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 II of III
The day had finally arrived when squire felt confident enough to claim his wager. Wyndham was invited to dine one evening and to meet a new lad visiting from the north side of the island, a “cousin” of the family. I was dressed in the fashionable evening wear of the time and seated in a dark corner of the parlour of Trelayne Manor.
The squire apologized for a shortage of candles when his neighbour arrived, and he seated him in the parlour well away from me, so that I was barely visible. I was then introduced as his cousin, James Trelayne, and proceeded to have a merry conversation with Wyndham. We discussed how the affluence of the sugar planters had allowed their cartel to buy many “Rotten Borough” seats in Parliament, giving “us” an inordinate amount of political power. I could not help mentioning (presciently) that it was only through “our” pressure tactics that England had been prevented from giving Canada back to the French in exchange for the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Of course, this would have been disastrous for “our” monopoly on the sugar market. A little lively banter followed about what a terrible thing it was that the French revolution had done to the monarchy, followed by a (for me) very amusing discourse on Rousseau’s concept of “the Noble Savage.”
Trelayne re-entered the parlour. Wyndham turned and whispered that he should love to introduce “James” to their eldest daughter, who was not only eminently eligible but had a sizeable dowry. Trelayne guffawed and held a light to my face, at which point Wyndham keeled over in a dead faint.
As I mentioned, in the years that I had spent at Trelayne Hall, the squire had grown to like me a great deal. I felt more like a guest than a slave at times, and he had begun to rely on me to manage the staff of the manor and even to help with the accounts. I had vowed never to marry, after hearing of how a slave might be separated from his wife. Fortunately I had grown into a tall and well-formed young man and the tender embraces of the ladies of the barracks were rather thrust on me, than the reverse. Though I had grown very fond of a few of my companions, I refused to take a bride as Trelayne frequently suggested. To be honest, I had fallen very much in love with Sarah, as she had with me. She was a pretty and guileless girl and though part of me cried out to passionately embrace her and declare my love, I knew this would only end in her ruination, and I could not.
I had been reading much of the Enlightenment philosophers of late, especially John Locke, and realized that though I had much freedom I was yet a slave. I could not cozen remaining the property of another individual, even of a kind man like Trelayne. My mother had died the previous year, the victim of smallpox, and I had no ties holding me now. For this reason, I resolved that I would join the ranks of the runaway slaves of Jamaica, the Maroons. This fierce amalgam of tribal groups controlled much of the island’s mountainous interior despite the efforts of British soldiers. I had managed to locate one band about thirty miles inland from my home and intended to desert to them the next time the squire asked me to travel to Kingston. When this day arrived, I walked to the edge of the road and stripped off my breeches and waistcoat. Smearing them in chicken blood and tearing them, I hoped Trelayne would believe I had been murdered rather than having run off, delaying the search process. Naked to the waist and bloodstained, I felt I had shed my veneer of civilisation and become a creature of the rainforest. I had used to wander the waterfalls and lush jungles around Trelayne Hall and felt at home here. Picking up a faint trail, I moved higher into the mountains until I was suddenly encircled by a group of black men, crudely armed, their heads surmounted by masses of shiny curls. The leader grinned toothily when he recognized and welcomed me. He gripped my left hand in the manner of certain South African tribes, wherein the lowering of the left or shield hand denotes trust in the other’s intentions. Some of the Muslim tribes from the north of the continent consider this an abomination and never proffer the left or “dung” hand. Fortunately, I had become acquainted with many of my confreres’ differing customs, as well as their tongues. Climbing higher into the mountains, we negotiated a bend and found ourselves looking onto a cluster of thatched huts. Women and children swarmed about me to inspect the newcomer. I was fed and then shown my quarters, shared with the single men of the group. My duties were to include defence of the village and hunting for food. The women tended rude crops, which provided our staple diet, and we supplemented it with birds and small game. It was a subsistence existence, but it was a free one, and I did not miss my days sipping port and exchanging pleasantries with Englishmen. My new compatriots worshipped a god called Achompang, and our rites further strengthened the sense of oneness felt in our community. We were a medley of different peoples, and being uprooted and transported to this new land created a deep need to put spiritual meaning back into our lives.
