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 I of III
April 7, 1815
My name is Osei Tutu. I was born in Africa, educated in Jamaica, and I now dwell in the cool depths of the forests of Nova Scotia. I wish to explain to my posterity, how I, and they, reached this northern bastion of British dominion. Otherwise all shall be forgotten, and as Voltaire, I believe, once remarked, those who forget history are condemned to repeat its mistakes.
My Momma was of Ashanti stock, the third wife of a prosperous merchant, in the city of Kumasi in what the English call the Gold Coast. The Asantehene, king of our people, had kept the slavers at bay from our domain, though their fortresses dotted the nearby coastline. Many less fortunate nations saw their citizens funnelled through the noisome dungeons of these abominations, en route to the New World for toil in the Caribbean and other European colonies.
I remember Kumasi, a city bustling and prosperous from the gold trade, its markets redolent of spices and brightened by the bolts of colourful kente cloth hung to tempt buyers in the stalls and booths. Ashanti matrons pounded fufu, a doughy dietary staple, with large wooden pestles, their pendulous breasts bouncing in time to this daily task. Gold merchants weighed out the precious yellow dust with tiny, intricately marked brass weights, and wood carvers hacked and whittled out the famed Ashanti stools or created more decorative pieces for those with excess funds and an eye for artistry. The wall of the Asantehene’s palace dominated the centre of our city, famed for its wide boulevards and its clean white-washed public buildings. I swelled with pride to think I had been named for my great great uncle, the first king of the Ashanti and founder of our nation.
Yes, life was good, but our peace was not destined to last. Momma was the daughter of a respected herbalist who foraged medicinal plants from the forests surrounding our city. We had departed the city one day to visit my grandfather. In retrospect it was an inauspicious day, for the harmattan, a dry wind which blew down from the Sahara, had darkened the sky and raised dust devils in the streets of Kumasi, turning day to twilight. But Momma did not readily change her mind, and we found ourselves traversing the country side, Momma taking time to point out this plant or that herb and to tell me what was its use. It was a rude shock when we were attacked by a trio of malodorous white men. We were bound and dragged onto their wagon for a miserable trip to a coastal fortress. Momma’s face fell with dismay as we neared its ponderous main gate, for once within the walls she realized we were lost. The traders would load us aboard slave vessels and no one would know what had become of us. We were thrown into a dungeon with about one hundred other poor souls of the Ga and Fanti nations. Momma spoke their dialects and discovered that they had been here for two weeks awaiting transport to Jamaica. Evidently we would be joining them. A young Fanti woman suggested we get some sleep, though it was only mid afternoon. When Momma asked why, she explained that our temporary home flooded with each high tide, and the next was due this evening. Several men hung from shackles, their wrists oozing blood, punishment for having dared to protest their accommodations. Several hellish days went by before we finally boarded an English vessel bound for Jamaica, and its sugar plantations. If I thought the dungeon was bad, the ship was ten times worse! We were stacked like so much wood in the hold, with rotten food and no sanitation. I remembered nostalgically the plumbing facilities and running water with which my father’s home, as many others in Kumasi, was equipped.
The hold soon stank of feces and urine, and unwashed bodies. Days turned to weeks and some of our number ceased to stir when the meagre ration of water and biscuit was doled out. Momma spoke a little English, having learned it to help my father in his business transactions. A kindly English sailor used to slip her an extra biscuit for me. He told her how he had grown up on a farm in a place called Devonshire. One day a group of people he termed a “press gang” had beaten him to unconsciousness. He awoke aboard a British naval vessel and was forced to live in conditions not much better than ours. Those of his number who protested were flogged near to death, hanged, or sometimes dragged across the barnacle encrusted hull of the ship till their flesh hung in shreds, a procedure called “keel hauling”. The dead were coated in tar and hung near the entrances to harbours around the empire as a warning to others who laboured under the illusion that the words, “the English never, never, never shall be slaves”, held some element of truth.
One morning I awoke, and noticed the absence of the rocking movement of the vessel to which I’d grown accustomed. Shouts and cries assailed my ears and strange smells penetrated even through the miasma of our hold. The hatch opened and we blinked at the bright light, then staggered out of the vessel. With its hot sun and its palm trees, Jamaica was in some ways much like home. We were led to a raised area and then one by one were auctioned off like so many cattle to the highest bidder. I was seven years old but a well formed lad and was purchased for ten pounds by a certain Squire Trelayne of Trelayne Hall, or rather by one of his lackeys, for the squire rarely purchased slaves himself. Momma told me she had fetched twenty pounds. We were loaded onto a wagon and driven to the estate of the good squire.
It was a great relief to be out in the open air and we did not greatly mind the journey from the docks of Kingston to our new home. On arrival to the estate I was awed by the large colonnaded great hall, shaded by huge cottonwood trees. We were escorted to the slave quarters where others told us how lucky we had been that Momma and I had not been separated at the auction. Families were often split up, husband from wife and child from parent.
As masters went, Trelayne was not a bad one. Floggings were administered sparingly and overseers were not allowed to rape the female slaves as this tended to demoralize them and decrease productivity. Initially Momma was intended as a field slave, but her quick mind and knowledge of English earned her a coveted position in the master’s household. The squire soon realized that I shared my mother’s intelligence and aptitude for language and he decided to try a little experiment. A neighbouring sugar planter by the name of Wyndham had affirmed that the slaves had little intelligence and were incapable of being educated to the level of a white man. Trelayne wagered one thousand pounds that this was not the case and decided that I was to be the one to prove him right. An Oxford trained tutor had been hired for Sarah, the master’s seven-year-old daughter, and I was to be educated right along with her. An apt pupil was I and as the years went by I learned to speak English, not just the Pidgin dialect most of my fellows adopted, but an upper class British accent, which my tutor laboured to instill at the insistence of the squire. I learned of Shakespeare and Milton by day at the manor, and of Anansi the Ashanti trickster god by night in the barracks. On Sundays I worshipped the God of the English and by moonlight learned of Obeah and the deities of my homeland.
My good fortune aroused some jealousy among my peers, but I was an affable lad, by now fifteen years of age and spoke fluent Ga and several other dialects as well as the ubiquitous Pidgin. I often was able to intercede for the benefit of the others as the squire had grown quite fond of me and thus I was generally well liked.
I became an amphibian, able to swim in the waters of the manor and of the slave quarters equally well.
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.