Repossessing the Slave Past: Caribbean Historiography and Dennis Scott’s An Echo in the Bone

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Repossessing the Slave Past: Caribbean Historiography and Dennis Scott’s An Echo in the Bone

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  Repossessing the Slave Past: Caribbean Historiography and Dennis Scott’s  An Echo in the Bone John Thieme The potential of a country is the mass of its people.(Derek Walcott,  Drums and Colours 1 )During the 1990s I worked in Hull, where in the Old Town the iconic presence of William Wilberforce looms large. Wilberforce sits atop the city’s equivalent of  Nelson’s Column and the Wilberforce House in cobbled High Street, now very much a back street, has been the home to a museum, which, for a century, has curated the storyof Atlantic slavery and the work of Wilberforce and his associates in the campaign toabolish the slave trade in the British Empire.Hull’s museums have strong proletarian traditions. The Old Grammar School,where Andrew Marvell and Wilberforce were once pupils, houses an exhibition of “TheStory of Hull and Its Peoples” that devotes most of its space to a narrative of the socialhistory of the city, memorializing the lives of its ordinary inhabitants rather than suchluminaries as Marvell and Wilberforce. However, not surprisingly, the WilberforceHouse Museum, the finest and best-preserved seventeenth-century residence in Hull,has been concerned with chronicling the life of the single most important figure in theabolitionist struggle. Until recently it offered a two-part story of slavery. Visitors wereexposed to the horrors and brutality of the trade and the conditions on New World plantations, particularly through a gruesome three-dimensional mock-up of the hold of aMiddle Passage ship, complete with sound effects in the form of the groans of slaves.Then, after this journey through trauma, they progressed into a more redemptivenarrative, viewing exhibits that illustrated ways in which Wilberforce and hisEvangelical contemporaries pursued their campaign to eradicate the trade.1  To commemorate the bicentenary of abolition, the museum’s exhibits have beenexpanded as part of a development project that has redirected emphasis by highlightingthe African perspective and exploring contemporary issues. This change of focusseems salutary. One does not want to dispute the abolitionist narrative, simply to saythat, if history rewrites the present, shifting the emphasis, so that the story is told fromthe side of those who were the victims of one of the most inhumane episodes in worldhistory provides a more appropriate perspective. It would be invidious if commemorating the bicentenary privileged abolition at the expense of the horrors thatoccurred. Serious narratives of other “unspeakable” chapters in human history, such asthe Holocaust have not generally placed their main stress on the forces that broughtthem to an end and in this respect the historiography of slavery runs the risk of beingexceptional, even if popular representations of other genocides, including films such as The Killing Fields (1984), Schindler’s List  (1993) and  Hotel Rwanda (2004), havecentred their attention on individual stories of rescue.Down the road from the Georgian Wilberforce House, there is another historical building: a modest back-street pub called “Ye Olde Black Boy”. It dates from the earlyeighteenth century, but its history is less well documented. It became a pub in thetwentieth century, after reputedly having previously been a coffee house and a brothel.The provenance of the pub’s name is particularly uncertain. Although a major port fromthe medieval period onwards, Hull, unlike Liverpool and Bristol, was not a terminus for the triangular trade; facing East, its commerce was mainly with mainland Europe. So,while the presence of a single real-life “black boy” is very conceivable, the name wouldseem to attest to a different situation from those in the West coast ports. Hull is a townwhich, despite the Wilberforce legacy, has historically been more monocultural thanmost British cities, albeit a location in which European migrants have frequently shored2  up. What is known about the “black boy”? One theory has it that he was a Moroccan,who worked in the building when it was a coffee house in the eighteenth century. Therest is rumour and prominent among the rumours is a popular tradition that the pub ishaunted. So, altogether less celebrated than the Wilberforce House, the pub isnevertheless something of a heritage site in itself, but it attests to a history of silence,anecdote and rumour. A silence which perhaps haunts the very well-documented,humanitarian work of William Wilberforce.The restaging of the Wilberforce House exhibits is thankfully going some wayto remedying the occlusion of the African side of the story and in this essay I shouldlike to consider work by Caribbean dramatists, which also re-envisions slave-relatedexperiences in ways that suggest the inadequacy of the abolitionist narrative unless it iscomplemented by an engagement with the African legacy. After some brief remarks