A Frowsty Fragrance

Subject of poetasters, the Paradisal Isles! Italicized scrolls with f‘s for s‘s, whose scripts mimic their vegetation, letters hooked like the beaks of parrots or the coil of an overseer’s whip. The Hebrides, the Hesperides, the Cyclades, the Bahamas, all, being islands, have inspired a dipping rhythmic prose and florid verse, the exultations of discovery. These cartographical prints from the past held the excitement of sea battles and private treasures for us as West Indian schoolboys, unfurling to an imagined bristling of parchment with the names of Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, Anne Bonney, Bluebeard.

An excitable history settled down after all those adventures: the genocide of indigenous Indians, Carib, Taino, and Arawak; the brigands and buccaneers were followed by the domesticated monody of slavery then indenture; by cane planting and cane crop; by the pastoral of the sugar estate and its sentinel palms; by the life, formerly bloody and colorful, of sedate engravings.

Strange that these engravings should still look so sinister, their feathery heraldic fountains of palm and bamboo arching over shallow, rippling brooks, their light, always of mid-afternoon, suggesting languor, and beyond them the estate house with its jalousie windows and an empty verandah sad in its vacancy, or other pastorals, of Creole beauties in costume, of panniered donkeys prodded home by straw-hatted peasants, the donkeys’ hooves plodding to the meter of an era, a languorous, condescending prose.

To drive on dark narrow roads of broken asphalt with leaves of cocoa nearly touching the car, past black boulders with their thin cold streams, through unnamed clearings, and to pass sometimes those huge inverted cauldrons like World War II helmets, vats for boiling sugar, you come across startling ruins that, in their dankness, echo, like the gaping cauldrons, the sad history of West Indian slavery and indenture. In the gloom of cocoa groves, wild yam vines smother the abandoned machinery of rusted sugar mills, or the rails of trolleys that carried the reaped cane to the facto-ries. This is the smell of Krise’s anthology, the sickly sweet fragrance of molasses.

That past is scrupulously preserved in Caribbeana: An Anthology of English Literature of the West Indies, 1657-1777, which is edited and has an introduction by Thomas W. Krise. Mr. Krise describes the anthology as “a product of a passion for the history and culture of the West Indies.” The passion is evident in the excitement of his scholarship, admirable in the width of his research.

But reading these texts that are hallowed by age requires an adjustment of mood. One must read like the historian, without moral judgments, to translate oneself into the tone of their time, which means for most West Indians, certainly the African and Indian and Chinese, a return to illiteracy. This is why the idea of a West Indian history wobbles on its pivot and even collapses. How, for instance, is the descendant of slaves to read the following text with equanimity?

It has …

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