Natives of My Person

by George Lamming

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

Although Natives of My Person has a historical setting and deals with the voyage of the Reconnaissance, a vessel ostensibly engaged in the slave trade, a specific historical phenomenon, it is only partly accurate to describe it as a work of historical realism. Its realist component is not to be found in its fidelity to period costume, living conditions, or similar revealing detail. Instead of the veneer of verisimilitude that such usages provide, the novel locates its realism in the way in which it elaborately recapitulates an outlook.

In order to focus readers’ attention on this enactment of a mindset, there are no reliable geographical or historical bearings. Two powerful nations are mentioned, Lime Stone and Antarctica. Although they are traditionally enemies, their enmity derives from a common commitment to the type of exploration and exploitation that the slave trade brings into being. In Lime Stone, the nation to which the Commandant and the crew of the Reconnaissance supposedly owe allegiance, the ruling institution is known as the House of Trade and Justice. The titular head of this house is Gabriel Tate de Lysle, a name perhaps intended to evoke the firm of Tate and Lyle, a real-life British sugar company with substantial plantations in the Caribbean. Antarctica, on the other hand, is represented by the pilot, Pinteados, and an admiral, signifying its maritime interests. In both cases, the appearance of cohesiveness that these spheres of accomplishment provide is deceptive. The activities emerge as a kind of shadow-play, the manifestations of which are not material but psychological.

Similarly, the voyage of the Reconnaissance lacks geographical specificity and nautical detail. Nor is its purpose the traditional one of adding to the coffers of the House of Trade and Justice. Although mention is made of the Guinea coast, the customary West African source of slaves for the transatlantic trade, there is very little attempt to bring that environment to life. Moreover, no slaves are taken on board. As the Reconnaissance heads across the Atlantic in the general direction of the imaginary island of San Cristobal, the object of the voyage seems less to attain a new, rewarding landfall than to unveil the turbid spirit of nascent imperialism, and the emotional and spiritual squalor that lies beneath the arrogant mask of command. In Natives of My Person, much of the romance associated with going down to the sea in ships, with enduring hardship by no means other than raw courage, and with discovering new tropical paradises, is deprived of its hortatory simplemindedness and its ideologically suspect naïvete. The result is that Lamming presents a sustained critique of such one-dimensional verities. The courage depicted has no moral fiber. No heavenly landfall materializes. On the contrary, the voyage is inconclusive and unproductive, its payoff violent and chaotic.

This outcome is particularly telling because it issues from such an explicitly controlled and hierarchical world. Since the action is located on board a ship, elements of rank, order, integration, command, and purpose thus compose the fundamental lexicon of the reality that the characters share. So great is the emphasis placed upon such elements, and so widespread is the belief that this emphasis is in the service of an immutable, historically inscribed destiny, that it becomes inevitable that challenges to the structure of life on the Reconnaissance be identified and, if possible, extirpated. One of the most accomplished and explicit means by which the author evinces the inevitability of challenge and the inevitability of its suppression is in the characters’ speech. Formal without being orotund, dramatic without being rhetorical, it is an instrument that reveals the probes and defenses used by the characters to substantiate their common reality.

This common reality, fabricated in the name of the imperial ambitions of Lime Stone’s ruling house and given direct impetus by the Commandant’s own ambition, is less durable than the mixture of unhappy personal histories and dubious motivations that the individual crew members bring on board with them. These discrete narratives of humiliation and error all have a common root in sexuality, and all pertain to the Commandant’s status both as captain of the Reconnaissance and as an intimate of the House of Trade and Justice. By seeing to it that there is no escaping the various forms of psychological enslavement that form the basis of the crew’s personal reality, and by arranging the plot of Natives of My Person so that this inner bondage is the cause of the calamitous climax of the voyage, George Lamming exposes the mortal weakness of those who sought to impose their will on the world in the name of empire.

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