Trinidad in the 1930s and 1940s
Trinidad, where the story is set, and where Naipaul lived until he was eighteen, was colonized by Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Spanish control continued until 1797, when the island was captured by Great Britain, which then assumed control. In the 1840s, the British began recruiting laborers from India to work on the cocoa and sugar plantations. These workers were virtual slaves during the three- to five-year period of their indenture. However, many of them, once they had completed their indenture, established plantations themselves and prospered in their new country. Naipaul himself is the grandson of an indentured Hindu laborer who left India for Trinidad. Most of the characters in Naipaul’s novel Miguel Street, including the narrator, are also of Indian heritage.
During the time the story is set, in the early 1940s, Trinidad was still under British rule. People like B. Wordsworth, a poor, underemployed calypso singer who has few prospects in life, were common during this time in Port of Spain, one of the biggest cities in this impoverished colonial society. Economic conditions in Trinidad, as well as in Tobago, a neighboring island that in 1888 had been incorporated with Trinidad into a single British colony, had worsened during the 1930s. Large numbers of workers suffered from malnutrition and disease, and the infant mortality rate was very high. Many people, in both urban and rural areas, were destitute. Unemployment was also high following layoffs on the plantations after 1929, and housing was poor. Bridget Brereton, in her book, A History of Modern Trinidad, 1783–1962, reports on the verdict of the Forster Commission, set up by the British government in 1937 to examine the unrest that swept through the island in 1937. Brereton writes, ‘‘Some of the worst examples of worker housing were in Port of Spain, where the Commission saw barracks ‘indescribable in their lack of elementary needs of decency’.’’ In 1937, there were riots and strikes all over Trinidad, including Port of Spain. The unrest, which is mentioned in ‘‘The Coward,’’ one of the stories in Miguel Street, provided the impetus for the emergence of a trade union movement in Trinidad and Tobago. This was a major development on the islands from 1937 to 1950.
During World War II, the British government agreed to allow the United States to lease land on which to construct air and naval bases on Trinidad. These construction projects provided thousands of Trinidadians with jobs and paid them much higher wages than they had received before. The Americans also undertook public works, such as road building, and were admired by the local population for their ‘‘competence, their modern personnel practices and their aura of easy money,’’ writes Brereton. In Miguel Street, there are several references to the money the Americans brought to the island during the war. The following passage appears in ‘‘The Coward’’: ‘‘The Americans were crawling all over Port of Spain in those days. . . . Children didn’t take long to find out that they were easy people, always ready to give with both hands.’’ In that story, the narrator (the same boy who narrates ‘‘B. Wordsworth’’) encounters an American soldier and tries to beg some chewing gum from him, without success. He thinks the man is drunk. In ‘‘Caution,’’ the local people are sad when the war ends and the Americans begin to leave. According to Brereton, the American presence in Trinidad during World War II transformed the way the local people saw themselves: ‘‘The ‘American occupation’ demolished the myth of white superiority; Trinidadians saw white Americans perform hard manual labour and laughed at the antics of drunken ‘bad behaviour’ sailors. The automatic deference to a white face became a thing of the past.’’
The West Indian Novel
According to Robert D. Hamner, in V. S. Naipaul, the West Indian novel, by which he means mainly the literature of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados, can be said to have begun in the 1950s. Hamner cites Edgar Mittelholzer’s A Morning in the Office (1950), Samuel Selvon’s A Brighter Sun (1952), and Roger Mais’s The Hills Were Joyful Together (1953) as being among the pioneering novels. Another such novel was John Hearne’s Voices under the Window (1954). The pace of this new literature increased during the late 1950s and 1960s. Naipaul’s four novels set in the Caribbean were published during this period. The Mystic Masseur (1957) describes the rise of a Trinidadian healer, writer, and entrepreneur who becomes a successful politician during the last stages of colonial rule in the 1950s; The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) deals with Trinidadian electoral politics. The other two novels are Miguel Street (1959) and A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Hamner quotes George Lamming, a West Indian poet and novelist who stated in 1960, ‘‘We have seen in our lifetime an activity called writing, in the form of the novel, come to fruition without any previous native tradition to draw upon.’’ Lamming was originally from Barbados. He lived in Port of Spain, Trinidad, from 1946 to 1950, and then, like Naipaul, emigrated to England. His books include The Emigrants(1954) and Of Age and Innocence (1958). Another Trinidadian writer of this period who also emigrated to England in the 1950s was Michael Anthony. His first novel was The Games Were Coming (1963).
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, V. S. Naipaul, Published by Gale Group, 2001.