In 1807 Parliament abolished the British slave trade. In this bicentenary year a number of books for children have been published with slavery as their theme. How accurately do they depict historical events? Will they engage young readers? Brycchan Carey discusses.
In 1784, an idealistic lawyer turned author, Thomas Day, opened a new work, ‘intended for the use of children’, with a character sketch of six-year-old Tommy Merton, the brattish son of a wealthy plantation owner who ‘had been spoiled by too much indulgence [because] while he lived in Jamaica, he had several black servants to wait upon him’. Sandford and Merton, one of the earliest children’s novels, thus commenced with an explicit attack on the evils of slavery. From that day to this, children’s literature has continued to take a staunchly antislavery line, condemning actual slavery in the early period, and imagined slavery, as suffered by Munchkins and House Elves, in more recent literature. Thomas Day died in 1789, and so did not live to see the law abolishing the British slave trade passed by Parliament in 1807. Despite the abolition act being in some ways less effective than its framers had hoped, two hundred years on both professional historians and a wider public have come to recognise it as a turning point in the development of modern ideas of human rights and human dignity. Although slavery continued to be legal in British colonies for another three decades – and was not declared illegal in international law until 1948 – the 1807 act was the beginning of the end of legal slavery.
The British Abolition Act is currently being remembered in an astonishing variety of forms. Hollywood movies and postage stamps vie for attention with BBC television documentaries, newspaper articles, and a wide selection of history books for adults. Children are positively encouraged to be involved in this national act of memorialisation, with schools and youth groups helping young people to realise that most of their ancestors had either profited by or suffered because of this ‘most rotten branch of human shame’. Publishers have not been slow to realise that children are increasingly being asked to consider slavery and the slave trade, a trend that can only increase now that the government has explicitly recommended the topic for school study. Accordingly, there has been a surge in publication of books for children on slavery related themes. In this article, I consider just nine.
A primary objective for most educators is to familiarise children with the historical narrative, and perhaps the simplest way to do this, at least from an editor’s point of view, is to anthologise primary texts. In Unheard Voices, Malorie Blackman has collected twenty extracts taken from autobiographies, novels, and poems which together let those directly affected by slavery speak for themselves. Among those represented are former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Mary Prince whose eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ‘slave narratives’ are well-known to historians, but there are also more recent extracts from contemporary authors such as Alex Haley, Langston Hughes, and Benjamin Zephaniah. The book contains some unobtrusive historical notes and a brief timeline, but the selection is by and large free from editorial intervention. This works well, and the extracts are sufficiently diverse and engaging to hold the interest of young readers. Unheard Voices is an ideal teaching book, which will serve as a useful resource for classroom discussion.
Two other authors have chosen to dramatise historical narratives rather than offer them as excerpts. Older readers interested in exploring the slave experience in more depth might be interested to read Slave Girl: The Diary of Clotee, Virginia, USA, 1859, Patricia C McKissack’s fictionalised account of a young slave in the opening years of the American Civil War. While this book has an immediacy that brings alive life on a plantation in the American South, its drawback for a British audience is that it requires a certain amount of general knowledge about American history that few British children are likely to have. In the American context, this is a fine book; unfortunately it translates less successfully to this side of the Atlantic. Stewart Ross’s Greed, Seeds and Slavery is more explicitly aimed at a British audience of younger readers, and attempts to tell ‘twelve awesome tales of slavery’, each based around genuine historical characters. Unfortunately, however, there is very little genuine history here. The twelve vignettes all attempt to reach some essential truth about the experience of the individual they represent, but in this they fail, in most cases because the imagined history that the book offers is a good deal less interesting than the genuine story. For example, Ross concludes his entirely imaginary supernatural tale about the kidnapping of Olaudah Equiano with this bleak statement: ‘I labour on a sugar plantation from sunrise to sunset. My owner’s initials have been burned into my right arm… I am a slave.’ In fact, Equiano was never branded, nor did he ever labour on a sugar plantation, as any intelligent ten-year-old with access to the internet would be able to discover in five minutes. Instead, Equiano sailed the world, bought his freedom, and became an eloquent advocate for the abolition of the slave trade. That would have been a far more powerful and far more interesting story to tell – and would have had the added advantage of being true.
