After the Crossing of Waters: Spatial Transformations in Anglophone Caribbean Writing

John Thieme

Space is mobile. Space is plastic. Cultural geographers such as Doreen Massey stress the mobility of space, not simply because apparently settled places change with the passage of time, but also because the spatial configurations that we know as place[1] are epistemological constructs. Consequently space is dialectical, shifting and unstable and, in Massey’s words, “social relations are never still; they are inherently dynamic”, so it is necessary to “move beyond a view of place as bounded, as in various ways a site of authenticity, as singular, fixed and unproblematic in its identity” (Massey 1994: 2). This said, the chronotopes, to borrow the term that Bakhtin uses to describe “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships” (Bakhtin 1981: 84) that were shaped by European imperialism, and which have continued in new iterations in neo-colonial situations, demonstrate an ambivalent response to the plasticity of space. Ambivalent because European explorers and settlers, after effectively acknowledging the malleability of space by assuming the right to shape supposedly blank territory – in Australia the land was deemed to be terra nullius (empty terrain and therefore exempt from the normal laws of ownership) – into their particular versions of place, both through actual possession and through naming strategies, habitually naturalized the illusion that the Eurocentric geographies they had imposed represented “site[s] of authenticity”.

The ruptures that occurred in the wake of colonization reshaped pre-existing Indigenous places in particularly devastating ways and nowhere moreso than in the Caribbean and Guyanas, where the Amerindian population suffered genocide and the majority Afro-Caribbean population, brought to the region in the slave ships of the Middle Passage, are descendants of the survivors of a brutal crossing that had been tantamount to genocide for many of their fellow transportees. Consequently Caribbean space exists in a tension between an attempt to impose stasis, which found its most oppressive form in the plantation system, and an opposing impulse in which ceaseless journeying, particularly prominent in Anglophone Caribbean writing of the long twentieth century, becomes a dominant trope in representations of the region’s peoples’ ongoing quest for autonomous selfhood. As Stuart Hall puts it, “identity […] has many different ways of ‘being at home’ – since it conceives of individuals as capable of drawing on different maps of meaning and locating them in different geographies at one and the same time – but it is not tied to one, particular place” (Hall 1995: 207), and journeys, actual or figurative, offer a portal into such multiple forms of cognitive homecoming.

The Middle Passage is the Ur-journey of Caribbean memory, but Caribbean identities have always been in transit. Introducing a television programme that formed part of a BBC Caribbean night in 1986, the Jamaican-born poet Linton Kwesi Johnson put the matter succinctly and incisively by saying simply, “We’re travellers” (Johnson 1986), and Anglophone Caribbean constructions of spatial identity alternate between a sense of nervous, uneasy movement through multiple maps of meaning and a desire to arrive at fixity, often in the form of some kind of homecoming, whether it be a return to Africa[2] (or India), a usually disappointing voyage to the Mother Country,[3] or more productively a location of self within the Caribbean, within what Makak, the protagonist of Derek Walcott’s play Dream on Monkey Mountain refers to as “going back home, back to the beginning, to the green beginning of this world” (Walcott 1970: 326). Travel, both voluntary and involuntary, has, then, been a crucial material determinant of the lives of many Caribbean peoples, but beyond this it is a trope for what it is to be Caribbean. In “The Journeys”, a poem in Rights of Passage, the first part of his significantly titled Arrivants trilogy, Kamau Brathwaite conflates the many journeys of diasporic Africans, blending them together into a single, seemingly endless odyssey. The poem makes reference to pre-enslavement journeys in Africa – from Meroë to the West Coast – to travelling northwards to urban spaces in the United States, to visiting Cape Town and Rio and to taking “Paris by storm” (Brathwaite 1973: 36) during the period when Negritude and the vogue for African American music and writing were at their height in the French capital. However, the seminal journey is the Middle Passage crossing of the Atlantic slave ships:

in the water
boys of Bushongo
drowned in the
blue and the bitter

salt of the wave-gullied

Ferdinand’s sea

Soft winds

To San Salvador, Christoph-

er, Christ, and no Noah

 or dove to promise us, grim

though it was, the simple sal-

vation of love. […].  (35-36)

