In November 1858, Trollope, in his day job as British civil servant, boarded the good ship Atrato and sailed from Southampton to Jamaica to begin a lengthy trip to the Caribbean. The official reason for his journey was to carry out a land survey for Her Majesty’s Government but, along the way, he found time to pen one of his several works of travel writing, focussing not on his official business but on the impressions he has of the places he visits and the people he meets.
As opposed to his novels, the West Indies and the
Spanish Main is not an easy book to find. It has often been out of print and seems to be kept alive largely in facsimile editions by specialist publishers. I have a feeling I know why this is. For, you see, there is a very big elephant in the West Indies and Spanish Main room – race.
Let’s make no bones about this. Trollope is a racist and he’s not afraid to show it. Not for him the subtle sneer or the coded comment. No, sir. He believes that Afro-Caribbeans are, although impressive in their ability to undertake manual labour in the West Indian heat, lazy, slovenly and not very bright. He laments the fact that they will not work more than is needed to satisfy their immediate needs and, although he claims to approve of the abolition by the United Kingdom of slavery throughout the Empire (in 1833), he can’t help commenting that pre-Emancipation times were the “good old days”. He ruminates extensively on the decline in the economic fortunes of the
West Indies since abolition and seems frustrated that fertile land is left unexploited.
I was going to say that Trollope’s views on race (which he himself describes as the “useful and true” part of the book) are not all black and white, but that would be crass even by my low standards. Instead, let us say that his views are slightly more nuanced than the above paragraph might suggest. You see Trollope, like legendary ‘70s pop band Blue Mink, believes in miscegenation. He wants to see the
West Indies being populated by what Blue Mink described as, “coffee coloured people by the score”. Or, as Trollope put it, “ has sent white men and black men to those regions in order that from them may spring a race fitted by intellect for civilisation and by physical organisation for tropical labour.” He thinks that this will then enable Providence to withdraw from the region and allow it to be self-governing. Britain
The uncompromising way in which he expresses himself on race is very uncomfortable to the ears of the 21st Century reader. I think that this has been a major reason for the lack of popularity of the West Indies and the
Spanish Main. It is a shame because, leaving this aside, it is a work which would otherwise sit comfortably in the Trollopian canon. I also believe that it is foolish for the reader to be indignant that a mid-Victorian Englishman would or should have had the same outlook as we do today. Instead, we should look upon his views as useful historical evidence of societal beliefs and values in the Victorian period and not rage at the fact that he shared them.
Anyway, leaving this aside and having given you due warning, if you decide to go ahead and read the West Indies and the Spanish Main, you will find it a witty book, full of acute observations and clever character sketches of some remarkable individuals whom he meets on his travels, including servants, local dignitaries and British colonial officials. There is a wonderfully acerbic passage on the vicissitudes of travelling by sea from
England to Jamaica and from onwards. He is amusing on exotic food, Cuban cigars and Central American railroads. On the downside, his penchant for talking directly to the reader is, as in his novels, on show here and it really irritates me. Jamaica
In conclusion, this is a worthwhile read if you are interested in 19th Century attitudes to race, the state of the
West Indies at that time, how middle class Britons were accustomed to travel or you are an avid Trollopian. Otherwise, you could probably give this one a miss without regretting it.
This post is part of the Classics Circuit's Trollope tour. The next tour will be in January and will focus on Ancient Greek classics. I am debating which of Lysistrata or the Anabasis to choose.