Book Review: “The Loss of El Dorado” by V S Naipaul

This is the best book I have read on the history of Trinidad, but then it is the only book I have read on the subject…

The Loss of El Dorado (2)
The Loss of  El Dorado

Imperial uprooting of populations don’t make for a smooth organic tale writes V S Naipaul halfway through the narrative, I would concur. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. He has written many novels but this was a departure from his fiction. The book is well researched, he spent two years working on it. The Loss of El Dorado is an attempt to draw out an older, deeper history of Trinidad, one preceding its commonly taught history as a British-run plantation economy of slaves and indentured workers. The history focuses on two important historical figures, Sir Walter Raleigh and Francisco Miranda. In 1595 Raleigh made a raid on Port of Spain, in Trinidad, a port established by the Spanish as a base for their delusional search for El Dorado, a mythical city of gold.

The first part of the book focuses on Raleigh’s exploits in the New World, the second part is dominated by the handling of Trinidad at the time of the Napoleonic wars. The British, French, Dutch and Spanish all had interests in Trinidad, control frequently changing hands.   Basically whatever gunboat was in the harbor was the ruling entity. Trinidad was officially Spanish until 1797, largely settled by French colonists, then it was administered by the British using Spanish law until 1814 when it fell officially into British hands by the Treaty of Paris (1814).

It is a rather dry history of colonialism. Lots of names and specificity that are important for history but got me bogged down. In 1797 there were 159 sugar estates, 130 coffee estates, 60 cocoa estates, and 103 cotton estates. The black slaves throughout the book are referred to as “Negroes”, there is much detail of their punishments and poisonings, which makes for grim reading.  Empire viewed up close is often petty as cruel. There was no El Dorado to be found and apart from a few sparks Trinidad in the nineteenth century fell into being a colonial backwater of little interest. The highly localized narrative of a small colonial island is, unfortunately rather dull. What rescues the readers from boredom is the lucid and artful depiction of the events, suffused thoroughly with dry humour.

This is the first book I have read relating to the history of the Caribbean. Previous histories I have read have tended to be related to Europe or Australia. I would be interested to read some of Naipaul’s fiction.

My rating 3 out of 5.

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