A Small Essay on A Small Place

I originally wrote this January 2004, while auditing a course on women, colonialism and sexuality.  At the time, I was very curious about the relationship of military history to other, seemingly disparate fields.  This was one of my attempts to relate military history to postcolonialism.

Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place is a small book–just eight-one pages.  You can read it in one sitting, and since she writes so wonderfully well, you will probably do exactly that.  The book opens in the second-person:  Kincaid addressing the reader directly, a conceit she maintains throughout.  The notional reader is a white American or (worse) European or (worst of all) Briton, and Kincaid leaves you in no doubt that you suck.  You don’t get it.  Notwithstanding the fact that you’re reading her book.  Because if you got it you would neither be reading the book nor, in Kincaid’s imagination, peering down with pleasure at the beauty of Antigua as your plane makes its approach into the main airport at St. John’s, the capital.  You would be reflecting on the fact that “this empire business was all wrong” and would be “wearing sackcloth and ashes in token penance of the wrongs committed, the irrevocableness of their [your forebears’] bad deeds [from which you still benefit, you bastard], for no disaster imaginable could equal the harm they did.  Actual death would have been better.”

By contrast, the indigenous population of Antigua is pure and innocent.  Well, not exactly indigenous, the Siboney, Carib, and Arawak Indians having been long since wiped out and replaced by west African slaves, from whom most of the 68,000 citizens of Antigua & Barbuda are descended.  And not exactly pure, since Kincaid makes clear that the government is spectacularly corrupt.  But the Brits showed them how to do it, so the Brits are to blame.  And have I mentioned lately that you suck?

As the book progresses, the tone shifts somewhat.  It’s as if Kincaid, hearing her jeremiad, begins to question one aspect of it, namely whether the Antiguans–even ordinary Antiguans–are really that pure and innocent.  She doesn’t unbend about whites, though.  Or for that matter Arabs, for Arabs from Syria came to Antigua some years ago, made a killing, got hooked in with the government and enthusiastically nursed at the public teat.  (Antigua even maintains, at considerable expense, an ambassador to Syria, and you can easily guess why it does and who gets to draw the salary as ambassador.)

But at the end the tone becomes wistful and heartbreakingly sad.  Here is the conclusion:

Again, Antigua is a small place, a small island.  It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long.  It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493.  Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted, there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty–a European disease.  Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually the slaves were freed, in a kind of way.  The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans (and the people who would immediately come to your mind when you think about what Antiguans might be like; I mean, assuming you were to think about it), are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves.  Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being and all the things that adds up to.  So too with the slaves.  Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

It takes Kincaid eighty-one pages to get to that point.  The average white person wants to be at that point on page one, if not the title page, if not the cover.  The average white person wants to object that he himself never held slaves or sat behind a desk in a colonial office, or shot any “wogs,”  so he is in no way responsible for the on-going pain and poverty in postcolonial societies.  And weren’t the Japanese just as bad?  The Moguls?  The Aztecs?  The Africans themselves through their complicity in the slave trade?  Don’t all human societies dominate other groups given the chance?  Well, yes.  But you have to ask yourself–or at least, I have to ask myself–whether questions like that open up terrain for exploration or foreclose further inquiry.

What does any of this have to do with military history?  It happens that Kincaid thinks that “race is a false idea. It’s just an invention to enforce power. So I never talk about race. I talk about the inflammatory thing which is power.”  She thus has something in common with military historians, who seldom talk about race but have as their core concern that inflammatory thing called power.  It’s just that Kincaid hits it from an unusual angle of vision.  An angle in which Admiral Horatio Nelson, by preserving British command of the seas, makes it safe for British ships to carry British goods, British officials, British soldiers everywhere and thereby perpetuate the British colonial project.  Which makes him “a maritime criminal.”

So that’s one thing.  Another is that it also happens that Jamaica Kincaid lives in Vermont with her husband and two children.  She wrote for The New Yorker until she had a falling-out with the editor. She writes and gives readings and is, for all the anger in her work, harmless.  Give her an AK-47, however, and she would look quite differently.  One might say that Jamaica Kincaid articulates with flowing prose what other postcolonial men and women articulate with streams of bullets and book bags filled with plastic explosives.  That makes her of interest to military historians.