Dr. Johnson once offered a toast at Oxford: “Here’s to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies.” That was pure mischief: though Johnson loathed the slave trade, he did not much care for black people. But the slaves in the Caribbean were not kidding. Two hundred disordered years later the island colonies were baptized island nations. “Their sun that would not set was going down,” as one of Derek Walcott’s poems has it.
The colonial legacy is central to the written literature of the Caribbean, taking in the time “when these slums of empire was paradise”—(again Walcott)—to the present in which the archipelago has been sold for a “chain store of islands.” What independence means is a debate without end. Africa, not surprisingly, has been reclaimed, and Mother England is being displaced the way an adopted child marches off to hunt out his natural parents. There is an anxious vigilance in this wish: life still seems to be judged by how near or far the soul is in relation to London.
Austin Clarke’s autobiographical novel Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack is directly concerned with the cultural contradictions of a young man’s education in Barbados during World War II. Tender, funny, unpolemical, the narrator Tom recalls his coming of age at the “middle and lower middle class” Combermere School for Boys “in Town.” He is admitted to the Lower Second Form and survives to the Fifth Form, which brings the “Cambridge University Senior Cambridge Examinations (Overseas). We were overseas people. Some of the banks in our country said they were overseas banks, too.” Everyone in his village, St. Matthias, is proud that he is a “Cawmere boy.” They know what it means. “Go ‘long, boy, and learn! Learning going to make you into a man.”
The Combermere School means stiff khaki uniforms; clean, stinging, shaven heads; ties of blue and gold; blue denim bookbags sent by some “relative” from “Amurca”; Latin, French, and awesome, big books. “It would turn me into a civil servant, if I did well. If I didn’t do so well, it would turn me into a sanitary inspector.” The tuition fees were the “devastating amount of eight dollars.” Gone are the sweating, harassed, shabbily dressed “teachers” of his former school in St. Matthias, where the black headmaster “wore white as if it meant something to him which we boys could never aspire to; and he wore a tie that had no tropical colour in it.” This headmaster inspected their necks and fingernails. He made them sing hymns or “Rule Britannia” as he flogged the unlucky with a strap that was rumored to have been soaked in pee.
The Combermere School has “masters” and teaches “big” things. “I was under the chloroform of learning things which made no immediate and applied sense.” Trigonometry, the prose of Caesar, the verse of Virgil, “things about a Grecian urn.” A master “ranted and raved before us in his love for Keats and Byron and Shelley, and Milton.” There is plenty of Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso tantaene animus calestibus irae. Textbooks cost too much and the war makes them even scarcer. The boys copy out everything, even “Axe of the ‘Postles.” They love one-eyed Hannibal—“in occulo altero“—“and no one told us he was black like us!” They envy the laughter and “softer discipline” of the private school across the street.
Tom is at Combermere School but the “flogging orgies” are not over for him. The new headmaster, Major Noot, recently demobilized from the British army, becomes overnight the “Gestapo.” His public floggings are outrageous. “We likened him to Himmler.” The boys then honor him with a comparison to “Goebells.” But Noot is “a real, true-true Englishman,” like the British sailors who sometimes cheat the boys at cricket and call them “darkies.” But the boys want to be “little black Englishmen” and imitate Noot’s speech, not realizing that he is working-class. ” ‘I would prefer a cuppa toy, Ma,’ I told her. ‘Boy, you gone mad?’ ” Accents are not all the boys are encouraged to copy. “Play some cricket, boy. It is a gentleman’s game! And you being a Cawmere boy, cricket could take you to the ends of the earth. Take you up the ladder of society.” That has a quite different meaning from the quick, glittering rewards of boxing, baseball, basketball, or Pele’s miraculous soccer.
“Our Empire!” Barbados is “Little England” and its people “black Britons,” cabling their collective prayers to the king. “The English were cheap, the whores said. Cheapness came to mean, English. But in the classes at Combermere we were taught that the best things were made by the English.” Clothes, writing paper, Quink ink, combs, “which were too fine-toothed for our thick brand of hair,” Ferrol, Sunlight Soap, Pears Soap. “Beacham Pills. The language on the box extolled England’s greatness.” Tom is easily persuaded by the evidence of commodities and the magical artifacts of English culture. His brain swells with the names and dates of English history. The Battle of Bannock-burn. Trafalgar. Elizabeth Tudor. Anne of Cleves. “I painted their faces black, and put huge crinolined dresses on the girls I saw around me.” He loves his History of England by Ransome not because it is a step toward the civil service but because the history is alive and, he believes, a part of him. “And 1066 became for me the same thing as saying, ‘Good morning.’ 1066 means the beginning of things.” Slavery was a “shameful Amurcan invention. It was Amurcan blacks who were slaves. Not the English blacks!”
