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George Lamming: Natives of My Person
Natives of My Person may well be Lamming’s most ambitious novel, treating, as it does, the nature of colonial exploitation from the early days. Critics have been mixed in their opinions, some hailing it as a masterpiece while others have categorized it as a glorious failure. My view is that Lamming tried to write both a story of a perilous expedition, with its individuals and their foibles and, at the same time, an allegory of colonial exploitation and fell between two stools in doing so, achieving neither one nor the other.
In the story there are two fictitious kingdoms – Lime Stone and Antarctica. They are implacable enemies and, presumably, based in part on England and Spain, who fought for colonial domination in the West Indies, though the similarities are far from obvious. At the beginning of the novel, the Commandant who has been a hero for Lime Stone, having conquered (usually violently and against the wishes of his all-powerful lover, who later marries the Lord Treasurer, Gabriel Tate de Lysle, an obvious reference to sugar, the key product of the colonial West Indies, with the name Tate & Lyle), is preparing another voyage. This voyage is clearly illegal and is heading for Lime Stone, recently renamed San Cristobal (Lamming’s name for a generic Caribbean island, used in other novels). The voyage is held up till the arrival of the pilot Pinteados, a former hero of Lime Stone’s enemy Antarctica.
We follow the journey of the Reconnaissance through both the omniscient narrator but also through log entries and individual diaries. Many of the characters only have titles – the Commandant, Boatswain, Surgeon, the Lady of the House (the Commandant’s lover) and so on, making them more detached. However, they all have issues that they are dealing with from their past and Lamming uses this device to make them more human than they might otherwise have been. The purpose of the journey gradually become clear. The Commandant seeks to expiate his past and set up a more idealized colony on Black Rock, with greater sharing of the spoils with the crew and an increased role for the women (who will join later).
But Lamming wants us to see the destructive nature of the colonial past and much of the story shows what the Commandant and others did to gain Black Rock and other colonies. As a result the failure of this latest project is bound to founder for the same reasons that colonialism will – greed, selfishness and racism. But Lamming tells his story well and it certainly is a very noble attempt and one well worth reading, even if, ultimately, it does not fully succeed.
First published in 1972 by Longman Caribbean