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Narrating the Nation: Naming the Land

By: Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Selwyn R. Cudjoe is a professor of Africana Studies, Wellesley College

A lecture delivered at "Narratives Across the Disciplines," a faculty seminar, Wellesley College, November 30, 200. The substance of this lecture is taken from "Making Love Across the Atlantic," a work in progress by the author.


In juxtaposing these two titles, I want to suggest that there is an implicit relationship between narration at the center of nations (stories of national origins, myths of founding fathers, genealogies of heroes) and narratives that seek to name the land and organize the space in which people live. Geoffery Bennington notes, paradoxically: "At the origin of the nation, we find a story of the nation's origin." There is also a supplementary way-a doubling, if you wish--in which nation and places connect. In "the foundation of culture in Australia," P. R. Stephenson notes that "although Australian culture may have begun in Britain, . . . The subsequent welter of organic images constructs a logic which suggests that the land itself will spawn this new culture, that 'race and place' are the 'two permanent elements in a culture." Place, he says "is even more important than Race in giving that culture its direction." Also drawing on the Australian experience, Paul Carter notes that "Space itself was a text that had to be written before it could be interpreted." Thus Stephenson concludes: "landscape painters rather than writers have best captured the spirit of the place since, presumably, visual representation is somehow less mediated than its textual equivalent" (p. 104). To add to this spatial metaphor, the editors of the Oxford History of Australian Literature (1981) notes that "in general, the more talented recorders of early Australia were not first of all literary men but explorers, surveyors, scientists, visitors and administrators." The same is true for early US literature with works such as William Bradford's History Of a Plymouth Plantation and Cotton Mather's early works.

In trying to narrate the nation, particularly in a post colonial society, one need not rely exclusively on creative texts-as we have come to know them--to describe our society as most late eighteenth and early nineteenth century European novels do. This, at least, is the point of departure for Timothy Brennan who takes the position that the development of the novel is co-terminus with the development of the nation state in Europe. He notes that alongside "'the cult of nationality in the European nineteenth century,' it was especially the novel as a composite but clearly bordered work of art that was crucial in defining the nation as an 'imagined community.'. . . Nations, then, are imaginary constructs that depend for their existence on an apparatus of cultural fictions in which imaginative literature plays a decisive role. And the rise of European nationalism coincides especially with one form of literature, the novel." Suffice it to say, that narratives other than imaginative literature also participate in the work of nation-building.

In Nation and Narration, Homi Bhabha seeks to refine our understanding of the relation between the emergence of the nation and the role of narrative. He notes that the emergence of what he calls "the political rationality of the nation" can be depicted as a form of narrative-that is, through its use of textual strategies, metaphoric displacements, sub-texts and figurative stratagems--which leads to a more subtle understanding of the indeterminate nature of nation building that is always in formation rather than the rigid structures one encounters in traditional, authoritative sources. Hence his contention:

To encounter the nation as it is written displays a temporality of culture and social consciousness more in tune with the partial, overdetermined process by which textual meaning is produced through the articulation of difference in language; more in keeping with the problem of closure which plays enigmatically in the discourse of the sign. Such an approach contests the traditional authority of those national objects of knowledge-Tradition, People, the Reason of State, High Culture, for instance-whose pedagogical value often relies on their representation as holistic concepts located within an evolutionary narrative of historical continuity. Traditional histories do not take the nation at its own word, but, for the most part, they do assume that the problem lies in the interpretation of 'events' that have a certain transparency of privileged visibility." (p. 2-3).
Conceiving the nation in narrative terms, allows us to speak of it in a more tentative and less totalizing manner. It allows us to remember that the nation (or nation building) is always an un-finished, in-completed task. Structured in such a way, it remains ready always to absorb the varied and ambivalent cultural strands which, in the process, are always re-forming and re-formulating the nation. This is one reason why there can never be a fixed narrative of the nation.