The catechism Tom receives contains much misinformation, a result of the imperfect process of knowledge filtering through the haze of his innocent, tidy Barbados and of the arrogant assumptions on which English cultural hegemony is based. “We worshipped stars. And we worshipped style. The content could always wait for saner times.” But the arrows of the sardonic always find their marks in this deceptively easygoing work. The longings of the Barbadian are revealed and the dishonor that conventional policy does to culture is also exposed.
The village is always waiting to swallow Tom with its customs the moment he returns from school. Shoes are removed, “home-clothes” put on. The work is hard, even during holidays. No Christmas trees, the “snow” comes from a rock quarry, the presents are modest. “Nobody don’t eat a Canadian apple the same day. My mother say yuh have to watch it for a few days.” They congregate at the wall of the “blasted segregated” Marine Hotel and listen to The Blue Danube at the Old Year’s Night party for “tourisses.” The village is alive with scandal, friends, “saved” women, and talk. The people say such unexpected things that the scene appears larger than it is. Everyday life and remembering the bent backs of grand-parents subvert the lessons learned in town, reminding the hopeful of where they came from and, perhaps, just how far they could go.
Tom’s mother and his new “father” prosper—somehow—and move on up to a better road to enjoy the “antics of possession.” No more “tribal, extracurricular education” about sex and politics. Attention is paid to the “amazing arithmetic of status,” which includes everything from skin color and church to knowing who one’s father is. Tom does his part—success as a “private-lessons” boy, the blue ink stains on his finger, singing in the cathedral choir add to his mother’s standing. But there are still other places, intimidating, quiet places belonging to the “nameless rich,” against which misery and mobility are judged. “Dogs among doctors.”
Tom and his classmates grow up with the war. Magazines making it through the blockade bring pictures of “American GI’s, stronger than Charles Atlas, drinking cans of grapefruit juice, and overturning German tanks with their bronzed bare hands.” The BBC is heard every evening. Many of the boys prefer Churchill to Hitler because “he didn’t pass Latin.” Life in distant places comes to them as rumor, fantasy. The war comes near in other ways: flour, rice, cornmeal, butter from Australia, salt beef, and English potatoes disappear. Suddenly sugar, which Barbados grew, is rationed. People wait long hours for water and in their rage at the authorities dump the half-filled buckets in the road. Then a periscope is seen in the harbor. “After the war, the black people laughed at the white people for getting to the hills first.”
While Tom is learning to win arguments with phrases such as “Philosophically speaking, man,” his private world is being infiltrated by a reluctant awareness of coming responsibility. He seeks refuge by becoming a “running fool.” (The “bright-bright-bright” boys have identifying foolishnesses: one can be a Science fool, a Geography fool, a Mathematics fool.) Choice of occupation looms and before that the threat of disgrace if one failed the examinations. Major Noot calls them men instead of boys. “It frightened some of us.” Tom is depressed when he realizes that he can put a woman “in a family way.” Manhood, as he understands it, means little more than having a job and paying ” ‘child money’ if you had the misfortune to breed a woman.” He is a bravely modest narrator, hesitating on the doormat of machismo.
The examinations come. The students dress as if they were attending a wedding. “Some of us fainted from the heat of the Morning, and from the fear that the Morning held in store for us.” Tom passes, he joins the cadet corps, a mock army, marking time until the college term begins. He gets busted for a harmless prank and understands that it is all indeed real. The isolation is real as well as the limits imposed on the future. In this vivid, fluent, sensitive work, everything seems remembered. The sad ironies readily emerge in the education Clarke describes, but one wonders if the barefoot boys trotting through the cane fields are not better educated than the youths driving off to the hamburger stands will be.
