‘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.

 

 

‘The Colour of Shadows: Images of Caribbean Slavery’ by Judy Raymond

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The Colour of Shadows centres on the life and career of Richard Bridgens, the artist and planter who published West India Scenery in 1836. Many of the drawings from  West India Scenery are well-known, but as Raymond explains, Bridgens himself is a little-known character. Before moving from England to Trinidad in 1826, Bridgens had a successful career as an artist and furniture-maker and is known to historians of that milieu.  When his wife inherited a stake in the St. Clair plantation in Trinidad, the young family crossed the Atlantic to take on the life of the sugar planter. In documenting the world around him, however, Bridgens didn’t draw his peers in the colonial hierarchy, or the life he led, but instead he depicted the enslaved people who worked on his estate, documenting the conditions under which they lived and worked, and the new creole culture they were beginning to create.

Judy Raymond combines biography, history and art criticism to shed light on the closing years of slavery in Trinidad, and the lives of enslaved Africans before emancipation in 1834. Through her analysis of Bridgens’ drawings and their context, Raymond traces the social and cultural history of enslaved Africans and free coloured people in the early 1830s, covering subjects such as living and working conditions, clothing, and religious and spiritual observance. Raymond also engages with the historiographical debate around Bridgens’ motivation for publishing his images, and his position vis a vis abolition and emancipation.  Many art historians have dismissed Bridgens’ book as pro-slavery polemic. But by placing the drawings in the context of Bridgens’ life, and contemporary society, Raymond can at once acknowledge the sometimes discordant notes in the book, but recognise his drawings for what they are—a unique account of the final years of slavery in Trinidad.

Although The Colour of Shadows is essentially a book about Trinidad, Raymond’s analysis can be extended to other islands in the British Caribbean around the time of emancipation. West India Scenery contained 27 drawings—The Colour of Shadows reproduces 15 of them.  There is a select bibliography, which contains a mix of primary sources (nineteenth-century books) and recent works by historians and art critics. Raymond has been a journalist in Trinidad and Tobago for over 25 years, and the book showcases her elegant style of writing. The book would appeal to scholars and everyday readers interested in the 1830s Caribbean, art and history.

Bridgens’ drawings constitute a rare catalogue of slavery and creole life in the British Caribbean at a turning point in the region’s history—by contextualising the drawings, Raymond has made a substantial contribution to historical scholarship. I’m no art historian, but I’m sure her work also challenges scholarship in that field too.

To see the book on amazon: click here

Amazon Affiliate disclosure: clicking on the book cover image will take you to an amazon site. If you purchase the book, Caribbean Histories will receive a percentage of the purchase price. 

‘A Parcel of Ribbons’ by Anne M. Powers

A Parcel of Ribbons contains an extraordinary collection of letters, spanning over fifty years, together with Anne Powers’ editorial commentary. The Lee letters were preserved by Robert Cooper Lee, a child sailor who left England for Jamaica with a parcel of ribbons to sell in 1749. He returned to England 22 years later a very wealthy man, having made his fortune as an attorney.  The letters touch upon personal, family, business and political matters. Together with Powers’ commentary, they provide wide-ranging insights into the social, cultural and business history of Jamaica and England in the eighteenth century. The letters are held privately, but with their publication in this book, they comprise a valuable primary resource, now available to researchers.

Lee married a mixed-race creole woman. In a move very unusual at that time, he took her back to England with him where they married. Relationships between European men and coloured women were not unusual in Jamaica, and it was also relatively common to send the children of these relationships back to Britain for their schooling (as Lee did), but to marry was an unusual step. This is an interesting twist which makes these letters all the more compelling as a primary source. A note on the letters though, as I’ve discovered in the collections of letters I’ve read about Caribbean-based merchants and planters, there is very little discussion about slavery – this silence is in itself telling. Lee’s letters are almost entirely silent on slavery, although Powers does include editorial notes on the subject.

The book also contains some pictures—most notably the portrait of Frances (Lee’s daughter),  which graces the cover. As someone researching eighteenth century families, I have yet to come across a portrait of anyone I’ve researched, so I’m very envious of Powers in this regard!

This is a long book—the letters are voluminous, and Powers includes a lot of commentary and background-setting, at times a bit too much. Powers’ research is clearly formidable and she knows the era well, but I would have appreciated more referencing for some of the background information. There is a tendency to include too much information…I do understand the impulse to include every detail you come across as a researcher, but I was sometimes confused as to the connection between some of the information and the central characters of this story. This is a minor point, however. The book is very readable—perfect for dipping in and out of. It is an excellent resource for the letters alone, but it would also be very instructive for anyone wishing to learn about eighteenth-century life in London and in Jamaica, and the connections between the two places.

Amazon Affiliate disclosure: clicking on the book cover image will take you to an amazon site. If you purchase the book, Caribbean Histories will receive a percentage of the purchase price. 

