“Telling a half that has hardly ever been told.” (“Kei Miller”)
Violence and religion often find themselves brutally intertwined in the history of the postcolonial Caribbean. They came together, the cross and the musket carrying equal weight at the side of the great explorer-cum-missionary-cum-murderer Christopher Columbus aboard the aptly named La Santa María, or The Holy Mary (Van Der Krogt). There was violence before him, and religion (Bercht 158), but this was a new brand: the kind of violence that ends nations, drives populations to extinction (Corbett) — the kind that brings millions in chains from across the globe (McGill), that begets rebellion, revolution, and bloody civil war (Ott 29), that pounds itself into the beating heart of an island-dotted sea. And so often, in the name of God, industrialized violence carrying on its metallic wings salvation before the Lord; the name of Jesus rising to the lips of overseers as they work their whips, Hail Marys dripping from the tongues of cool, practiced kidnappers (Mathews xvi). This, the inheritance of a Caribbean people: Africans, Indians, Caribs, Arawaks, European, mixed, melted, and pushed together by circumstance and imperial indifference, and who must forge their own identity after all that came before. It has fallen to them to move the stone, which has been wedged across their history, and sealed with blood, to tell their side of the story (Goodison). Three writers who have stepped forward in this pursuit are Maryse Condé, of Guadeloupe; Kei Miller, of Jamaica; and Diana McCaulay, also of Jamaica.
Their three books — Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove, Miller’s The Fear of Stones and other Stories, and McCaulay’s Huracan — explore the depth to which colonial violence and religion conspired to create the postcolonial versions of themselves in the Caribbean. Huracan in particular investigates the hypocrisy inherent to the missionaries and slaveowners of Jamaica, and the way in which their hypocrisy led to violence both in their time and in the centuries that followed. Crossing the Mangrove addresses spirituality, sin, and redemption, and the evolving impact of Christianity on religion in the Caribbean. It also explores the violence — physical and verbal — which accompanies these phenomena in the struggle to grow out of the postcolonial. Finally, Miller’s The Fear of Stones and other Stories expresses the roots of modern violence and religion in the Caribbean, and the shifting power of the long-ago imperially imposed Catholicism. In particular, this paper will explore four of Miller’s stories, those being “Walking on the Tiger Road,” “Tolston Closing,” “Read Out Sunday,” and “Sound Like a Gunshot (three stories).” Collectively, these three books speak to the complicated history of violent and often religious colonial intervention in the Caribbean Sea, and to the postcolonial society which had no choice but to grow in the mould left to it.
Crossing the Mangrove:
“Isn’t it the fate of a cur to die amid general indifference?” (Condé 7)
Maryse Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove investigates the nature of human sin and redemption, especially in relation to the history of violence that the people of the novel’s setting, Rivière au Sel, (and of the Caribbean) inherit. She details the difficulty inherent in coming to terms with the violence perpetrated by and against one’s forefathers, and the desperate attempts to atone for the sins of those who came before. Condé uses two characters in particular to explore these ideas: Francis Sancher, the mixed-race philandering foreigner, and Xantippe, a boy “touched in the head” (Condé 56), through whom much of the history of Rivière au Sel is told. Sancher is a redemptive figure in the town; his violent actions, however, and particularly his violent history, highlight the flawed nature of redemptive figures in the Caribbean, especially supernatural ones (as he sometimes appears to be). This alignment of violence with a quasi-religious and redemptive figure reflects just how connected the two are. As a character from a mixed ethnic background, and who struggles with melding his background together amid his violent past and violent present, he also stands as a parallel to the struggles of Caribbean society as a whole. Because of this, the failure of the community of Rivière au Sel to accept him reveals the difficulty in accepting the violence in their past. Xantippe, equally an outcast, embodies the private and untold histories of the town - and these histories are often violent. His rejection by the people of Rivière au Sel represents, like that of Sancher, their struggles with reconciling their past with their present. He is ignored and feared; so too is the violence of the town’s past which he holds as history. He is also a deeply spiritual figure; Xantippe seems almost a god of retribution, who weighs both sin and redemption and deals out punishment in turn. Between them, Sancher and Xantippe show the depth to which violence, religion, and spirituality are intertwined in Caribbean culture.
