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Caliban Playing Pan: A Note on The Metamorphoses of Caliban in Edward Kamau Brathwaite's "Caliban"

Eric Doumerc
p. 239-250


Cet article se penche sur l'une des réécritures caribéennes de La Tempête de William Shakespeare, à travers le poème "Caliban", qui parut dans le recueil intitulé Islands (1969) d'Edward Kamau Brathwaite.
Dans ce poème en trois parties, Caliban apparaît sous les traits d'un joueur de steel pan, et d'un danseur de limbo. Par le biais de la danse du limbo, Brathwaite examine la survie de rites et de rituels africains aux Caraïbes, et interroge la nature même de la culture caribéenne.
La division du poème en trois parties semble faire écho à la théorie d'Arnold Van Gennep (Les rites de passage, 1909) selon laquelle les rites de passage comportent trois phases : la phase du retrait, la phase de transition, et enfin celle de la réintégration de l'individu dans la société. Ces trois étapes structurent le poème de Brathwaite et le cheminement de Caliban depuis l'Afrique jusqu'aux Caraïbes.

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1It is a well-known fact that William Shakespeare's The Tempest became a key text for Commonwealth writers following the publication of Octave Mannoni's Prospéro et Caliban:psychologie de la colonisation in 1950. Mannoni claimed that Shakespeare's play was basically about power and domination, and had been inspired by the colonising process. Mannoni read The Tempest as an allegory about colonialism and interpreted it through the Prospero complex and the Caliban complex, named after two of the most important characters in the play (Nixon 563).

2According to Mannoni, Prospero symbolised European colonisers' thirst for power and Caliban represented native people's need for a master and growing insecurity at the dawn of decolonisation. Mannoni's theory was based on an interpretation of Caliban as an insecure character who felt betrayed by his master and craved for some sense of authority.

3As pointed out by Rob Nixon, Mannoni's thesis was later challenged by Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire who saw Caliban as a symbol of the anti-colonial struggle and of native people's thirst for freedom. Césaire's Une tempête (1969) was a black nationalist reinterpretation of Shakespeare's play with Caliban as a black freedom fighter.

4The critic Jan Kott identified The Tempest as a key text for post-colonial studies by laying the stress on the themes of domination and conquest: "On Prospero's island, Shakespeare's history of the world is played out in an abbreviated form. It consists of a struggle for power, murder, revolt and violence. Prospero's island has nothing in common with the happy isles of Renaissance utopias. It rather reminds us of the islands in the world of the late Gothic" (Dabydeen and Wison-Tagoe 93). Kott then goes on to draw a parallelism between Proposero's island and the islands depicted in Hieronymus Bosch's paintings.

5According to David Dabydeen, The Tempest was inspired by a book published in 1610 and entitled A Discovery of the Bermudas, otherwise called the Isle of Devils. The book was in fact an account of a sojourn in the Bermudas by a crew of English sailors who had been shipwrecked there in 1609 and who had then built a new ship to go to Virginia, their original destination. The 1610 book apparently contained many details about "strange noises, devils, spirits, and so on"(Dabydeen and Wilson-Tagoe 97). Louis James pointed out that Shakespeare's conception of "Caliban"was shaped by Montaigne's essay "Of Cannibals" in its 1603 translation. Caliban is an anagram of Canibal (James 10). So the colonising process in the Caribbean seems to have influenced the writing of The Tempest.

6In the English-speaking Caribbean, one of the first writers who read The Tempest as a text about the colonising process was George Lamming, who in The Pleasures of Exile (1960) saw in Caliban a figure of exile and a representative of the angst facing every Commonwealth writer. Lamming quoted some passages from the play which have become since then the key texts for a post-colonial reading of The Tempest :

     You taught me language and my profit on
Is, I know how to curse : the red plague rid you
For learning me your language (The Tempest, I, ii, 6-9).

7The historical dimension of the play was also picked up on by Aimé Césaire whose rewriting of Shakespeare's play, Une tempête (1969), identified Caliban as the rebellious slave and Prospero as the "man of methodical conquest" and "of cold reason" (Césaire quoted in Nixon 571). In Césaire's play, Caliban shouts "Uhuru!", the Swahili word for freedom (Nixon 572) and Prospero rebukes him for failing to master the French language and for speaking some kind of gibberish.

8Lamming's and Césaire's radical rewritings of Shakespeare's play were influenced by the cultural climate of the 1950s and 1960s, with the advent of decolonisation and the students' and workers' revoIts in the late 1960s in Europe and in the United States.

