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Writing the St Vincent frontier

The concept of the frontier is examined through the study of rhetoric, reading the frontier into a variety of written texts by both ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’ to St. Vincent society. The journal of John Anderson, a nineteenth century stipendiary magistrate and ‘Bodily Harm’ a twentieth century thriller by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood are discussed as ‘outsider’ texts that dramatise difficulties of personal dislocation in a context where what constitutes civilization in the society encountered is opaque. By contrast three insider texts are offered in the form of memoirs of local ‘pioneering heroes’ in which frontier retentions are implicit in the stories of their political lives.

My perspective on the frontier in this chapter involves an examination of concepts of ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ in relation to St Vincent. While the concerns with ‘civilisation’ and ‘wilderness’ persist, they are inflected with the perspectives of the authors whose work I examine. This chapter, then, applies the malleable concept of the frontier to a study of rhetoric, reading the frontier into a variety of written texts concerned with St Vincent. First of these is the journal of the nineteenth-century diarist John Anderson, a stipendiary magistrate recruited to apply the law in the post-slavery apprenticeship period. Then I deal with two novels that offer sketches of St Vincent life: G. C. H. Thomas’s fictionalised memoir Ruler in Hiroona (1989 [1972]), and Margaret Atwood’s thriller Bodily Harm (1998 [1981]). While the two novels omit any direct reference to a specific country, they speak strongly to the particularity of the smaller Caribbean islands. Finally, I read two political memoirs by Prime Ministers of St Vincent for what they reveal about the frontier: that of James ‘Son’ Mitchell, Prime Minister from 1984 to 2001, and the other by his successor, Ralph Gonsalves, who took power in 2001 and is in his fourth term as I write.

This range of literary genres – journal, memoir, novel-as-thriller and novel-as-fictionalised-memoir – gives rise to intriguing inter-textual considerations. Despite disparities in period, narrative perspective, implied readership and authorial position, thematic similarities and common literary devices are strongly suggestive of the way the object represented – the small island society – may be seen to determine key elements of form. For example, John Anderson’s journal and Margaret Atwood’s novel are linked by their ‘outsider’ perspective and the fact they both dramatise difficulties of personal dislocation in a context of ad hoc experimentation in which the (civilised) rules of the society they describe are opaque. However, the two perspectives are clearly dissimilar in fundamental ways. Anderson’s colonialist perspective on immediate post-slavery St Vincent society takes for granted his own racial and cultural superiority to its inhabitants, and his own belonging to a regime of domination. His writing is therefore distinguished by distance, the engrained othering of the colonised ‘savage’ who represents the antithesis of civilised values. For Atwood, a late-twentieth-century postcolonial observer, the distinction between the savage other and the civilised self is less clear-cut. As David Spurr points out: ‘As modern civilised human beings, we assert authority over the savage both within us and abroad, but the very energy devoted to such an assertion acknowledges its own incompleteness as authority’ (Spurr, 1993: 7). The resulting relative instability of perspective and fracturing of discourse are reflected in Atwood’s novel. In place of Anderson’s unquestioning power and authority, the outsiderness of Atwood’s main character, Rennie, though mediated by privilege, is also burdened by a sense of unease.

In contrast, alongside the ‘real’ perspectives of the two political memoirs, the novel Ruler in Hiroona offers an imaginary insider’s perspective on frontier society – that of a small island’s Chief Minister, Jerry Mole, who holds political power in the mythical Hiroona for fifteen years. The fact that Thomas’s novel parodies a serious memoir makes it a sort of mimic shadow of the two ‘real’ ones and draws attention to the specificity of the memoir as a form in which the narratorial ‘I’ guarantees authority and unmediated access to experience and events. When the ‘I’ is a Prime Minister, that authority is at one level assumed to be incontestable; at another, however, all politics involve the shaping of the truth to suit a particular agenda, and most readers therefore will approach such a narrative with a degree of scepticism. Ruler in Hiroona plays with this ambiguity in such a way as to destabilise the ‘truth’ and expose the depth of political expediency, if not hypocrisy. Thus, the first line of the novel makes clear that this is the authentic testimony of an eastern Caribbean island insider: ‘I am committed to tell the stark truth in this autobiography, although this truth is very unflattering to myself’ (Thomas, 1989: 1) The setting, too, is deliberately ambiguous, in that it could be any one of the smaller eastern Caribbean islands. Signs, however, point to the specific location being St Vincent, not least the title: ‘Hiroona’ is the Carib name for St Vincent. Descriptions of the main port and town of ‘Kingsland’ closely match many features of St Vincent’s capital, Kingstown. The trade union leadership path to political power of Jerry Mole offers none-too-subtle a parallel to the career path of St Vincent’s first Chief Minister, Ebenezer Joshua, prior to the country’s attainment of Associate Statehood with Britain, on the way to full political independence in 1979. The novel suggests that the politician’s interest in enhancing Hiroona’s ‘civilisation’ through nation-building is a smoke-screen for a self-seeking career in politics, and its autobiographical form lays out the strategies followed to attain and keep political power. In sum, the fictionalised political memoir is the screen for a behind-the-scenes view of the Vincentian politics of the 1950s and 1960s.

