novella’s conclusion, “the enforcement of monogamy” according to “Christian instruction,” which effectively displaces the “endogamous and plural marriages in the island’s implicitly Jewish past” (Stockton 2017, 106).

While Boesky and Stockton rightly draw attention to Neville’s biblical framework and Boesky signals the English colonizing ambitions at the core of The Isle of Pines, neither approaches the white supremacist ideology at the core of the text. Moreover, the inattentiveness to the ways the narrative reinvents romance conventions to localize, contain, and erase potential threats to the privileging of whiteness and its dominance warrants greater scrutiny. In this chapter, I want to explore the ways white presenting threatens the ideology of white supremacy in The Isle of Pines and how romance conventions embody and embolden the ideology of settler colonialism at the heart of Neville’s text.

The Isle of Pines, like so many early modern romance novels, frames itself in terms of history even as it recounts the fantastic. The Isle of Pines Or, A Late Discovery of a Fourth ISLAND Near Terra Australis, Incognita purports to be a “true relation of certain English persons, who in[43] Queen Elizabeths time, making a voyage to the East Indies were cast away, and wracked near the Coast of Terra Australis, Incognita, and all drowned, except one Man and four Women.” (Neville 2009/1668, 189–90) The account is made “credible” by an English merchant’s letter and several Dutch merchants as well. As the “author” writes, “this story seems very fabulous, yet the Letter is come to a known Merchant, and a from a good hand in France, so that I thought to fit to mention” (Neville 1668, A2v). The author’s words evoke, as I have shown in Chapter One, the longstanding tension between “historiography” and “romance.” We see a tone similar to the one in Georges de Scudery’s preface to Ibrahim, or the Illustrious Bassa, where he declares what he considers to be the most significant: “but amongst all the rules which are to be observed in the compositions of these works, that of true resemblance is without question the most necessary; it is, as it were, the fundamental stone of this building” (de Scudery 1952/1674, 3). He then notes that, in his own work, he has “observed the Manners, Customs, Religions, and Inclinations of People: and to give a more true resemblance to things, I have made the foundations of my work Historical, my principal Personages such as are marked out in the true History for illustrious persons, and the wars effective” (4). Neville’s use of the romance versus history trope is skillfully handled — by setting the story in an Elizabethan past he creates a romance context of historical believability.

The narrative of The Isle of Pines begins in 1569, when four English ships set sail for the East Indies to establish trade relations. On board were an English merchant, his wife, their son (twelve years old) and daughter (fourteen years of age), along with “two maidservants, one negro female slave, and” George Pine, “who went under him [the merchant] as a bookkeeper” (Neville 2009/1668, 194). As the ships sailed past Madagascar, a “violent storm” arose and all four ships were destroyed. Spying land, the captain and crew attempted to reach it but failed and lost their lives. Because George and the four women “could not swim” they were left behind on the ship and, as the ship broke on the rocks, the five miraculously survived when the “bowspright, which being broken off, was driven by the waves into a small creek” (195).

The five survivors find themselves on an uninhabited island and make shelter for the night using “some broken pieces of boards and planks, and[44] some of the sails and rigging” (196). The next morning, they set about settling the island and in time, a domestic routine developed. After six months on the island, “idleness and a fullness of everything begot in [George] a desire for enjoying the women” (197). George states,

Beginning now to grow more familiar, I had persuaded the two maids to let me lie with them, which I did at first in private; but after, custom taking away shame (there being none but us), we did it more openly, as our lusts gave us liberty. Afterwards my master’s daughter was content also to do as we did. The truth is, they were all handsome women, when they had clothes, and well shaped, feeding well. For we wanted no food, and living idly, and seeing us at liberty to do our wills, without hope of ever returning home made us thus bold. One of my first consorts, with whom I first accompanied, the tallest and handsomest, proved presently with child. The second was my master’s daughter. (198)

Without societal or patriarchal pressure to regulate their sexuality, especially female sexuality, George and the two maids give into their “lusts.” In his description, George preens about not just his generative prowess (each woman quickly becoming pregnant) but the women’s “handsome” looks.

