This description of the plot and characters of Inkle and Yarico is completely inaccurate. Inkle is a liar, who greedily disembarks from his ship (travelling from England to Barbadoes) to “survey the land and natives” of Virginia “for their value”. He’s NOT an “adventurer”. He’s a textiles merchant-adventurer, or what we in 2012 would call a capitalist stakeholder who lies to everyone he meets to make a profit from enclosing and selling common lands and slaves. He’s NOT “torn between marrying an English heiress (whom he does not love), and a West Indian woman, Yarico”. He wants to marry an English heiress solely for her wealth and inheritance, but SHE does not love him! He PRETENDS to be in love with Yarico to exploit her. He is a heartless, discriminating, racist loner out for no-one but himself. He shows NO qualities at ANY point in the play script. The script cannot be trusted – especially its happy ending – because no-one in the audience ever believes him when he claims “I repent” in the final scene. These issues were enormously controversial during the long eighteenth century because, as other plays from the period show (inc. She Stoops to Conquer by Goldsmith), British people were losing their common land and moved into cities (usually) poor salaried pay to live in small housing that, in the 19th century, became slums. Inkle is a liar and spectators are asked – by Trudge, Inkle’s servant – to seriously question the morality of British Christians who live in and work in a free society support that actively either supports or tolerates slavery. This question remains very important today in Britain’s society where gangsters trick thousands of foreign women and children into coming to Britain on the promise of work as a waitress or au pair, only to be forced into the slavery of prostitution when they arrive.
A more accurate description of the plot and the characters follows: Inkle, a middle-class tradesman, sails with his fiancee, Narcissa (the daughter of the island’s Governor) to Barbados where their parents have instructed them to marry. Inkle takes Trudge, his servant and his uncle, Medium, ashore to the coast of Virginia to survey the land and its natives for their value. When chased by natives, Trudge panics from fear and Inkle and Trudge hide in a cave. There they discover Yarico – a native Princess and hunter – and her servant / friend Wowski. Yarico learnt English as a child, from a shipwrecked English sailor (evoking Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe), but Wowski speaks only a little. During their few months stay on the island Yarico and Trudge feed and protect Trudge and Inkle. Trudge falls in love with Wowski and Inkle claims to fall in love with Yarico, who he persuades to help him by flagging down an English trip. His promise to marry Yarico and to live with her in a mansion “with white servants” is taken with a very large pinch of salt by Yarico, who questions it. Nevertheless, for reasons open to interpretation, Yarico does as he asks.
When they arrive at Barbados, Inkle sells Yarico as a slave.
The story is horrific, especially the last scene. Research I have conducted on this play strongly suggests it is best acted with spectators on three sides, as it was first acted in the surviving 18th century Regular Theatre at Richmond, Yorkshire in the U. K. – a playhouse not unlike the Little Theatre in the Haymarket (built in 1766) that saw its first performances.
This was the play most frequently acted in the last 25 years of the 18th century (second only to The School for Scandal). It was a hugely popular play, and when the “happy ending” probably written and added by the Government’s Examiner of Plays, is replaced by the surviving, more open, ending in a surviving torn-off manuscript in the George Colman the younger’s hand, the play is shocking and deeply disturbing.
I have staged the play for teenagers who have shouted abuse at Inkle when he tries to sell Yarico. The story was very well known throughout the 18th century, from 1711 when playwright Richard Steele first published a short story version of it in The Spectator. The story was popular throughout the eighteenth century because the issue of Liberty (capital L deliberate) remained so popular especially after the English Revolution of 1788, which led, in turn, to the American and French Revolutions. It is no coincidence that this play was first performed in Westminster’s Theatres Royal in 1787, and went on to storm the country in 1788 – the centennial anniversary of the Glorious Revolution.