Professor Frank Felsenstein, Professor Heather Nathans, Professor Jenna Gibbs and director of 2015 production of Yarico Emily Gray
Excerpt from “Mercantile Deformities: George Colman's Inkle and Yarico and the Racialization of Class Relations” by Daniel O’Quinn, Theatre Journal vol. 54
Of all the late eighteenth-century comedies set in colonial spaces none is as important as George Colman's highly successful comic opera Inkle and Yarico (1787) for understanding the relationship between shifts in British imperial policy and the racialization of class on the London stage. Of crucial importance is the apparent contradiction between the play's supposed abolitionist gestures and its explicitly racist representations of Africans and Native Americans. These ostensible political contradictions and confusions regarding racial identity are part of a larger re-calibration of colonial relations that is thoroughly enmeshed in the stabilization of the white middle class body in the metropole. This radical re-orientation of the narrative's historical function can be excavated from the opera's reception history. Inkle and Yaricoopened on August 4, 1787 at the Haymarket and is thus one of the latest manifestations of a tale that was repeated so often during the eighteenth-century that it has been described as an archive for a history of colonial thought in the period. The early reviews and accounts of the first runs tended to focus on the performance of affect in the character of Yarico and how the feeling elicited by her character was mobilized in a condemnation of Inkle's mercantile greed. However, these understandings of the play as a critique of mercantilism were superceded by assertions that the opera was an example of abolitionism avant la lettre . When Inchbald anthologized the opera in the early nineteenth-century, she applauded Colman's prescient concern for humanity in chains:
This is a drama, which might remove from Mr. Wilberforce his aversion to theatrical exhibitions, and convince him, that the teaching of moral duty is not confined to particular spots of ground . . . . [The opera] was popular before the subject of abolition of the slave trade was popular. It has the peculiar honour of preceding that great question. It was the bright forerunner of alleviation of the hardships of slavery.
However, this attempt to ascribe abolitionist intent to Inkle and Yarico is strained by the critical contortions required to direct Colman's play at the African slave trade. As Inchbald herself recognizes, Yarico is not an African and the first act is set in the Americas. Her suggestion that this is a lapse in composition only has merit if one wants the play to be specifically about the African trade. It is difficult not to read her gesture as part of a large scale re-writing of colonial history following the American Revolution aimed at suppressing the prior relationship between the American and the Carribean colonies. My suggestion is that Colman's Inkle and Yarico addresses a spe-cific historical moment in colonial economics that has been superceded by the time Inchbald anthologizes the play. In subtle ways, Colman is much more concerned with a critical yet exculpatory reading of mercantile ideology that paves the way for precisely the kind of arguments against the slave trade which simultaneously highlight its economic obsolescence and its moral turpitude. Thus Colman's play performs a re-adjustment of the colonial encounter to fit emergent forms of biological state racism and as such plays a crucial mediating role between the constructions of race endemic to England's mercantile economy and those which come into full hegemonic force in the early nineteenth century.
The Hon. Stephen Lashley Minister of Culture Barbados
The story of Yarico raises the issues of equality, gender and tolerance; issues that we must all confront and deal with frankly, while at the same time embracing the concept of fairness in every discourse. Notwithstanding the above, the symbolism of Yarico takes us past the dark history of slavery, the resilience of our people and the empowerment gained over time as we became proud of self and identity. It speaks to the value of heritage and how it can contribute to economic development.
Frank Felsenstein, Reed D. Voran Honors Distinguished Professor of Humanities,
Ball State University, Indiana, U.S.A.
Loosely based on a factual account in Richard Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (London, 1657), the tale of Inkle and Yarico became one of the best known and most compelling anti-slavery narratives of the eighteenth century. Its fame was due to its imaginative reworking by Richard Steele in an early issue (no. 11) of The Spectator (London, 1711), a periodical that was reprinted countless times in Great Britain and North America, and translated into all of the major European languages. It has been estimated that, following Steele’s popularization of the tale, there were more than sixty different later retellings, taking the form of poetic epistles, dramas, mime, ballet, and sequels. Among the best known was the comic opera by George Colman the Younger, with music by Samuel Arnold (1787), which was widely performed in Great Britain and North America. In giving the piece a happy ending in which the main couple are reconciled and married, Colman responded to the sentimentalism of his age. The manuscript of a related anti-slavery farce, Incle [sic] and Yarico (c. 1787), by the English abolitionist writer, John Thelwall , is preserved in the Osborne Collection at Yale. During the eighteenth century, the tale of Inkle and Yarico was most in vogue in England, France, and Germany, though it continued to be told well into the nineteenth century across the Caribbean and in the United States, where it was eventually subsumed by the indigenous story of Pocahontas. For its era, the tale graphically illustrated the callousness and mercenary propulsion of the slave trade, as also the inherent nobility and human feelings of the enslaved. Charles James Fox , who later proposed the successful motion in Parliament to abolish slavery from Great Britain, poetically described Inkle as one who was willing to “barter love for gold”, and Yarico as a pathetic victim “to fierce barbarians vilely sold” (“Yarico to Inkle”, 1802). Significantly, in many renditions of the tale, Yarico is depicted as an African rather than a native American.