Nowhere is the intersectionality of class, gender, race, and sexuality more thoroughly articulated than in George’s account of how relations among the five survivors play out. His initial congress was with the maids whose class position was marginally closer to his own, perhaps a step below since he was a clerk. His dead master’s daughter soon followed and, as we later learn, becomes favored not because she was the “handsomest” but because of her social class. The last woman to experience his sexual “prowess” was his negro. As George writes:

The other also not long after fell into the same condition [pregnancy], none now remaining but my negro, who seeing what we did, longed also for her share. One night, I being asleep, my negro with the consent of the others got close to me, thinking it being dark to beguile me, but I awaking and feeling her, and perceiving who it was, yet willing to try the difference, satisfied myself with[45] her, as well as with one of the rest. That night, although the first time, she proved also with child, so that in the year of our being there, all my women were with child by me; and they all coming at different seasons, were a great help to one another. (198, emphasis added)

The four women — the merchant’s daughter, the two English maidservants, and the “negro female slave” — in effect became George’s harem.

George’s sexual relations with the four women (three of whom he “married” or called “wife”) continued until their deaths. The women’s extraordinary fertility gave George forty-seven children (most of whom were girls), all of whom survived: “We had no clothes for them, and therefore when they had sucked, we laid them in the moss to sleep, and took no further care of them; for we knew, when they were gone more would come; the women never failing once a year at least. And none of the children, for all the hardship we put them to, were ever sick” (198). As the children grew into maturity, especially sexual, George “mated” his daughters and sons. With his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren, he was more careful in arranging “marriages” based on an adherence to the idea of consanguinity: “I took off the males of one family, and married them to the females of another, not letting any to marry their sisters, as we did formerly out of necessity” (199).

“Miscegenation and orgiastic sexual indulgence are thus added to the list of the taboos broken by the text,” Susan Bruce observes, and “in the remainder of Pine’s narrative incest quietly joins this catalogue of transgressions, since Pine’s children must sleep with their half-siblings to produce their own issue” (Bruce 2009, xxxviii). Finally, nearing his eightieth year and adhering to the laws of primogeniture, George gave his “cabin and furniture that was left, to [his] eldest son (after [his] decease), who had married [his] eldest daughter by [his] beloved wife” and named this son “King and Governor of all the rest” (Neville 2009/1668, 199). He then “informed them of the manners of Europe, and charged them to remember the Christian religion, after the manner of them that spake the same language, and to admit no other” (199), including instructions about regulating the Pines’ sexuality.[46]

Having arranged for the succession, George summoned his other descendants, who numbered 1789 and gave them his blessing. It is not until the end of his narrative that George names himself and the women:

I gave this people, descended from me, the name of the English Pines, George Pine being my name, and my master’s daughter’s name Sarah English. My two other wives were Mary Sparkes, and Elizabeth Trevor. So their several descendants are called the English, the Trevors, and the Phils, from the Christian name of the negro, which was Philippa, she having no surname; and the general name of the whole the English Pines (200).

I want to focus on the significance of George’s words at the end of his narrative. First, although all of his offspring are “white in color,” he is careful to articulate class and lineal distinctions. Within traditional patriarchy, the offspring carried the name of the father. In this new space, such conformity runs counter to the articulation of an atypical social and racial hierarchy. While the group as a whole are called Pine, the offspring of each woman carry the mother’s last name. Phillipa’s lack of a surname is inextricably tied to her status as enslaved — a point George makes clear through his use of the possessive to mark her subjectivity. Furthermore, whenever he speaks of Phillipa it is generally with reference to her designation as a “negro”: “the negro had no pain at all” or “not with the black at all after she was with child,” or “my negro” or the “Negro-woman.” By refusing to name Phillipa as a wife, as he does with the the other women, George ensures that her Blackness codes her as little more than a means of sexual gratification and reproduction.

During the first year on the island, four children are born, one boy and three girls. What immediately sets Philippa’s daughter apart is that she is described as “a fine white girl” despite being the child of “one of the handsomest blacks [George] had seen” (198). As it turns out, all of Philippa’s children are born white and “as comely as any of the rest” (198). Yet, as the narrative continues, these white-presenting children remain constitutively identified as “Black”: “the negro twelve” or “the Phils, from the Christian name of the negro.” This “Blackness” becomes most firmly entrenched in the reader’s imagination when the present-day “King” and[47] “Governor” of the island, William Pine (a descendant of George Pine and Sarah English), describes several insurrections to his Dutch visitors. A segment of the “English Pines” have fallen into “whoredoms, incests, and adultery; so that what my grandfather was forced to do for necessity, they did for wantonness,” William reports (201). His father, George’s son, “assembled all the country near unto him” and, armed, they “marched against the ‘wicked ones’, [who fled] fearing their deserved punishment” (202).

