Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Tuesday, February 04, 2003  

"But these sketches are worth something to ordinary viewers also. They nudge us towards realising again that vast, simple truth we cannot realise too many times: the humanness of other people, that essence of emotions, instincts and desires which connects us, the continuity of our common nature across the centuries."

- From Nicholas' review of Sketches of Amerindian Tribes, 1841-1843 by Edward A Goodall. (The review is in this month's issue of the T&T Review, which unfortunately isn't available online.) Goodall, Nicholas informs us, was a young artist of prodigious talent who was sent by the colonial authorities to what was then British Guiana to make visual records of a survey expedition into the interior, headed by the explorer Robert Schomburgk. This was Goodall's first such journey, and the young Englishman remarkably achieves "an uncondescending visual truth" in his portraits of members of various Amerindian tribes, free of caricature or stereotype, and is able to capture that enigmatic "humanness" that binds us all in one form or other.

That was in the early 1840s. Some 120 years later, another traveller, a writer this time, making his way into the BG interior and encountering Amerindians for the first time, is unable to do with his pen what Goodall did with his brush:

"I had tried to feel interest in the Amerindians as a whole, but had failed. I couldn't read their faces; I couldn't understand their language, and could never gauge at what level communication was possible. Among more complex peoples there are certain individuals who have the power to transmit to you their sense of defeat and purposelessness: emotional parasites who flourish by draining you of the vitality you preserve with difficulty. The Amerindians had this effect on me."

- VS Naipaul, The Middle Passage: A Caribbean Journey.

How did Naipaul fail where Goodall had succeeded? Why was the brilliant young writer not able to do what the brilliant young artist did?

As a writer, of course, Naipaul would have had to speak with the Amerindians to be able to describe them fully, as individuals, and as he says the language barrier was a problem. Goodall obviously would have not had that difficulty. But Naipaul could have spoken with the Amerindians through an interpreter. So the issue was more than simply one of language.

It is the "sense of defeat and purposelessness" that overwhelms Naipaul. And this is what is at the heart of the first of the two great tragedies of the European encounter with the Americas: the tragedy of the indigenous peoples.

Completely at odds with this new dispensation, the Amerindians were unable to stand up to the irresistible force of imperialism and its manifestations: the conquistador, religion, disease, alcohol.

Whole peoples disappeared; civilisations, many hundreds, even thousands of years old were lost, perhaps incalculably so. And what remains are remnants, fragments; people cut off irretrievably from a past covered over with blood and unspeakable horror.

Unable to fit in with the present, cut off from the past forever, they became outsiders in a land that was once theirs in a way that no other people could ever lay claim to.

Thus they find themselves simply subsisting, in their "homelands", engaged in a day to day existence devoid of any real purpose or meaning, defeated by history.

This is what Naipaul knew, what he would have seen, things that Edward Goodall wouldn't have. And the changes that would have taken place between Goodall's time and the time of Naipaul's visit, particularly the opening up of the interior of Guyana, would have only served to make the tragedy of the Amerindians more acute.

And so, while Goodall's paintings may help bring us to an understanding of these peoples and who they were, in all their complexity and human dignity, personally they could in the end only serve to reinforce that sense of tragedy, of loss, of defeat.

posted by Jonathan | 12:52 AM 0 comments


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