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Barbados

"In the Castle of My Skin"

Societal and Cultural Effects of Barbados Postcolonialism in general, has proven to have such long-term effects on a colonized country, forever altering its culture and way of life. Customs, language and tradition are significantly influenced, often molding the people of one country to assume the customs and habits of those of a more powerful state. George Lamming is very privy to this fact and began observing how the cultures of the West became so quickly absorbed into his home nation-island of Barbados. In his novel, In the Castle of My Skin, he takes note of how British occupation affected the African slaves and their descendents, changing their culture and personal views of themselves. Barbados was discovered and colonized by the English in the early 1600s. Large tracts of land were set aside to farm valuable crops such as cotton, tobacco and especially sugar. Slaves were then captured from areas all over Africa to provide the cheap labor necessary for agricultural production. Slavery continued in the area until it was officially abolished in 1834. For four years after that, newly-freed slaves continued to work a 45-hour week without payment, in exchange for living in the small huts provided by the plantation owners (Barbados Culture). In this postcolonial text, George Lamming provides an in-depth analysis of how these ex-slaves were affected. In the Castle of My Skin examines the effects of Postcolonialism on a macrocosmic level, through the eyes of the main character, G. Through the observations of G. and certain events that he is witness to, we are able to see how the villagers were ultimately affected. Throughout the novel, Lamming focuses heavily on the relationships within the society of Barbados, rather than centering on the lives of the characters themselves. There is a period of about one hundred pages in which this boy character disappears altogether. He is more of a background prop to societal events and is not expressly involved with what is going on. Critic Neil ten Kortenaar also notes the boys frequent absence throughout the story: “It is as though the G of the boy’s name stood for Ghost: he hovers around the scenes he describes, not taking part and even going unseen” (Kortenaar 3). It seems that Lamming was more concerned with how the society as a whole was influenced, and merely used characters as a device to convey the larger effects upon the communal society. In carefully detailing the antagonistic relationship between the occupiers and these ex-slaves and also the relationship among the villagers, George Lamming attributes an inferiority complex and cultural alienation within Barbados as the effects of the British occupation. Lamming characterizes a community that develops feelings of inferiority to its white occupiers, as a result of being oppressed and exploited by a more powerful nation. Early on, we notice that there is a definite distinction between the Africans of the island and the British occupiers. The whites essentially enjoy a much easier existence, while the ex-slaves must constantly battle for a future and a life. It is almost as if the two cultures are existing on two separate planes of reality; unaware and completely ignorant to the lifestyle and culture of the other. This difference is equally noted by critic Richard Wright: And it is up the shaky ladder of all the intervening stages between these two cultures that Negro life must climb. Such a story is, above all, a record of shifting, troubled feelings groping their way toward a future that frightens as much as it beckons (Wright 1226). This cultural block exists because the natives bear a much darker appearance than the Brits and easily notice that all the power and authority rests in the hands of those with a much lighter complexion. These ex-slaves began to feel as though they are lesser beings, unworthy of the glory and luxurious pleasures enjoyed by the whites. The custom of the British is exalted and considered the supreme law of the land, as with the case of Mr. Creighton. He is a white man and the plantation owner of a small rural village in Barbados. His position as landlord entitles him to a feudal-relationship with his people, where they are ultimately providing for his perks and pleasures. He is highly envied by all peasants and indeed, even the positioning of his house is a symbol of his great power and prestige, something supposedly unattainable by the villagers. G. notices this clear difference early on, as he examines the grandeur of Mr. Creighton’s abode: To the east where the land rose gently to a lull, there was a large brick building surrounded by a wood and a high stone wall that bore bits of bottle along the top. The landlords lived there amidst the trees within the wall (Lamming 17-18). The home of the landowner is described in all of its splendor--indeed, not as a house, but as a building. The homesteads of the poverty-stricken peasants are incomparable in size or beauty to his mansion. They reside in hut-like structures, barely worthy of being labeled a house. “The village was a marvel of small, heaped houses raised jauntily of groundsels of limestone, and arranged in rows on either side of the multiplying marl roads” (Lamming 2). As opposed to Mr. Creighton’s house, which is hoisted upon a hill high above any other house, implying superiority and power for those dwelling inside. The peasants can only look upon it with awe and a wishful eye. This description of the house as being separated from the peasants depicts the barrier that exists between the landlord and the people. He is isolated from their cares and concerns; ignorant to their pain and suffering. This causes the villagers to immediately presume that their poor, run-down homesteads are representative of their cultural inferiority. They assume that they must imitate the ways of the white British, in the hopes of ever enjoying a similar status. The name of the island itself even suffers a change at the hand of British occupiers. Barbados is often referred to as “Little England.” There are inspectors, or white British men, that frequent school buildings and other areas to see that British values are being instilled in the young children. Red, white and blue flags are flown and national songs and anthems sung, highlighting upon Britain’s greatness and strength. This day is referred to as Empire Day, and solely reserved for the total appreciation and admiration of British culture. On one such day, the inspector visits G.’s school and addresses the whole student body and teachers alike. He provides a speech on behalf of the royalty itself, further encouraging and promoting English values and ideas. England’s cause and purpose are clearly outlined by the inspector: The British Empire, you must remember, has always worked for the peace of the world. This was the job assigned it by God, and if the Empire at any time has failed to bring about that peace it was due to events and causes beyond its control (Lamming 31). It is at times such as these that the British take the opportunity to further