(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 5. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)
Indigo: Mapping the Waters
in a French context because of course it was Ruskin whom Proust read just before he started La Recherche... )
Turner had found the episode in a history of the abolition of slavery: in 1783 the owners and the captain of a ship called the Zong were charged with fraud by an insurance company when they claimed for the deaths of a cargo of slaves by drowning. The insurance policy did not cover death from illness, and so the captain had thrown overboard, on three successive days, a hundred and twenty two sick men and women in order to collect the insurance money on them. The company proved their case against the owners but no further criminal proceedings were instituted by the courts against the Zong's masters. Seven years after the abolition of slavery Turner painted his extraordinary synthesis of the trade's horror, transforming, with characteristic inward-looking intensity the source facts into myths and symbols. The sunset, the drowning, the devouring in the painting, suggest the way the past tragically and magnificently engulfs everything, as in many of Turner's other chosen subjects, with their warnings about excess and greed and power: he painted The Fall of Carthage, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, The Fighting Téméraire [the great ship that had taken part in the battle of Trafalgar, Towed to Her Last Berth. The final phrase in the title of the painting, 'Typhon coming on," presages tempests, storms, beyond the gathering clouds on the horizon. Already at this date 1844 the decline of the values Turner believed England represented around the world was taking place. But what is of particular, acute interest is that Turner gives so many different strokes and colours to the single metaphor of consuming and being consumed. He added some bitterly ironic lines from a long poem he wrote, called "Fallacies of Hope," to the description he submitted to the Royal Academy, in which he said, "Hope, hope, fallacious hope, / Where is thy market now?" So the bodies in the water are goods destined for market, and now spoiled, and false hope is profit. In another mighty set sea piece he painted, The Wreck in the Meuse, Turner showed, in the foreground, bright oranges bobbing in the livid water, lost from a merchant ship which had burst on a sand bar behind. In the slave-ship picture, those pink, whiskered, jowly sea monsters moving, in to feed on the flesh of the drowning slaves stand, not even very subtly, for the same pink, whiskery merchants who trade in such distant and exotic foods as oranges and Africans, and behind them linger the shadows of Turner and his own kind. He writes that verse in the poem, however ironically, in the voice of the profiteer who has lost the cargo. He identifies himself with him: the slavers are his first person subjects, not the dead and dying, the slaves.
The contemporary poet David Dabydeen, who was born in Guyana, has responded to this collusion in the painting in a new sequence of poems which he has just sent to me in manuscript I'd already written about the painting when I received this poem in the post
through a friend of mine: so we coincided, in an extraordinary way. Dabydeen features Turner himself in the story as the slaver, actually on the ship, the captain of the ship, while the drowned man, whose leg we see in the fore-round, speaks from his death by water and his life in the village before Turner came, and of the future he still hopes to make but cannot struggle to express. He is overwhelmed by nothingness, and nothingness is conveyed in Dabydeen's poem in terms of the paint itself:
However, something else is also hinted by the imagery of the marine cannibalism in the painting: deliberate and unconscious inversion of the much reiterated notion that the people who are sold as slaves were barbarians. And the most laconic sign of the barbarians has been, since classical times, the cannibal.
Those cannibal fish in the picture, eating bodies, echo Montaigne's defence of the New World three hundred years earlier. They too pose the question: who are the cannibals now, us or them? For, as Montaigne said, "men call that barbarism which is not common to them. Above all, the painting also attacks, unconsciously I think, the way history forgets. The bodies which are no longer visible will indeed be consigned to oblivion, will be consumed partly by the spectator's wonder and marvelling, at Turner's skill at painting, in Ruskin's evocation of the pigment, and partly by the difficulties later viewers will experience in facing up to the story that is told in the picture. Like the law in the 18th century, they'd rather not pursue the case, they'd rather drop it.
I was actually reminded when I was reading through this to come today to
see you that just before she died Angela Carter told me she was going to
write an introduction to Wuthering Heights. She had a very interesting
theory about what it was that Heathcliff had been up to. If you remember,
Heathcliff goes away and comes back having made a fortune, and it takes place
during this period we are talking about. One of the few things we know about
Heathcliff is that he is found as a child in the Liverpool docks. Angela's
theory was that, hidden in rather the same way as Turner approaches the story
of the slave ship, and at the same time hides it under the paint, the
Brontës similarly knew about slaving, they knew about the trade, they
hinted at it in the Liverpool origin of Heathcliff, and this unexplained
fortune that he brings back makes him feel damned. He says "I have sold my
soul." Angela's theory was that he had sold his soul, that he was a black
half-black child Brontë insistently calls him 'swarthy' who had returned to Africa as a factor working for the British slavers, and done the trade, and that's how he'd made his fortune. This is hidden under the tempests, more tempests, the tempests of the novel.