It should come as no surprise that the “greatest offender” proved to be the “second son of the Negro-woman that came with George into this island” (202). Judged guilty of “divers ravishings and tyrannies,” John Phill was executed. This account would not be problematic were it not for an another attempted insurrection by Henry Phill, the “chief ruler of the tribe or family of the Phills, being the offspring of George Pines which he had by the negro-woman” (207). Despite their whiteness, the Phills are morally “conditioned” by their ancestress Phillipa’s Blackness. Similar to the whiteness of Charikliea and Clorinda, the Phills’ white skin bespeaks a promise of assimilation. However, for white supremacy to work, the “properties” that mark Blackness as inferior must be made visible. Just as Fairfax/Tasso before him, Neville does this by localizing “Blackness” as interiorized and thus an inheritable biological trait that manifests in behavior. In effect, while they may not have inherited Phillipa’s skin color, the Phils did inherit her “bad blood” in the form of “sexual aggression and subversion” (Boesky 1995).

The anxiety that rumbles beneath the surface of The Isle of Pines is that there is nothing to distinguish the Pines except for their surnames since the island’s entire population is white. To sustain the superiority of whiteness and capitalize on English racism’s anti-Blackness that enables Neville’s romance, the white-passing “negro” must be exposed. In other words, for “whiteness” to retain its status of superiority, “Blackness” must retain its negativity even when that “Blackness” is contained in a “white” body. It is this racecraft that surfaces in the representation of the Phils as licentious, violent, and uncivilized, and what constitutes them as white-passing “negroes.” Boesky rightly argues that “George Pine has authored [the Phils], and they are trapped inside his representation, a representation that simultaneously separates them as a ‘race’ and renders them subordinate”[48] (Boesky 1995, 180). In essence, and I shall return to this point below, the Phils become the “natives” who must be subjugated and eventually erased from the colonized land despite their whiteness.

A Settler Colonialist’s Dream

One of the questions that puzzled me on my first reading of The Isle of Pines was the author’s decision to precisely date the story. That is, rather than offer his readers an ambiguous timeframe during the reign of Elizabeth I, Neville begins his account with a precise date, 1589. The 1580s were significant years in English colonialist endeavors. In 1584, Walter Raleigh obtained his patent for the colonization of Virginia, while the defeat of the Spanish navy ships in 1588 ensured England’s ability to further its colonial aims. This period was also marked by cartographic explorations, finding new lands and exploring uncharted regions. At the time Neville wrote The Isle of Pines, England had established colonies in the Caribbean and the Americas, and the discovery of new or uncharted lands had waned. Yet the novella hearkens back to a moment of the newness of geographic discovery. In what follows, I want to discuss the novella’s idealization of settler colonialism as part of its political logic. While I am not arguing against readings based on Neville’s political beliefs, I am suggesting that the novella does more than take allegorical potshots at Charles II and his court. The Isle of Pines is a text that figures the unsettling prospect of unchecked miscegenation, and its societal consequences, on settler colonialism and attempts to resolve the problem within the romance structure.

A presumption at work in the novella is the idea of unpopulated spaces in the world. The discovery of land devoid of people is, in many ways, a colonizing dream, especially as early modern English travel narratives increasingly debunked that idea. Thus, what makes Neville’s text such a fascinating settler colonialist narrative is that he engages in world-building from scratch — yet, to make the romance of settler colonialism work, he needs to “people” the land. Hence the characters of George Pine and the four women who were part of an English mercantile group sailing to “East India” to “settle a factory for the advantage of Trade” (Bruce 2009, 194). George was employed as a Factor’s bookkeeper and, when a[49] fierce storm claims the lives of the captain, the ship’s crew, the Factor, his wife, son, and everyone else on board the merchant ship, George and the four women are the only survivors. Ironically, they survived because they couldn’t swim and had remained on board the ship (195). Once on land, George starts a fire for the women and then goes off to find survivors: “I hooted, and made all the noise I could; neither could I perceive the footsteps of any living Creature (save a few Birds, and other Fowls)” (195).