9In the late 1960s the English-speaking Caribbean was rocked by a series of demonstrations and riots which were partly inspired by the American Black Power movement, the students’ anti-war demonstrations in the USA and the riots in Paris in May 1968. This wave of discontent was also the product of the disappointment felt by many West Indians in the immediate post-Independence period. Indeed it was felt that Independence had not resulted in any visible improvement in West Indians’ daily lives and that the West Indies were still colonial at heart. One key issue was the education system which was still based on the study of European or American classics. In 1968: Rodney riots in Jamaica. In 1970: occupation of the Creative Arts Centre on the Mona campus, and the "February Revolution" in Trinidad led by the National Joint Action Committee.

10These developments made a big impact on the development of West Indian literature and in 1967 E.K.Brathwaite’s Rights of Passage was published. This book of poems was the first part of a trilogy entitled The Arrivants and which was published in 1973. The other two installments of the trilogy were entitled Masks (1968) and Islands (1969).

11The Arrivants can be seen as an epic account of black people’s voyage from Africa to the Caribbean, of their uprooting from the land of their fathers and of their subsequent adaptation to a new world. The Arrivants can be viewed as an epic inasmuch as it is not concerned with the poet’s own musings or neurosis, but with a people’s predicament.

12Brathwaite’s work revolutionised Caribbean poetry by laying the emphasis on orality, performance and popular traditions both in Africa and in the West Indies. Brathwaite had lived in Ghana for a number of years and when coming back home had come to see the Caribbean as a continuation of African cultures. In his poems, Brathwaite used repetition, snatches of famous Caribbean songs, proverbs, references to jazz, the rastafarian movement,etc. In the late 1960s Brathwaite also gave several readings of his poetry both in London and in the West Indies and that was a revelation for many people.

13The poem entitled "Caliban" appeared in Kamau Brathwaite's 1969 collection Islands, the third part of his "New World trilogy" Islands was concerned with the survival and retentions of aspects of African cultures in the Caribbean and thus reflected the then-predominant interest in ancestral culure in the Caribbean and the rediscovery of Africa in the Caribbean. As indicated by the pun in the title of the first part of the trilogy, Brathwaite was primarily interested in rituals and in rites and in the possible reemergence or retentions of African rituals in the modern Caribbean. In the poem under study, Brathwaite interpreted Shakespeare's Caliban as a Caribbean slave who has a to adapt to the New World and to invent new rituals to make sense of his new existence.

14In her article entitled "Walcott versus Brathwaite" (Ismond 59), Patricia Ismond wrote that for the first part of his trilogy, Rights of Passage, Brathwaite had taken his inspiration from the seminal book by the French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep Les rites de passage, originally published in 1909. Van Gennep identified three stages common to all rites of passage. The first stage is sometimes known as the separation stage and is when people prepare to move from one place or status to another. The second is a period bewteen states, when one has left one place or status without actually having entered the next. The third stage is also known as reincorporation and is when people reenter society with a new identity.

15Brathwaite's poem is neatly divided into three sections which could be said to echo Van Geppen's three stages or phases. The first section sets the stage and presents the Caribbean as a place where people are cut off, alienated from their environment. The second section (the period of transition) looks at the importance of cultural elements like Carnival or the limbo dance to make sense of the trauma of the past. The third section constitutes the climax of the poem, with the reemergence of the limbo dance as a tourist attraction and the reincorporation of Caliban into society.

Alienation and separation

16The first section looks at socio-economic conditions in the modern Caribbean and insists on the fact that "nine-five percent" of Caliban's descendants are "poor", "black" or "dead." The new tourist industry apparently fails to cater to the needs of the population while foreign imported cars are the new status symbols:

and now I see that these modern palaces have grown
out of the soil, out of the bad habits of their crippled owners
the Chrysler stirs but does not produce cotton
the Jupiter purrs but does not produce bread. (Brathwaite 34)

17In the first section a series of dysphoric images associate the modern Caribbean with death, dearth and environmental damage as the "dead towers" and the "coney islands of our mind/less architects" rise out of the earth. Prostitution, gambling, and tourism seem to have turned the Caribbean into a Hell on Earth where corruption reigns supreme:

In Havana that morning, as every morning,
the police toured the gambling houses
wearing their dark glasses
and collected tribute (Brathwaite 34)

