The novelist Andrea Levy sadly died in February 2019. The National Theatre’s adaptation of her novel ‘Small Island’ is a wonderful tribute to her commitment to telling the stories of Jamaicans in Britain. Set in the 1940s, this is an important play for our times.
Small Island tells the story of people from Jamaica and Britain – two small islands. The audience enter to find the sea swirling on the back drop and the sound of rhythmic waves crashing against island shores. Separated by the vast sea, the second half of the play is shaped by its crossing. On the surging back drop we see the Empire Windrush and in a visually stunning moment the characters become silhouettes waving on the gangplank. It is with the connection and separation of the islands that the play is concerned. The connection was forged in blood.
In 1655 Britain, in the early stages of imperialist expansion, seized Jamaica from its Spanish colonisers. The restoration of the monarchy in England five years later was accompanied by the establishment of the Royal African Company. The company’s trade was in human beings – enslaving Africans and transporting them to work as slaves for the rest of their lives on the plantations of colonised Caribbean islands, including Jamaica. It was sanctioned by the most powerful people in the English state. The Royal African Company was led by the king’s brother James (later James II); it was granted a royal charter in 1672 and a monopoly on slaving. The business of slavery made enormous fortunes for English merchants operating out of English ports: Bristol, Liverpool and the City of London.
Small Island is set in the 1940s and the characters’ understanding of the connection between these countries reveals the continuation of a relationship based on exploitation and dominance. In Jamaica, Britain is projected as the ‘Mother Country’, a homeland of prosperity and decency where a new life can be created. Michael and Gilbert sign up to fight for the British in the Second World War and excitedly imagine their training in skilled jobs and their futures assured. Hortense aspires to a prim and respectable existence in an elegant house in London and her own doorbell. They dismiss the warnings of Elwood, attending protests for Jamaican independence, who warns that it is all a mirage: the British will say anything to get what they want.
Elwood is very quickly proved right. Although there is not formal segregation in the British forces, Michael and Gilbert face racial discrimination and are consigned to inferior tasks, deprived of the training they were promised. Based in Lincolnshire, they find themselves regarded as strangers in a land they had been told was their ‘mother’. They encounter a wide range of responses. There is Bernard, the sexually repressed, embittered racist bank clerk who in this performance bore a considerable resemblance to Jacob Rees-Mogg. By contrast, Bernard’s wife Queenie, full of warmth and wit, refuses to discriminate and stands up to her racist neighbours who object to her Jamaican lodgers.
Despite the diverse responses, the Jamaicans always encounter a level of bewilderment. In one poignant moment in the novel, Gilbert the lonely soldier recalls his school days when he proudly recited the names of Britain’s canals, its big companies and the dates of British history. It seems, he reflects, that no one in Britain knows anything about Jamaica, they couldn’t even find it on a map. He pictures ‘Lady Havealot’, ancestor’s pictures on the wall and blissfully unaware of where the coffee she’s drinking comes from, being asked about Jamaica:
‘Does she see that small boy standing tall in a classroom where sunlight draws lines across the room, speaking of England – of canals, of Parliament and the greatest laws ever passed? Or might she, with some authority, from a friend she knew or a book she’d read, tell you of savages, jungles and swinging through trees?’ (pg.142)
But then, for all that reciting, how much was Gilbert really taught about Britain? Arriving in London in 1948 with his new wife Hortense, the couple find in place of the city of their dreams, a cold, badly bombed ruin in which they are pushed to the impoverished and overcrowded margins.
For all the sense of separation, the characters are inevitably, sometimes unknowingly and often unwillingly, connected to each other. It is the struggle to appreciate and understand those connections that produces the searing pain in the piece, but also its humour. It connected with the audience too. The ‘fourth wall’ began to crumble in the scenes with the racist characters – there were collective, audible responses to the racist abuse on stage.
Growing up in London to Jamaican parents (her father was on the Empire Windrush), Andrea Levy observed that efforts to uncover the stories of Jamaicans in Britain ‘reveal what amounts to a lost history for many of us.’ Recently, the history of Jamaicans in Britain has not only faced being ‘lost’ but actively expunged – when the landing cards of people from the Caribbean, who arrived on ships such as the Windrush, were destroyed by the Home Office. This, combined with the stated efforts of then Home Secretary Theresa May to create a ‘really hostile environment’, represented a concerted assault on British citizens from the Caribbean, many of whom were instructed to provide the proof of their right to live in Britain – proof that the government had destroyed. The human cost has been appalling: at least 83 people from the ‘Windrush generation’, and likely many more, were deported, 11 people are known to have died after having been deported – again, the number may be much higher.
This has been the consequence of a racist erasing of history. At this time, Andrea Levy’s stories are a powerful historical testament.
‘Small Island’ is on at the National Theatre until 31 July.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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