For purposes of this discussion, I want to argue that the emergence of certain aspects of national life can be gleaned through the visionary possibilities of certain non-fictional texts, bereft of the weight of history or imaginative literature. These non-fictional forms, it can be argued, also allowed people to imagine their emerging community in different ways and thereby participate in the construction or the invention of their nation. To achieve this end, I will examine two different but related narratives of nineteenth century Trinidad--a painterly and geographical text-that participated in the work of nation building and which, by naming the land, made it available to its inhabitants.

In this discussion, I will demonstrate how these two narrative texts--the visual narrative of Jean Cazabon, a landscape painter, and L. A. A. de Verteuil's Trinidad: Its Geography, Natural Resources, Administrative, Present Condition, and Prospects (1856) allowed the society see itself and to achieve a sense of nationness. I will seek to demonstrate that the narrative of this landscape painter and this geographer became important self-conscious, inauguratory acts, through which a people seize the initiative to locate itself in its time, "to come to grips with the Necessity its past represents for it and to imagine a creative, if only provisional, transcendence of its 'fate.'" To paraphrase Antonio Benitez-Rojo, it was through these acts of naming and in-scribing that citizens, for the first time, could have the illusion of "really experiencing the National Territory, with its rivers, mountains, valleys, flora, fauna, roads, villages, and cities-a kind of telluric matrix where collective memory preserved both the ancient typonymy and the traditions of the land." In a way, these narratives can be seen as an attempt to teach a country to speak and to present a systematic knowledge of a land that immigrants-Asians, Europeans and Africans-encountered. Teaching the landscape to speak (that is, charting the spatial history of the society) in order to make it available for its inhabitants assumed as much importance as the creative writers' task of describing and examining the emotional dimensions of a people's being. Although the rise of the novel has been co-terminus with the rise of the nation-state, non-fictional narratives and painterly visions of the land can also expand our understanding of the nation.


One of the earliest attempts to name the land came from the painterly vision of Jean Michel Cazabon. In 1837, Richard Bridgens, an Englishman, went to Trinidad. In a sketch called "Drumming," captured the Afro-Trinidadian (he called them Negroes) in all of his rhythmic beauty. However, Cazabon was the first Trinidadian to capture the rhythmic lifestyles of Trinidad in his landscape and portraits. A skeletal examination of his work, captures Trinidad in various moods and styles. As a guide to the island, his work demonstrates the emerging self-consciousness of the society.

Born eleven years after the publication of Jean Baptiste Philippe's Free Mulatto (1824), a seminal text about the condition of the free colored people in the island, the Cazabons were a part of the wealthy families of Naparima. Like so many of his privileged compatriots, Cazabon studied in England (at St. Edmund's College), in France (at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in France), and in Italy. In Paris, he won the Prix de Rome that allowed him "to live and work for four years in Villa Medici, at the expense of the French government." As a result, his work was influenced by the techniques and philosophy of the French landscape artists whose work came in response to the industrialization that was taking place in Europe that resulted in a loss of human dignity through the disenfranchisement of labor.

In his landscape paintings Cazabon captured and documented the emerging consciousness of the nation, especially as it reflected itself in the activities of the dominant class. Geoffery Mac Clean has observed that "The oneness he felt with nature is shown in the careful and loving attention he paid to details of the natural elements: the movement of the clouds; the colours and textures of earth, sea and sky; the fall and form of the vegetation." However, because landscape paintings attempt to affirm the pastoral harmony between society and nature- Richard Hartshorne has pointed out that the literal meaning of landscape is "the view of an area in perspective," -- it can be argued that the support Cazabon received from William Burnley and James Lamont who commissioned him to paint several landscapes were linked indubitably to their attempt to control the spatial reality and to get a better perspective of things under the changed circumstances of colonization. In this sense, Cazabon's work not only used a visual vocabulary to harmonize the spatial aspects of the land and to draw attention to how the inhabitants accommodated themselves to their new social order, it also brought the local landscape into the realm of social consciousness.

