F.S.J. Ledgister on Fortunate Travelers

Ledgister considers the haunting histories of travel writing in the West Indies @ The Caribbean Review of Books.

Good travel writing illuminates the places about which it is written — it is history, geography, culture, and politics in a much neater package than any textbook or classroom presentation could hope to achieve. Bad travel writing, like all bad journalism, is quick, facile, and superficial; it leaves you knowing as little at the end as you did at the beginning. 

The West Indies has experienced both, including the extraordinary outpourings of Victorian men of letters — Anthony Trollope (1860), Charles Kingsley (1869), and James Anthony Froude (1887) — who arrived in the Caribbean with a full set of prejudices and employed them as the lens through which to analyse the region. Froude, in particular, let no opportunity for the expression of a racist opinion escape him, and Trollope defined savagery in the West Indies of 1859 as the quality in black people of not wanting to work for white people.
Twentieth-century visitors were far more open. For example, Patrick Leigh Fermor in The Traveller’s Tree (1950) seemed genuinely astonished by the colour bar, in particular in its Bajan form; and George Mikes’s Not by Sun Alone (1967), about a visit to Jamaica, showed acute sensitivity both to issues of race and to Jamaican aspirations for the future.

Interestingly, the twenty-first–century travellers I’m examining here both look back to one nineteenth-century travel writer, Trollope. Fortunately, without Trollope’s racism; the Victorian novelist arrived in the West Indies convinced of his superiority over the Negro, and left with his mind unchanged, even though the dilapidated condition in which he found the West Indian colonies was entirely the result of white rule. On a mission from the Post Office, Trollope had to visit both Jamaica, which he found detestable, and British Guiana, which he thought the best-governed of Britain’s Caribbean colonies — because the colonials had no part in its government. John Gimlette’s Wild Coast travels through the three Guianas, and Ian Thomson’s The Dead Yard wanders all over Jamaica. Both of them deal with history and violence, the two being intertwined in the inescapable fact of slavery. Both are concerned with the British presence in the region, Thomson with how Jamaica has become more American than British in the decades since independence, both in his eyes and in those of Jamaican returnees, and Gimlette with the many ways that Britain affected the three Guianas over the past four-plus centuries.

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