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Pity the oppressed; fear the oppressed

Digby Durrant

7 November 2007

2:11 PM

7 November 2007

2:11 PM

Not with silver Simi Bedford

Chatto and Windus, pp.356, 17.99

The fight to abolish slavery and its consequences is an immense subject so it’s not surprising that the Nigerian Simi Bedford’s new book could be likened to the kind of film once made famous by Cecil B De Mille with a cast of thousands and dramatic events at every turn. There are no quiet pages here. We start in Oyo, the capital of a West African tribe for whom a constant state of tribal war is an economic necessity and the internal struggles for power inevitable and deadly. All smiles are lies and hidden threats; here are screams in the night. Abiola is being trained as a warrior. The least breach of behaviour will be punished by having to stand stock-still from dawn to dusk in scorching heat without food or water. Born to a family dangerously close to the centre of things, he is targeted, kidnapped, branded as a slave and shipped to Virginia.

Abiola is lucky to be bought by Gilbert de Fremont, an exquisite who sells antique harpsichords. De Fremont changes his new slave’s name to Cornelius and teaches him French and English. But it takes more than these civilised acquisitions for the young warrior to forget the agony of his own flesh being branded or the stink of the slave ships he can still smell even when they are five miles offshore. He longs to strangle his ‘pinprick of a master’. Perhaps the pinprick guesses? He sells him to Farrer, a much tougher proposition, where Cornelius meets three fellow slaves, one of whom, Delilah, is a beauty who seduces him and bears him a daughter. Meanwhile the American War of Independence rages and, hearing that the British will recruit any runaway slave, they all escape to Charleston. Cornelius is killed. The rest escape and after surviving all manner of trials and tribulations they reach Nova Scotia where they accept the apparently wonderful offer of the Sierra Leone Company to settle them in Freetown.

Many promises are not kept but they prosper beyond their wildest dreams, becoming rich, even very rich. They send their children to England to be educated. They mingle on seemingly even terms with the whites. It is at this point that Simi Bedford’s essential fairness of mind and meticulous research stops short of painting all slaves as mere victims but shows us instead that blacks can be as ruthless, brutal and greedy as any white. When one of the ex-slaves asks to flog two condemned whites, his request is granted by fellow whites as a matter of principle: ‘Freedom has made white men of us all.’ The ex-slave lays on precisely the same pattern of permanent scars on their backs that he carries on his own.

Delilah, now a ruthless matriarch and the richest of them all, enthusiastically applauds this revenge as giving ‘the skinless ones’, as the blacks call the whites, a particularly appropriate taste of their own medicine. It’s discovered she deserves the same. She has just sold and shipped off 500 slaves herself. She’s been doing it for a long time. But she is rich and her enormous crime soon brushed aside. What kind of person has she become? What kind of people have they become? More depraved than the whites? Traitors to their own kith and kin? Have they so soon forgotten the screams of their children as the thug approaches with his red-hot branding iron?

This relentlessly honest book has no false or sentimental notes, absolutely no prettifying. A black warrior facing unexpected danger is taught to imagine the worst, ‘look the leopard in the eye.’ Simi Bedford does just that. A brave and uncomfortable labour of love.

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