Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In September, 1960, V.S. Naipaul returned to his native Trinidad after a decade’s absence. In England he had studied at the University of Oxford and then embarked on a literary career, publishing three books set in Trinidad: the novels The Mystic Masseur (1957) and The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) and the collection of linked short stories Miguel Street (1959). Naipaul’s return had been prompted by a grant from the government of Trinidad and Tobago, led by the historian Eric Williams, enabling him to revisit the country about which he had written in his fiction. Williams later expanded the terms and scope of Naipaul’s scholarship, urging him to write, with government support, a book of nonfiction about the West Indies as a region. Naipaul was given a free hand to write whatever he pleased; Williams and his government later had cause to regret their generosity, for Naipaul produced an unflattering and highly critical account of life in the region.

Naipaul’s purpose in writing The Middle Passage was to examine the nature of the colonial societies existing in the West Indies and on the northern coast of South America. The book is also a journey of self-exploration for the author. Throughout the book, Naipaul quotes from various sources; especially important are those quotations taken from the writings of earlier British travelers to the region, such as Anthony Trollope and the historian James Anthony Froude. The epigraph with which Naipaul begins his book and which establishes the direction of his argument is taken from the work of Froude, who wrote of the West Indies, “There are no people there in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own.”

The first of the book’s six sections is entitled “Middle Passage” and actually begins in England with observations on the crowds of lower-class West Indian immigrants arriving in search of a better life. Naipaul’s book does much to explain why so many West Indians abandoned the islands for the hardships and uncertainties of life in the “Mother Country.” On board a ship which is sailing almost empty on its return trip to the West Indies to pick up another load of emigrants, Naipaul finds that even his small group of fellow passengers becomes a Caribbean society in microcosm with its divisions based on color, race, financial...

(The entire section is 967 words.)

The Middle Passage Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Hammer, Robert D. V.S. Naipaul, 1973.

Hammer, Robert D., ed. Critical Perspectives on V.S. Naipaul, 1977.

Thorpe, Michael. V.S. Naipaul, 1976.

Walsh, William. V.S. Naipaul, 1973.

White, Landeg. V.S. Naipaul: A Critical Introduction, 1975.