Omeros: the River of Ancestry and the Importance of Idenitty
English and Literature
Submitted By NizsA
Omeros: The River of Ancestry and the Importance of Identity
What defines a location, a place in space? Is it those who are there or those who have been there? Is it the life this position exudes or the life that is being suppressed? How does one define what is in front of them? How does one differentiate between the history of a place, the lives – the feelings, everyday happenings of the people – and the History of the place, that is to say the history that is imposed on the people? This is a problem when discussing places that have been colonized. The history of the people is assumed to be the History – the histories of the colonizers. The lives of the colonizers are projected onto the colonized – their religion, their rites, their businesses. The actual lives of the people are forgotten . The lives of the ingenious people are forgotten. And in places where slavery and indentured servitude was a practice, the original and true histories of those people are forgotten. This is a phenomenon that West Indian author and poet Derek Walcott addresses in his insightful and touched the Nobel Prize Lecture delivered after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. He begins his lecture describing a performance that takes place on the island of Trinidad, every year by the East Indian population of the town Felicity. The performance is a dramatization of the Hindu epic Ramayana, a major representation of their original history and presentation of their identities. Walcott talks about the simplifying of these identities and how that translates to the view of the Caribbean as a whole:
These purists look upon such ceremonies as grammarians look at a dialect, as cities look on provinces and empires look upon their colonies. Memory that
yearns to the join the centre, a limb remembering the body from which it has been severed . . . In other words, the way that the Caribbean is still looked at, illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized. ‘No people there,” to quote Froude, “in the true sense of the word.’ No people. Fragments and echoes of real people, unoriginal and broken.
Those lost identities yearn to be attached to the original; they yearn for the original to be recognized. According to Walcott, this is the problem of the Caribbean. The Caribbean cannot be defined therefore it is considered nothing. Nothing but lands of paradise – places left to promote only their beauty. Unfortunately, glistening piers and luscious mountains do not aid the telling of the lives of a people. And this is exactly what is captured in Walcott’s Nobel Prize winning epic poem, Omeros.
Walcott’s Omeros is a work of remarkable beauty. This work spans time, shifting through different time eras, places and viewpoints with sweeping grace and wonderful power.
Omeros is set in Walcott’s home country, St. Lucia. St. Lucia is a windward island located in the
Eastern Caribbean. St. Lucia’s History, people and beauty play a major role in this interpretation of many Greek and Roman classics. The Greek and Roman influence of this epic poem not only serve as a structural principle of the poem but also presents itself as a means of expressing truths about the relation of human society to its past. Most of the works referenced in the poem, like
The Iliad, the Odyssey, and Dante’s Inferno, present the theme of returning to the past as a way to understand the future. It is only through reflection on past events that one learns to navigate
the future. Only through the understanding of past histories and ancestry can a person understand where there are going and who they are meant to be.
The theme of identity is one of the more prevalent themes of the epic poem. Walcott recognizes the beauty of his island and he realizes that is what outsiders tend to notice about the island. Walcott captures this unrealistic beauty of St. Lucia, and the Caribbean as a whole in his poem. Moreover, encased in this beauty, he captures the beauty of the people, of those whose ancestry is based in Africa. St. Lucia and the Caribbean as a whole holds the History of a people brought to the Caribbean for the sole purpose of being slaves. The colonizers tried to erase and hide their African roots so the islands can fit into the mold created for their world empires. These roots were masked and the land was glorified. The history was lost to the “delights of mindlessness” through the continued portrayal of the Caribbean as the ultimate vacation spot .
But without their history, the island and the people cannot progress, that identity is their guide to growth. Walcott captures this in his words. His characters all represent something different on the road to self-discovery with one, Ma Kilman, providing the solution to the identity crisis and another, Philoctete, representing the bitterness felt towards those who silenced, temporarily, their identities and the link to their ancestry. Walcott also provides beautiful symbols for the life of St.
Lucia – in the iguana, trees and yams – and what it has lost. But also what St. Lucia has to gain in the representation of St. Lucia in the form of Helen.