If the attempts at historical reconstruction are not always successful, the opposite is in general true of those novelists who have slotted fictional stories into the many gaps in the historical record. Historians have long pondered why the United States, founded on enlightened principles of individual liberty, should have been the most vocal supporter of slavery, and the origin of some of the world’s most pernicious racial ideologies. In The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, M T Anderson addresses this problem. The book has been very widely reviewed (including in Books for Keeps) and it is generally, and rightly, agreed that Anderson has produced a novel of considerable force and originality. Its story of Octavian Nothing, a boy slave kept as a scientific experiment by an eccentric company of Bostonian philosophers, will be enjoyed by older readers for the story alone even if its historical and philosophical context will probably be less than lucid to most young British readers. This is not to condemn this very fine book; the best books contain depths that are not apparent on a first reading. Indeed, while some readers may struggle with some of the concepts explored, many more, it is to be hoped, will be inspired to read further. If they do, they may well choose S I Martin’s Jupiter Williams, a book with both hidden depths and obvious appeal. Although this is Martin’s first children’s novel, it is in some ways a sequel to his adult novel, Incomparable World, which appeared to critical acclaim in 1997. Incomparable World explored the London underworld of the 1780s, as seen through the eyes of the freed American slaves who had fought on the British side in the American Revolution. Twenty years on, Jupiter and Robert Williams, the children of one of those freed slaves, are living in comparative luxury at a boarding school for well-to-do African children in Clapham, little aware of how precarious their situation is. When things go horribly wrong, they too find themselves propelled into the London underworld. Jupiter Williams is historical fiction at its very best. The world that Martin’s characters inhabit is carefully researched, internally consistent, and entirely plausible, and even where his characters intersect with actual historical figures they occupy the spaces created by the unknown and unknowable. In Martin’s world, real-life heroes such as William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton, and Cesar Picton emerge as both grubbier and more morally complex figures than they are sometimes portrayed. And the eponymous Jupiter Williams is nothing if not morally complex. Haunted by the belief that he has killed his brother, and recklessly proud of his own heritage, Jupiter is a flawed hero. The novel succeeds because it is as much about a young man learning about himself as it is a novel about the evils of a society that routinely buys and sells human flesh. Jupiter Williams is an intelligent, engaging, and exciting historical novel that speaks volumes about what it means to be a black teenager in a slave owning society.
Unfortunately, however, not all historical novels are as successful. James Riordan’s Rebel Cargo tells the story of an English boy, Mungo, and an African girl, Abena, who in separate events are kidnapped and brought to Jamaica as slaves. They run away and join the community of Maroons (escaped slaves) led by the historical Nanny, now a Jamaican national hero. The problem with this novel is its implausible plot and its casual misuse of historical fact. The book is set in 1730, at which time Nanny of the Maroons was certainly active, but the frequent toasts to King William (died 1702) and the inclusion of characters such as Captain Kidd (died 1701) and Blackbeard the pirate (died 1718) are inaccuracies that do nothing to improve the story. Other erroneous details – too many to mention – are equally irritating. But the novel’s chief problem is that its plot is weak. It relies on a series of coincidences that are too bizarre to be credible, while the entire first third of the novel seems to be about seventeenth-century pirates before the action moves jerkily to the mid eighteenth-century slave trade. The overall impression is that Riordan set out to write a pirate book to capitalise on the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and then changed his intentions halfway through to capitalise on the interest in slavery generated by the bicentenary commemorations.
History is not just about the past, a point ably made by Sarah Mussi in The Door of No Return. Whether or not Mussi intentionally modelled her book on A S Byatt’s Possession is impossible to say, but the general structure, in which a modern search for a document takes place while in a parallel story a historical tale unfolds, and the outcome, in which two sets of adversaries slug it out over a grave for possession of a vital document, is similar. Mussi’s hero is the streetwise, but vulnerable, Zac Baxter, whose ancestors were sold into Jamaican slavery from their home in Ghana. Zac guards the key to a family secret: the location of a pot of gold, and a document that will prove that the British slave trade was illegal even in eighteenth-century law. Recovering this document will open the way to legal action that would fulfil Zac’s grandfather’s ‘dream of compensating the entire black community of Britain for four hundred years of slavery’. Unfortunately, however, the British government has no intention of allowing this and a massive conspiracy is revealed, involving the Prime Minister, MI5, the police, and the Gloucestershire magistracy. If this aspect of the plot is rather far fetched (and like most conspiracy theories it certainly is) it doesn’t at all spoil the novel. Indeed, the complexity of Zac’s character and the deft and fast-paced language more than compensate. Like a Black British Philip Marlowe, Zac cracks wise but is painfully aware of his own shortcomings. His journey takes him both from Gloucester to Ghana and from the twenty-first to the eighteenth century. Along the way he – and the reader – learn a great deal of genuine history, but the book is never openly didactic, nor does its explicit political objective get in the way of telling a good tale. The Door of No Return is by turns gripping, funny, and moving, while all along effortlessly bearing a weighty moral and historical message. As Zac’s friend Ashley puts it, on hearing of the conspiracy, ‘it’s like Treasure Island, like King Solomon’s Mines, like Roots. Wow!’ I quite agree.