“Journeys” offers a microcosm of The Arrivants trilogy, which throughout its compass captures the sense of restive travelling that lies at the heart of the Anglophone Caribbean experience and informs many of the region’s writers’ representations of the shifting dynamics of space. The movements engendered by conquest, enslavement, independence, tourism, migration and a number of other experiences have subjected the topography of the region to a series of reinventions that have radically changed both its actual landscapes and its epistemological contours. This essay endeavours to demonstrate the mutating nature of Caribbean spatial trajectories, making reference to sites that have occupied a central role in the Anglophone Caribbean literary imaginary. In several instances linear movement from past to future is blurred or collapsed in the texts discussed, a practice that embodies the intensity of the Caribbean challenge to the static closure inherent in colonial constructions of place, often reflecting a break with what Catherine A. John, discussing the importance of the trope of the circle in pre-colonial Africa, refers to as “the Western imperative to think in linear, ‘progressive’ fashion” (John 2003: 12); elsewhere spaces are reclaimed in accounts of their literal and figurative transformation. To illustrate the ways in which space can be re-envisaged in new formations, this essay focuses on Caribbean literary responses to the Interior, the plantation and the plot, and the sea and the beach. In each case the locations considered emerge as mobile polyvalent sites that offer the possibility of transforming the traumatic legacy of the colonial past, which exploited environments, enslaved or subjected peoples and imposed a discursive onomastics that was a corollary of such practices. In its most extreme form, such onomastics, as I have argued elsewhere in talking about European botanists’ assumption of the right to name plant species from around the world (Thieme 2016: 43-44), were predicated on the assumption that colonized territory had no prior existence. In the Caribbean, as Jamaica Kincaid points out, the incorporation of plants into the Linnaean system of naming did for botany what the plantation system did to the African-descended peoples of the Caribbean: European botanists took the view that “these new plants from far away, like the people far away, had no history, no names, and so they could be given names” (Kincaid 2000: 91). Plants, places and people were subject to an imposed nomenclature, which masqueraded as primal Adamic naming, supposedly legitimized by the fact that the entities being christened had no previous names.


Into the Interior (Indigenous Space)

In the beginning … there were no words. Or to be more precise, Anglophone Caribbean writing is a latecomer in the long, largely unwritten history of Caribbean space and attempts to envisage the optics through which Amerindian peoples such as the Caribs, Arawaks and Wapisiana saw their environments in the centuries before European conquest are inevitably acts of imaginative invention by the descendants of more recent arrivants, hampered by having to grapple with cosmologies foreign to the supposedly rational post-Enlightenment mind. Foreign, too, to the philosophies inherent in Afro-Caribbean thought, though these have more affinities with the representational modes of the region’s pre-Columbian peoples. As Wilson Harris, commenting in an interview on the role of metaphor in his work, has put it:

In savage [sic] cultures the beginning does not lie in the Word, as in St John’s Gospel. The beginning lies in the image, in the gesture, in the hieroglyphic painting, in the sculpture, in the mask and, when one comes to metaphor, one has the sense that language may have its roots in the way images broke their moorings to come into one psychical consciousness and metaphor is at the heart of this mutation. (Harris 1980: 18)

In Harris’s oeuvre, metaphor is the mode through which he attempts to realize language’s potential for a transformative, non-referential identity politics that challenges conceptions of self and place as fixed and unitary. In the same interview he goes on to say:

If one lived in a symmetrical cosmos, it is possible to conceive of a model which indeed would be final and then one could say, well, one has achieved all that could be achieved, but since one lives in an asymmetrical cosmos, there is no possibility of escaping from the consequences of change, whether those consequences erupt in a disastrous form or whether we are able to enter into them creatively and make them into visionary issues that take us through into other areas of comprehension that allow us to deal with the crises and difficulties of the age in which we live, because we still live very close to the scene of conquest. (Harris 1980: 18)

In short, the legacy of conquest has established a monistic view of the Caribbean as a “site of authenticity” and Harris’s fiction contests this through an alternative poetics of space, realized through the transformative agency of metaphor. Throughout his work he engages in a sustained pursuit of asymmetrical epistemologies that harmonise with the pre-Columbian landscape and its peoples, a quest that verges on the heroic, even if its completion is consigned to be eternally frustrated.

