‘Master of My Fate’ by Sienna Brown – from Jamaica to Sydney

Master of my Fate by Sienna Brown, Penguin Random House Australia, 2019.

44587913I found Sienna Brown’s debut novel riveting. I was completely swept up in William Buchanan’s journey from Jamaica, where he was born into slavery, to his arrival as a convict in Sydney in 1835. I relished the early chapters as Brown carefully recreated the rhythm and characters of the plantation. Then I couldn’t put the book down as William entered adulthood and began to buck against the chains of his enslavement. We know from the outset that he will be sent to Australia, but I desperately wanted to know whether William tasted emancipation in Jamaica first and why he was transported. What became of his family? How did his life in colonial New South Wales turn out?

The novel is based on a real man and a true story. When Sienna Brown came across William in the records at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks, she recognised a kindred spirit, a lost man far from home. She too was far from her island home. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Brown moved first to Canada and then to Sydney. William’s story resonated with her own feelings of displacement.

She tells William’s story in three parts. Part One recounts his childhood and early adult life on Rock Pleasant, a sugar plantation. In Part Two, we follow William to Ginger Hill plantation, after Rock Pleasant (and its enslaved inhabitants) is sold. Finally, we travel to the colony of New South Wales with William on board a convict transport—his life in the ‘new world’ is also action-packed.

Brown narrates her novel through William’s eyes and in his voice. I’ll admit this voice grated with me initially, but as I became accustomed to it I recognised in it the voices I had read and ‘heard’ in my own research on Jamaica. In a post-script to the novel, Brown explains her process in attempting to emulate the plantation patois. She acknowledges that she has perhaps only partially succeeded, but she describes how she put her own twist on it, to allow William’s story to shine. As a novelist, I think we can allow her some leeway. Ultimately, the narrative voice works well.

Through William’s eyes, we witness the horror of plantation slavery and experience the intense inner conflict between survival instinct and compliance with the brutal rhythms of the plantation. But we see too, the desire for personal freedom—whether in a quotidian sense within the confines of the plantation, or the flight-of-fancy of true emancipation. Stories of runaway slaves, and the maroon Robert McKellar give us a glimpse of the possibility of escape, although perhaps not of true freedom.

Brown accurately evokes the minutiae of plantation life—the sound of ‘shell-blow’ that marked time; the alternating seasons of sugar cultivation; the remnants of African traditions and spirituality. Also the power dynamics at play within the enslaved community; between those who work in the Great House and those out in the fields. We even glimpse the conflict between the resident planter and his more liberal relatives visiting from Britain. We see, too, the slaves’ living arrangements and the nature of sexual relationships on the plantation—within the enslaved and coloured communities, as well as the planter urge to capitalise on his female property for economic gain.

Brown’s research on the wider context of Jamaica (and of course, Sydney) is evident throughout. I particularly enjoyed the way she weaved William’s story with the wider history of both places. In Jamaica the novel encompasses the spread of Christianity, hints at the debate over emancipation in ‘the Mother Country,’ and the influence of the charismatic Native Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe. In Sydney, Brown beautifully evokes the emerging European city and the wilds of the surrounding bush that now heaves with traffic.

Finally, Brown respects her characters. Relationships are not sentimentalised, but nor is life an unrelenting horror. She hints at her own answer to the question of how the characters in her novel (and the real people that the story reflects) continually picked themselves up and carried on.

I recommend the book. If there is something I would have liked Brown to do differently it is to spend a little more time on the Australian part of William’s story—Part Three feels somewhat rushed in comparison to the pace of Parts One and Two, and we see less of the historical backdrop than we do of Jamaica. But this is a minor criticism, the book is a wonderful debut achievement.

 

 

Caribbean Bookshelf 2018 from the New West Indian Guide

This review article by the long-time book review editors of the New West Indian Guide is a fascinating read — both because it details the hard work involved in co-ordinating book reviews in a journal, and for the wonderful survey they have compiled of publishing in and of the Caribbean for 2018. I’ve added quite a few works of fiction and non-fiction to my holiday reading list… The review is open-access – click here to read the Prices’ Bookshelf 2018.