The two real-life memoirs, James Mitchell’s Beyond the Islands (2006) and Ralph Gonsalves’s The Making of ‘The Comrade’ (2010b), offer parallels and contrasts with Thomas’s novel. They are texts with implicit frontier retentions told through the political lives of ‘pioneering heroes’. All three can be read as extended dialogues with Archie Singham’s 1968 analysis of small-island Caribbean politics, The Hero and the Crowd in a Colonial Polity, in which he argues that the terminal stage of colonial rule in the region enabled the arrival of a new type of political leader, ‘the hero’. He (invariably) was charismatic with Caesarist tendencies combining a host of contradictory traits, including anomie, rage, compulsion and withdrawal. Other characteristics of the pioneering Caribbean national hero conventionally include leadership of national resistance – usually a radical anti-colonial campaign – rising from humble origins and the adoption of self-styled charismatic behaviour. Many of these characteristics are to be found in the pages of the memoirs, both imagined and ‘real’.

Outsider perspectives on the St Vincent frontier

Frontier, civilisation and wilderness in John Anderson’s journal

When the British Parliament abolished slavery in 1833 this created, in effect, a situation of limbo for some 600,000 people who were no longer slaves but nor were they free. The British colonial authority then introduced an Abolition Act in 1834 that established a period of apprenticeship before full freedom. Apprenticeship was envisaged as a period of training for full freedom but it was a process that was resisted by the actual apprentices. The Act bound ex-slaves to former owners: six years for plantation labourers and four years for domestic and non-field workers. In St Vincent, while planters were compensated £550,777 for loss of labour, the number of slaves freed on the island was 22,266. The average compensation per slave was £26 1s 4d (Levy, 1980: 113). Apprentices were required to labour for forty-five hours per week for their former owners. In return they received the customary payment in kind. Special officials were recruited in Britain to oversee the system.

It was at this point that Scottish-born John Anderson entered the picture. Before he was assigned to St Vincent, he trained in Edinburgh as a lawyer, pursued the life of a gentleman-scholar and achieved a number of publications, prior to keeping the detailed journal of his experiences in St Vincent for the years 1836 to 1838. His journal was never fully completed nor formally published in his lifetime. However, it was edited and annotated by Roderick A. McDonald, professor of history at Rider University, and published with McDonald’s annotated comments in 2001.

A helpful point of departure for a discussion of civilisation and wilderness in the context of Anderson’s journal, which, because of his relatively short stay in St Vincent, is essentially a form of nineteenth-century metropolitan travel writing, is Mary Louise Pratt’s perceptive observation on the nature of the relationship between metropolis and periphery. ‘The metropolis’, she notes, ‘habitually blinds itself to the ways in which the periphery determines the metropolis, beginning, perhaps, with the latter’s obsessive need to present and represent its peripheries and its others continually to itself’ (Pratt, 1992: 6). These presentations and representations, in the context of colonialism, have often centred on the question ‘How are civilisation and wilderness to be negotiated?’. Anderson’s journal directly addresses this question.

His diary begins with his departure from Edinburgh in November 1835 and ends abruptly in 1838 following his death from a riding accident. Throughout the diary he determinedly keeps his distance from St Vincent society. In the introductory sections, written during his Atlantic crossing to St Vincent, he first identifies the frontier geographically by recording his responses to nature as he travels south. He invokes the poetics of science while looking at the stars onboard ship. To do this he draws on ‘the affecting reflections of Humboldt, – that as we pass from one hemisphere to another, we feel an indescribable sensation in beholding those constellations which we have known in youth, progressively sink, & finally disappear’ (McDonald, 2001: 59). But once on land he sees just how wild nature can be: it is, from his perspective, rampant, untamed and untameable because ultimately beyond classification. He observes that:

The rugged passes present ample range to the botanist, where innumerable species of the vegetable kingdom waste unknown … Would the admirer of nature gratify his passion to the extreme, let him sweep the leeward shore in a canoe or paragua –. There he will behold her revelling in each alternate form: The wild, – the majestic, – the lovely, – succeed each other in light, in shade so ever varied, – as to make enumeration hopeless.

(McDonald, 2001: 77)

A number of John Anderson’s observations on the ‘wildness’ and chaos of St Vincent and its capital Kingstown have been noted already in an earlier chapter. He is concerned that the ‘Great Experiment’, as abolition was called, is failing. He suggests that it may take three generations more for the West Indies to ‘possess’ an ‘enlightened and industrious peasantry’ (118). Sunday market language is dismissed as a hindrance: ‘Long, long indeed will it be’, he suggests, ‘before this gibberish becomes intelligible to European ears’ (75).

The St Vincent frontier is presented in Anderson’s journal not only through nature or through social experimentation and flux. The ad hoc nature of society and various forms of personal social dislocation add to the more tangible sense of dislocated frontier living that he conveys. An attempt at formal control of violence by the State in establishing a police force had only recently been established before Anderson’s arrival. Such an Act was passed on 23 June 1834, a month and a half after the passage of the Abolition Act ‘for Establishing a Police for the Regulation of Apprenticed Labourers’.

St Vincent was sufficiently off the beaten track for Anderson to take considerable pains in his journal to advise prospective visitors what items to bring with them and how to set up home on the island. He lists furniture, linen, types of candle and cloth, and other goods to bring to the island. He offers tips on how to survive the Atlantic crossing and who is untrustworthy in the local building trades. He includes such a list, he claims, because he ‘met with such discordant information when on the eve of quitting Europe’ and so decided to ‘warn such of my friends that may think of a Western trip’ (McDonald, 2001: 110).