The first chapter of the epic poem presents the problem of the loss of identity. In the introduction of the first character, Walcott highlights that something has been taken: “Philoctete smiles for the tourists, who try taking/ his soul with their cameras” (3). From the opening stanza, the conflict of the tourists is presented. The tourists, who are the main culprits of only looking to the beauty of the island, are part of the reason why the people are losing their souls which is synonymous with their identity, with who they are. Also in this chapter, two symbols for the island are introduced. The cutting down of trees first occurs in first part of this chapter. The axing of the trees is described with great pain as if murder is occurring: “When it came back, it/ give us the spirit to turn into murderers./ I lift up the axe and pray for strength in my hands/ to wound the first cedar” (3). Silently watching and listening to the destruction of the trees is the iguana. The iguana is a symbol for St. Lucia; it is a link to its past life before colonialism. The name given to the island by the indigenous people, the Aruacs, sometimes spelt Arawaks, was
“Iounalao” meaning “Where the iguana is found.” The iguana became imbued in the identity of
St. Lucia by the bestowing of this name. And now it sits quietly as its name and habitat is lost to colonization. The cutting down and measuring of the cedars represents the beginning of colonialism – the beginning of the loss of identity:
The slit pods of its eyes/ ripened in a pause that lasted for centuries, that rose with the Aruacs’ smoke till a new race unknown to the lizard stood measuring the trees.
These were their pillars that fell, leaving a blue space for a single God where the old gods stood before (4-5).
While the iguana may have sat silently watching, it does not mean that all those who had to witness the slaughter of the trees were fine with the occurrence. Philoctete highlights his wound in this first part of the first chapter, the one made by a rusted anchor. This wound is a defining factor in Philoctete’s identity as well as the identity of the island.
Philoctete is a fisherman; he lives by the rules of the sea and loves it. He is an older man with a connection to the pre-colonized St. Lucia. His defining characteristic is the open wound on his ankle. While he is at Ma Kilman’s “No Pain Café” he discusses his wound for the first time. Like the first time it was brought up in the first chapter, the wound is compared to the sea, further highlighting Philoctete’s connection the sea. As well as showing how the sea is important to the formation of the identity of people who live on an island. Unfortunately, the sea hurt
Philoctete just as much as it has brought him love and joy. Much like the sea has hurt the people of the island. The sea is the people’s only connector to the outside world, it is the only connector the people have to their roots, to their ancestry, to their original home. Unfortunately, it is by this same sea that they were brought to this ill-fated world in the Caribbean. Philoctete realizes this in the pain associated with his wound. Philoctete “believed the swelling [of his wound] came from the chained ankles of his grandfathers” (19). The chains that bound the millions of slaves across the Atlantic Ocean through the Caribbean Sea to the various islands whose sole purpose was to build empires. His wound was an anchor to the pain felt by his ancestors, the pain of the freemen forced into slavery. He is chained to that pain. Philoctete has to bear the burden for the
others (the descendants of these slaves) because they do not realize it, they do not recognize it .
They do not recognize the power of their link to Africa. They do not realize their true ancestry.
Throughout the poem, ancestry is a prevalent theme that is intertwined with identity.
Walcott’s message appears to be that human identity is in part defined by ancestry; our knowledge of our ancestry helps us define our identity. The importance of ancestry is first brought up to Philoctete with the discussion of his wound but it is furthered in the next chapter with the symbolism behind the yams. The scene takes place in a grove that used to be a sugar estate. The history of the location is already there for the reader. This is a place where people suffered. This is a place where people lost themselves to the hard labor and the continued badgering of their soul. Philoctete has to pass through this grove to reach his yam garden. The yams are compared to “maps of Africa” (20). The yams are given the role of guide to a lost or forgotten ancestry. They are rooted in the ground and provide a strong foundation for the building of an identity. However, these yams are murdered – like with the trees the cutting off the yams is likened to a murder. It hurts Philoctete to kill the yams: “He edged the razor-sharp steel through pleading finger and thumb.” The yams fought back by recoiling in a “cold sweat”
(21). In the end, the yams are massacred at the hands of the island man. Philoctete realizes the link he is breaking and scolds the yams: “Salope! You all see what it’s like without roots in this world?” The natural world is a representation of a way to find a way back to the ancestors .
However, there is always a foreign presence that will disrupt these passages – these presences are both internal and external of the island, the people of the island are to blame for the lack of
identity as well as the colonizers. They did not realize the importance of these roots so they
“hacked them to the heel” until they could no longer bloom.
