The poem deals with one’s history, culture, and life in general. It begins with interrogations that are overly pointed. It is a fact that the process of colonization has been a process of denial. Colonizers have denied everything and anything that remains associated with the colonized.
It is also a process of refusing to take notice of culture, history, language and all systems of thought that would probably exist among the colonized.
When people are denied their history, culture, and language, it becomes subordination in a manner of hegemony. Thus the colonized are reduced to the status of unevolved people. Thus the life of colonized people becomes oppressive. The poem The Sea is History is heavily packed with Biblical images
Line by Line Summary and Analysis of The Sea is History by Derek Walcott
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
In these lines, the poet asks the Carribean about the “monuments…. battles, martyrs….tribal memory”. He wants to know where is their history, culture, language which according to him is glorious but undiscovered.
He answers himself that the history is hidden in the sea. Here sea represents the storehouse of lost culture, sacrifices, language etc of the Africans as well as their fears, sorrows, and oppression. Thus sea itself is history.
First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,
the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning: Exodus
In these lines, the poet says that for colonialists Carribeans were ‘heaving oil, heavy as chaos’ i.e. they were unskilled and useless as crude oil and thus colonists came up with a light in a ship to make poet’s country as they imagined.
The ship here refers to the Portuguese ships of the 15th century that were used to explore West Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. It was through these ships that the colonialists arrived in Africa. The poet calls their arrival as Genesis (which is the first book of Christian Old Testament or the Old Bible (Torah) because the history of the African natives began when the European colonialists arrived in Africa.
However, this light was not light in reality. The real motive of the colonialists was to make the Carribean their slaves. Exodus, the second book of the Christian Old Testament or the Old Bible (Torah) tells the story of the children of Israel leaving the slavery in Egypt, under the guidance of Moses.
However, the Exodus is used in quite contrary terms. The Carribean children were made slaves and taken aboard who were moaning and crying from being beaten and harassed.
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,
that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Some of these slaves died on the way. Their bones mixed with the corals of the sea to make mosaics (beautiful pattern) at the bottom covered by the blessings of the shark. Here shark refers to the colonizers who were thirsty for power.
This beautiful mosaic, according to the poet, is Ark of the Covenant i.e. reward for the Carribeans. (Ark of Covenant is a chest that was kept in the Temple of Solomon that was lost after the temple was destroyed. It contained the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written, Moses’ Rod and a jar of manna (mann-o-salva)). According to the poet, the mosaics of the soldiers’ bones are Ark of The Covenant for the Africans and thus have great significance.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor
the plangent harp of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,
and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages
looking for History.
In these lines, the poet says that sad and mournful songs could be heard from the sea bed. These mournful songs have been sung by the Babylonian bondage (i.e. slaves women). Babylonian Exile was an event in which the Jews were enslaved in Babylonia (present-day Iraq). The dead bodies (of those women who died as slaves and drowned in the sea) are
The dead bodies (of those women who died as slaves and drowned in the sea) are decorated with seashells (used as decorative material) that look like ivory bracelets i.e. costly ornaments. Though the story of dead slaves looks like that of Babylonian Exile, yet the sea keeps looking for the history i.e. the African History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,
brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw
of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?
The colonialists came with ‘eyes heavy as anchors’ i.e. greedy will and mercilessness and started looting killing and destroying Africans without tombs i.e. without being noticed. They killed and enjoyed the forest animals. thus they destroyed the natural ecosystem as the Port Royal, Jamaica was destroyed by earthquake resulting in its sinking.
Jonah is the Biblical story of Younis who was swallowed by giant fish. The poet compares the drowning of Port Royal with Jonah. However again the poet says that although all these things seem to be similar to African sufferings, yet it is not the real African history and thus desires to quest for the history.
Sir, it is locked in them sea sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;
strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,
past the gothic windows of sea fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;
The poet answers himself that the history is hidden in the sea sands where the bodies of African slaves reside now. African people must have dedication towards the quest for history and only then the poet will help them discover it. According to the poet, the bottom of the sea is like a city in which there are drowned bodies of African slaves and fighters.
The city has rows of seashells and it has Gothic windows in the form of sea fans. There live a group of fishes with shining eyes, the scales of which look like jewels. Thus the fish in spite of being bald (without a crown) is a queen. Here the work bald queen refers to Queen Elizabeth -I who became half bald because of some disease.
and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,
and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,
and that was Lamentations –
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;
The poet says that this city having caves divided in symmetry and decorated by barnacles (ornaments) is a holy place for the Africans as Chruch is to Colonialists. In the next line, he compares Africa with the city of Gomorrah (a Biblical and Quranic place which became the victim of God’s wrath and was thus destroyed by fire).
The colonialists killed humans whose bodies mixed up with rocks and also ate up the animals as tasty dishes. And thus lamentation and mourning prevailed in Africa. Though Africans’ suffering seems to be similar to that of Gomorrah yet, its real history is yet to be discovered.
then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,
and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God
as His son set, and that was the New Testament.
In these lines, the poet says that after destroying the natural ecosystem and the houses made up of straws (brown reeds) the Colonialists created the towns that looked like the layer of froth on the surface of the river. This was done as per their plan of developing Africa.
However soon the war-like sounds (midges’ choirs) started raising and spires of the Church that depicted glory, raised so much that they hurt the God and His Son (Christ). The last couplet is also a pun on the death of Christ, who died to save mankind. Thus the good acts in the name of the New Testament were hurting humanity as well as God in reality.
Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation –
jubilation, O jubilation –
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,
but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;
Here white sisters represent Christianity. The poet says that Christianity was supposed to bring liberty from paganism, illiteracy and superstitious rituals. However, this joy was like Emancipation Act (of 1863 in America that freed Blacks from slavery. However this liberty and freedom soon vanished away) and the celebration soon vanished away like the sea water dries in the sunlight.
The drying of sea lace also depicts the vanishing of purity of African culture. However again, the poet says that still the African history has not been founded yet as these movements were related to religion only and African history, on the other hand, is not based on religion (like that of Christians). Africa was a huge country and colonialists broke it down into small nations just for their own means.
then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,
fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,
and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns
and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo
of History, really beginning.
The poet says that first came assembly of clergy buzzing like flies, then came officials like heron (a fish-eating bird), then came the politicians asking for votes like Frog, then intellectuals with innovative and new ideas like glow-worm, then the ambassadors of other countries like bats, then police like mantis (a predatory insect), then judges like caterpillars. Hence the whole western system was introduced into Africa.
With this, Africans started creating their own political parties to get rid of the western rule and this political system marked the beginning of the real history of Africa. The use of insect and animal imagery (flies, heron, caterpillars etc) is a Biblical reference of Ten Plagues sent by God to Egypt. The poet is of the view that the western people are like insects in Africa.