The Middle Passage (1962) is V.S. Naipaul’s first work of travel writing. It is an account of his returning journey to five Caribbean “post-colonial” societies, Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, Martinique and Jamaica.
The Middle Passage, Naipaul takes the title of his book from the name for the route travelled by the slaves as they were transported from Africa to the colonies of the West Indies, is a highly personal book. Naipaul is continuously confronted with his feelings, the fear of returning to tropical Trinidad, the fear of remembering. Not surprisingly, emotions make him unconsciously biased toward the people of his native country and the other post colonial Caribbean countries. He lucks that kind of stimuli, the rigour and the emotional curiosity of a traveller.
I have tried hard to feel interest in the Amerindians as a whole, but had failed. I couldn’t read their faces; I couldn’t understand their language, and could never gauge at what level communication was possible. Among more complex peoples there are certain individuals who have the power to transmit to you their sense of defeat and purposeless: emotional parasites’ who flourish by draining you of the vitality you preserve with difficulty. The Amerindians had this effect on me.
The cultural gap between Naipul and the Caribbean region is too wide and unlike to be narrowed during the journey. He is detached, sad and uncertain, an outsider; he sees the post slave-holding societies with a critical eye and in order to corroborate his observations he quotes Victorian travel writers, such as Antony Trollope and Charles Kingsley.
All these do not suggest that the work is unimportant. Quite the opposite! The Middle Passage mirrors the cultural blend of the multiracial Caribbean societies, the differences, tensions and conflicts. Insightfully and vividly written, a human and intellectual adventure.
…. [The paths and ditches and houses and fields looked so alike. The house stood on a rectangular plot of land, and, with ditches on all sides, appeared moaned. Rustling junk in a rusting corrugated-iron shed; a bicycle wheel against a pillar; chickens in the dust and drying mud below the two or three dwarf coconut trees; a bad-tempered barking mongrel; and the mosquitoes thick in the damp heat. A young spastic Indian woman in a slack cotton dress held the dog. We crossed the moat and made our way to the back of the house where, unprotected from the sun, a very old man with white hair and bristle of white bird sat on the ground rubbing oil on himself. The mosquitoes left him alone; they left Jonny alone. But thwy fastened on to me, to my hair, my shirt, my trousers,and even my eyelets of my shoes. Movement didn’t disturb them; they had to be brushed off.] ….
…. [A derelict man in a derelict land; a man discovering himself, with surprise and resignation, lost in a landscape which had never ceased to be unreal because the scene of enforced and always temporary residence; the slaves kidnapped from one continent and abandoned on the unprofitable plantations of another, from which there could never more be escape;] …..