Colonialism and Neocolonialism in Annie John

Colonialism pervades Annie John (1985) by Jamaica Kincaid as a theme underlying the action in the eventful life of a little girl and her coming of age into adolescence. Colonialism is defined as that “governing system by which an imperial nation dominates or exerts sovereign control and influence over administrative dependencies, territories or people” (New World Encyclopaedia). Moreover, it is considered the “practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). In the discourse of colonialism, three phasal points are projected in the life cycle of both the colonial country and the protagonist herself: (a) dependence or dependency, (b) development and (c) independence or autonomy. Living in the small island of Antigua, rediscovered by Columbus (1493), conquered by the British (1632) but then awarded independence (1981), Annie John experiences these stages of life as she matures, faces challenges and finally breaks free as a emancipated, young adult.

In the narrative, the vestiges of colonialism in the area of education survive as young Antiguans must study Colonial History and British Literature as part of the core curriculum. Annie John mentions that she has to study Thomas Coke’s “A History of the West Indies” (1808) – a British historian and Methodist bishop; John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1667), a British poet and her favourite novel, Jane Eyre (1847), composed by British novelist Charlotte Brönte. She also avidly reads “The Schoolgirl’s Own Annual” a British weekly journal featuring articles on the lives and adventures of aristocratic, boarding schoolgirls. The headmistress or principal of Annie John’s school, named Miss Moore, hails straight from England and so is her doctor, Dr. Stephens. In contrast, had colonialism weakened, an Afrocentric or Caribbean-centered approach in education would have been implemented. Slave history and African culture would have figured more prominently both in theory, and in practice in celebration of a unique identity. However, Antiguans as well as most Caribbean inhabitants cherish and imbibe classic British scholarship, considering it as most prestige and elite. As a matter of fact, the only channel of freedom for Annie John transplants her to the UK, where she undergoes training as a nurse.

First of all, the conquerors employ religion as a colonizing tool to dominate and manipulate subjects in the New World, including Antigua. The deployment of Christopher Columbus by the Catholic kings and the christianization of Antigua with both Catholicism and Methodism as the religions of the majority, attest to the hierarchy of Christianity and its exercise of governance over the collective psychology. Through the efforts of zealous missionary efforts of priests and preachers, large masses convert to the new ‘Christian’ faith. Like most Antiguans, Annie John is Anglican which church originated in England. In all of these examples, one realizes that colonial supremacy reigns ascendant over a major pillar of society – religion. The only strategy for resistance to universal colonialism lies in a syncretic version, as with the African slaves of old, in which both Christianity and pagan tradition are fused to form a new identity. Antiguans meld both Christianity and Obeah or Voodoo as in the case of Annie John’s family who contract the services of Ma Jolie. Ma Jolie and other herbal doctors serve as both spiritual guide and health practitioner for several poor citizens in Dominica and Antigua. For them, they do not have to surrender either identity as they embrace both the universal religion and their native beliefs.

As she matures, Annie John grows to despise colonialism and its overbearing impact on her culture, life and people. At school, she plainly voices her scorn for Christopher Columbus. “King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had sent him back to Spain fettered in chains attached to the bottom of a ship. What just deserts, I thought, for I did not like Columbus. How I loved this picture – to see the usually triumphant Columbus brought so low” (Kincaid 78). She understands that Columbus, the revered historical icon, actually plundered and violated the indigenous peoples, snatched their lands and introduced an oppressive and galling slavery. Annie John’s consequent action entails the defacement of the image of Columbus on her school textbook which instigated trouble for her. Here, one perceives bitterness, resentment and even vitriol towards the colonial conquerors of Spain. In her eyes, the subjugation of one country or one people to another could never be justified – not even for imperial or economic objectives. One notices Annie’s despising colonialism in her reflections on slavery. In her assessment of a British classmate, Ruth, Annie John observes that “Perhaps she wanted to be in England, where no one would remind her constantly of the terrible things her ancestors had done … her ancestors had been the masters, while ours had been the slaves. She had such a lot to be ashamed of … ” (Kincaid 76). In her eyes, slavery had wreaked such havoc on humanity and the Caribbean cultural identity that the reproachful burden of guilt could never be atoned. She shows her struggle in reconciling past wrongs with harsh modern realities of an unequal society.

On the contrary, there also subsists the sentiments of sycophant reverence for all things British. Many indications harken back to the Golden Age Victorian England. Antiguans still celebrated Queen Victoria’s birthday or the Queen’s Jubilee. Attempting to sound sophisticated, some schoolboys “were looking at (Annie John) and bowing as they said in an exaggerated tone of voice, pretending to be grownup gentlemen living in Victorian times, “Hallo Madame…” (Kincaid 99). At the end of the book, Annie John does what most colonial citizens do to better themselves, return to the imperial motherland in search for opportunity. She ventures on a boat to England in the hopes of becoming a certified and respected nurse. Although not naturally inclined to go to England, her parents are convinced that this migratory step would serve best for her.

Noteworthy is the instance when assigned as prefect in her class, a position of authority, Annie John is gifted with the book entitled, Roman Britain possibly authored by R. G. Collingwood (1900) Roger R. Sellman (1966) or J.S. Wacher (1976). This book refers to imperial Rome’s invasion and conquest of Britain under Julius Caesar, the rout of the Anglo-Saxons and Britain’s subsequent tributary role. Here designates the sovereignty of Rome, at her pinnacle ironically establishing another empire to rule the world. Her receipt of the book marks the period when she too acquires a measure of control in the classroom and over her classmates. However, corresponding to other tyrannical empires, she ends up abusing her power and never becomes a model exemplar.

At Annie John’s Brownie meetings, she reports that it started “with the whole troop standing in the yard of the Methodist church forming a circle around the flagpole, our eyes following the Union Jack as it was raised up; then we swore allegiance to our country, by which was meant England” (Kincaid 115). Her many allusions to colonialism or the pre-Independence era of Antigua, serves to compare her own desire for independence as a young lady. Her constant resistance to authority in her rebellious adolescence demonstrates this fact.

In sum, the British colonial system curtailed man’s free-will; however, in Annie John, one discerns in a young girl the signs of active resistance and rebellion which ironically terminate in a return to the imperial motherland – England. As colonialism encroaches on the rights of colonial subjects, Annie John feels that her mother invades her individual rights to autonomy. Strangely, Annie John also yearns for her mother and clings to her, until her mother literally must detach from her and force her into adulthood. In the realm of culture and politics, this transition (indicating rupture from the mother to maturity) can also signify the passage of a nation into independence and yet, blind adherence to a past identity that is obsolete and incongruous.

Works Cited

Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. Vintage Publishing Company, 1985.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Colonialism https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/colonialism/

New World Encyclopedia – Colonialism http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Colonialism

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