Tue | Oct 16, 2018

Revisiting History's Greatest Crime

Published:Sunday | December 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM
An African Journey book cover
Glenville Ashby

Book: An African Journey

Author: Barbara Ellis

Critic: Dr Glenville Ashby

Barbara Ellis' An African Journey couldn't be more timely. Slavery has long been dismantled, but its social and psychological impact continues to reverberate for tens of millions of blacks in Africa and its diaspora. For sure, the scars from the most heinous crime in history cannot be easily effaced. Cultural reclamation, calls for restitution, the erection of monuments and museums have kept this sordid history alive. And the African Union's recognition of the black diaspora as the 'sixth region' of the continent is telling.

Central to this resurgence are the literary artists and critics that challenge the history pedalled by Eurocentric writers. Ellis belongs in that cadre. The history of Africa didn't begin with slavery. Trans-Atlantic voyages produced trade and diplomatic relations between Amerindians and Africans. Archaeological findings prove that much.

Unbeknown to both parties, Providence will bring them together under baleful circumstances. Theirs is an existential bond that can never be erased. The natives were decimated by arduous labour and diseases brought by the invaders, but not before banding with African escapees to resist.




Ellis employs folklore legend Anancy to narrate this compelling story of suffering and resistance. As custodian of oral traditions and Africa's myriad tales, there is no better choice than this folk hero. With the uncanny and enviable talent to shape-shift as a spider and man, this hybrid character escapes from the scourge that befell his captured brothers and sisters. He accompanies them, though, through the tortuous Middle Passage. And he is ever present, an informant and a scout, wreaking mischief and confusion upon the oppressor while assuaging the mental and physical anguish of the imprisoned.

Anancy is a source of wisdom, holding the key to oral tradition. "The Backra can never comprehend the power of storytelling or wipe them from our consciousness," Queen Nanny, the great Maroon warrior leader, defiantly uttered. "They are our strength and one of the weapons we use against them."

Ellis' work is intimately painful and expectedly graphic. The wounds sustained by the captives are palpable; their cries audible. Anancy, the orator, is detailed as he shares the most guarded sentiments of the slaves. He learns the many dialects and customs of the tribes caught in this pyscho-physical maelstrom. He emerges as the anam cara of the oppressed, a trusted confidante. As resistance brews, Anancy stands his ground, poised to assist. "Long live Anancy," the Maroons once cheered.

And through his narration we learn of Lulumba's forbearance and wisdom. And the tenacity of Cudjoe and the Maroons of Jamaica is indelibly etched into the bosom of the oppressed till this day. But we learn that resistance is never all physical. Knowledge is paramount. Understanding the munificence of nature ensures survival. Its medicinal properties save the lives of the wounded.




We encounter the sheer determination of the Maroons to fight back and the equal will of a British colonel to silence the Great African Town.

"Let the British army, planters, the governor, the Council of Trade and Plantations, and all the renegades they can muster come, we will be ready for them," [the Maroons] chant from their mountaintop sanctuaries.

Vividly, the heroic battles between the British and the Maroons are presented. The Maroons lose ground in the east but emerge in the southwestern and northern parishes of Jamaica. And the unbending resolve of the runaway slaves after a major setback continues to inspire future generations.

Political intrigue ensues with a brilliant plan by the British to weaken African solidarity. "We must make a treaty with the Maroons," proposed a military officer to the planters' representative ... We will use them to return your runaway slaves as well as their rebel leaders ... We cannot beat them on the battlefield; therefore we must find another way to let them ... concentrate on their own affairs."

Miskito Indians used by the British to menace Maroon stability forces an unholy compromise and the birth of a 1739 peace treaty. The Maroons are compelled to help the British "secure the island from constant threat. This was the price ... they said they had to pay to maintain their freedom, autonomy and peace in their mountaintop refuges."

Ellis rightly argues that the British had lost many a battle against the valorous Maroons, but had won the war. It was now up to slaves on plantations to engineer their own rebellion.

And so it unfolded. Successive insurrections and revolutions throughout the Americas loosened the psychological and physical grip of the coloniser.

In Willis' final chapter we read, "The Africans' pent-up potential exploded after liberation in 1838. The obstinate Africans had worn them down. The Africans' dormant abilities and enterprise were renewed, these diversified and strengthened as the planters and their government gave in and left them to control their destiny for the time being."

She cautions, though, that with institutionalised prejudice to this day, [t]he African's journey is not yet over."

An African Journey offers a comprehensive template of history's darkest moment. It pays homage to the agonistic struggles of native Indians, brutalised and decimated before the oppressors turned their attention to Africa. Ellis impregnates this redoubtable period with colour, tone and linguistic style. The experiential affliction of slavery comes alive, incessantly battering our conscience. And through it all, the combative ingenuity of the Maroons never fails to inspire.

An African Journey by Barbara Ellis 2017

Publisher: Hansib, UK

ISBN: 978-1-910553-48-0

Available on Amazon

Rating: Highly recommended

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