"The Regions Caesar Never Knew":
Cultural Nationalism and the
Caribbean Literary Renaissance in England


John Brannigan

Queen's University, Belfast

Copyright © 2000 by John Brannigan, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

History is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies.
V.S. Naipaul, 1962

A part of our cleansing has to take the form of the backward glance, not in a state of complaint or in a state of rancour, but the backward glance as part of the need to understand.

George Lamming, 1968

  1. ‘Two races have been freed, but a society has not been formed’ (Williams 1993, 278). The Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, wrote these words on the subject of independence in 1962, adapting Governor Harris’s response to the emancipation of slaves in Trinidad. Williams added: ‘The task facing the people of Trinidad and Tobago after their Independence is to create a nation out of the discordant elements and antagonistic principles and competing faiths and rival colours which have produced the amalgam that is today the approximately 875,000 people of Trinidad and Tobago’ (Williams 1993, 278). For Williams, as for Caribbean writers, the campaign for independence was characterised not merely as a struggle against colonialism but against the very forces of history which had combined to leave in the West Indies a complex mixture of races, traditions and cultures. The islands had to forge an identity which had no antecedence which could be agreed upon, to appropriate a language which was the legacy of their colonisers, and to unravel a history in which they seemed always to be the spectators. With independence, each of the islands acquired the trappings of nationhood, but these meant little without a common cultural identity.

  2. The necessity of creating the foundations for a national culture and intellectual tradition was apparent to many of the most prominent nationalists in the Caribbean in the 1930s and 40s. It was the reason for C.L.R. James’s study of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938. It led Eric Williams to write his History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago in 1942. It was the reason also why Alfred Mendes encouraged Errol John and the Whitehall Players to write and perform their own Caribbean plays rather than the diet of English comedies and melodramas which they served up to Trinidadian audiences in the late 1940s. At the same time, writers and artists began to emerge throughout the islands, encouraged and given outlets for their work by Frank Collymore (Bim), A.J. Seymour (Kyk-over-al), Edna Manley (Focus), and, in the BBC in London, Una Marson’s Calling the West Indies programme (1941-45) and Henry Swanzy’s Caribbean Voices programme (1943-1958) (See also Lamming 1984, Collymore 1964, Brathwaite 1966, Baugh 1966, Jarrett-Macauley 1998, Nanton 1998). Theatres were established as well as publishers, and so, in Lamming’s description, there emerged ‘the first builders of what will become a tradition in West Indian imaginative writing’ (Lamming 1984, 60).

  3. The problem for Caribbean writers was that there was no substantial ‘reading public’ in the West Indies, and, where it existed, was more likely to be interested in English literature than anything ‘home-grown’. As Lamming suggests, this had two consequences for the emergence of Caribbean literature in the 1950s. Firstly, as much effort was required in encouraging literary taste in the West Indies as went into creating the literature itself. And secondly, it meant that in order to succeed as a writer, emigration to England, Canada or the United States was often necessary. Lamming was, of course, among the many writers who moved to England, along with Sam Selvon, Andrew Salkey, Jan Carew, Sylvia Winter, V.S. Naipaul, Errol John, Wilson Harris, Phyllis Shand Allfrey and John Hearne. While many of these writers were engaged in demythologising the imperial images and ideas of Englishness, they were also committed to representing and exploring the history, language and identities of the West Indies.

  4. The relationship between this group of writers - the Caribbean literary renaissance - and the nascent nationalism of the West Indies is far from simple. To begin with, they came from different islands, classes, races, faiths and cultures, and, although Swanzy and Salkey hosted many occasions for them to meet and exchange ideas, criticism and contacts, some (Allfrey and Naipaul are the most obvious examples) were very much peripheral to the group. Moreover, few shared the enthusiasm for nationalism which was more evident in older writers such as James and Mendes. Each in different ways was ambivalent about the rise of political nationalism, and some favoured the abortive attempt at a Federation of the West Indies (1958-1963) over national independence, or indeed were cynical about the capacity of the Caribbean middle class to do anything more than mimic the structures of colonial government. Moreover, their critical representations of Caribbean society and politics has, in turn, exposed them to accusations that education and exile had alienated the Caribbean writers from their own peoples. They were ‘educated away from their societies’, writes Amon Saba Saakana:
    Consequently, although they were influenced by the social and political struggles of their societies, these struggles, although portrayed, were not central to the vision or perspective of the writer. Rather, it was the colonial residue of an imposed psychological ambivalence, expressed in concepts of colour, class and educational status.... The danger posed to the Caribbean intellectual was his unquestioning acceptance of the benefits bestowed by a British educational system. (Saakana 1987, p.111)

  5. For Saakana, the writers of the Caribbean literary renaissance remained ensnared in the colonial web, indebted to colonial cultural values and forms, and enthralled by the promise and expectation of success in the metropolis. The exile of writers and artists in England, in particular, is blamed for stifling ‘the evolution of a more truly expressive Caribbean literature’ (Saakana 1987, 110). Their quest to discover the character of Englishness, even to change the composition of English society and culture, might very well support this interpretation of their allegiances. The intellectuals of this period, according to this view, conform to Fanon’s description of the ‘disturbed’ native intellectual, alienated from his people, and bringing to his subject matter ‘a borrowed aestheticism and ... a conception of the world which was discovered under other skies’ (Fanon 1967, 179). But for Fanon, this was a sign of hope too, the beginnings of what he called a ‘revolutionary literature’, because in this phase of the evolution of the native intellectual Fanon believed that the sickness of colonial oppression and native shame would be excreted. ‘We spew ourselves up’, wrote Fanon, ‘but already underneath laughter can be heard’ (Fanon 1967, 179).