‘The Caribbean: A Brief History,’ by Gad Heuman

This book is the best place to start for an overview of Caribbean history. It’s a quick, easy read, designed to take the reader from early modern times in the Caribbean, almost up to the present. This is no mean feat, as the Caribbean is a broad canvas – the histories of every island, let alone the wider region are varied and often tortured. Heuman’s years of studying and writing about the Caribbean have enabled him to draw together these many histories into a comprehensible narrative. This book includes the islands of the region, as well as the mainland territories of the Guianas (Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana) and Belize in central America.

In this second edition, Heuman has included new material on indigenous Caribbean societies before the arrival of Columbus, which takes the starting point for this book back earlier than many histories of the region. Given Heuman’s specialisation, there are excellent chapters covering the slave societies of the Caribbean, resistance and race relations. The book brings us up to the twentieth century with chapters on ‘the American century,’ labour protests and the revolutionary Caribbean. The final chapters draw together contemporary themes in the wider Caribbean, reflecting Heuman’s interest in social and cultural history. Throughout the book, he focuses on the social and cultural history of the Caribbean—he is more interested in exploring how the people of the Caribbean have reacted to the colonial presence than with the structures of imperial authority.

The books is written in a clear, straight-forward and engaging style. It contains an extensive list of further reading, broken down by chapter–proving its worth as an introduction to deeper reading on Caribbean history.

Amazon Affiliate disclosure: clicking on the book cover image will take you to an amazon site. If you purchase the book, Caribbean Histories will receive a percentage of the purchase price. 

‘Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day,’ by Carrie Gibson

Empire’s Crossroads provides a broad survey of modern Caribbean history, with a pleasing level of detail. Gibson zooms in to tell stories about the people and places of the Caribbean, but also guides the reader in making thematic connections across the region. She also places the Caribbean’s traumatic past in context. As she notes at the outset, the  modern Caribbean (from 1492 onwards) is the product of an encounter between Europeans and other peoples.

Over the course of this 350-page book, Gibson pieces together the history of the West Indies (which includes here not just the islands but the Latin American countries bordering the Caribbean Sea) – a history which has long since fragmented. As she explains, the history has been fragmented partly because historians are usually grouped by language or by their own imperial past – so the history of the formerly British, French and Spanish elements do not always take account of each other, and also because of the question of nationhood. As islands like Jamaica or Cuba make sense of their own histories, they push aside the wider Caribbean story in favour of a more focused one. Gibson ties together the histories of the region following a broadly chronological approach, and assigns a general theme to each time span. So there are chapters on Pirates and Protestants; Sugar; the Rise of Slavery; the Road to Independence (these are just a few examples). The book may bear the word ‘Empire’ in the title, but its span allows Gibson to cover the long period of European domination in the region, as well as the more recent histories of independence.

The book is beautifully produced, with maps, images, a detailed index and bibliography for further reading—and a very handy timeline of key events in the Caribbean. I have the original hardcopy, but for anyone taking the book on their travels in the region, the more recent paperback is a godsend! Gibson has a PhD in Caribbean/Spanish history from Cambridge University, and works as a journalist. This book showcases her skills as a researcher and an accessible writer. Empire’s Crossroads is recommended for the everyday reader with an interest in history, but would also be an excellent resource for students from high school through post-graduate. The footnotes and bibliography provide excellent pointers for further reading and resources.

Amazon Affiliate disclosure: clicking on the book cover image will take you to an amazon site. If you purchase the book, Caribbean Histories will receive a percentage of the purchase price. 

‘Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales’ by Tanya Evans

It was a great pleasure to attend the launch of Dr Tanya Evans’ latest book today at the beautiful Mitchell Library in Sydney, Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, published by UNSW Press. As Sydney City Historian Dr Lisa Murray said in her ‘launch’ speech, Fractured Families contributes not only to the history of Sydney and colonial New South Wales, but also to the history of the family, and to the practice of public history and family history.

I read Fractured Families as soon as it hit the shelves, and enjoyed it immensely.* The book evolved from Evans’ research on Australia’s first charity, the Benevolent Society, and her collaboration with family historians who have researched the lives of their ancestors in the Society’s archives in the Mitchell Library. Evans has uncovered the life stories of men and women at different ends of the social spectrum from the late 18th century to the turn of the 20th. As well as detailing some fascinating (and sad) life stories, Evans delves into the practice and methods of family history research, and asks questions about how and why these varied individuals are remembered in Australia today. The book is written in an accessible, conversational style and ably combines story-telling with academic commentary, and discussions about research methods.

There was much talk at the launch of the role of family historians—how they can make history more exciting and accessible, and, as Dr Evans noted in her speech, the value of collaboration between academic and family historians in revealing untold stories. (I’ve already benefited from the hard graft of generous family historians in my fledgling PhD research.) Fractured Families illustrates the role family historians can play in continuing the work of the original social historians: that is, to retrieve the marginalised of the past from obscurity. One of the speakers at the launch was Max Carrick, who described researching his ancestry in the Benevolent Society’s archives, and his collaboration with Evans.  His gratitude for her inclusion of his ancestor in the book was heartfelt.

