Frances Mary Hendry’s Chains, is a novel about the Atlantic slave trade for which the author claims historical accuracy. But what kind of perspective on slavery, and Africa, is presented here? Errol Lloyd challenges a book that draws, for its sources, on the stereotypes of the past.
Chains is a historical novel written in skilfully crafted ‘Links’ provided by the four main characters, all young people, caught up in different relationships with slavery and all destined to meet aboard the slave ship, the Kestrel, on its journey from Liverpool to Africa and thence on to Jamaica with its cargo of slaves.
The white man’s burden approach
Juliet, teenage daughter of the owner of the Kestrel, disguises herself as a boy and takes her brother’s place aboard the ship on its voyage from Liverpool. As the owner’s ‘son’, Juliet has privileged access to the captain’s company and is first exposed to arguments favouring the slave trade. The captain has already been described as respectable, God-fearing, fair minded, honest, and educated. The nobility of his character therefore gives weight to his pro-slavery arguments which can be summarised thus: enslaved Africans are saved from the threat of an early death through disease or war or by being sacrificed to their heathen gods if left to their own devices; without slavery the New World plantations which support Britain’s wealth could not survive and the fight against the French would collapse; the trade, whilst legal, is regulated to take into account the welfare of the slave. (‘Decent men like myself take care of our blacks, making an honest profit from a vital and respectable, if unpleasant, trade.’) When the captain goes on to compare his sort of decency with that of rogue sea captains, ‘cramming in as many souls as they can’, the second officer, Hunt, berates him:
‘Souls, sir? Humanity sir? Niggers, sir? … Half animal they are, rot ’em, more than half!’
‘They are human beings, sir,’ the captain reproved him.
Hunt was undaunted. ‘Humans don’t live like pigs, sir! Skins like leather, don’t feel pain. Bare naked an’ shameless as animals, men an’ women –’
‘For the heat, sir?’ Juliet suggested …
‘Must disagree, sir! Regretfully!’ Hunt smirked. ‘Nig-nogs are stupid, vicious, untrustworthy brutes! Even the dem – er – the abolitionists won’t have ’em in their societies! Help ’em, like feedin’ stray cats, but don’t want to cuddle ’em, an’ who’s to blame ’em? Dem – er – cannibals! Cowardly too, rot me if they ain’t! A white man’d die before he’d be a slave!’
Juliet noticed a wry expression on the captain’s face. ‘You do not agree, sir?’
‘That all slaves are cowards and morons? Scarcely. You know Bob Bigtooth, our linguist …’ (p.97)
Here the good captain is able to pinpoint one exception to the rule, thereby validating the rule. I quote the above passage at some length not to suggest that overtly racist dialogue invariably results in a racist novel, but to give some insight into the sort of dialogue which permeates the book and the feeble arguments offered in rebuttal.
The racial slurs are not confined to dialogue however and some find their way into the narrative suggesting factual reportage. One example deals with Dand, the Scottish boy who is kidnapped aboard another ship bound for Africa and is one of the four ‘Links’ in the story. (He ends up aboard the Kestrel after being sold, in a somewhat unconvincing episode, as a slave in Africa.) Describing his first encounter with the natives, the narrative continues:
The women were wrapped in bright cloth, some shockingly bare above the waist; the men wore breeches or loincloths or even nothing at all, like the children. They were offering the crew strange fruits and nuts, a frothy white beer, brilliant squawking birds and little furry babies, straw hats, carved ivory and seashells.
Here the reference to little furry ‘babies’ is puzzling till the ‘pay off’ a couple paragraphs later clarifies:
For an hour he roamed in a glow of wonder amid the happy crowd, staring at the women, playing with the babies. A sailor told him they were called monkeys; the fur must rub off as they grew, for in a sling on a woman’s back was a bigger baby that looked normally smooth, though dark brown, of course. He scratched a little boy’s skin to see if the colour came off, until the child yelped and jerked free. These folks smelled differently from the sailors, or the Highlanders. And they laughed constantly – that was different too. (p.83)
Another ‘Link’ is Hassan, 14, a Mali Muslim who sets off down river on an expedition led by his father to buy slaves and ivory etc. for resale to the European slavers. Though seeped in the Koran, he soon descends into brutality at the first taste of power over others, with Gbodi (another ‘Link’) as the first victim of his whip. After a later skirmish, Hassan is himself accidentally taken as a slave aboard the Kestrel. Curiously, given the well documented brutality of the European Atlantic slave trade, it is the black slavers who, in this novel, represent the more barbarous aspects of the trade (in marked contrast to the proclaimed civility of Captain Owens).
The strange-customs approach
Gbodi, 12, the African girl who is captured and, having been purchased by Hassan’s group, resold, ends up aboard the Kestrel with a contingent of other slaves. When we encounter her, the conditions of her life seem to bear out part of Captain Owens’ thesis. She is sore-ridden, hungry, pot-bellied, and lives in a village riddled with superstition and heathen gods. The elders are just about to put to death one of a pair of twins as a sacrifice to the other ‘god’ twin and to placate the angry gods who have not sent rain. The flesh is to be eaten by the Shaman and used in ritual magic. As Gbodi was married off at birth to the Shaman, who is on the threshold of taking up his carnal duties, she seems an ideal candidate for Captain Owens’ brand of Christian salvation when her village is raided by Muslim traders and Gbodi and half her village are taken to be sold as slaves. En route, Gbodi, depicted as calculating and cold-blooded beyond her years, takes revenge by poisoning the food over a period of time, killing ten people in the process and making many more ill.
