Few uprisings set out to return a nation to its colonial state, but that's what happened on the Caribbean island of Anguilla in 1967. Jethro Soutar introduces Montague Kobbé's new novel, The Night of the Rambler, which tells the curious story of a revolution like no other.
European powers rarely managed decolonisation with much acumen, but Britain's withdrawal from Anguilla seems to have been particularly clumsily handled. With total disregard for local feeling, the British government arbitrarily lumped Anguilla in with St Kitts and Nevis to form a new tripartite state. Anguilla was thus:
doomed to remain for the rest of its days an unrecognized colony of a “sister” island that could hardly be made out in the distance on the clearest of days, of a “neighbouring” isle that was separated by five other islands.
Of course, you couldn't see London from Anguilla either, not on the clearest of days and not with a very powerful telescope. But although the British government "had been the main, the direct culprit of the neglect in which Anguilla had found itself for the previous three hundred years", Britain was deemed the lesser evil. The way Anguillians saw it, if you were going to be a colony, you might as well be one of a major power rather than an insignificant and disliked local rival.
The government of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla was set up so that Anguilla had one councillor to St Kitts' seven, which meant a total lack of influence in the new state's affairs; Anguilla was at best ignored, at worst oppressed. Anguillians struggled on in poverty, lacking basic amenities and any form of telecommunications. Ill feeling grew and unrest became increasingly vociferous and violent, until a sixteen-strong rebel force boarded The Rambler and sailed through the night to invade St Kitts and stage a coup.
The whole operation was a fiasco from start to finish – it could hardly have turned out otherwise given the rebels' total lack of preparation – but the endeavour was heroic in its way and set in motion a process that eventually led to Anguilla achieving its goals: not outright independence, but independence from St Kitts and Nevis and a return to life as a UK colony, or as an overseas territory, as it's known today.
The Night of the Rambler tells the story of that attempted coup. The Rambler arrives at its rendezvous over an hour late, having taken a wrong turn at sea, and with their explosives rendered useless thanks to a leak in the boat's hull. But the rebels soldier on in the face of adversity, and Kobbé manages to convey their bravery without losing sight of their haplessness. In part one of the book, The Rambler's haphazard journey to St Kitts is told with appropriate dry humour, but in part two we get the back story to the coup, and the protagonists' ideals and anger ring true. Part three describes the coup itself and is all the richer and more dramatic for the reader having got to know the men involved.
The author's command of his subject is evident throughout. Kobbé was born in Venezuela and lives in London, but he's been visiting Anguilla for over twenty years and spent two years on the island ('the rock', as it's known to locals) researching and writing the novel. The research shines through and in many ways the book provides a factual account of the most significant episode in Anguilla's history.
But The Night of the Rambler is a work of fiction. Kobbé recently presented the book at the Brooklyn Book Festival, sharing a stage with Booker Prize nominee Colum McCann to discuss the art of writing fictional novels based on real events. Kobbé explained that he hadn't felt burdened by the weight of historical fact, not least because barely anyone outside the Caribbean has ever heard of Anguilla, never mind knows anything about its revolution. Yes, he acknowledged, when he presented the book in Anguilla he'd had to deal with a little nitpicking, but his over-arching aim was always to get the island's story talked about and known to a wider audience.
I suspect Kobbé stuck to the facts when he could and used his imagination to fill in the gaps and bring the characters to life, and the book is all the better for it. Poetic license likely enabled him to bring the wider socio-economic politics of the region into play too: the dictatorial regimes of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic come into focus as leading characters go to work on the former's oil rigs and in the latter's cane fields. Some background fact-checking inevitably creeps in, but is handled with wit and nicely balanced by occasional meta-fictional interjections: "the warden officiated the act in his pyjamas. (I kid you not. This one is recorded – go look it up, if you must, St. Thomas.)"
The book is at its most vibrant when character's speak, dialogue being written in local dialect: "Is bout time someone teach dem English idiots a lesson"; "Is today we mus' show St. Kitts how bad we wan' break up wit' 'em" etc. Perhaps aware that this could become irritating if overplayed, the author uses speech regularly but sparingly, letting it provide local colour without halting the narrative flow. It combines well with a breezy prose style that is playful but precise.
I would have perhaps liked to know more about how Nevis fitted into the equation, but this is a minor quibble and indeed a compliment to how well Kobbé drew me in to the island's struggles. For beyond regional specifics, this is a book about revolution and the underdog, about a small, isolated island fighting for recognition, opportunity and justice; it is a compelling tale about a curious historical episode, but also a vital look at priorities, perspective and the right to live in dignity, issues that, much like Anguilla's rebellion of 1967, are all too easily forgotten.
The Night of the Rambler by Montague Kobbé is published by Akashic Books.
Jethro Soutar is an English writer and translator. He is the author of two nonfiction books published by Anova: Ronaldinho: Football's Flamboyant Maestro (2006) and Gael García Bernal and the Latin American New Wave (2008). He translates Spanish and Portuguese, and his translation of Argentine novel La Aguja en el Pajar, written by Ernesto Mallo, was published as Needle in a Haystack by Bitter Lemon Press in 2010.