I didn't actually know Turner's painting consciously when I wrote Indigo. It is in the National Gallery in Boston but of course it looks much like any other Turner, great big sunsets going on over the sea. I had been to Boston and seen the picture but I hadn't taken it in. My scene in Indigo, which exactly repeats this crime, is some sort of unconscious connection that I made, possibly with that painting or possibly with another story; I never knew when I wrote it where it had come from but in the novel I set a hundred and fifty years earlier, at the beginning of the 17th century, a scene which reflects it exactly. The islanders find inexplicable bodies landing on the shores, apparently out of the blue the reason is only hinted in the book (because I did not want to go into details of the slave trade) that these men and women have been thrown overboard by the slavers because they were ill; they were ailing. But without knowing the painting, what I wanted to do was reverse the viewpoint and see such an episode through the eyes of people on the receiving end, not through the eyes of slavers but through the eyes of the drowned and of the people whose lives are going to be irrevocably changed by the effects of the slave trade and the arrival of the people who run it. I shall just read you the tiny bit which seems to me to exactly match what Turner does: the voices in the water speaking, that bit when Sycorax goes down to the shore and has a kind of vision of what the drowned are saying:
nets of fish. Now it would make us food for fishes...' She seemed to chuckle, then turn and sleep more deeply.
Now, this impulse towards returning to the past, to a topos in the past and rewriting it, has become highly characteristic of contemporary fiction, especially when its concerns are polemical: returning to the past, re-visioning it. This has become American jargon now, but it was originally coined by Adrienne Rich, the poet, about the problem that women had with returning to the past because so many of the past stories tell against women, so how do you reinterpret the past to make it work for you? Re-visioning these familiar features, shaking them out and looking at them from another angle in order to recapture them in a different light, all these practices are being undertaken all over the English-speaking world so that a new story can emerge which speaks more urgently to the needs of the present.
Waiter Benjamin famously wrote, 'there is no history of civilisation which is not at the same time a history of barbarism.' The duality of this, its grasp that for every chronicle written by those who see themselves as the victors, another chronicle lies intertwined with it, written by the so-called defeated, has inspired the new literature of post-imperial British culture, not in a moralising way, but investigatively: the old records are simply not adequate to explain the conditions in which we find ourselves. It is a case in which more evidence is needed, to call more witnesses, to use new ones, new voices.
The text which I chose to rework for Indigo was The Tempest. I have always loved the play, I have loved its atmosphere of enchantment and its eerie, spellbound atmosphere. At the same time I have always hated it which is the characteristic position I find myself in about the Virgin Mary too. I dislike intensely the way the central patriarch, Prospero, effortlessly simply takes control of every character in the play and plans how to marry off his daughter, Miranda, simply to fit his own dynastic purposes. I did not proceed consciously: writing a fiction is not like setting out on a sort of thesis or critical essay, but when I look back on it when asked to give this sort of talk I realise the play presented me with some tantalising gaps and blanks in which the imagination could work. I do not want to be too overweening on my own part, but the play is about art, about language and art, about creating worlds through spellbinding effects of song and music and art: after the storm, almost Prospero's first word in the play is 'art,' and so in a sense it is a challenge to the writer to confront the art of the play with the art one can try oneself with the magic of words and word-pictures.
The first of the gaps with which I was concerned was the absence of female voices in the general music of the island Miranda is the only woman present, as you know, and she does not remember her mother. In one of her first speeches, however, she tells us that she has a glimmering in her memory, before she and her father came to the island:
Now this feeling of women on the periphery of vision, beyond the borders of the island, was intensified for me by the disappearance from the actual stage of Sycorax, the mother of Caliban, who is continually referred to in the play, cursed and vilified for a hag and a witch. But her powers are also always recognised and she of course, as we know, was the rightful owner of the island before Prospero came. Caliban says to him: 'This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak'st from me.' And in that tiny phrase there is implied the whole of the matrilineage of the island counterposed to the patrilineage which is Prospero's plot. That was one aspect I wanted to explore: the idea of the affection of the women who tended Miranda, one dimension of the female presence that had been cancelled.