The trope of a dream journey towards a visionary moment of epiphany plays a central role in Harris’s project and the journeys in his fiction frequently collapse time, so that they appear to be undertaken simultaneously in both the contemporary era and in an earlier period that predates European settlement and gestures towards an Indigenous pre-Columbian wholeness, while foregrounding the problematics inherent in any notion of a return to a pristine originary moment. In his novel Palace of the Peacock, Harris narrates the progress of a contemporary crew’s journey upriver into the Guyanese heartland, a voyage in which the geographical interior is a correlative for a journey into the psyche, an obvious iteration of the epistemological dimensions of space. The journey retraces the route taken by an earlier drowned crew and seems inextricably enmeshed with the rupture visited on the landscape by colonialism. Yet, as is always the case in Harris’s work, opposites merge and the conquistador protagonist Donne, who has violated the environment and its people, is twinned with an alter ego, the “I” narrator of the novel, a Dreamer who offers an alternative vision of past, present and future, in which the binaries that characterize colonial culture and post-Enlightenment discourse more generally are eroded. Throughout the novel polarities such as dream and reality, conqueror and conquered, even life and death are blurred, as the text eschews the conventions of Western rationalism in favour of a poetics in which psychic dualities are fused. This culminates in a conclusion that offers a transcendent vision of experience. Dead characters return to life and the interior landscape becomes animate:

Across the crowded creation of the invisible savannahs the newborn wind of spirit blew the sun making light of everything, curious hands and feet, neck, shoulder, forehead, material twin shutter and eye. They drifted, half-finished sketches in the air, until they were filled suddenly from within to become living and alive. I saw the tree in the distance wave its arms and walk when I looked at it through the spiritual eye of the soul. (Harris 1968: 146)

The crew of Palace of the Peacock brings the various races that make up the contemporary population of Guyana together in a voyage towards a post-Columbian reconciliation with Indigenous Caribbean space. Arawak characters such as a woman named Mariella, whom Donne has violated in the past, appear, but their identities are shadowy –Mariella herself also links the animate and the inanimate, since she is both a person and a mission – and they mainly function as the backdrop against which the post-settlement crew’s journey towards psychic wholeness is undertaken. Moreover, as the title, which alludes to the final stage of the alchemical process, the cauda pavonis (peacock’s tail), indicates, Harris uses a Jungian paradigm for the progress and conclusion of this journey.[4] So in one sense he follows a Western model, albeit one that is at odds with Enlightenment norms, for his resolution.

Elsewhere in his work Harris goes further and attempts to enter into an Indigenous imaginary. In “Couvade”, one of the triptych of tales inspired by Amerindian mythology that make up The Sleepers of Roraima, the angle of focalization moves inside a Carib consciousness to rework a traditional myth about ancestral continuity. Like Palace of the Peacock, the tale’s action involves a movement towards the reconciliation of psychic opposites. In this case a boy protagonist undertakes a journey in which the identities of hunters and hunted continually mutate. Ultimately the boy, whose spirit-guide on his journey, his grandfather, is an uncertain repository of time-honoured tribal wisdom, assumes his role as Couvade, the sleeper of the tribe, and his awakening ensures communal continuity, but there is no idealization of the Carib world. Couvade’s community is represented as locked in a cycle of violent struggle. So while “Couvade” is set in a timeless world and, unlike Palace of the Peacock, European colonial intervention is not an issue, the tale depicts an environment divided by warring factions. Harris declines to idealize the pre-Columbian space of the Guyanas, and the Americas more generally, as an unspoiled primeval milieu. In an essay entitled “Tradition and the West Indian Novel”, he likens the impact of the “European discovery of the New World and conquest of the ancient American civilizations” to “an enormous escarpment down which [the West Indies] falls”, but is quick to interject that pre-Columbian civilizations “were themselves related by earlier and obscure levels of conquest” (Harris 1967: 30-31). Nevertheless the notion of the Interior as an extra-Eurocentric space, attainable through an ongoing process of psychic transformation that subverts the rationalist orthodoxies of post-Cartesian thought remains as an aspirational ideal towards which the characters of both Palace of the Peacock and “Couvade” travel and as such it releases a radically different perception of the possibilities latent in the Guyanese landscape.  


