Category Archives: Books & Reading

What I’ve been reading and listening to: March

Sunday 1 March feels like a year ago! That was the day my family explored a suburb of Sydney we’d never been to before (Haberfield) and vowed to explore more every couple of weeks… fast forward to 1 April and we’re staying home except for my local #walk20in20 and the occasional grocery shopping trip.

To reading though…I read a lot about the COVID19 pandemic for a couple of weeks, but am now limiting myself to one news fix per day.

My reading this month wasn’t that inspiring to be honest, but the trajectory is kind of interesting. I started with Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island, which is beautifully written, but got me down in a climate change/end of the world way. Little did I know a pandemic was just around the corner, to put my fear of the damage of climate change on the back burner!! Next was The War that Saved my Life which I read on my 12 year old’s recommendation. It was a nice change of pace from Treloar’s book (although the subject matter is quite sad). It was also illuminating to see what ‘the kids’ are reading about historical events these days.

I went to a bookshop to buy Dan Ziffer’s A Wunch of Bankers, couldn’t find it and picked up Too Big to Fail instead. I thought it’d be interesting to read about the last global financial fiasco, ten years down the track. I speed-read much of it (too much detail and breathless gossip) and now I can’t bring myself to finish it. I know how it ends, and now that we’re in the midst of another fiasco, I’ve lost interest!

A Different Kind of Subject is my nod to academic reading this month, which has been completely disrupted by all the upheaval of transiting to full-time work and school from home. Hunter’s book on colonial law in Aboriginal-European relations in 19th century Western Australia is really useful for the research I’m doing on Richard Madden’s time in Western Australia.

In addition to my regular podcasts*, I enjoyed The Eleventh this month. It’s an Australian version of Slate’s Slow Burn series about Nixon and Watergate. The Eleventh that delves into the events leading up to the dramatic dismissal of the Whitlam government on 11 November 1975. Most Australians have heard Whitlam’s ‘Well may we say God save the Queen…’ quote. Despite knowing probably more than your average person about the events, I learnt a lot from the podcast, and it was fascinating hearing extended interviews with people involved at the time.

*My regulars include: Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Happier in Hollywood, the Daily and Satellite Sisters. I’m loving all of these at the moment… particularly the Satellite Sisters who are keeping me sane with lots of laughs 🙂

What I’ve been reading and listening to: February

I didn’t read much this month, but I did listen to more podcast series than usual.

Gaiutra Bahadur is an American journalist, born in Guyana. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture revolves around the story of Bahadur’s great-grandmother (Sujaria) who travelled from India to Guyana in 1903 as an indentured labourer. Bahadur acknowledges that the book’s title may offend some, but she explains that the word (which originated from the Tamil word kuli, meaning wages or hire) is ‘true to her subject’. Sujaria left India as a high-caste Hindu, but being swept up in a mass movement of people, the power of her colonizers to name and misname her formed a key part of her story. According to Bahadur, the word coolie ‘carries the baggage of colonialism on its back.’

Bahadur’s research is exemplary, but the book suffers from her desire to include what seems like all of her findings, rather than to pick out a few examples. This makes the book a ‘dense’ read. I found myself skipping over sections, trying to pick out the memoir aspects (I was fascinated by the author’s own story of emigration from Guyana to New York), and Sujaria’s storyline. The reality is that Sujaria left little trace in her village in India, or even on the journey and in her new life in the Caribbean. So Bahadur does what any good historian would do, and researches around the life that Sujaria lived to permit some educated speculation. The result is a brilliant history of indenture-era Guyana and late nineteenth-century India, with a focus on women’s lives in both places. I was interested in the history of Guyana post-slavery, and was also fascinated in the more modern-day insights into relations between different elements of the Indian diaspora.

I read the latest John le Carré novel in a day. I love a good spy novel – this one is set in contemporary London, with forays into Eastern Europe. I highly recommend it.

I still haven’t read Kate Fullagar’s The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist in full yet, but I went to the launch this month, which was very exciting. I’m mentioned in the acknowledgments, and I feel as though I’ve read a lot of it, having seen Kate talk about the book at various points of its development. but I’m looking forward to putting it all together in March.

In addition to my regular podcasts*, I enjoyed these series:

  • The Catch and Kill Podcast – Great series which covers shocking material in relation to Ronan Farrow’s investigation into Harvey Weinstein, published in the New Yorker in 2017. The podcast is a great companion to She Said, the book written about a parallel investigation by two New York Times journalists.
  • A Podcast of One’s Own – Julia Gillard’s round-up of the first year of her podcast with the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London… the interviews are always fascinating, I’m so pleased to hear it will continue through 2020.
  • WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork – shocking/hilarious/unbelievable – even if you know nothing about this outrageous story from the business world, this podcast is well worth a listen!
  • Broken: Jeffrey Epstein. Another shocking account of an utterly despicable person and the people around him. Like Catch and Kill and She Said, the podcast details the process of researching and breaking the news about Epstein. This is probably the strongest element of this particular podcast. Maybe I’m cynical, but I honestly didn’t find the extent to which people like Epstein are embedded in our society shocking in itself.

And to end on a high note – my favourite thing this month was watching Cheer on Netflix 🙂

*My regulars include: Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Happier in Hollywood, the Daily and Satellite Sisters.

‘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

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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‘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