While Mussi makes eighteenth-century slavery relevant to modern England, Julia Bell reminds us that although slavery may now be illegal it nevertheless still takes place illegally. Dirty Work tells the intersecting stories of Hope, a rich English girl, and Oksana, a poor Russian girl, who are brought together by chance on a cross-channel ferry. Oksana has fallen into the clutches of international gangsters who have forced her into prostitution. When Hope tries to help Oksana, she too is kidnapped and sold. This is not a comfortable book for readers of any age, and younger children might find it disturbing or puzzling (or both). But that is by no means a criticism. The compellingly written and unflinchingly honest Dirty Work tackles the reality of child trafficking and the misery of prostitution in modern Europe head on. The story of Hope’s translation from complacent and cosy rural wealth to a sordid London brothel is terrifying enough, but not half as disturbing as the story of Oksana’s journey from honest though grinding poverty in Russia to a world of enforced prostitution. For, while Hope’s story is pure fiction, Oksana’s is the real story of countless children around the world who are daily being trafficked into this modern slave trade.
Finally, we would do well to remember that human progress is not inevitable, and that liberties gained can also be lost. T E Berry-Hart’s Escape from Genopolis is a post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel describing a city divided into genetically engineered test-tube babies called Citizens, who are incapable of feeling, and their genetically constructed slaves, the Geminis. Outside, hoards of barbarian Naturals are beating at the city’s gates. Usha is a slave-girl who runs away from her fate as an unwilling organ donor, while Arlo, who thinks he is Citizen, discovers that he is a Natural, with a full range of feelings, raised by Citizens as an experiment. Inevitably, the two escape, meet, and make for the hills. This is not a particularly original or even a particularly well-written novel (compare Huxley and Wyndham – and a thousand later imitators) but it is competent enough, and the central figures are not without interest. I am sure that it will be enjoyed by many young readers: some of whom may even pause to wonder whether our own society, which in historical terms has given up slavery only very recently, may not be tempted to reintroduce it in future.
Overall, I have been impressed with much of what I have read. With a few exceptions, these authors have successfully blended fiction with reality to produce narratives of slavery and emancipation for a twenty-first-century audience without resorting to historical inaccuracy, preachy moralisation, or dull worthiness. The best of these – the novels by Anderson, Bell, Martin, and Mussi – are fine works of literature by any standard, successfully managing to entertain while also raising important questions. Almost two and a quarter centuries after Thomas Day first hit upon the idea of expressing antislavery sentiment in children’s literature, it is a tragedy, as Bell reminds us, that such literature is still needed, but these authors rise to the challenge. I am sure that Day would have approved.
Brycchan Carey is Reader in English Literature at Kingston University, London. He is the author of British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment, and Slavery, 1760-1807 (Palgrave, 2005) and the editor (with Peter Kitson) of Slavery and the Cultures of Abolition: Essays Marking the British Abolition Act of 1807 (Boydell and Brewer, 2007) and (with Markman Ellis and Sara Salih) of Discourses of Slavery and Abolition: Britain and its Colonies, 1760-1838 (Palgrave, 2004). He has also authored many articles on slavery and abolition for scholarly journals and books, and has written on the politics of Harry Potter. He is currently completing a book on the origins and development of Quaker antislavery rhetoric in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Unheard Voices, collected by Malorie Blackman, Corgi, 272pp, 978 0 552 55600 2, £5.99 pbk
Slave Girl: The Diary of Clotee, Virginia, USA, 1859, Patricia C McKissack, Scholastic, 256pp, 978 0 439 98186 6, £5.99 pbk
Greed, Seeds and Slavery, Stewart Ross, ill. David Roberts, Eden Project Books, 160pp, 978 1 905 81108 3, £4.99 pbk
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party, M T Anderson, Walker, 368pp, 978 1 84428 211 1, £7.99 pbk
Jupiter Williams, S I Martin, Hodder. 224pp, 978 0 340 94406 6, £5.99 pbk
Rebel Cargo, James Riordan, Frances Lincoln, 304pp, 978 1 84507 525 5, £6.99 pbk
The Door of No Return, Sarah Mussi, Hodder, 448pp, 978 0 340 90321 6, £5.99 pbk
Dirty Work, Julia Bell, Picador, 192pp, 978 0 330 41521 7, £9.99 trade pbk
Escape from Genopolis, T E Berry-Hart, Scholastic, 416pp, 978 0 439 94310 9, £5.99 pbk