Fortunate travellers

By F.S.J. Ledgister

Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge,
by John Gimlette

(Profile Books, ISBN 9781846682520, 358 pp)

The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica, by Ian Thomson
(Nation Books, ISBN 9781568586564, 392 pp)

At the Easter Rodeo, Lethem, Guyana

At the Easter Rodeo, Lethem, Guyana, 2008. Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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.

Gimlette’s journeying through the lands that early Dutch settlers called de wilde kust, the wild coast, had its roots in his family history. An ancestor of his, Robert Hayman, settled and died on the “Wyapoko” River (in what is now the French department of Guyane) in 1629, in one of England’s early settlements in the Americas; Hayman had earlier been governor of Newfoundland. In his epilogue, Gimlette affects to be surprised that the “Wyapoko” is the same river as the Oyapock (Oiapoque in Portuguese) that forms the eastern boundary of Guyane and the northwestern boundary of the Brazilian state of Amapá. This is, perhaps, the only significant false note in the book.

Gimlette begins by laying out the historical, geographic, literary, and economic background succinctly in a very brief introduction, which also lays bare his own initial ignorance about the Guianas. The literary background is especially important when it comes to the first of the three countries he visits, Guyana; Gimlette is very conscious of walking in the footsteps of both Walter Raleigh and Evelyn Waugh. After the introduction, he plunges into an opening chapter neatly entitled “The Town of George”. It’s as fine an introduction to contemporary Georgetown and to the politics of late colonial and postcolonial Guyana as might be wished. Gimlette gets straight into Guyana’s political history with great bravado. He meets such people as Cheddi Jagan’s son, an astonishingly anti-communist dentist, and the politician and writer Rupert Roopnaraine, whose recollection of the death of Walter Rodney as presented here is both authoritative and revisionist. He also discovers, and shares with the reader, the continuing currents of ethnic hostility between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese — whether it is his Indo-Guyanese taxi driver, Ramdat, cheerily describing all black people as “lazy” or bitterly declaring that “all the Africans is teefs”; or the “old boatman” who, asked to recall the clearing of the Indian population of Wismar in 1961, which involved rape and murder, says “they got what them deserved.”

There’s also description of contemporary Georgetown: its architecture; its museum, which Gimlette believes is unchanged since Evelyn Waugh visited in 1933; its crime; its odd, to Gimlette, blend of British and foreign influences:

I soon came to realise that the Guyanese were neither British nor truly South American but lived in a world of their own. Sometimes it seemed that being foreign came so naturally to them that they didn’t even understand themselves. There were several thriving dialects, and the city would grind to a halt not just for Christmas but also for Diwali, Eid, and Phagwah. Depending on who I asked, the national dish was either roti, chow mein, a fiery Amerindian concoction called pepperpot, or chicken-in-the-rough. Originally each race had its own political party, but now there were fifty. Among a mere 750,000 people, this sometimes made Guyana feel like several dozen countries all stuffed into one.

From Georgetown he goes on to visit the site of Jonestown, the location of the event for which Guyana is still best known outside the Caribbean: the 1978 murder of US congressman Leo Ryan and the mass suicide of the American members of the People’s Temple settlement. His chapter title is “The Town of Jones”. Gimlette is eager to find out what residents in northwestern Guyana remember decades later about Jim Jones, the ruler of Jonestown, and the strange things that happened there. But he also is able to put Jonestown into its Guyanese context, the border dispute with Venezuela and Forbes Burnham’s need for staunch supporters; though for many Guyanese — like Roopnaraine — the tragedy of Jonestown “was an American matter, nothing to do with us.”

Gimlette then goes to what he calls “The Golden Rupununi”, in the footsteps of Raleigh, Waugh, and other English adventurers, and is lucky enough to learn about the hydrography of the area and the mysterious Lake Parima that occasionally appears in the savannahs after sufficiently heavy rain. He also learns about the relationship the residents of the Rupununi have with the government in Georgetown, and about the abortive Rupununi Rebellion of 1969, which was put down by the same Guyanese army officer sent to secure Jonestown after the mass suicide nine years later.

In the next chapter, “A Parliament of Ants”, he writes movingly not only of travelling down the Essequibo but also about the past and present of central Guyana, and its interesting inhabitants.  The chapter that follows is one of the most unusual I’ve encountered in a travel book. Titled “The Bloody Berbice”, much of it is taken up with a description of the Berbice Rebellion of 1763, the slave revolt that almost succeeded in becoming a revolution, and which for a short while ended Dutch control of the colony of Berbice; the enslaved for too brief a time had a taste of liberty. While Gimlette is clearly sympathetic to their aims, he mistakes their inability to feed themselves from their provision grounds for “euphoria”: “In their triumph the slaves had defeated work and brought an end to human toil.” Would that we had an account of the events of 1763 from the slaves’ perspective. Gimlette, in the present, searches for traces of the past, but also notes the fact that Berbice today is in many ways an overseas extension of India.

