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Sudipta Mondal - ‘Vestiges of Colonial Past’

“Divided to the Vein”: Vestiges of Colonial Past and Sense of Isolation in Walcott’s Poems

The stepping of the band of colonizers drastically changed as well as effected the pattern of the life of the inhabitants of West Indies. What took birth in that territory could be called a complex phenomenon of imperial dominance in which the local population got trapped for an eternity and lost their indigenous culture and history. The combined elements of enslavement, oppression and exploitation created a unique situation of colonial drama which will be perpetuated for the ages to come and will leave permanent scar on the minds of the masses. The local people withstood not only various forms of injustice and subjugation, but the effect of the colonial enterprise was something even more deeply entrenched- the colonial structure completely obliterated their sense and history of indigenous cultural tradition and replaced it with the Imperial culture and language. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that whoever will subsequently align himself with the Imperial cultural tradition, is bound to feel alienated in the middle of the local culture.

West Indies has long history of plantation slavery which contributed to its having a pastiche culture. The country is basically a collection of islands scattered between North and South America which used to be occupied by the local tribes before the colonizers arrived. Those islands had been colonized by various races like the British, the French and the Dutch. These colonizers, besides enslaving the local people, also brought in slaves from other parts of the world. Once the slavery was ended by the Emancipation Act in 1863, the colonizers began to import labour force from countries like India and China. Due to the importation of labour force from different countries, the cultural scenario of West Indies is extremely complex and variegated and now what it has to offer to the decolonized world is a collection of multi-coloured flag coupled with its social, political and economic complexities which has been popularly termed “Third World”. So it will not be an exaggeration to say that it was the least easy task for Derek Walcott to emerge from this kind of a cultural milieu to carve out a niche for himself in the arena of Imperial literature.

Derek Walcott emerged as a voice of the land at an early age and his career spanning more than several decades. Throughout his span as a poet and dramatist, he has dedicated himself to an exploration of a maze of interconnected themes like alienation, belonging, schism, self-identity as well as a concern to recover the identity and the lost history of the community, A close examination of all his seminal works reveals him to be acutely aggrieved by a loss of sense of history of their land due to the colonial invasion. This sense of lack of history has been echoed by him in his poem “Sea is History”:

Where are monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is history. (Online)

The indigenous people were not only oppressed and subjugated by the colonisers but also lost their distinct identity, culture, language and history, as a large number of them had suffered displacement. Their painful history has never been archived or made a subject of narration but it was drowned in the sea, just as many slaves expired or drowned on their journey to the destination. Walcott imagines the sea to be magnanimous enough to preserve the agonised history of the slaves but it turns out that even the sea was partial in executing his duty of preserving the history, because it was more agog to preserve the history of the masters rather than the slaves. The local masses were not only stripped off the privilege of preserving their history but were subjected to the Eurocentric system of preserving history, closely bound and limited to dates.

The factor which is responsible for Walcott’s fascination with history and lifelong endeavour to reconstruct the same, lies in the history of his mixed ancestry and his poetic career can be seen as a fruitful enterprise on his part to exorcise the ghost of his ancestry, which never let him be at peace with his community. Walcott’s entire career can be regarded as an active engagement with question of history as well as his endeavour to recover and reconstruct the long lost history of his land. The sweet pill of false superiority which he was made to swallow in the form of believing himself to be a part of the colonisers’ clan due to his mixed ancestry, soon gave way to disillusionment. His exploration of the issue of history takes the form of his getting engaged with the social and political context of his country and drives him almost to formulate an alternative theory of history. Due to the popularly accepted fact that the history of the colonized territories were never recorded, rather that the history of those lands have been kept limited to the history told by those in the authority, enables him to negate the idea of history as we understand it, which assumes the form of maintaining rigorous chronological order and entails thorough documentation. But adopting such an approach essentially forecloses the possibility of redeeming or reconstructing the history of the colonies and hence has been strongly denounced by Walcott. It is history in the sense of Myth which has been favoured by him, since it’s only then that the history of the land can be reconceptualised. In his essay “The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry” he writes:

In the Caribbean, history is irrelevant; not because it’s not being created or because it was sordid; but because it has never mattered, what has mattered is the loss of history, the amnesia of the races, what has become necessary is the imagination, imagination as necessity, as invention.” (Online)

Walcott hails from a land which is was not only deprived of well documented history but also a country where no cultural tradition was allowed to solidify itself, as the land had to surrender itself to satisfy the economic and imperial requirements of the colonisers. As the colonisers began to feel the need to import indentured labour from all round the world, the kind of tradition that flourished there could be called a cultural mish-mash. In consequence, the land is not only historically or culturally deprived but they were forced to adopt the language of the oppressors.

Walcott’s fascination with history is partly concerned with his enterprise to rescue the lost history and partly with his desire to trace the line of his ancestry. He was the son of an English civil servant and an African school teacher, grandchild of two white grandfathers and two black grandmothers. Because of his unique ancestry, he suffers schism which again finds expression in his poem “The Divided Child”.