Another was the legal, political threat of what is called gynocracy or rule by women (Sycorax as rightful owner of the island, which Prospero has undone).
There's an interesting intertextual point to make about Shakespeare's use of his sources: Prospero's great speech ('Ye elves of' hills...'), when he renounces his magic arts, is actually a paraphrase of Medea's speech from Seneca's tragedy, when she conjures storms. So Shakespeare took for his (good) wizard, for his white magician, the speech of Medea, a witch; Shakespeare himself was usurping something, taking into a male voice what had been voiced in the female before. Of course it was a conscious borrowing because Shakespeare knew the Seneca, but also it was even more conscious because Medea in classical mythology is Circe's niece she is actually related to her. Now there is a great deal of argument as to what the origin of the name 'Sycorax' is, but it is very likely to be closely related to Circe, and she has many characteristics of Circe, the great witch in the Odyssey. So Circe-Sycorax is actually Medea's aunt, and the speech that is stolen from her is actually affiliated to her in a family sense. Miranda struggles to work her way out of her father's plot in Indigo in a contrary direction to the plot of The Tempest; she became my heroine of the present day, and around her I tried to materialise the shadows of women as her nurse and her mother, while in the colonial past Sycorax became the centre of the novel.
After the retrieval, the restoration of women's presences and voices, the next empty space I was trying to fill was historical: the life and civilisation of the other side, of the islanders in the Caribbean before the occupation and colonisation of their land. That disappearance which Turner's painting evokes, that literal swallowing of peoples, raises so many questions, and it has inspired this new flourishing literature of lost memory, of time
regained, with a historical as well as an emotional dimension. Montaigne made a famous lament for what was happening in the New World in the I6th century incidentally one of the most wonderful translations from French into English, by John Florio:
He could of course have added sugar, but at that stage the sugar trade had not yet been established. He was writing about a hundred years before the first British settlements took root in the Caribbean and began the history of the British Empire, which in that part of the world is really the history of profit in sugar. The power of the Empire is gone, of course, but it remains present in our imaginary, in a very important and urgent sense because history goes on living in the present and taking its toll on the present. The exiles that began with the dislocation of lives there in the Caribbean, the diaspora which scattered English men and women overseas to the four points as well, which brought many people from those countries to Britain and to other parts of Europe, has become a common contemporary predicament and very much a symbol of our times: the 'imaginary homeland' in Salman Rushdie's phrase, the permanent internal exile. History does not happen in the past, contrary to what people think, it goes on getting made in the present. Actions only contribute to part of its making: words, story-telling, images also play a part in that history. As The Tempest says, 'The past is prologue.'
Memory is two-faced and we write about some memories backwards: they can help, they can case the story of the past, they can shape it comfortingly, they can reweave it so that it feels better. But they also can reveal something and match experience with the tale more closely and more uncomfortably. In the long run the disturbing myth, or story, may actually be more help than the pacifying one. Indigo is about migrations, geographical, colonial, imaginary and emotional, about crossing barriers and erecting them, about being foreign and strange in the eyes of someone else, and about trying to undo this strangeness to find what is common between people, and it is also an attempt to migrate itself through fantasy into the lost lives of others.
Now my reasons for dome this were largely personal: I had already written a novel inspired by my mother's side of the family, who are Italians The Lost Father , so I now was turning to my father's side. He came from a family who were born and bred in the British Caribbean for generations since the 17th century. My grandfather's Memoirs begin:
He begins the book of his Memoirs with this memory because he went on to become a famous cricketer. When I was a little girl, Plum, as he was called, was a famous figure still, a slim, brittle old man with a piercing look in his pale blue eyes who had won numerous triumphs for the England team all over the world. The London flat in which he and my grandmother lived was entirely decorated with cricketing memorabilia. From the bookcases gleamed the curious harsh yellow of the Wisden almanachs and the walls were hung with caricatures of my Grandfather carrying off his various victories. There was an atmosphere in the flat of worldly glory which had been deservedly earned and relished to the hilt. He was a beloved figure; he had played a civilised game of cricket all over the pink parts of the map and deepened the warmth and wisdom of that rose colour. As C.L.R. James, another Trinidadian, whom my grandfather knew, a historian, points out in his inspired account of cricket and Empire, Beyond a Boundary, there existed a deep connection between the game and British power. Remembering his school days C.L.R. James passes seamlessly from his passion for cricket to the way history was then taught:
Cricket pitches would become, for the Marxist historian James, a place where that balance could be redressed.
