Tue | Dec 18, 2018

Madness, violence and survival: the wrath of slavery

Published:Sunday | July 22, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Glenville Ashby

Fred Kennedy's Daddy Sharpe is a vividly searing narrative delivered in a punctilious and compelling style. It examines a period in history that screamed for humanity's attention; a time when reason stood on its head and mercy was cast aside. For centuries, the world was entangled in a web of greed, arrogance and sheer insanity. In the killing fields of the Caribbean, countless perished, and among those who resisted, few rose in stature. Samuel Sharpe was among them.

In a high-stakes gambit, Fred Kennedy delved into slavery, a theme that has been tirelessly explored. But Daddy Sharpe exceeds expectations and is arguably one of the most revelatory books on the subject. This is Sharpe's story, and there is no better raconteur than the protagonist.

Sharpe chronicles his life, recalling his past with rapturous ambiguity while imprisoned, and in real time, he shares his reflections on his fate and that of a nation.

With candour, colour and imagination, we are served a tableau etched with dizzying emotions. Ignominy, fatalism, love, rage, innocence and vengeance collide, dancing unrepentantly before us.


Growing resistance


It is circa 1810, and the planter class has begun to heave, a chain stoking that signals desperation. There is talk of emancipation amid growing resistance. There is disquiet among slaves and an exigent yearning for immediate freedom. Spasmodic revolts erupt but are met with a savage response.

We peer into the venae cavae of the evil called slavery. And it's far more intricate and complex than we ever imagined.

Jolted we are by a slave hierarchy based on birthplace, colour, title and religion. And equally disturbing is the perversity of human emotions. Sexual manipulation and violence are commonplace, and even pedigree cannot shield white women from patriarchal excess. The lustful desires of white women are turned inward. Their loneliness is palpable.

"White men and their slave women," one such crestfallen doyenne enviously bemoans.

And young Sharpe must bear the repeated rape of his mother by a vile, slovenly overseer, a man whose diary bleeds animus for every subordinate. "The Negroes are deluded that Britain promises them emancipation. An uprising in Jamaica could be ferocious with machetes and weapons in the hands of 300,000 savages," he pens. Later, we read, "I had a slave boy beaten today with the cart whip for stealing chickens. He assists runaways by providing then with food from Cooper's Hill. I ordered him in the sticks for the night without close. The insects will have a feast. Warned him that if he thieves again, I will capture galliwasps to torment him."


Inalienable right


But in this schizoid template, the thought of freedom is wrought with turmoil. Should a slave fight for this inalienable right by any means necessary, or should he endure as "Massa Christ" did?

One black parson cautions his fellow slaves against physical retaliation against the overseer: "If him try fi beat you, kneel dung and call on de name of de Lord, ask God to forgive him wickedness and start fi sing, sing praises to de Lord ..."

But Christian pacifism is left to interpretation. "De time will come, my brethren, when we shall tek no more. We will stop work ... we will rise up and tek what is rightfully ours."

Was this a call for active militancy, or non-violent resistance? In a fog of confusion, there is no definitive answer.

In this existential drama, evil breeds in the bosom of every man. Coloureds are ruthless, and the celebrated Maroons are called out for what they really are: quislings.

Sharpe's cautionary words to his mother are loaded: "The Maroons, they can be bad to us ... Some of dem friends with the militia."

And in one harrowing scene, a slave recalcitrance is met with unspeakable brutality. With painful incredulity, we read: "With one quick chop, his ear was ripped from his head. Blood spouted out of the hole ... The slaves standing nearby started wailing."

And throughout this tormentous existence, slaves are promised salvation through Christianity. This is a feature of Kennedy work that captures the psychodynamics of oppression. Slaves born in Africa (salt-water negro), in particular, display perplexity at the strange faith foisted on them. They desperately protect what's left of their ancestral roots, while creole clergymen are the fiercest of apologists. "Jesus, Oh Jesus, Jesus is near," they pray. "Hallelujah ... Dear sweet Jesus. When you are covered with His Blood, the enemy don't like you. Call the name and you will be healed."

Sharpe, too, finds comfort in his new faith. Initially, though, he wrestles with his warring thoughts. In this psychosis there is healing, an outlet in the form of visions where evil is slain by the forces of light. It is a victory that, while unattainable in reality, offers hope and solace.

Amid the brutal crackdown on suspected insurrectionists, Sharpe's biblical orations speak volumes: "Father, I ask you to forgive them all, for they know what they do. Forgive me mine own trespasses, as I forgive all those who sin against me and my brothers too."


Revered leader


Sharpe's seamless rise as a formidable, revered leader appears predictable. He is introspective, perspicacious and mature beyond his years. "Many people tell me that I will do great things one day. So I guess I must wait for the spirit to move me," he confides. His providential gifts of intuition and leadership will serve him ably in time.

But languishing in prison, he's woeful: "There is no escape, no mastery of my destiny."

Kennedy work is hardly a hagiography. Sharpe's character is bedevilled by inner turmoil and vacillation.

In this compelling saga, Kennedy poses the question that has wrestled with many political philosophers: Is religion an opiate?

"There is no bigger cause than fighting fi freedom," one freedom fighter barks. "Is you, Sam, you is de one who bring me to dis, you and yuh preaching."

For Sharpe, the Bible is the catalyst for liberation, but he concedes its mixed messages. "They jus see religion in a different way," he says, referring to white missionaries

And what of fellow slaves who invested in Sharpe's leadership? Would they have been better served by a revolutionary unmoved by Christianity?

We struggle to respond.

Still, the words of Sharpe's first love and mother of his child prove prophetic: "Too much reading of the Bible confuse up yuh head ... If you continue with de preaching, dem gwine beat you and lock you up."

In this imaginative work, Kennedy captures a moment in history that continues to breathe with abandon. Etched in the collective unconscious of a deviant world are sentiments driven by superiority and inferiority. They travel in unison - in lock step - along a beaten path of madness and destruction.

Book: Daddy Sharpe: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Samuel Samuel Sharpe, A West Indian Slave Written by Himself, 1832 by Fred W. Kennedy

Publisher: Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston

ISBN: 978-976-637-343-6

Available at Amazon

Ratings: Essential

Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or @glenvilleashby.

- Dr Fred W. Kennedy is available for lectures and seminars on the life and impact of Daddy Sharpe on Caribbean history.