A Small Place
Imperialism and Its Lingering Effects on the People of ‘A Small Place’
In A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid forces the reader to take on the role of a tourist as she brings them through the town of Antigua, criticising the moral ugliness of tourism and the negative consequences of European Imperialism as she does so. Through her description of the island’s infrastructure and the local’s daily struggles, Kincaid emphasises on the harm colonialism had brought about during its presence in Antigua and the lingering effect it still holds over the nation and its people. While the colonial rulers are long gone, they left behind a political culture of moral corruptness that has caused the country to remain stagnant in its development. By writing in second person, she describes her town from the reader’s point of view, beginning her work with “[i]f you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you would see” (3), and in doing so, implicates the reader in the crime of supporting imperialism, directly accusing them of taking part in the colonialism that has robbed her nation of its history and culture.
Kincaid’s description of her town hints at the deep-rooted corruption within the nation’s parliament – inherited from the colonial powers and their exploitation of the island and its people. Kincaid criticises the British for “getting rich [from] the free and then undervalued labour” (9-10), and then leaving this morally unrighteousness aspect of their history out of records, crediting their economical growth to “the ingenuity of small shopkeepers in Sheffield and Yorkshire and Lancashire, or wherever” (10) instead. A British education from the local “Pigott’s School” (7) – an establishment with a British name – with British books that teach the students British history, language and culture but leave out the details of its exploitation of places like Antigua not only strips the citizens of their own identity but also accustoms them to their suppressed and exploited status.
Similarly, the British’s promise of education, progress, and better living standards through colonialism and their actual underlying goal of financial exploitation is reflected in the action of present day Antiguan ministers, who use their position of power to line their own pockets instead of improving the lives of their people. Corruption and moral degeneration exist in every aspect of daily life, and is acknowledged by the people with a general sense of acceptance and lack of outrage. By asking the reader to ignore the “slightly funny feeling [they] get from time to time about exploitation” (10) because “[they] could ruin [their] holiday” (10), Kincaid shows how the daily suffering and hardship faced by the locals are unimportant and ignorable in the face of the tourist’s personal enjoyment – a reflection of the attitude of colonial powers.
Kincaid also criticises the government’s order of priorities through her description of the local infrastructure. She introduces this idea by making the reader question “why a Prime Minister would want an air-port named after him – why not a school, why not a hospital” (1), hinting at how making financial gains through tourism is viewed as more important than improving the quality of life for the locals. This topsy-turvy idea of importance is further developed later on, where the prime location in town is shown to be taken up by the “Government House… the Prime Minister’s Office and the Parliament Building” (10), while the spot with the most scenic view by the American Embassy. It is seen here that despite changes in times, a foreign power still holds more importance in Antigua. Meanwhile, while immigrant traders have the wealth to “lend money to the government” (11) and “build enormous, ugly, concrete buildings in Antigua’s capital” (11), the country’s school, hospital and library have been stagnant since Independence, and locals live in houses that are comparable to latrines. Similarly, the best road in the nation leads to the home of “the girlfriend of somebody very high up in the government” (12), while the second best was “paved for the Queen’s visit” (12). The embodiment of British imperialism is admired by the very same people it suppressed.
Overall, Kincaid illustrates the moral ugliness left behind by colonialism that continues to plague Antigua, criticising the deep-rooted selfish nature of colonial powers that leads to the disregard of local welfare in the face of their own financial growth. By forcing her readers to take on the role of an ignorant and irresponsible tourist directly, Kincaid allows her words to create an impact on a personal level, making her reader ponder over the effects of their actions over the inhabitants of previously colonised countries.
