The Sea is History by Derek Walcott

First appeared in “The Star Apple Kingdom”, the poem ‘The Sea is History’ is part of Walcott’s autobiographical collection, Another life. This collection of poems stretches the poet’s sense of disillusionment beyond his immediate origin. By taking help from the histories of other suffering nations, Walcott describes the condition of his own people. In this poem he makes an experiment with the verse pattern and borrows the structure of terza rima from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The poem also echoes Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”.

Walcott admits that, more or less, all the African writers of his generation were natural assimilators as they were quite well-versed in Greek, Roman and English literatures through their essential classes. In this poem, there were frequent references to the Bible when Walcott compares the journey of the African slaves transported to the Caribbean shores under colonial rule of the flight of the Jews in the Old Testament seeking the Promised Land.

‘The Sea is History’ is densely packed with various images from the Bible. Reading this poem is like being trapped in a room full of mirrors where every turn throws back an image of infinity.

Explanations become endless, for there always remains something more that can be said. There is a certain religious fervour in the poem as we get a glimpse of Walcott’s artistic use of language and metaphor. He possesses a unique way of meditation upon suffering and death with an ironical perception of life.

His framework resembles more or less, the framework of the master English versifiers, but his rhyme scheme is not like theirs. Walcott’s lines go on moving from one verse to another.

Two journeys have been superimposed one upon the other in this poem. It starts rather innocuously with Walcott’s familiar interrogative formula – the master questioning the juvenile native. At the very outset, the poet challenges the concept that history must be defined as a documented fact or rest in archaeological evidence.

In the course of the poem, Walcott also debates the theory that Biblical events are not historical but mythical. As he pursues his theme, Walcott offers obvious contrasts and shows his knowledge of both the myth of creation and that of evolution.

Throughout the poem, he is also aware that he blacks have little individual history they can reconstruct but must revert to the year when, as the essayist John Squire describes, “Columbus’s doom-burdened caravels” sailed to the West Indies by mistake, i.e. 1492.

In the later part of the poem, Walcott, therefore, symbolically links it to the history of the Renaissance Movement when new sea-routes were discovered and new colonies were established by the European powers.


The Sea is History Analysis

The first stana of the poem, which can be read in full here, are a break from the terza rima structure of the poem where the forces of opposition strongly react when the ruler asks for information regarding the “martyrs of the battle” between the rulers and the subjects. The subject replies respectfully that they lie in the “grey vault”. By asking this question, the ruler is, in a way, provoking his lowly subject’s “tribal memory”.

What is this “grey vault”? It is “The Sea”. The lantern of the caravel is the “light of benediction” for the poor native subject, which he calls the Genesis of his tribe. Then the “packed cries of the slave ships are their Exodus”. There is a close similarity between the Biblical events like the Exodus, the Ark of the Covenant and the Song of Solomon with the history of wholesale migration of the slave subjects transported in slave ships from Africa.

There is violence and bloodshed in the picture of the “brigands” who “barbecued cattle”, which leads to an event of fairly recent Caribbean history. Then the poet refers to the “tidal” wave swallowing Port Royal, which can easily be compared to Jonah being swallowed by a large fish for transgressing God’s orders. Again the poet makes frequent reference to drowning through which he also shows his sensitivity for the suffering of women as separate entities of the tribe.

There is pathos when the white master asks his native slave, “But where is your Renaissance?” Actually the black subject has had no Renaissance. He could have pointed to the presence of the white man on the Islands. But he innocently replies, “It is locked in the sea-sands.” There is also a hint of humour in Walcott’s reference to the fish in the sea that resembles the “bald queen”, i.e. Elizabeth I. But soon after, the scene becomes sombre when the native speakers liken the sea-waves to cathedrals.

There is both the pain of suffering and the pain of nostalgia when Walcott refers to the “spires lancing the side of God/as His son set”—a poignant pun on the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died to save mankind. For the Blacks, the Emancipation Act of 1863 was meant as deliverance, but the celebration of partial victory of the blacks “Vanishes swiftly as the sea’s lace drives in the sun”. The sight of the sea-foam is one of pure beauty that betrays Walcott’s deep feelings for his Island. But the independence of the islanders has meant nothing but racial tension, as it has unleashed a different kind of violence, in fighting and distress. This proves that the different communities in the West Indies have not been able to live together as a homogenised group of people.

Here Walcott uses the animal and insect imagery to describe the mixed psyche of the races in the West Indies. The readers witness metaphors like “the bullfrog bellowing for a vote, the “mantis, like khaki police” and the “furred caterpillars of judges.”

After looking at the manmade chaos in the West Indies, Walcott writes in a sad tone that “each rock”, i.e. each tribe in his country, has broken into its own nation so the sea, the recorder of their unwritten history, has the impudence to indulge in a “salt chuckle”. Before Independence, it was “other people’s history written upon the Caribbean consciousness, but now it is time for individual history, an independent nation’s history to assert itself.”

Walcott sees some inkling of the sound of history’s real beginning for the West Indies. But even at the end, he challenges the concept of history as he thinks that the idea of history is like a deity, a force or a science. Just as he attempts to break with tradition of the English language and literature in order to invest his diction with the blood of his tribe, so too, he wants to break with traditional definition and knowledge of all that constitute history.

Walcott sees his Caribbean heritage as a set of collected values that he can use to challenge the materialistic, consumer society the Islands have become, where individualism is only another brand of self-centeredness. Even as he calls his poetic talents a “mulatto of style”, he wishes the multiracial, polyglot islanders to liberate themselves and world’s major cultures.

Walcott’s deepest desire is to give his “subdued society” a voice of its own. He also perhaps wishes for a future where the dilemma of being black in skin and white in mind can be solved too all times to come.


About Derek Walcott

Walcott’s initial inspiration for writing verse came from the joy of being alive in the beautiful outdoors of the Caribbean islands where the sea and everything related to the sea started taking a special significant.

Derek Walcott was a painter before he started writing but he felt he could express with words and images more than he could do with the brush. With his artist’s eyes for detail, he portrayed the lights and colours that played  in the scenes of the island – and words became specially significant to capture the sounds, the music, the heart of Caribbean life. He wanted to merge his personal, inward experience of the islands with the rich tradition of English language and literature of his education, to enhance his love for the islands and the islands with a love that only a poet can bring. He felt:

But islands can only exist

If we have loved in them.

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