An excerpt from a new novel by Anthony C. Winkler
(Akashic Books, 2013)
Jamaican-born novelist Anthony Winkler’s forthcoming novel, The Family Mansion, conjures up the cruelties of slavery with the author’s trademark irreverence and wit. Winkler, 71, is the author of several critically acclaimed novels, including The Lunatic and Dog War, as well as two screenplays. His latest book is the second installment of a trilogy about the history of Jamaica. Part one of this series, God Carlos, deftly evokes the heartrending and fateful encounter between early Spanish colonizers and the island’s indigenous Arawak people.
Part two, The Family Mansion, is the story of Hartley Fudges, the child of an English nobleman. As the second son of the Fudges family, Hartley is prohibited from inheriting any of his father’s wealth according to 19th century English law. Hartley devises a plot to have his brother eliminated. When it backfires, he boards a sailboat bound for the Caribbean, where he becomes a boss, or backra, at a sugar plantation. There he immediately purchases his own slave, Cuffy, who eventually leads a rebellion. Cuffy ends up becoming Hartley’s master, demanding that Hartley teach him how to become a true English gentleman.
The first two novels of Winkler’s captivating trilogy are rife with hypnotic imagery and fascinating historical asides. They evoke the colonial world with erudition, irony, and complexity, and should be read by anyone interested in the broader implications of empire. In the following excerpt, Hartley Fudge’s voyage to Jamaica has recently ended, and he is traveling by land to his new home, a sugar plantation.
The plantation loomed like a monolith in what appeared to be an enormous area of desolation that might have been the dark ends of the earth. Yet among this vast, shrouded wilderness rose an imposing mansion boasting delicate gingerbread, impressive doors, mullioned windows, ornamented pediments, and Ionic pillars that combined, at first sight, to make the entire structure look out of place and ridiculous. There was a portico fit for welcoming the most elegant phaeton but was more likely there to shelter a grubby dray cart. The whole structure was encircled by a defensive wall punctured by gunports.
When the wagon rattled up to the main gate of the plantation, the mules blowing hard and a feeble light leaking from two dangling lanterns, the travelers were challenged and stopped by three night watchmen armed with pistols and machetes. After that, word quickly spread over the dark compound of the arrival of the backra. Candles flickered on throughout the main house and people poured out of the front door bubbling over with the welcome of homecoming.
The greeting party consisted of white faces mingling with a few brown and dark ones. Thoroughly confused about who was who, Hartley was soon shaking hands with a small circle of strangers whose names he was afraid he would not remember. So spontaneous and lively was the impromptu assembly that Hartley was reminded of a gathering at Christmas. Then he was sitting down at a large banquet table in a cavernous dining room and eating a hurriedly warmed-up meal among a babble of voices while dead ancestors peered down from stylized oil paintings on the wall. Outside, the driver and the sideman were served food that they ate sitting in the wagon.
During the height of the chatter, Hartley slipped outside to look at the night covering the earth with a thick velvet of darkness. It rang with the sounds of cicadas and crickets, and from deep within its dark unseen heart came a peculiar loud staccato noise of a hundred baby rattles. His new slave suddenly appeared at his elbow.
“What’s that sound?” Hartley asked.
The boy listened for a moment or two before responding, “What sound, Massa?”
“It sounds as if someone’s trying to clear his throat.”
The boy cocked his head attentively before breaking into a wide grin. “Is croaking lizard, Massa.”
“Why’re you calling me that name?”
“Because dat’s what slave in Jamaica call dem master.” Hartley thought about it, and then shrugged. “Where will you sleep tonight?”
“Don’t worry ’bout dat,” the boy replied. “Me will find a place.”
The driver ambled over with a paper on which he had scribbled something. “Here’s you bill of sale, sah. You have de money?”
“You mean I can change my mind?” Hartley asked jokingly.
“We shake on de deal, sah,” the driver said dourly, “although I wouldn’t blame you, now dat you get to see what a wretch dis boy is, if you have a change of heart.”
Buying a slave and then changing his mind before he’d even paid for him would make Hartley look silly. Acting more decisive than he felt, he dug into his trunk, pulled out some pound notes, and carefully counted off 50, which he handed to the driver. As the driver was walking off the boy hissed in a venomous voice, “One dark night, we’ll buck up again.”
The implied threat stopped the driver in his tracks, and he turned and approached the boy. Hartley jumped between the two of them.
“He’s mine now,” Hartley said sternly. “Leave my property alone.”
The driver glared at the two of them for a long moment. Abruptly, he turned on his heels and walked over to his wagon.
“What’s your name?” Hartley asked the boy.
“Cuffy,” the boy mumbled.
“Cuffy? Who gave you that name?”
“Is de name of a slave, Massa. And me is slave.”
“Stop saying that.”
“If me must be a slave, me must be a proper slave.” Hartley chuckled as if the boy had told a joke. A cool breeze fanned the dark trees, making them seem to whisper. Hartley ambled across the lawn, taking in the night, the expanse of fields, the dark patches of woodlands that surrounded the house, and the constellations and stars brightly glittering overhead. He thought he was alone, but when he turned he saw that Cuffy, almost invisible against the dark night, padded after him only a few feet away.
“Are you following me?” Hartley asked.
