The Tension Between History and His/Her-stories in Caryl Phillips's Crossing the River

Graciela Moreira Slepoy, Postgraduate Student, Laval University, Canada

This web essay is based upon a paper the author wrote for Professor Neil Bissoondath's "Postcolonial Literature II" [ANG-64699A], Laval University.

In Crossing the River, Caryl Phillips celebrates the human experience that Raymond of Naippaul's A Bend in the River utterly neglects. By means of a series of private narratives, the author gives an overview of 250 years of the African diaspora. These local narratives are set within a framework story that gives the novel coherence and the circular quality of African storytelling. The voice of the framework story opens and ends the novel and tells the tale of an African father who sells his children into slavery: "A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my children" (1). The many local narratives give rise to a multiplicity of narrative instances. Phillips' novel can be defined as a polyphony of voices since different narrators take turns to tell their own private stories and at the end they join in a chorus.

Phillips privileges the voices of ex-centric characters, particularly those of the slave children Nash, Martha and Travis through that of Joyce; they comprise a kind of chorus that accounts for the complex experience of the African diaspora. In a personal, intimate and touching way, the author retells the past of this people, characterised by suffering, a sense of rootlessness and the breaking up of families. Phillips avoids creating historical accounts of the past; History serves as a backdrop against which private narratives unfold creating a veiled tension between History and "her/his-stories". To History, Phillips opposes a series of private and personal stories as a way of counteracting this monolithic master narrative that allows no place for the diversity, richness and complexity of human experience.

Different from the closure, determinacy and homogeneity of historical accounts, these personal narratives, particularly "Somewhere in England", are characterised by their fragmentation both at the textual and thematic levels. Due to the fragmented and plural perspectives, meaning is fluid and unstable; the past is remembered in fragments, stories are told in fragments and the characters live their lives in a fragmentary way. Fragmentation and indeterminacy call for an active participation on the part of the reader who must fill in the gaps, holes, silences and elucidate the absences. He/she must make sense out of the unstable, fragmented, indeterminate and sometimes chaotic fictional cosmos. In a democratic manner, the reader is invited to participate in the joint enterprise of constructing meaning out of this fragmented cosmos.

Historical facts and events put the different local narratives into context; however, they do not have a fundamental role. The stories of Nash, Martha and Travis show the suffering, sense of rootlessness and sorrow caused by the breaking up of families. In "The Pagan Coast", the historical fact that provides the context for Nash's story is the sailing of the "Mayflower of Liberia," in February 1820, from New York City to Sierra Leone with eighty six African-Americans on board (Bennett, 455). His-story explores the sense of rootlessness and his lack of belonging engendered by his dual identity: African and American. Nash had been sent as a missionary to Liberia by his former master, Edward Williams. The weather, language and hard living conditions in Africa make Nash feel as a stranger in his native land. Having been raised a slave in America, Nash undergoes a sort of cultural shock in Africa that leaves him bewildered. However, as Nash acknowledges, in Liberia, he experiences freedom for the first time: "We need to contend for our rights, stand our ground, and feel the love of liberty that can never be found in your America" (61). Paradoxically with freedom comes a deep sense of rootlessness and an identity crisis; he is neither an American since America does not recognise him as a free man nor an African as long as he cannot completely adjust to the way of life in Liberia. He is a hybrid. In his journey to Liberia, Edward Williams realises his mistake and admits that "this business of encouraging men to engage with a past and a history that are truly not their own is, after all ill-judged." (52)

The narrator of the second story, "West", is Martha, "the proud girl" (1). The historical context in this case is provided by the Civil War (1862) and the abolition of slavery (1865). Martha makes it clear that historical events, namely, emancipation, did not have a great relevance in her life since they could not make up for the loss of her daughter: "War came and war went and, almost unnoticed the Union toppled [...] I was free now, but it was difficult to tell what difference being free was making to my life" (84). Through her-story, the author shows the permanent psychological and spiritual damage caused by the breaking up and scattering of her family. Under the system of slavery, the nourishing nucleus of the family was the only space where slaves could find some alleviation from the dehumanisation they were subjected to. This institution, nevertheless, was constantly menaced by the selling, hiring and killing of its members.

Martha's story is pervaded by fragmentation at the thematic and textual levels. Her family had been twice destroyed and as a result she is an emotionally fragmented person. Martha's first family was broken up by the sale by auction of its members. After running away from the Hoffman's house, Martha went to Dodge where she started a new life with Chester. This time, Martha's family was destroyed by Chester's murder by white men. After this incident, Martha finds herself "assaulted by loneliness, and drifting into middle age without a family." (79)

In "Crossing the River", through Captain Hamilton's records and letters to his wife, the reader has a glimpse of the slave trade. Captain Hamilton is a fragmented being as it is shown by the dissimilar attitudes reflected in his records and letters to his wife. He is unable to reconcile his mission as a slave dealer and his Christian values. Phillips' craft and originality is revealed by his allowing the victimiser to show the reader his humanity. Hamilton is portrayed as an individual subjected to the forces of the historical period and power configuration he does not totally understand.

The theme of fragmentation, a trope in this novel, is once more present in "Somewhere in England". At the thematic level, the characters' lives are psychologically and spiritually fragmented. At the textual level, the fragmentation and disconnection of the narrative line and structure of the story are metonymic of the characters' psychological perturbation and the shattering of the power configuration of the world. The historical context of this story is World War II and the pre-war years; even if the context is not essential to the story, it is highly significant since as Lerone Bennett, Jr. states in Before the Mayflower,

the end of World War II marked the end of the European (white) expansion that began in the fifteenth century with the slave trade and the appropriation of the land and bodies of Africans and Asians. Now suddenly --after five hundred years, a mere minute in world history-- all that was over, and peoples, especially European people, were forced to redefine themselves in a world without divine rights, without colonies, without natives. (368-69)

"Somewhere in England" is definitively the most fragmented, disjointed and bewildering narrative of Crossing the River. It upsets the reader's expectations since he/she expects Travis, the third child sold into slavery, to narrate his own story. Nevertheless, in the first pages, Phillips gives voice to Joyce's unhappy and uneventful life story before and during World War II. It is only when the reader has gone through half of the narration that he/she learns that Joyce's lover and the father of her child is Travis. But even then, there is still no absolute certainty since Phillips makes no clarifying references to help the reader elucidate Travis' identity. In addition, how can it be possible that an African child sold by his father into slavery in the nineteenth century becomes an American soldier who fights a century later in WW II? Phillips subverts expectations in connection to point of view, time and space in order to show that temporal and spatial considerations are incidental, what is essential is human experience. The novel ends when the circle comprised by the human experience of all these stories is closed. The circular structure renders the novel universal.


Phillips, Caryl. Crossing the River. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1995.

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Last Modified: 14 March, 2002