The following short work of fiction written by our regular author, George Burden, won third prize in The George Elliott Clarke Literary Competition in the 1998/1999 season. It now appears here on Life As A Human in three instalments.
Readers might notice similarities between this work and the Lawrence Hill novel, The Book of Negroes, (entitled, in the United States, ‘Someone Knows My Name’) published by Harper Collins. Hill’s novel was published in 2007, eight years after this story, and eventually became a movie.
Part III of III
Thus I assumed the management of the Wentworth summer residence.
The estate had a commanding vista of lakes, streams, and woods, and soon became a popular retreat for the gentry. The governor would transport his guests across the harbour aboard a fabulous galley and then greet them with cannon fire and music as they arrived to his front portico. My job was to coordinate the staff of servants in distributing sweetmeats and sherry to the visitors as they arrived, then ensure that they were affably greeted, comfortably seated, and that food was prepared and served on time. This task was not difficult as black staff members all recognized the leadership of “Anansi”, and the whites feared the influence I seemed to wield with the governor.
For maintenance of the mansion’s grounds, Sir John used about fifty of my companions as free labour. Technically, slavery was not allowed at this time in Nova Scotia, but a form of feudal indenturedness not much different still survived. As in Jamaica, my fellows chafed at the bit of servitude and it was only through my influence that a full blown Maroon rebellion did not materialize. Little did the governor realize this when he bragged that he was “often without sentry and without a door or window locked and still they do no mischief.”
Eventually, in 1800, I was able to prevail on Wentworth to allow those of my people who wished to leave to be transported to the African nation of Sierra Leone. Years before, some of the emancipated loyal slaves, those who had supported England during the American Revolutionary War, chose to go this route. But many others had stayed and formed the first nucleus of black residents of the colony. Quite a few of the Maroons also decided to remain, including me, for I still wished to track down the whereabouts of my wife, and this would be an easier task from my post with Wentworth.
The governor was often in foul mood, for he was ruled by his wife Lady Frances. She was frequently absent, sharing her charms with various others including the king’s son, Prince William. A ruddy faced and amiable man, he would visit on occasion, and in truth Sir John owed his present post more to his wife’s amorous exploits than to his own intrinsic merit. When I served Prince “Willie”, I would strain to see if his mother had passed to him some sign of our mutual heritage. Indeed, I felt a certain comely fullness of the lips betrayed his African descent.
Lady Frances, in unguarded moments, would often remind Sir John of how much he owed to her “friendship” with the prince. I wondered if she knew of the sultry Maroon girl who frequented the governor’s chambers in her absence.
I grew increasingly frustrated in my efforts to find Orishanla. The raging war with Napoleon had made communications difficult and I asked the governor to make enquiries concerning her, which he graciously did. He seemed a bit bemused by my loyalty and often urged me to choose another among the comely Maroon lasses, an option I politely declined. And still nothing could be found of my spouse and my son, though I remained convinced that they were both alive.
In 1808, the British government pensioned off Sir John, and so he and Lady Frances retired to the Bedford Basin lodge, now absented by Prince Edward. I remained in Preston and once more began to teach school, saving the small allowance I was granted in hope of purchasing passage back to Jamaica. But in June, 1812, the United States declared war on England, making transport even more difficult for a civilian black man.
Several months after the war began I received a letter from Jamaica, addressed to James Trelayne, the name which I continued to use with the English, years after my masquerade as the squire’s cousin. I tore open the envelope and read its contents voraciously. It was from Sarah Trelayne!
May 30, 1812
My Dearest Osei,
I know this missive will find you, for I am aware you are living in Nova Scotia and that you were transported there with the Maroon people who were captured shortly after your departure from Tremayne Hall. An English officer told me there was a man of colour of your description living in a town called Preston, who used the Tremayne name and who once served the governor. I knew this could only be you. I do not hold your leaving against you, but father never forgave it, and had forbidden me to attempt to contact you. The squire perished of a fever several months ago and I am now able to relate to you the following circumstances, and right an injustice.
