A little while back my Goddaughter Carmen turned 18 and joined the world of adults. This meant I had one of those ‘what the hell do I get her for a present’ dilemmas. It wasn’t easy on several fronts. First up was the usual issue of being flat broke. I’m always flat broke. But if you chose to write and work for a charity, what can you expect? Most of the time being flat broke isn’t a particular problem, but every now and then having a quid or two in the bank can be pretty handy. My Goddaughter’s eighteenth was certainly one of those moments.
So. What to do and what to get?
It didn’t take all that long for the idea of writing her a story to emerge. This is one of the very few upsides of being an author. Words are cheap. In fact, once you have shelled out for a laptop and a copy of Microsoft Word, words are free of charge. As many as you like, free at the point of delivery. Thank Christ. Maybe at this very moment George Osborne is scheming away in
11 Downing St
– if only he could tax words at 5p a pop then the deficit problem would go away
Lots of free of charge words and as many stories as my fading brain could come up with. But what story? There was the big question. What tale should a washed up man of fifty come up with to welcome his 18 year old Goddaughter into the world voting and pubs? Well. Voting at least. Carmen was no stranger to pubs.
Leads out, coat on and dogs summoned. Time to tramp about the Scottish countryside with plugged in headphones. Buzzards up in the sky, jagged hills on the horizon and
and Joe Strummer in the ears. I find that if I try and force a story it tends
to stay elusive. For me it is better to allow something to jump out from behind
a bush. I would like to think that Mpene showed herself whilst Peter Gabriel
lamented the loss of Steve Biko in Police Room 619, Bowie in September 1977. And maybe
that indeed was the case, but to be honest I don’t remember. Port Elizabeth
All of a sudden I remembered standing out in the burning African sun by the lazy waters of the
It was the early 90’s and we had lucked out on a hyper discounted week long
trip to West Africa. The hotel was supposed to
be a kind of Package Holiday Green Zone and punters were encouraged to only
risk taking a peek at Darkest Africa via excursions on air conditioned coaches.
That didn’t remotely ring our bell so we got a taxi into Banjul and managed to
hire ourselves an old 4x4 that wouldn’t have passed an MOT at home in a million
years. One day we found ourselves on a stretch of roadside at the place where
the brown waters of the River Gambia met the crashing white breakers of the Atlantic. The lads jumped down and started messing about
at the river’s edge. Dyonne was 7 and Courtney was 2 - just about learning the
ropes of the whole walking thing. I have memories of high white clouds chasing
across a rich blue sky. The breeze was rustling the reeds at the river’s edge
and long legged birds waited for fish,
In many ways the River Gambia says everything about how we once went about our business in the days when we had our Empire. The river cuts a gash into
Africa and you can sail a gunboat
down the middle for fifty miles or so. The guys who had the job of pegging out
the new claim for
did their job with care. They worked out how far they could sail down the
river. Then they worked how far a gunboat to could fire a shell. The range of
the guns governed how much territory could be controlled by the good old boys
of the Royal Navy. So when you check out Britain on a map, you will find that
it is an odd sliver of a country whose territory runs ten miles or so either
side of the river. Gambia
What we wanted was a nice secure port area to develop. A gateway for shipping out all the stuff we planned to nick from the interior. And then I spotted a wreck of a building out on an island in the middle of the river. It was hard to see at first glance. Then little by little it revealed itself. Old, ruined white walls that once upon a time must have been the local bonded warehouse of the
And what was the main commodity that we moved through those non descript white
walls? What goods were we able to trade for glass beads and bottles of rum?
Black Gold. Human beings. Slaves.
Twenty million of them.
Men and women and children, carefully chosen for their potential to work the new sugar plantations of the
Indies. Strong enough to put in a fifteen hour shift and take a
good lashing. Available for sale at knock down prices from hard faced Arab
traders with coal black eyes.
got itself into the slavery business, we weren’t much of an outfit. We were an
inconsequential backwater of an island where it always seemed to rain. Every
now and then we tried our luck and invaded Britain ; sometimes we won, sometime
we got our arses kicked. We were pretty good at piracy and not a lot else. Then
we sussed out how to buy people cheap and sell them for top dollar. And we hit
the big time. Within a couple of hundred years of getting into the African
Slave Trade we had become Big Time Charlies and we were able to punch a long way
above our weight on the world stage. We invested our slave profits well and
the trainloads of cash we made from punting Black Gold financed the Industrial
Revolution and the biggest navy in the world. In the end the slave money set us
on a road that ended with the Union Jack flying over a third of the planet. Not
bad for a two bit island off the coast of France Europe.
