Saturday, November 22, 2008

1823: Blood, Sex & Angst

1823 might one day come to be regarded as a hinge year in Guyana’s historical development, outsignifying other years and events, like 1834 in Essequibo, or 1763 in Berbice. And some good day when our nation is brimming with prosperity, and can boast a film studio and film-making talent, someone might secure the financing to make a movie or documentary based on events of that year.

1823 saw the uprising of slaves on the Demerara plantations in what has been described as “one of the most massive slave rebellions in the history of the Western Hemisphere”.

It has inspired several books, the most acclaimed so far “Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood” ( 1997) by the Brazilian professor (History/Yale) Emilia Viotti da Costa. This book is recognized as a serious work of reconstruction, well researched, careful with facts and the nuances of relations among the many power players. But long before the publication of that scholarly work there was Ratoon (1962), a novel by Christopher Nicole.

Based on events of the same year Ratoon takes fictional liberties with the historical record. In an author’s note Nicole states that incidents described in his book were “based on eyewitness accounts of what actually took place”; but the main characters were invented.

The novelist like the professor attempts a many-angled chronicle of events, though for his purposes Nicole inflates the number of slaves involved in the uprising from the estimated 12,000 to a potential 20,000. Nicole’s fiction covers those history-altering days in prose that feels confident if at times distant from (to use George Lamming-like words) the profound implications of that human tragedy.

The locus of the novel is the Elisabeth Plantation House. It stands in an almost exotic setting, “in the centre of a carefully created paradise of soft green lawns, deep flower beds brilliant with multi-coloured zinnias, and borders of heavenly scented jasmine and spreading oleander bushes.” Beyond it, the slave compound, a vegetable patch; then the chimney of the boiling house, the canefields and irrigation ditches.

Readers get a sense of what life was like for slaves and slaveholders in East Demerara villages stripped now (though not completely) of their colonised character – Plantation Nabacalis, Plantation Le Ressouvenir, Le Reduit, Vryheid’s Lust, Mahaica, Felicity, Success.

We are guests at the August meeting of the Demerara Racing Club in Kitty, “a teeming, brilliantly coloured ant-heap, winning and losing, drinking and sweating, betting and gossiping”. At Camp House, the Governor’s Residence “overlooking the silt-discoloured estuary of the Demerara River” , we listen in as Governor Murray and Captain Bonning argue over what to do about rumours of slave insurrection, and how to deal with the insurgents. We’re curious as the young English missionary John Smith passes by “astride an emaciated mule, proceeding slowly up the coast.”

Nicole seems very much attuned to the speech rhythms of the ruling white oligarchy (“Ah, Bonning,” Murray called. “Resting your men. Good. And this is Packwood? Come inside with me, my man.”) He is on less certain ground with his “invented” creole-slave talk (“She done sleeping. And it time. She going feel them blows for she life.”) which often sounds invented, and might dismay regional linguists; though no one can be sure what creole voices sounded like in 1823.

Employing old-fashioned chapter headings (“There will be Great Alarm”, “An Army will be Assembled”) Nicole catches the state of heightened anxiety in the colony.

As the anti-slavery lobby gains momentum overseas, slaves hear rumours of freedom promised, freedom delayed. Planters offer quick reforms. They’ll do away with the whip as “an institution” of overseer control in the fields; and they’ll stop the flogging of women. But they draw the line at a proposal from that firebrand missionary John Smith (and his “over-conscienced preaching people”) to grant Sundays off to the working slaves. That would mean too many lost days of production. Their investment in estate and human property was already under threat with all the talk of emancipation back in England!

The central characters in Ratoon are born-in-Guiana natives: Joan Dart, daughter of a plantation owner Peter Dart, but not “representative” of Demerara white women. Unmarried (at twenty six) she had spent all her life in Guiana and had come to view Plantation Elisabeth as “home”. Then there’s Jackey Reed, “a young negro, tall and slim”, fascinated with the crusading ideas & energy of the young missionary John Smith. He adopts Christianity and joins the movement plotting the slave revolt.

Their dissimilar plantation-creole identities converge one fateful day. Jackey Reed makes a break for freedom but is pursued, captured and placed in the stocks by Peter Dart who, multiple heartbeats later, collapses and dies. In that instant his daughter must assume owner responsibilities.

Joan Dart had kept her father’s books; she had helped him run the plantation after his wife died. But at the moment when she must give the order for the branding and flogging of a runaway, she hesitates.

