Marlon James’ novel explores the insular world of a single plantation in late 18th-century British colonial Jamaica. The Wilson family owns the Montpelier plantation; after the death of Patrick Wilson, his son Humphrey assumes control. On a nearby plantation, Coulibre, Isobel is the daughter of the master, Roget. Of European heritage but born in the New World, she is classified as “creole.” Part of the plot concerns the growing romance between Humphrey and Isobel, of which his mother, who is British, disapproves.
The plantation owners overall are depicted as brutal in their treatment of the enslaved African heritage people, including beatings and even murder. Many of the black workers were born on the estates and their fathers are often European heritage owners and staff. On Montpelier, one of these biracial children is the teenage Lilith, who becomes a house slave. While serving a meal, she spills hot soup and burns a guest who is there to chaperone Isobel Roget. Infuriated, Isobel convinces Humphrey to have Lilith beaten across the back with a bullwhip—not once but numerous times over a period of weeks. The scars form a “quilt” on the girl’s back.
Isobel next takes Lilith to serve at Coulibre, which initiates a series of events that prove tragic for her family. Her father sexually abuses both male and female slaves. While taking a bath, he attacks Lilith, who retaliates by drowning him. When his wife enters the room, Lilith kills her as well, then sets fire to the house. Two young Roget children are killed. Lilith escapes detection by lying, but other slaves are killed in retribution. Isobel, who was not on the property that day, suffers a mental breakdown. After Humphrey breaks off their relationship, she descends into promiscuity and drug addiction in Kingston’s underworld. Lilith becomes the mistress of Montpelier’s Irish overseer, Quinn.
Isobel’s brutality can be seen as causing her relatives’ deaths because she acted so viciously toward Lilith. However, Lilith also had free will to commit or refrain from committing any of the violent acts. Isobel’s actions also caused the death of the slaves who were falsely accused, but again Lilith can be considered partly responsible because she lied to protect herself.
Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, but slavery itself continued. The law passed in 1833 abolished slavery throughout the empire as of August 1834. On Jamaica, both the work of reformist abolition societies, often run by Quakers, and numerous slave rebellions are both considered major contributors to abolition. Individual behaviors, including violent acts, combined to have a cumulative effect, but because Jamaica was a colony, the binding decisions were made in London.