Monday, 29 September 2014

The Challenge of Writing Fiction Involving the Slave Trade

When I started writing Delighting In Your Company, I had lived for forty years on the island in the Caribbean that I used as its setting. I thought I knew about the history and culture of the Caribbean. I had studied it in a desultory manner for a long time. I had friends there whose grandparents had been slaves. 

Then I began digging. What I discovered was fascinating and at the same time, appalling.

Hannau, the Dutch anthropologist tells us “Sugar was the curse of the Caribbean. The industry brought economic, political and social upheaval to the islands.”

And at the root of all of this was the slave trade.

The Spaniards brought the first slaves to the Caribbean in 1510, from the Guinea Coast where African chiefs had brought them for trade. It was the custom in African tribal wars for the conquering tribe to take the conquered tribe as slaves. It required only a small step to begin selling their slaves to other masters… the captains of the slaving ships bound for the New World.

This proved so profitable for the Chieftains that there is little doubt among historians that they soon began waging wars for the sole purpose of supplying the slavers. 

First the Portuguese, then the English, Dutch and French became involved in the slave trade.

The “Middle Passage” taken across the Atlantic was pure hell for the souls below deck. Slaves were crowded together in the hold. In such conditions, disease swept through them. Smallpox and dysentery were common. It was usual for six to fifteen percent to die in passage. 

Slaves did not all come from the same part of Africa. The ship captains and the planters they supplied soon developed skill at choosing the right slaves for the right job. For field workers, they chose the Papaws from Whydah, who worked hard and were skilled as farmers, or the Koromantyn from the Gold Coast, who were tough, hardworking, brave and stubborn. It is from this latter group that the leaders of the bloody slave rebellions later came.

The tribes to the north and east of Sierra Leone were literate. They could read and write in Arabic.  They were not fitted for the harsh work in the fields, but they made good household servants.

From Angola and Congo came big powerful men who were talented mechanics.

When they reached their destination they were sold directly from the ships or on the wharves. 

There was a conscious effort to break up families and friends, the belief being that slaves made better workers if they had no links with the past.
They arrived and were sold naked.  Turned around like livestock, so that prospective buyers could more thoroughly inspect them. Once sold, their new owners supplied them with “a shirt, trousers and a handkerchief.”

From the earliest days, some escaped to the hills or mountains on the larger islands. In some instances they became the leaders of revolts.

Slavery flourished for more than three hundred years in the islands of the Caribbean. 

It was the anti-slavery movement started by the Quakers in Britain in the late seventeen hundreds that finally heralded the closing days of this infamous chapter in the history of western civilization.

My hero in Delighting In Your Company, Jonathan Evans, has read the works of the important abolitionists, Wilberforce and Clarkson. He believes as they do that slavery is an immoral practice and he is determined to end it on his land when he inherits Evans Plantation on the small Caribbean island of St. Clements.

But there are important people who are just as determined to see that he doesn’t achieve his purpose. Fortunes are in the balance.

It is against this backdrop that Jonathan and Amalie fall in love and hope to marry. It is against this backdrop that Jonathan is murdered and condemned to walk as a ghost for the next two hundred years, until he meets a woman of the twenty-first century, a descendant of that original Amalie, who offers to help him. 

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The Memory of RosesDelighting In Your Company
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Blair McDowell