Just as disquieting as the experience of homemaking is the experience of handling money. Currency variety and speculation simply add to the sense of island chaos in Anderson’s view. Currency in circulation as legal tender in St Vincent in the 1830s was a complex mixture, which included the Spanish doubloon (worth $16 or £8 at 1836 prices) and the Portuguese johannesen (or ‘joe’, valued at half that amount), as well as British pounds sterling, the colonial pound (valued at 4 colonial pounds to £1 14s 8d sterling) and the American dollar (valued at $2 to 1 colonial pound). Colonial silver pieces proportioned into quarters, eighths and sixteenths of a dollar were respectively called ‘bits’, ‘stampees’ and ‘dogs’. For Anderson, it was a matter of concern which currency was a safer bet and where it should be kept. He observed: ‘The gold & silver coins of the Republics of Spanish America, form the current circulation; – for British money is speedily bought up, & remitted to Europe’ (McDonald, 2001: 121).

Of course, for Anderson, emotionally the battle was lost from the outset. In the context of ‘the charms of the domestic circle’, for example, he notes: ‘he who treads these Western shores, will soon be reminded he has parted with them, to be a denizen of a land, where discomfort & luxury; where desolation & hospitality, oddly assort’. Ultimately, the wonders of nature on the island and its society compensate ‘feebly’ for what is left behind in Scotland. He closes a long descriptive list of all that St Vincent has to offer with what, for him, are clearly intended to be damning words: ‘we are far from our Fatherland’. The passage reads:

Feebly does the glowing sky, – and broad matchless bright sea, – sparkling wherever the eye roams, – or the air breathing of jessamine & ponch-pong at nightfall & impregnated with an enervating luxury of existence, – while the moon {swims aloft in a mellowness of splendour unknown in northern latitudes,} looks down in beatick [sic] repose – or the hospitable welcome, – or the glass cased lights which illumine the hall, – & the numerous attendants who wait on the festive board, – compensate for what is left behind; – we are far from our Fatherland.’

(McDonald, 2001: 66)

Thus Anderson finds himself in a society in which civilisation is trying to establish its control but is facing the insurmountable odds of the ‘wild’.

Frontier, civilisation and wilderness in Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm

A more recent outsider perspective on St Vincent’s frontier can be found in the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s novel Bodily Harm (1998 [1981]). It is set partly on the mythical island of St Antoine, and partly in small-town Canada. Atwood is no stranger to St Vincent, particularly its ward island of Bequia in the Grenadines, which she has frequented over many years, forming a friendship with leading politician James ‘Son’ Mitchell, now retired, and his former wife Pat. Atwood has occasionally published poetry about the island. Her novel traces the thoughts and experiences of her heroine, Rennie Wilford, who describes herself as a ‘style journalist’. The reader meets the main character in Canada soon after she has experienced the trauma of a partial mastectomy and the break-up of a long-term relationship. She temporarily flees her metropolitan life in Toronto and obtains a commission to write and take photographs for a travel article about the Caribbean island St Antoine, of which she knows very little. St Antoine’s characteristics suggest a thinly disguised late-twentieth-century St Vincent. The novel is set in the weeks after political independence, and involves an aborted secession attempt (a small number of Union Islanders staged just such an attempt to secede from St Vincent in 1979), the killing of a local politician and political manoeuvring around a forthcoming general election. The heroine becomes mixed up unwittingly with drug smuggling and gun running, and, as she is a journalist, is encouraged to report on political electioneering taking place on the island. Rennie also starts a new relationship. She is arrested and thrown into jail with an American acquaintance, Lora, who seems to be more involved with and knowledgeable about the illicit events and the society. The story suggests that Lora dies in jail as a result of a number of rapes and beatings by guards while sharing a cell with Rennie. Atwood’s heroine, however, is eventually rescued by Canadian Government diplomatic intervention. She departs the island a changed person, with more self-knowledge and a different perspective than when she arrived. The novel obtained limited attention when it appeared and is viewed as a minor work in Atwood’s oeuvre. However, as an outsider’s focus on SVG as a frontier society in the late twentieth century, the novel has much to recommend it.

In Atwood’s novel, the outsider perspective is suggested by the society’s opacity, embodied in the chameleon-like quality exhibited by most of its people. In a discussion about identity in St Antoine, Rennie’s lover Paul, who is as much an outsider as he is an insider to the society – an ex-agricultural advisor turned yacht-charterer and smuggler, with connections in local politics – declares: ‘Almost nobody here is who they say they are at first. They aren’t even who somebody else thinks they are. In this place you get at least three versions of everything, and if you’re lucky one of them is true. That’s if you’re lucky’ (Atwood, 1998: 141).

St Antoine’s geography and politics are presented as a loose mixture of eastern Caribbean small islands, particularly those of SVG in the late 1970s. The story is told with many intercuttings and flash-backs between life in small-town Griswold, Canada and the small-island Caribbean, capturing and contrasting Rennie’s relationships in Canada (with her previous lover, Jake; her doctor, Daniel; and her friend, Jocasta) with those in St Antoine (her lover, Paul; her acquaintance, Lora; and Dr Minnow, a local politician).

