The British Empire Library

The Loss of El Dorado: A Colonial History

by V.S. Naipaul

I am tempted to say that V.S. Naipaul's book is something of a 'marmite' book in that you either love it or you hate. However, I am finding that in reality I both loved and hated this book. It is part literature and part history and in some ways it fails at both of these genres but at the same time they do shine through and brightly in places. This book is something of an intriguing paradox but one which I am glad that I did read. It certainly could be frustrating to read at times as its chronology and characters danced about through the ages in search of themes and enthralled to established storylines.

In essence, this book tells the story of Trinidad from its first discovery by the Europeans, by Columbus no less, until the end of the Napoleonic Wars by which time it had moved from the periphery of the Spanish Empire to the periphery of the British one. This is despite the hopes of various colonists and adventurers through those centuries who had hoped that the island of Trinidad promised so much more than it ever delivered.

Trinidad's location as a large island in the Caribbean within sight of the South American landmass meant that it had its own strategic and economic path that meant that it rarely 'fit' with other categories of colony. For the Spanish, the island of Trinidad was little more than an outpost on the edge of the far more consequential Spanish Main where their efforts at colonisation and resource extraction were maximised. The maritime British Empire hoped that it could be wedded to its own Caribbean sugar islands, but its size and racial make up made it very different from the settler slave colonies who were wary of the island's size and its population's loyalties. Later, British traders hoped that Trinidad would be a springboard to trade with a rich South American continent which had managed to throw off the shackles and restrictions of Spanish control, only to find that their timing was less than ideal. The sugar islands were already becoming economic backwaters as slavery was running its course and sugar beet eclipsed sugar cane and the South American revolutions were far proving to be far more messy, muddled and complicated than the merchants had predicted. The idea that Trinidad might become something of a Singapore or Aden of the Americas were never to be realised.

The title of the book "The Loss of El Dorado" hints at the high initial hopes of colonists and explorers. Indeed, the exploits of one of England's most famous maritime explorers, Sir Walter Raleigh, provided a foundation stone for the dashed hopes of so many in the years to come. Trinidad's location near to the Orinoco Delta system made it the logical starting point to discover what they hoped was the fantastical city of gold in the South American jungle. On both of his expeditions to search for El Dorado, Raleigh stopped off in Trinidad in hopes of gathering information and supplies before finding the city whose existence he had staked his reputation upon. His ruthlessness was not to be forgotten by the Spanish, but neither was his fascination for the Amer-Indian peoples he came across. Ultimately though, his failure to find the fabled city cost him his own life, but it also provided a kernel of connection to the island that would draw the British back some two centuries later.

Naipaul's book throws a fascinating light on the strategic importance, or lack of importance, to the Spanish as the Caribbean became a hunting ground for various empires and privateers from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The Spanish did little to encourage settlement on the island until the 1770s when Spanish authorities sought the expertise of French plantation owners to bring their agricultural skills and connections to the island. This French infusion (together with their slaves) would bring an interesting and unpredictable dynamic to the island's racial make-up. The timing was not good. Only a decade later, France had its own revolution which spilled over into the Caribbean with devastating results in Saint Domingue but also led to split allegiances with the growing French population on Trinidad. Royalists faced off revolutionaries whilst the hapless Spanish authorities looked on in despair.

Naipaul explains how French division, Spanish isolation and British dominance of the seas combined to allow the British to take control of the island in 1797 with barely a shot being fired in anger. These tensions on the island were not removed by the arrival of the British and the blunt new British military governor, Thomas Picton. The gruff governor failed to tiptoe through the political divisions and aspirations of the colony. Even when English settlers arrived they brought further complications to the political dynamic of the island rather than provide any solutions. It is interesting that the British sought to maintain Spanish laws and customs in their newly conquered island, perhaps mindful of the high turnover and exchange of Caribbean islands amongst the rival European powers, but also as a way of maintaining the loyalty of the existing population. Many Spanish did leave for the mainland of South America, although in the following two decades many left the revolutionary upheavals of South America to the relative calm of British run Trinidad demonstrating that the colour of the flag did not necessarily dictate the racial composition of the colony. As for Thomas Picton, it was his failure to honour Spanish laws and customs that forms the basis of the second half of the book as the torture of a 14 year old girl wrecked his colonial career. He would, however, find redemption on the European battlefields against Napoleon.

Naipaul charts the ins and outs of the court case that became an exotic sensation back in London (for at least a brief time) and the shifting alliances and aims of the protagonists involved. Naipaul certainly seems to have done his research, but in many ways he seems to have overreached himself by putting descriptions and words into the mouths and deeds of characters which it seems doubtful anyone could ever know. I found that I did not have confidence that I could believe everything that was being laid out before me and that literature was taking the lead over history. This was also a problem with following the chronology of events. Perhaps for purposes of literature, events were hinted at beforehand, or were placed out of context or came in strange sequences. I found myself frequently having to reread sections in order to try and establish the chronology of events or of the background of key characters involved, many of whom seemed to appear and disappear rapidly from the story. The author also attempts to empathise with the people he discusses but again we cannot be sure that is how they felt, it is only Naipaul's supposition that they may have felt that way. This is not to say that it is not an elegantly constructed book - I certainly enjoyed reading it. However, I did not always know when I was reading literature and when I was reading history. It is fine to make history more accessible though literary devices, but often I found these devices actually got in the way of the history. However, if you want to find out what went on in an obscure colony on the margins of not one, but two empires from its earliest days until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, then this is a book for you. There are not many like it!

British Empire Book
V.S. Naipaul