Thursday, April 6, 2017

Inkle and Yarico: Notes from a Conference

Islands, the theme of this year's College English Association conference, inspired papers on the relationship of utopias to islands. Islands often function as the space "out there," the original Atlantis or the imagined Avalon, places more perfect than our current locations. While in some ways the concreteness of the island theme-- as opposed to more abstract themes from prior years such as "imagination" or "borders"--could interfere with papers, it also led to many rich explorations.

An 18th century depiction of "islanders"

One speaker explored artistic representations of the story of Inkle and Yarico,  popularized by Richard Steele in "An Ekphrastic Interlude," in The Spectator 13 March 1711. It remained a famous tale throughout the 18th century. 

The Spectator version follows, based on a true story:

Thomas Inkle, shipwrecked in the Americas, was befriended by the  Indian maid, Yarico. The two became lovers, and Inkle promised to marry Yarico if she would help him escape to England. He said he would dress her in silk gowns and promised her all the good life civilization offered. She hailed a ship, the two boarded it, it arrived at Barbados and there Inkle immediately moved to sell Yarico into slavery. She revealed she was pregnant with his child, begging him for this reason not to sell her, but he used this information to raise her price and proceeded with the sale. After all, as Steele explains, he was a "prudent and frugal" young man.

Inkle and Yarico: she protected him. He sold her.

While Frank Felsenstein, the presenter, gave out a photocopy of the Steele version of the story, I lost it, so was pleased when I got home to find it in one of my collected volumes of The Spectator. In this essay, Steele frames "Inkle and Yarico" as the response of a lady, Arietta, to a male's derisive telling of Petronius's "The Widow of Ephesus," a tale of female inconstancy. In this story, a woman is mourning her dead husband in an underground tomb. Bodies of disgraced, "hanged" (crucified) criminals are nearby, and a guard watches over them so that their families can't steal the bodies and bury them. The guard brings the widow food, and soon the two are in love. Unfortunately, the guard spends so much time in the tomb with the lady that a family is able to steal back a body. Rather than lose her new lover to punishment for neglecting his job, the widow gives him the body of her dead husband to crucify in place of the missing corpse. This is held up as an example of female fickleness, annoying to Arietta, who, Steele dryly comments, like most women "out of a nicer Regard to their Honour, or what other Reason I cannot tell, are more sensibly touched by those Aspersions which are cast upon their Sex, than Men are by what is said of theirs."

Arietta counters the Petronius tale with the story of saga of Inkle and Yarico. Clearly, the point is made: the betrayal and sale of a living woman is far worse than using a dead body to help someone out of a jam.

Felsenstein used slides to show how artists represented the Inkle and Yarico story. It was, for example, turned into poems and included in a 1750s book of poetry, written more than once into a play, translated into other languages, put on an American coin and painted on vases and Wedgewood plaques. This ubiquitous tale was even used to illustrate the letter Y in an 1811 children's alphabet book, with Yarico shown partially dressed.

The abolition movement, nonexistent in 1711 but gaining steam as the century progressed, adopted Yarico, and for obvious reasons began to represent her as increasingly africanized rather than Native American. As with Uncle Tom's Cabin, her story was increasingly ridiculed in the 19th century after slavery was abolished. 

Felsenstein cited an article by WJT Mitchell on "Ekphrasis and the Other," which connects ekphrasis, the depiction of art in literature, to female otherness by arguing that we privilege speech over visual representation in the culture, and thus the ekphratic object is subject to the male gaze and must rely on others as its voice.While at first glance this does not seem to relate to Yarico, as clearly images of her carried a powerful narrative force in their own right and became a shorthand for abolition, Yarico becomes reduced to an object under Inkle's gaze. Inkle sees Yarico not as fully human but as a thing whose use value changes based on context and whose worth is framed by his own needs. Given that the story is situated within a proto-feminist debate about the sexes in Steele's telling, one wonders if the saga would have played out the same way if Inkle had been a woman and Yarico a man: would a white female Inkle have sold her deliverer into slavery? Interestingly too, the Steele story emphasizes the mesmerizing effect on Yarico of Inkle's long, beautiful locks of hair: Mitchell makes much of the gaze of the snake-haired Medusa, leading to the idea that Yarico was perhaps hypnotized by Inkle's sexual power, tragically mistaking it for love and compassion.