It is a cathartic moment. With responsibility suddenly thrust upon her, Joan Dart begins to weigh issues of ownership, belonging (“Sugar and heat and mud were in her blood”), the moral welfare of slaves, and the plantation as “home”. Later when the leadership role is thrust upon him, Jackey Reed, too, is forced to grapple with issues: of duty to his race, the unchristian values of his “Congo” brothers who indulge “their Damballas and their cane rum”; and an eruptive desire for Joan Dart whose white body “behind the thin muslin” stands six feet away from him in the stocks.

The order to flog and brand is given, but the troubled new plantation owner pays an uncharacteristic visit to the plantation dispensary to view the flesh-torn body of her first flogged slave. It’s the start of a process she will try hard to reverse, the granting of personal identity and humanity to her father’s slaves.

After the first 100 pages – of Dart family dispute, slave restlessness, gathering clouds & screaming kiskadees – the weighty issues blur into background, and the revolt gets under way. It is the night of Sunday August 17, 1823.

Nicole switches reader attention between the clashing forces, tracking the shift in fortunes with movie-making craft. There are scenes & set pieces & torrid images of violence and battle and rape; the slaves celebrate prematurely, settling scores and drinking free rum. Slave-General Jackey Reed’s hope for an insurrection without casualties is quickly dashed. He argues with his co-conspirators (Gladstone, Obadiah, Quamina, Cato of Felicity, Paris of Good Hope) over tactics, and is alarmed at how quickly the slave will to fight evaporates after early setbacks.

The outnumbered whites rally to the sabres of Capts Bonning and McTurk. They, too, argue over tactics, about what might happen if they advance precipitously, or fail to rescue in time the white women on faraway plantations. Their fusiliers fall upon the hastily armed bands (who are convinced their superior numbers will carry the day), sabre blades chopping, the muskets raining fusillades of shot on routed slaves. With an eye for period detail Nicole sets it all down in pages of entertaining, episode-driven prose.

And as in old Hollywood movies where amidst exploding ordnance or circling Indians a hero takes time out to cradle the head of a dying man and share dying seconds of conversation, Nicole at the height of the insurrection has his conflicted couple meeting and slipping off to share tense moments in the canefields. At issue, whether they should commit fornication.

Joan Dart, fighting back a “spasm of shudders” in her thighs, reminds Jackey Reed he is six years younger, in her eyes still a boy; and for all intents and purposes still a slave. He reveals the lust he harbours for her, and the Christian faith that has kept these feelings locked away. In any case, he reminds her, he’s in control now of the plantation.

They argue back and forth for several pages, sorting through fears and desire, until Nicole’s pen decides the issue for them: “Her arms moved of their own volition wrapping themselves round his neck in a paroxysm of delicious agony”.

If there’s a governing idea in his “explosive bestseller” novel, Nicole points to issues of intercultural curiosity, evolving identity and individual freedom (albeit at an unformed, ratoon stage) that engulf the two natives of Plantation Guiana; and how easily an eruptive interest in “the other” can be swept away in the tide of “events”. Not that this is news to tribe-wary & warring Guyanese who still observe each other’s ways and means through averted plantation eyes.

First published in 1962, round about the time a self-ruling Guyana was teetering toward those US/GB-engineered “racial disturbances”, Ratoon is routinely mentioned among the best-known published works of Guyanese fiction. For some readers it might appear to trifle with grave historical matters. Christopher Nicole, its 1930 Guiana-born white author who resides overseas, must have had personal reasons for inventing & inserting his characters in the maelstrom of that pivotal year. The book is hard to find these days (back in the ‘60s it was available for US.75cts at airport bookstores).

To bring lyrical closure to the predictable course of events Nicole serves up an invented coda to remind readers his novel is not just about a doomed uprising and an impossible romance.

Captured and held hostage for awhile, weary and disheveled from lovemaking in the canefields Joan Dart is rescued by a Colonel Leahy (“How long have you been like this…? Anderson get a carriage… Damnation. Have a litter made, then, and I want four of your strongest men.”) But in the very next minute, on receipt of “an express from Mahaica Post” delivered by a horse militiaman, he places her under arrest for consorting with the enemy.

Readers interested in how the colonial justice system dealt with straying (repressed then impetuous) white women must get through the last 30 pages to see how that turns out; see if Joan Dart gets to go home again.

Those pages might also encourage the kind of discourse on ‘broader issues’ regional academics take pleasure in – ‘the whole question of the role and responsibility of native white proprietorship in C/bean society’. Though not a few might argue that Ratoon with its blood-heated inventions is not a useful place to start this inquiry.

Book Reviewed: Ratoon: Christopher Nicole: Bantam Books/St Martin’s Press: New York, 1962, 246 pages.