  6. It is possible, perhaps even desirable, to recognise a certain ‘Anglophilia’ in the work of many of the Caribbean writers who explored and imagined the islands while in exile in London. After all, even Lamming, perhaps the most anti-colonial of all the writers, seems to delight in comparing the emergence of the Caribbean novel in the 1940s and 50s to the rise of the English novel in the eighteenth century. But to criticise them for their exile, even for their Anglophilia, as having stifled the growth of Caribbean culture or consciousness, is to ignore the productive role which exile can have in the formation of national consciousness. Lamming himself has argued that ‘it is really at the Metropole that a certain type of new Caribbean was born not in fact in one of the territories itself’ (Lamming 1998, 8). It is in the necessity of imagining the islands that the narration and, indeed, fabulation, of a national unity and culture begin. The same imaginative process plays a large part in producing the romantic imagery and rhetoric of nationalism in aestheticising the landscape, people and language of the nation, as aestheticisation requires a certain remove or alienation from the object.

  7. In this sense, exile has the effect of nurturing cultural nationalism, and, indeed, it is no surprise that many of the most prominent figures in the political and cultural struggles for independence in the Caribbean cultivated and crystallised their sense of nationalism while they were exiles and émigrés, mostly in England. But the exile, by definition, becomes part of a fringe or minority culture, which Homi Bhabha argues is engaged in a productive but also troubled dialectic with the ‘nation’:
    Minority discourse acknowledges the status of national culture - and the people - as a contentious, performative space of the perplexity of the living in the midst of the pedagogical representations of the fullness of life. Now there is no reason to believe that such marks of difference - the incommensurable time of the subject of culture - cannot inscribe a ‘history’ of the people or become the gathering points of political solidarity. They will not, however, celebrate the monumentality of historicist memory, the sociological solidity or totality of society, or the homogeneity of cultural experience. (Bhabha 1990, 307-8)

  8. Perhaps even more than the ‘minority’ culture, exiled communities are aware of the fissures in national culture, partly because they experience more acutely the construction of the nation through otherness, but also because their own narratives of departure and arrival draw attention to the rootlessness of national identity. ‘Perplexity’ is the fate, and perhaps also, as Lamming suggests, the pleasure of the exile. For the exile, then, the nation is an ambivalent formation, which always exceeds its own territories, peoples, and, most importantly for Bhabha, its own time. The nation is always being formed and shaped, always imminent, and yet draws upon the past for its historical legitimacy and the present for its political agency.

  9. For Caribbean writers in England, the emerging island nationalism and even federal nationalism could only be represented in ways which caught their ‘contentious, performative’ nature. In Voices Under the Window (1955), John Hearne depicted the rioting crowd as the embodiment of the spontaneous, erratic vitality of mass consciousness, which was revolutionary and violent certainly, but which was also ephemeral and arbitrary. For Lamming and Salkey, the eruption of mass disturbance accelerates from a brawl to a seething, angry mob with alarming speed, but is ultimately without meaning or purpose. So too, in Naipaul, the political mob movement is an undisciplined, unchannelled energy which is manipulated to satisfy the selfish interests of a handful of ambitious, avaricious leaders. Beneath the imagery of mass energy and power, there lurks a pervasive sense of a fractured, malignant society, in which riots and murders are symptoms of more extensive problems. The visions of Caribbean society and politics which these writers produced in exile, therefore, refused to collapse into romantic endorsements of nationalist images and rhetoric. The violent rioting mob is not the only image of mass consciousness - the street and the carnival are other noteworthy examples - but it denotes the cynicism and ambivalence which characterised the attitude of the exiled writer to his or her native national culture.

  10. In contrast to Saakana’s dismissal of exiled writers and intellectuals, Bhabha treats such cynicism and ambivalence as the signs of a desperate seriousness. In refusing to celebrate the historical monumentality, social totality and cultural homogeneity of the nation, and in drawing attention instead to what Michael Dash has called the ‘poetics of rupture and "relation"’ (Dash 1989, 19), Caribbean writers in England were not abandoning nationalism for the glamorous attractions of Anglophilia. Rather, they were exploring the social turmoil and cultural deprivation of the islands, and, if they were implicitly refusing Eric Williams’s call to create a nation out of discordance, it was only because exile had enabled them to analyse and re-evaluate the nature of discordance and cross-cultural relations and the dangers of constructing cultural homogeneity. As Bhabha suggests, they could not be the servile celebrants of a pre-ordained national culture, for they were both haunted by their exile from the nation and were busily engaged in redefining it. It is this ambivalent relationship with, and the crucial role of Caribbean writers in shaping national culture which is the subject of this essay.

  11. The problem Caribbean writers faced was one of presenting the peoples and cultures of a region which had long been imagined in colonial discourse as a non-identity. The renowned and controversial English historian, J.A. Froude, had written of the West Indies in 1888, ‘there are no people there in the true sense of the word’ (Froude 1888, 347), and it is this overwhelming sense of absence and insignificance which characterises the psychological effects of colonialism in the islands. Beharry tells Ganesh, in Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur, ‘we is just a tiny little dot on some maps.... I think Hitler ain’t even know it have a place called Trinidad’ (Naipaul 1964, 112). In Naipaul’s novel, as in those of Selvon and Lamming, the characters ponder the insignificance of the islands in world affairs. Tiger in Selvon’s A Brighter Sun is dimly aware that the islanders are living outside of history, civilisation and culture, that their lives are defined as an absence:
    Tiger couldn’t explain the way he felt about things. Even after Sookdeo had read the latest news for him, it was as nothing. He heard, and imagined how it was in England and America. But he was conscious only of the great distance which separated him from all that was happening. Things always happened to other people, but nothing happened to him. (Selvon 1985, 75-76)

  12. This anxiety that life in Trinidad is meaningless and worthless induces a sense of paralysis and entrapment. Tiger feels that the people of Trinidad are trapped in an endless cycle of monotonous routines - doing the same jobs, saying the same things - and all are oblivious to the world events reported by Sookdeo, the only villager who can read the newspapers. For Tiger, things always happen elsewhere, and he becomes increasingly frustrated with the limitations of his own world. He struggles to impress the Americans who are building a military base on the island, and he muses on the stories of the size and power of a city so big ‘you could lose the whole of Trinidad in it’ (Selvon 1985, 215). ‘Elsewhere’ is the source of all meaning - a point which Ganesh Ramsumair (the mystic masseur of Naipaul’s novel) realises when he reaches his apotheosis as a Colonial Statesman in England as G.Ramsey Muir, Esq., M.B.E. (Naipaul 1964, 220).

