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A Small Place | Context


The 1600s: Colonization of Antigua

The "small place" of Antigua, where Kincaid was born, is an island in the Caribbean Sea. It is one of the islands making up the West Indies region, and more specifically part of a group called the Leeward Islands. Spatially it is about 2 1/2 times the size of Washington, D.C. in the United States. Its first residents were Siboney or Meso-Indians, followed by the agricultural Arawak Indians and the Carib people. The first European to attempt settlement of the island was Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in 1493. He named the island after a Spanish church and saint, Santa Maria la Antigua.

The Spanish and French failed to colonize the island, but the British succeeded. The neighboring island of Barbuda had been annexed, or taken over, by Britain in 1628. Antigua became a British colony in 1667, a few decades after the initial arrival of British explorer Sir Thomas Warner. Later in 1684, British entrepreneur Sir Christopher Codrington arrived in Antigua with plans to develop large-scale sugar cultivation. Codrington's business plans led to the Antiguan slave trade.

African slaves were brought to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations. Most present-day Antiguans are descendants of these slaves. By the mid-18th century the island had hundreds of windmills processing sugarcane, and by the end of the century Antigua was a major trading hub. Known as the "gateway to the Caribbean," Antigua had the best harbor of the British-ruled islands, and its ports provided transportation to and from other island sugar colonies.

Though the slave trade was abolished in the British West Indies in 1807, the powerful Codrington family continued to enslave sugarcane workers in Barbuda. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 finally led to Antiguan slaves' emancipation in 1834. The sugar industry began to decline, and Antigua headed toward an economic crossroads.

The 1970s: Antigua's Independence Movement

By the early 20th century Antigua, still under British rule, needed to fix its troubled economy both by creating trade alliances and becoming self-reliant. Antiguans began to support the fledgling labor movement led by politician Vere Cornwall Bird, or V.C. Bird. He formed the country's first labor union in 1939 and later led the Antigua Labour Party. The strength of Bird's movement led to Antiguans pushing for independence from Britain.

The West Indies Act of 1967 made Antigua an associated state of Britain—self-governing, but still under British rule. While Britain's plan was to keep Antigua within its federation of islands, the Antiguan prime minister George Walter wanted complete independence.

Walter lost the 1976 elections to Bird in a controversial election Kincaid discusses in her essay. With Bird at the helm as prime minister, Antigua achieved complete independence in 1981. Antigua and Barbuda joined the Organization of East Caribbean States. Bird's Antigua Labour Party consolidated power, winning elections by a large majority in 1984 and 1989.

By the time Kincaid wrote A Small Place, seven years postindependence, cracks had already begun to show in Antiguan self-rule. The Antigua Labour Party's senior ministers were accused of financial misdealing, and arguments divided Antigua's parliamentary government.

Modern Antigua: A Legacy of Empire

The corruption, colonialism, and abuses of power Kincaid describes continued in Antigua after the essay's publication. After accusations of "gunrunning" in 1990, Vere Bird Jr. (one of the "two sons" Kincaid references) left office. The influence of the Bird family remained; when Bird retired in 1994, his other son Lester took his place as prime minister. Antigua continued to be a hub of criminal activity, called "one of the most attractive centers in the Caribbean for money launderers" by the U.S. State Department in 1999. One of Antigua's largest private investors, American financier Allen Stanford, was arrested for fraud in 2009 and convicted in 2012.

Antigua struggled for self-sufficiency and prosperity after the sugar industry's decline. In addition natural disasters hit the Caribbean island, including the 1974 earthquake Kincaid refers to, harming the island further. Throughout the 20th century the government took steps to revive its economy through tourism. The 1952 Hotel Aid Ordinance reduced import fees on hotel construction material. And the 1960s brought in more foreign visitors; after Cuba's 1959 revolution closed the country to tourism, vacationers picked Antigua as an alternate destination. Tourism and banking remain the country's biggest industries.

Kincaid names several Antiguan landmarks and significant places in the essay to help readers better understand the country:

  • Barbuda: Antigua's neighboring island, considered part of the Antiguan nation. Barbuda is far less populated, with 97% of the nation's residents living in Antigua.
  • St. John's: Antigua's capital city and the most populated city in Antigua and Barbuda. The market and the library are both in St. John's, and Kincaid grew up in the city.
  • Redonda: a small, uninhabited island or "barren rock" considered part of the Antiguan nation.
  • The library: Antigua's only public library, destroyed by an earthquake in 1974 and still unrepaired when Kincaid returned in the 1980s.
  • The Mill Reef Club: a private resort founded for wealthy vacationers in 1947. Members have included several American industrialists and the poet Archibald MacLeish. Kincaid considers the club a symbol of the toxic colonial rule still controlling Antigua.
  • Holberton Hospital: the Antiguan hospital Kincaid describes as "so dirty, so run down" that government ministers fly elsewhere for health care.
  • Government House: the historic residence of Antigua's Governor General, a well-kept building with a colonial style of architecture.
  • Barclays Bank: a bank in Antigua founded by former slave traders the Barclay brothers.
  • Market Street: a major street in St. John's.
  • The Hotel Training School: also known as the Antigua and Barbuda Hospitality Training Institute, a popular vocational school Kincaid criticizes for teaching graduates to be "good servants."
  • Table Hill Gordon: a village in Antigua.

The Impact of Postcolonialism

The essay describes a postcolonial Antigua, or Antigua after the end of Western colonial rule. As a newly self-ruling nation Antigua faces many challenges, including the challenge of training the next generation. Kincaid cites the "bad post-colonial education" in Antigua. Students, no longer educated in a British tradition, don't seem to know how to read and write at all.

The nation risks repeating patterns of domination and dishonest leadership. Since they've learned domineering and selfish tactics from colonial leaders, the colonized people may use similar tactics to establish a power hierarchy, even after the end of colonialism. At the end of Section 2 Kincaid tells Western colonizers the Antiguans learned to "govern badly" and "corrupt our societies" from them.

Kincaid's "Antitravel Narrative": Critical Reception

A Small Place, written early in Kincaid's career, struck readers with its direct and confrontational tone. The book was described as an "antitravel narrative" since it mimics the form of a travel guide but discusses the harm of tourism instead. Travel narratives usually feature a visitor from outside of the culture, present a journey of self-discovery, and encourage travel to the country or region. Kincaid's book, like a typical travel narrative or guide, serves as an introduction to Antigua. But she writes from a place of familiarity with the culture, making the essay an "expatriate" narrative, or the story of a person who's left their native country and returned for a visit. She discourages travel to Antigua and even accuses potential travelers of colonial domination.

Bob Gottlieb, then the editor of The New Yorker, refused to publish it. A review in The New York Times called the essay "angry." Kincaid feels her work has frequently been dismissed as "angry" ever since: "I've come to see that I'm saying something that people generally do not want to hear," she said in an interview, continuing, "A white person does not like to be told ... 'You know, what you did was incredibly wrong.'"

Black Antiguans reacted to A Small Place just as strongly. Kincaid is critical of both white tourists and self-governing Antiguans in the essay. Antiguan readers told Kincaid's mother, "It's true, but did she have to say it?" Kincaid was unofficially banned from Antigua for five years after the work's publication. She feared attempts on her life if she traveled there.

Kincaid believes the response reveals a typical Antiguan mentality: "They think you shouldn't mention the unpleasant truth, and maybe it will go away." She says her work doesn't aim to be angry, but rather to portray the truth. She's since traveled to Antigua with her two children, Annie and Howard, making it a priority to show them her homeland: "I like them to see normal, boring black people going about their normal, boring lives," she told the New York Times.
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