In the novel, Atwood avoids conventional lines of demarcation between first world as civilised and third world as wild. The central focus of the novel is Rennie’s crisis of identity as a result of the various losses that she has suffered in Canada and her island experiences. In terms of genre, it is clear that such a protagonist is not reliable enough to be the sole narrator, as required in a memoir, fictionalised or otherwise. The third-person narrative perspective of the novel shows the protagonist struggling to re-establish for herself some form of wholeness. Rennie identifies similarities between small-town living in Canada and small-island living, finding each in its own way oppressive. Metropolitan Toronto is as ‘wild’ or uncivilised as anywhere else. The trigger for Rennie’s determination to travel abroad comes after she returns to her apartment to find it broken into, a noose on her bed and detectives already inside the apartment investigating the circumstances of the break-in. The wild, in other words, has invaded her private space and threatens her existence.

Borders and boundaries are as much personal as they are cultural. After her operation, her awareness of her personal frontier between life and death has expanded, though she wants Daniel, her doctor, to clarify the matter for her. ‘Either I’m living or I’m dying’, she says to him, ‘Which is it?’ (Atwood, 1998: 52). Though he evades the question, the narrator elaborates on her need for an answer: ‘She wants something definite, the real truth, one way or the other. Then she will know what to do next. It’s this suspension, hanging in a void, this half-life she can’t bear. She can’t bear not knowing. She doesn’t want to know’ (52). Rennie’s ambivalence about the nature of this particular boundary arises from the fact that the boundary of her own body has been violated by the cancer that afflicts her. The insecurity of a physical self on which she can no longer rely is metonymic of a spiritual or existential crisis.

Boundaries are also drawn on the basis of misunderstandings, modernity contrasting with quaintness, linguistic misunderstandings and ignorance. These are illustrated in the following exchange between Rennie and a local politician when the small aeroplane in which they are travelling lands at the St Antoine airstrip:

The plane taxis to a stop and the aisle jams with people. ‘It’s been nice meeting you’, Rennie says as they stand up. He holds out his hand for her to shake … ‘I hope you will have a pleasant stay, my friend. If you need assistance, do not hesitate to call on me. Everyone knows where I can be found. My name is Minnow. Dr Minnow, like the fish. My enemies make jokes about that! A small fish in a small puddle, they say. It is a corruption of the French, Minot was the original, it was one of the many things they left behind them. The family were all pirates.’

‘Really?’ Rennie says. ‘That’s wild.’

‘Wild?’ says Dr Minnow.

Fascinating’, says Rennie.

Dr Minnow smiles. ‘They were common once’, he says. ‘Some of them were quite respectable; they intermarried with the British and so forth. You have a husband?’

‘Pardon?’ says Rennie. The question has caught her by surprise: nobody she knows asks it any more.

‘A man’, he says. ‘Here we do not bother so much with the formalities.’

Rennie wonders if this is a sexual feeler. She hesitates, ‘Not with me’, she says.

‘Perhaps he will join you later?’ Dr Minnow says. He looks down at her anxiously, and Rennie sees that this isn’t an advance, it’s concern. She smiles at him, hoisting her camera bag.

‘I’ll be fine’, she says. Which is not what she believes.

(Atwood, 1998: 22–23)

The novel presents the wilderness element of the frontier in the form of social dislocation. There are boundaries and at times chasms between characters. In this sense civilisation, wilderness and frontier take on a different meaning in Atwood’s novel from that in Anderson’s journal. Rennie’s early exploration of the St Antoine landscape captures her social dislocation when she gets lost in her exploration of the town and encounters a local character:

Rennie walks back on the shadow side. After a few blocks she realizes she’s not entirely sure where she is. But she came up to get to the church, so now all she has to do is head down, towards the harbour. Already she’s coming to some shops.

Someone touches her on the shoulder, and she stops and turns. It’s a man who has once been taller than he is now. He’s wearing worn black pants, the fly coming undone, a shirt with no buttons, and one of the wool tea-cosy hats; he has no shoes on, the trouser legs look familiar. He stands in front of her and touches her arm, smiling. His jaw is stubbled with white hairs and most of his teeth are missing.

He makes his right hand into a fist, then points to her, still smiling. Rennie smiles back at him. She doesn’t understand what he wants. He repeats the gesture, he’s deaf and dumb or perhaps drunk. Rennie feels very suddenly as if she’s stepped across a line and found herself on Mars.

(Atwood, 1998: 65)

However, despite this sense of social dislocation, and unlike Anderson (above), Atwood uses Rennie’s relentless scepticism to suggest that civilisation and wilderness are not to be found through a simple metropolitan or first world/third world dichotomy. The writing reflects both the privileged outsider’s eye, in the detachment with which Rennie observes the beggar on the street, but also incomprehension and unease in her misunderstanding of his gestures and his intention. Does he want to ‘bounce’ knuckles in friendship or threaten her? The writing is far from reflecting a statement of power in the relationship described. Later in the novel, when Rennie is rescued from jail, her rescuer, an unnamed Canadian diplomat, is described merely as a ‘multicultural functionary’, though she does recognise the necessity of his role in the assuaging of local egos in order for her to be released from prison.