  13. ‘Elsewhere’ is also the source of all history, and, while some of Tiger’s village are glad of the insignificance of their island for keeping them safe from the bullets and bombs of world war, the boy-narrator of Lamming’s In the Castle of my Skin is troubled by the ‘absence’ of history in his home of Barbados. He and his friends play at being King Canute, and are taught about Queen Victoria in school, but when he encounters an old woman who tells him about slavery it produces a conflict between the ‘history’ of his education and the oral tales of his fellow islanders:
    [H]e was very anxious for the old woman. Who put it into her head that she was a slave, she or her mother or her father before her? He was sure the old woman couldn’t read. She couldn’t have read it in a book. Someone told her. Moreover she said she was one. One of these things. Slave. The little boy had heard the word for the first time and when the teacher explained the meaning, he had a strange feeling. The feeling you get when someone relates a murder. Thank God, he wasn’t ever a slave. He or his father or his father’s father. Thank God nobody in Barbados was ever a slave. It didn’t sound cruel. It was simply unreal. The idea of ownership. One man owned another. They laughed quietly. Imagine any man in any part of the world owning a man or a woman from Barbados. They would forget all about it since it happened too long ago. Moreover they weren’t told anything about that. They had read about the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror. That happened so many hundreds of years ago. And slavery was thousands of years before that. It was too far back for anyone to worry about teaching it as history.... And nobody knew where the slavery business took place. The teacher had simply said, not here, somewhere else. Probably it never happened at all. The old woman, poor fool! You could forgive her. She must have had a dream. A bad dream! (Lamming 1979, 57-58)

  14. History is, for the young boy, what he is taught in the classroom by teachers who reassure him that slavery is part of a distant, perhaps even mythical past. The teachers mould and edit a version of Barbadian history which depends on its relationship with England, and forge a narrative of loyalty and brotherhood which owes much to the language and motifs of boys’ adventure stories - ‘Big England had only to say the word and Little England followed’ (Lamming 1979, 57-58). In such a narrative, slavery could never have taken place between ‘Big England’ and ‘Little England’, and hence the teacher denies the very existence of slavery. Lamming’s novel explores the role of colonial education in planting the myths and illusions of subordination in the mind of the Caribbean children. Anglophilia is encouraged, indeed expected, and dissension from the versions of history offered in the school text-books is punished. But, although he dismisses the old woman’s story of slavery as a ‘bad dream’, the boy is nevertheless troubled by the idea. The word itself causes him to have a ‘strange feeling’, and his dismissal of the idea becomes anxious and too insistent. Deep in his subconscious is the vague knowledge that something is wrong with the ‘history’ which is imposed from elsewhere, and this is confirmed later when Trumper tells him that ‘histr’y ain’t got eyes to see everything’ (Lamming 1979, 141). The ‘truth’ of Barbadian slavery must therefore lie somehow outside of history, in what history fails to see.

  15. This recognition of the myopia of history pervades the writings of the Caribbean literary renaissance. Just as Hitler fails to see Trinidad on the map, and England cannot even imagine, let alone remember, slavery in Barbados, Ganesh Ramsumair’s Hindu Association is hardly noticed at all outside of Trinidad, its telegrams to Gandhi and Nehru seemingly invisible. Myopia is also, of course, a theme of some of the novels set in London when English people seem not to see the black migrants who haunt their streets. This leads to psychological crises for a number of the characters, most notably Galahad in Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and Dickson in Lamming’s The Emigrants. Nana Wilson-Tagoe argues that it is this recognition of the shortcomings of history - its failure to ‘see’ the West Indies - which spurred on the ‘reconceptualizations of Caribbean history in imaginative literature’ (Wilson-Tagoe 1998, 269). Imagination thus substitutes for ‘the real’, but only when ‘the real’ itself has been exposed as illusory and defective.

  16. For Wilson-Tagoe there are other problems with Western conceptions of history which affect the forms which Caribbean writing improvised in the 1950s. In Western history, she argues:
    Time is conceived of as a linear movement, and history becomes a chronicle of progress and development in a particular space and time. In West Indian writing such conceptions of time and history have come against several disadvantages. For the history of slavery and colonialism conceived in linear terms inevitably presents an image of the West Indian as a victim rather than a creator of history, and invariably writers have either had to struggle to transcend ‘history’ and reconstruct new identities or accept the despairing conclusion that displacement and violation have been historically determined and are therefore unconquerable. (Wilson-Tagoe 1998, 4)

  17. The cynicism of the latter view is certainly evident in the writing of the period, from Tiger’s bleak resignation that nothing happens in Trinidad to Ganesh Ramsumair’s more misanthropic awareness that success can only be achieved by ‘playing’ at politics in the West Indies in order to gain the endorsement of the west. In between, of course, are the women who are beaten by frustrated, angry men, the children whose futures are decided by the colour of their skin, and the men who see the ship as their only hope for freedom and meaning. They are often the victims of history, trapped in a condition over which they have no control, and in which even exile can never be an escape from the prison of one’s birth. In Lamming’s In the Castle of my Skin, the effect of the racist structures of colonialism on the people is to deaden their self-belief, and to take from them the capacity to create and feel their own identity:
    Like children under the threat of hell fire they accepted instinctively that the others, meaning the white, were superior, yet there was always the fear of realizing that it might be true. This world of the others’ imagined perfection hung like a dead weight over their energy. If the low-down nigger people weren’t what they are, the others couldn’t say anything about us. Suspicion, distrust, hostility. These operated in every decision. You never can tell with my people. It was the language of the overseer, the language of the Government servant, and later the language of the lawyers and doctors who had returned stamped like an envelope with what they called the culture of the Mother Country. (Lamming 1979, 27)

  18. Self-denigration becomes, in this climate of racial prejudice and colonial servility, instinctual and habitual, and it is not the cap-doffing performance of the stage-native, but the very core of self-identity. It has a corrosive effect on the political, social and cultural life of the island, as Lamming shows, by co-opting the educated into the service of a neo-colonial ideology, in which the ‘low-down nigger people’ are held responsible for the limitations and failures of the society. The racial composition of island society is thus understood to explain the historic paralysis of that society, but, as Selvon illustrates in A Brighter Sun, this does not always or even mostly take the form of each race blaming the other. Rather, the ‘negro’ couple, Joe and Rita look sick with envy on the contentedness of Tiger and Urmilla’s Indian ways, while Urmilla thinks of how things would be fine ‘if they could only be like white people’ (Selvon 1985, 31). Each finds a way of explaining the weakness and deficiency of their lives and their society through the disabilities of their own race. ‘No man like to know he black’, says one of the characters in Lamming’s novel (Lamming 1979, 104).