Although Cazabon first recorded paintings appeared in 1845, one finds some of his more exciting paintings in his first two commissioned works. Of the first group of watercolors, "Westview of Orange Grove" and "Orange Grove" (1849) were the two most impressive landscapes that Cazabon rendered. The first, a watercolor of Burnley's house, represented one of the most elegant buildings in the country. It reveals the opulence in which these slave masters lived. L. A. A. De Verteuil noted that Burnley's residence, with its one hundred windows, bore "a remote comparison [to an] English or French villa." Both "Westview of Orange Grove" and "Orange Grove" offer a pastoral image of the landscape and depict several cattle grazing on the savannah. In the foreground there is a pond of which Tacarigua, one of the oldest villages in Trinidad, was very famous and the picturesque Northern Range with its flamboyant blues in the background. Both of these paintings reveal the lushness of tropical vegetation and suggest a sense of calm and repose.

Views of Trinidad (1851), a spectacular group of eighteen drawings depicts some of the most arresting scenes of the island. Typical of the topological views of the time, they captured the local landscape in vivid details as well as the activities of the inhabitants. In many of these paintings, many of them stylized, Africans and Europeans seem at ease with one another, although there is a striking military presence in some of them. Of his post 1851 work, Grand Trinidad Races depicts the social inequalities of the island. Mac Clean calls it his "strongest social statement" and notes that in this work one senses "the enjoyment of the Race Meetings by all classes and ethnic shades, but also the cultural divisions of the society. The hurried arrival of the 'aristocratic' British administrator in his large and well-appointed carriage contrasts with the donkey-cart of the lesser citizens; the white and colored Creoles and their different modes of dress reflect different social stations. . . while the little black boys perched for a better vantage in a tree, witnesses to the entire extravaganza.

Coolie Group and Coolie Woman (renamed East Indian Group and East Indian woman respectively by Mac Lean as a concession to the political correctness of the time and in response to the derogatory connotations of the word "coolie,") were exhibited at the Colonial Exhibition in London in 1886. The former captures an idealized picture of an Indo-Trinidadian family--mother, father, and daughter--as they stand in front of their thatched-roofed homes. Typical of the Indo-Trinidadian women of her day, is her flowing sari. The jewelry that bedecks her arms is indicative of her wealth, most of which was converted into gold rather than put into banks they did not trust. The man is dressed in a traditional dhoti. As one views these watercolors, one is inclined to offer a comment similar to that which David Lee made when he viewed Cazabon's Creole Woman with a Parasol at the Commonwealth Institute, London, in 1987:

The faint absurdity of applying a painterly practice to subjects for which they were not designed is emphasized in a small oil painting of a creole woman, dressed and posing like Countess Howe in Gainsborough's stately picture at Kenwood. This elegant, ebony woman, already looking uncomfortable twee, carries a parasol, which is small enough to double as a cocktail decoration, between thumb and forefinger as if it were a toothpick. The same inappositeness of sitter and style is felt in Van Dyck's portraits of the royal servants at Windsor Castle.
Such an observation should not be interpreted to mean that Cazabon did not strive to lend a modicum of dignity to his subjects. Their unreality should not take away from their significance. V. S. Naipaul not only purchased Coolie Group, he used it as the cover art for the 1995 edition of The Adventures of Gurudeva, a selection of his father's short stories. It is of some interest that Naipaul situates the geographical origins of his grandfather as Uttar Pradesh, India, and sets their departure to Trinidad as "some time in the 1880s," just about the time that Cazabon painted Coolie Group.

Undoubtedly, the stylized nature and idealized depictions in Cazabon's work, suggests that Cazabon was trapped in the in-betweenity of his status: "a black 19th century Caribbean artist working in an European idiom." Although he recognized that the peasants whom he depicted assumed a prominent place in the social landscape, his inability to breakthrough (or away) from the formalism he learned kept these peasants tethered to an idealized conception that denied them much of their humanity and the vitality that inhered in their every day lives.