18Brathwaite attributes the moral decay of the Caribbean to the then new tourist industry which was dominated by Americans in Cuba (before the revolution) and the Bahamas:

salute blackjack, salute backgammon, salute the one-armed bandit
Vieux and Andros Island, the Isle of Pines (Brathwaite 34)

19The reference to specific place-names like Andros Island, an island which is part of the Bahamian archipelago and the Isle of Pines, an island to the south of Cuba which was later renamed La Isla de la Juventud, are meant to target the American presence in the Caribbean and the tourists who read the "newspapers" which "spoke of Wall Street and the social set/who was with who." In these new tourist meccas, Mammon reigns supreme and "blackjack", "backgammon" and "the one-armed bandit" are the new masters to be "saluted." The first section of the poem ends with three key dates which replace the evils described by the poet in their historical context :

It was December second, nineteen fifty-six.
It was the first of August eighteen thirty-eight.
It was the twelfth October fourteen ninety-two.
(Brathwaite 35)

20These three dates correspond respectively to the beginning of the Cuban revolution, the abolition of slavery in the English-speaking Caribbean, and the first landfall made by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to the Caribbean. These three "revolutions" are presented in reverse chronological order in order to encourage the reader/listener to go back in time and experience the upheavals that have made today's Caribbean what it is and who have made Caliban the creature he is today. The last line of the first section ("How many bangs how many revolutions?") is immediately taken up by the "Ban/Ban" which is the second syllable of the word "Caliban" at the beginning of the second section.

The period of transition

21The second section of the poem introduces the character of Caliban in a dramatic fashion and through the device of verticality. The lines get noticeabliy shorter and have one or three syllables:

like to play
at the Car-
(Brathwaite 36)

22Caliban thus reemerges as a musician playing the steelpan during the Trinidad Carnival. The lines "like to play/pan" are a reference to the steel pan, a musical instrument which was invented in Trinidad after the Second World War when people began to use oil drums instead of traditional drums. Indeed they began to divide up oil drums into various sections and to tune them to produce particular sounds. In the 1940s and 1950s steel bands or the first "orchestras of steel" became very popular and began to be associated with Carnival. The fact that Caliban remerges as a "pan man" is extremely important as Carnival and steel band music are often said to embody Caribbean people's creativity and resourcefulness. According to Dick Hebdige, in the late 19th century, Carnival music was provided by "tambour-bamboo" bands, that is bands that used bamboo sticks as percussive instruments ; But because of the controversy about violence and Carnival, these tambour-bamboo bands were banned and "Carnival was left without a rhythm section" (Hebdige 37). "Ban/Ban/Cal-/iban" is an echo from Act Two, Scene Two in The Tempest in which Stephano and Trinculo make fun of Caliban and get him drunk. Caliban then sings a song in which he promises to serve his new masters well and to put an end to his allegiance to Prospero:

No more dams I'll make for fish,
Nor fetching firing, at requiring,
Nor scrape trenchering, nor wash dish 
Ban' Ban' Cacaliban
Has a new master, get a new man.
(The Tempest, II, ii, 29-33)

23In this passage, Caliban clearly states that he will no longer perform such menial tasks as fetching firewood or washing dishes, but that his master Prospero must get a new slave.But Caliban is also a figure of fun: he is drunk and mispronounces his own name, as if he had a stutter. He is about to betray his master, Prospero, and he is quite happy to serve his new masters. Caliban is presented as a deformed monster who curses a lot and switches allegiances quite easily. In other words, he is presented as an untrustworthy and grotesque character.

24In Brathwaite's poem, Caliban is a Trinidadian or Caribbean pan man and his very name bears testimony to the traumas of Caribbean history as the many "bangs" that punctuate Caribbean history recall the second syllable of his name, as well as the loud music produced by the steel bands.

25Caliban is then said to be "pran-/cing up to the lim-/bo silence," and the second section is characterised by Brathwaite's resort to a vertical typography to insist on the theme of the journey to hell that the Atlantic crossing was and on the spiritual journey undertaken by the slaves and their descendants when performing the limbo dance. Carnival music provides a link with the slave past and the limbo dance in Brathwaite's poem and Caliban's "freedom/drown/down/down/down/to the is-/land town." Caliban's journey is a journey into the past:

and the dark-
ness fall-
ing; eyes
shut tight
and the whip light
ing round the ship
where his free-
dom drown
(Brathwaite 36)