  19. Caribbean writers explored the constructions of racial identity and the causes of political tension between races in their society, but, as Wilson-Tagoe suggests, this involved representing West Indians not simply as the victims of colonial history, but also the present agents of that history. However cynical the narrators are for the future of their societies, their narratives are also testifying to a certain stubbornness and resistance which belie the appearance of historical determinism. It may be a limited form of success, but, as Louis James has argued, the ‘vitality’ of Caribbean literature comes from ‘its refusal to retire from the issues of the Caribbean’ (James 1968, 35). To register a presence, to make literature from the lives of the unrepresented, in the context of a colonial discourse which negates the presence of the native, is an act of cultural resistance. And there are, beneath the cynicism and despair, moments of some optimism and courage. In the conclusion to Selvon’s novel, Tiger, having lambasted the ‘sameness’ and futility of life in rural Trinidad, looks up at the sky and says ‘Now is a good time to plant corn’ (Selvon 1985, 215). Although he is tired of a society which knows only the seasons and the routines of farming, he decides to plant his own roots in that society. And even those who emigrate, like the narrator of Naipaul’s Miguel Street, take with them the memory of a stable, knowable community, in which their absence seems not to warp or fracture that community: ‘everything was going on just as before’, the narrator tells us, ‘with nothing to indicate my absence’ (Naipaul 1974, 172). Emigration may be a sign of the debilitation of island economy and society, and there are a great many social ills and political weaknesses featured in the writings of the Caribbean renaissance, but there is also the sure, strong register of a living, surviving community which refuses to accept the colonial negation of its presence.

  20. In Caribbean literature, ‘the essential development of a social order seems unstructured, even unchartered’, writes Wilfred Cartey, ‘[y]et the fortuitous mixing, the visceral touchings of the people living in crowded conditions seem to have produced their own unique communality’ (Cartey 1991, 175). Although the vision of island politics and economics presented in Caribbean literature is often bleak and despondent, the characters and communities are often dynamic and buoyant. To inscribe a vital ‘presence’ in the West Indies, against the tradition of colonial negation, is to claim for that community its own representational space - political as well as cultural. The emergence of a Caribbean literary tradition is, in itself, therefore, part of the demand for an independent political entity (or entities). The ‘unique communality’ which Cartey observes in Caribbean fiction is thus a community awaiting its own imminent emergence as a political body. So, the old man in Lamming’s In the Castle of my Skin sees Mr Slime as a ‘Moses come to save his people’ (Lamming 1979, 78), the public rally around the Hindu nationalism of Ganesh in Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur, and Joan and Baptiste work to spur ‘the people’ into claiming their own rights and freedom in Allfrey’s The Orchid House. Nationalism is never conspicuous or overt in these novels, but its increasing power in the islands is often a subtext for the exploration of the social, political and cultural consciousness of the Caribbean peoples. But, in each of the examples given of a political awakening in the people, their expectations are frustrated and misplaced. Both Ganesh and Mr Slime turn out to be more interested in helping themselves than helping their beleaguered communities, and Joan can barely overcome the racial barriers between her and Baptiste, regardless of what she may achieve in uniting the slum peoples of Dominica. The ‘presence’ of a nationalist awakening, therefore, is never untroubled in the Caribbean - it is never represented in Caribbean literature as the incontestable, ineluctable will of the people, largely because the very notion of a single, united ‘people’ is necessarily a contested and factious idea.

  21. The collective affirmation of ‘presence’ in Caribbean literature is fraught with doubt. For Stuart Hall, the people of the Caribbean bore ‘the stamp of historical violence and rupture’, their identities fractured and rootless, their histories and religions borrowed and ill-fitting (Hall 1991, 3). There could be, in the post-colonial moment, no simple return from the shadows of colonialism to the golden light of a pre-colonial age, not least because there were no myths of pre-colonial ‘pure’ identity to which the people of the Caribbean could return. As a result, the imagined ‘retour’ of the nationalist project to a haven of pre-colonial communality which gripped the public mind in Africa, Ireland and India at various stages of their independence campaigns had little purchase in the islands of the West Indies. The desire for a national space outside of colonial history, culture and society had therefore to move beyond the regressive vision of other independence campaigns around the world and adopt instead a model of national independence which reflected the heterogeneous, fractured, and rootless nature of Caribbean identities. For Caribbean writers it was never fully plausible to resort to concepts such as ‘negritude’ or ‘nativism’ to provide stable alternatives to the subject identities of colonialism. For Wilson Harris, Andrew Salkey and George Lamming, it was impossible to disentangle the Caribbean ‘native’ from colonial discourses and identities, just as it was impossible to discern a pre-existing deep unity beneath the racial and social differences of the Caribbean peoples.