onDerek Walcott’s 1993 Walker  , srcinally a libretto set in nineteenth-century Boston, mymain focus is on Dennis Scott’s 1974 play,  An Echo in the Bone , which develops a brilliant strategy to demonstrate how the slave past permeates its twentieth-centuryJamaican present.The task of recuperating the silenced voices of history’s dispossessed is, of course, never easy and sometimes nigh-on impossible; and in this case the cliché thathistory is written by the victors is an understatement, since the victims of the trade and plantation slavery seldom had any access to the written word at all, unless, like OlaudahEquiano, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and Phillis Wheatley, their writing was used to arguethe abolitionist case. And even today, at this bicentennial moment, the story of Africanslavery continues to be told in tandem with accounts of abolition which, notunreasonably given their focus, accord equal space to British reformers. In MurrayWatts’s acclaimed recent play  African Snow (2007), 2 for example, Equiano is thrown3  into dialogue with John Newton, the reformed slave-trader, who in later life assistedWilberforce and is now best remembered as the composer of the hymn “AmazingGrace”. Newton is another abolitionist whose memory has been only too well curated by a British museum, the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney. Equiano less so? Not altogether. He, too, has been given a voice, then and now, but primarily as avicarious, iconic spokesman for his mute African contemporaries and in a context thathas been dependent on the work of the abolitionists.When the slaves and the freed diasporic Africans of the eighteenth andnineteenth centuries were literate, the pressure to comply with the gradualist tacticsfavoured by many white abolitionists often led to a dilution of their protests. Derek Walcott dramatizes their dilemma in Walker  , srcinally a libretto commissioned by theBoston Athenaeum for an opera by T.J. Anderson and subsequently revised as a playwith music by Walcott’s long-time collaborator Galt MacDermot. 3 The first scene of  Walker  includes a dialogue between the historical figures of its hero, the black abolitionist David Walker, and the Irish abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Set atThanksgiving in 1830, in the years between the abolition of the trade in the U.S. (in1808) and Emancipation, this dialogue debates the relative merits of gradualist andmilitant approaches to ending slavery. Garrison counsels the literate and highlyarticulate Walker against publishing what he sees as a seditious text, 4 while a choruslocates Walker’s vision in the context of such African American pathfinders as the painters Jacob Lawrence, Horace Pippin and Romare Bearden as work in the true“American grain”. 5   Walker  is at its most effective in stylized passages such as thefollowing, which underline the revolutionary potential of black print as a means for voicing African retentions in the snow-white world of Boston:I was walking alone through a forestof black trees whose leaves were like print,4   but their language was differentand the leaves were letters I had learnt but forgotten from the African kingdoms,and I was lost and not lost. […]I was remembering an alphabetfrom a language I did not know,then I looked outside the windowand the drums no longer beat,and saw Boston smothered in snow […]. 6 The emphasis on the scribal in passages like this clearly speaks to the continued need togive voice to African American experience as part of the fight against slavery in the period after the abolition of the trade. Walcott’s Walker is silenced – apparently poisoned to collect a bounty placed on his head, as, “rumour” has it, he was in real life 7  – but the dramatic reconstruction of his last hours revives and articulates hisuncompromising message and ultimately Garrison is no more than a bit-player in a production that places Walker centre-stage.With literacy comparatively rare among the slaves in the southern Americanstates and the anglophone Caribbean, orally transmitted histories became the mainconduits for preserving, transforming and revivifying African-derived cultural practices.However, these potent storehouses of ancestral memories more frequently functioned asrepositories of communal strength and survival rather than as testimonies to theatrocities of the slave trade and slavery. In the mid twentieth-century Caribbean, theera in which Walcott and Dennis Scott were coming of age, slavery remained the unspoken Ur  -narrative of Afro-Caribbean life, as well as a crucial sub-text underlyingthe experience of Caribbean peoples of other ethnicities. George Lamming highlightsthe omission of slavery from the late colonial educational curriculum in a memorable passage in his first novel,  In the Castle of My Skin (1953). A group of colonialschoolboys find it hard to believe that slavery ever existed in Barbados.[Queen Victoria] was a great and good queen, the head teacher had said, and theold people had said something similar. […] They said she made us free, you5
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