“Here at the window of the turret room, Lavren, at the sill of the Demerara window, Marie Elena behind him on her deathbed telling the last tales before the end of the world as bachac ants attack the rose bushes in Immaculata’s sunken garden, and woodlice eat their way through the pitchpine floorboards, and Josephine sits by the kitchen door shelling pigeon-peas: from this vantage point, Lavren can listen and write and tell the history of the New World.” So begins a hallucinatory Caribbean tale involving the imperialist land-grab, sexual anarchy, abandoned women, religious mania, “the destruction of the Amerindians, the enslavement of Africans and the indentureship of the Indians,” and culminating in self-rule and independence. “People were dreaming in the twilight barrack-rooms, in the kerosene-lit villages for the setting of the imperial sun.”
Lawrence Scott weaves a magical, lush tapestry of words and images, bringing alive local legends and family narratives; and redressing written histories. The impact of the events recounted still resonate in Caribbean society today. A quasi-historical novel, Witchbroom recounts the story of a colonial white enclave on an offshore island through muddled memories. The central narrator repeats what he remembers “from the distracted mind of his muse Marie Elena, and her art of telling stories while they eat Crix biscuits, rat cheese and guava jelly together in the turret room overlooking the Gulf of Sadness.” The stories are bewitching and highly disturbing. The reader surfs a tidal wave of addictive fascination like a Dickensian tricoteuse sitting beside the guillotine in Paris watching heads roll during the public executions of 1793-4.
In conversation with Margaret Busby at the launch celebrating its republication by Papillote Press at New Beacon Books, Lawrence Scott pointed out that, “as a novelist one is a storyteller rather than a polemicist or didactic.” Hailed as a masterwork of Caribbean literature when it was originally published, Witchbroom should be obligatory reading on Caribbean and Diaspora Studies courses.
The narrative shifts between various houses on the island of Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela, “on the continent of Bolivar” built to oversee the farming of “crops to fill the coffers and bellies of Europe with sugar, cocoa, pimento, nutmeg, ginger and bananas.” Places are named here and there — the great Orinoco river in particular — but the overall point is that through the story of one family we are privy to a great slice of dark history, exposing what lay behind the rule of the plantocracy from their “twenty-six estates in the burning sun under a clear blue sky: Petit Mome, Golconda, Corinth, Malgre-Toute, Union Hall, Williamsville, Reform, Retrench, Savonetta, Monkey Town, Tarouba, Spring, Embarcardier . . .”
Picot de la Peyrouse, a French nobleman, had come to Trinidad in 1778, and acquired land on the outskirts of Port of Spain. His slaves cleared the forest and established the first sugar cane estate on the island. Picot also built the first factory for the production of brown, wet Muscovado sugar. The British arrived in 1797.
“The house on the hill, the gabled house on high pillars with gingerbread arches, high balconies and wide verandas” is home to the Monagas de los Macajuelos family. Further down the lush slopes in the gully, “behind the screen of casuarina trees, down the rutted gravel trace – more mud than gravel – which housed, no, harnessed and shackled, whole families in single confined rooms with little light.”
Lavren, the principal narrator, is the son of absent father, Auguste, and adored mother, Marie Elena, whose clothes he likes to wear as he is a hermaphrodite. He is caught between worlds and so “could see all the secrets brushed beneath the carpet.” He has visions: “He entered this pain into a revision of history. He entered a sea of green and yellow, coppery, silted with the refuse of the Orinoco whose mouth was crammed with wrecks, festooned with skeletons, the treasure of that far-flung folly of cross and sword whose seed was sown in Genoa. Out of the empty sockets in the algae-encrusted skulls vast processions issued, performing the liturgies of Corpus Christi, the candlelit mass of Easter. Out of one skull Las Casas swam, bearing Amerindians and welcoming black slaves from the belly of ships and baptising them. The seaweed was stained with the blood of Christ and the slaves and Amerindians had their mouths stuffed with loaves and fishes from the gospels, while archbishops and nuns copulated in confessionals to the chanting of the Salve Regina.”