Plantation and Plot

For many years accounts of slavery and plantation life were a significant absence in Anglophone Caribbean writing, an omission which reflects the exclusions of the Eurocentric educational curriculum and the cultural norms that prevailed in late colonial Caribbean societies. A passage in George Lamming’s first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, in which a group of colonial schoolboys find it hard to believe that Barbadian space was ever given over to slavery, offers a particularly telling example of its omission from the accounts of Caribbean history that they have been taught. For the boys the land of their birth is ‘Little England’, a country shaped by a benevolent maternal colonialism, personified by Queen Victoria, and they have been brainwashed by a narrative in which the moment of Emancipation has been privileged at the expense of any reference of the earlier enslavement of the Afro-Caribbean population:

[Queen Victoria] was a great and good queen, the head teacher had said, and the old people had said something similar. […] They said she made us free, you and me and him and you. […] It was disturbing. The thought of not being free. […] An old woman said that once they were slaves, but now they were free. And she said that’s what the good and great queen had done. She had made them free. […] [A small boy] asked the teacher what was the meaning of slave, and the teacher explained. But it didn’t make sense. He didn­’t understand how anyone could be bought by another. He knew horses and dogs could be bought and worked. But he couldn’t understand how one man could buy another man. […] People talked of slaves a long time ago. It had nothing to do with the old lady. She wouldn’t be old enough. And moreover it had nothing to do with people in Barbados. No one there was ever a slave, the teacher said. It was in another part of the world that those things happened. Not in Little England. (Lamming 1953: 56-57)

‘Little England’ may have been an extreme case and clearly Lamming’s response in the novel is all too aware of both the erasure of slavery in the colonial school curriculum and the indoctrination that has led to the emphasis on Emancipation, with slavery only memorialized in the folk consciousness personified by the old woman. Nevertheless the major concerns of In the Castle of My Skin have more to do with mid twentieth-century decolonization than the historical legacy of slavery and in this respect Lamming is only too typical of the independence generation of Caribbean writers, who were both shaped by, albeit in most cases coming to write against, the late colonial cultural climate in which they grew up.

Representations of Caribbean landscapes as sites plundered for economic profit and reliant on slave labour in the pre-Emancipation period remained largely unvoiced in the region’s writing until the 1980s. Prior to this only a small group of texts engaged with slavery and its legacy. The early parts of Edgar Mittelholzer’s sprawling Kaywana Trilogy deal with the brutality of plantation life, but Mittelholzer’s account of three hundred years of Guyanese history is frequently tainted by its ministering to the demands of the pulp fiction market. Kamau Brathwaite’s Arrivants trilogy, especially Rights of Passage, is altogether more convincing and committed in its response to slavery, though Brathwaite is concerned with the New World African diaspora more generally and several of the poems in this opening section are concerned with plantation society in the American South and the evolution of African American consciousness. And arguably it was African American writers, notably Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, who provided the inspiration for Caribbean and Caribbean-British writers, such as Fred D’Aguiar and Caryl Phillips, to write about plantation life in the 1980s, and perhaps it is no coincidence that African American experience receives significant attention in texts from this period.[5] That said, the impetus to write about Caribbean slave societies increased and works such as Nichols’s i is a long memoried woman, Phillips’s Cambridge and more recently Laura Fish’s Strange Music, which address the inhumanity of plantation life, have redressed the earlier avoidance of this crucial era in Caribbean history.

Prior to the 1980s, one novel, the sociologist Orlando Patterson’s Die the Long Day stands out for its uncompromising depiction of the dehumanizing geography of estate life. Employing a range of focalizers and seeing newly arrived Europeans as complementary, if less brutally exploited, victims of the sexual trafficking that was rife in eighteenth-century Jamaican society, the novel depicts the human degradation visited on enslaved Afro-Caribbeans by the plantation economy, with an emphasis on the spatial constraints it involved. The harsh realities of confinement are vividly realized in the following passage, where a runaway slave awaits trial in Jamaica’s slave court:

The hot-house was a long, narrow structure, made of stone walls and a shingled roof, divided into five rooms. The room at the end, which Africanus approached first, was sealed off from the rest and was used as a cell. He looked through the barred peep-hole on the thick lignum-vitae door and called to the barely discernible figure lying chained to the wall of the dark cell. Sam, an incorrigible runaway, had been caught in the woods a few days earlier by a gang of Maroons.  (Patterson 1973: 34)