It is not inconsistent that Trinidad's most celebrated landscape painter of the nineteenth century appeared when De Verteuil and Antoine Leotaud, author of Birds of Trinidad (1866), were writing about geography and ornithology respectively. Pressed to know and to explain their land, they had to find as many ways as possibly to represent the sounds and sites of its existence. In a world that was about to be exploited further, painterly narratives offered one means of reconciling the social with the economical, the fading grandeur of an "aristocratic class" with the rise of a newly emancipated peasant class. Indeed, the pastoral images that one sees in Cazabon's work makes the landscape more human and accommodating to the latter and reveal aspects of the culture that hithertofore was not documented within the social space. Cazabon, it can be argued, used his visual imagination to bring the local space into the realm of discourse, rendering it distinct, concise and conceivable. Through his mastery of the form, he transformed an imagined or illusionary landscape into a narrative presence, pregnant with meaning and possibilities.


The need to name the space in which one lived and thereby making it more meaningful and manageable, found its most urgent articulation in De Verteuil's Trinidad. A member of one of the most prestigious French families in the island, de Verteuil was the leading spokesman of Trinidad's French community for much of the nineteenth century. Bridget Brereton noted that de Verteuil "was imbued with French culture, royalist politics, devotion to the Catholic faith and, above all, family pride." Such a background predisposed de Verteuil to wanting to maintain the interest of the dominant white elite of which he was the most distinguished member. Although he dedicated his book to his fellow inhabitants in the hope that they found it "truthful; if not as interesting or valuable as it might, under other auspices, have been," he had another, and more important, agenda. He wanted "to make Trinidad better known to the British public in general and to its own inhabitants in particular." Citing a trend that educators detected in colonial education, de Verteuil observed:

It is really surprising how uninformed even Trinidadians are regarding their own country. Our best school boys are able to give the names of the chief rivers, and the position of the principal towns in Great Britain, France, and even in Russia and China; but they are ignorant, perhaps, of the names of the Guataro and Oropuche (sic), or through what country the Caroni river has its course. They know that San Fernando exists, but may not be able to say whether it is on the eastern or the western side of the island; they can give the principal boundaries and dimensions of Europe, and its larger kingdoms, but are ignorant of those of their own island-home; they can enumerate the chief products of England and France, but they do not know what are the agricultural products of their own country, or whether the quality of sugar exported is 35,000 or 56,000 hogsheads.

Not only is such ignorance discreditable, but its effect cannot but be prejudicial to the best interests, and consequently to the advancement of the colony (Trinidad, pp. Viii-ix)

Yet, buried within this nationalist ideal-that of making Trinidad better known to his countrymen and the British public-was his desire to reveal the riches of his land to the colonial other. In The Colonizer's Model of the World, J. M. Blaut observed that "One of the primary forms of geography throughout the entire period [the nineteenth century] was to teach European children what they needed to know about non-Europe in order to participate in their countries' imperial and commercial activities in those regions [of the world]. Although one may not want to implicate De Verteuil in a project in which he may not have been associated consciously or to insert his work into an enterprise that took Europeans beyond their societies to map the world for the glory of an imperial empire, it cannot be denied that his narrative production had an impact on how the dominant power saw the island and how they might have used such information to fulfill their purposes or, to retain the metaphor of imperialism, to fill in those blank, empty spaces. In fact, most writers who spoke of Trinidad after 1858, used de Verteuil's work to support their arguments.

Therefore, when de Verteuil catalogued the geography and natural resources of the island, he intended to inform the British public that Trinidad was a land to be exploited. Such an act was not a benign activity since European geographers associated their discipline with the perceived needs of empire (as for example, did the botanists at Kew Gardens under Sir Joseph Banks and Sir Joseph Hooker) and saw geographical knowledge "as a tool of empire, enabling both the acquisition of territory and the exploitation of resources." Inescapably, de Verteuil's geography was implicated within the project of imperial expansion and colonial discourse.