Sancher’s presence in Rivière au Sel, however reviled by some that he is, is as a saviour to those who come to him. Dinah Lamoulnes, whose husband illegitimately begot Mira Lamoulnes, who in turn had an affair with Sancher, says “I too grew to understand her and I prayed, I prayed to the Good Lord. He would pardon her sin, however horrible it was, and send her a saviour to deliver her from her jail” (Condé 81). That saviour does arrive, in the person of Sancher; here, we can also see a discussion of sin and redemption, and the ability of Sancher to act as a redemptive figure. Dinah then goes on to describe Sancher as an “oasis in my desert” (Condé 82) showing again the power he has for redemption. At the very end of the book, at Sancher’s funeral, this question is asked:
Who in fact was the man who had chosen to die among them? Could he be an envoy, the messenger of some supernatural force? Hadn’t he repeated over and over again: ‘I shall return each season with a chattering green bird on my fist’?…Perhaps they should watch for him to reappear supreme through the rain-streaked windowpanes of the sky, and finally gather the honey of his wisdom. (208)
At Sancher’s funeral, the people of Rivière au Sel see him as a “supernatural force”; he is a spiritual, redemptive figure in their lives, who will “reappear supreme.”
With this spiritual figure, however, comes violence. Mira describes how he tried to force an abortion on her: “I woke up and saw him leaning over me. He was brutally opening my legs with one hand, and with the other he was trying to stick a long, sparkling needle into me” (Condé 83). Dinah then says of Sancher, “I’d believed he was different but this man too was nothing but a murderer. A torturer, he had said it himself” (Condé 83). Sancher is a spiritual figure in the novel, and a redemptive one, certainly; he is also, however, a violent figure, as shown by his actions towards Mira.
The convergence of these two traits — violence and religion — in one character reveals their connection in the novel, and in the setting of the novel. And then there is Sancher’s past to deal with: whispers of familial sin decorate the novel, sometimes concrete and sometimes less so. When Loulou Lamoulnes — himself a descendant of slave owners — comes to him about his daughter Mira, and suggests that the two are on the “same side” because of their ancestors, Sancher tells him, “To start off with, it’s true, we were on the same side. That’s why I left for the other side of the world” (Condé 100). Sancher himself, when justifying the above assault on Mira, says: “When the coffee tree is riddled with greenfly and only bears black, stony fruit, it has to be burnt” (Condé 83). He wants to end his line; he wants to atone for his fathers’ sins by removing their genes from the world. Sancher is a man torn apart by his family’s past, who is willing to force an abortion on a woman to end his family’s story. To the people of Rivière au Sel, he is a living reminder of a violent past they would like to forget. He has the blood of both sides of the story running in him, as a mixed-race man: a “well-built, brown-skinned mulatto” (Condé 128) whose arms are “bicolored” (Condé 80). This convergence of differing stories, violent and obvious, makes him an outcast in the novel. “For all of them,” Condé writes of the crowd at his funeral — just about the entire town — “at one time or another had called Francis a vagabond or a cur” (7).
Xantippe is also rejected by society, ignored and feared by a people not ready to see or hear the history he represents. Condé writes that “pregnant women would protect their fetus with a prayer to the Virgin Mary when they met him” (56). That these women turn to saints to ward off the danger of history shows that religion can be used to ignore violence, and so to perpetuate it; it also shows their fears at what Xantippe represents. He is a witness to history, quietly watching and knowing, having been there to see the Middle Passage (Condé 200), and the great slave revolutions (Condé 203). He knows Rivière au Sel; he named it, and knows “its entire history” (Condé 203). He has been there from the beginning, knowing all that its people have done and have had done to them. This terrifies them, to have truth walking so close at their feet, and they ignore him, avoid him, and fear him, and all the history of violence that he brings. He is also a remarkably religious and supernatural character, most obviously in that he has clearly been a boy for hundreds of years. More importantly, however, he is the great judge of sin and redemption in the book — specifically that of Francis Sancher. Xantippe says, referring, we can safely assume, to Sancher, “Every time I meet him my eye burn into his, and he lowers his head, for this is his crime. His. He can sleep peacefully, though, get his women pregnant, sow his wild oats. I won’t touch him. The time for revenge is over” (Condé 205). It is Sancher whose family’s sins have bloodied the earth in Rivière au Sel, and who must pay for those sins; it is Xantippe who has brought the bill. Xantippe is a religious figure; his connection to violence is intimate, as the Caribbean, whose history he carries, is littered with it.