We find out about the founders of the Monagas de los Macajuelos dynasty. “Clarita, the most beautiful girl in the world, the precursor of carnival queens, as white as milk tinged with the coffee of Tamana, seduced by Gaston de Lanjou,” and their disappearance into the Tamana hills which is retold as myth. Gaston’s younger brother Georges Philippe journeys from the old world to the new, and marries child-bride Elena (Clarita’s younger sister); the “only bridesmaids at her wedding were her dolls.” The bridegroom is a bullish brute and his bride — his “little girl” — is miserable; she “cries a sea of tears”. But he becomes a successful plantation owner, “With the failure of his expeditions and the arrival of more bloated bodies in pirogues, Georges Philippe began to divide up the island for crops and drove the Amerindians into the fields. On the plains he planted sugarcane and in the hills, cocoa.”
The next generation continues what the first began, becoming ever more powerful and backed by a corrupt Catholic church. “The statistics only get worse, a litany as regular and repetitive as the litanies of the church, changing nothing but enforcing resignation. House of Gold – pray for us; Tower of Ivory – pray for us; Mother of Pearls – pray for us. ‘Ernestine, my back, someone is whipping me’.”
Twelve children are born, and nine die, carried away by malaria, syphilis, influenza. “The women of the Monagas family found love in their children when they could not find love in men,” yet it is the black servants who care for the children of their masters, and they are forced to abandon their own. “The children divided and straining between mothers, cradling them from birth in her black arms, those arms empty of her own children left for grandmothers, aunts or neighbours to mind.”
A disease lodges in the brains of the Monagas “and was responsible, along with their greed, which was lodged in their pythonic intestine, for the destruction of their wealth.” The priest claims that the arrival of the family parasite, witchbroom, is because the family and its head, the English Governor — a profligate and a libertine — refuse to pay tithes for the upkeep of the local church. The Englishman is a sadist and punishes people “because they had decided to take their own lives, rather than live in the cages that had brought them from the kingdoms of Ashanti and Benin. ‘Poison, Madam, they poison themselves and the other ones get hang.’ There had been a gibbet in the Governor’s garden. Spanish law had been thrown out of the window by the Governor’s children, not that it was much practised anyway.” Their spirits fly away into the rocks and their screams vanish into the forests to become “the hysteria of parrots.”
The Sacred Heart
The only passion allowed and recognised was for Christ, the son of God, who had endured pain and suffering when nailed to a wooden cross; a lance though his gut; a crown of thorns jammed down on his bleeding head. Pain and pleasure, perversity and religious ecstasy fuse.
Other kinds of passion are not allowed. Two of the Englishman’s feral children enjoy “carrying on a double-act nudist pantomime on the back veranda” and one day Josephine “finds brother and sister at siesta time in the hammock together without any clothes on, innocently involved in the business of copulation.” When their mother complains to the parish priest, “he made a mental note to exploit its pornographic possibilities when he was next lonely, depressed and deprived of any comfort alone in his presbytery.” Seminary and convent await the two unfortunate, innocent children who are unaware of having committed a sin. Their mother swiftly marries off her eligible daughter to a travelling doctor who miraculously appears from over the sea. The leftover sons of the local inbred, decadent creole families are not good enough.
The Roots of racism
The one overriding obsession of the Monagas is “the colour of their skin and of the skin of black people, yellow people, Indian people. People were the colour of their skin except if they were priests; then they were let off. They are obsessed with blackness. It is a kind of madness.”
The end of Empire
By the 1930s the Monagas and other plantocrats’ descendants “now owned all the newspapers, motorcar firms, car-accessory services. They appointed themselves director of this and that and formed the new conglomerates of this and that.” In 1937 Fyzabad was the centre of labour unrest, led by T.U.B. Butler which heralded the birth of the Labour movement in Trinidad and Tobago. There are veiled references to Dr Eric Williams, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago from independence in 1962 and chief minister for six years before, through use of V S Naipaul’s epithet for him — the “Third Most Intelligent Man in the World”. (In 1960, Dr Eric Williams, invited V. S. Naipaul to revisit his native country and record his impressions which resulted in the book The Middle Passage: Impressions of five colonial societies. A must read.)
A new empire is taking hold, backed by the Protestant ethic and the spirit of Capitalism, breeding a different kind of horror which is still unfolding. Plus ça change.
Copyright © Georgia de Chamberet 2017 for The BookBlast™ Diary
Witchbroom by Lawrence Scott | Papillote Press 360 pages PB £9.99 | ISBN 978-0993108686