The search for an identity is not limited to the black inhabitants of the island. He also comments on the identity formed by the white inhabitants in the form of Major Plunkett. It is not disputed that Plunkett loves the island. He is just as obsessed with the human representation of the island, Helen, as every other man. He considers St. Lucia his home and does not wish to return to his actual home in Europe. He is enraptured with its beauty but he realizes he does not belong. This is the same way that the British colonizers must have realized that they did not belong after they found functioning societies already in place once they settled on the island .
Being the only male white character present in the poem, Plunkett represents the colonizer – or at the very least the son of the colonizers, present for the colonization but not taking an active part in the degradation of the island and the people present on the island. He considers the island home but he cannot find an identity present in this home so he searches endlessly for a link to the island through his ancestry. In the description of one of the most important battles in St. Lucian history between the British and French over possession of the island, the Battle of Les Saintes, the battle that secured the island for the British, Plunkett thought of himself as a descendant of the midshipman. The midshipman died in battle so there is no way for Plunkett to be related to him so he continues to look through battle histories at all the names of the majors trying to find a connection. By trying to find or create this family history, Plunkett is trying to reassure himself that St. Lucia is where he belongs. The British, and all colonizers, do not fit into the natural
history of the island. However, for an identity to grow some kind of roots need to be lain and
Plunkett searches for these roots. Without these roots, the knowledge of ancestry, he is lost. A man without an identity is lost.
Walcott highlights this message of a loss of self without an identity in Plunkett. In the next chapter, Plunkett has a very powerful scene with a lizard, the established symbol of the St .
Lucia. His obsession with finding a link to the island through battle grows, he is capable to list all the ships, their routes, every regiment, and his mind begins to escape him. Plunkett decides to go see the sight of the naval battle. Where he is standing he feels watched. He realizes a lizard is watching him and he gets angry. He accuses the lizard for which the island is named if he has come back to claim the island (92). He throws a pamphlet he was reading at the lizard and he screams at the lizard, “History was fact,/ History was a cannon, not a lizard” (92). In an everyday scene, this is just a lizard and it shows that Plunkett cannot control himself. And this need to find a link to the island is driving him crazy. On the other level, this is Plunkett’s fight with the island. He does not want the History of the island to change into the history of the people. He argues that the history is the battles and victories not the culture or the indigenous people . Those aspects are not important because History begins with the colonizers. The colonizers were the ones who brought society and civilization to the indigenous people and that is their great contribution to the world – and that is a grand and noble thing that cannot be tarnished. However,
Plunkett knows this is not true so he grows angrier and continues raging at the lizard and his, and the colonizers, real problem with the telling of history instead of History is revealed:
Was the greatest battle in naval history, which put the French to rout, fought for a creature with a disposable tail and elbows like a goalie? For this redoubt was built? And his countrymen died? For a lizard with an Aruac name? It will be rewritten by black pamphleteers, History will be revised, and we’ll be the villians, fading from the map
(he said “villians” for vilains). And when it’s over we’ll be the bastards! (92)
The problem is history does the colonizers no justice in their supposed battle to aid the lesser people of the world. The history shows the repression of the identity of the island. It shows what colonizers destroyed. And most importantly, the history shows that they do not belong to the island, they are not a part of the history. This does not sit well with Plunkett, without an ancestral link to the island, he cannot form an identity about himself. Plunkett does calm down however and becomes resigned to the fact that his ancestor drowned at sea. By accepting his ancestry, he is able to move on.
The greatest identity struggle, and resolution, is presented in the character of Achille. His identity struggle does not begin with him in the present but his ancestor, Afolabe, a slave.
Afolabe was one of the slaves that aided Admiral Rodney (the British naval commander during the Battle of Les Saintes) lift a cannon onto a cliff to prepare for battle with the French. During the hard ordeal, Afolabe calms the other slaves by singing a song (82). This helps them succeed in their task. In return for his hard work, the Admiral renames Afolabe “Achilles” (83). These
passages show the stripping of Afolabe’s link to his ancestors and his home in Africa. By taking his name, Rodney removes Afolabe from himself and by allowing Rodney to change his name
Afolabe lets his ancestry be removed, even if it was “easier” to let himself be called Achilles.