advance their cause of colonizing other nations. British hypocrisy is made evident, as they attempt to convince these villagers that their Empire has done everything in the interest of the people, though we know this is clearly not the case. The British do all they can to justify their actions, including the use of God’s will to further their cause, but they also attempt to keep the ex-slaves in check. In doing this, a large part of their culture and custom was forced off upon the peasants. Critic Sandra Pouchet Paquet notes specifically how the British culture significantly impacted that of the villagers: He [George Lamming] writes out of an acute social consciousness that is vitally concerned with politics and society, that is, with the function of power in a given society, and its effects on the moral, social, cultural, and even aesthetic values of the people in that society (Paquet 1235). Clearly, these former African slaves are brainwashed into supposing that their own culture is substandard and barbaric, and that the British have freed them from their savage, primitive ways. This inferiority causes substantial alienation from the African culture and creates many rivalries and feuds among the villagers. It is clear that the British culture was pushed off on the peasant peoples, as a replacement for their own traditions. In part, the English did this so as to ensure total obedience to the crown, so that the villagers would continue to labor for the economic benefit of the mother country. As a result, these villagers remained ignorant to their own history and actual state of oppression. Critic Ian Munro agrees: …the past, with its story of slavery and oppression, has been buried. Even teachers at the village school know nothing of it and Barbados, the villagers believe, has always been a junior partner of England, ‘Little England’--not a subservient colony (Munro 220). The younger generation attempts to question the supposed greatness of the empire and to recover the real history of Barbados. Every attempt is usually silenced, however, and British supremacy and goodness are once again reinforced. A young boy tells his school teacher about a woman he encountered who claimed she was a slave, but he is quickly hushed. “And nobody knew where this slavery business took place. The teacher had simply said, not here, somewhere else. Probably it never happened at all. The old woman, poor fool! She must have had a dream” (Lamming 52). It is evident that as the people lose sight of their history, they also lose touch with who they really are. After British culture is essentially shoved down their throats, they adhere to English teachings and principles wholeheartedly. They thus refuse to accept anything counter-culture to England and in doing so, reject their own cultural identity and remain ignorant of their nations’ past. There is another specific instance in which G. attempts to find out more about his history and background from his mother. When he asks her, she begins in a song so as to silence him. Then she broke into a soft repetitive tone which rose with every fresh surge of feeling until it became a scattering peal of solicitude that soared across the night and into the neighbor’s [sic] house…so that another neighbour [sic] responded and yet another until the voices seemed to be gathered up by a single effort and the whole village shook with song (Lamming 4). The peasant people have become accustomed to repressing their own history. This cultural alienation appear most evident when G. himself finally leaves his home island of Barbados to pursue educational opportunities. Even he distances himself from his roots. In returning for a brief visit home, G. notes, “I had a feeling sometimes that the village might get up and walk out of itself. It had receded even farther from my active consciousness” (Lamming 228). The village remains a dim part of his memory. He left the culture that he knew, because he had already been made to feel inferior and detached by the British. As a direct result of this cultural alienation, internal rivalries form among the natives. Many blacks began to view one another as “the Enemy,” especially those who were successful in working for the whites. Some of the natives would receive special privileges and perks from the landlord, in exchange for carrying out certain duties and maintaining order. Their official title as overseer enabled them to beat up on the “lower” peoples and further imitate their white superiors. In turn, this caused them to be much despised and hated by their own people; the villagers. A mutual hatred and distrust formed between the poorer blacks and those who held a position. The villagers were low-down nigger people since they couldn’t bear to see one of their kind get along without feeling envy and hate. This had created a tense relationship between the overseer and the ordinary villager. Each represented for the other an image of the enemy (Lamming 19). The fact that a few blacks can rise above the rest if they conform the British custom and habit further destroys the cultural bindings of Barbados, alienating the people from themselves. This inter-division serves to devastate the people and even permanently alter their culture. The presence of the British on their island not only has formed a barrier between the English and the villagers, but has also caused a people to abandon its culture heritage. The British are looked at as the superior race, which has significant impact on how the ex-slaves view themselves and their past. In his novel, Lamming clearly illustrated how a culture was affected years after slavery had been abolished. He discusses the social implications by detailing the inferiority complex and cultural alienation as being directly caused by colonization. These tense relationships described above are the essence of Lamming’s novel. He seeks to provide evidence of cultural suppression and alienation, with the hope that Barbados would become its own independent state, proud of its original African roots.

Works Cited “Barbados Culture: The Abbreviated History of Barbados.” Homepage. 2005. 2 May 2005. Kortenaar, Neil ten. “George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin: Finding Promise in the Land.” Ariel, Vol. 22, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 43-53. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Tarrant County College Lib., Fort Worth, Tx. 30 April 2005. Lamming, George. In the Castle of My Skin. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc., 1953. Munro, Ian. “George Lamming” in 1979. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Roger Matuz. Vol. 66. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991. 219-226. Paquet, Sandra Pouchet. “The Novels of George Lamming” in 1982. Black Literature Criticism. Ed. James P. Draper. Vol. 2: Emecheta-Malcom X. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992. 1234-1238. Wright, Richard. “Introduction to In the Castle of My Skin” in 1953. Black Literature Criticism. Ed. James P. Draper. Vol 2: Emecheta-Malcom X. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992. 1225-1226.