Xantippe and Sancher are two of the characters that Condé uses to express her point about the interconnections of violence and religion amidst the telling of history in Crossing the Mangrove. Violence grows in the novel in the same gardens and under the same hands as religion does; violent retribution for original sin (that of Francis) is the crux on which the novel turns, and the historical nature of that sin moves the novel’s plots and themes. To Condé, the Caribbean people must come to terms with the fact that their ancestors were violent, as well as victims; that their mosaic of skin color carries with it a mosaic of culpability.
The Fear of Stones and other Stories:
“The crowd, desperate in their silence, looking at their guilty Cain-hands.” (The Fear of Stones 14)
Kei Miller’s collection of short stories, The Fear of Stones and other Stories, has running through it a strain of violence that communicates the equally violent terms which the Caribbean must exist upon. Violence toward and around children is particularly emphasized; this shows the passing down of violence through generations, and the creation of the cycles of violence that have come, unfortunately, to exist in the Caribbean. Alongside violence in this collection is religion: Christianity, subdued and subversed, along with Rastafarianism and radical spiritualism. Miller explores the connections of violence and religion, and the different kinds of effects religion can have; it can create oppression and repression, or it can bring protection and even freedom. The four stories here examined from the collection are “Walking on the Tiger Road,” “Tolston Closing,” and “Shot Like a Gunshot (three stories),” and “Read Out Sunday.”
Violence is a crucial part of understanding these stories, both in terms of their plots and their thematic coherence. The stories’ violence elucidates violence’s function as an heirloom, passed down from father, or mother, or grandmother, to sons and daughters who then go share it with their children. Because of this, violence towards children appears often in the collection, as does the violence of those children when they become adults. A salient example is the story of Sparky in “Shot Like a Gunshot (three stories).” Abused as a child by his father (The Fear of Stones 78), he runs away from his home, kicking his mother and telling her, “You bitch you! I tell you don’t ramp with me!” (78). Miller then writes that Sparky could see what his mother was thinking: “My God! You is just like you daddy!” (78). These words are repeated in the story’s last moments, after Sparky shoots Doris Gray, killing her. “I did tell you don’t ramp with me!” he says, “I did tell you!” (83). Miller then writes, “Doris’s face was frozen in death, her wide-mouthed gaze making that constant accusation, My God! You is just like you daddy!” (83). The cyclical nature of Sparky’s story reflects the seeming inevitability of his tale; he was hit as a child by his father, and so he can do nothing but be a violent adult.
Religion, particularly Christianity, in Miller’s collection, is often mocked and even derided; this reflects the challenges in reconciling that European-imposed religion with the rituals of more African and Caribbean religions, and with the violence that often seems inherent to it. For example, in “Read Out Sunday,” we see the supposed redemption that Christ offers in traditional Christian religion mocked and taken advantage of. “Now that Sue found out sinners could be forgiven,” Miller writes, “and virginity could be restored, she proceeded to lose hers every Saturday night and restore it every Sunday morning” (60). Here, Miller mocks Christianity, and the supposed redemption it offers. In so doing, he makes a point about the failure of European religions to achieve the same closeness with Caribbean people as religions with roots in the same places as those Caribbean people. He even goes on to implicate the preacher in the story, as the story ends with the priest saying to a pregnant Sue, and to his congregation, “All right! All right! Is me is the father.” Miller’s humorous take on Christianity here contrasts with his view of spirituality in a passage from “Tolston Closing.” “She needed to say it,” Miller writes, “and in that spirit, in the drumming, she heard herself scream out ‘Jah! Rastafari!’ The idren couldn’t hold themselves back any longer. It was as if their priestess had called them” (24). When comparing this view, of Rastafarianism and collective worship, with the view he expresses in “Read Out Sunday,” it is clear which of the two forms of worship Miller feels is more genuinely redemptive, and more appropriate to the people who practice it: it is the Rastafarian, grown in the Americas out of African nationalism and with an African king, Haile Selassie I, as its main figure of worship (Lewis 147). This is a rejection of the traditional Christianity that was brought to the Caribbean from Europe — the traditional Christianity that helped to germinate violence in the heart of the Caribbean.