This account is, however, only a heightened instance of the spatial confinement central to the novel’s representation of a pre-Emancipation plantation economy, which in its appropriation of land for the sole purpose of commercial profit offers an extreme form of the view that place is bounded, and journeying is clearly at best a dim aspiration for the enslaved field-workers. Nevertheless an alternative to the annexation of Jamaican land inherent in the plantation system emerges in passages that represent what Sylvia Wynter has termed “plot” as opposed to “plantation” (Wynter 1971). Wynter discusses V.S. Reid’s ground-breaking 1949 novel New Day, which pioneered the way for subsequent Caribbean fiction written in forms of the region’s Creoles, and in her account of the novel, “plot” refers to the smallholdings cultivated by recently freed slaves and their descendants in the post-Emancipation era, but in Die the Long Day it is present as a subaltern economy that co-exists with the plantation system prior to Emancipation, providing a degree of autonomous selfhood for those denied human dignity as field slaves:

Cicero […] walked through the back door to his little kitchen garden. Apart from the sty and the path running through it, almost every square inch of the little plot […] was planted out with nearly every variety of tropical vegetables and fruit trees – okras, callallu, plantains and bananas, shaddochs, peppers as well as two young coconuts, an orange, a calabash, and an abba tree.

Along with his provision ground in the backlands, this was his pride and joy. A moist, green little island of dignity – all his own, his complete creation – to which he could retreat and seek comfort. In tending his plants he also soothed and healed a little the wounds and gashes inflicted on his soul out in the fields each day. […] (Patterson 1973: 93)

“Plot” can only provide temporary mental escape from the dehumanization of estate life, but it nevertheless embodies a spatial aesthetics that challenges the hegemonic view instituted and maintained by the plantocracy and points towards a view of land usage that would gain momentum in the future.


Across the Sea, On the Beach

“The sea is slavery” (D’Aguiar 1998: 3). With these words Fred D’Aguiar begins his novel Feeding the Ghosts, a fictional memorialization of the infamous Zong massacre, when more than 130 enslaved Africans [6] were thrown into the sea by the crew of the slave ship Zong to drown. D’Aguiar’s novel is a powerful attempt to convey the horror of a Holocaust experience that seems to defy language and other literary texts about the Zong tragedy have employed a diverse range of strategies to grapple with the problem of speaking the unspeakable. M. NourbeSe Philip’s poetic sequence Zong! foregoes any attempt at mimetic representation in favour of a fragmented protest that moves between song, lament and shout. David Dabydeen’s Turner, a rejoinder to J.M.W. Turner’s response to the massacre, “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming” is a verse attempt to give voice to what one critic has called “those who have been lost twice, first to death in the Middle Passage and then to an imperial archive of exotic and sublime objects and representations” (Schenstead-Harris 2013: 2). The massacre, which led to a legal tussle over the ship’s owners insurance claim for the loss of their cargo was a pivotal moment in the growth of late eighteenth-century abolitionist sentiment, but in terms of the more contemporary literary responses mentioned here, it has played an important part in raising awareness of the horror and dehumanization of the slave trade – the insurance claim for the murdered Africans was founded on the widely held belief that they were simply property. Like Dabydeen’s Turner, D’Aguiar’s Feeding the Ghosts counters this, particularly through the self-reflexive strategy of having its protagonist Mintah escape from the sea to write an account of the voyage. Written aboard the ship, her narrative subsequently provides evidence in the court case that ensues because the ship’s insurers have refused to pay for the jettisoned cargo.[7] At the same time it is analogous to the fictive strategy of D’Aguiar’s text, which is also built around a form of testimony.

