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The Colonial Education in Myal


Literature reflects the author’s world, showing their unique experience and illuminating the daily affairs of the members of their communities. Thus, in her novel Myal, Jamaican-born writer Erna Brodber explores Afro-Caribbean spirituality and culture and the effect colonization by the British Empire had on them. Furthermore, the author discusses the effect cultural appropriation has on the members of a particular ethnic group. This book review will consider the criticism of colonial education and its effects on the Afro-Caribbean culture presented throughout the novel.

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Myal Plot and Motifs

Erna Brodber’s book Myal revolves around the story of an Afro-Jamaican woman, Ella, who catches a mysterious illness after returning to Jamaica from the United States of America. Born to a Jamaican mother and an Irish father, she never fitted into the community in her hometown because of her light skin. Having suffered a deterioration in her marriage to her white husband, who insisted on her hiding her origin and exploiting her culture for his gain, Ella is left drained both spiritually and emotionally. The young woman is described as a zombie who is “separated from the parts of themselves that make them think and they are left as flesh only” (Brodber 108). The novel meticulously chronicles Ella’s gradual alienation from her culture during her childhood and adolescence and the devastating effect of this alienation during her adulthood. Moreover, the author explores how the sense of not belonging played a significant role in Ella’s disaffection from the Afro-Jamaican culture.

Depiction of Colonial Education

Big Streamers Recitation

Colonial education is one of the central motifs in the book. The presence of colonialism and the dominance of European ideas can be felt in every scene describing Ella’s childhood and school days. It is most notable in the scene where 13-year-old Ella recites Rudyard Kipling’s poem (Brodber 5). The scene illustrates the profound impact of colonization by the British Empire on life in Jamaica. Instead of children being educated on the history and culture of their country, they are presented with the record of the triumphs of the nation that had conquered and subjugated theirs. The story shows how children in Jamaica were introduced to two cultures: the Jamaican and the British. Although the exposure to their native culture is far greater as they are introduced to it by their families, the British foreign culture holds more weight as it is a part of their formal education. This duality creates a dissociation with the native heritage, as exemplified by Ella, who, as a biracial child, struggles to fit into society and reconcile her two cultures (Brodber 17). Thus, colonial education translates into Ella’s disengagement with her Afro-Jamaican heritage.

Furthermore, the choice of Rudyard Kipling’s poem is particularly symbolic. The poem Big Streamers celebrates the naval fleet of Great Britain, the nation that colonized Jamaica (Brodber 5). Referring to this scene, Helen Tiffin notes that “the colonized absorbed into the bodies (‘hearts’) the tongue of the colonizer.” The scene depicts a little girl proudly delivering the poem dedicated to the nation that has subjugated her country and now dictates the direction her life is going to take through education. The recitation episode is the epitome of disempowerment and disenfranchisement of Jamaica’s colonized people and Ella’s disconnection from Jamaican culture. To recite this poem, Ella had to learn it by heart, using the English language, the native tongue of the colonizer. Thus, the Jamaican culture and language are being eradicated through colonial education in English, with young children forced to master it and absorb it into their minds and hearts. Thus, Ella’s recitation of the poem celebrating the British Empire exemplifies the colonized being absorbed by the colonizer’s culture.

Colonial Education Throughout the Book

Other scenes in the book dedicated to Ella’s time in school focus on her learning about Europe and yearning to leave Jamaica for another country. In her lessons, Europe “rose from the paper in three dimensions, grew big, came right down to her seat and allowed her to walk on it” (Brodber 11). These lessons appeal to Ella, who is biracial and already does not fit in the Afro-Jamaican community, giving her notions to relate to. However, the content of her lessons also tells the readers that the history and culture of the colonizer are more critical than those of the colonized. Children are introduced to the British culture from an early age to earn to accept it as their own and reject the Afro-American one. As the character of William Brassington notes early in the novel, the purpose of Anglican ministries in Jamaica was to “exorcise and replace” the Myal religion (Brodber 18). Similarly, the purpose of colonial education was to exorcise and replace the Afro-Jamaican culture. Thus, the colonial education Ella and other characters are receiving can be viewed as an instrument of control of future generations.


Throughout her novel, Myal Erna Brodber thoroughly criticizes the notion of colonial education in Jamaica. Through the character of Ella, the author illustrates the effect such education can have on an individual and whole communities, emphasizing Ella’s detachment from her native Afro-Jamaican culture. Moreover, Brodber exposes the true purpose of colonial education as the attempt to control future generations by exorcising their native culture and replacing it with the colonists.

Work Cited

Brodber, Erna. Myal. New Beacon Books, 1999.

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