 

Teaching the Haitian Revolution

In a recent article in The History Teacher, Dr Erica Johnson Edwards argued that the Haitian Revolution should be taught not simply as an extension of the French Revolution or as a part of the revolutionary Atlantic World, but as a world historical event in its own right. The article contains a useful review of the literature regarding teaching the Haitian Revolution, and clearly explains the pitfalls and benefits of different approaches. The History Teacher is an open-access journal – I recommend the article to anyone interested in thinking about what the Haitian Revolution can teach us. 

Click here to read the article

Slavery and Britain’s infrastructure — Legacies of British Slave-ownership

by Nick Draper On Wednesday 8th May, I gave a presentation on ‘Slavery and Britain’s Infrastructure’ to staff at the National Infrastructure Commission’s secretariat in Holborn. The NIC was established in 2017 as an executive agency of HM Treasury with a charter to provide advice and make independent recommendations to government on national infrastructure priorities, […]

via Slavery and Britain’s infrastructure — Legacies of British Slave-ownership

Manumission in Eighteenth Century Jamaica

Quantitative History

David Beck Ryden, “Manumission in Late Eighteenth-Century Jamaica,” New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 92:3-4  (2018): 211–244.

I’m very pleased that my most recent research on manumission in late-eighteenth century Jamaica has been published in the New West Indian Guide, the oldest scholarly journal with a focus on the Caribbean.

Manumission (the liberation of individual slaves) took place in many slave societies throughout history for a variety of reasons.  In this article, I use over 300 manumission deeds from Jamaica to explore the rationale for freedom grants, demography of the manumitted population, characteristics of the manumitters, and prices paid for freedom, when cash was exchanged.  In Jamaica, the proportion of slaves who were manumitted was very small, but one has to keep in mind that the entire population of bondsmen and women was very large on the island.  Nonetheless, manumission occurred on a regular basis and had…

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Q&A with Randy M. Browne, author of ‘Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean’ —from The Junto Blog

Randy M. Browne is a historian of slavery and colonialism in the Atlantic world, especially the Caribbean. He is an Associate Professor of History at Xaverian University (Cincinnati). Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean is his first book and he discusses it here with Jessica Parr.

via Q&A with Randy M. Browne, author of Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean — The Junto

‘Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833’ by Daniel Livesay – Q&A and a book review

Q&A with Daniel Livesay, author of Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833

Click here to visit the Junto website and read the Q&A

The book has also been reviewed in detail at the Institute of Historical Research ‘Reviews in History’ site: Click here for the review

Monumental Louverture: French/Haitian Sites of Memory and the Commemoration of Abolition

Another great Caribbean-focused post on the Age of Revolutions Blog.

Age of Revolutions

This post is a part of our “Race and Revolution” series.

By Nathan H. Dize

In May 2017, France celebrated its eleventh day commemorating the Abolition of Slavery. Throughout the Republic, mayors gave speeches and placed wreaths of flowers   before statues and plaques in homage of key figures in the history of abolition.[1] In many cities, this meant honoring Toussaint Louverture, the leader who led his compatriots in the Haitian Revolution until he was arrested, deported, and imprisoned in France from August 1802 until his death in April 1803.  However, the French Republic has done little to recognize the circumstances that led to Louverture’s death on French soil as part of these commemorative celebrations.

Monuments to Louverture often only include mention of the oft-cited “tree of liberty,” his abolitionism, or that he “died in France.” Statues and plaques of Toussaint Louverture in Bordeaux, Grenoble, and in the Château…

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More Free Classics Now Available in Open Books Series

The Florida Bookshelf

Library-Press_blue

The LibraryPress@UF, an imprint of the University of Florida Press and the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries, launched the Florida and the Caribbean Open Books Series this past November. This series makes available for free 39 classic out of print books on the region under an Open Access model. It is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of the Humanities Open Book Program.

The final 18 titles in the series are now available:

Afro-Cuban Religious Experience: Cultural Reflections in Narrative
Eugenio Matibag

The African American Heritage of Florida
Edited by David R. Colburn and Jane L. Landers

Archaeology of Precolumbian Florida
Jerald T. Milanich

The Architecture of Leisure: The Florida Resort Hotels of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant
Susan R. Braden

The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast, 1580–1680
Cornelis Ch. Goslinga

Eighteenth-Century Florida…

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