In this outsider reading of the frontier, Atwood seems to suggest civilisation and its opposite, the wild, if they are anywhere, are located in relationships and how they are conducted. Ultimately, it appears to be the range of experiences that Rennie encounters in St Antoine that give her an ability to focus with which to return to Canada. At the end of the novel, she reflects: ‘Zero is waiting somewhere, whoever said there was life everlasting; so why feel grateful? She doesn’t have much time left, for anything. But neither does anyone else. She’s paying attention, that’s all’ (Atwood, 1998: 291).

We see then that Atwood’s heroine, Rennie, and Anderson, as the recording hand of his journal, despite their different historical contexts, both experience severe social dislocation. The more fundamental difference is that Atwood’s Rennie must experience othering before she can come to terms with herself; it is therefore an essential ingredient in the remaking of the self after trauma. Anderson’s self, in contrast, is buttressed by fussing about what to bring to the island and the use of his journal to keep himself alert, apart and above the rest on the island, as evidenced in this quotation:

It is astonishing how soon custom reconciles us to habits & feelings the most opposite to our own. Had I – as I was often tempted to do, – given way to this apathetic indifference, I had long ere now have thrown away my pen, and forbore to note down whatever struck me as novel, or remarkable; but I persevered in spite of heat & lassitude, & ennui, in hopes I might amuse friends to whom my rough details might prove an antedote [sic] for an idle hour.

(McDonald, 2001: 160)

In both cases, the protagonist/persona at the centre of the narrative is defined by the fact that they belong elsewhere, a place to which they will, in due course, return. Meanwhile, a key to the processing of the otherness of their present condition is the self-reflexive eye that allows them to project the present scene for the consumption of an audience at home. In the journal, this is made explicit through the use of direct address; in the novel, it is implied by the very fact of fictionalisation – the readership is elsewhere, the consciousness that of a traveller. However, the purpose of the narrative in each case is quite distinct, commensurate with the formal dictates of the genre in question, highlighting differences of historicity, gender and the development of narrative modes. Such a comparison juxtaposes not only the journal of a nineteenth-century public servant – a British male, fulfilling an official mission in a corner of the Empire that, however remote, is nonetheless under his jurisdiction – with a novel about a late-twentieth-century fictional female protagonist, herself from a former colony, in a state of existential crisis, but also the formal conventions of these different periods and perspectives. The assumption of the primacy of the integrated subject – white, male, metropolitan, entitled – gives way to the ambiguity of the modernist fractured self – in this case female, postcolonial – threatened by physical and emotional forces that are as much internal as external. In both cases, drama is generated by displacement and liminality, the contest between civilisation and wilderness and the challenge to subjectivity this imposes.

Insider perspectives on the St Vincent frontier

Like Anderson and Atwood, G. C. H. Thomas examines St Vincent society at a liminal turning point. While Anderson offers his jaundiced outsider’s perspective on apprenticeship and St Vincent’s 1834 post-slavery society, and Atwood sets her novel on the cusp of political independence (for St Vincent in 1979) and around a general election, Thomas chooses the historical moment of the 1950s, the time of constitutional advancement to full adult suffrage for the smaller eastern Caribbean islands.1 Jerry Mole, Thomas’s fictional memoirist, presents his island’s political turning point in the following, cynical way:

Out of this milieu of constitutional advancement, a new type of society and a new type of leader emerged – a leader with a sort of Moses complex, who appeared to regard the local masses as oppressed Israelites, the local Government and the Colonial Office in England being the bad-minded Pharaohs. This ‘let-my-people-go’ approach to politics provided the political leader with an indispensable reservoir of profitable emotionalism, and it encouraged the masses to put vague, charismatic considerations above intelligence, solid achievement and even integrity, in estimating the worth of some of their political leaders. This was one reason why I was able to achieve such a rapid rise in Hiroona by simply advocating down with this, that and the other, and by preaching the idea of taking over the Government. Demagoguery was the key which opened the door to political leadership.

(Thomas, 1989: 108–109)

One frontier feature that Ruler in Hiroona suggests is that increased local political power offers a new form of opportunity for those who can wrestle government power for themselves. Historically, the region and St Vincent had experienced a series of brutal regimes, involving the decimation of the Carib populations, enslavement and indenture within an economy characterised by a racially divided, primitive accumulation form of capitalism with relative extremes of wealth and poverty and subject to the vagaries of the open economy. These regimes prioritised survival and self-advancement while humane feelings were repressed. And so Jerry Mole, seeing his main chance, aims to make the best of his situation having failed at a variety of jobs – clerk, policeman, oil company worker and teacher. He stumbles into politics guided, at first, by Joe Pittance, his friend and barber. Mole confesses: ‘At the outset of my political career, my aim was simply to enter a field in which I thought I could make an easy living and at the same time win local popularity in the role of leader’ (Thomas, 1989: 26). Scheming – both petty and exorbitant – quickly becomes routine to ensure self-promotion. He first pockets for himself the compensation that he wins for an injured stevedore. He travels abroad to enhance his per diem takings more than to conduct Government business. On a grander scale he uses his position as Chief Minister to enable quid pro quo tax exemptions to business men in return for personal house-building concessions. In the hope of winning a general election he is responsible for destroying by arson a major public-sector business that he fears has become a centre of opposition. Thomas appears to suggest that Mole’s frontier political strategies are governed by a desire for personal economic independence and political power that overcomes all scruples.