Culture and Identity in A Small Place
From the point of view of a reader, it is clear that Jamaica Kincaid is not satisfied with the way Antigua is now. By comparing pre-colonial Antigua with colonial and post-colonial Antigua, Kincaid creates a novel that is anti-tourist and questions whether the island was better off in pre-colonial times or how it is now. In the first section of the novel, Kincaid describes to the reader the beauty of the island without going into the harsh way that the natives live their lives. She tells this part from the hypothetical view of a tourist, but eventually ends the section by discussing how much she dislikes tourists. The second section describes the old Antigua, while it was in the colonial possession of Great Britain. The third section finds Kincaid questioning whether times were better in the old days or how they are today. The fourth section closes out the book with a comparison of the ‘mixed blessing’ the people on the island are living with: they are surrounded by the immense beauty of a tropical island in the Caribbean, only to find themselves stricken with poverty and unsuitable living conditions. Kincaid’s point of view on culture and history reflect how many Caribbean and Antiguan people feel: that the living conditions they are faced with now are much different from how they used to be.
Kincaid’s view in A Small Place reflects a Caribbean perspective, which is one of disgust towards the Europeans. While they felt as if they were doing the natives a favor by coming in and teaching them their culture, Kincaid believes that the Europeans stripped many Caribbean’s of their culture, including the Antiguans. She believes that the culture of Antigua has been taken away from them, and other Caribbean islanders feel the same way about their land. The culture that they once had and the understanding of the native rituals of their island are long gone, having been replaced by the ideas of the Europeans.
In the first section, Kincaid starts off from the point of view of a tourist, and shows readers how they would view the island. “As you’re plane descends to land, you might say, what a beautiful island Antigua is.”  Kincaid shows from a tourists point of view that the island is extremely beautiful. However, within the beauty of the island is the true life of the natives that live there, and the poverty and poor living conditions that they are faced with. A native sees the island differently because they have to live there and they deal with it everyday, while a tourist comes in and sees the island for the first time. The tourist views the island as a paradise, a type of getaway from the regular troubles of their native land.
“Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives — most natives in the world — cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go — so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.” [18-19]
The reader is able to better understand how the natives life their lives and, from a cultural point of view, can see that the Caribbean way of living is disrespectful of their culture. They live in poverty and their culture has been stripped from them, and they are now forced to live in a world where European influence has taken over.The second section sees Kincaid going back to the old Antigua, during the colonial possession. She briefly remembers the unquestioning obedience of Antigua to England and their culture. From a cultural point of view, we now see how England stripped Antiguans of their culture and their morals, being able to ‘mold’ them, in a sense, into the people they wanted them to be. This was often the case for many Caribbean countries once they were colonized.
“Do you ever try to understand why people like me cannot get over the past, cannot forgive and cannot forget? There is the Barclay’s Bank. The Barclay brothers are dead. The human beings they traded, the human beings who to them were only commodities, are dead. . . . So do you see the queer thing about people like me? Sometimes we hold your retribution.”
Kincaid accuses the British colonial system of trading humans and turning them into another item instead of an actual human being. Kincaid can’t ‘forgive and forget’ because there is no way to neither forgive nor forget how slavery affected people.
In the third section, Kincaid questions whether things were better in the old days or how they are now. She uses the library as an example of this:“If you could hear the sound of [the old library’s] quietness . . . , the smell of the sea . . . , the heat of the sun . . . , the beauty of us sitting there like communicants at an altar . . . , the fairy tale of how we met you, your right to do the things you did . . . you would see why my heart would break at the dung heap that now passes for a library in Antigua.”
The library used to be a majestic place where people would enjoy spending their time. However, it is now temporarily located above a dry goods store, while it is awaiting repairs. Members of the Mill Reef Club have funds to help restore the library, but they will only give money if it is completely rebuilt. Kincaid believes that this has more to do with trying to remember the colonial regime than trying to actually help.
In the last section, Kincaid says that the beauty of the island is a ‘mixed blessing’ to the natives, who are surrounded by beauty but trapped in poverty. “It is as if, then, the beauty—the beauty of the sea, the land, the air, the trees, the market, the people, the sounds they make—were a prison, and as if everything and everybody inside it were locked in and everything and everybody that is not inside it were locked out. And what might it do to ordinary people to live in this way every day? What might it do to them to live in such heightened, intense surroundings every day?”
