General editor's introduction
in West Indian intellectuals in Britain

General Editor’s Introduction

In 1907, Sir Algernon Aspinall published his Pocket Guide to the West Indies. It is a classic case of ‘imperial eyes’ in print, of the rhetoric of colonial tourism. The section on ‘population’ occupies no more than three pages and is devoted almost entirely to slavery and labour. Thus the Pocket Guide concentrates on place rather than people, on alleged economic progress instead of cultural potential, on the imperial more than the local community. But this travel guide seems to have been as popular with its white audience as were so many others of the same genre. By the 1950s it had passed through ten editions and was still appearing in the 1960s, revised after Aspinall’s death by Professor J. Sydney Dash. Astonishingly, the original text on ‘population’ was still being printed, almost unchanged, in the later version. There was also very little alteration to the suggestions for further reading. Trollope and Froude continued to feature prominently together with (for Jamaica), the hoary old texts Long, Bridges, and the more recent Cundall, who had published a handbook for settlers as recently as 1905. Not a single black Caribbean author figured at all.

The notion that the West Indies might produce an individual culture, with a lively literary, linguistic, musical and dance tradition, interrogating and interacting with Africa, the Americas and Europe, clearly never occurred to Aspinall, and probably not to Dash either. Nor would either have considered the possibility of a vibrant popular culture flowing out into an intellectual one. In some respects, the collection of essays in this book is about that mutual flow not only between a so-called low and high culture, but also within the eddies and backwashes of cultural phenomena on an intercontinental basis. It is about intellectuals in the broadest organic sense – enquirers, thinkers, activists, propagators – who centralise their supposed marginality through complex networks of cultural quests. They position themselves in respect of myths of empire, of origins, and of multiple radical streams flowing into the revolutionary impulses of the twentieth century. They become intellectual travellers, turning the imperial gaze and the rhetoric of tourism back upon itself, and discovering liberating ideas and ideologies, fresh literary conjunctions and print opportunities, enabling new and varied voices to be heard.

What is striking about all these West Indian intellectual voices is the extent to which their timbre was forged through radicalising moments – the first world war; the race riots of 1919; (above all) Mussolini’s attack upon Abyssinia in 1935; the Jamaican riots of 1938. It is also striking that so many of them moved from concepts of imperial progress to notions of revolutionary progress. Partly this was based in nineteenth-century philosophies, partly in the crucibles of revolt of the twentieth century. But there were journeys to be made here too: from a largely masculine perspective to one that recognised the powerful insights and aspirations of the women who emerged among them; from illusions of hope to the disillusion of revolution betrayed; of colonialism giving way to neo-colonialism; of overt to covert racism.

Even in a supposedly mature historical and literary community, there are still those who regard empire as having had little or no effect upon British culture. There are also still those who give no credence to the instrumentality of nationalist thought and action. In 2003 a popular (and generally well-received) television series on the British empire, the good empire which laid low the evil empires of the fascists and the Japanese, suggested that nationalists did not win decolonisation, nor was it given by the British. It was forced, according to its author and presenter Niall Ferguson, upon all concerned by the new aspirant empire of the United States. The declining empire and the ambitious nationalists of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were equally useless in the face of unstoppable global geo-political forces. By these lights, the individual voices and actions of the people in this book become hopelessly tossed torsos and limbs upon a historical raft of the Medusa.

It may well be that such a bleak assessment has no place in serious historical scholarship, however immediately appealing it may seem to some. This book offers a powerful contrary testimony. But there are interesting negative lessons here too. Intellectual and ideological group orthodoxies should never be permitted to become fundamentalist. The ‘other’ (of whatever sort) should never become the scapegoat for all historical ills, the excuse for present grievance and inaction. Those who experience and struggle against the oppression of race and marginality should never fail to spot, and rebel against, other modes of oppression, of gender, of different forms of ability, or of minority sexualities. Regime should never be justified solely by race, present oppression by a past record of overthrow. We should also be attentive to the possibility of new radicalising moments. Maybe 2003 offers the potential for just such a one. But as the cliché goes, only history will tell.

This volume offers many opportunities for pondering the significance of multiple diasporas, social and intellectual displacement and replacement, racism, definitions of culture, and the potential transformation of dominant societies by the cultures and ideas of the formerly subordinate. Above all, it reveals the complex routes by which individuals seek to secure the ‘decolonisation of the mind’.

John M. MacKenzie

Editor: Bill Schwarz

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