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St Lucia: The Fair Helen of the West Indies (Leanne Haynes)


“and the slowly travelling hand

knows it returns to the port from which it must start.”[1]

 “To St. Lucia! To St. Lucia!”[2]

This case study will address the literature from and about the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, irrespective of the national origin or language of the writers. The island falls into the imaginative space of the American Tropics and will help to map a comparative literary history via the study of key places.

 St. Lucia is certainly crucial to Caribbean history and literature. Because of its fine harbour in Castries and its closeness to Martinique[3], St. Lucia has always been at the centre of colonial conflict. Before its independence in 1979, the island changed hands several times and belonged to both the British and the French. Colonial intervention maintains its mark today, not least in that most of the inhabitants on the island speak French Creole as well as English. St. Lucia therefore provides a connection between the larger English-speaking islands such as Trinidad and the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

 The central research question for this study is: what insights could be gained into contemporary St. Lucian literature by reading it against the background of three centuries of European writing about the island? A draft structure is included below, which gives some sense of the writers and material to be covered:

1.     ‘Is de land, de land, de land[4]:

St. Lucia was supposedly discovered by Columbus in 1502. The Amerindians called the island ‘Iounalao’, which means ‘where the iguana is found.’[5] But European settlement did not occur until the mid-sixteenth century with the French buccaneer Francois le Clerc, who set up base on Pigeon Island to ambush Spanish galleons.[6] Many Europeans visited or resided in St. Lucia. It is important to follow up their accounts and explore these physical projections of place. This part of the study will investigate travel writing about St. Lucia. Special consideration will be given to British travel writing during the imperial period, which includes its various forms: diary entries, accounts of colonial service, and letters of correspondence.

‘The Voyage of the Olive Branch’[7] is one of the earlier materials to offer an account of the island. It sketches the story of the Guiana adventurers who were blown off course and landed on St. Lucia.  Nicholl characterises the Caribs through the discourse of cannibalism and describes them as: ‘cruell Caniballs, and man-eaters’ (p. 68). On the contrary, Turner maps the island in terms of vegetation and wildlife. This text is fine example of an early projection of Carib-European relations, which ultimately advocates a sense of otherness.

The nineteenth century saw an intensification of travel, particularly during the age of Queen Victoria.[8] British travellers such as Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey visited St. Lucia as well as Antigua, Montserrat, Dominica, Barbados, and Jamaica. The aim of their writing was to expose a broad public to the harsh reality of slavery.  Sturge also extended his travels to mainland U.S and examined the slavery question there. Anthony Trollope’s The West Indies and the Spanish Main offers only a brief account of St. Lucia. But this text should not be side-lined. Trollope was a prolific writer and an extensive traveller and much can be learnt of the artistic principles and designs of travel writing.

Owen Rutter, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Sir Frederic Treves give comprehensive descriptions of the island. Particular attention is paid to the British/French struggle for occupation, the island’s natural expanse, and cultural practices. Perhaps the most personal account of St. Lucia is contained in Quentin Crewe’s Touch the Happy Isles.  Witty and informative, Crewe’s version narrates the story of Bupa the elephant, brought from Dublin to St. Lucia.

I have located a wealth of material both inside the UK and further a field. The British Library will prove an invaluable resource and is home to numerous letters, diary entries, and manuscripts that trace individuals and their colonial service in St. Lucia. The University of Miami’s Special Collection Division holds a particularly exciting find: Aaron Thomas: The Caribbean Journal of a Royal Seaman. The eighteenth century journal contains: anecdotes, entries on slavery and religion, and first-hand accounts of customs of the day.

            2. ‘I have an island’[9]:

St. Lucia has been well served by its literature. It is perhaps important that one says ‘its literature’ instead of ‘its writers’ as the traditional oral history of the Caribbean has had an enormous influence on the written.[10] Considering the size (238 square miles) and population (c. 150,000), the island has an exemplary literary tradition. Focus here will be on the written literature by native St. Lucians, which only begins in the post-war period, with Derek Walcott as part of the first generation.