Going east from Guyana, he crosses the Corentyne River and the international boundary in a chapter titled “Good Morning, Suriname”, in which he begins his chronicle in Nickerie. In this “peculiar land,” as he calls it, Gimlette first draws attention to the English presence in its history (Suriname was first colonised by the English in the mid seventeenth century), noting that the founder of the first colony, in the irregular orthography of the time, gave the country’s name as “Surreyham”, which has a ring of both the Home Counties and Tolkien. As in Guyana, we are treated to a combination of exploration of the contemporary country and its history. This, even in the chapter on Paramaribo, involves the Maroons, and we are given a very thorough description of the different Maroon ethnicities.

Gimlette takes us through John Gabriel Stedman’s account of fighting the Surinamese Maroons on behalf of the Dutch planters in the late-eighteenth-century Hinterland War. But then a reference by a crewman on a ship going up the Cottica River leads to Gimlette discovering that the name also applies to the civil war of the 1990s between the dictatorship of Colonel Desi Bouterse and the Maroons, and we get an account of the destruction of Moiwana and the flight of thousands of Maroons across the Marowijne (or Maroni) River into Guyane. We also get the tale of Gimlette’s failure to meet with Bouterse, whose phone number he had been given by Roopnaraine. He does get into Fort Zeelandia, something I never did when I was in Paramaribo (the signs declaring “Militair terrein. Verboden toegang” — “Military area. Entry forbidden” — had a lot to do with that), and describes the massacre of December 1982, when sixteen prominent members of the opposition were taken to the fort, and fifteen of them shot. (Today the fort is a museum.)

Gimlette also follows in the footsteps of Bouterse’s onetime bodyguard Ronnie Brunswijk, leader of the Jungle Commando rebels in the civil war, before he crosses over to Guyane, the subject of his final chapter, “The Last of the Colonies”. Predictably, Gimlette writes about the bagne, the French penal colony that included the Îles du Salut, most famously Devils’ Island, and the names of Dreyfus and Papillon make their expected appearance. So, too, does the economic engine of present-day Guyane, the Centre Eurospatiale at Kourou, which he tours. Having been to Laos the year before, he visits the Hmong community, noting that their arrival in 1977 was not welcomed by the Guyanais. He also spends four days in Cayenne. Finally, he crosses over the Oyapock into Brazil in his quest for the place where his ancestor, Robert Hayman, met his end.

All in all, Gimlette provides us with considerable depth about Guyana and Suriname, not so much about Guyane. He is an attentive, humorous observer, whose interest in the people and their history brings his inquiry into the contemporary Guianas to life.

Ian Thomson’s exploration of Jamaica certainly has depth, but it is an extraordinarily problematic work which is, as far as I am aware, still unavailable for purchase in its subject country. The US edition includes a preface discussing the state of emergency imposed in May 2010 by prime minister Bruce Golding in order to arrest Christopher “Dudus” Coke. It also discusses the issue of the unavailability of The Dead Yard in Jamaica, which Thomson believes is due to the book’s exposing “a dark side of island life at odds with the ‘paradise’ island of travel brochures.” Since he has not been the subject of litigation, he doesn’t believe it could be because of libel. That there might be other reasons seems to have escaped him.

One such reason is noted early on by Thomson: “The frequent appearance of white and upper-echelon Jamaicans might suggest a skewed image of island society.” He justifies this by contending that white Jamaicans still possess considerable power, but this seems like special pleading, and some of his behaviour as described in the book seems deliberately provocative. Thus, in order to understand Rastafarians he visits the Bobo Ashanti, whose worldview with regard to gender is distinctly regressive. I can only presume he wanted to present Rastafari as a whole as extremely reactionary when it comes to relations between the sexes. It’s interesting that Thomson’s visit to the Bobo Ashanti community at Bull Bay was arranged via Arthur Newland of the University of the West Indies. One of the people Thomson thanks in his acknowledgements is the late scholar Barry Chevannes, through whom he could have gained access to other mansions of Rastafari. This raises the question of his motivation in describing only his encounter with the Bobo Ashanti. So too does the fact that he chose to take the writer Myrtha Désulmé with him on his visit; the point of being accompanied by an upper-middle-class Haitian-Jamaican woman clearly being to provoke a confrontation. It is annoying to see that when he gets what he so obviously wants, disputation between the Bobo Ashanti and Désulmé, Thomson states she “was beginning to embarrass me.”

