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The Collation

The Carib Garifuna Chief: Transatlantic Images of Chatoyer in the Early 19th Century

A picture of a man with brown skin and dark curly hair in a colorful costume.
A picture of a man with brown skin and dark curly hair in a colorful costume.

William Alexander Brown was the founder of the African Grove Theatre Company – the first professional theatre group in the United States whose players were people of African descent. The Company operated out of lower Manhattan in the 1820s and continued until at least the 1840s.1 It started with a tearoom he established on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village that he called ‘St Vincents House’. Brown, who was a former ship’s steward, tailor and stage manager, was likely born on the island of St Vincent and of Garifuna heritage. Besides performing the most popular dramas of the time (Richard Sheridan’s Pizarro, John Fawcett’s Obi, or, Tree-Fingered Jack and mainstays Richard III, Hamlet and, Macbeth) The African Grove Theatre Company performed one original play that is forever connected with Brown’s legacy. Shotaway, or, The Insurrection of the Caribs of St. Domingo, later shortened to The Drama of King Shotaway, was first performed in 1822 and is no longer extant. Performed in lines dictated by Brown to his actors, the play is based on the events of the Second Carib War between the Garifuna (erroneously called “Black Caribs”) of St Vincent, led at the start by Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer and his brother Charles Du Valle, against the British colonists on the island from 1795-1797. Chatoyer died early in the conflict and two years later the Garifuna were violently exiled to Central America where communities continued to grow and flourish despite many hardships.

What brought me to the Folger was a search for The Drama of King Shotaway through some of its antecedents. Scholarship that examines the politics, aesthetics and ultimate traumas connected to the representation of race from the early modern period to the present is well established. The research of Joyce Green Macdonald, Margo Hendricks, Kim F. Hall, Roxann Wheeler, Ayanna Thompson, Farah Karim-Cooper, and the scholars who are part of the RaceB4Race network (of which the Folger is a partner), all seek to reestablish the grounds on which we examine what Noémie Ndiaye calls the “new racial regime” aimed at creating race-based hierarchies in the Global Renaissance and early modern period.2 This present study, conceived of during my PhD research at the University of Cambridge into the colonial Caribbean and during my time as a Folger Shakespeare Library Research Fellow, builds on and hopefully enters into dialogue with these scholars through the lens of empire, specifically the cautions around representations of Caribbean slavery, Blackness and Indigeneity during the period before Emancipation.

Enter Horace Twiss. A member of the famous Kemble family of actors and theatre managers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that included his grandfather Roger Kemble, uncles John Phillip and Henry Kemble, and aunt Sarah Siddons (Figure 1). Twiss’s other aunt, Anne Hatton, wrote the opera Tammany; Or, The Indian Chief with composer James Hewitt, which premiered at the John Street Theatre, NY in 1794. Sponsored by the New York branch of the Tammany Society, the production was one of the earliest attempts at depicting Native Americans on the stage in America. Although he studied law and was a barrister for the Inner Temple, Twiss shared his family’s ambitions for a career on the stage, cultivating friendships with Percy Shelley, John Keats, Horace Smith, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Before devoting his life to politics that lead to him becoming Secretary for the Colonies, Twiss attempted a career in theatre by first writing Siddons’s farewell address in 1812 and then a play titled The Carib Chief. The play debuted on May 13, 1819 and ran for ten performances at Drury Lane Theatre, then managed by his uncle John (Figure 2).

A black and white engraving of Sarah Siddons, a woman with an elaborate hat and gown, looking off into the left of the painting
Figure 1. S. Siddons [graphic] / from an original painting by [Thomas] Gainsborough. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Co., [19th century?] ART File S568 no.3 (size S). LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection
A colored illustration of a theater with a high stage surrounded by several floors of seats, all full
Figure 2. Drury Lane Theatre. Thomas Rowlandson, 1756-1827, printmaker. ART File L847t1 D1 no.11 (size M). LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection

The Carib Chief made its way across cities in England and Scotland (Figure 3), before crossing the Atlantic for sold out performances in Philadelphia, Boston and New York in 1820. I believe the publication of the play and the New York performances inspired William Alexander Brown to create and direct the first play by a Black person in America with the first Black professional theatre group as a correcting narrative.3

A playbill advertising a performance of The Carib Chief at the Theatre-Royal in Edinburgh
Figure 3. “Theatre-Royal, Edinburgh. Mr. Kean Being Engaged to Perform for Twelve Nights, Will make His Last Appearance Here But One. This present Evening, Friday, Oct. 8. 1819 ... The Carib Chief.” PLAYBILL 265451. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection

Historical and cultural imaginative tensions exist between The Carib Chief and The Drama of King Shotaway. The time spent during this fellowship has been used to conduct research using the Folger Library’s extensive digital archive to connect the stories of these two plays. Set on the island of Dominica during the Elizabethan period, the plot of The Carib Chief centers on Chief Omreah of the southern kingdom and his co-leader Chief Maloch of the northern kingdom. Omreah returns from two years in slavery to exact revenge on Governor Montalbert and the French, responsible for murdering his family and taking control over the island. Maloch has been planning an attack on the French with English allies, including Trefusis, who had been locked away since the time of Omreah’s insurrection. Trefusis is in love with Carib woman Claudina, who recently married her guardian Montalbert after he convinced her that Trefusis died. The play ends with the death of Maloch at the hands of Montalbert, and the murder of Claudina by the Caribs. In her dying moments she is revealed to be the child Omreah believed to have died years before and he stabs himself out of grief. Both Montalbert and Trefusis make vows to leave the island and return control to the Caribs. Described by a review in The Theatrical Inquisitor in May 1819 as “mere noisy melo-drama”, Edmund Kean’s memorable performance of Omreah is what carried The Carib Chief’s popularity. The image of Kean as Omreah (Figure 4) available in the Folger Digital Image Collection was the first I’d encountered of Kean depicted as an African-descended character apart from his role as Othello. There is a strong resemblance between the two drawings made by Robert Cruikshank and Charles Tomkins only one year apart (Figure 5). What isn’t clear – though strongly suggested by the dialogue between representations of Blackness and Indigeneity in these two drawings – is whether Kean would have blackened his face to portray Omreah. This is the period in theatre history when Blackface minstrelsy was reaching its height. Charles Matthews, a friend and associate of Twiss, was among the first to bring this racist mocking and unreal portrayal to Britain after he attended performances of the African Grove Theatre Company in New York. For his efforts he was called out and condemned by the Grove’s principal actor James Hewlett.

A picture of a man with brown skin and dark curly hair in a colorful costume.
Figure 4. Robert Cruikshank. Mr. Kean as Omreah…Carib Chief, Act 5, Scene 3. ART File K24.4 no.25. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection
A drawing of a man with brown skin and dark hair holding a sword in one hand and a lamp in the other
Figure 5. Charles Tomkins, Mr. Kean as Othello. ART 255814 (size S). London : published by W. West, Exeter House, Exeter Strt., Strand, Dec. 1, 1818. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection

It’s clear from the image that the Omreah/Maloch dynamic is based on both living memory and history of the Second Carib War, which ended twenty-two years before the play debuted, particularly in exaggerated British conceptions of Chatoyer/Du Valle. According to contemporary writers and histories, including Sir William Young and Bryan Edwards, not only were the Garifuna’s presence explained as the result of an accidental shipwreck of soon-to-be enslaved Africans on the island in the seventeenth century, Du Valle is ironically characterized as the most “civilized” among his people in their eyes because he owned his own coffee plantation and enslaved a number of people of African descent. What I find challenging about this is the strained presentation of Garifuna indigeneity hinted at in this image. In the only other depiction of a scene from The Carib Chief, the single combat between Omreah and Montalbert, the French administrator responsible for his enslavement and would-be seducer of his daughter, Kean is shown without blackface (Figure 6).4 Here he resembles depictions of his performance as Rolla in Pizarro (Figure 7).

An illustration of two white men in costume fighting with swords.
Figure 6. “West's combat in the Carib chief by Messrs. Kean & Bengough [as] Montalbert [and] Omreah [in the play by Twiss]” London [England] : Published by W. West, Exeter Street, Strand, 1819. ART File K24.4 no.91 (size S). LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection
A picture of a white man in costume brandishing a sword, a small child perched on his shoulder
Figure 7. John Lewis Marks. Mr. Kean as Rolla [in Kotzebue's Pizarro]. London [England] : Published by J. L. Marks, [19th century]. ART File K24.4 no.28 (size XS). LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection

When The Drama of King Shotaway debuted in January 1822, Hewlett, allegedly the Caribbean mixed-heritage servant of Kean’s idol George Frederick Cooke when the latter was on tour in New York, played the character based directly on Chatoyer. This complication is furthered when famed African American actor and former player in the African Grove Theatre Ira Aldridge went on to play Omreah in performances of The Carib Chief in Edinburgh’s Adelphi Theatre in 1848 and Liverpool’s Royal Amphitheatre in 1849. It is also important to note that Aldridge was banned from performing at Drury Lane by the Kembles.

The languages and visual cultures of slavery and colonialism are embedded in both plays’ performances. As the most accessible form of popular culture at the time, the theatre had the power to not just shape, but create historical truth. This is most evident when, in 2012, Garifuna performing artist Sidney Phillip Mejia (1956-2013) attempted a recreation of Brown’s play with the debut of a new play titled The Life and Times of Chatoyer, aka, The Drama of King Shotaway.

  1. Desha Osborne, “Brown, William Alexander.” Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro–Latin American Biography: Oxford University Press, 2016.Oxford Reference.
  2. Most recent work includes Ayanna Thompson, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race. Cambridge University Press, 2021; Ndiaye’s article “Shakespeare, Race, and Globalization” is quoted from the same volume, 159. Ania Loomba wrote about the connection between Shakespeare’s plays and contemporary notions of race in Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism. Oxford University Press, 2002.
  3. Errol G. Hill suggests that there is a connection between Twiss and Brown’s plays when The Carib Chief makes its way to New York in late 1819. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  4. Ayanna Thompson discusses this in her book Blackface, and specifically about the connection to Othello on an episode of the Folger podcast Shakespeare Unlimited. “Othello in Blackface,” June 16, 2016. See also The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, and Noémie Ndiaye, Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race, University of Pennsylvannia Press, 2021.