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The Silence Of The Slave

Writing in the historical gaps

Slaves with sugar cane

The other day, as a treat for not shouting and dawdling before school, we took my daughter to Pizza Express. As we waited for her meal to arrive, we admired the decor: a huge chandelier hung below the domed ceiling; wire baskets of fairy lights glowed in the Georgian windows.

‘Wasn’t this a bank?’ I wondered out loud, before turning to see the plaque behind my shoulder.

We were indeed in what was the first bank in Bristol, in the heart of the city’s old commercial centre. Back then, if I’d stood on the doorstep, I’d have seen the River Frome flowing into the centre, boats mooring at the bottom of Park Street, men unloading sticky cones of sugar on the docks at Lewins Mead in front of a sugar refinery that has now become the Hotel du Vin. By the time my daughter’s ice cream and chocolate sauce arrived, I had a prickling sensation running across my shoulder blades and I couldn’t wait to get out of that tastefully decorated restaurant. I’d realised that this former bank was founded by and had housed the accumulated wealth of the city’s merchants who, almost without exception, had been involved in the slave trade.

I love Bristol. The city has seeped its way into all the novels I’ve written since I’ve lived here. But Pizza Express was no isolated incident. Wherever one goes, there are reminders of the legacy of slavery. Film Club, when I was at university here, was held at Goldney Hall, home of Thomas Goldney II, who owned a brass and copper works outside Bristol. This ‘red gold’ was part of the triangular slave trade: brass, copper and other goods were transported from the city to West Africa in exchange for slaves, who were then shipped to the Caribbean and, as part of the third leg of this trade route, the goods the slaves had produced, such as cotton, sugar and rum, were brought back to the UK. Goldney also invested in shipping — highjacking Spanish ships and profitably disposing of their slaves. Recently I was asked to speak at a university conference on sugar, which was held in the Royal Fort House. This impressive residence was built for Thomas Tyndall, a banker invested in the slave trade. Behind my PowerPoint presentation on sugar and the slave trade hung an oil of the Tyndall family.

When I wrote my non-fiction book, Sugar: the grass that changed the world, I used Bristol as a case study to show how the slave trade operated. Britain alone transported more than 3 million slaves, 500,000 of whom were carried by Bristolian ships. The issue has been widely and hotly debated but there is one notable absence: the voices of the men, women and children who were enslaved.

It is hardly surprising. Kidnapped in Africa and shipped to the Caribbean to work in sugar and tobacco plantations, some half of the enslaved men, women and children did not survive the experience. Of those who did, many would not have shared a language with their fellow captives. Obviously most slaves did not have access to education or books; worse, in the US it was against the law to teach a slave to read or write. That a scant handful of slaves did manage to publish accounts of their lives is nothing short of miraculous. There was Solomon Northrup, whose 1853 memoir was turned into the film 12 Years a Slave; Olaudah Equiano, whose account of being kidnapped as a child and buying his freedom many years later was printed in 1789; and Harriet Jacobs, who was born into slavery and became the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861.

Occasionally fragments of reported conversation emerge. The most complete account I’ve read of the realities of slavery was by Fanny Kemble, who wrote a diary, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839. Kemble’s story is unique: a beautiful and talented actress, she travelled to America and fell in love with a charming gentleman from the deep South. Only after she’d married Pierce Mease Butler in 1834 did she discover he was a slave owner — almost thirty years after Britain had abolished the slave trade. Butler forced her to live on his plantation. It was not for long, but her journal is harrowing: glorious descriptions of the flora and fauna of Savannah are juxtaposed with accounts of everyday brutality towards Butler’s 700 slaves by her husband’s overseer. Her diary made such a deep impression on me that I decided to fictionalise it. Kemble’s story became my fourth novel, Sugar Island.

One aspect of the journal troubled me, though. Kemble’s slaves spoke almost as poetically as she wrote: ‘I have worked every day through dew and damp, and sand and heat, and done good work; but oh, missis, me old and broken now, no tongue can tell how much I suffer.’ How could I convey the realities of life for these slaves if I had no real understanding of how they spoke? Equiano, Jacobs and Northrup were excellent writers but they did not convey the realities of dialogue at the time. I didn’t want to rely on reported conversations from other contemporary accounts that were likely to be inaccurate, and which would also sound offensive to modern readers — including frequent use of the ‘n word’.

What helped was a book by a professor of anatomy and anthropology at the University of North Carolina, William S. Pollitzer, The Gullah People and their African Heritage (1999). The Gullah are the descendants of African slaves who lived along the coast and Sea Islands of Georgia. In spite of their diverse backgrounds, over time they developed their own culture and dialect. This is what I used to try and accurately portray slave slang, terminology and grammatical constructions. I then altered it to make the slave dialogue less accurate but, I hope, more readable.

‘I been thinking what the true difference is between we and you, you white folk,’ Frank said […] ‘The difference is we have no hope. But that change when you come. Not because you can free us. We know you can’t. Not because you can make our lives better because you can’t if Mr Brook don’t let you. But because the way you think is different. Make we sadder, this hope.’

Although I visited St Simon’s Island where Butler’s slaves were incarcerated, I wrote Sugar Island in Bristol and continued to draw on my research into slavery to help me. And there is one slave who has become associated with the city: Pero Jones. He was captured in 1765, aged twelve, for slave owner John Pinney’s Mountravers plantation in Nevis. When Jones was an adult, Pinney brought him back to Bristol to be his personal manservant, and he lived in the city for almost a quarter of a century. In 1794, Jones visited Mountravers again and, according to Pinney, his behaviour changed markedly after that. He started drinking heavily and grew ill. He died, around the age of forty-five, still a slave.

Jones was unable to write a memoir of his life. We can only speculate what might have happened to him on his return to the Caribbean, or what memories such a trip might have conjured for him. Today there’s a bridge over the River Frome named after him. It links the side of the harbour where the wealthiest slave trading merchants used to live and the bustling docks where their ships would have moored. As my family and I left Pizza Express, we crossed this bridge and I thought about Pero Jones — one of a scant handful of slaves whose name we know. Sugar Island was harrowing to research and to write, but I’m glad that I’ve made a contribution, however small, to highlighting what happened to those millions of nameless men, women and children whose lives were pitilessly destroyed.

Sanjida O’Connell is the author of Sugar Island. Her latest novel, Bone by Bone, is published by Corvus Books.

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