As an interesting parallel, another paper on the panel discussed the use of animals in Robinson Crusoe, arguing that Defoe reveals a complex and sympathetic relationship to animals in his novel, putting pressure on the abstract distinction between humans and animals. Crusoe initially relies on animals for companionship, and feels compassion and empathy towards them. However, these emotions battle with his desire to establish a hierarchy and exploit animals: in the end, as with Inkle, prudence and frugality win and Crusoe uses animals for his own benefit. Perhaps we need to reevaluate prudence and frugality as virtues?

Crusoe and his parrot

One must imagine that Jane Austen was familiar with the story of Inkle and Yarico, and that she had probably read the Steele account, with its pro-women framing. She was no stranger to the idea of women thrown under the bus--or carriage wheels--in the interest of prudence and frugality. Certainly Sense and Sensibility shows the gradual reduction of John Dashwood's sisters to objects willingly sacrificed, with the urging of his wife, to "prudence and frugality."

Finally, as eco-feminists point out, treatment of animals is related to treatment of women, and, as we know, women are often derisively characterized as animals, revealing the contempt in which both are held. Arguably, humane treatment of animals is related to humane treatment of women, and leaders who refer to women as cows and pigs are not behaving innocently. I certainly wouldn't dishonor animals by likening them to some of our revered heads of state. 


  1. Excellent post, Diane! I will respond in greater length in the groups.

  2. Thanks Arnie. I was hoping you would enjoy it.

  3. Yes superb posting about a complex issue where the disturbingly popular story of Inkle and Yaricho only lost its hold on the public after the abolition of slavery. It should be a deeply troubling story, and it would be telling if one could gather information on cases where the freed slave is a male.

    I admit to some side jealousy: for many years now I've read Felsentein's postings and URLs to good essays and other works on slavery. I've never seen what he looks like.

    Austen could have read the story in other versions beyond Steele's (as you suggest). She did though read and reject Southey's Letters from England where, presenting himself as Spanish, Southey strongly critiqued slavery, the relationship of animals and humans.

    The more we can learn about this earlier period, given the horrors of our political power cliques, the better off we are in the sense of what to expect.

  4. Thanks Ellen. I didn't know Felsenstein had a web presence. In a panel of older men he was a friendly looking, slim white haired man, pleasing in appearance (as they all were). He has apparently done a good deal of work on the Inkle story. I thought this quote near the end of the Steele essay was telling in light of both Austen and how people give in to perceived (after all, this anxiety goes on only in Inkle's mind) social and economic pressures: "To be short, Mr. Thomas Inkle, now coming into English Territories, began seriously to reflect upon his loss of Time, and to weigh with himself how many Days Interest of his Mony he had lost during his Stay with Yarico. This thought made the Young Man very pensive, and careful what Account he should be able to give to his Friends of his voyage."

  5. Your comment has reminded me that Felsenstein has done an edition, which I own (!), an Inkle and Yarico reader entitled: English Trader, Indian Maid: Representing Gender, Race, and Slavery in the New World. It consists of a whole host of texts telling this story, including the one I first read it in: Frances Seymour, Countess of Hertford, a verse epistle. She is one of my foremother poets and I know her work because she was the niece of Ann Finch, Countess of Winchelsea. I am very fond of Frances Seymour

    She was a kind, gentle woman, very generous to Anne Finch. I've also read in this volume Steele's and Charles Fox's vese. It was a story that had great resonance for abolitionists. Even Wordsworth weighed in.

    Prof Felsenstein has a website, but his presence is in highly respected editions and anthologies.