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A Colonial History

by V.S. Naipaul

Pub Date: April 15th, 1970
ISBN: 1400030765
Publisher: Knopf

Novelist Naipaul, his narrative talent not altogether muffled by facts (here a heavy implementation of secondary source materials) and understatement, uses two incidents three centuries apart to tell the story of the "Ghost Province" of the island of Trinidad and more largely that of the frustration and futility of the colonial experience. The El Dorado of the title, and the first story is that of forgotten conquistador Antonio de Berrio. He began at the age of 60 to search for gold, concluded it at 75, "forlorne," captive and insane. It has its larger implications as will the second episode. El Dorado was then, as it would be again for Raleigh and others, the symbol of a "complete, unviolated world" always a day away. In the second part (with an inset on the intervening revolutions and the degraded slave society that was Trinidad) the chimera of El Dorado gives way to the brutality of (mal) administration by the colonists: the torture of a slave girl, Luisa Calderon, by British Governor Picton, who imposed a rule of "impartial terror," is subsidiary to the larger conflicts. On the one hand, England tries to impose its ideal of "Britishness as an ideal of justice and protection"--never perhaps possible in this mixed society of mixed national interests or via First Commissioner Fullarton who came to put down Picton and defend Luisa (later in the courts of England). On the other hand, Picton was the "victim of people's conscience, of ideas of humanity and reason that were ahead of the reality," Fullarton, the interventionist, was an equal casualty of all that was "deformed" and exploited in colonial society. . . . Dense and demanding reading, certainly for those not predisposed, Naipaul's bipartite study is more important (especially for an English audience) than its locus as a substantial inquiry and indictment.