What is surprising with this novel is that after more than 170 pages (from a total of 172 pages of text) peppered with derogatory references to Africans, the heroine, Juliet, becomes an abolitionist. This is very much against the thrust of the narrative for not one reasoned argument is presented against the slave trade or slavery in the body of the novel, and apart from the dubious reference to Bob Bigtooth above, all the Africans mentioned are in some way denigrated, as is African society and culture.
Juliet’s conversion is based, rather patronisingly, on pity at seeing Gbodi resold in Jamaica and being led off, a rope around her neck, to a life of slavery:
This was wrong. Vile. At last she admitted it to herself. She had been angry when the carter whipped his fallen horse, so many months ago. This was far, far worse. (p.171)
How telling that the comparison is made with an animal.
An abolitionist stance?
For this novel to have any conviction (given the author’s aims, discussed below), it should be necessary surely for the author to chart Juliet’s conversion from her complicity in the regime of the slave trade to her opposition to it. Yet there seems to be no middle ground, nor does she have any meaningful contact with any of the black characters.
They were merchandise, she told herself firmly. Not people. They’d be better off among Christians than in the jungle. They were absolutely necessary. They’d soon settle down and be content. (p.117)
Juliet also assists in the renaming of slaves aboard ship and teaches them ‘Scots/English’ in preparation for their new life of servitude.
The only hint of Juliet’s impending conversion can be found in the passage where she concedes, more from an attack of conscience than from any firmly held moral conviction or reasoned analysis, that Gbodi is, after all, a human being: to buy Hunt’s silence (he has discovered her true identity) Juliet lends him the key to her cabin, not realising that he plans to have illicit sex with the 12 year-old Gbodi:
As the girl rose, smiling as always, he lifted a bottle half out of his coat pocket so that Juliet could see it, smirked and led the girl towards the door to the cabins.
Juliet stiffened again. A girl, and a bottle of rum. To her cabin. Alone … She knew what Hunt was at – of yes she knew … What did a slave girl matter? A little black savage, half animal …
The youngsters of her class, the women gathering behind them, all their eyes were on her. All the dark faces, watching her, waiting to see what she would do … And she knew they were people like her, they felt shame and fear and pain like her, they were as human as she was. They were her neighbours. She couldn’t, could not, consent to this, not for herself, and so not for any other girl. (p.148)
Juliet resolves to intervene but before she can do so there is an outbreak of rioting by the women slaves which provides the climax of the novel in which Juliet finally wins her male spurs by shooting dead the leader.
Appalled at her actions she is reassured by Dand:
‘Just a blackie, sir.’ Dand’s voice was comforting. ‘That don’t count.’ Not compared to a white man, he thought … ‘An’ she was tryin’ to kill you. Ye had to.’ (p.154)
Juliet does not distance herself from this sentiment. So much for a change of heart.
Near the end of the novel when Juliet rewards Hassan, who helped save her life during the riot, with his freedom (at least to serve her on their return to England) she does not disassociate herself from his declared plans:
‘Ye fetch me to England, ye teach me how speak good, how read, write. I be man, l go to Africa … I fetch ye many many slave, oil, gold …’ (p.164)
Juliet’s late conversion to the abolitionist’s cause, thus takes place in a moral and intellectual vacuum. It’s as if this ending is a cynical last minute attempt at political correctness to ward off criticism of the foregoing content.
In her Author’s Note at the beginning of this novel, Hendry puts slavery (‘still common throughout the world’) in the context of people’s inhumanity to people, and in seeking to establish that it is not simply a ‘black/white problem’ cites slave labour in German factories in the Second World War, as well as the oppression of whites by white in the Scottish Clearances. She also cites black on black slavery, such as the Zulu and Hutu enslavement of other tribes. To this is added the enslavement of blacks and whites by black and brown Muslims.
A clue to the general thrust of this book also lies in the material Hendry lists for Further Reading. Not one of the books consulted or recommended is by any of the well known progressive authorities, black and white, on the subject such as Walter Rodney, C L R James, Eric Williams, Hilary Beckles, Ini Kori, Kamau Brathwaite, Herbert Aptker, Michael Craton and Basil Davidson. Most of those consulted by Hendry are eighteenth-century accounts by white explorers or accounts seen through the eyes of colonial administrators or captains of slave ships with an view to self justification.
One of the few modern texts listed, The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas (Picador 1997), has been criticised for its one sided analysis. One review of this title ended: ‘This bias is felt strongly enough in his decision not to explore the lives of Africans caught up in the slave trade. How unnecessary it was for him to compound it in his appendix of reflections on the slave trade, which is filled with discredited bromides suggesting that the slave trade did more good than harm for Africa.’
When an author equates the Atlantic Slave trade, spanning four hundred years and claiming millions of lives, with these other oppressions, deplorable though they be, then one has to be on the alert. This may after all be a preamble to an apologist’s charter. In spite of the skill that went into its writing and construction, Chains could, I fear, do more harm than good for us all.
Errol Lloyd is a writer and artist.
Chains by Frances Mary Hendry is published by Oxford University Press, 0 19 271613 4, £6.99 pbk.