04 - 05

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 36

04 - 05

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  • زمان مطالعه 13 دقیقه
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“OH, MISS GOFF, lovely, wonderful. And this must be Mister Black. We have already pulled the documents. You have use of the room until noon.”

I was slightly taken aback; I had not asked for any documents to be pulled. I was about to object when Tanna placed a hand on my wrist.

“Excellent,” she said, “thank you.”

She did not seem surprised and I understood then that she had made arrangements.

“Do let me know if you are in need of anything further.” The woman smiled, and it was as though she had suddenly passed a window, so dazzlingly did it illuminate her tired face. Behind her the gallery of dark rooms buzzed with men scratching at papers and voices calling out and footsteps shuffling. The building had once been a printing shop, and even now there were faded splashes of ink on the concrete floors, once black and now aged to a lustreless grey. The rooms smelled heavily of wet paper, like a library in winter.

Tanna put a hand on the woman’s arm. “We did mean to ask you—we are also looking for Christopher Wilde. His brother was Erasmus Wilde, the last owner of Faith Plantation in Barbados. We understand Mister Wilde was to sail out of Liverpool on behalf of your organization.” She hesitated. “Perhaps you might tell us where he was going? What was the mission?”

The woman frowned. “I know of no such mission. Indeed, such an excursion would be beyond the reach of our mandate, I’d think. I do recall Mister Wilde’s being here, two or so years ago, to drop off Faith’s records, help organize them. But I know nothing more beyond that. Mister Solander would certainly be able to help you.” She paused. “He is not in for another hour. If you are still here, perhaps I might send him in? He was a great supporter of Mister Wilde’s.”

“Oh yes, do,” said Tanna.

Glancing behind her to the short, dark corridor we had just come from, the woman explained that the organization was not just a repository of records but was in fact still very much engaged in combatting slavery, even after Emancipation in the Indies. “America is still an area of darkness,” said she. “It is unrelenting.”

I stared into the room before us. There, upon a wood table whitened by old water stains, sat a large wooden box of bound records.

“I realize they are many,” said the woman, hesitating. “As I said, you have use of the room until noon.” Then she turned and left us.

Was I shocked to find that the world of my childhood could be contained in a single crate? It was not easy to accept. I stared uneasily at it, glanced at Tanna.

“I thought you might like to know,” she said softly. “Of course, we do not have to go through them, if you’d prefer not to. I just wanted to give you the possibility.”

I stepped into the small room, into its hushed glow. Three gleaming lanterns blazed on the table before the crate, alongside two steaming cups of tea. Clearly, some pains had been taken to ensure our comfort here, and seeing this, I felt suddenly drained, ill again. The books in the crate were brown with age, the pages warped. I imagined I could smell stale water in the paper, the scent of decay. The table was flooded with yellow light, and I walked slowly into the illumination to take a volume from the crate, the wood creaking faintly at my touch.

I pulled back a chair, sensing Tanna take the chair opposite. I did not see her, felt only my hands on the crusted paper, the fragility of it, as if the lives described here might break apart in my clumsy fingers; as if I would destroy these people’s sole commemoration, however awful it was.

I turned slowly through the records, the pages gaping away from the binding. Dust rose invisibly; I sneezed once, twice. I set it down, then picked up a kind of scrapbook, yellow with old newspaper notices. The notices related to slaves lost, slaves for sale, cotillion balls on neighbouring plantations. I ran my eyes nervously along the clippings. And then I saw it: the advertisement Titch and I had seen posted in Virginia.

A Reward of One Thousand Pounds will be paid for the capture of GEORGE WASHINGTON BLACK, a Negro Boy of small stature, his countenance marked with Burns; a Slave for life. His Clothing is a new Felt Hat, black Cotton Frockcoat and Breeches, and new Stockings and Shoes. He may be travelling alongside an Abolitionist White Man not his lawful owner, with Green Eyes and Black Hair, of tall stature. Whoever secures the Murderous Slave so that I get him Dead or Alive shall have ONE THOUSAND POUNDS Reward.


Faith Plantation, Barbadoes, British West India

I shivered softly. How strange to see it again, with the knowledge now of how everything had ended. I had been so frightened then; these words had reduced my boyhood to a further terror. The memory of that fear entered me now like a shadow. I had been nothing but an object to Erasmus Wilde, nothing but an expression of his wealth in the world. My escape was his diminishment; I understood what he had lost was respect—that is, power.

