The Lantern of a Caravel

Postcolonial and minority writers are involved in serious efforts to develop viable cultural identities to replace those thrust on them by the culture of their former colonial masters (Booker 150)

The works of Derek Walcott are filled with allusions to Western literature. This is not stated lightly because as a Caribbean Nobel prize winner poet and playwright he has been heralded as a voice to be reckoned with from the postcolonial period. He certainly does not shy away from Western literature to explore his own identity. And certainly, the poems of Derek Walcott which we have used in this course have references which are weaved in the intertextual tapestry of European literature. It is indeed exciting and interesting then to delve into the poetry of Derek Walcott much in part because he stakes a claim to his identity by reclaiming a past that would be considered controversial to do so while at the same time decry the lack of attention to the individual’s own proper past (Booker 155). There is no individual own proper past, if we are to extend the notion of Derek Walcott’s poetry, for he himself says so: Where else to row, but backward? (cited in Hart 2004) This places Derek Walcott in an interesting position amongst the leading voices that argue for a move away from colonial English literature. One of those voices is Ngugi wa Thiong’o “who seeks to break free of the cultural domination of the colonial past” (Booker 153). It is my opinion that Derek Walcott is beleaguered by the past. He is a man whose identity demands of him attention from all sorts of sources. His European ancestry and his identity as a native of the West Indies stand to be reckoned with including his African background as well. Derek Walcott is a mystery. He belongs to not just two cultures but many more and funnels for the most part this notion very neatly in his poetry. He uses Western literature as an allegorical form to convey his vision of history while at the same time resisting Western literature to impose on him Western visions of the origins of history.

What methods are concerned I will use Derek Walcott’s poem The Sea Is History and Multicultural Literary Criticism which will be my primary resources. A close reading of the poem will be done. Journals and other material via the Internet will be used to further expound on issues related to language and identity.

The theoretical matrix for the essay will be Multicultural Literary Criticism theory which states that Postcolonial and minority writers are involved in serious efforts to develop viable cultural identities to replace those thrust on them by their former colonial masters. (Booker 150) It is even stated that there is a tradition of anticolonial resistance (Booker152) and this is being pursued through the means of the English language, indeed, it is even said that [a] powerful decentering of “English” Literature (p. 149) is taking place as we speak. It is furthered argued that language [is] central to an individual’s identity (Booker 152) a concept directly drawn from African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I will use these tenets of Multicultural Literary Criticism to try and gain insight in my study of the poem The Sea is History by Derek Walcott. However, this theory has its limitations to explain Derek Walcott’s poem The Sea Is History as will be shown further on in the essay.

The Sea Is History belongs to From the Star-Apple Kingdom [1979]. The stanzas are divided numerically as follow. Keep in mind that the numbers represent verses, that is 4 represents 4 verses of text in the stanza and so on: [4 3 4 4 3] [3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3] [3 3 3 3 3 1 3 3] [3 3 3 3 3 1]. Though these verses seem to represent a terza rima there is no interlocking rhyme at hand. A few quatrains also reside in the poem. The poem begins with questions, in media res. This is an ancient technique traced back to before Homer. There are several persons who ask questions and one person who answers but in the end only one person is the recipeint for the answer given. They speak in a language that wants to exact an answer.

Intertextual allusions include historical fact via the mention of a caravel; pillars of western society associated with institutions such as the police or judiciary powers as well as the exercise of democratic ideologies such as voting and the bible, in particular the Old Testament. There are a few compounds that extrapolate the narrative in several ways. These are a series of what seems to be lexicalized compounds making allusions to intertextual literature, such as drowned women, grey vault, and white sisters: drowned women can refer to Victorian Londoners as detailed by Nicoletti (1994); grey vault is directly linked to Shakespeare’s The Second part of King Henry the Fourth and white sisters to the Missionary Sisters of Africa. The Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa were founded in 1869 by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, Archbishop of Algiers. Whether this has been done deliberately or is happenstance I have not been able to figure out.
The poem itself has a rhythm due to repetitiveness. Four members of the closed word classes are overrepresented here. What dominates is the, that, then and and which contribute to add a hypnotic state like of mind as one reads the poem. This tends to add a slight climax to the text as the poem ends stating of History, really beginning.