Now the image of Killibree, which is Creole patois for humming bird (like
colibri in French) stuck in my mind and it helped to inspire the reckoning
of the past that I attempted in Indigo. Without that black boy bowling
to my grandfather again and again in the marble corridor of the
attorney-general's house, perhaps my Grandfather might not have learnt to
bat so early and so well, being trained up to the game which made him a kind
of national hero in the home country. It seemed to me that in this exchange,
as the nicknamed servant bowled to the young master, I could see the crucible
where my grandfather's skill was created and with it, by extension, the whole
relation of coloniser and colonised, the whiteness of the batsman unconsciously
enhanced by the marble gallery in which he stands at the ready, waiting to
hit; the boy of course, it is probably not a boy at all, but a grown man being infantilised by the affectionate, but nonetheless patronising, nickname of the tiniest bird in the world; the easy confidence with which the writer, my Grandfather, acknowledges his debt to his childhood trainer, that old-world courtesy which makes up for what it takes for itself (Turner's 'profit') by a show of exquisite good manners: breeding. Above all I found in Killibree's bowling a repeat of the pattern in the carpet first figured three centuries before, of the hospitality and help that the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean offered to first settlers. The Indians of Guyana showed the English buccaneers who arrived there how to grow tobacco and other crops that were unfamiliar to them. They were later taken to the Caribbean islands from the Latin American mainland to help the colonisers to plant there. They were promised they would return after the plantings if the first harvest were successful. But that promise of course went the way of all flesh like so many others.
My father was very proud of' the Warners as significant figures in the early history of the islands. Alongside the cricketing memorabilia which we inherited after my grandfather's death, we were also left documents about the family's story, a photograph, for instance, of the tomb of a man called Sir Thomas Warner, who was a founding settler of what was called in the Empire 'the mother colony' of St Christopher (St Kitts): a marble slab protected by a canopy mourns his death in 1648 in an epitaph I quote in Indigo. I once heard David Dabydeen give a paper on the English language and he said that when he was a child he had seen similar glowing epitaphs to the liberality and nobility of slave-owners in the Graveyards of the West Indies. They had been made by stone-cutters who did not know how to read or write, who were their slaves. When I heard this, I felt terrible shame. Of course the Warners became planters and as planters they became slave-owners.
The story is more complicated: Thomas Warner, when he arrived in St Kitts in 1623, married a local woman and had several children with her, including an eldest son who grew up to be appointed by the British governor of Dominica. There he became the active leader of the large surviving community of Caribs Carib Indians on that island. Another son was born, called Philip, by his marriage to his white English wife who joined him once the colony was established, and in 1672 that son, Philip, was appointed governor of Antigua. So you have the two sons, one black, one white, as governors of contiguous islands. In this capacity Philip, the white one, led a raid on Dominica to punish the Indians there for alleged harassment of Antiguans. The two half-brothers met in battle: it was agreed they should have a peace meeting. At the peace talk there was a feast on board a ship and discussion of their differences. A quarrel flared. The talks ended with the deaths of 'Indian Warner', as he was called. and all his men. Philip was accused later of serving rum in order to intoxicate his enemies so that he could kill them more easily. For this treachery he was actually
transported, amazingly, to the Tower of London in England from the West Indies and tried. It will not surprise you to hear that he was found 'not guilty.'
The massacre and Philip Warner's imprisonment took place around 1675 and the story, with its Cain and Abel overtones of violation between brothers, remains startling. It would be even more surprising of course if Philip had been found guilty and hanged for his treachery. But after many protests from his fellow planters and many reports of the cruelties of the Carib Indians and accusations of Indian Warner's conspiracies, Philip Warner was transferred for trial to Barbados and acquitted. He was not however restored to the governorship of Antigua.
"This is a strange story," concludes a memoirist of the Empire, who found the documents to the case in the Colonial Office. It was such a strange story, so full of bloodshed and strife and miscegenation, that my father never mentioned it. The history of the West Indies in the pioneer years of the 17th century had to appear a graceful, controlled, law-abiding act of conquest in the interests of civilisation. It had to be cricket rather than this bristling and bleeding, tangled mass of loose ends, betrayals and fratricide. The way that I was told the story, or rather not told the story, points to the edginess British Empire families felt about interchanges between colonised and coloniser, about the translations of one culture into another that happened even while the hierarchical blue-print denied that they could do so. Cricket, when it became the game of the colonised, and one in which they could compete as equals and defeat the colonisers, provided an allegory of the future. It also, in another way, encapsulated the buried facts of the past: that buccaneer and maroon could be father and son, that governor and slave were brothers and their wives, sisters.