Kincaid believes that the slaves who were brought to the island were victims and considered them honorable, but their descendants and the people who live in Antigua today are merely simple human beings. Europeans believed that colonizing these countries would give them a sense of hope and open them up to new cultures. However, Kincaid believes that the culture of Antigua was stripped from them with the arrival of the English. From a cultural and historical point of view, the Antiguans culture and sense of history was taken from them. The natives live in a beautiful country but are faced with poverty everyday. From an outsiders point of view, the country is beautiful. However, from someone who is a native to the island, it is a place without culture or beauty.
The turning of a blind eye – a conversation between “you” and “I”
Woven between Jamaica Kincaid’s emotionally charged memoir of Antigua is a strong rhetorical message to her audience to try and be different than those of them – middle class North American/European tourists – who came before to her land. These tourists, an audience of which I am not a part, are effectively persuaded of this argument due to her sophisticated interplay of ethos, pathos and logos. Emotions (and, by extension, emotional language) founded upon a logical basis, can be a very strong persuasive combination, which works effectively in Kincaid’s work due to the fact that she manages to make herself seen as a credible narrator. We (her audience) are left, by the end of her tale, acutely aware of our flaws and of our ignorance of the several harsh truths we fail to see when visiting a place or a culture less privileged than us, such as Antigua.
Using “we” to refer to Kincaid’s target audience, one of the most interesting choices in her essay is her second-person narrative, wherein, from the start, we are led through a tour of Antigua with her narrating not only what we see, but also what we feel and think inside our heads. The use of “you” is one of the primary forms of pathos that Kincaid uses in order to persuade her audience. Especially within the first of the four sections of the book, a section that focuses specifically on the ignorance of the tourist, her use of “you” grows increasingly aggressive and accusatory. Initially starting off with rather docile sentences like “As your plane descends to land, you might say “What a beautiful island Antigua is” “ (3), she progresses onto more scathing remarks like “the thought of what it might be like for someone who had to live day in, day out in a place that suffers constantly from drought, and has to watch carefully every drop of fresh water . . . must never cross your mind” (4) bringing us (the audience, again) to our senses as she highlights what is a very realistic thought process in the mind of a more privileged tourist in a less privileged area. The aggressive “you” makes the audience feel targeted and blamed. Since blame naturally creates discomfort and pain, the language is a deliberate provocation of the audience’s minds. It creates a sense of being directly challenged and that forces us to think critically about what she’s saying. Moreover, she justifies these accusations through the aforementioned personal experience-credibility she asserts as well as the incorporation of proof and (quoted above) factual statements about conditions for Antiguans that prevent the audience from dismissing her strong words. In this way, ethos and logos combine to form a strong argumentative base that is effectively delivered through the usage of pathos (“you”).
Beginning with the first part of the book, which details our journey through her Antigua as a tourist, she highlights the immense privilege we have by contrasting it with actual facts about Antiguan quality of life: for instance, she talks of how American/European tourists pass through immigration without a hassle, but Antiguans themselves must wait in line, struggling to bring back essential clothes and food for their struggling families (4). She does not fail to pinpoint exactly how we, her audience, are ignorant. Delving deeper, apart from the facts about the roads and the lack of drinking water that she mentions during this section, she also provides very special “insider” information that only someone from Antigua could have known. An example of this is when she explains why Antigua is chock-full of near-broken, expensive Japanese cars. Her knowledge of even what type of petrol is used (and should be used) adds credibility to her words. She boosts her credibility further by sharing opinions locals have towards the tourists and calling out aspects of the tourists tourists know to be true – case in point, “behind their closed doors they laugh at you. . . you try eating their way, you look silly; you try eating the way you always eat, you look silly. . . you have an accent” (17). Kincaid succeeds in creating an image of her having been one of those selfsame locals she talks about in such lines. The audience knows now that she has been there. Refuting her statements becomes harder.
