Editing Empire: British Anthologies and School Readers in the Caribbean

Project Director: Casie LeGette (English)

This Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant-funded project is part of the Coastal Studies research category in the Willson Center’s expanded Global Georgia Initiative.

My project investigates the complex historical relationship between the islands of the anglophone Caribbean and the island of Great Britain. I explore this relationship via the educational textbooks that circulated between these two geographical spaces, across the Atlantic, during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. When working-class British children began attending school en masse, with the advent of universal, government-sponsored education in 1870, publishers quickly adapted, creating anthologies and school books directed precisely to the requirements of the new curricula. But those schoolbooks, though designed for British children, spread much more widely, shipped across the empire to be used by children in Canada and the Caribbean. Many 20th-century Caribbean authors—Naipaul, Kincaid, Goodison—represent or respond to scenes of colonial instruction in 19th-century British poetry. Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” appears often, a symbolically powerful example of Caribbean children forced to memorize and recite a poem about British flowers, obviously unrelated to the flora of the islands. In this project, I seek to explore the textual history of these encounters—educational, imperial, and poetic—by examining the textbooks that produced them.

With the Mellon grant, I plan to look for particular examples of these texts in various archives in the anglophone Caribbean, including the Special Collections of the University of the West Indies and the National Library of Jamaica, one of only a handful of libraries that holds the Nelson West Indian Readers, the first British-produced schoolbooks to seriously integrate Caribbean content. My archival research on these schoolbooks, along with further research on Caribbean education more broadly, will further several research and teaching aims. In addition to forming a section of my ongoing book project, Editing Empire, this material will also be used to develop two different courses. One, ENGL 1060H (Composition and Multicultural Literature) will be organized entirely around islands, and will feature contemporary Caribbean literature, such as poetry by Lorna Goodison, as well as Gloria Naylor’s novel Mama Day, which takes place on a sea island off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. The other course, “Poetry and Education,” will focus on poetry’s role in histories of education, both in Britain and in the anglophone Caribbean. Students will work directly with various nineteenth-century school readers and conduct their own independent research on these strange textual objects.