Read The Middle Passage Online

Authors: V.S. Naipaul

The Middle Passage

BOOK: The Middle Passage
11.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

V. S. Naipaul

The Middle Passage

V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He went to England on a scholarship in 1950. After four years at Oxford he began to write, and since then he has followed no other profession. He is the author of more than twenty books of fiction and nonfiction and the recipient of numerous honors, including the Nobel Prize in 2001, the Booker Prize in 1971 and a knighthood for services to literature in 1990. He lives in Wiltshire, England.

Also by V. S. Naipaul


Between Father and Son: Family Letters
Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples
India: A Million Mutinies Now
A Turn in the South
Finding the Center
Among the Believers
The Return of Eva Peron
The Killings in Trinidad
India: A Wounded Civilization
The Overcrowded Barracoon
The Loss of El Dorado
An Area of Darknes


Half a Life
A Way in the World
The Enigma of Arrival
A Bend in the River
In a Free State
A Flag on the Island
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion
A House for Mr. Biswas
Miguel Street
The Suffrage of Elvira
The Mystic Masseur


Copyright © 1962, copyright renewed 1990, by V. S. Naipaul

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover in Great Britain by Andre Deutsch Limited, London, in 1962. First published in hardcover in the United States by Macmillan, New York, in 1963. Published in trade paperback by Vintage Books in 1981.

Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Naipaul, V. S. (Vidiadhar Surajprasad), 1932–
The middle passage : impressions of five societies—British, French, and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America / V. S. Naipaul.
p. cm.
Originally published: London : A. Deutsch, 1962.
eISBN: 978-0-307-77653-2
1. West Indies—Description and travel. 2. South America—Description and travel.
3. Naipaul, V. S. (Vidiadhar Surajprasad), 1932– —Journeys—West Indies.
4. Naipaul, V. S. (Vidiadhar Surajprasad), 1932– —Journeys—South America. I. Title.
F1612 .N35 2002



Foreword to this Edition

The Middle Passage
was my first travel book. It was published in 1962, and this is from the original foreword:

In September 1960 I went back to Trinidad on a three-month scholarship granted by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. While I was in Trinidad the Premier, Dr Eric Williams, suggested that I write a nonfiction book about the Caribbean. I hesitated. The novelist works towards conclusions of which he is often unaware; and it is better that he should. However, I decided to take the risk.

In 1969 I added this note:

A New Zealand writer, reviewing another book of mine, said that I was writing about the problems of a client culture and a client economy. I wish those precise words had occurred to me when I was writing
The Middle Passage.
They would have made many things more clear. The book might have had more shape; and it might have been less romantic about the healing power, in such a culture, of political or racial assertion.

With the qualification contained in that note, the book, I feel, still stands. Perhaps because it was the first time I had truly ‘travelled’, both the travel and the writing remain vivid to me; and — though the themes are serious — I hope that there are readers who will also catch, and respond to, the element of simple delight.

They were valued only for the wealth which they yielded, and society there has never assumed any particularly noble aspect. There has been splendour and luxurious living, and there have been crimes and horrors, and revolts and massacres. There has been romance, but it has been the romance of pirates and outlaws. The natural graces of life do not show themselves under such conditions. There has been no saint in the West Indies since Las Casas, no hero unless philonegro enthusiasm can make one out of Toussaint. There are no people there in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own.

James Anthony Froude:
The English in the West Indies


In the carriage with me were several gentlemen; officers going out to join their regiments; planters who had been home on business; young sportsmen with rifles and cartridge cases who were hoping to shoot alligators, &c., all bound like myself for the West Indian mail steamer. The elders talked of sugar and of bounties, and of the financial ruin of the islands.

James Anthony Froude:
The English in the West Indies

a crowd of immigrant-type West Indians on the boat-train platform at Waterloo that I was glad I was travelling first class to the West Indies. It wasn’t an expensive first class. Ninety-four pounds, which might have bought cabin-class accommodation on one of the ships of the French Line, had got me a cabin to myself on the Spanish immigrant ship
Francisco Bobadilla.