Nor do other aspects of Thomson’s reporting help. Some of his encounters with ordinary, as opposed to upper-echelon, Jamaicans seem to be opportunities for him to look down his nose. He presents an encounter with a court clerk, who initially refuses to allow him to enter the court building in downtown Kingston because he is wearing jeans and does not have on a tie, as the clerk’s imposition of pettifogging authority. Perhaps it was. Or perhaps Thomson was astonished that his privileged skin colour lacked authority. Offered a “front-end lifter” in Coronation Market, he rather primly says “I do not think they work,” leaving the reader to wonder exactly what failure led to that conclusion. A meeting with a horse trainer seems more an opportunity for a jibe at how words are pronounced in Patwa (“‘You were admiring my arses’ he said”) than a descriptive vignette. Then there is the moment, at the Passa Passa street dance in Tivoli Gardens, when Thomson decides to leave after a young woman asks if he “wanted comp’ny”; that had the flavour of a 1930s British tabloid journalist self-righteously declaring “your reporter made his excuses and left.”

Some of his reporting is just flat wrong. It was not the Chinese who were the targets of Walter Rodney’s critique in 1968, for example. Overcrowding on long-haul minibus routes from Kingston to the countryside is not due to the closure of the railway service in the 1990s. His description of riding on a minibus from Kingston to Mandeville is quite like the times I travelled by minibus on that route in the 1970s, when the railway was still running. It wouldn’t have helped to take the train, in any case, since it didn’t go to Mandeville (the nearest station to Mandeville was at Williamsfield, twelve miles away).

On the other hand, some of his reporting is right: he interviewed people like John Maxwell, Wilmot Perkins, and Rex Nettleford (all now deceased), who were certainly going to give him perspectives on Jamaican life and political change that are worth attention. Indeed, he presents some of what Maxwell, bona memoria, told him as part of the main text. He also details his encounter with Monsignor Richard Albert, an American clergyman working in inner-city Kingston, who manages — ultimately, and against Thomson’s will — to impress him. Yet Thomson also spends a lot of his time focused on the British connection. It is not clear to me what light the British Labour politician Michael Foot really sheds on the contemporary condition of Jamaica — though it was nice to know that his dog Dizzee was named not for Disraeli (and that would have been shocking) but for the rapper Dizzee Rascal — for all that his brother, Lord Caradon, was, as Sir Hugh Foot, the penultimate colonial Captain General and Governor-in-Chief of Jamaica. (Not “Governor-General,” as Thomson states at one point.) Nor does it seem terribly useful to emphasise, as he does, Jamaican emigrants in Britain and returnees in Jamaica. Jamaica needs to be seen in its own light, not Britain’s imperial shadow, nor even the ghost of it.

Certainly, Thomson’s mentions of crime, violence, and poverty in contemporary Jamaica are frequent. But he connects them to the history of the island, to slavery, to the Maroon Wars, to such atrocities as the massacre of the enslaved “cargo” on the slaver Zong for the insurance money. That last is discussed in its proper context of Thomson’s travelling to the town of Black River, the destination of the Zong on its notorious voyage back in 1781. He also seeks to link contemporary crime and violence to the colonial connection by noting that Jamaica sought to solve the problem by importing a Scotland Yard policeman, Mark Shields, to help run its police force. An interview with Shields is interesting but not, surprisingly, very illuminating.

Many of the people with whom Thomson meets, are, like Deputy Commissioner Shields, white. Either expatriates or white Jamaicans, they form, intriguingly, a disproportionate share of the voices in The Dead Yard. This is a tremendous flaw in a book that purports to tell us something about Jamaican society, culture, and reality. Even when we add in the mixed-race upper-class and upper-middle-class informants, Thomson really spends too much time talking to people at, or close, to the upper end of Jamaican society. It is true that he also spends some time in the middle and at the lower end of the society, and some of his anecdotes — including one of getting stoned with a black hotelier and his white wife — are amusing, but this is too often Jamaica seen through the wrong end of the telescope. A succession of Faceys, Henzells, Blackwells, Pringles, Levys — and Errol Flynn’s widow, thrown in for faded Hollywood glamour — left me wondering if Thomson had somehow stumbled into some alternative Jamaica where everyone was several shades whiter. Thomson does deal with the poisonous issue of colour and shade prejudice among black Jamaicans, and the particular love of Scots connections. The blame for the poisoning is attributed safely to the past, rather than to the mirror.

Thomson’s book is difficult to deal with.  There are things he gets right: Jamaica is a violent society, but he also captures something of its energy and creativity. The trouble is that he seems to have gone to Jamaica with his mind made up, and his ear closed. Nothing makes that last fact more obvious than his definition of “yard” as “the area round one’s house,” having just pointed out that “The Yard” (actually, just Yard) is what Jamaicans colloquially call their country. As anyone who has spent longer than a few days on the island should know, the word means “home.”

Both of these books illuminate. However, while I would tell someone travelling to the Guianas to read Gimlette, I’d be deeply hesitant to press Thomson on someone going to Jamaica. Both read well, each contains delights and horrors from both the past and the present (or the very recent past). Yet Gimlette seems to have more sympathy with the places he encounters than Thomson, and he seems to listen more attentively to the people he meets on his journey.


The Caribbean Review of Books, January 2012

F.S.J. Ledgister is a British-born Jamaican. He teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, and has published work on Caribbean political development and political thought.