My family's Creole past, erased, gainsaid, became the inspiration for Indigo. I wanted to call the novel A Deeper Bite at one time, from a Spanish proverb, 'the tongue has no teeth, but a deeper bite' because this book is about survival through language in the face of military and other strength, about the power of memory, transmitted into stories, to shape experience fallaciously, or truthfully, harmfully, or helpfully. The Tempest gave me the structure I needed: it was first performed in 1611, twelve years before Thomas Warner arrived and settled on St Kitts, and it was most probably inspired, as we all know, by the shipwreck of some Englishmen on Bermuda. The first folio in which the play appears for the first time was published the same year Thomas Warner landed on present day St Kitts. The Tempest has often been interpreted as a drama about colonialism by contemporary directors and been rewritten as a cry of liberation by the Martiniquais poet Aimé Césaire in his play La Tempête. It has been discussed and explored eloquently by numerous writers from the Caribbean, most inspiringly, I think, in terms of non-fiction, by George Lamming in an essay in which he points out that Miranda and Caliban have one
thing in common, which is they have no memory of their past. Their past has been erased, they have to begin from scratch.
In South Africa, many writers in English, like Christopher Hope and J.M. Coetzee have been attacking disintegration, the violence, loss and fragmentation that forms part of the present legacy of the Empire. Foe, Coetzee's variation on Robinson Crusoe, gives a new story, a different voice and character to the figure of Man Friday in an example of rewriting memory by revisiting familiar landmarks of culture. There is an anxiety, when you are a white writer, about this practice because, all the time I was writing Indigo and since, I wondered if I was interloping, if I had a title to this material. Toni Morrison has actually written a very good essay, which I recommend to all of you in her series of lectures called 'Playing in the Dark' in which she looks at some cultural monuments of American literature, Hemingway, Mark Twain... and sees how the presence of black characters has been used by white writers to convey a definition of freedom, of what American liberty means. The black is not present to speak of himself or herself, but to speak of the dilemma of the white in producing liberty, because the black is shackled or the black is not shackled, the black is there as punctuation. It is a devastating essay, and for anyone who wants to try and write fiction in which these issues are addressed and wishes to give voice to these conflicts and tensions, it is a sort of model of how not to fall into the trap of simply serving your own interests, easing your own conscience or making yourself feel better, or producing your own philosophy for your own good. Of course, on the whole, this kind of literature has been written by people whose antecedents, whose history was that of the colonised I do not have to remind you, as you are all studying English, what a truly remarkable phenomenon this has been, how it has completely changed the scene and character and concerns of contemporary post-war fiction. The difference between Philip Larkin and Salman Rushdie is the difference between England then and now: it is a huge cultural change, and it is not only deeply reflected in the kind of writing that is being, written, it is also being produced, the cultural change, by these new voices.
Derek Walcott also, in poetry, provides a similar contrast. In parenthesis (an important parenthesis), identity constitutes the chief area of enquiry in this literature: identity in its relationship to nation who do we belong to? The mullahs believe Rushdie belongs to them, so they came and set themselves up as his judges. The reason that I can bring Walcott into this talk about post-imperial culture in the English language is of course that though Walcott is now an American, living and teaching in America, and a Saint-Lucian by his passport, he was born a British citizen in Saint Lucia and his poetry constantly works and reworks the dilemmas of his not only double inheritance, but sort of multiple inheritance as a Caribbean. Walcott constantly returns to the thence of the burden of history to go back
where I began constantly returns to the sea as the image of Empire and of engulfment and of memory and of forgetting. His poetry often breaks off almost as if the voice is suddenly crying out for no story, for no past, for the blank pace, for the emptiness of the sea against this terrible charge, this terrible burden, of needing to look at the past and its cost.
I'll just end with a quotation which is very characteristic of this theme in his work, which comes from Another Life, a lone, autobiographical poem he wrote before Omeros and in which this theme of forgetting and memory breaks out in a characteristic lyric urgency:
(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 5. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)