Naipaul’s ‘Middle Passage’: A gift to Williams

TWO years before the Independence of Trinidad and Tobago, former prime minister Eric Williams had invited novelist VS Naipaul to visit his homeland and record his impressions in a non-fiction about the changing society—Louis B Homer writes for Trinidad’s Express.

The government paid for his travel, and of his visit after ten years in England, he wrote The Middle Passage in 1962, describing social conditions in Trinidad, British Guiana, Surinam, Martinique and Jamaica.

Haunted by the legacies of slavery, indenture and colonialism, Naipaul was asked to comment on these societies at a time when racial and political power seemed to be in full bloom.

Naipaul, who hailed from Chaguanas, went to England on a scholarship in 1950. After four years at University College, Oxford, he began to write, and since then he had followed no other profession. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Naipaul came from the Capildeo family, and lived for sometime in the Lion House at Chaguanas. His novel A House for Mr Biswas is a colonial situation where it was fashionable to live and die in a one-room house, with little opportunity to acquire even a small portion of the earth.

Living in the Lion House was different. In it there was hope, history and the magic of being better off than many.

Naipaul was surprised when he received the invitation from Williams. Of the invitation he wrote, “In 1960 there was an unexpected invitation from the government of Trinidad to revisit the island at the expense of government. I was aware of some racial tension in the island at the time. There had been a little political turbulence in Trinidad, which was soon to become independent under the Prime Ministership of Eric Williams.”

He was familiar with the political developments leading up to Independence.

Woodford Square, formerly called Brunswick Square, was not new to him. He knew its history and the part it played during the pre-Independence era.

In the novel he recalled that the Square became the centre of political thought and action, and ascension to university status, but to Naipaul, “There was no link in the minds of the people between Woodford the reformer, and Eric Williams the emancipator.”

During his visit to Trinidad, he was invited to lunch by Williams. “This was an immense courtesy. Eric Williams was almost divine in the eyes of his supporters. He had published his doctoral thesis, Capitalism and Slavery, and this book was on the bookshelves of almost every educated person in Trinidad. Even my father had a copy of it,” he said.

Naipaul revealed afterwards that the invitation to lunch was not about being ostentatious or formal, or even about the quality of the food. “It was a renewal of West Indian tastes, the lunch was simple, local rice, fried fish and fried plantains,” he said.

When the book was published, it was described by the Independent as an “exquisite mastery of the English language which should put to shame his British contemporaries. The Middle Passage in 1962 was generous and perceptive and true.”

The non-fiction began with the experiences he had on a paid trip to the West Indies by the government of Trinidad. “There was such a crowd of immigrants travelling on the boat train platform at Waterloo. I was travelling first class to the West Indies at a cost of 94 pounds.”

As a writer he was in search of a story. While mingling with the passengers on the boat train he had a conversation with a man who spoke highly of West Indians. The man told him, “A lot of these black fellas in Tobago are damn intelligent, you know, and a lot of those black fellas in BG (British Guiana) aren’t no fools either.”

To Naipaul that statement meant that education in the West Indies was gaining ground, and it was only a matter of time before locals took control of their political destiny.

He was anxious to get to Port of Spain, where he was educated. To him the view from the sea was disappointing. Hardly a change after ten years. “One could only see towering trees above the hills of the Northern Range with pieces of QRC peeping amidst the greenery.”

He described the culture of Port of Spain as a place with no local standards. “When I was a boy, the people of Port of Spain used to dress up and walk around the savannah on a Sunday afternoon. Whitehall was the same; it needed two or three fans in every office. ”

He said education was strictly for the poor. “The white boy left school at an early age and went to work in a bank or at Cable and Wireless. Education was strictly for the poor and the poor was invariably black.”

He described country life as being quieter, except when a loudspeaker van passed through the village. He loved going to the country because it afforded him the opportunity to see and appreciate the environment for the first time.

One would have thought that he would be anxious to see the canefields where his forebears had toiled for several years. But no. He hated to pass through the sugarcane fields. “I hated the sugarcane field; they were flat, treeless and hot. I preferred trees and shade.”

The Middle Passage is a non-fiction filled with jokes, perhaps unsuited for Eric Williams to understand. Perhaps Williams felt let down by the writer to whom he had extended his patronage.

“His government scrupulously paid the expenses he had undertaken to pay. But he sent me no word about the book. At about this time he also quarrelled with his former champion, CLR James, and eventually put the old man under house arrest. Whatever the personal conflicts, the reason for his mood of rejection might be that he, Williams, out of the very fullness of his power, and his clear view overtime of its limits, had become bored.”

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