Walcott is a poet, dramatist, theorist, and an artist. In 1948 he self –published his first collection of poetry, which was entitled 25 Poems. Walcott has gone on to become a prolific writer of international repute, winning the Nobel Prize in 1992 for his long poem Omeros. Towards the end of the 1950s, Walcott moved to Trinidad where he lived for many years and founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Currently, he divides his time between New York and St. Lucia. I will trace Walcott’s representation of St. Lucia as the island moves towards and into independence as well as his re-engagement with the island in his later work. All genres of Walcott’s work will be considered, including his landmark collection of essays, What the Twilight Says: Essays. The essays provide a spring-board for ideas and themes developed in his poetry and drama.

Attention will also be paid to Walcott’s contemporaries including the novel(s) of Garth St. Omer, Earl Long, Anderson Reynolds, and McDonald Dixon. Most of Long’s novels deal with fictional Caribbean islands that resonate strongly with St. Lucia and draw on themes such as colonization, story telling and folklore, and the dangers of rapid uncontrolled development. St. Omer’s novels are notoriously unhappy and address the theme of identity /i-dentity as the characters are usually alienated and isolated.

Further consideration will be given to the poetry of Kendel Hippolyte, John Robert Lee, Jane King, and McDonald Dixon.  Hippolyte is a performance poet and many of his poems incorporate the French Creole spoken in St. Lucia. Most of the native St. Lucian writers draw on the natural history of the island, which is just as complex and erratic as its colonial history. St. Lucia is subject to cyclones, hurricanes, tropical waves, earthquakes and is home to two huge volcanic land formations called the Pitons. A major fire in 1948 all but wiped out Castries capital. Natural history therefore plays a key rôle in St. Lucian life and is embedded firmly in the island’s own sense of place.

I have located significant material in the UK and further a field. St. Lucia has 17 libraries around the island although The Central Library in Castries offers the largest selection of material. A particularly exciting collection is located at University of West Indies, (Trinidad) and comprises of manuscripts, poems, correspondence, scrap books, and photographs, covering the period when Walcott was based in Trinidad and Tobago. Contact has been established and maintained with John Robert Lee, Kendel Hippolyte, and Patrick Anthony. An interview is in the process of being arranged with Hippolyte for July/August in the UK.

Main Difficulties and Challenges:

One difficulty that I am already experiencing is obtaining primary texts by native St. Lucian writers. A lot of St. Lucian literature is published and sold locally so that profits go back into the community or towards the Cultural Development Foundation. Some of the texts are not available by internet stores either. I have overcome this problem by arranging to have material brought to the UK with Kendel Hippolyte in July 2007. Yet I need to be aware that research is in its very early stages and I may experience the same problem with newer writers.

Walcott’s pre-eminence as a major world poet has undoubtedly put St. Lucia on the literary map. But a balance needs to be maintained between Walcott and his contemporaries. The project will allow one to bring to the fore other St. Lucian writers that have perhaps been overshadowed by Walcott’s international repute. It is important to remember that the published writers of St. Lucia are embedded in a growing tradition of unpublished writers. A visit to the island will allow one to interview these younger, unpublished St. Lucian writers.

Much of the travel writing already identified contains maps. Consideration therefore needs to be given to the ideologies inscribed by these earlier maps. Attention to post-colonial concepts such as cartography and euro-centrism is necessary.

[1] Derek Walcott Omeros (London: Faber & Faber, 1990) p. 291.

[2] Sir Frederick Treves The Cradle of the Deep (London: Smith, Elder, & CO., 1910) p. 109.

[3] Just twenty miles North of St. Lucia.

[4] From Kendel Hippolyte’s ‘De Land- A Caribbean Nursery Rhyme’

[5] Derek Walcott, Omeros p. 4.

[6] (St. Lucia Tourist Board Website).

[7]Peter Hulme and Neil. L Whitehead (ed.) Wild Majesty: Encounters with Caribs from Columbus to the Present Day (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992) p. 62.

[8] Barbara Korte, English Travel writing from pilgrimage to postcolonial explorations (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).

[9] From Derek Walcott’s The Prodigal

[10] Suggested by and in agreement with Jane King in Saint Lucian Literature and Theatre: An Anthology of Reviews (ed. John Robert Lee and Kendel Hippolyte) (St. Lucia: Cultural Development Foundation, 2006) p. 3.