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William Earle, Jr. Obi; or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack (1800 novella)

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A scene from Obi, or Three-fingered Jack courtesy of The Trustees of the National Library of Scotland.

Obi or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack is a novella written by British author, William Earle and originally published in 1800. The story revolves around an escaped Jamaican slave and his efforts to avenge his family and his people. Although Three-Fingered Jack was a historical figure, well known in both Jamaica and England, very little is actually known about his origins or his exploits. Popular accounts of the character relied heavily on assumption and fancy and, as a result, vary considerably. Earle’s novella, however, is the most ambitious, version of the story and begins with the capture and enslavement of Three-Fingered Jack’s parents. When his father is killed during in the middle passage, Jack’s pregnant mother vows to raise her son for the singular purpose of revenge against Captain Harrop, the man responsible for their suffering. When Jack comes of age on the Jamaican plantation, he begins his mission and quickly becomes the bane of the Jamaican planters. Soon, his purpose evolves from simply avenging his parents to becoming “the abolisher of the slave trade” and he assembles a band of escaped slaves that wreaks havoc on the British colony until he is eventually captured and killed for bounty by the freed slave, James Reeder (Earle, 95).

Major Themes Edit

Abolition Edit

One notable aspect of Obi or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack is its overt abolitionist leanings. Because historical information about Three-Fingered Jack was so scarce, the story was susceptible to manipulation from both ends of the political spectrum, and was often used to both support and indict the British slave trade. While many accounts of Three-Fingered Jack depict him merely as a terrorist or boogeyman, including a melodrama by William Murray and a pantomime by John Fawcett, Earle’s treatment explicitly presents him as “a bold and daring defender of the Rights of Man” and “as great a man as ever graced the annals of history” (68, 157). In order to gain his readers sympathy, Earle invests considerable effort into depicting the horrors of the slave trade and the immoral transgressions of those who practice it. Jack’s parents are introduced as a noble people who are, at once, proud and empathetic. It is even Jack’s mother who rescues and nurses to health Captain Harrop, who in turn deceives and sells her as a slave. Earle’s novella captures the tortures of the middle passage and plantation slavery through the eyes of his daring and heroic characters. In his introduction, Earle states his purpose:

“to commemorate the name of Jack, and place upon the list of heroes, one who, had he shone in a higher sphere, would have proved as bright a luminary as ever graced the Roman annals, or ever boldly asserted the rights of a Briton His cause was great and noble, for to private wrongs he added the liberty of his countrymen, and stood alone a bold and daring defender of the Rights of Man”
(Earle, 68).
Since the story is framed within a correspondence between two Englishmen, Earl takes advantage of the many opportunities he has to insert his abolitionist perspective through the letters of the narrator, who denounces the character of Captain Harrop and other slavers claiming, “those are not my countrymen, whose inhumanity is the subject of my page” (Earle, 82).

Obeah Edit

The “Obi” part of Obi or, The History of Three Fingered Jack refers to the historical religious practice of many West African slaves in the Caribbean. Similar to the role Voodoo played in the culture and revolution of Haiti, Obeah became a unifying element among slaves in Jamaica, and as such was scorned by white planters. In his 1799 publication, A Treatise on Sugar, Benjamin Moseley writes, “the science of Obi is very extensive [...] for the purpose of bewitching people, or consuming them by lingering illness [...] of which the Europeans are at this time ignorant” (163). Indeed little was known about the source and nature of Obeah, and it became the source of much superstition on the part of many slaves as well as planters.

In the more fantastical component of Obi or, The History of Three Fingered Jack, much of Jack’s power is attributed to the Obi he receives from his mother. Jack’s Obi is said to possess so many “more than common qualities” that “the arms of his foe should fall defenseless from their grasp” (Earle, 105). Others supposed that Jack’s Obi “was to answer every wish of its possessor” (Earle, 105). Earle, of course, is conscious of his Christian readership and limits the power of Jack's Obi to this end. The only instance in which Three-Fingered Jack's Obi fails him is his battle with James Reeder who has just converted to Christianity and posses the "White Obi". In a final confrontation with Reeder, the usually fearless Three-Fingered Jack, "started back in dismay; he was cowed; for he had prophesied that White Obi should overcome him, and he know the charm in Reeder's hands, would lose none of its virtue or power" (Earle, 156). In this way, Earle can rely on the magic of Obi to surround the character of Three-Fingered Jack with fear and wonder without scandalizing his British, Christian audience.

Relevance to Romanticism and Revolution Edit

Even aside from it's narrative power, Earle's 1800 novella is an example of one of the main ways political activists tried to garner support for the abolition of slavery. Many of the common rhetorical devices often found in nonfiction slave narratives and abolitionist literature can be found within the novella, including moral, ethical, and religious appeal. Earle's purpose can be read in the epigraph to Obi or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack that comes from sonnet III of Robert Southey's Poems concerning the Slave Trade:

"--------------------------------------Oh! ye who at your ease
Sip the blood-sweetened beverage! thoughts like these
Haply ye scorn: I thank thee, gracious God!
That I do Feel Upon my cheek the glow
Of indignation, when beneath the rod
A sable brother writhes in silent woe."
(Southey).

Here, the "blood-sweetened beverage" refers to the tea drunk by the English and sweetened with sugar from Caribbean plantations. This was a common rallying cry for the growing number of British abolitionists who extended the principles of the Rights of Man beyond European political systems.

Obi or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack is compelling and atypical in its attempt to elevate the character of an African slave to heroic legend. Earle's depiction seems to defy the image of terrorism and nuisance that was commonly ascribed to the historical figure of Three-Fingered Jack, couching his acts of violence in a discourse of political justice. By naming Jack "a bold and daring defender of the Rights of Man," Earle is putting the controversial debate of abolition in direct conversation with Thomas Paine's original rhetoric and the French Revolution as a whole. Although there was plenty of anxiety about the growing proportion of slaves to free men in European colonies, many people felt that the principles of the French Revolution would not spread to the Caribbean or that the slaves were incapable of adopting such ideas. Nevertheless, the success of the Haitian slave revolt, the autonomy of maroon towns, and the existence of Three-Fingered Jack are evidence that the Romantic principle of revolution was not just confined to an event in French history, but a global shift that affected the African diaspora in a profound way.

Sources/Relevant Links Edit

Earle, William, and Srinivas Aravamudan. Obi, Or, The History of Three-fingered Jack. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2005. Print.

Moseley, Benjamin. A Treatise on Sugar. London: Printed for G.G. and J. Robinson, Paternoster-Row, 1799. Print.

Szwydky, Lissette L. ""Rewriting the History of Black Resistance: The Haitian Revolution, Jamaican Maroons and the “History” of Three-Fingered Jack in English Popular Culture, 1799-1830"" Romantic Circles. N.p., Oct. 2011. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.

Romantic Circles, Circulations: Romanticism and the Black Atlantic

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