The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Colonial Societies
V.S. Naipaul undertook this Caribbean journey at the invitation, in 1960, of Dr Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister of independent Trinidad, the author’s birthplace.
At that time, the plantation colonies of the region were formed, culturally, in the image of the metropolis. Racial and political assertion had yet to catch up with them in varying ways.
In Trinidad, African racialism found itself at odds with old colonial mimicry; forty years on, the racial issue will not be between black and white, but between black and Asian. Guyana was Marxist, but with the same racial divisions: forty years on, the country will be so ruined that a newspaper will be regarded almost as a luxury item.
In Surinam, a movement was afoot to replace the Dutch language with a pidgin English called talkie-talkie: forty years on, that racial sentiment will have led to military dictatorship and an exodus of the locals to Holland. Whereas Martinique, defying geography, saw itself as France.
And, in Jamaica, such rejectionism took the form of Rastafarianism – which, absurdly, turns out to have been the invention of Italian black propaganda during the Abyssinian War of the 1930s.
The Middle Passage catches this poor topsy-turvy world at a critical moment: a world by turns sad, earnest and hilarious – indeed, a perfect subject for the understanding and comedy of this great writer.