However, apart from his desire to demonstrate the cogency of his insights, de Verteuil was determined to express the fears of his class and open up his observations for national and international discussion, hence the hybridity of this text. At one level, it represents an attempt by a member of the ruling class to justify the virtues of slavery, to affirm its beneficial impact on the former slaves and to assert the moral superiority of his class. At another level, it attempts to claim a space a people inhabited and to create an awareness of the country's natural endowments. In other words, de Verteuil's introduction narrativizes the relationship between the former slaves and their masters (subjective) while the body of the text narrates or catalogs the physical geography of the island (objective). In the process, a slippage occurs that undermines colonial authority. Indeed, it is only with the abolition of slavery and the gradual ability of the ex-slaves to represent themselves that the actions of the slaves (that is, the expression of their human agency) began to be taken seriously by the colonizer. This a new condition that de Verteuil explores in his work. It is at this important diacritical moment of Trinidad's history (the 1850s) that one begins to see the more expansive expression of what Hayden White calls "the growth and development of historical consciousness."

Superceding a desire to provide the accuracy of information about the society in which he lived (such as correcting the many "glaring errors" that occurred in previous texts about the society), de Verteuil was also concerned with the social, economic and cultural impact that the abolition of slavery had upon the society. Indeed, the introduction to Trinidad had less to do with geography (the location of events in place) than it has to do with history, the actions of men and women in the past, the aim of which is to represent human events "in such a way that their status as parts of meaningful wholes [are] made manifest." Thus, while in one breath, he outlined a moral compass of his society, in another breath he championed the economic possibilities of the island that opened it up for its subsequent rape. Such a model allowed him to advance his moral (and moralistic) concerns about the former slaves (as he does in his introduction) and then to offer a detailed body of information (such as a description of the natural resources and the animal life of the island) in the body of his text .

Finally, it could be argued that de Verteuil used his work to outline the fears and prejudices of his group and to outline a new social order. To accomplish this end, he described the attributes of the land to excite others and to share in its bounty and its possibilities. In a reciprocal gesture, he also warned that inhabitants had to pull up their socks if they wished to encourage others to participate in the development of the land, hence his plea to his follow inhabitants: "On a careful review of our present social condition, you have no cause for despondency; but let my earnest advice prevail with you to sever all connections with a past by a steady advance in moral and industrial improvement" (p. vi.). In my more extended work, I have demonstrated how this advance in moral improvement suggest a repudiation of things African and an acceptance of things European.

On the whole, de Verteuil's sympathies coincided with those of the dominant class of which he was the leading light. His biographer claims that by 1889, Sir Louis was "undoubtedly the outstanding Trinidadian of his time." Although his views on the Africans changed as he grew older (Anthony de Verteuil claims that there was "a marked change" in his views about the former slaves in the revised edition of Trinidad, published in 1884), it still remains true that the central theme of his book aligns itself with the colonialist ideology of its time.


Cazabon and de Verteuil, Trinidadians in every sense of the word, engaged themselves in narrative enterprises that transcended them. Pioneers in art and geography, they opened up areas of discourses that were necessary for an understanding of the society. In a very real sense, this new colonial land had to be brought within the horizon of intelligibility (both locally and internationally) through visual and written representations. As Gregory notes: "The very act of naming was a way of bringing the landscape into textual presence, of bringing it within the compass of European rationality that made it once familiar to its colonizers and alien to its inhabitants." In the final analysis, this scholar and artist were engaged in an ambivalent project in which the inhabitants were viewed as objects and subjects of their own space. As Paul Carter notes, "It was not by discovering novelties but ordering them, rendering them conceptually and culturally visible, that the great work of colonization went ahead. . . It was the method of giving objects great and small a place in the world, the picturesque logic of connection and contrast, that ensured they could never be lost again or overlook."

By giving objects a place in their world, Cazabon and de Verteuil inaugurated a discursive process by which the physical properties of the island literally came into being. In short, they had to name the space in which they lived and teach it how to speak. Their narratives stand at the center of the nation's origin; irreplaceable discourses that narrativize the society.

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