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 standing, and territory of origin. Even before his arrival back in the West Indies, he has provided the reader with an introduction to many of the themes which he will explore.
Naipaul’s tour of the West Indies lasted seven months and the book’s organization follows the sequence of his travels. Fittingly, the first territory considered is Trinidad, the island of Naipaul’s birth and presumably the only territory of which he already had firsthand knowledge; it is also Naipaul’s principal point of reference for much of his analysis of the areas later visited. As a result, this second section, although making up only forty-five of the book’s 222 pages, is the most ambitious, concentrated, and important. Naipaul shifts from a detached, ironic, and at times amused observer to a despairing, frustrated, and even hysterical participant.
As always, Naipaul is writing principally for a cosmopolitan and not a local audience; he touches on a wide range of topics in painting his highly critical portrait of a fragmented immigrant society composed of “various races, religions, sets and cliques” with no uniting nationalist feeling and no bond other than their shared island residence. Race and color are seen as the dominant factors of island life. Naipaul explores the genesis and development of racial attitudes as well as...
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the crucial relationship between the main and often-antagonistic groups, the blacks and the East Indians (descendants of the indentured laborers brought from Asia to work on the sugar plantations after the emancipation of the slaves). Despite the appearances of “accord,” Naipaul believes that “Trinidad in fact teeters on the brink of racial war.”
The design of Naipaul’s book leads him from Trinidad to the gradually more foreign and exotic and then back toward the more geographically and culturally familiar. The third and longest section of the book deals with British Guiana, which, although located on the mainland of South America, is a predominantly English-speaking and West Indian society, a colony where problems similar to those of Trinidad have been exacerbated by a long and brutal history of slavery and the particularly harsh system of indenture which followed.
In the fourth section of the book, Naipaul visits Surinam, formerly Dutch Guiana, and finds “the only truly cosmopolitan territory in the West Indian region” with even more racial and cultural diversity than Trinidad or British Guiana. There is an absence of racial or economic resentment directed toward the mother country and a genuine affection for the Netherlands; nevertheless, the hunger for an independent cultural identity, especially on the part of black intellectuals, has given rise to a Surinam nationalism which is “the profoundest anti-colonial movement in the West Indies.”
The last two sections of the book are the shortest; they deal with Martinique and Jamaica. In Martinique, legally not a colony but an actual department of France, Naipaul feels stifled by the hypocrisy of a social system which proudly grants French citizenship to all while imposing rigid social stratification based on race. Assimilation with metropolitan France has not been economically liberating either, since the island is poor, underdeveloped, and as dependent as the meanest colony. Poverty and racial problems dominate Naipaul’s perceptions of Jamaica; the Rastafarian movement is seen as a symptom of the island’s desperate illness. The Jamaican middle class seems to live in a world unrelated to that of the masses of urban and rural poor, and the world of the tourist is equally deceptive and unreal.
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Thorpe, Michael. V.S. Naipaul, 1976.
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White, Landeg. V.S. Naipaul: A Critical Introduction, 1975.