Caribbean culture and history

The naming of the West Indies

Wide Sargasso Sea is set on two Caribbean islands, Jamaica and a ‘honeymoon island'. This is not named but is very like Dominica, where Jean Rhys was born. These are just two from an archipelago of islands grouped together as the ‘West Indies' or ‘Caribbean'.

The term ‘West Indies' reflects the mistake attributed to the explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492. On sighting the Bahamas, he believed he had found the goal of his exploration, ‘the Indies' or Asia, reached by sailing westwards from Europe. Historians debate whether or not Columbus actually believed this.

However, the naming of these islands serves as a useful starting point for a brief account of the history of the area as it relates to understanding Wide Sargasso Sea.

Columbus took possession of the Bahamas for Spain and renamed it San Salvador. But the place already had a name, Guanahani, and a native population. This act of possession and renaming is symptomatic of the history of the whole area.

Colonial ownership

The Caribbean came to be called ‘the cockpit of Europe' as other colonial powers, particularly Britain and France, fought with Spain over possession of individual islands. In the process they exterminated the native populations of Amerindians and Caribs through war, disease, exploitation and racial absorption.

These colonial powers needed the resources of the Caribbean islands for economic reasons. They mined them for silver and gold and exported troublesome folk, like convicts, rebels and landless peasants, to work on plantations growing tobacco, coffee, cotton and sugar. When this labour force dwindled or failed, they turned to Africa for workers and imported Africans as slaves.

Unique locations

The terms ‘West Indies' and ‘Caribbean' mask wide cultural and historical differences between the islands. These differences are a product not only of geography but also their differing experiences of colonisation and conflict. It is one of the intrinsic strengths of Wide Sargasso Sea that Jean Rhys carefully locates her Caribbean characters to specific islands and intertwines their personalities with particular cultures and histories.

She also makes the landscapes and places of the novel hint at buried histories. Place names carry historical associations, just as the landscape contains ruins of a former past.


This is the main setting for the story because it is the location for Antoinette's home, Coulibri. The island was originally a Spanish colony but the British seized it from Spain in 1655. Its Spanish history survives in Wide Sargasso Sea in various ways:

  • In place names. For example, Spanish Town is visited by Mr Mason and is also the location of the Mount Calvary convent school. This was the capital of Jamaica from 1692 to 1872. The name reflects its earlier possession by Spanish colonists from 1509
  • In language. For example, Aunt Cora, from a planter family going back generations, faces down the black ‘rebels' at Coulibri by cursing the leader. As a Christian she threatens him with the eternal punishment of Hell where, she says, there would be no refreshing ‘sangoree' to cool his smarting mouth. Sangoree is a refreshing drink made from diluted wine and the word is very close to the Spanish for the same thing, ‘sangria'
  • In songs and stories. For example, in part two of Wide Sargasso Sea Antoinette mentions stories of her grandfather who used the symbolic gesture of crossing the drink he toasted with above a jug of water and she sings a fragment of a Jacobite song. The Jacobites were rebels against the British monarchy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and many of them were sentenced to forced labour on Jamaican plantations. Antoinette's fragments hint that her ancestry goes back to these exiled rebels and show the way they tried to keep alive their old allegiances.


Mountains of Dominica, photo by Riba available through Creative CommonsDominica is one of the Windward Islands, the others being Martinique, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent. It is mountainous and covered with dense rain forest, just like the honeymoon island in part two of Wide Sargasso Sea.

Granbois, the honeymoon house itself, was based on a place Jean Rhys' father bought high up in the mountains, a beautiful but untamed place.

The island has a history of war and conflict used by Jean Rhys in her narrative. The island's original inhabitants, the Arawaks, were driven out by the Caribs. The Caribs came originally from the northern part of South America but expanded their territories to other Caribbean islands by force. When European colonists arrived and tried to settle, they encountered fierce resistance from them. This was especially so in Dominica, where the mountainous terrain provided them with many places to hide.

Eventually, Dominica was settled by the French, although their ownership of the island was challenged by the British throughout the eighteenth century. It was only in 1805 that the British gained final control.

The long history of conflict on this island is registered in Wide Sargasso Sea by place names, songs and language as well as by the continual feeling of threat experienced by Rochester as he walks in the forest around Granbois (French for ‘big woods).


St Pierre, MartiniqueMartinique was another French colony at the time in which the novel is set. Antoinette refers to its capital, St. Pierre, as being the equivalent of the French capital, suggesting a Parisian smartness and style. In 1902 the town was destroyed by a volcano.

Annette and Christophine come from this island and are regarded as foreigners by people on the estate at Coulibri. The island's inhabitants were largely Roman Catholic in religion, whereas Jamaica was Protestant.

Other islands

Two other islands mentioned in the novel are Barbados and St Kitts. Although St. Kitts was colonised successively by the French and the British, Barbados was always a British colony and the first of their colonial islands to produce wealth from a substantial sugar industry. It was nicknamed ‘Little England' and in Wide Sargasso Sea Richard Mason is sent there to school.

The Sargasso Sea

The novel's title comes from a very large area of sea lying between the West Indies and the Azores. Bordered by the Gulf Stream, it is the still centre of a swirl of ocean currents created by the North Atlantic Ocean. The surface of the sea is covered with large floating ‘mats' of Sargasso, a yellow weed. Sailing ships could be becalmed in this area for weeks, an experience which led to many myths of its dangers.

Jean Rhys uses the Sargasso Sea as a metaphor for a barrier stopping the passage of her characters between the West Indies and England. It impedes their geographical transition from one place to the other and also represents a barrier in understanding between the values and attitudes of these two different cultures.

Her poem ‘Obeah Night' is a text in which ‘Rochester' examines his own motives in his relationship with Antoinette. He talks of the near impossibility of escaping from the weed- and wreck-infested sea.

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