What Sartre termed “the great manichaean division of the world into black and white” has traditionally defined the Caribbean author’s choice of subject. Against the tyranny of the objective characteristics of the situation and its irresistible symbolism, each author has had necessarily to rely on a subjective interpretation of experience expressed through an increasingly animated and elastic language. Eugene Genovese has pointed out that the history of slave societies does not make for a “monolithic similarity,” and this is reflected in the variousness of language and habit from place to place. The ambivalent convergence of cultures and the unhappy accidents of geography provide for the “orphic quest” that is the psychological essence of Caribbean art. But to whom are these affirmations of humanity addressed and what is to be done with the pain of double consciousness? Liberation and freedom are not similar matters, and it is from this distinction that modern Caribbean authors make their separate ways.
Discontent is a stealthy, steady current in Clarke’s Barbados. It rises and hits like a typhoon in the Trinidad of Ralph de Boissière’s novel, Crown Jewel. First published in Australia in 1952, then lost, one could say, it has been at last issued in Britain and the US. Taking in the harsh years of the 1930s, this is a relentless work, painful to contemplate.
When the novel opens the Depression has come down over everyone’s head like a plastic bag and hard times are kicking Trinidadians in their bellies. “Just living is a gamble.” There has been no recovery for them. Many workers are unemployed and those who do work are scarcely better off. Wages are a scandal, housing is a shame, and the muffled growl of hunger is often heard.
Though this is a story of the debarred and downtrodden, de Boissière is too shrewd for mere dogmatism, for the complacence of the abstract. Radical feeling is made very human. The galling lot of the masses is the dramatic element of de Boissière’s composition, but he does not condescend to his characters: they are too volatile and complicated. The “haves” are as convincing as the “have nots”—not that the dice, here, aren’t loaded. He is not ambiguous about where sympathy is meant to fall. The omniscient narrator is watchful, so close to the subject that the book seems written from the point of view of a participant. This sense of participation may account for the difference between de Boissière’s idea of Trinidad and that of V.S. Naipaul, the supreme, and supremely critical, observer.
De Boissière’s intention is to relate the bitter story of colonial relations in the context of the movement to form trade unions. “Which part of Trinidad that happenin’? I never hear it yet. I seein’ white people sticking together, not black people.” The atmosphere of this work is tense, simmering, as mutterings in the alleys are replaced by street-corner meetings, followed by marches, and, finally, the frenzy of strikes.
Trinidad, El Dorado, once a jewel of the Empire, is just an island in 1935. “This country is the Englishman’s country and you have to buy what he has to sell you.” Economic crisis is an everyday condition and everyone is pushed by the mocking winds of necessity. Aurelia Henrique, a Venezuelan, is a luckless dressmaker. She plots and prays and scuffles to make ends meet. “She had worked like a cockroach that struggled endlessly and with desperation to climb up the smooth sides of the glass into which it has fallen.” Aurelia, tearful, susceptible, is subjected to every humiliation of nagging debt. She sacrifices many precious shillings for her smothered daughter Elena, who needs her “senior certificate” to get a decent job. Aurelia’s brother Pepito, proud but weak, loses his job through a clumsy act of self-assertion and is drawn to union politics out of frustration. In this confined world a part of one’s self must die in order to keep a job. Religion and the bottle are common comforts. Pepito, like many others, is ripe for the conversion to activism.
The way of life in de Boissière’s Trinidad is fixed. Social and class barriers are rigid; family, race, and occupation shape the future with an almost feudalistic determinism. André de Coudray, the scion of a dignified, old French clan, experiences the colonial society from top to bottom. His position is difficult—“in the distant past the de Coudrays had got themselves a slave ancestor.” He is darker than his siblings. He was not “finished” in England. “It was as if a stamp ‘Made in England’ had to be acquired before this class of West Indian could be certain he was not ‘cha-cha’—a Creole expression meaning ‘of no account.’ ”
André suffers the guilty anguish of not truly belonging. He is repelled by the ease and indifference of the upper class. Yet he needs the privileges of wealth and birth to give him the distinction he is unable to earn on his own merit. Frosty greetings in English houses remind him that he is still “coloured.” He resents this but can’t help being impressed by the unattainable, and this too makes him bitter. He is deeply interested in the plight of the poor but his discomfort with them makes him ashamed.