            Both Mintah’s actual resurrection from the sea and the compilation of her narrative suggest the possibility of an alternative woman-centred heritage salvaged from the Middle Passage. So too does Nichols’s i is a long memoried woman, a collection which is both an elegy for the undead dead “souls / caught in the Middle Passage / limbo” (Nichols 1983: 16) of the crossing that brought millions of Africans into New World slavery and a “Black Beginning / though everything said it was / the end” (7). In this account apocalypse is transformed into an originary moment, a moment which, despite the appalling conditions of confinement on the slave ship and the subsequent brutality of plantation life, in a grim but not entirely parodic equivalent of the promise associated with the New World in the European imagination, anticipates the possibility of a completely fresh start in the Americas. Nichols’s poem does not flinch from condemning both the trade and plantation life, but it constantly returns to the fortitude of a female protagonist, who, sustained by memories of Africa, seeks “the power to be what I am/a woman / charting my own futures/ a woman / holding my beads in my hand (79). There is a similar sense of women’s resilience offering a means of transcending the legacy of the slave trade and remaking Caribbean space in D’Aguiar’s Feeding the Ghosts and much earlier in George Lamming’s Natives of My Person, an allegory that collapses the time between the first voyages of the slave trade and the twentieth- century Caribbean of the independence era. Lamming’s novel documents horrific violence aboard a slave ship, which does not reach its island destination in the Caribbean, but the island is reached by three women previously mistreated by members of its male crew, who have travelled aboard a “sister-ship” (Lamming 1974: 15; italics in original). Liberated from the corrosive economies of the slave trade, they embody "a future [the male crew-members] must learn” (Lamming 1974: 351), the words with which the novel closes. As is often the case in Lamming’s fiction, women are both passive victims and active agents for the transformation of personal and political power relations. Waiting for their male abusers, they hold out the promise of a regenerative fresh start in a Caribbean setting beyond the horrors they have experienced in the Old World.

            D’Aguiar’s assertion that “The sea is slavery” is prefaced by an epigraph from a poem whose title it appears to be reworking: Derek Walcott’s “The Sea is History”. In Walcott’s poem a Caribbean speaker provides an account of the genesis and development of the region, redolent with Biblical analogies and references to its marine flora and fauna. The poem does not avoid the horrors of the slave trade, but subsumes them in a longer vision of a Caribbean historiography in which the natural world takes precedence and the sea is a polyvalent signifier. The words quoted by D’Aguiar:

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History. (Walcott 1980: 25; qtd. D’Aguiar1998: n.


are ambiguous in that while they suggest the erasure of African culture, they also view the sea as an environment that negates the approach to history on which colonial accounts are predicated. The discursive construction of Caribbean space is once again a central issue.

In numerous other Walcott poems, the sea is also a source for a poetics that is grounded in a maritime imaginary. In “The Schooner Flight”, the protagonist Shabine’s seafaring is a trope for writing as well as Caribbean life more generally. Articulating a central aspect of his creator’s poetic project, Shabine expresses his commitment to a vernacular verse that is a direct outcrop of his nautical existence:

                                                […] when I write

this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;

            I go draw and kno­t every line as tight

            as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech

            my common language go be the wind,

my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.   (Walcott 1980: 5)

Later the poem makes reference to the Middle Passage, but this is a view in which the sea seems to wash away all the ills of the past and the poem ends in a mood of benediction, celebrating the sea, as Shabine immerses himself in it as the site of his continual journeying:

The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart –

the flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know […].

My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.   (Walcott 1980: 19-20)

At the edge of the sea, the beach, like all littoral environments is a liminal location, a site that encapsulates both the beginnings and the subsequent limits of the island experience. For the narrator/protagonist of V.S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, Ralph Singh (né Kripalsingh), a descendant of one of the Indian indentured labourers brought to the Caribbean in the post-Emancipation era, the island where he has been born, is a pristine “place still awaiting Columbus and discovery”, but this brings him little solace, since he sees his own predicament as that of a castaway, shipwrecked far away from his Indo-Aryan origins. He identifies with the trunks of great trees from another continent that have been washed up on the shore and now lie marooned in the sand, seeing himself as a “shipwrecked chieftain on an unknown shore, awaiting rescue” (Naipaul 1967: 133-134). Subsequently the trope of the tree, an image of a transported extra-Caribbean identity, recurs in an almost identical form as Singh looks at “the bleached trunk of a tree that had collapsed on some other island or continent and had been washed ashore here and anchored in sand” (193). Here he sees himself and two companions who are with him as “shipwrecked and lost, alien and degenerate, the last of our race on this island, among collapsed trees and sand, so smooth where no one had walked on it” (195). For Singh the otherwise undisturbed evenness of the sand offers no possibilities of positive transformation. Caribbean space is a desert island, unendowed with meaning, and the notion of renewal through a positive response to the New World landscape never occurs to him as a possibility. In an earlier passage in which he writes about his experience as a property developer, it is telling that he has found it necessary to dynamite out the stump and root of a “giant tree, old perhaps when Columbus came” (72) on his significantly named housing estate Crippleville, a corruption of his surname, Kripalsingh. It is an act of ecological violation which confirms his personal deracination and his sense of alienation from any kind of extra-colonial, in this case pre-colonial, vision of Caribbean space.  

