Monday, December 6, 2010

2,592: The West Indies and the Spanish Main by Anthony Trollope

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, “Providence 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 Britain to withdraw from the region and allow it to be self-governing. 

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 Jamaica 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.

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.


Hannah said...

Fascinating. I'm pretty new to Trollope--but 19th century ideas about race is my big thing academically. I had no idea they could be connected! While your review might discourage most readers from picking up the book, I think you sold me in a way very few reviews could. Thanks for letting me know about it.

Laura said...

This was really interesting. I'm reading Barchester Towers for my tour stop on December 11. Very early on I came across some ugly comments about Jews. I didn't like it one bit. I understand we can't hold someone from that period to our modern standards, but it definitely affects how much I enjoy the book.

Falaise said...

Lifetime Reader - Thanks for the comment. I think his views are interesting in the eugenics-like idea that you could almost create a new and improved race by mixing the two and that the result would contain what he supposed were the qualities of both.

Laura - I can see exactly where you are coming from and how it can affect the overall enjoyment of a book. I'm looking forward to your blog on Barchester Towers.

Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

I heartely agree with your recommendation re. our apporach to the book, not only for Trollope, but many others.

It’s interesting that he supported miscegenation instead of purity of races. It might be an indication that he wasn’t a xenophobe, just ignorant.

Falaise said...


Thanks for your comment. I think you are correct that he wasn't a xenophobe. I think he had a very typical British imperial mindset for the period, in that he would proabably have felt that Britons were superior to virtually everyone, especially non-whites and non-Christians!

bibliophiliac said...

This is a fascinating, if discomforting, review. Of course, we can't expect Trollope's views on race to mirror ours, and to future generations, we will undoubtedly reveal some equally reprehensible views. Ironically, I am an absolute Trollope fanatic married to a man from the West Indies. So I guess this is one of his books that I might not want to read! I like to think Trollope's women characters reveal a latent feminism, but his writing does sometimes betray views that are, to contemporary readers, repugnant.

Falaise said...

I tend to think that Trollope has the glimmerings of more modern views on things like women's issues and social equality but is stuck within the mental straitjacket of a Victorian middle class male. I think the only way to approach this particular book is to try to be dispassionate and to view it as a (thankfully) historical artefact.

JaneGS said...

With authors I love, I try to read all of their works. I just read my first Trollope, and while I enjoyed it to a degree, I can't imagine coming to love him enough to ever read this book.

I appreciated your thoughtful, interesting, and fair review. I learned a lot about Trollope here.

Falaise said...


Thanks for stopping by. It was a bit of an odd choice for me to write about one of his travelogues rather than one of his novels. Trollope was pretty prolific so I don't think there's any harm in skipping some of his books!

Desperate Reader said...

Interesting review. I don't think this is a book I'm likely to read, but I'm pleased to have heard about it. On the whole I'm not bothered by antique racism. It might be uncomfortable to read but it's also interesting. When you mention that Trollope is outraged that people won't work more than they need to provide the basics that really rang a bell for me. It's something that I've come across elsewhere and which outraged me at the time. Years and a lot of victorian lit later I think I understand how much that work to live not live to work attitude would have baffled and infuriated a busy middle class man like Trollope - the total antithesis of all the victorians believed. We can't re educate these people and I don't think we can judge them by our standards. Uncomfortable or not all I feel I can do is try and spot the wood in the trees. (I think I might be about to go round in circles now so will stop.)

Falaise said...

Desperate Reader,

Thanks for stopping by. I can't really add anything to your comment - I completely agree with you.

Rebecca Reid said...

Just curious, how did you come about choosing this particular Trollope to read? This does not sound like one I"ll be reading!

Falaise said...

Rebecca - I wanted to choose something a little different and I enjoy travel writing. I suspect I would choose differently if it came up again!