Kincaid continues this “one-two” punch of ethos and logos by providing explicit details about how car loans are easily available due to the corrupt ministers that hold monopolies over car dealerships in the region. She includes more details about past driving-license scandals (7) She has now created for us a logical connection between what we see on the streets and what could be causing it – this also sets up and foreshadows her later discussions about the rampant political power-abuse and exploitation in Antigua. In this way, since she talks about themes, instances and phenomena that she sets up earlier on in the book, the entire memoir is a coherent and logically flowing set of arguments. Her ideas do not come out of nowhere, but instead, from facts and evidence she has provided earlier on in her text. This, once more makes her details that much more believable and worth listening to, reminding us with a great degree of persuasion of the problems she speaks of – tourist/outsider ignorance, corruption, slavery and colonialism and their lasting effects. Her pathos-based use of “you” only strengthens the delivery of these truths and her argument becomes all the more robust – it cannot be dismissed as an emotional rant.
Jamaica Kincaid continues to strengthen her argument by logically and rationally accepting other sides of the story. “And so, ordinarily you are a nice person, an attractive person, a person capable of drawing to yourself the affection of other people. . . a person at home in your own skin . . . but you make a leap from being that nice blob. . . to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it; to being a person marvelling at the harmony (ordinarily, what you would say is the backwardness) [of] these other people (and they are other people” (16). Kincaid uses repetition of variations of “nice person” repeatedly to emphasize the fact that she genuinely believes this audience is a regular, nice person back home. This recognition of the fact that bad tourists are very possibly great people back home rationalizes her anger and aggression by revealing that she is not cherrypicking parts of her audience’s identity to serve her purpose. She is recognizing the audience as a set of dynamic individuals who behave differently based on circumstance – logos. Therefore, her pathos/anger end up making a more compelling argument regarding the ignorance of the tourists instead of being a blanket statement devoid of reason. The pathos at play here from the aforementioned repetition essentially passive-aggressively hints at the “ugliness” (17) within her audience which she then talks about explicitly right afterwards as we can see. Her anger and her blame still comes through because of this, but she has now strengthened her argument significantly by accepting the counter-argument of her audience, the tourists’, circumstantial, fluid and human identities.
If Kincaid only used logic in this way for the first two sections of the book (which I have primarily discussed so far, the book’s whole argument would crumble in the second half. However, Kincaid makes sure to concede similar logical counter-arguments even when criticizing the colonizers of old later on in the book: “You imprisoned people. You robbed people. You opened your banks and you put our money in them. The accounts were in your name… there must have been some good people among you, but they stayed home” (36). Referring to the colonizers, she mentions the fact that the colonizers who came to Antigua were the worst of the lot, mirroring and reinforcing her statements from part one about tourists being “a piece of rubbish” (17). Kincaid remains rational throughout the work, which bolsters her credibility, which in turn supports her logical arguments which helps to reveal to the audience the brutal truths in her argument that otherwise might have been masked underneath the emotional language. Emotion becomes a strong point due to its synergy with logos and pathos, where it might have otherwise been a logical weakness in her argument.
Another way Kincaid’s argument is made stronger is that one does not have to be a white North American/European to understand the folly of being a privileged tourist, because many other ethnicities like myself, do have populations of privileged tourists, or people in general, who have, at some point, feigned the same ignorance as the North American/European white tourists Kincaid speaks of. All around the world are humans who are privileged and those who are not, and this recognition adds credibility to her argument since her argument makes sense even if it is abstracted from its exact, specific audience (middle class, white north american/european tourist). This alleviates any doubt that it was a deliberate targeting of white North American/European tourists – it is obvious that they just happen to be the culprits in the case of Antigua, but there are people who commit the same crimes elsewhere, all across the world, everyday. Her logos, pathos and ethos therefore still hit hard with their moral of not being ignorant anymore, whoever we are.