            In an essay entitled “Columbus and Crusoe”, Naipaul has spoken about the promise of Adamic innocence offered by the Americas as an expression of the “enduring human fantasy” of “the untouched, complete world, the thing for ourselves alone” (Naipaul 1972: 206), but, referring to Crusoe in particular, he sees the idealism of such a vision as contaminated from the outset:

Robinson Crusoe, in its essential myth-making middle part, is an aspect of the same fantasy. It is a monologue; it is all in the mind. It is the dream of being the first man in the world, of watching the first crop grow. Not a dream of innocence: it is the dream of being suddenly, just as one is, in unquestionable control of the physical world, of possessing “the first gun that had been fired there since the creation of the world”. It is the dream of total power. (Naipaul 1972: 206)

Derek Walcott also views Crusoe as a Caribbean archetype and in some respects his comments resonate with Naipaul’s, since he sees Defoe’s Crusoe as a founding figure for the region, but his own Crusoe is a shape-changer, incorporating a multiplicity of identities. Talking about the figure in 1965, Walcott suggested he is simultaneously Adam, Columbus, God, Ben Gunn, Prospero, a missionary who instructs Friday, a beachcomber from Conrad, Stevenson or Marryat and Defoe himself (Walcott 1993­: 35-36) and ultimately he sees Crusoe as Proteus, constantly mutating to a point where he is as much Caliban as Prospero, as much Friday as Defoe’s prototypical colonizer, as much “the distorted, surrealist Crusoe of Bunuel” (Walcott 1993: 38) as that of Defoe. In the talk, Walcott’s Crusoe emerges as both a Caribbean Everyman and a type of the Caribbean writer who, like Shabine in “The Schooner Flight”, is constructing a discursive universe from an apparent vacuum.

The shipwrecked protagonists of several of the poems in Walcott’s collection The Castaway, particularly “Crusoe’s Journal”, where Walcott writes “All shapes, all objects multiplied from his, / our ocean’s Proteus” (Walcott 1965: 51), are very similar in conception. In the title-poem of The Castaway, the Crusoe figure is represented as a type of the solitary artist, leading an isolated existence, nourished only by minimalist sensual stimuli:

            The starved eye devours the seascape for the morsel

Of a sail […]


If I listen I can hear the poly build,

The silence thwanged by two waves of the sea.

Cracking a sea-louse, I make thunder split. (Walcott 1965: 9)

In “Crusoe’s Journal”, he is an Adamic first maker, as in Naipaul’s essay, a craftsman fashioning a new kind of art, in this case creating poetry by “hewing a prose / as odorous as raw wood to the adze” (Walcott 1965: 51). The mood varies, but in each instance there is an apparent element of self-projection on Walcott’s part, as he draws an analogy between Crusoe’s creating a discursive as well as a material universe and his own project of developing a poetry, founded on metaphor, from what has hitherto been neglected Caribbean space. So, while he shares Naipaul’s vision of the beach as a castaway environment, Walcott also grasps its transformative potential, as a polyvalent site that can bring new places into being.

Walcott’s most direct response to Naipaul in The Castaway comes in the poem “The Almond Trees”, where the image of the tree is redeployed in a complex, transformative way, very different from Naipaul’s use of the trope in The Mimic Men, to provide commentary on the evolution of the region’s culture and society. The poem opens with an allusion to Naipaul’s Middle Passage comment on Caribbean history, “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies” (Naipaul 1969: 29), which makes it clear that history is the subject of the poem:

There’s nothing here

this early;

cold sand

cold churning ocean, the Atlantic,

no visible history,


except this stand

of twisted, coppery sea-almond trees [. . .].   (Walcott 1965: 36)

