The Merging of Cultures: An Analysis of Kamau Brathwaite's “Twine”
The historical horizon of Brathwaite's poem “Twine” is far-spanning, leading from the geological formation of the Caribbean island group to the conquering of the then- putative India by Europeans. Due to this well-diversified topical focus, it is difficult to follow every aspect in this long poem. Not only does Brathwaite brush on many details with only a few or sometimes even with just a single word, but his use of slang, enumerations, metaphors, rhetorical devices, and personal names make it necessary to scrutinise the text in order to understand more than just the obvious gist of it. For most readers the message will probably be the justified accusal of the European colonial oppressors and the evocation of African ancestry as a counterpoint to these atrocities. But when looking closely at the details, ideally keeping the poem's title in mind - a twine is a two-threaded string - the question arises if the clear role allocation of Europeans on the one, and indigenous people of Africa and America on the other side, is really the line that Brathwaite draws in his analysis of the historical events.
The poem's second paragraph deals with Brathwaite's interpretation of the Caribbean Islands' first colonisation. Brathwaite refers to the first European settlers, which indeed were the ones who “shouted for their women to behold this / sibilant miracle” (Brathwaite 13-14) at the sight of the financially auspicious sugar cane plant, figuratively speaking (Ferguson 7). Brathwaite could be hinting at the European settlers being comprised of Puritan escapees at least in part when he describes that “a ship came, seeking harbour, fleeing from torture and / swords” (Brathwaite8-9), although the Puritan enterprise was a failure in the Caribbean (mrboffo).
When in the third paragraph Brathwaite explains that “the sun was too hot and their waxen flesh / melted like candles” (Brathwaite 18-19), he is still referring to light- skinned Europeans who suffer from the extreme climactic circumstances on the Caribbean islands. They “worried […] / that the brown island might become a green desert / of fields” (ibid. 22-24), alluding to the fact that the Caribbean countries were exclusively developed in the agricultural industry, and thus had no alternative in other industries, once other countries began to produce sugar and increased competitive pressure on the Caribbean was created (“History of the Caribbean,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia). In contrast to the indigenous population, the European settlers were blessed with other options. As Brathwaite puts it quite humourlessly, some of the European colonisers “fled to […] / sharpshooting injuns along the / navajo trail” (Brathwaite 26-28), an obvious reference to the ignorant racism with which American settlers undertook their efforts in ethnic cleansing.
The fourth paragraph is by far the longest in the poem, but the most interesting details with regard to my question lie in just a few words within it. Firstly, in the first two lines Brathwaite mentions that “the ones who remained grew black in the face / and their grey folded thoughts turned to africa” (ibid. 30-31). It is very likely that Brathwaite is referring to the mixing of black and white people that was highly common since the beginning of the European colonisation of the Caribbean and Latin America according to Helmut Blume: “Nicht nur in Westindien insgesamt, sondern auch auf jeder einzelnen Insel lebt eine rassisch heterogene Bevölkerung.” (78) While most Europeans present in the Caribbean were free colonisers, some tens of thousands of Irish slaves were deported to the Caribbean islands as well, according to John Martin. Thus the mixing process did not exclusively take place in state of hierarchical discrepancy. To the contrary, Irish slaves were even treated worse than Black slaves at times due to their much smaller worth (ibid.).
When Brathwaite pictures these people's thoughts, a comprehensive list follows of cultural traits associated with African indigenous people (“used wood well”, Brathwaite 42), mixed with plain depreciating racist prejudices (“big buttock women who preferred to mate with / baboons”, ibid. 35-36). This dichotomy symbolises the inner conflict of people descending from both abuser and abused. Brathwaite gives another hint at this inner dispute when he states that the Africans worshipped the devil like henry viii, leo x, like francis I, like pope joan of arc [sic!], like baptists, like jesuit priests, like ni- collo machiavelli like the niggers they were. (ibid. 45-48)
Here the author diminishes these European mundane and spiritual leader's authority by calling them “niggers”. Brathwaite also criticises the European arrogance towards other belief systems, when he rightly acknowledges that one religious belief is as bad or as good as the other by denoting the colonial rulers as devil worshippers - something European conquerors all over the globe have named indigenous religions. Subsequently Brathwaite explains that though these people are alike to the white people, “they didn't know bulls barcelona or bullets / they couldn't claim comfort of clergy” (ibid. 33-34) and thus were inferior due to their little knowledge of European society for that reason alone.
The second part of the fourth paragraph begins with Columbus taking charge of these savage people by the well-known means of kidnapping, enslavement, and all the inherent evil linked to these methods.