Youma: The Story of a West-Indian Slave portrays slave life on the Caribbean island of Martinique in the 1840’s. In 1848, when the Republican government took power in France, rumors of emancipation and liberty for French colonial slaves swept across the island, creating fear and uncertainty among slave owners and desperate hope among the French slaves. Youma, a beautiful privileged young household slave, is caught in the fierce conflict when slaves and slave owners confront the issue.
Youma has grown up in the luxurious townhome of a wealthy merchant’s family. She has been the trusted childhood companion to Aimee, her owner’s daughter. In this position Youma is almost a daughter of the house, but also is clearly a slave. Her serious, intelligent mind, integrity of character, and beauty set her apart from other slaves but do not earn for her her freedom. She is compared in beauty, grace, and wisdom to the Queen of Sheba. When Aimee marries a wealthy plantation owner, Youma is sent to her young mistress as a nursemaid.
Upon Aimee’s sudden death, Youma promises to care for her young mistress’ infant daughter, Mayotte. As the substitute mother of Mayotte, Youma is admired by the household staff and earns the respectful title Manzell, or Miss. Life at the sugarcane plantation where Youma and Mayotte live is described as ideal, surrounded by the natural, lush beauty of the island coast. The air is full of the music of slaves’ drums and bamboula chants. The slaves cultivate their private gardens of tropical plants and share stories of voodoo gods and zombies.
Later, when she is denied permission to marry Gabriel, the man she loves, who is an intelligent, capable slave supervising plantation workers, Youma accepts the decision. The marriage is forbidden because her owners despise Gabriel’s dark skin color and field slave status. Based on their racist values, she, as a lighter-skinned creole of mixed race, may only marry an educated creole freedman. Youma gives up her relationship with Gabriel because she believes her first allegiance is to her owners.
When Youma and Mayotte return to town, they are trapped in a local slave uprising. The whites barricade themselves in their homes, refusing to talk with the protesters. As the confrontation intensifies, Gabriel, learning Youma is trapped in the riot, tries to persuade her to save herself before the house is burned. Youma chooses instead to protect Mayotte from danger and perishes in the flames. While Youma sacrifices her life to save the child, a French ship enters Caribbean waters carrying the emancipation order granting the slaves of Martinique freedom. Her character and beauty could not change her destiny as a woman trapped between two worlds in conflict.
Youma is a slave and the godchild of Madame Peyronette, who lives in the city of Saint Pierre. Youma’s mother had been the nurse of Madame Peyronette’s only daughter, Aimée, and the two children, white and black, have grown up together almost as sisters. Even when Aimée, in accord with Creole custom, is sent to a convent to have her manners polished, during the vacations she spends at home she is always in the company of the young black slave.
As the girls grow to womanhood, Aimée begs her mother on several occasions to give Youma her freedom, but Madame Peyronette feels that she is safeguarding Youma by keeping her in slavery. Privately, Madame Peyronette has decided first to find Youma a good husband and then, after she is safely married, to grant her freedom. Before Madame Peyronette can carry out her plan, Aimée marries Monsieur Desrivières, son of a wealthy old Creole family. Upon her marriage, Aimée asks that Youma be permitted to serve her in her new household, a request speedily granted by her mother.
Thirteen months after her wedding, Aimée gives birth to a baby girl. The child is named Marie; the blacks call her by a diminutive, Mayotte. Tragedy strikes the household a year later when Aimée, who had been caught...
(The entire section is 1,522 words.)