Finally, Miller explores the ways in which violence and religion are intertwined in the Caribbean with the story “Walking on the Tiger Road.” Deeply religious and filled with biblical allusions — “‘Cause my son who did dead is alive again” (The Fear of Stones 3), “The prodigal son returning to his mother” (4), “looking at their guilty Cain-hands” (14) — the story revolves around the return of a gay son, Mark, to his mother Mary and his hometown in Jamaica. Mark is greeted before he reaches his mother by a mob, who proceed to stone him as he tries to reach his home. The religious language of the story, along with the violence directed at the minority character, paint a grisly picture of the connections between violence and religion in The Fear of Stones in general. It is not enough to mock and reject Christianity, as Miller does with abandon; he must also attach the religion, as it is in real life, to violence, to pounding a man’s head into the gravel at his mother’s feet for the dubious sin of being gay. It is both a rejection and a recognition of violence in religion.
“They were killing the idea of her, her carelessness, her remoteness.” (McCaulay 224)
Religion appears on the very first page of Diana McCaulay’s Huracan, in the violence of an unsafe plane ride: “[Leigh’s] seat mate had been wearing three hats,” she writes, “one on top of the other and he prayed loudly, repetitively. ‘Fahda God, do mi beg you, tek wi down safe. Do, mi beg you. Do…’” (11). The codependence of violence and religion in Huracan, however, runs much deeper than a feverish prayer on a bumpy flight. McCaulay investigates in the novel the roots of violence in Jamaica, using the murder of a white woman in 1986 as a jumping off point to explore how the hypocritical religious overtones of racist priests in the 19th century and the weak justifications through religion of the slave plantations in the 18th century created an atmosphere in which the instability and violent racial hatred of mid-to-late-twentieth century Jamaica were not only understandable, but unavoidable. To understand the actions of the angry mob that beat April McCaulay to death over soup, one must understand the historical violence passed down to them, and the religion which rode alongside. Through the winding and interweaving tales of Zachary, John, and Leigh Macaulay (McCaulay), Diana McCaulay arrives at that understanding, and begins to explain violent anger amidst poverty and oppression in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean.
Zachary Macaulay is the first of this triad to reach Jamaican shores, arriving as a Scottish teenager come to make his fortune as a bookkeeper on the Bonnie Valley plantation. He is taken immediately with the power that comes with being a relatively well-off white man in a nation, like Jamaica in this period, reliant on its large population of black slaves. One of his first interactions with a black Jamaican is in a bar, when he dreams of a power play on a waitress: “Soon [the waitress] returned, bringing their food. He wanted to pull her onto his lap and slip his hands under her skirt. His erection was insistent” (McCaulay 75). The young Macaulay is intoxicated with the power inherent to his position. This is representative of the position of all white men in Jamaica at this time, and is clearly reflected in the character of Paul Monmouth, the “son and heir” (McCaulay 89) of Bonnie Valley. Monmouth says this, about his “slave wives”: “I have a stable [of them]... Whoever I feel like, whenever I feel like it, wherever I feel like it” (McCaulay 97). Paul owns women, and abuses this power to its fullest extent — to rape and to torture them (McCaulay 96).
It is also Paul Monmouth who introduces us to the religion of the slaveholder, a strange and twisted version of Christianity which justifies brutality with half-baked, quasi-religious ideas. “They’re not like us,” Monmouth says, referring to the enslaved, “no matter what the abolitionists and the churchmen say” (McCaulay 90). His status as a rapist, torturer, and purveyor of human flesh is justified in his own eyes by the slaves’ imagined natural-born inferiority. Implicit in this, and supported by his mentioning of the “churchmen,” is the idea that those enslaved are less than him in the eyes of God — despite what the progressive new preachers might say. Similarly, Mr. Jerome Cassidy, a guest at Bonnie Valley, justifies his own hatred of blacks and their continued enslavement by saying that they are “black sons of Beelzebub” (McCaulay 141). Equating the enslaved blacks of Jamaica with servants of Stan (Beelzebub being Lucifer’s right-hand man) puts the whites, in their own eyes, on the moral high ground because of their race. Cassidy’s placing of blacks next to the devil implies that whites stand on the side of God, and justifies to himself and to other whites the depravity of slaveholding. Both Monmouth and Cassidy’s mewlings about the righteous place of whites over blacks illustrate the role of religion in perpetuating the violent institution of slavery in 18th century Jamaica. Zachary himself goes on to talk about the hypocrisy of Bonnie Valley when compared to Paradise, a plantation known for being more cruel, saying, after watching a man take his own daughter from the stocks at Paradise, “the difference between Bonnie Valley and Paradise became excuses, the difference between… rape and rape, death now and death tomorrow” (McCaulay 158). As the brutality of the slave system becomes clear to Zachary, he begins to see how thin the excuses that hold it together are; it is a system built on a hypocritical view of both religion and humanity.