Refined, unconfident, languid, arrogant, André is a peculiar presence in this novel, a misplaced romantic among very earthy creatures. His temperament is a blend of superiority and fear. He envies the purposeful manner of his friend Joe, the ambitious son of a coarse, Syrian merchant family.
Joe, large, clumsy, adores Elena, the dressmaker’s daughter. She, however, is captivated by the lonely André. Evidently, Elena’s temperament has carried her beyond the local curriculum. They spend hours discussing Tolstoy, Gorky, Turgenev; they meet secretly in parks, inhaling the scent of bay trees, trying, at last, to express their souls. The romance is a chaste one, given the monitoring effects of Latin custom. When the time comes for André to act honorably and pledge himself to her he avoids her. She has found her Insarov. Elena endures her misery in silence. She knows André has taken up with Gwenneth Osborne, a spoiled, reckless debutante whose family is at the pinnacle of English society in Trinidad. Gwenneth “wanted André because life would not let her have him.” A lasting union between them is impossible, and André’s addiction to the challenging Gwenneth reveals both his will to power and his lust for punishment.
“I don’t hate you, I love you and wish I didn’t! Every day you lord it over us, here, Africa, India. You hold us in contempt, you bomb us, you bayonet us, you suck us dry. You keep the top jobs. You educate us to despise and fear ourselves, to fall down before you, to speak with your accent. We go abroad to study and come back squeaking with the accents of governors and heads of departments. Those who do that are neither Englishmen nor West Indians, they’re less than men—apes, puppets!” He was quivering, choking.
“How extraordinary!” she said, because she did not know what to make of it all.
André cannot find consolation with her, or with Elena, or even in the arms of a black servant: he is haunted by the illicit. That he should be so disturbed by considerations that belong more to the nineteenth century would indicate the backwardness of the society. De Boissière uses the talk between ardent lovers to point up the smugness of the governing class and Gwenneth’s world. André can speak of the Russian classics with Elena but in the Osborne home, one of those “ornate houses, relics of the good old days of cocoa,” nothing but chatter about balls, picnics, dogs, tennis, horses, and golf is considered polite. This seems a far too easy contrast: it is not news to be told how rampant philistinism is in the ruling class, where education is purely ornamental, yet another ritual.
What raises de Boissière’s book above the level of tendenz-literatur is the skill with which larger events are woven into the fates of the characters. All of them respond to the tremors of change, and the political is made to seem very personal. Joe wants to be more appealing to Elena and therefore becomes a big man in conventional politics. André renounces Gwenneth because he is an enemy of the authority her father represents. Even the militant leaders are shown not only on the soapboxes but also at home. There is, remarkably, no sentimentality in the incendiary details or the evangelical drift.
The unfolding of the labor troubles is suspenseful. Along the way de Boissière manages to say much about the values and activities of the society: venal politicians, ruthless administrators, futile negotiations, unfortunate strategies, and the usual sad story of the enragés gunned down by cool soldiers. Martyrdom is thrust upon women as well as men. Their political awakening is important to the movement and is possible because they share what Angela Davis once called “the deformed equality of equal oppression.” The violence provokes André to become involved, and he helps the workers on strike. Though the strike fails, André emerges with some idea of where he wants to belong and with the nerve to face Elena. His inheritance is an obstacle to any honorable ambition and he becomes one of those who hasn’t much to lose. Courage is the victor and the moral. Power is another lesson, and looming over this story of people attempting to shape their own history is the coming war which will “overturn and refashion the life to which they and all Trinidad had so long been accustomed.”
Oppression is nothing if not a plot, and the written literature of the Caribbean forms a kind of discourse on the history of colonialism. It is by no means a harmonious one, however obvious the lowest common denominator may seem. Hannah Arendt was correct when she judged that “the Third World is not a reality but an ideology.” Significant changes have taken place since Eric Walrond’s Tropic Death (1926) and Claude McKay’s Banana Bottom (1933), but one feels that the deeper meaning of Caribbean literature has not and will not change until the general state of affairs is profoundly altered. That is why Clarke’s memory of his education and de Boissière’s description of Depression politics have such contemporary appeal.
Something else has happened that may further complicate the questions the once-colonized and the former colonizers address in literature. For the new generation Mother Africa has no answers and Mother England has no answers. There is a deformed equality in this, and that is why black and white youths tried the quickest way out and raced together last summer to set Merseyside on fire.
May 27, 1982