There is use of similes to compare events with biblical allegories or to describe a chronological order of events. It functions as allegory . The symbolism within the allegories serve as a bridge between the interlocutor and those that demand an answer to their questions. These biblical allegories help to establish a familiar background for those who exact a demand by wanting to see what is familiar for them. Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?/ Where is your tribal memory? They seem to seek and answer for what is known for them yet they are only offered answers couched in allegorical similes. Case in point is that the poem takes a swipe at Christian religion by denouncing it as non-history. This can be seen by the clear cut difference presented in the poem: but that was not History, that was only faith. The voice also takes a swipe at Western institutions and through metamorphosis ridicules the institutions brought to the Antilles by the colonizers. There is a slight allusion to the plagues that are mentioned in the book of Exodus in the bible. The 23rd, 24th and 25th stanzas of the poem have flies, bullfrogs and mantis to describe bureaucratic posts common in democratic institutions. It is indirectly stating that the institutions are nothing but animals or a plague. I would like to add that this is an interesting use of biblical allegory because something that Booker discusses in his Multicultural Literary Criticism essay is that allegory can be dangerous in the sense that “Western readers […] might be tempted to read postcolonial literature as if it operates according to Western principles of literary signification”. (Booker 155) There is no doubt that a first reading of the poem might entail such a trap. In order to avoid the illusion that we are dealing with something familiar the poem demands more than a single reading to understand it. The poem demands immersion. It is no surprise then that the poem insists that History lies in the Sea. Underneath the sea. If we look closely at the poem we find a myriad of metaphors that indicate so: The sea floor, drowned women, sank, swallowing, all words indicating immersion. Yet for the same reason the poem presents a small point of contention which will be furthered expounded on as we proceed.

This poem [The Sea Is History] is, a sort of two voiced poem, in which the kind of Froudian voice states something about the Caribbean background and its origins and another voice defensively replies, it’s like a question unanswered. (Walcott 2007)

In this poem Derek Walcott uses the English language to promote his own version of History. The poem begins by explaining the birth of the Antilles as we know them today “the lantern of a caravel, and that was genesis”. This is most striking. Allow us to remember that Christopher Columbus arrived to America in three ships two of which were caravels. One went aground in Hispaniola. The people of the caravels are people themselves recently de-colonized. One can not help but notice the irony of fate: Spain and its caravels, recently decolonized themselves, on the brink of being colonizers themselves. This presents a conundrum of sorts for the poet. By acknowledging the caravel as genesis the voice that answers in the poem directly recognizes his progenitor. It is due to the caravel that we get to read the poem. Hence the sea as history.

I think the voice that responds to the questions is using duplicity to communicate. Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?/ Where is your tribal memory? The voice that exacts a demand implicitly demands history. However, the voice that responds is rejecting the request implanted in the questions: that something similar to what they know as history be shown to them. The version of origins as presented in the questions is rejected and instead a new variant is offered thus creating a new one. The Caribbean is offered yet with the blank pages the ocean keeps turning to paraphrase the last verse of the seventh stanza. I think the poet does an excellent job here with the English language by using a voice to decenter history by making the point of origin not in some point far off on the other side of the sea but by bring in it to American shores. It is after all in America where Americans really begin to forge an identity for themselves. The poet is argues that Caribbean identity lies in the sea away from the Bible, away from the institutions of Western civilization. One wonders then, how significant is it that he obtained the Nobel prize in literature 500 years after the so-called discovery of America. Please keep in mind that the celebration of the 500 years of Christopher Columbus arriving to the West Indies was at best controversial in many places. Mostly in part because the indigenous population of the Americas was nearly decimated by it. This is a record well documented dating back to Bartolome de las Casas.

I am not trying to debunk the poet here although it might seem so. I am just merely being curious as to why in the new origins as presented by the poet seem to have omitted an important aspect of Caribbean life. There is no doubt that further investigation is needed. It is very difficult to ignore Arawak and Carib culture and difficult to understand history being only in the sea since a culture well before that of the poet was in place. If Genesis begins with the caravels it must be then only for the poet because the Arawaks and the Caribs have other origins. If language [is] central to an individual’s identity (Booker 150) then we have a case here where language is being used to ignore a central feature of origin to form that identity. The poet must be painfully aware that he is a vestige himself of a colonial power for Arawak and Carib people. The request asks: Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? The answer is The Sea. The fact of the matter points elsewhere. There are ruins from precolonial cultures left in St Lucia. The archaeological evidence supports it. If we are to understand this poem as viable cultural identities to replace those thrust on them by their former colonial masters then we are not better left off then the poet himself: in the beginning.

Perhaps the theoretical matrix of Multicultural theory is inappropriate to understand the poem at hand. After all, the matrix of Multicultural theory demands a “new hybrid culture that transcends the past but still draws on the vestigial echoes of precolonial culture” (Booker 153). The reading of the poem raises more questions then answers. In this manner at least the poet has the upper hand, the poem is like a question unanswered.


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