Sea Changes

Patrick Parrinder

  • Indigo, or Mapping the Waters by Marina Warner
    Chatto, 402 pp, £14.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3531 X
  • Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History by Alden Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan
    Cambridge, 290 pp, £35.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 521 40305 7

The British, a nation of Sancho Panzas, like to dream of governing an island. The majority of ideal states both ancient and modern have been imaginary cities rather than sea-girt lumps of rock, but the British Utopia is a fertile commonwealth surrounded by beaches in which, like Gonzalo in The Tempest, we would by contraries execute all things. Both the word and the island of Utopia were the teasing inventions of Sir Thomas More. More’s vision of the good place which is no place may have been inspired by the voyages of Columbus’s follower Amerigo Vespucci, who explored the coast of Venezuela and, absurdly, managed to adorn with his name both of the continents of the New World.

The literary tradition of Utopian landfalls ranges from the scientific and technological hothouse of Bacon’s New Atlantis to the voluptuous and indolent paradise of Haidee’s island in Byron’s Don Juan. At a rather different level there are the weekly castaways of Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs, including, a few weeks ago, our current island governor John Major. The BBC’s (by now rather crowded) island retreat both affirms and denies the insular character of Britain itself: once there, you would have the advantages of an island without the British climate and the rest of the British people. The Prime Minister, however, was alleged to have broken BBC rules by choosing, as his one permitted luxury, to have the Oval Cricket Ground transported to his island.

It seems axiomatic that a fertile island climate has to be wet. However, the myth of an ‘island in the sun’ can be traced back without difficulty from today’s favourite holiday destinations to Daniel Defoe and, before him, to the real-life adventure of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk’s cave on the beach of Robinson Crusoe island in the Juan Fernandez group is still shown to visitors; the island is rich in vegetation but its population is reported to consist mainly of hoteliers, tourists and a flock of wild goats. How pleasant it would be if the British romance with tropical islands had actually begun with Selkirk’s innocent escapade off the coast of Chile. But that would be to forget the distant islands which have really shaped British history; above all, our involvement in the bloody turmoil of the Caribbean, where the very ocean, in Derek Walcott’s words, drags the ‘weight of chains of centuries’.

The British colonial regime in the West Indies began with the occupation of Barbados in 1605, six years before The Tempest was written. Marina Warner’s magnificent new novel portrays an imaginary Caribbean island both at the time of first contact with the British early in the 17th century, and in the post-colonial period of the last twenty years. The title, Indigo, denotes the native dye, while the subtitle ‘Mapping the waters’ may be understood in relation to the line from Walcott’s poem ‘A Sea Change’ from which I have quoted. Indigo, like this poem, reinterprets and builds on some aspects of The Tempest, though the fact that Shakespeare’s play is so frequently and readily associated with the Caribbean is itself something that needs explanation. After all, the one geographical certainty about Prospero’s isle is that it lies in the path of a storm-tossed ship en route from Tunis to Naples.

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