As befits a frontier story, the narrative comes about because of a wager (that Mole would not dare to write a full and honest autobiography) that he is determined not to lose. Another frontier feature of the novel is the way that men take centre place in the story, presented for the most part as public and political citizens. The scheming Jerry Mole is confronted by his former friend Joe Pittance, who breaks with him and competes for political office. A third opponent is the island’s Administrator, Forbes (always kept at a distance, the reader learning only his surname), the British Government’s representative. The reader is offered two main sketches of Mole as he grows up. We learn that while he was still young his father absconded and he grew up in a female-headed, single-parent household. He was flogged regularly by his mother as a result of which, it is suggested, he has a mean and vicious streak: at one point he almost drowns a child from his village, for which he is thrashed severely. Mole’s adult socialising centres around male political friendships, which are valorised by regular visits to a bar-cum-brothel.

The frontier is traditionally a male preserve, thus in any frontier situation the roles of women, as in this tale, are presented as supportive and subsidiary ones. Mole is elected president of his union, and his wife, Sonia, is elected secretary – as he says, ‘You don’t want your President to be doing secretary work so I asked my wife if she would help me and of course she agree.’ (Thomas, 1989: 40). When their relationship becomes strained – as much from her over-work as from her dislike of the politicking – he is concerned more about the loss of the additional income that she brings in than her health: ‘I could not afford to let Sonia give up either of her jobs (Secretary to the Union and Minister of Education and Social Services) although I couldn’t help noticing that her holding down the two jobs was doing her health and spirits no good’ (Thomas, 1989: 203).

These male and female roles are commonplace in the understanding of Caribbean frontier gender roles. Linden Lewis observes that in social studies, literature and fiction the Caribbean man is invariably presented as ‘powerful, exceedingly promiscuous, derelict in parental duties, often absent from the household’. He also notes that the Caribbean man ‘has a propensity for female battering, and a demonstrated valorization of alcohol consumption’ (Lewis, 2003: 107).

Throughout much of the novel Mole is playing at achieving civilisation – that is, social and economic development. His interest in national development is superficial and it is Sonia who is the conscience of the book. ‘You thinking about de big money you making an’ de power you have. I thinking about de solid ole friends we losing becarse you feel you too big an’ important to take advice from dem’ (Thomas, 1989: 291). She points out his devious ways and how the island has hardly advanced under his leadership. ‘“De place is exactly the same as when we came into power fourteen years ago”, said Sonia. “No improvement. And people don’t cultivate arrowroot any more, so de villages look poorer”’ (286). Admittedly, at the outset she accepts the role of Mole’s junior partner and the benefits of economic independence that accrue through his political schemes (‘three houses in town and one in de country. All rented’ (287). However, Sonia tires of the game and threatens to leave him permanently unless he relents. She reprimands him for his devious political manoeuvrings and says ‘If politics means doing things like dat, you and politics can go to hell for my part’ (292).

The wild or wilderness element of the novel is captured in Jerry Mole’s brush with one Margo, who, we are told, had an ‘impressive but hush-hush reputation as an obeahwoman’ (306). As Mole’s plans to defeat his political opponents unravel he begins to fear that he will lose the forthcoming election. In a state of mind that he describes as ‘overwrought, confused and troubled’ he turns to Margo, who ‘sounded competent, convincing, even comforting’ (311). Thus he seeks out Margo’s divining skills. Obeah in the novel is characterised as the control and manipulation of supernatural forces through the use of material objects (dolls dressed like his opponents that he has to prick) and the recitation of spells and ritual bathing that he performs in Margo’s house to give him ‘canfidence’. The procedures Mole experiences are recounted in considerable detail: ‘I … was now willing, almost eager, to pay this woman several dollars for what a man in my position should have dismissed as ridiculous hocus pocus, but what I was now convinced was power. Clutching at Margo’s straw was proof of my drowning’ (312). The practices and charms come to nothing and Mole is routed in the election.

More subtly, Thomas uses the genre of memoir as an apocryphal tale with a civilising mission. His mission is to impart a warning about the nature of politics to Caribbean society. This is bluntly stated and is the central point of the short, four-page concluding section of the novel called ‘The Riposte’. No longer interested in even saving face, Mole sees himself as taking on a higher task in writing his autobiography. ‘You goin’ to expose all yo’ dirty linen in a book? What about yo’ self-respeck?’ Sonia asks him, to which Mole replies: ‘Oh, I’ve thought about that. You have to agree, though, that it takes a hell of a lot of courage and self-sacrifice to tell the truth about yourself to make your country wiser’ (336).

The links between the frontier elements in the novelistic memoir of Thomas and the two ‘real’ memoirs of Mitchell and Gonsalves, though implicit, are, however, easily identifiable. These elements can be seen as much in the generic, charismatic, pioneering hero who centralises power around himself and struggles to implement his version of civilisation through policies aimed at banishing wilderness, disorder and violence. Despite the differences between the career trajectories and ideologies of Mitchell and Gonsalves, a comparison serves to elucidate how far both are driven by the fear of wilderness and the quest for civilisation. They may, indeed, be seen as frontiersmen with the self-appointed mission of pushing back the boundary of wilderness and claiming more space for their own version of civilisation. I will illustrate this by a few specific examples from the career of each man.