About two weeks after the Maroons were sent away, a young woman with a newborn infant was discovered attempting to take some fruit from our garden. The poor thing was famished and I insisted on feeding her despite the overseer’s protests that this would only encourage more thievery. In the course of our conversation I elucidated the fact that this woman, Orishanla, was your wife, and the child your baby. She was taken into our service and your son, who she named Kwame, thrived, growing to a handsome lad now almost sixteen.
I did not want you to have to wait further to see them, and took the liberty of purchasing passage for them both on the merchant vessel, “Orion”, bound for Halifax. Your family should soon be with you my dear friend.
Yours very truly,
I groaned. The Americans had declared war in June, just after this letter had been written which was now several months past. With dismay I realized a merchant ship would be a sizeable trophy for American privateers. I rushed over to the home of a naval officer who maintained a place in Preston and asked if he’d heard any word of the “Orion”. He sighed. She had been taken by the Americans off the coast of Virginia. The crew had been exchanged or ransomed, but any blacks on board would be working the plantations of Virginia by now. I crumpled the letter which I still held clutched in my hand and sobbed.
I was a broken man without hope, but for the sake of the children who I instructed, I continued at my teacher’s post. Time passed and by 1814 the war was going poorly for the Americans. General Ross had finally taken Washington D.C. and burned the American’s Capitol Building. I was in town purchasing supplies when the victorious British ships returned to the Halifax Harbour and docked. Aboard were hundreds of black people, slaves from Chesapeake plantations who had begged the British to take them away from their American owners.
I wandered over to the dockyard to see if I could welcome these newcomers and help them settle into a new life in Nova Scotia. As I eyed the gang plank I noticed a middle aged but still handsome woman accompanied by a tall, strong young man. My heart suddenly leapt in recognition, but I didn’t dare believe it was true. Was my mind playing tricks on me from too much anguish, too much time spent with old books by candle light? “Orishanla!” I screamed. The woman stiffened. Her eyes widened and she cried, “Osei, can it possibly be you?” Letting out a squeal she jumped into my embrace.
My son, Kwame, at first seemed confused as I grasped his arm and hugged him to my breast. “Is..is this my father?” he asked Orishanla. “Oh yes my son, it is.” she replied. Tears filled his large brown eyes and streamed down the high Ashanti cheek bones. “Father, how is possible that I have missed you so much when I have never met you?”
At this point a uniformed British soldier approached me. “Are you James Tremayne?” he asked. “Lieutenant Manning is looking for you.”
I shook my head slowly and replied, “My name is Osei.”
Turning to Orishanla and Kwame I said, “Come,” and clasping their hands I led them slowly from the King’s dock. I vowed we would never be parted again.
Authors note (1998)
With the exception of Osei and his family members, and the Tremaynes, the characters in this story are all historical figures (yes, even Colonel Quarrell). George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, is indeed thought to have had black heritage. Ashanti was a very well-organized nation with a civil service, a standing army, and the wherewithal to avoid British conquest until 1901. The other historical details are as accurate as I could possibly make them using a variety of references.
Author’s note (2019)
The inspiration for ‘My Name is Osei’ began with a trip to Ghana, the former Gold Coast in 1971, when at the tender age of 15, I spent a month touring the country, including experiencing an audience with the king of the Ashanti at his palace in Kumasi (see the photo of me standing behind the king). I later toured a great deal of the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Haiti, and Grenada, and have used photos I took while there and in West Africa to illustrate my current publication of the novella.
As you can see from the photo of the award certificate, George Elliott Clarke’s signature graces it front and centre. Clarke remains a renowned award-winning Nova Scotian poet and academic who was Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate from 2016-2017.
Subsequently the talented jazz artist, Jeri Brown, at the time a professor at Concordia University, proposed turning ‘My Name is Osei’ into an operetta, when we discussed it at a Christmas party at the home of a mutual friend, Dr. William Harvey.
Photos courtesy of George Burden—All rights reserved.