  22. In Harris’s The Palace of the Peacock the fusion of the postcolonial with colonial identities and narratives is adapted and re-imagined throughout the novel as a series of mutations and subversions. The dreamer at the beginning of the novel looks into the eyes of the horseman lying dead on the road and wakes ‘with one dead seeing eye and one living closed eye’ (Harris 1960, 19). Death and life, past and present, dream and reality, myth and history, colonial expedition and post-colonial journey -- all become inseparably intermixed in the symbolic journey represented in the novel, and the dreamer with his seeing dead eye and his blind living eye embodies this state of fusion. Donne and his ragged, motley crew reflect in their racial origins the various roots of the Guyanese people, and their journey takes on a number of different, overlapping meanings. It is, on a literal level, a journey to find and recover Indian labourers. It is also the journey of colonial discovery, ghosted by Columbus’s voyage narratives and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is the journey too of spiritual exploration, searching through myths and images of Guyanese culture and history for the symbolic heart of Guyanese identity. The dreamer’s vision is thus multi-layered, and conceived always in terms of a duality of mind and body:
    The map of the savannahs was a dream. The names Brazil and Guyana were colonial conventions I had known from childhood. I clung to them now as to a curious necessary stone and footing, even in my dream, the ground I knew I must not relinquish. They were an actual stage, a presence, however mythical they seemed to the universal and the spiritual eye. They were as close to me as my ribs, the rivers and the flatland, the mountains and the heartland I intimately saw. I could not help cherishing my symbolic map, and my bodily prejudice like a well-known room and house of superstition within which I dwelt. I saw this kingdom of man turned into a colony and battleground of spirit, a priceless tempting jewel I dreamed I possessed. (Harris 1960, 24)
    The colonial conventions of the names and maps of Brazil and Guyana are acknowledged here as ‘mythical’, but they are nevertheless indispensable to the dreamer, who invests them with the creative significance of his ‘ribs’. They are both ‘real’ presences and theatrical stages, in which identities are lived and acted out. They are, in short, the necessary and familiar fictions of a grounded identity, which are yet recognisably false and contentious. They become the subject of a spiritual and actual struggle for possession and love.

  23. It is impossible at any point in the novel to distinguish between the coloniser and the colonised. The horseman who dies at the beginning of the novel is conquistadorial, as is Donne, who describes himself as ‘the last landlord .... Midwife, yes, doctor, yes, gaoler, judge, hangman, every blasted thing to the labouring people’ (Harris 1960, 22). But the dreamer is a curious amalgam of coloniser and colonised, as are a number of other characters who move in and out of focus in the novel. The dreamer merges with the horseman at the beginning of the novel, so as never to permit a distinction between the persecutor and persecuted. As Harris commented on the opening passage of the novel, ‘we begin to rehearse the position in such a way that one descends into the horseman, one becomes the horseman, and in becoming the horseman one is then in a better position to judge how close one may come to simply repeating the tragedies of the past’ (Harris 1989, 25). The tragedies of the past are repeated in The Palace of the Peacock as the journey made by Donne and his crew replicates a fatal journey made by another crew bearing the same names. Even though Donne and his crew become conscious of the fate of their ghost voyagers, and realise that they are doomed to endure the same deaths themselves, there is nothing they can do to avert it. History, it seems, is violently cyclical and ceaselessly repetitive.

  24. The spiritual search for a pre-colonial Guyanese mythology or identity becomes, in this sense, the repetition of the colonial search for an exotic otherness in which to ground European cultural identity. The colonised become the coloniser, just as the living become the dead. In imagining the journey to the heart of Guyana as a parallel to colonial expedition, Harris’s novel plays with the implications of independence mimicing the very conditions of colonisation, and of the journey to self-discovery becoming inseparable from the invasive journey of conquest. On a specific, empirical and historical level, there is no difference between the parallel journeys featured in the novel. But the narrative of The Palace of the Peacock moves resolutely from the empirical to the spiritual, and in doing so, it shifts the emphasis from the historical repetition of the event to the imaginative transformation of that event. The (second) death of all of the crew occasions not a bleak reflection on the destructive cycle of history but rather the re-enactment of creation itself. On the seventh day of the journey, when all of the crew are dead or lost, the nameless narrator sees through his spiritual eye the re-creation of the universe, and the glorious unity of being:
    It was the dance of all fulfilment I now held and knew deeply, cancelling my forgotten fear of strangeness and catastrophe in a destitute world. This was the inner music and voice of the peacock I suddenly encountered and echoed and sang as I had never heard myself sing before. I felt the faces before me begin to fade and part company from me and from themselves as if our need of one another was now fulfilled, and our distance from each other was the distance of a sacrament, the sacrament and embrace we knew in one muse and one undying soul. Each of us now held at last in his arms what he had been for ever seeking and what he had eternally possessed. (Harris 1960, 117)

  25. Harris’s novel resembles and borrows from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with the river journey, the adventurer narrator, the enigmatic and sinister figure of the colonial master, and the suggestion throughout that the landscape conceals the human presence of the natives. But, as with all forms of mimicry, there is a crucial difference between them. In Conrad, the tale ends with the recognition of the untraversible distance between imperial home and colonial other, the impossibility of truth and unity between two opposed cultures. But Harris’s novel ends with the passage above in the dream of spiritual unity, a dream which plays out the fantasy of discovering and embracing one’s ‘true invisible otherness and opposition’ (Harris 1960, 116). The Palace of the Peacock, then, interrogates the racist division implied at the end of Conrad’s novel, by mimicing it up to the point at which it provides an alternative conclusion.

  26. Invention comes, for Harris, not out of radical separation from history and myth, or indeed disavowal of history. ‘It is very easy for a society to overturn an oppressor’, writes Harris, ‘but it is equally easy for those who overturned the oppressor to become the oppressor in turn. To understand that, one has to rehearse the implications’ (Harris 1989, 25-26). The literature of Caribbean independence is, in many ways, ‘rehearsing’ various dimensions of the postcolonial struggle to understand the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, and to recognise the protracted consequences of the colonial bond. The reluctance in Caribbean literature of the postwar period to offer simple images and myths of anti-colonial struggle can be explained as the result of an increased sensitivity of the Caribbean writer, perhaps especially when in exile, to the complexity of historical and racial roots and prolonged contact with colonial culture and politics. For Wilson Harris, the invention which must necessarily be involved in moving beyond the oppressive structures of colonialism is born out of an exploration of the ‘inside’ of colonial discourse itself. It comes from ‘rehearsing’ the colonial mentality and the colonial act in what he calls ‘the literate imagination’ (Harris 1989; Bundy 1999). In this sense, the literature of the period, particularly the literature produced in England by Caribbean writers, was a vital component of the imaginative struggle for independence. The writings produced by Lamming, Selvon, Salkey, Allfrey, Harris, Hearne and others explored the internalisation of colonial discourse in the minds of West Indians, as well as the ways in which ‘liberation’ could only be achieved through the creative capacity to embrace the complex web of connections between England and the West Indies, rather than through repeated acts of destruction.

