“I thank God I’m not a man” : Lady Nugent and the Self-Made Woman in Colonial Jamaica, 1801-1805

Historians increasingly are realizing that acts of colonization not only affect the colonized; they also inadvertently impact colonizers. Arguably, nowhere was this trend more apparent than in the lifestyles of elite and upper-middling women in the colonial West Indies. Expected to act like ladies, these females encountered environmental challenges, demographic differences and their own, often very aggressive acts of self-promotion, all factors which opposed contemporary standards for their sex. These women might have been expected to participate in a Euro-initiated “civilizing mission” in the New World; but, for those concerned with social legitimacy, their first, self-imposed duty was to “civilize” themselves. This paper looks at the construction of elite femininity in British Jamaica by focusing on the life of one particular woman, Maria Nugent. It specifically examines the ways in which Lady Nugent used her journal to counteract the more masculine aspects of her daily life in the West Indies and to construct (through the written word) an appropriate feminine reality. Rising from her position as a preacher’s daughter to become the governor’s wife, Maria Nugent represents a common female figure in the early modern world, the self-made woman. Her social success as an English lady, however, was directly related to her ability to mask any ambitious, and thus more masculine, external activities. Lady Nugent’s diary, as this paper argues, allows historians the opportunity to see how concepts of elite, European femininity were both transformed and continued by female agents within the New World. It also suggests, in this context, that gender must be looked upon as a source of power for colonizing women, who often used performances of such roles as the “lady” to validate their own social achievements.

Kristin Condotta is a Ph.D. candidate in Early American history at Tulane University (New Orleans).  She currently is completing a dissertation focused on Irish immigration to late colonial and early national Louisiana, entitled “Foreign Imports: Irish Immigrants and Material Networks in Early New Orleans, 1780-1820.”  She expects to finish in Spring 2013.

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