Mitchell’s travel in Europe in the early 1960s contributed to creating a Cold War warrior with outspoken, anti-communist liberal political views. For example, when he was in office he was happy to be identified as ‘one of the sensible ones’ by Margaret Thatcher when he was invited to Britain on an official visit. He reminds his readers regularly that he rubs shoulders with the powerful, and throughout his memoir offers lots of ‘good advice’ based on his religious calling and personal experience. He is also a man of old-fashioned belief in hard work. He writes: ‘There is no doubt in my mind that the worst thing slavery did to the Caribbean’s people was to leave behind the lingering notion that hard work is to be despised’ (Mitchell, 2006: 66).

Alongside his political career, his successful and well-appointed Bequia hotel, the ‘Frangipani’, played an important role in his politics, as he used it to woo regional and international politicians. The international contacts that he accumulated were to provide access to many loans and grants for economic development. He was responsible, among other infrastructural developments, for land reclamation; land settlement; the building of roads and local airports on Union, Bequia and Canouan; and a cruise ship port for the country. His civilising development programmes did not always run smoothly. An attempt to develop a marina outside Kingstown, at Ottley Hall, proved to be a white elephant that eventually caused the incoming Gonsalves Government to negotiate debt forgiveness. He was particularly proud of his role in the construction of Kingstown’s centrepiece, a covered market designed by a foreign architect, to house small traders. This ‘civilising’ gesture was, however, resisted by many small traders, who preferred to locate their trade on the capital’s sidewalks, affording easier access to pedestrians and the avoidance of licence-fee collectors.

Despite his scientific background and public managerial skills as trumpeted in his memoir, in his apparently unceasing battle to push back the wild, Mitchell also acknowledges, occasionally, the challenge of the wilderness – for example its presence in the urban environment. Kingstown’s frontier market town quality, where livestock mixed relatively freely with humans, as observed by Frederick Bayley in the nineteenth century, did not disappear quickly. Looking back to 1984, over a century after Bayley’s observations, Mitchell complains: ‘Pigs had captured the heart of our city, Kingstown. Cattle, too, were flogged through the streets in the commercial district on the way to the abattoir. The pigs and dogs competed for the discarded guts from the fish market. “The poor had to make a dollar” was the justification …’ He declares: ‘I was not going to preside over a capital city that had remained a pigsty’ (Mitchell, 2006: 242).

Mitchell also recounts a painful encounter under his watch with a particular outsider perception of St Vincent: the assumption that its criminal justice system was itself a symptom of the wild frontier. In 1996, a high-profile criminal case involving two yacht-owners from the USA, James and Penelope Fletcher, required Mitchell publicly to defend St Vincent as a ‘civilised’ legal space. In connection with the violent death of a black, local water-taxi operator, one ‘Jolly’ Joseph from Bequia, the two Americans were arrested, detained and charged with murder. The case raised the question: can a small, poor country deliver justice to white, wealthy Americans with political connections in the USA? It was apparent from international interest in the case that St Vincent’s legal system was as much in the dock as were Mr and Mrs Fletcher. Mitchell appeared on TV in the USA to defend St Vincent’s justice system (CNN’s Burden of Proof and Fox News).2 American reporters gathered in Kingstown for the trial. President Clinton informally enquired from Mitchell about the conduct of the trial.3 The accused were eventually released on the judge’s ruling that there was no case to answer. In his autobiography Mitchell is critical of the way pressure was brought to bear both in and out of the court to obtain the judge’s verdict. He suggests that, in the light of an overheard and recorded religious confession made by Mrs. Fletcher to a priest (though not admitted in evidence), in which she admitted to the murder, due process was observed at the expense of justice. Mitchell presents the experience of defending St Vincent’s system of due legal process as one of ‘fac[ing] up to America in order to preserve our integrity and way of life’ (Mitchell, 2006: 386).4 In a telling aside that more directly captures the frontier element that the case exposed, Mitchell concludes from the experience: ‘Small states are not always recognized as nations. Seeking to extend the destiny of a small state was always an encounter with reality’ (386).

For his part, in his memoir Gonsalves offers an uninhibited, frontier-style account, first of his early years; then of his time in regional radical left-leaning politics, first as a student and later as political party activist; and then of his period as Prime Minister for two terms of office. His text goes on to offer a bullet-point list of achievements from his time in office and a manifesto for his third term – which he won (he has since entered a fourth term in office). As discussed earlier, Gonsalves is a public champion of the notion of ‘Caribbean civilisation’. More specifically, he presents himself as ideologically in marked contrast to Mitchell though with a similar civilising zeal, which, he argues, is in the interest of ‘our people’s humanization’ and inflected by ‘a genuine love for the poor, their upliftment and their quest for a more profoundly democratic politics’ (Gonsalves, 2010b: 102). His popular nickname, ‘the Comrade’,5 signals his ideological distance from Mitchell.6 While Mitchell befriended conventional western backers to pursue St Vincent’s development, Gonsalves chose to forge links with Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba as well as countries in the Middle and Far East. He advocates this strategy as a ‘progressive and enlightened policy not interested in what the State Department thinks, but concerned to realize the best interests of his people’. These initiatives, he humbly suggests, reflect his ‘uninhibited and magnetic personality’ (Gonsalves, 2010b: xiii).