The lamplight passed in flickers across my hands. When I raised my eyes, Tanna was staring anxiously at me.

I gestured for her to slide across the volumes she held.

The first was a log of apprentices, detailing those men still working on the plantation after Emancipation; it was a list of their names and death dates. I stared a long while at its cover, and that black certainty that had been in me since leaving Faith, the knowledge that Kit was dead, entered me sharply. I opened to the page Tanna had marked, running my eyes down the columns, but I did not find her name, neither the true one she had been born with, Nawi, nor the new one she’d been given upon her arrival in the Indies. Then all at once I caught sight of it, her death date inscribed in a fine hand. Slowly I set the book down, and was silent.

I had always known it; she had been old even before I first met her. Her field work had not lessened in apprenticeship, and if she’d still had that boy in her care, she would have been completing some of his work too, to spare him the brutality of so long a labour. And yet to see her name logged so plainly here, as if it were a list of stored goods I looked at, or weekly sugar yields—it was peculiarly agonizing. I felt the wrongness, the disgustingness of the life granted her; I imagined her body taken from the fields with no more ceremony than would be given a dead plough horse. And I wanted to smash something with my fists, to destroy everything around me. I sensed Tanna’s eyes on me, and in that moment I hated her presence, hated this foolish attempt to give me back my past, as if the blackness of it could simply be boxed back up and left behind in this cold room with no more thought.

With trembling hands I opened the second book. On the marked page was a very tidily kept log, penned in the hand of my first master, Titch’s uncle, Richard Black. His writing was difficult to decipher, the letters like sutures stitched into the page. I squinted at the words.

Catherine MacCauley.


Big Kit had been my mother.

All the light seemed to leave the room. I stared at the table, the white rings left by cups, my hands dark and calm upon them.

For years she had ignored me, until I had turned up suddenly in her hut, and then with a ferocity that terrified she’d fought off all who would cause me harm. She had cared for me and cursed me and cracked my ribs and clutched me so tight in her love that I thought she might break them again. She’d damned my father as cruel and my mother as foolish, and when I said she could know nothing of their natures she struck me hard in the face. When I got up the courage to again muse about who they might be, she would cackle furiously and tell me I had been born of a goat and a god, of a sheep and a chicken, of the good strong winds and the blackness that dropped swiftly across the crops in the cold season. She told me I was born of stupidity, that it must be blood-deep, and also that I was brilliant, that there would never again be a mind like mine. She loved me with a viciousness that kept me from ever feeling complacent, with the reminder that nothing was permanent, that we would one day be lost to each other. She loved me with the terror of separation, as someone who had lost all the riches of a scorched life. She loved me in spite of those past losses, as if to say, I will not surrender this time, you will not take this from me.

She had been born one person on the far side of Africa, and had walked out of the wretched hold of the slaver’s boat a second person, an alien on the white sand shores of an alien land. What had she seen on that terrible journey; what had she survived? I saw the cool monsoon morning, Kit captured in a dusty yard under a windy sky. I saw her long walk of weeks, months, to the coast. The stories she told herself along the way, stories of birds turning into men, of men turning into trees, of anthills devouring goats whole. The memory of a grandmother who’d come to her hut two years after she died, to tell her she had grown too thin.

Perhaps the bright ocean frightened her, its endless light, the white roll of the breakers far out on the sandbars. Perhaps she was terrified at the sight of the vicious pink men, hollering, drinking, sprawled out sweating in the sand. And when she was penned downstairs, darkness gathering in her crowded cell, perhaps she did not cry, had no tears left by then.

In my mind I saw the awfulness of the officers at the fort, their savagery, their casual violence. How they spat in her face, or dumped scraps on her scalp, beat and raped her for sport. I saw her selected to wash the corpses of the officers who died, how at night she talked to these men on the wrong side of life, how they spoke back to her. Does my wife know I have passed? Will any write to her? Does my father know I have passed?

And the horrors of the crossing, when it came? The stench of the holds, all of them roiling naked and ill in the dark stomach of the barquentine. The urine and excrement and vomit, men clawing their own throats open with ragged fingernails, bloodied women leaping the deck rail into waters sharp with the fins of sharks. I saw the dozens who had died on the way to Barbados, and I saw those who died once ashore. I saw my Kit grow sick, fattened on rich, strange food, and only just recover. And I saw how I left her behind to the cane and the punishing sun, in favour of Titch, and began gradually to forget her face, the sound of her voice.

I felt then Tanna’s warm hand on my shoulder, and I realized I was crying.

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