Cultural identity is an important aspect of our existence. It determines who we are and what we are; it is our connection to people who share our beliefs, customs, values and experiences. In Part One of the novel Cambridge by Caryl Phillips, Emily, having been uprooted from her native land, struggles to discover her true cultural identity, while trying to understand the culture of her new residence on a West Indian plantation. In Part Two Cambridge describes his transition from his African cultural identity to his European cultural identity, and his desperate quest to hang on to the latter during re-enslavement on the West Indian plantation. Through these characters, Caryl Phillips not only portrays the clash between oppressor and oppressed, but he also conveys the idea, even within a context of exploitation, that cultural identity is a continuous process of exchange and transformation. When she arrives on the island, Emily, unaccustomed to leadership, renovates her identity to conform to the oppressor’s ideology. Initially she is described as the “ambassadress of grace” (3), thereby epitomizing the ideology of a nineteenth-century European woman; she displays feminine refinement, modesty, and subservience to the white male.
Once on the plantation, she asserts herself as quizzical but knowledgeable, strong, and arrogant in an effort to understand and form an identity for herself. As a result, she draws an unbreachable line of demarcation between her and her lowly slaves; she acts clearly superior in actions, thoughts, deeds and being. She often likens them to animals; for example, she described Christiania as “the coal-black ape woman” (73) and the children as “the parcel of monkeys” (23). Her racial prejudice, compounded by ignorance and misinformation, clouds her humanity towards the slaves on the plantation, including her loyal servant Stella. Through Emily’s transformation to fit her idea of the quintessential oppressor’s model, Caryl Phillips elucidates the change inducing nature of the institution of slavery, on identity of those exposed to it. On the other hand, Cambridge, unfamiliar with ‘civilization’, renovates his ideology to imitate the European identity.
During his first contact with the “uncivilized [English baboons]” (137), his African identity, as thick as molasses, becomes fractured under the weight of the sufferings he endures. In an effort to reform his shattered identity and find contentment, Cambridge accepts the assistance and support offered by his Christian master and his associates. In so doing, he develops a new resolve “to imbibe the spirit and imitate the manners of Christian men” (143). In his mind, the European ideology represents progress, intelligence, status, and most importantly Christian civilization. He therefore dilutes his African identity, “a barbarity I had fortunately fled” (143), for the sweetening of his European identity. Through Cambridge’s experiences, Caryl Phillips clearly illustrates the transformational potential of the interaction between the oppressor and the oppressed. Through her sufferings though, Emily comes to a deeper understanding of the complex lives around her. Initially, she seeks to understand the slaves around her through those most detached and most racially biased – the white men on the West Indian plantation. She absorbs their ideologies, especially those of supposed learned doctor- Mr. McDonald.
According to him, “the West Indian negro has all the characteristics of his race… he steals, lies,…habitual laziness and wantonly loose in his sexual behavior …” (52). While Emily accepts these associated traits as being unique to the slaves, she disproves the consensus upon conceiving an illegitimate child for Mr. Brown. Soon she begins to question her knowledge: “I do not know. I cannot know. I still have much to learn” (127). On the brink of Emily’s final transformation, she responds to the question of her return to England with a question, “Our country?” (177), expressing her doubt about her European identity. Furthermore, she verbalizes her uncertainty about her actual identity when she says “you may take it that I am not sure of what I am” (179). Through her emotionally and physically painful miscarriage the clouds that fogged her mind clears, and a new valuing of human life is born. She heeds to the admonition of Isabella to not: “grow old in a place that was unkind to her” (182), this perhaps, incites her pause to consider returning home: “After all, it is my home” (178).
Finally, she appreciates the unfailing loyalty and depth of her black companions “poor good” Isabella (182) and “her dear friend” Stella (184). They, like her, belong to a group “whose only journeys were uprootings” (180), and they are the living representations of the slave cultural identity. Cambridge unsuccessfully tries to distance himself from cultures around him to maintain his façade of a European identity. Upon his unfortunate re-enslavement he laments, “That I, a virtual Englishman was to be treated a base African…” (156). His supposed assimilation into the English culture makes him think of himself as indeed British, and no longer African. As a result, on the plantation, he is “[reluctant] to participate in their slave lives” (158). He considers himself superior to their unchristian ways and culture. He even censors Christiania, his wife on the plantation, from his previous life and culture: “I told the girl nothing… not wishing to divulge, in this place of unhappiness, anything…” (158).
Furthermore, he refuses to share his Christianity or cultural belief with his fellow slaves: “it would be unfair to begin to deliver a sermon I might never have the opportunity to conclude” (158). Herein lays the irony and hypocrisy of the Christian ideology, which he treasures, and he is compassionately destined to profess in Africa. Nonetheless, through his rejection of the position as head driver under Mr. Brown’s rule, he “gained the respect of [his] fellow-toilers, who affectionately styled [him] as the black Christian” (161), showing his infusion into the slave culture. Additionally, his strong affection for Christiania and disgust for the misery induced by Mr. Brown causes him to further contradict his Christian ideology: “I finally, with the help of my merciful redeemer, devised a Christian plan” (165). In his accomplishment thereof, he commits the greatest offense to Christianity.
He was humbled in his final punishment, and ends up a rebelling murderer in the eyes of the law, which binds him forever to the identity he desperately tries to shed. Cultural identity is a complex human trait that is constantly in flux as it is influenced by a hodgepodge of factors, including the social environment, gender, race, class, and occupation. The way the changes in cultural identity manifest themselves is also variable among individuals within the influencing categories. For example, the brief, but significant moment of interaction between Emily and Cambridge, “she declined to share them with me…I, in turn declined to share with her” (165), is marked by muted defiance on by both parties. These silent moments distance us from the truth about those who are supposed different from us in some way, shape or form. Caryl Phillips, through the novel Cambridge, successfully illustrated these complexities of cultural identity using primarily the clashing interaction between the oppressor and the oppressed.
Phillips, Caryl. Cambridge. New York: Vintage International, 1993.