Since Gonsalves combines the authority of an intellectual eastern Caribbean leader with a determination to follow his own diplomatic, aid and foreign policy paths, it is hardly surprising that American State Department analysts have taken an interest in his activities. In one report, he is described as ‘easily the most intelligent and charismatic’ of eastern Caribbean leaders and a ‘mercurial’ and ‘pragmatic ideologue’, as well as a ‘master of contradiction’ with a strong populist spirit and socialist ideology. Against this mixed bag of compliments are weighed more critically his management style7 and his ‘peccadilloes’.8

Born in 1946, Gonsalves is proud to trace his roots to a peasant background in the St Vincent countryside. His memoir charts his heroic path from hard times to scholarship-winning academic and left-leaning political activist, before entering St Vincent party politics. In his civilising role as Prime Minister he boasts of poverty eradication and mass education drives under his leadership.9 Opponents are described as ‘divisive ‘and ‘unpatriotic’ while those he admires are invariably ‘titans’. He has pinned considerable hope and resources to his flagship project, the building of an international airport.10 In a more personal civilising gesture, Gonsalves has chosen to publicise his Catholicism, has held audiences with three Popes – John Paul II, Benedict and Francis – and has published Diary of a Prime Minister (2010a), which records his ‘ten days among Benedictine monks’ at the Mount St Benedict retreat in Trinidad.

How is the frontier to be interpreted through the lives of these two self-dramatising political leaders? Unlike Thomas’s character Jerry Mole, neither Mitchell nor Gonsalves needed politics to establish personal economic independence. Both ‘real’ politicians were professionals with independent incomes, Gonsalves a practising criminal lawyer and Mitchell an agricultural scientist and successful hotelier in Bequia. The masculinity of their frontier style is apparent in that in each instance women play supportive and subsidiary roles in their lives. Indeed, both Mitchell and Gonsalves emphasise the sacrifice their respective families have made for their respective causes. Despite their ideological and personality differences, unlike Jerry Mole, Mitchell and Gonsalves take seriously their civilising roles in developing the society.

Each memoir is a tale of a self-styled, distinctive grand pioneer exercising autonomy and power. Each practises his ‘David’ strategies to pursue the interests of their small island state against the ‘Goliaths’ of the modern world. Mitchell, through his hotel, woos wealthy western governments and developers; Gonsalves mixes socialist rhetoric with pragmatic economic interest and establishment religion. Both keep under their control decision-making authority and access to information – the office of Prime Minister includes leadership of the ministries of finance, national security, economic planning and legal affairs. The result, one critic observes, makes small governing institutions even smaller. Both regimens have from time to time relied on litigation to intimidate local media outlets. Finally, a noticeable difference between the writing of Thomas in his novel and that of the ‘real’ autobiographies is the ironic inflection invested in Thomas’s writing, which contrasts with the seriousness and self-importance of the two ‘real’ memoirs.


1 St Vincent obtained universal adult suffrage on 5 May 1951.
2 For a summary of the critically damning episode of the US TV programme Nightline about SVG, as well as an even-handed overview of the issues, see Barich (1997).
3 For Mitchell’s presentation of the discussion with Clinton see Mitchell (2006), 384; and for his perspective on the case see 382–386.
4 Gonsalves, then a defence lawyer for Mr Fletcher, was critical of Mitchell’s ‘awful’ media performances. For his perspective on the case and the issues raised see Gonsalves (2010), 117–20.
5 Gonsalves associates his nickname with ‘solidarity and struggle on behalf of the poor and working people’. In contrast, Thomas reflects on the history of the term from when it was popularised in the political circles of the 1950s, describing it as ‘a new nice-sounding word that had the same effect on certain adults that the gift of cheap candy has on the children of peasants’ (Thomas, 1989: 28).
6 Unsurprisingly, there was little love lost between these two political opponents. Mitchell describes Gonsalves (before the latter was Prime Minister) as ‘a prominent local criminal lawyer well established in the defense of drug dealers in the region’ (Mitchell, 2006: 383). In turn, Gonsalves refers to Mitchell as ‘a dangerous reactionary spirit in the body politic’ (Gonsalves, 2010b: 103).
7 One comment notes that in small Caribbean countries ‘decision-making and access to information are often concentrated in a small clique close to the prime minister. In St Vincent, PM Gonsalves has taken this tendency to an extreme.’ (accessed 2 August 2016).
8 The same profile claimed that it is ‘undisputed that Gonsalves abused his position as National Security Minister and his personal relationship with the Public Prosecutor to circumvent the rule of law and ensure that rape charges were never filed against him’. In all the cases brought Gonsalves protested his innocence. In his autobiography he summarised the legal challenges he faced and the legal outcomes, concluding ‘I stood firm on my innocence, did the work for which I was elected, and allowed the legal process to exhaust it’ (Gonsalves, 2010b: 360).
9 ‘Perhaps’, Gonsalves writes, ‘no achievement of the Comrade ranks higher in terms of its human impact, and the short term and long term implications for the enrichment of the country’ (Gonsalves, 2010b: xii).
10 Gonsalves identifies St Vincent’s new international airport as essential for development. Mitchell argues that there are already four international airports in a radius of 200 miles of St Vincent.
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