It is owing to his mixed bloodline and the complex cultural context of his country, that he adopted English as the medium of expression. In fact, his adoption of the coloniser’s tongue as the medium of his poetic creation enables him to challenge the master narrative and to embark upon the mission of rewriting the history of the Caribbean. He, in his interviews, recounts how in his school they used to sing the national anthem in order to show solidarity with their colonisers, with utmost zeal and how their teachers used to present the heroic and grand success story of Britain to them, as if those battles have been won by them. In his interview with Schoenberger, Walcott confesses "My first poems and play expressed yearning to be adopted, as the bastard longs for his father's household."( online) but soon the serious implication of such a desire gave way to his disillusionment and led to the grave realization that although he can ape their literary style and follow their stylistic method, but their literary productions will never earn a place akin to the literature of the imperial races.

As the colonisers have already caused the irreparable damage of destroying indigenous culture and language by supplanting them with their language and tradition and since the colonised masses had already been bound in a lifelong servitude, poets of exceptional talent like Walcott seized the word of the colonizers and started to utilize the knowledge of literature, emanated by the colonial masters. Walcott’s poems not only expose innumerable stories of brutal oppressions that the Caribbean people had undergone, but his poems have been known to celebrate cultural fragmentation and hybridity of that territory. Here Homi K Bhabha’s idea of hybridity aids us in the better understanding of the cultural situation of the Caribbean. In his “The Location of Culture”, Bhabha explicates the idea of hybridity most persuasively. Bhabha refuses to limit the process of colonisation merely to oppression and enslavement, rather he argues that in the colonies as many cultures were coming into close contact with each other, so what ensued was an interaction of various cultures. This interaction made the West realize that they are not unquestionably superior and hence, not above being interrogated by the East. The colonizer’s cultural meaning is dependent upon the colonized. So, a form of negotiation between the colonizer and the colonized opens up. But the colonizer is fully aware that its supposed difference or superiority is questionable, which leads to the formation of a gap of anxiety and this gap must be utilized by the colonized, in order to turn the gaze of the victims back upon the eye of the power. The most genuine achievement of Walcott lies in his exploitation of this gap and also in his usage of the knowledge of colonial literature as the building block to contrive a particular form of writing which was most suitable to reinvent the history of his community, a history which for him is “idiosyncratic, personal and therefore, creative.”

Since the first publication, Walcott had equally been appreciated and been subjected to vitriolic criticism for blindly adhering to the literary traditions of the colonizers. He had been criticized and compared to the poets like T.S Eliot for borrowing voices of others to lend expression to his own thoughts. Being blessed or cursed by the possession of the knowledge of the literature of the imperial races, he aimed at lengthening the imperial line of literature by blending his knowledge of western literature with his artistic ability and this is precisely where his clash with his contemporary poets lie, who made the Western tradition a target of attack in order to prove the superiority of the Black aesthetic tradition. Walcott strongly advocated the forging of a language which must be a fusion of the remnants of the colonial memory with the new experience, to provide a vivid description of the Caribbean. Throughout his writing career he had been troubled by the conception of history as time, because effectively this conception of history has developed a deeply entrenched feeling of inferiority in the literary personalities of his country. Such an idea of history, according to him, is non-conducive to the production of healthy literature. Such an emotion has been given voice to in his essay “Muse of History”:

In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemic or evaporates into pathos. The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force. This shame and awe of history possess poets of the Third World who think of language as enslavement and who, in a rage for identity, respect only incoherence or nostalgia. (Online)

It is this enslavement to history as time of the contemporary African poets that had been deeply resented by Walcott. He also berated those poets who were trying to emphasize the superiority of their Black literary tradition in a vengeful spirit, because he felt that those who try to denounce tradition first, actually lends it a power to dominate. This impulse has been given an open expression in the essay “Muse of History” where he writes, “…those who break a tradition first hold it in awe…they know that by openly fighting tradition we perpetuate it.” As a consequence, he also feels, “revolutionary literature is a filial impulse and that maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.” Walcott being endowed with deeply enhanced poetic ability had already realized that Blacks are different and hence they must conceive of the concept of history differently. In the essay ‘The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry’ he elaborates:

We know that we owe Europe either revenge or nothing and it is better to have nothing than revenge. We owe the past revenge or nothing and revenge is uncreative. We may not even need literature , not that we are beyond it… it is better for us to be a race of the illiterates who retains this awe than to be godless, without mystery. (Online)

It is his idea of history as a myth that has informed the development of all his poetic endeavours and also acted as the foundation for his notion of Adamic poetics. The fact that all along he had suffered from cultural schizophrenia has been given clear and unequivocal utterance in many of his poetic works and he had been intensely aggrieved by the realization that most of his contemporaries failed to grasp the essence of his poetic concern which led to the feeling of a deep rooted solitude and isolation in him. This unbridgeable gap that exists between the individual and the community acted as the driving force which propelled him towards the creation of some of the most important works of his career like ‘A Far Cry From Africa’ in which the articulation of his divided self is most powerful:

How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live? (Online)

The same cry of a split within his own self is also heard in ‘Codicil’:

Schizophrenic, wrenched by two styles
One a hack’s hired prose, I earn my exile.
I trudge this sickle, moonlit beach for miles. (Online)

The profound feeling of isolation which he felt while being located in the Caribbean can be found in his retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story. He finds story of Crusoe appealing, for it is more than a story. He can see a part of himself being represented by Crusoe, who is not only a symbol of enterprising and resourceful person, but the first properly depicted coloniser figure. Crusoe’s struggle against barbarism had also been interpreted as the trope of colonialism, since through his act of saving Friday, he also enslaves him. But mainly it is Crusoe’s solitariness and struggle against the adverse situation which must have held the sway of Walcott’s imagination, as Crusoe’s plight was akin to his own condition in the tropic. Walcott composed a number of poems on Robinson Crusoe theme, because he himself resembles Crusoe, being both a colonizer and colonized.

Walcott also expressed his deep felt anguish for the death of his father at a very early stage of life and the feeling of abandonment which he experienced following his father’s death led to a greater feeling of isolation. Due to this personal experience of bereavement also figures like Adam and Crusoe had greater impact on his imagination, because, like him, both of them are lone survivors and creators of their own world. In fact, Adam, Crusoe and Columbus – all three almost merge into a single figure to become the prototype of the lone explorer in their ability to create their world from nothing. In Walcott’s own words:

My Crusoe, then, is Adam, Christopher Columbus, God, a missionary, a beachcomber, and his interpreter, Daniel Defoe. He is Adam because he is the first inhabitant of this second paradise. He is Columbus because he has discovered this new world, by accident, by fatality. He is God because he teaches himself to control his creation, he rules the world he has made, and also, because he is to Friday, a white concept of Godhead. He is a missionary because he instructs Friday in the uses of religion [. . .] He is a beachcomber because I have imagined him as one of those figures of adolescent literature, some derelict of Conrad or Stevenson [. . .] and finally, he is also Daniel Defoe, because the journal of Crusoe, which is Defoe's journal, is written in prose, not in poetry, and our literature, the pioneers of our public literature have expressed themselves in prose. (Online)

In his Crusoe poems we also get a latent hint of Walcott’s hero worshipping attitude for the western story tellers like Defoe, Conrad and Stevenson, for their imagination of Africa, in spite of reducing it to a spot for adventure and exoticism, but also paved the path for the way the African world can be remade and the lost history of that land can be recovered from the oblivion.

In the final analysis it can be said that the mission of Caribbean is to achieve, with Walcott as it’s instrument, is an internalization of the culture of the colonizers and then to remould it to suit the literary scenario of the local surroundings , with which they transcend the very basis of colonialism in order to achieve emancipation. Walcott’s technique of deriving his poetic inspiration from the fountain of the western literary thoughts and masters enabled the Caribbean to reach its goal of exorcising the apparition of the colonial past and again it was Walcott, with his rich treasure trove of literary works, who showed the Caribbean writers how to utilize their painful past of slavery and oppression to create works that would be at par with works, produced by the masters of the colonizer’s race.

Works Cited:

Breslin, Paul. Nobody’s Nation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.

Edwards, Norval, and Derek Walcott. “Derek Walcott: Poetics of Two Margins.” Mississippi Review, 24.3 (1996): 12-35.JSTOR. Web. 22 April 2017.

Lee, Clarissa. “Derek Walcott, Human Isolation and Traditions of English Poetry.” Journal of Caribbean Literature, 4.1 (2005): 109-122. JSTOR. Web. 22 April 2017.

Loreto, Paola. Crowning of a Poet’s Conquest. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. Print.

Olaniyan, Tejumola. Scars of Conquest/ Masks of Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Schoenberger, Nancy, and Derek Walcott.” An Interview with Derek Walcott.” The Three Penny Review, 15 (1983): 16-17. JSTOR. Web. 23April 2017.

Walcott, Derek. “The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 16.1(1974): 3-13 JSTOR. Web. 24 April 2017.

Walcott, Derek. “Muse of History”. < > (Web. 23 April 2017).

“An Interpretation of Derek Walcott’s Crusoe’s Journal”: <> (Web. 23 April 2017).

Walcott, Derek. “Sea is History.” <> (Web. 23 April 2017).

“Schooner Flight”: <> (Web. 24 April 2017).

“Codicil”: <> (Web. 24 April 2017).

“A Far Cry from Africa”: <> (Web. 24 April 2017).

“Crusoe’s Island”: <> (Web. 24 April 2017).

Homi K Bhabha – Shodhganga: <> (Web. 25 May 2017).


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