Most of the people on the platform and many of those in the train were not travelling down to Southampton. But the compartment I got into remained crowded. One man with a Nat King Cole hairstyle was dandling a fat bonneted baby that was gift-wrapped in ribbons and frills, with a rubber nipple stuck like a gag and a final flourish in its drooping, dripping mouth. Two ladies with felt hats and pink stockings sat slumped against the window. They wore gauze-like dresses over satin petticoats of a fiery pink. The powder on their faces had dissolved in patches, and they crumpled tiny embroidered handkerchiefs in large shining hands. They looked constrained and unhappy. There were baskets with food and baby-supplies on the rack and on the floor.

The man with the baby was talking to the man opposite him of the hardships of life in London.

‘Is like that Stork on television,’ he said. ‘Three out of five can’t tell the difference from butter. Three out of five don’t care for you.’

He spoke in a slow, negligent way. The slumped women stared out of the window and said nothing. The baby, fat-cheeked, big-eyed, dribbled. London rolled away on either side of the railway canyon: the grimy backs of houses, the red tops of buses, the bright new advertisements, the signs on small shops, the men in white overalls on ladders: pictures that already felt like memories: the promised land from which we were already separated: the train just another of the morning noises.

‘Eh! I tell you about the foreman?’ He spoke easily; the train was not England. ‘One day he say, “Blackie, come here a minute.” I watch at him, and I say, “Good. I coming.” I went up and hit him
Clean through a glass window.’ He didn’t gesticulate. He was dandling the baby on his knee.

In the baby’s basket one saw the things of England, a few minutes ago commonplace, now the marks and souvenirs of the traveller: the bottle of Lucozade, the plastic baby bottle (in the West Indies it would have been a small rum bottle), the tin of baby powder.

Clean through the glass window.’

The ticket collector, tall and elderly, slid the compartment door open. On this train he was a foreigner, but his manner was neutral; he might have been on the Brighton train.

‘T’ank God, I didn’t have the monkey-wrench in my hand. I wouldn’t be sitting down in this train holding this baby on my lap today.’

The ticket collector examined and clipped, and slid the door shut.

From the next compartment a very tall and ill-made Negro stepped out into the corridor. The disproportionate length of his thighs was revealed by his thin baggy trousers. His shoulders were broad and so unnaturally square that they seemed hunched and gave him an appearance of fragility. His light grey jacket was as long and loose as a short topcoat; his yellow shirt was dirty and the frayed collar undone; his tie was slack and askew. He went to the window, opened the ventilation gap, pushed his face through, turned slightly to his left, and spat. His face was grotesque. It seemed to have been smashed in from one cheek. One eye had narrowed; the thick lips had bunched into a circular swollen protuberance; the enormous nose was twisted. When, slowly, he opened his mouth to spit, his face became even more distorted. He spat in slow, intermittent dribbles; and when he worked his face back in, his eyes caught mine.

I felt I had attracted his malevolence. And thereafter I couldn’t avoid this Negro with the ruined face. I went to the lavatory. Our eyes met, twice. I went looking for a buffet car. I saw him. There was no buffet car. On the way back I saw him. Next to him sat a much smaller Negro, in a grey coat as well, with big blank eyes as lack-lustre as boiled eggs, long arms and long hands, clumsily clenched, resting on his knees. His trousers were too short and rose tightly inches above his socks, so that he looked like a boy who had outgrown his clothes. His mouth was open. In the same compartment there was another Negro with the physique of a wrestler, and two young white men, one fat, one thin, both bald, in new sports jackets and sharply-creased flannels.

In my own compartment the baby was being fed. Its nose ran; its mouth leaked; it slurped and squelched and was frequently winded.

‘ “So you want rent?” ’ the baby-feeder was saying. ‘ “I tell you I ain’t paying any more than what I was paying before.” He say, “Blackie, I coming up to get my rent or to get you out of that room.” I watch at him and I say, “Good. Come up,
He come up. I give him one kick bam! He roll down the steps

‘I pass round there last week. He gave up a big sign in green paint. Please No Coloured. In green paint. I tell you, man, is like Stork.’

At Southampton there was a further thinning out of passengers. The man with the Nat King Cole hairstyle was only seeing off his wife and baby; he himself was remaining behind to face aggressive landlords and foremen and Please No Coloured signs.

BOOK: The Middle Passage
11.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Fortunes of Springfield by Eleanor Farnes
Harmonia's Kiss by Deborah Cooke
The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier
Chupacabra by Smith, Roland
All That Glitters by V. C. Andrews
Unhinged by Shelley R. Pickens
Safe from Harm by Kate SeRine
River Marked by Briggs, Patricia