The Middle Passage

by V. S. Naipaul

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The Middle Passage is a highly personal book in which West Indian society is observed and assessed by a native who candidly announces his biases. Naipaul’s return to Trinidad is characterized as a confrontation with his youthful fears and wish to escape, feelings which were expressed but not examined in his earlier books. Not surprisingly, his reactions to Trinidad have not changed, but now, for the first time, he brings his considerable writing talents to a deliberate and factual analysis of the society which so perturbs him. Some critics have seen in Naipaul’s book a distorted picture of the West Indies based on a careful selection of details designed to justify the author’s own neurosis. Perhaps Naipaul anticipated this reaction and sought to obviate it by using quotations from a variety of writers, especially from earlier periods, to corroborate his observations.

Naipaul takes the title of his book from the name for the route traveled by the slaves as they were transported from Africa to the colonies of the New World. He also applies the term to the voyage taken by the present-day West Indians flooding into England, testimony to the failure and “futility of the West Indian adventure.” Naipaul begins his section on Trinidad with quotations from Thomas Mann and Tacitus which reveal universal aspects of the profound psychological and cultural dislocation wrought by slavery and colonialism; there is also the implication that Naipaul sees West Indians as being in a confused state of transition, cut off from their ancestral roots yet without the confidence or resources to forge an identity independent of their former colonial masters. With the collapse of the plantation economy, the imperial powers have abandoned the region to its poverty and petty provincial concerns. The development of tourism, the result of economic necessity, has been accompanied by increasing foreign ownership and the raising of land prices beyond local means; the social and racial relationships between white visitors and black servants perpetuate old and unhealthy patterns. In Naipaul’s opinion, tourism in the West Indies has led to dispossession and a new, self-imposed, slavery.

Naipaul, like Froude, does not see West Indians as possessing a culture of their own; instead they are living in what another writer, approvingly quoted by Naipaul, has called “a client culture and a client economy.” During slavery, the culturally bereft Africans could only imitate what they understood of the ways and values of their masters, whites who were usually remote in every way from the best that Europe had to offer. Naipaul believes that with the retreat of the old colonialism, this mimicry of imperfect models has persisted and resulted in a society which values only the foreign and frequently second rate, a society whose ideals are the creation of advertising agencies and Hollywood “B” movies. For Naipaul, the West Indies remain uncreative. Widely recognized manifestations of a vigorous and original popular culture, such as the Trinidadian steel band, calypso, and Carnival, Naipaul finds only loathsome and depressing; the seeming happiness and gaiety of Trinidadians in the face of all of their problems he finds “inexplicable.”

In the West Indies, the problems of colonialism and race are inextricable. Because of his early experience, Naipaul is often startled when he meets New World blacks who speak Dutch, French, or Portuguese rather than English. It serves to remind him of “the condition of the Negro, who in the New World has been made in so many images.” Robbed of his own language and culture, the New World black has adopted the values of his former white masters even to the point of scorning all...

(This entire section contains 1074 words.)

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things African, a rejection which Naipaul sees as “the greatest damage done to the Negro by slavery.” Naipaul is disdainful of black intellectuals who see West Indian culture as part of the “Christian-Hellenic tradition,” for inherent in this tradition is the assumption of black inferiority. Naipaul believes that for a black to identify himself with the Christian-Hellenic tradition is to indulge in “the West Indian fantasy” that “black will be made white.” The more the black adopts the values of white civilization, the more he tries to make the European ideal his reality, the more he must become estranged from himself. Again and again Naipaul points to the fine shadings of color which West Indians recognize in categorizing one another; among the African-descended, embarked on “the weary road to whiteness,” class and color are clearly linked.

The paradox, in which blacks aspire to a culture which demeans them, is compounded by the nature of the racial problem in Trinidad and British Guiana, where black hostility is not directed toward whites or coloreds (as is common in Jamaica, Martinique, and most of the other territories), but toward East Indians. According to Naipaul, there is racialism in both groups; the blacks’ prejudice against the Indians is based on the bigotry toward all nonwhites which they have acquired from the European imperialists. The Indians’ contempt for blacks arises from a combination of their own ethnocentrism and the racial attitudes they also have adopted from the whites.

Naipaul’s analysis of the racial problems in the West Indies has met with considerable negative criticism, especially on the part of black intellectuals. While the East Indians of his own community are described as materialistic and philistine, practicing a debased religion cut off from its philosophical source, and while the local whites are also dismissed as superficial, placing value only in money and secure in their feelings of racial superiority, the burden of Naipaul’s scathing critique falls upon the New World black. Those most provoked by Naipaul’s views often seize upon the following statement, which is perhaps more offensive than originally intended: “Like monkeys pleading for evolution, each claiming to be whiter than the other, Indians and Negroes appeal to the unacknowledged white audience to see how much they despise one another.” Naipaul is accused of having appropriated for himself the values and judgments of white imperialist society.

Naipaul believes that West Indian writers have failed to help the West Indian establish a true sense of self and situation because the writers too are partisans in the race war; he states that it would take “the most exquisite gifts of irony and perhaps malice, . . . of subtlety and brutality” to explore honestly the West Indian middle class. In The Middle Passage, Naipaul has used these very gifts to portray the whole of West Indian society.


Critical Context