  27. For some of these writers, the creative potential of independence could only be realised after the destructive forces of history had been probed and purged, as the epigraph taken from Lamming suggests. The history of Jamaica in Andrew Salkey’s A Quality of Violence, for example, is the history of a people lurching precariously from one disaster to another, re-enacting their own tragic condition through the myths and dramas which they have borrowed and adapted from their colonisers. In the severe drought of 1900, the inhabitants of a small Jamaican village turn their frustrations against one another, and adapt and fuse Christianity and Pocomania together into a powerful, intense form of rebellion. The villagers become desperate to exorcise the drought through a religious ritual, in which the preacher Dada Johnson and his assistant flail themselves to death before their followers in a sacrificial rite intended to induce the resurrection of the land. The sacrifice fails to free the land from drought, and the villagers become even more intoxicated by the images and language of religious and ritual sacrifice. The death of a child is explained by Mother Johnson, the dead preacher’s wife, as the result of black magic, a spell cast by the God-fearing Marshalls. When the crowd cannot find the Marshalls, they seize Brother Parkin, a friend of the Marshalls, who ‘look like Jesus Christ’, and prepare to crucify him (Salkey 1978, 122). The pace of Salkey’s novel builds to a tight, rhythmic climax as Brother Parkin succeeds in swaying the crowd in his favour, but he cannot stop the angry, blood-thirsty mob from turning on Mother Johnson. The ritual murder of Mother Johnson is itself wrapped in biblical mythology, as she herself cries out as they begin to stone her to death: ‘Come now, all you black Judas people, kill me! Kill me! ... Stone me like the Bible say! ... I begging you to save yourself! Kill me and prove the little power you have! Prove it with my blood!’ (Salkey 1978, 204). The violence of Salkey’s villagers becomes, through Mother Johnson’s biblical allusion, an act of self-empowerment as it is at the same time an act of self-destruction. The mob, shapeless and serious, make their procession towards violence purposely, faithfully, believing in the purgative qualities of sacrificial death.

  28. A Quality of Violence describes a community in deep and urgent need of salvation, who grasp for themselves the power of mass violence in order to act out the tragedy of their own condition. In stoning Mother Johnson they are, as she says, trying to save themselves, and yet that desire for salvation is itself lost and contorted in the rhythm of the violence. Violence ceases to be simply an instrument for effecting change -- it becomes a desired end in itself, an expression of the tragic resignation of the people to their fate. So too, what Dada Johnson offers in his ritual sacrifice to his crowd of followers is not really a solution to their problems, but rather an emotional and tragic performance in which they can participate, and with which they can identify their own drama of survival and longing. Wilfred Cartey argues that Salkey’s novel illustrates the displacement of social problems on to symbolic rituals and dramas:
    The social and historical circumstances of the Caribbean derive from, at once, a merging and separating of many various peoples and cultures producing a syncretic conglomerate of beliefs which are sensed but not understood, practiced but not clearly perceived. Any sudden deed, any ailment, any unexpected occurrence, is ascribed to an inexplicable, malignant force over which an individual has little control, unless he calls to his aid potently supernatural objects and artifacts. And since responsibility for ‘trouble’ is rarely ascribed to the malfunctioning of the society, remedies are not sought in the immediate society, but rather in an otherness (Cartey 1991, 83).

  29. In such circumstances, the effects of colonialism, racial division, poverty, economic exploitation and slavery are treated as identical to the effects of drought, hurricane, earthquake and flood. Social and political conditions are equated in the minds of the people with a kind of natural disaster, and thus the people resign themselves to the injustices of colonialism as if they await the flood or the storm. Dada Johnson perceives this resignation more clearly than most:
    This Jamaica that we living in nowadays, always give me the feeling that it destroying itself, year after year. This island is just one big suicide place. The people is living and at the same time just waiting for the suicide to come. To me, it seem like everybody born in the island and grow up knowing that they must get in the mad rush towards suicide. If you look at it like this now, you will see that the very land waiting for it. If it is hurricane coming on the land, one month, then the next month it is a thunder-storm or river flooding. Then you have the earthquake and all the rest of the other things. The land seem to be battered between a whole heap of devil darkness and destruction. (Salkey 1978, 42-42)
    Johnson allows himself to become a prop for the people’s desire to believe in the power of transformation, the exchange of human sacrifice for earthly salvation, in his dramatic re-enactment of Christian martyrdom. This may be a hopeful sign, that he can animate their capacity to desire and believe in regenerative action. But in doing so, he joins the ‘mad rush towards suicide’ which bedevils the island, and hence he becomes part of the island’s own will to destruction. The narrator at the beginning of Lamming’s In the Castle of my Skin has much the same problem in separating what is hopeful about the desperate loyalty of the impoverished, slum-dwellers of Barbados to the struggle for survival from what is pathetic and shameful about their silent submission to the conditions of their exploitation.

  30. Salkey’s novel could be read as a warning of the ambivalence of ‘native’ violence in the colonial context. Violence is never simply a tool for the resistance against oppression, for it is also a symptom of the desperation and capacity for self-destruction of the oppressed. It may be, as Harris suggested, a sign of the mutation of the oppressed into the oppressor. But, as Supriya Nair has argued of Lamming’s In the Castle of my Skin, when violence is historicised and seen in relation to the global forces enveloping and transforming the islands, it can be invested with revolutionary potential (Nair 1996, 79-103). The stoning of the headmaster, and the riot which envelops the island in Lamming’s novel, are depicted as acts of violence which have come about partly because of a consciousness in the perpetrators of a comparison between the situation in their home with situations elsewhere. The return of Trumper at the end of the novel with his insights into the black nationalism which he has learned in America heralds the dawn of a new consciousness in the narrator of his own political identity. Likewise, in Selvon’s A Brighter Sun, the presence of American GIs and the infiltration of American culture into Trinidad, provokes comparisons between the English and the Americans, and invites the Trinidadians to conceive of a political and cultural life independent of England (even if it is only to be replaced by the neo-colonialism of America). Indian independence stands out as a beacon for comparison for the Hindu nationalists of Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur, revolutionising their conception of post-colonial politics, and for Mark Lattimer in Hearne’s Voices Under the Window, the politicisation of his race-consciousness happens while he is posted as an airman in England during the war. The revolutionary potential in Caribbean society is, for many of the writers in exile in particular, awakened and sharpened when it is brought into an internationalist focus, when it is crystallised in its self-awareness by an engagement with the global forces of Americanisation and decolonisation.