26This journey is associated with the limbo dance, which is often said to have originated during the middle passage (Niaah 19), when the slaves' cramped living conditions and lack of space forced them to contort their bodies and to evolve new rituals. The slaves then had to invent new dances based on their living conditions during the Atlantic crossing. Once in the Caribbean the limbo dance was kept alive by the slaves and their descendants as a ritual symbolising rebirth and renewal, and was later revived by the tourist industry. In Brathwaite's poem, the limbo dance and the music played during the Carnival festivities appear to be interlinked. The limbo dance consists in bending down as low as possible so that the dancer manages to slide under a stick which is lowered by one notch whenever he succeeds in emerging on the other side of the stick. According to Geneviève Fabre, limbo is also a "ritual of rebirth" (Fabre 1999, 33-46) and is associated with the passage from one stage to another one. Wilson Harris sees it as an important symbol and in one of the talks he gave at one of the early Caribbean Artists Movement in London, he said that limbo was "a gateway between Africa andthe Caribbean, and part of an original West Indian architecture which it was still possible to create" (Walmsley 213). This gateway beween Africa and the West Indies is clearly visible in the third section of Brathwaite's poem, which is about rebirth and renewal.

A ritual of rebirth

27In Brathwaite's poem, the limbo dance can be seen as a ritual or a rite of passage through which Caribbean people negotiate the transition from Africa to the Caribbean:

stick is the whip
and the dark deck is slavery
stick is the whip
and the dark deck is slavery
(Brathwaite 37)

28The stick mentioned in this excerpt is the stick which is constantly lowered during the limbo dance, and the "dark deck" is the slave ship's deck, as the slaves were kept below deck during the Atlantic crossing. In the third section the limbo dance is materialised on the printed page by an alternation of long lines and shorter ones, with the long lines symbolising the stick and the shorter ones depicting the limbo dancer:

And limbo is the silence is front of me
(Brathwaite 37)

29The italics used for "limbo" and "limbo like me" throughout the poem could also refer to the chorus of the song chanted by the watchers, while the limbo dancer sings the other lines. This is a reference to the call and response pattern, which is the main structuring device in many Caribbean folk songs. Indeed the call and response pattern normally has a leader singing an improvised line while the group sings the chorus. This pattern originally was associated with work songs during the slavery period when the slaves were allowed to sing while cutting sugar cane in order to facilitate work:

Guinea Corn, I long to see you
Guinea Corn, I long to plant you
Guinea Corn, I long to mould you
Guinea Corn, I long to weed you (Burnett 4)

30In this work song, the slaves express their longing for their lost homeland through a metonymy since guinea corn symbolises for them Africa. The field slaves would shout "Guinea Corn" while the leader would improvise new lines. The call and response pattern thus made it possible to introduce new elements into a traditional framework.

31The third section of "Caliban" is clearly structured along that pattern, with the limbo dancer and the community trading lines:

long dark night in the silence in front of me
limbo like me

(Brathwaite 37)

32So the limbo dancer reenacts the slaves' predicament as they were caught between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. The typography for this third section consists in an alternation between long lines and shorter ones in order to visually represent the limbo dance. The third section is characterised by a general movement from darkness to light as the limbo dancer goes "down/down/down" and then goes "up/up/up" as the "sun coming up/and the drummers are praising me/out of the dark." The dancer gradually emerges from under the stick and this is enacted by the typographical presentation of the words on the page:

and the music is saving me
(Brathwaite 38)

33In Brathwaite's poem, the "music" is no longer a mere form of entertainment for the tourists, but is a life-saver that literally raises the dancer from the ground as he is reborn and has to learn to walk again:

on the burning ground
(Brathwaite 38)

34But this apparently straightforward enactment of a ritual of rebirth and regeneration is somewhat complicated by the reference to a well-known Caribbean folk song entitled "Limbo Like Me." This song was sung by both Trinidadian Calypsonians and Jamaican Mento bands in the 1950s and 1960s when the tourist industry began to develop in the Caribbean. The Jamaican mento singer Lord Tickler recorded a version of this Caribbean classic which was released in 1956 on the Kalypso label:

I went downtown and what did I see ?
Limbo, limbo like me.
A man and a girl and dog and a flea
Limbo, limbo like me
Dancing in the bright moonlight,
Limbo, limbo like me
I want a gal to limbo like me.
(Lord Tickler, 1956)

