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Inkle and Yarico

Written by Adele S. Newson for World Literature Today on no date provided

Like Stedman and Joanna (see WLT 67:1, p. 219), Inkle & Yarico is a historical romance. Set in Barbados, it is a historical romance in the true sense of the genre - historical in that the characters actually existed, and a romance in the elements of adventure contained within. It is a genre much used by the contemporary writer for various ends. Doris Lessing’s Love, Again for example, employs the genre within a contemporary story about the realities of aging (see WLT 70:4, p.959). Gilroy seems to use it to illuminate the heart of the class struggle in Britain.

The story is told in the first person by Tommy Inkle, the youngest of three sons of an upper-class British family, who describes himself as 'the tallest, the strongest, the Adonis of the family, greatly petted by my mother and spoilt by my father.' His adventures begin when he is dispatched to Barbados to investigate the affairs of a plantation owned by the family. He leaves behind a fiancée, Alice Sawyer, with the promise of returning to marry her one year from his departure date. His plans are thwarted as the ship encounters inclement weather, and the remaining crew is forced to take shelter on an island inhabited by Black Caribs. The crew is promptly clubbed while Inkle takes shelter in a cave with the help of the chief’s daughter Yarico. When he is discovered by the rest of the tribe, his life is spared as Yarico declares him her lover.

For seven years Inkle is captive on the island. He marries Yarico, fathers a son, Waiyo, participates in the tribe’s initiation, falls in love with a woman captured during a raid, and buries the woman, his son, and his father-in-law. Throughout the novel, he continually evaluates his existence with a jaundiced eye. Among the Black Caribs he initially sees himself as 'a useless man in the midst of savages who thought me a candidate for an institution for the lunatic - which was in their life a pit in the depths of the forest.'

After his rescue he is taken to Barbados - 'the most English of islands' - where he sells Yarico for £130 to secure the funds needed to make his reentry into society. By this time, Yarico has given birth to a second son, Adam, whom he throws overboard as the transaction is completed. With the interest of the local cream of society, Inkle is able to create a thriving antique and furniture business while he leaves the care of his plantation to an overseer. During a business trip to St. Lucia, he encounters his lost love, Alice, who has married John Clarkson, a doctor and abolitionist. Alice, by this time, has developed into a person of her own with strong convictions on the rights of humans - slaves and lower-class peoples. His ardor for her is cooled by her progress. In comparing her with Anne, a member of Barbadian society who hopes to marry him, he observes: '[Alice] seems full of something sturdier. Where [she] carried sap, she contained matter that had crystallized into causes, beliefs and convictions: resentment of injustice and hatred of slavery… There was nothing I could do to return her to that simple state which had encouraged my parents to choose her as my lifelong companion.'

Inkle has an affair with a local prostitute who is also of the Irish peasant class. She too gives him a son, Christian, whom Alice and Dr. Clarkson take into their care. They had also taken Yarico under their care just after Inkle sold her. She is free now and known as the Spirit Woman and inhabits the forest of the island.

Ultimately, Inkle marries Anne, a woman whom he describes as having 'A most disarming manner… [who] saw dread in every enterprise or adventure and then, as if to reassure herself, she added an errand to complicate it further.' Still, they are well suited in their outlooks on race and class. At the end of the novel he is a leading anti-abolitionist, traveling around Europe to advance the cause,
Gilroy’s work is at once simple and complex. It is travel literature communicated through an unreliable narrator. Inkle’s way of being in the world is informed by cultural miscalculations and fear. From his initial or learned observations on civilization to his assessment of female enterprise among the Black Caribs, he resists transculturation or change. His father, a wheeler and dealer in London society, tells him in his last letter before his departure to Barbados: 'There are six classes of mankind. The rich who live plentifully; the middle sort who live well; the working trades who labour hard but feel no want; the country folk who fare indifferently; the poor that toil hard, but who do not suffer want; and the miserable who suffer want. Remember: you are of the first class.' His father’s words reinforce and firmly ground Inkle’s cultural arrogance and prevent meaningful interaction with the host of characters he encounters in his adventures. At one point, Chief Tomo admonishes him to think less with his head and more with his heart - something Inkle is unable to do for his fear of 'losing civilization.' Even during the trial of his initiation, Inkle muses, 'If I died in my attempt to become a man… the implications for my ‘tribe’ would be severe.'

The work is also something of a parody on European expansion, where Inkle might be viewed as the forthright explorer, Chief Tomo as the betrayed other (African and Indian), Alice Sawyer as the symbol of yearning, the ideal for whom the explorer labours, and Yarico as the simple native or 'nature’s child.' The reality, however, is that each character is more complex than his or her respective descriptions and actions suggest. Gilroy offers no simple answers or explanation; rather, hers is an exploration in the nature of human contact and deportment. And in the end, the doubts linger. Inkle’s last words are: 'As for Yarico, what is she now in my scheme of things? I cannot tell! I cannot tell!'

The novel is based on a historical narrative originating in the late seventeenth century which appeared in a number of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century versions. Gilroy’s afterword contains the version written by Richard Steele in 1711. Steele’s account features the couple’s affair, Inkle’s rescue and the subsequent sale of Yarico to a Barbadian merchant. Gilroy’s account expands upon the implications of race class and culture in a most satisfying way.

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