This hypocrisy continues into the 19th century, well past emancipation in Jamaica, and into the story of John McCaulay (born a Macaulay). He is also an immigrant from Scotland to Jamaica; he comes, however, later in his life, with a definite purpose: he is a pastor, a missionary, bent on bringing God to the blacks of Jamaica. He, however, does not respect the black men and women of the parish to which he is assigned. He thinks of a particular woman — Prudence, part of the parish — like this: “Her nose was wide and her lips thick; she had a long neck and wide shoulders; he could see her tilling a field or butchering a cow. He found her faintly repellent but pushed away the thought. She was a child of God” (McCaulay 124). John’s religion does not drive him, then, to respect Prudence, but rather pushes him to impose his own view of religion on her. The teachings of the Gospel are not enough to raise black people to his level, in his own eyes; instead, he uses the Gospel as justification to put himself above the Jamaican blacks. This becomes clear with his reaction to the marriage of his brother to a black woman. “Sleep with the woman if you must,” he thinks, “and beg the Lord’s forgiveness afterwards. I know how lonely it is, how urgently the flesh clamours, but to marry a Negro woman? It was unthinkable.” John’s religion, again, does not outdo his prejudice; it perpetuates it. It is against God he says, to marry a black woman (raping one, though, is fine). His God, then, is squarely on the side of oppression, of segregation, and of keeping blacks in communities like Fortress, which is little more than a slum.
This is the world that Leigh McCaulay enters as she steps off her plane into Jamaica: one in which her skin makes her an heir to the violence perpetrated on blacks in Jamaica. Black Jamaicans, themselves victims by blood of enslavement, rape, and oppression, look at her and see the continuation of that legacy. Leigh often finds herself faced with violence which takes the life of her mother, before her arrival in Jamaica. It is also a kind of religion; her mother, driving too fast in a bad area, interrupted a street dance and overturned a communal soup bowl (McCaulay 228). The street dance is of colossal importance to Jamaican culture; Nadia Ellis calls the street dance a “consecrated space” (17), and Larisa Mann calls it the “heart of Jamaicans’ musical practice.” So, when a white woman haphazardly drives through a street dance, projecting the same lack of caring and cultural indifference as did the Macaulays and McCaulays of centuries before, it is an affront not only to their well-being, but their culture as well. Diana McCaulay writes this, of Leigh: “The people had barred her mother’s way and killed her over spilled soup. They weren’t killing her, she thought; they did not know her. They were killing the idea of her, her carelessness, her remoteness” (224). Just as the black Jamaicans had inherited their poverty and their oppression, April McCaulay inherited guilt; that she was not, in fact descended from slave owners (to their, or the reader’s, knowledge) did not matter, nor did the fact that all of the offending black Jamaicans may not have been descended from slaves. Later, Leigh encounters some “enraged graffiti” on a wall which supports this separation of ancestral guilt from genuine culpability: it reads, “we must enslave every white person. Humiliate their men, rape their women, take their land” (McCaulay 271). This is a dream of collective violence: violent retribution for the untold violence which came before. Violence is the birthright of the nation, of a collective people, not of individuals. Religion — and the cultural phenomena that surround it (like the street dance, and the soup bowl) — is the harbinger and bedmate of that violence.
These three stories, from three different centuries, reveal the way in which violence and religion pass themselves down through generations. The violent hypocrisy of Zachary’s and John’s generations are repaid in part upon Leigh’s; the wounds carved into the flesh of slaves take more than two hundred years and a half-hearted emancipation to wipe away.
“Nobody has pierced this secret, buried and forgotten.” (Condé 205)
These three novels, products of the Caribbean, express the depths to which violence and religion have grown with the cultures of that region or space. Intertwined throughout the history of the region, these two phenomena are inseparable from each other and from the destiny of the nations who live there. These novels express the importance of learning the past, and connecting it with the present; the importance of finding the truth of the past, in all its glory and its filth, and telling it to everyone who will hear it.