Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 292
Cambridge is a novel by Oxford University alumnus and Caribbean native, Caryl Phillips. Philips wrote Cambridge as a piece of historical fiction in the guise of nonfiction (comprising journal entries from Emily—a young, wealthy Englishwoman—and a slave narrative of the title character, Cambridge). This juxtaposition is deliberately meant to highlight the differing world views. Furthermore, the story takes place on an unnamed Caribbean island, which furnishes a notionally level playing field. For both Emily and Cambridge, characters of quite diverse circumstances, this island is strange and unknown, making terra incognita a strong element of the story's unfolding.
The novel also explores complex issues of identity and anonymity. Cambridge's name hearkens to the esteemed educational institution of England, but is in fact a name given to the slave who had been deprived of his birth name, Olumide. Emily herself, despite being upperclass and white, does not reveal her name until the close of the first chapter.
The hypocrisy of religion is another strong element in this novel. Cambridge was first sent to England, then liberated, then sent back to Africa and re-enslaved, despite having converted to Christianity and having been trained as a preacher in England. Furthermore, Cambridge's child is denied a Christian burial, as he has not been baptized.
Lastly, the novel uses juxtaposition and point of view to suggest the subjectivity of events of human history. Many observations and themes witnessed by Cambridge and Emily are the same (especially concerning the characterization of Mr. Brown, the overseer). The reader is encouraged not to rely exclusively on one point of view, making Cambridge's death by hanging all the more tragic and unconscionable, and more broadly, inviting readers to reconsider the implications of this subjectivity within the larger discipline of history.