The trees, then, offer an alternative to the Eurocentric historiography that Naipaul embraces in referring to the Caribbean as uncreative. They are likened to “brown daphnes”, sunbathing on “this further shore of Africa” (Walcott 1965: 36), a personification which draws on Greek myths of wood-nymphs and specifically the legend that Daphne, pursued by Apollo, was metamorphosed into a tree. Initially the women may seem to be tourists “toasting their flesh” in “fierce, acetylene air”, which will “sear a pale skin copper” (Walcott 1965: 36-37), but as the poem progresses it becomes clear that it is charting the movement of Caribbean society since colonization, suggesting that a gradual darkening process has taken place. Trees and women endure a furnace which seems to be the crucible of Caribbean history. The suggestion is that through suffering, and pace Naipaul, the traumas of the Middle Passage and slavery have been negated by endurance and cultural pride. Walcott does not here, as in his oft-quoted rebuttal of historical determinism in “The Muse of History” (Walcott 1976), wipe the cultural slate clean. Instead he suggests a movingly compassionate encounter with Caribbean history, which can transform what has gone before:

One sunburnt body now acknowledges

that past and its own metamorphosis

as, moving from the sun, she kneels to spread

her wrap within the bent arms of this grove

that grieves in silence, like parental love.   (Walcott 1965: 37)

The beach is omnipresent in Walcott’s Caribbean-set poetry and nowhere moreso than in the sections that deal with the quarrelling fishermen in his most widely discussed work, Omeros. However, I should like to conclude by considering a passage from his poetic autobiography Another Life. In the passage in question, autobiography shades into epic just as epic frequently moves towards autobiography in Omeros. On the beach at Rampanalgas in north-east Trinidad, “a child without history / without knowledge of its pre-world” holds a shell to his ear and:

hears nothing, hears everything
that the historian cannot hear, the howls
of all the races that crossed the water,
the howls of grandfathers drowned
in that intricately swivelled Babel,
hears the fellaheen, the Madrasi, the Mandingo, the Ashanti,
yes, and hears also the echoing green fissures of Canton,
and thousands without longing for this other shore

by the mud tablets of the Indian provinces […]
the crossing of water has erased their memories.

And the sea, which is always the same,

accepts them.

And the shore which is always the same,

accepts them.  (Walcott 1973: 143-4)

The child’s direct communion with the natural world of sea and shore obliterates the “howls” of such horrors as the Zong massacre, along with the traumas of other communities voyaging to the Caribbean, in favour of an inclusive vision; his nascent consciousness overrides the muse of history, by using an angle of focalization, which is ignorant of the region’s past and unknowingly erases its injustices. Sea and beach become pristine sites, seemingly exempt from social intervention and capable of being invented anew by the individual perception of the growing child. The passage is typical of Walcott’s poetics, which demonstrate an acute sensitivity to the possibilities of refashioning Caribbean space to reclaim it from the abuses of the past. Ultimately, though, this is only a heightened New World form of the mobile spatial aesthetic, which is common to most Anglophone Caribbean writers, whatever their political persuasion, and which unsettles colonial constructions of places as “site[s] of authenticity”.




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[1] This essay follows Yi-Fu Tuan’s distinction between space and place: “undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value” (Tuan 1977: 6).

[2] Masks, the second part of Brathwaite’s Arrivants trilogy, remains the fullest poetic exploration of a Caribbean encounter with Africa, while the third part of the trilogy, Islands, explores the creolization of African retentions in the region. Caribbean novels set in Africa include O.R. Dathorne’s The Scholar-Man and V.S. Reid’s The Leopard. Denis Williams’s Other Leopards is the most complex exploration of ‘mulatto’ Caribbean identity in Africa. See my essay on Williams’s novel (Thieme 2011).

[3] See, e.g. George Lamming’s The Emigrants and Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners.

[4] See Psychology and Alchemy, Volume XII of Jung’s Collected Works (Jung 2010).

[5] E.g. D’Aguiar’s first novel, The Longest Memory is set in Virginia and, while the various sections of Phillips’s Crossing the River move between continents, the majority of the protagonists are African American.

[6] Estimates as to the exact number of slaves thrown overboard vary. D’Aguiar puts the number at “131 such bodies, no, 132” (D’Aguiar 1998: 3), revising the figure upwards by one to include his protagonist Mintah, who manages to climb back on board. 

[7] See Ward 2011: 151-164, for a discussion of the novel centred on D’Aguiar’s memorialization of slavery.

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