After creating a shelter for himself and the women, George states he and the white women “slept soundly” while “the Blackmoor being less sensible than the rest we made our Centry” (195). As Boesky argues, Phillipa’s position on the island is never ambiguated: she is a servant there “to safeguard the whites from the wildness they dread” (Boesky 1995, 173). As he explores “the large island,” George discovers that it is isolated, “out of sight of any other Land,” and “wholly uninhabited by any people” (197). From this moment, the island becomes not just a temporary refuge until rescue land, but land to be settled: “And having now no thought of ever returning home, as having resolved and sworn each to other, never to part or leave one another, or the place” (199). In writing the island as “uninhabited,” Neville performs an a priori disappearance of natives to set into motion the creation of a settler colony. This “authorial” erasure forestalls questions about indigenous sovereignty of the island, the need to “manage and neutralize indigenous difference,” or domination (Veracini 2011, 8). In other words, there are no “they” who have “to go away” (9). What The Isle of Pines romances is an ability to engage in settler colonialism without the hazards that come with pre-existing occupancy. In other words, there are no indigenous bodies to engage as equals nor any need for “recognition and reconciliation.” Importantly, “one of the necessary prerequisites of colonialism … the original demands for labour and thus for indigenous disappearance must also cease” (Veracini 2011, 8).

The obvious absence of the “native” or indigenous potential to satisfy this prerequisite of colonialism has to be addressed. This absence, as Neville’s romance illustrates, requires a necessary force of labor if the settler colonial project is to come to fruition. The Isle of Pines is written and published at a particular juncture in English cultural and economic history. The nation’s colonies, especially in the Americas, are beginning to flourish and represent a potentially significant share of the domestic[50] commodity market. The English increasingly controlled the transatlantic slave trade to its colonies, a factor which heightens the interactions between English and African in unprecedented ways, especially with respect to the African maternal body (Morgan 2018). The African presence in late seventeenth-century England is far more visible than ever before, and no less troubling for the construction of a homogeneous “whiteness” for English society. It is this presence, I would argue, that serves Neville’s “imaginary need” for a native presence that also needs to be absent.

The romance genre remained a stable and popular means for the elucidation of this particular strand of white supremacy idealized in a fantasy that “aims at the transfiguration of the world of everyday life in such a way as to restore the conditions of some lost Eden” (Jameson 1981, 110). Neville’s The Isle of Pines, for all its troubling sexism and racism, makes this point most obviously. By making all the Pines “white,” Neville simultaneously deflates once and for all the notion of race as an inflexible dichotomy. On the contrary, the romancing of white supremacy required the parameters of race to be calibrated along an entirely different spectrum that took into account the possibility of white passing.

In this the Phils speak to pre- and early modern English ambivalence towards the white-presenting Black subject capable of white passing. Like both Charikliea and Clorinda, the Phils bear the imprimatur of parental Blackness. What distinguishes these white-presenting chracterizations from each other is the ways in which they are assimilable into the functionality of English racism. Because Heliodorus’s culture had not yet made color an absolute marker in the definition of racial identity, Charikliea’s whiteness is less important than her identity as a princess. Fairfax/Tasso’s Clorinda, on the other hand, bespeaks an intermediary moment in the recalibration of race. Clorinda’s whiteness is problematic because it conceals her true identity, Ethiopian, even as serves as a sign, at her death, of her membership in the Christian community. What the Phils indicate is the perception that, even if desired, the “white Ethiopian” cannot be assimilated into the dominant culture because their Blackness will always work to manifest itself. However, what The Isle of Pines cannot suppress, try as it might, is the fact there are Phils who do succeed in white passing and are invisible Black bodies moving freely among the whiteness that is England.[51]

Like many of the fictional narratives emerging in the wake of the enslavement and transportation of Black Africans to the Americas, Neville’s text contributes to a cultural discourse that Blackness will inevitably expose itself. The Isle of Pines rehearses a familiar romance trope of racialization in the descriptions of the problematic behavior of the Phils. From the outset, Phillipa’s status as an enslaved Black woman and thus inferior becomes a genetic trait each of her descendants will carry. What are we to make of Neville’s “colorism” — where the offspring and descendants of an African Black woman inherit their father’s skin color? Where the only markers inherited from their maternal side are behavioral? It is this piece that is often overlooked in critical studies of The Isle of Pines. After Philippa’s death, there are no visibly “Black” people on the island. The only way to romanticize her Blackness is to internalize it, to make it a behavioral factor, not a somatic one, and to position those labeled “Black” as a problem of villainous indigeneity.