As I squinted through the bright afternoon sunshine, a realisation hit me like a bucket of ice water down the back of the neck.
It hit me as I watched my two sons playing at the river’s edge.
It hit me as my statuesque partner Carol stood a few yards away gazing out to the far end of the
A little personal background is required here.
I am what the Government these days refers to as White British. And Carol is Black British. Afro-Caribbean Black British. ‘Afro’ as in once upon a time her ancestors lived in an African village until a bunch of heavily armed Arabs turned up one day and stole all the fittest and killed the rest. ‘Caribbean’ as in those same Arab traders marched her ancestors to the coast and traded them to my ancestors to ship across the Atlantic to
my boys? Mixed Race Black and White British. ‘Muts’ as President Obama once put
it with his trade mark grin. Barbados
The ice water down the back of the neck was the realisation that there was every chance that many hundreds of years earlier relatives of Carol and Dyonne and Courtney had passed through the white fort on the island in the middle of the river. By the time they were purchased and frog marched through the gates of the fort, they would have been about half way through their journey from hell. They would have already walked hundreds of miles through the heat and dust and already half of those who set out on the journey would have been dead; mere piles of white bones, all picked clean by the vultures.
Ahead of them lay an even worse journey. Weeks and weeks, chained and packed into the hold of a slave ship where disease would rack their bodies and many more would die. The survivors would be washed down and sold on to the plantation owners to be worked to death in the fields of sugar cane. In the 18th Century, the life expectancy of an African slave getting off the boat in
was less than that of a Jew getting of the train at Auschwitz Birkenau in 1942.
No wonder we do all we can to bury that particular part of our history. Barbados
I tried to get my head around how strong the ones who managed survive must have been. Their levels of physical strength must have been beyond awesome. No wonder their ancestors clean up on the sportsfields of the 21st Century. Their mental strength must have been beyond awesome. How on earth did they find the fortitude to carry on against such impossible odds? What wells of resolve did they tap into? And I suddenly felt a chill in the bones, despite the heat of the African sun. As I watched my two sons playing at the water’s edge I saw for the first time that they owed their lives entirely to the dogged, stubborn, heroic refusal to give up shown by an ancestor all those years before.
So it was that the memory of that realisation by the waters of the
Gambia River came back to me as I
tramped along country roads with blackthorn hedges and dry stone walls.
Like Dyonne and Courtney, my goddaughter Carmen also owes her time on the planet to long forgotten ancestors who found a way to live through the bottomless hell of the Middle Passage and the killing fields of sugar cane.
And with a smile, I realised that their legacy was not hard spot in my goddaughter. Words to paint a picture of Carmen? 'Stubborn', 'wilful', 'stroppy', a force of nature when ‘off on one’. Now where had all that come from? Surely these traits of her character had been passed all the way down the ancestral line from some young women stolen from her home and delivered into a hell on earth.
And surviving it.
Beating the odds and becoming a mother herself and ensuring that the line that joins Africa to
was able to stretch across the years. Britain
So it was the story formed very quickly in my mind. The connection between my goddaughter and her long forgotten ancestor. A debt of life.
And by the time I arrived back home I had decided on a name for my Goddaughter’s ancestor.
It isn’t a long story. You will probably have it read in an hour or so. It is available to one and all for the princely sum of 99p. Thankfully Carmen likes it and she hasn’t disowned me for describing her as ‘wilful, stubborn and stroppy’ in the book description on the Kindle Store. I hope the memory of Mpene helps her to fulfil her huge potential.
Enjoy the book. You can download a copy by clicking here
This is Bussa. He's one of those heroes we try hard to forget. He led a slave revolt on Barbados in 1816. We put down the revolt and executed Bussa. He is remembered by this statue.