I’ve rated Fractured Families 5 stars on Goodreads (for what that’s worth!) & highly recommend it to academics and everyday historians alike.

*Dr Evans taught me during my MRes at Macquarie Uni, and is the associate supervisor on my PhD. I’m a great admirer of her academic work, and share her interest in public, family and social history.

Archive envy. A Private Empire by Stephen Foster.

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I’ve just finished Stephen Foster’s A Private Empire, which I learnt so much from—as an historian, a writer and a reader. A Private Empire charts five generations of the Macphersons of Blairgowrie, Perthshire, a family which could be described as landed gentry, except as the narrative traces their vicissitudes, we see that the Macphersons’ hold on this status was sometimes tenuous. Foster had access to the family archive begun in the eighteenth century by the current laird’s great-great-great-grandfather. This is family history, but writ large. The richness of the archive, combined with Foster’s wonderfully accessible prose, and his skilful distillation of historical context, have resulted in a family history which can tell a far wider story than ‘simply’ the family tree. As the blurb on the book says, A Private Empire “explores Britain’s imperial past through the eyes and experiences of a single family.”

With access to the family’s letters and diaries, as well as account books, legal documents and more, Foster takes the reader behind the scenes of the Macphersons’ imperial lives, so that as well as learning about the careers of the leading men of each generation, we gain an insight into how those men felt about their careers, and their families, and the imperial spaces they inhabited—in the West Indies, India and colonial Australia. It is this private sense of empire which so drew me to the book. We see, for example, the frustration of Allan Macpherson as he fails time and again to obtain the promotions he seeks within the East India Company in the 1770s; and the similar sense of frustration his grandson Allan endured as he tried to establish himself as a pastoralist in colonial New South Wales one hundred years later. Foster also managed to elucidate the lives of the women of the family, many of whom led extraordinary lives, criss-crossing the empire. My favourite narrative which winds its way through the book is that of William Macpherson’s first family—with the slave woman ‘Countess’—founded in Berbice, British Guiana at the dawn of the nineteenth century. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the story for future readers!

The book, published by Pier 9, is beautifully produced. It’s available on Kindle, but the contemporary paintings and photographs reproduced throughout make it worthwhile tracking down the hard-copy book itself. According to the judge’s report for the 2011 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (for which the book was shortlisted), “underlying A Private Empire is substantial research – in Britain, Australia, India and America – and Foster weaves the primary source material through his narrative to masterly effect.” I couldn’t agree more.

Reading for fun again

Since submitting my Masters thesis in mid-October, I’ve slowly unwound with lots of walking, swimming, talking, reading and a little bit of TV watching (Homeland, series 4, only so-so). All that, plus my usual stay-at-home Mum commitments. I have a long list of books to read, but the two stand-outs have been The Wife Drought, by Annabel Crabb, and Walking Free, by Munjed al Muderis. I haven’t branched out into fiction yet!

The Wife Drought was reviewed masterfully for The Monthly by Anne Manne: http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2014/november/1414760400/anne-manne/wife-and-times  Writing in her usual engaging, insightful style, Crabb could have been writing about myself and many of my friends. She covered so many of our experiences that it was by turns depressing, hilarious and liberating. She argues that things need to change not just for women but for men. In the realm of those who desire both a career and a family, men are missing out just as much as women are.  We also need to lose the guilt! Read the book for the laughs, but also for the suggestions about how as a society, we might start to influence the way life for our children looks.

Al Muderis’ book was deeply absorbing. It is the biography of an Iraqi-Australian, now a world-leading orthopaedic surgeon, specialising in osseointegration (bionic people, essentially: http://www.almuderis.com.au/osseointegration). The book is written in a conversational style, tracing Al Muderis’ journey from war-torn Iraq in 1999 to Australia, as a ‘boat person,’ or asylum seeker. I was fascinated by the depiction of his comfortable, secular upbringing in the leafy, cosmopolitan city of Baghdad of the 1970s and 80s. His flight from Iraq began when he refused to follow Saddam’s orders to mutilate army deserters. The story of his journey to Australia is eye-opening, and possibly provides more detail about the operations of the so-called people smugglers than is known to date. Al Muderis is scathing of many of his fellow-refugees, and reminds us of the shades of grey which emerge from war-zones, but also the potential which immigrants bring.  I must mention the wonderful cameo appearance in the book of Magistrate Antoine Bloeman, a lively figure in my own childhood. Al Muderis was left bemused by his court appearance before Bloeman, but Bloeman has done many great things in his time – he would be a worthy subject of a biography or memoir of his own! To find out more, read the book. It’s a quick, but thoroughly illuminating read that will stay with you.

Al Muderis recently spoke to Margaret Throsby on the ABC in Australia: the podcast is available here: http://www.abc.net.au/classic/content/2014/11/06/4103757.htm