  31. But this is where A Quality of Violence appears to collapse into despair at the failure of the mass consciousness of the oppressed to turn into a revolutionary movement, for the violence of the novel is explained as the symbolic ritual of a people turned inwards against themselves. Jamaica is described as ‘one big suicide place’ because its capacity for self-destruction is not contextualised by reference to the international or imperial forces which might explain the atrophy of the people. But there are subtle indications of the part which colonial discourse plays in producing this masochistic propensity of the villagers in, for example, the aura of earnest devotion which they invest in the objects of colonial culture - the bible, Christian prayer and Shakespeare. Prayer after prayer is intoned with deadly seriousness, and the macabre procession to Calvary is repeated over and over, and in each case the mimetic performance of Christian practice dressed in Pocomanic ritual reveals the people’s uncannily animated observance of the distorted customs and habits of their European colonisers. Only the Marshall child seems to show any signs of disrupting this earnest mimicry, when she asks her father to say ‘good night prayers’ in the manner of Anancy stories. ‘The Lord is no Anancy story’, Mr Marshall tells his daughter, ‘I want you to understand the serious thing that the Lord is’ (Salkey 1978, 14). But Anancy, the trickster spider who becomes king by his wit rather than his strength, is preferred by Marshall’s daughter over the ‘seriousness’ of the Lord Jesus. Anancy, a local myth of resistance, and indeed revolution, by stealth, is suggested as an alternative to the overpowering symbolism of self-destruction leading to resurrection which is the impression of Christian mythology among the Jamaican villagers in Salkey’s novel. Salkey’s villagers are ‘possessed’ by Christian symbolism as firmly as in any ‘voodoo’ ceremony, and although they re-enact their own tragedies through this symbolism, the conclusion to the novel suggests that there will be no resolution to their problems, merely a cyclical revisitation of violence and mass hysteria.

  32. Salkey’s novel, like the novels of Allfrey, Lamming, Harris, Naipaul, Hearne and Selvon, is not engaged in the task of imagining the shape and means of national liberation. All of these novelists were instead depicting and exploring the circumstances of the entrapment and paralysis of the peoples of the West Indies, the conditions from which they had to be liberated. For this reason it is a literature of tragedy, which is not necessarily to say that it is a literature without hope. Tragedy, as Thomas Docherty has argued, is the appropriate medium of nationalist literature and criticism because it ‘describes the change between states of affairs’ (Docherty 1996, 479-505). It introduces the moral imperative to identify with one state of affairs, and to feel ‘terror’ at the presentation of the change to another, abhorrent, state of affairs. Nationalist tragedy need not be as crass as to depict the ‘fall’ of the people from freedom to slavery, or from glory to deprivation, and Caribbean literature of the independence period is rarely ever as overt or simple as this. Instead, the form of tragedy specific to Caribbean literature describes the perpetual, cyclical failure of island society but gestures also to the capacity for transformation. In this sense, it is a form which presupposes that the fate of the tragic individual can only be altered by a general change in social circumstances and conditions. As is evident from many of the works discussed above, the change in circumstances and conditions can be effected on an individual basis through emigration, although not necessarily with greater possibilities for fulfilment - exile turns out to be as unrewarding and unliberating as staying at home. But exile, although it may be a form of release for the individual, is often represented in Caribbean literature as the tragic fate of Caribbean society, the emblem of collective despair.

  33. Such is the case in Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, which was performed first at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1958. John’s classic yard play is set in the East Dry River District of Port-of-Spain in Trinidad, and focuses on a handful of characters who share the slum dwellings of a yard. Each of the characters is trapped in poverty or misery, and is desperate to escape, and each is also conscious of the possibility somewhere of hope and fulfilment. Ephraim, the young tram-car driver, is restless and complains to his neighbour, Sophia, that ‘This Trinidad has nothin’ fer me! Nothin’ I want!’ (John 1958, 51). Moreover, Ephraim’s frustration is exaggerated by his feeling that Sophia’s husband, Charlie, has been cheated of success by the injustices of class and racial prejudice in Trinidadian society. Charlie was once a cricket hero, and Ephraim tells Sophia: ‘sometimes I’d listen to the old fellas talkin’ cricket. And the things they used to say about that man. And that is what this country did to him’ (John 1958, 51). Charlie has become an alcoholic, and stands as a symbol for Ephraim of what Trinidadian society can do to paralyse and ruin a man. The tragedy of Charlie’s situation is played out in the second act of the play, in which Charlie sits in the yard mending his cricket bat and recalling for Ephraim the glorious days of his cricketing career:
    Charlie: [m]y big talent was with the ball. I used to trundle down to that wicket - an’ send them down red hot! They don’t make them that fast these days.... But in my time, John, Old Constantine, Francis, them fellas was fast! Fast! Up in England them so help put the Indies on the map. (John 1958, 56)

  34. Charlie’s glory is here associated with the glory of the West Indies playing cricket against England. Although he has been prevented from going to England, and so becoming a national hero, Charlie’s fame and honour is still linked to the ‘nation’. This turns out to be the foil against which we realise the full tragedy of Charlie’s present situation, for it is at the end of the same act that he is arrested for stealing to pay for his daughter’s education. He leaves the yard, ‘like the old "has been" out for a duck in what was to be his "come-back" innings ... the bat trailing the ground as he walks’ (John 1958, 62). In the claustrophobic setting of the yard, and with nothing but poverty and corruption around him, Charlie is led off by the police to jail, broken finally by the society which has held him back from success. Ephraim, driven to anger by Charlie’s fate, and by finding his girlfriend in bed with the landlord (her own act of desperation to escape poverty), emigrates at the end of the play. The tragedy of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, like tragedy in other Caribbean writings, is not forged wholly from the comparison between a good, old life and the new, miserable reality, but rather out of a barely tolerable situation becoming even worse. There is the faint reminiscence of success, or the glimmer of possible happiness, but in each case it is also understood that such memories and dreams are delicate illusions which are easily and frequently broken.