This passage also shows how the British are the ones fighting but the slaves are the ones doing all the work and then the British places their name on it as if they were the ones working. So at the end of the day, the slaves are not working for themselves and losing themselves in the process. They are working and providing aid to British imperatives that do not include their interests. They are building the History while forgetting and removing themselves from their history. This removal from history and ancestry it what causes Achille’s identity crisis. He is in love with St. Lucia, by way of Helen, but for some reason cannot attain St. Lucia. This beloved island does not offer all he needs in order to have peace of mind. Achille’s identity struggles are highlighted in Chapter XXIV while he is at sea, like Philoctete, the sea represents a lot for
Achille. In these passages, the link between the sea and the identity of the black inhabitants of the St. Lucia is stressed. It is only when Achille is far out at sea, guided by the sea-swift is he able to comprehend what he is struggling with. As the sea-swift passed, Achille thought “he saw the whole world globed in the passing sorrow of her sleepless eye” (127). The eye was looking at the troubled history of the lost identities of the men lost at sea. This causes Achille to think about the names of past fisherman who never returned home and the slaves who died crossing the ocean from Africa. Achille gets heatstroke and imagines these dead bodies floating in and out of
the water. One of the faces was his father’s. And this is the first time he asked himself “who he was” (130). It is the face of his father and the faces of his father’s kinsmen that propels him to find his identity – his ancestry is what will guide him to himself. He questions where he is from and where he belongs. He recognizes that by seeking and finding his identity is the answer to bringing his history and his present life together. This chapter shows the pain of lost identity with Achille wandering helplessly at sea with sunstroke and ill but it also begins the process of creating a new identity. An identity that encompasses all the people who make up the Caribbean culture – the indigenous Aruacs and Caribs and the African who create the mix, Creole.
Achille finds his peace after he returns from his journey. The sea leads Achille to an endless river, a river that leads him home to Africa, to the village of his ancestors. The people of the village welcome Achille like a lost brother and introduce him to his father. They enter into easy conversation like he has never left home. They begin talking about their names. His father says Afolabe and places his hand over his heart (137). His name is synonymous with himself, everything he holds dear. His name is his identity. It is the name of his ancestors and encompasses all their lives, the lives that help him shape his life. So when he asks Achille what his name means, he gets so upset. He relays the importance of a name by saying:
And therefore, Achille, if I pointed and I said, There is the name of that man, that tree, and this father, would every sound be a shadow that crossed your ear,
without the shape of a man or a tree? (138)
A man is nothing without a name. With a name comes an image of what the thing is. The shadow of a name holds someone’s or something’s character, their identity. And Achille has lost his but as Afolabe assures him, “No man loses his shadow except it is in the night,/ and even then his shadow is hidden, not lost” (138). Achille had to find what he has lost. And by returning to his roots, he has found his identity. When Achille returns to the Caribbean, or wakes up from his dream, he hears a griot’s song (149). While the song is a song of sorrow and of the past, he sings a song that shows that everyone is connected in the African diaspora and Achille’s journey should not be forgotten. The same way the journey from Africa to the Caribbean should never be forgotten. It is through this journey that holds the history of black people in the Caribbean.
Through Achille Walcott shows how one finds their identity – by travelling down the river of ancestry and finding where they come from. But through the elusive Ma Kilman, he shows how to reconcile the two worlds of the colonized and the colonizer. Ma Kilman is the only person who can heal Philoctete’s wound. The wound that represents the bitterness towards the colonizers, slavery and all the tragedies of the past. Ma Kilman is versed in the Obeah religion, the religion of the indigenous people of the island. But she also goes to mass and considers herself a Catholic (236). But when she has to heal Philoctete she realizes that her external religion, the religion of the colonizers, holds no place in healing the wounds caused by the same colonizers. However, the two religions collide in her and are both necessary to who she is. Ma
Kilman looks back at her history, the history of her mother and the generations before and the history of her race. She is then able to “feel the shame, the self-hate, draining from all our bodies”
(245). It is the realization that truly understanding your history and accepting it allows you to understand your own reality and understand what the future holds.
In his Nobel lecture, Derek Walcott states, “Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean, it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves.” This is an unfortunate truth because the History helps shape the identity of the island not just the beauty.
The History and the history shapes the identity of the island and its people as well as their future .
As Achille whispers in the dead Hector’s ear, their ancestral river will lead them home forever
(232). Home is where our ancestry lies. And that is what Walcott highlights with his epic poem.