35The chorus of the song encourages the tourists to do the limbo dance and thus test their their own strength and resilience. The fact that Brathwaite interspersed snatches from that song with lines about the middle passage is supposed to make the reader think about the rôle of the limbo dance in the modern Caribbean. It also lays the emphasis on the development of Mento in Jamaica as a music geared towards the tourist market. Before the advent of American Rhythm and Blues in the 1950s, Mento was very popular in Jamaica and was played at country dances ("brams"), weddings and at various other gatherings. Mento was first and foremost dance music and a typical Mento band would feature a banjo, a bongo drum, a guitar and a "kalinda" or "thumb piano." This music was first played in the country but soon the local recording industry began to cater to the tourist market and an urban form of Mento thus appeared, played for the tourists and the new urbanised population in Kingston. Mento songs are often about the daily life of Jamaicans, their problems and their struggles, but they deal with these themes in a light-hearted and humorous way: in Mento songs the lighter side of things always prevails (Barrow and Dalton 7).

36In the last section of the poem, Caliban's triumphant emergence from the trauma of the past goes hand in hand with his new status as an entertainer for the tourist market. Indeed he encourages the tourists to "limbo like [him]," but the dance has a totally different significance for him as the " dumb gods are raising [him]" and the "music is saving [him]." The climax of the poem is enacted through a light/darkness opposition and a pun on the phonetic similarity between "to praise" and "to raise" in the following lines:

sun coming up
and the drummers are praising me
out of the dark
and the dumb gods are raising me
(Brathwaite 38)

The link between music and religion in Caribbean culture appears through the enjambment "praising me / out of the dark."

37Thus Brathwaite's poem can be seen as a journey into the past in order to make an act of possession and thus reclaim the Caribbean as home. After dealing with the trauma of colonialism through allusions to contemporary problems, the poem examines the significance of rituals and the survival of African cultures in the Caribbean. The fact that Brathwaite used Shakespeare's play as a starting point for his exploration of Caribbean culture reflects the anticolonial mood of the day, but, contrary to Aimé Césaire, Brathwaite did not set out to rewrite The Tempest. He used Caliban as an archetype, following in George Lamming's footsteps, but did not develop the poem into a full exploration of Shakespeare's play. What the poem does reflect is Brathwaite's interest in rites and rituals, and his conviction that Afro-Caribbean cultural practices could constitute the basis of a new aesthetics for Caribbean literature.

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Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton, The Rough Guide to Reggae, London: Rough Guides Ltd, 2004.

Brathwaite, Edward Kamau, Islands, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Burnett Paula, The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English, London: Penguin Books, 1986.

Chapon, Cécile, "Caliban cannibale: Relectures/réécritures caribéennes de la Tempête de Shakespeare", Comparatismes en Sorbonne : (dé)construire le canon.

Dabydeen, David and Nana Wilson-Tagoe, A Reader's Guide to West Indian and Black British Literature, London: Hansib, 1986.

Donnell, Alison and Sarah Lawson-French, The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, London : Routledge, 1996.

Fabre, Geneviève, "The Slave Ship Dance", in Black Imagination and the Middle Passage, eds., Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates and Carl Pedersen, Oxford and New York : Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hebdige, Dick, Cut'N'Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music, London: Comedia, 1987.

Ismond, Patricia, "Walcott versus Brathwaite", Caribbean Quarterly, Vol.17 N° 3 and 4 (1971).

James, Louis, Caribbean Literature in English, London and NewYork: Longman, 1999.

New World Encyclopedia, Arnold Van Gennep.


Niaah, Sonjah Stanley, Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010.

Nixon, Rob, "Caribbean and African Appropriations of The Tempest", Critical Enquiry 13 (spring 1987).

Shakespeare, William, The Tempest [1611], Penguin Popular Classics, 1995.

Tickler, Lord and his Jamaican Calypsonians. "Limbo Like Me", 45 rpm, Kalypso, 1956.

Walmsley, Anne, The Caribbean Artists Movement, London: New Beacon Books, 1992.

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Bibliographical reference

Eric Doumerc, « Caliban Playing Pan: A Note on The Metamorphoses of Caliban in Edward Kamau Brathwaite's "Caliban" », Caliban, 52 | 2014, 239-250.

Electronic reference

Eric Doumerc, « Caliban Playing Pan: A Note on The Metamorphoses of Caliban in Edward Kamau Brathwaite's "Caliban" », Caliban [Online], 52 | 2014, Online since 22 April 2015, connection on 19 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Eric Doumerc

Université de Toulouse-Jean Jaurès (Le Mirail), CAS.

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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