  35. John’s play rehearses a familiar theme for Caribbean audiences, the causal connections between poor social conditions and the crime, poverty and emigration which make those social conditions even worse. There were no clues to national liberation in the play, merely a diagnosis of the national sickness. But like all of the writings examined in this essay, John’s play deployed the form of tragic realism, eliciting an identification with the sorrow and misery of the characters, but never allowing that identification to become what Brecht called ‘portable anguish’ which could be detached from its cause (Brecht 1978, 271). The causes of the misery depicted in the Caribbean writing of this period could only be found in the social, cultural and political conditions described and implied in the texts. They were inseparable from their Caribbean contexts, and were therefore inseparable from their colonial and neocolonial contexts. In producing a literature of tragic realism, the Caribbean writers of independence differed from their predecessors, as Wilson-Tagoe argues:
    The simple realism [of the thirties and forties writers] in which the physical world was evoked as a background to narrative and character created a perspective of order and coherence which was not commensurate with the discontinuities of the region’s history, steeped in what Harris has called ‘broken conceptions as well as misconceptions of the residue and meaning of conquest’. (Wilson-Tagoe 1998, 271)
    Instead, the writers of the independence period, in the fifties and sixties, had to produce a literature which would not only reflect but also enable an analysis of the causes of the colonial conditions of their Caribbean homelands.

  36. The Caribbean Literary Renaissance began in England, according to the eminent writer and commentator, C.L.R. James. It began with Learie Constantine’s Cricket and I: ‘To the general it was merely another book on cricket. To the West Indians it was the first book ever published in England by a world-famous West Indian writing as a West Indian about people and events in the West Indies’ (James 1994, 120-21). That James should cite a book on cricket as the first strike for Caribbean literary nationalism ought to come as no surprise for anyone familiar with his study of cricket, Beyond a Boundary. Just as cricket had been introduced into the West Indies as an extension of colonial culture and authority, it was adopted and appropriated by the West Indies as an indispensable expression of Caribbean political nationalism, according to James’s study of the social and cultural ramifications of the game. Cricket was more than a game - it was an art which allowed the West Indies to express itself as a cultural and political entity to the world. And in the years leading towards national independence for the various islands and lands of the English-speaking Caribbean, the West Indian cricket team assembled its own pantheon of national heroes and its own legendary victories, including the victory over England in 1950. In doing so, for James, the West Indians were not merely beating the English at their own game, and thereby achieving a symbolic victory for anti-colonial struggle, but they were also transforming the game, converting it to express a distinctly Caribbean style and manner. As Neil Lazarus argues, this has crucial consequences for the growth of a popular consciousness of ‘West Indianness’ and for the dominant tropes of anti-colonial resistance adopted in the West Indies:
    West Indians have, over the course of the twentieth century, been able to pull cricket across the manichean divide of colonialism; they have been able to make it carry the weight of their social desires and speak their language -- whether of emergent anti-colonialism, of nationalist affirmation, or since decolonization, of international self-presence.... For James, as Manthia Diawara has written ‘the mastery of cricket, a game representing Englishness, is, ironically, the West Indian’s way of speaking for himself to the modern world. (Lazarus 1999, 161-62)
    That James should have identified the English game of cricket as a crucial component of the emergent cultural nationalism of the West Indies may seem ironic, but it is by no means a peculiar or unique example of cultural appropriation. In literature, too, as Belinda Edmondson argues, despite the fact that Caribbean writers and critics were attracted to pan-Africanism, black nationalism, nation-language and other forms of radical black politics, the task of imagining the emerging nations of the West Indies borrowed heavily, and appropriated in large measure, from English literature and culture. (Edmondson 1999)

  37. This explains the significance of the relationship between the literature of a nascent Caribbean nationalism and the exile of many of its writers in England. For James it was only in England that he could test out the ideas which he had learned and rehearsed in the West Indies. But this did not make England the final arbiter of the authenticity or legitimacy of Caribbean culture and thought. Rather, James suggested, the exploration (literally or imaginatively) of the legacies of English authority in the West Indies was essential to the invention and shaping of Caribbean cultural nationalism. ‘To establish his own identity’, writes James, ‘Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew’ (James 1994, xxi). This implies not only that England could be re-invented by Caribbean immigrants, but also that an exploration of the symbiotic relationship between England and the West Indies was crucial in establishing the identity of the colonised Caliban. The West Indies, nor any of its constituent nations, could not be invented or born anew as wholly independent, for the language, history and identity of the islands were bound up intimately with their colonisers.

  38. The emphases in Caribbean literature produced in England in the postwar period, as a result, is less on the imagined future of Caribbean nationalism, nor even on the means of anti-colonial liberation, but instead on the causes of colonial dissidence and the reasons for the emerging power of anti-colonial movements. The dominant tropes of Caribbean literature are resistance and appropriation, therefore, rather than revolutionary creation or nationalist retour (See also Juneja 1996). Caribbean writers did not reject the culture of the coloniser in order to establish a separate nationalist culture, but instead, on exploring the intimate connections between the coloniser and the colonised, chose to transform the coloniser’s culture, to mutate it to suit the needs of the emerging nations of the English-speaking Caribbean. They speak, therefore, with the voice of the periphery through the language of the centre, and they are, by definition, then, writing from a condition of hybridity. The articulation of the hybridity of English and colonial cultures, which is characteristic in the postcolonial writings of this time, creates what Homi Bhabha calls the ‘third space’, by which he means the conditions in which new cultural, political and social formations might emerge in the postcolonial world. Edward Said defined decolonisation in his essay on W.B. Yeats as the struggle ‘to announce the contours of an "imagined" or ideal community, crystallized not only by its sense of itself but also of its enemy’ (Said 1990, 86). For Caribbean writers in postwar England, decolonisation meant retaining and celebrating an intimacy with the imperial centre, at the same time as they formulated critiques and interventions in the politics and cultures of their homelands.

Works Cited

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