My reading of Neville’s text as an early modern “romance novella” centers settler colonialism and white supremacy as historical narratives rather than a “utopian” or political allegory. I want to suggest that The Isle of Pines enacts the model of a romance even if the text handles the usual romance tropes or conventions differently than its predecessors. There is the heroic figure of George Pine who achieves an unusual (polyamorous) happily ever after. While initial obstacles are natural and a matter of survival, once the island is “peopled,” the trope of human villainy becomes the source of conflict, internal and external. Ultimately, Neville’s text works as romance fiction because it offers a “more true resemblance to things” that renders the “fantasy” acceptable to readers. Simply put, the success of the romance novel has long inhered in the author’s ability to make a fantastical narrative believable and the best way, as de Scudery notes, is to lay a foundation in the “historical” (de Scudery 1952/1674, 4). History, in The Isle of Pines, however, is bracketed. Despite the inclusion of a late seventeenth-century preface that documents the “discovery of the island and its natives,” and the transmission of that knowledge by means of a Dutch merchant’s eye-witness account and William Pine’s letters, the narrative itself is set in a “past” impossible to evidentiarily recuperate except through what is printed in the text.[52]

That past is entwined with racial capitalism and African women’s reproductive lives. The violence perpetrated against the Phils acknowledges a failure on the part of George Pine to restructure the patriarchal, and I would argue the legal, structure of governance on the island with respect to Black bodies. As Jennifer L. Morgan explains in a discussion of the 1662 Virginia code that shifted hereditary status of children fathered by white men:

If a child fathered by a free white man with an enslaved African woman became a slave, that child was transformed from kin to property. Thus, in essence, slaveowners and slaveowning legislators enacted the legal and material substitution of a thing for a child: no white man’s child could be enslaved, while all black women’s issue could. This happens as though it were common sense, when, in fact, it was a profound reversal of Euro­pean notions of heredity in the service of a relatively new notion of difference and bondage. (Morgan 2018, 3, original emphases)

By upholding patriarchal lines of descent (child inherits the status of the father), George’s children with Phillipa shared the same freedoms as their siblings despite maternal status. While Phillipa is never called a “slave,” George’s descriptive language — black, negro, negro-servant — establishes clear a distinction between her and the other servants.

The establishment of separate communities on the island does not change the hierarchal and social relations produced as a matter of settler colonialism. If anything, as the narrative illustrates, the social, political, and racializing hierarchies George Pine brings with him from England remain intact. Even so, The Isle of Pines fundamentally shifts the white supremacy narrative in unexpected directions. We cannot help but follow the unspoken ideological path the romance lays before us. We are forced to ask, Is race real? Is it constructed? Is it an “as-if” concept, something we all agree to bestow on each other? Is it a relational concept, existing only in binary fashion (e.g., Black/white), so that if all the people on a tropical island, say, looked pretty much the same, there would be no race or races? Contemporary science, despite eugenics clinger-ons, tells us that whites and Blacks have more genes in common than the ones that distinguish[53] them, and the variability between the average white and the average Black, in genetic makeup and physical appearance, is less than the variability within each group. What then, does it mean to be white, or of any other race, for that matter? While the laws of genetics would have eventually rendered Philippa’s descendants “white” (possibly by the third and definitely by the fourth generation), Neville’s failure to represent Philippa’s firstborn child as a mixed race or “mulatta” opens a Pandora’s box that proves difficult to shut.

To conclude, it seems fitting to cite Toni Morrison’s observation that

images of impenetrable whiteness need contextualizing to explain their extraordinary power, pattern, and consistency. Because they appear almost always in conjunction with representations of black or Africanist people who are dead, impotent, or under complete control, these images of blinding whiteness seem to function as both antidote for and meditation on the shadow that is companion to this whiteness — a dark and abiding presence that moves the hearts and texts of American literature with fear and longing. (Morrison 1992, 33)

What The Isle of Pines illustrates, in the end, is that the ideology of racial colorism is as unstable as the romance genre. When faced with a “white Ethiopian” or a “white Negro,” how do you insist on adherence to their “assigned” racial identity? How do you regulate a person whose biophysical lineage reflects a Black and a white ancestor but whose own physical appearance is white? At what point does the individual’s relationship to Blackness and whiteness become unintelligible in the context of older narratives of colorism and need to be interrogated in some other manner? Finally, at what point does, or can, colorism as a by-product of English racism and white supremacy cease to matter?


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Race and Romance: Coloring the Past Copyright © 2022 by Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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