Chapter Five: Columbus in Chains
Annie is sitting in her history class when the church bell tolls eleven am. She is the prefect of her class because she always gets the highest grades. Annie finds it slightly ironic that she is the prefect, because she often misbehaves. The girl who is just below Annie in terms of grades, Hilarene, is very boring and dull and never misbehaves. Their teacher, Miss Edward, is drilling students on events in the history of the West Indies. Ruth, a white girl who comes from England and who is the minister's daughter, gets one of the answers wrong. Ruth frequently is the dunce of the class, which means that each Monday she has to wear the dunce cap all day long because she did the worst on Friday's quiz. Annie feels bad for Ruth and thinks that Ruth probably does not know the West Indian history because she just arrived from England. Annie thinks that Ruth must feel constantly ashamed because her ancestors, white people, had owned slaves and every time she looked around Antigua, she must see that. Annie feels glad that she is a descendant of a slave, because she does not feel this guilt. Annie hypothesizes that if Africans found Europe instead of the other way around, Africans would not have enslaved anyone, but just would have commented on how nice Europe was, before turning around and heading home.
Annie is bored because she already knows the whole lesson, so she is reading ahead in her history book. She comes to a page with a picture of Columbus in chains on it. Annie discovers that Columbus, whom she always had learned was illustrious, had been arrested after falling out of favor with the Queen. As a result, he was placed in chains and shipped back to Spain in the bottom of a boat. Annie likes the idea of Columbus being in chains. She thinks back to a time when her father heard about her grandfather's growing decrepitude and said, "So now the great man can no longer just get up and go." Annie starts to inscribe, "The great man can no longer just get up and go," underneath the picture of Columbus in chains. All of a sudden, Miss Edwards is bearing down upon her.
Annie reflects briefly that Miss Edwards has never liked her very much. Annie believes that Miss Edwards's dislike stemmed back to a time when she saw Annie making bawdy jokes before the other girls in the tombstone area after school. The girls had congregated they had spent their recess dancing around the schoolyard while singing calypso songs. This dancing was greatly frowned upon, but the girls loved it and felt so energized that they had later gathered amongst the tombstones. Miss Edward had found them there and especially accused Annie, whose mother she spoke to directly.
Miss Edward is outraged that Annie has defaced her history book, and accuses her of being blasphemous since she has slandered the great man who discovered her island. Miss Edwards sends her to the principal. The principal removes her prefect position and orders her to copy Book I and II of Milton's Paradise Lost. Annie feels irritated and looks forward to reaching her house where her mother will cheer her. When she gets there, however, her parents barely look at her since they are deep in conversation. Annie's mother hands her a plate, but Annie does not want to eat the dinner because it appears to be breadfruit, which she hates. Annie's mother insists that it is just rice, a new kind imported from Belgium. Annie eats it, even though it tastes like breadfruit. After dinner, Annie gets her mother to confess that it truly was breadfruit that she shaped to look like rice. Annie feels a surge of hatred at yet another betrayal.
This chapter directly deals with issues of colonialism and postcolonial culture that have so far been subtly hinted at in the text. Annie launches into a discussion of the history of slavery in Antigua by discussing Ruth, a blonde haired English girl who recently moved there. Annie senses that Ruth must feel guilty because white people once enslaved black people and everyone knows it. Annie briefly comments upon the irony of colonization when she considers that all the Antiguan school children celebrate England and Queen Victoria's birthday, but really they all know that the British once enslaved them. Annie finds it ironic, but assumes that the past is the past. She feels bad for Ruth because Ruth, of course, knows less about the West Indies than them. Through the interaction of these two girls, Kincaid provides an individualized perspective upon the dynamics of life in a colonial state.
Annie's discussion of colonization goes on as she contemplates Columbus who returned to Spain imprisoned. Annie feels happy that Columbus was put into chains because he returned to Spain much in the way that slaves were sent to the Americas. The phrase "the great man can go no where" is stuck in her head and so she inscribes it before she is discovered. Her crime almost is beyond belief. Miss Edwards is a representative of the English social order and as a teacher has defined herself according to the rules of this order. One of the primary rules, of course, is that the discoverer of Antigua, Christopher Columbus, should be honored. Annie's slight of Columbus stands outside of Miss Edwards's system of belief and it is for this reason that she refers to Annie's action as "blasphemous." "Blasphemy" is a particularly strong term that usually signifies the degradation of a major deity such as God or Jesus. That Miss Edwards would use it for someone who criticized Columbus shows that she holds Columbus in almost God-like state reverence. Because Columbus's importance is essential to the colonial system, Annie's act not only criticizes him, but also subverts the whole dominant colonial order. For this reason, it is a dangerous one for which she must be punished.
The principal chooses to punish Annie by trying to reinforce the rules of English cultural dominion over her. The school has long tried to control the culture of the students, for example, by not allowing them to dance calypso at lunchtime, preferring that they read poems or hold polite discussions. In order to strongly re-inscribe English values upon Annie, the principal orders her to copy Milton's Paradise Lost. Kincaid's choice of Paradise Lost carries an appropriate subtext that relates both to the colonization of Antigua and to Annie's personal life. On the level of colonization, Antigua was a paradise before the British arrived and made it a lost paradise by transforming it into a slave colony. The title of the book that the principal uses for punishment, then, carries a certain irony that even she does not likely understand. In terms of Annie's personal life, the plot of Paradise Lost mirrors the plot of her own. Paradise Lost tells the story of Lucifer who challenged the dominant authority (God) and who, for his crimes, was cast out of the paradise of heaven into darkness and eternal exile. Annie herself is currently in a state of challenging the dominant authority (her mother) and fears being cast out into exile. The use of Milton's book thus provides a subtle commentary on several levels.
The close of the chapter reinforces Annie's sadness and sense of exile from paradise. Although she longs for comforting from her parents, they are too involved with each other to pay her any mind. Aside from just simply excluding her, Annie feels fully betrayed when she observes that her mother plotted a sneaky scheme to get her to eat breadfruit. Now her mother is not just failing to nourish their relationship but she is actively plotting against Annie. Annie feels depressed and in exile as the chapter comes to an end.
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