My reputation in the village was sealed when one day a force of about one hundred English soldiers was seen advancing up the path towards our settlement. Either they had been informed we were here or it was blind, dumb luck. Counting on the latter I scampered up the hillface to the south of our town and backtracked behind the red-tunicked column. Their bayonets and muskets would have made short work of us, unprepared as we were, though with properly arranged ambushes we had routed invaders before. Summoning up my best Oxford English I bellowed, “Not there you pack of blithering idiots. I said to advance up the hill to your left.” Drilled to unfailing obedience to an officer’s upper class accent, the troops blindly obeyed my order. We were saved. Henceforth my nickname among the Maroons was “Anansi”, for I had sealed my reputation as a skilful deceiver the equal of the little trickster deity.
By and large, life quickly fell into a routine and I later moved from the bachelors’ quarters to build a hut of my own. About this time a lithe runaway girl entered the village and soon captured my soul. Her name was Orishanla, of the Yoruba nation, and I fell madly in love. We married and before many months her belly swelled with my offspring. I joyously awaited the arrival of my son (for the village Obeah woman had told me I would have a boy). Orishanla had an old aunt who lived in another Maroon settlement and decided that before she was too far along in her pregnancy she would like to visit her. A small party was travelling from our village and my beloved joined them, leaving me for a few days. I soon felt lonely and had a little too much to drink of the fermented palm wine we used as an intoxicant. I awoke to the sound of screaming and ran confusedly from my hut. Red coated soldiers were everywhere and we were soon rounded up and shackled. A man in a splendid uniform identified himself as Colonel Quarrell and addressed the group, his words translated into Pidgin by a small black man obviously brought for this purpose. Quarrell told us that we were very lucky as the French and Spanish killed rebel slaves outright for their depredations. Fortunately for us, the merciful Duke of Kent, son of King George III and commander of the garrison in a place called Nova Scotia, was in need of labourers. Several hundred of our number were to be shipped north to aid in the construction of a new fortress. My heart was bursting with panic. Orishanla would come back and find I was gone. I would never see my son!
I did not identify my ability to speak the King’s English, hoping this would give me some advantage to escape. This opportunity did not materialize, however, and I soon found myself shackled in the hold of a barque, bound for the icy shores of Nova Scotia. Other prisoners muttered what they had heard of the cold white flakes that fell from the sky, and water as hard as iron. It sounded a forbidding and grim place. We soon discovered that the government of Jamaica was actually paying the cost of our exile, desirous of being rid of a potential threat to the colony. The recent successful slave revolt in Haiti had made them deathly afraid of a similar event on their own island.
It was the summer of 1796 when we arrived in Nova Scotia and we counted ourselves fortunate to have made our advent during the warm season. In actual fact, most of us were experiencing colder temperatures than we had ever before encountered. I was soon put to work with many others in constructing what later became known as the “Maroon Bastion” of the citadel in Halifax. The intense labour on the duke’s defence project made the cool weather more bearable for us. Afterwards, we were shipped inland to a place called Preston, and Colonel Quarrell put us to work clearing the forests and constructing his mansion which he appropriately called “Maroon Hall”. We were allowed a fair amount of leeway as there was nowhere to run, and at nights we would still celebrate the rites of Achompang in the woods around Preston.
The British government had granted a stipend of 240 pounds annually to provide a school for the Maroon settlers. It was whispered that Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, had a good deal of Negro blood, and that the educational grant was a concession made to her by a doting husband. I decided that my time could be better spent teaching in this institution, and I identified my desire to Colonel Quarrell. Rather surprised to find one of his servants had an English education, he readily assented to this as it would save him the trouble of organizing the endeavour. Enough of the funds filtered through greedy hands that I was able to build a school and obtain books and other necessities for the instruction of my confreres.
My dalliance in the field of education did not last for long, as about this time, Governor Sir John and Lady Frances Wentworth relinquished their estate on the Bedford Basin to the Duke of Kent and his pretty French mistress, Julie. Instead, they built a summer place in the hills of Preston. Having word that I was a capable and educated man, the governor summoned me and asked me to act as major domo for his estate. I was reluctant to leave the school, but assented to his demand, as I was anxious to curry the powerful man’s favour. I had not given up hope seeing my beloved Orishanla once again as well as a son I had never known. The school was turned over to a poor clergyman, who appreciated the stipend, though I continued to give occasional lessons.
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.