“Dere’s something white man can do in Jamaica and something him shouldn’t do. Him shouldn’t walk ’bout at night alone,” Cuffy said quietly, as if revealing a secret.
Hartley looked around him. He was in the back of the enormous house where no lights burned and where the shadows were thick and cloying and swaddled the whole yard in a cocoon of bottomless darkness.
“Why? Is it unsafe?” Hartley asked, glancing nervously around him.
“Jamaican night bring out thief,” Cuffy said. “Is better white man walk in daylight.”
Hartley, without replying, moved briskly toward the front door and disappeared into the dining room. The celebratory tone was now muted by fatigue, and yawns were breaking out among the six white faces that sat at the huge table. A few minutes later, the assembly wobbled to its feet and everyone went to bed.
His first night in the great house Hartley slept well. At daybreak he was blasted awake by a conch shell horn calling the slaves to work. He got out of bed and stumbled to the window, peering out into the dawn, and saw workmen and women streaming across the lawns and headed for the factory or the fields. Hartley dressed hurriedly, washed his face in a basin, threw open his door, and found the boy lying on the threshold, sound asleep. He stepped over him and was standing there wondering what he should do when the boy jumped up and rubbed his eyes frantically.
“Did you sleep there all night?” asked Hartley with perplexity.
“Yes, sah,” the boy muttered sleepily.
“A slave must be ready to serve at all times,” came the reply.
“It’s a wonder you don’t follow me into the toilet,” Hartley rejoined sourly.
“Me is a slave,” the boy said snippily. “Me is not out of order.”
Hartley walked away, headed for the stairway, wanting to miss nothing on his first day at the plantation. Behind him he could hear the scurrying footsteps of the boy, hard on his heels.
Cuffy was a boy only in designation, not fact. In reality, he was the same age as Hartley Fudges. But because he was a young slave with no particular skill or training, everyone called him a boy. He was dark brown, of medium height, and had the fat-free chiseled physique of a greyhound. From a life of hard labor, he had developed a muscular body with thick arms and broad shoulders. He was slightly taller than Hartley Fudges and had an intensity to his personality that hinted of an explosive temper. His nature was to have things his way, which was an impossibility for someone who was enslaved, and his approach to life seemed combative and stubborn. Most striking were his eyes, which were the color of polished emeralds.
He was a creature of insupportable pride and was especially sensitive to any disrespect, slight, or flippancy directed at his person. It seemed to Hartley that he was always sniffing around for the appearance or hint of disparagement. Everything for him had to be proper. It had to be the ideal that the world expected. He did not want to be a slave, and his hatred of his slave masters ran deep. But since he had been born into slavery, he was maliciously determined to play the role to the letter that life had assigned him. So he slept protectively at Hartley’s doorstep where he could raise an alarm in case anyone tried to break into his massa’s room.
It was a perversity in his character that made him think this way, and it was one of the traits that had alienated him from his former owner, the dray cart driver. The boy had resented being the slave of a black man, for that was neither the ideal nor the norm. Now that he was owned by a white Englishman, he felt properly enslaved.
Most of this speculation was in Hartley’s fevered imagination and based on snippets of opinion expressed by Cuffy. Hartley instinctively understood from his long acquaintance with servants that a line had to be drawn in the sand beyond which they dared not step. It didn’t matter where the particular line was or what topics and behaviors it forbade; all that mattered was that the line was symbolically present and visible to the servant. Hartley thought he knew volumes about the servant mentality, and he intended to apply this knowledge to subdue his rambunctious slave.
Yet there was something sinister in Cuffy’s manner. He was always sullen; his attitude was smoldering and defiant. Hartley had no doubt that if pushed far enough, Cuffy was capable of flying into a rage and killing someone.
Cuffy had not made any threatening movements toward his new English master. In fact, Hartley thought his slave was proud of having a master who was both white and genuinely English, rather than some cast-off Irishmen or Johnny-come-lately Scotchman or whimpering Welshman. Yet there was something about Cuffy that bore watching or caution. Hartley could not say what he felt or why he felt it. He only knew that there was something peculiar, something twisted inside Cuffy, something that could one day detonate and blow everyone nearby to smithereens.
Over the next few days, Hartley learned much about the plantation, Mount Pleasant. It was owned, he discovered, by a wealthy English family whom it supported on a grand scale but who were longtime absentee proprietors. The patriarch of the family had visited some years ago, but he didn’t linger too long, claiming that the climate was too hot for his constitution.
The plantation had evolved throughout the years into a self-sufficient community. It had its own source of water, produced its own food, provided its own medical treatment through a clinic staffed by a doctor and two nurses. It raised its own livestock and did its own butchering. Its own system of aqueducts harnessed the flow of water to drive the mill that extracted the sugar from the cane stalks. Its own minister of religion resided on the plantation and tended to the spiritual needs of the slaves and freemen alike. However, this particular minister had serious doubts as to whether blacks had souls. He was not alone in this perplexity. Many ministers of religion turned their backs on the slaves and saw no point in trying to introduce them to Christianity and Jesus. One might as well try to convert the donkey in a manger or a wild beast of the field.
Its population, reflecting the racial breakdown in Jamaica, consisted of eight white men counting Hartley and Meredith, but no white women, 960 slaves, and 210 free black and brown people who held various jobs on the estate. This scarcity made white people stand out conspicuously, and wherever he went in public, Hartley had the feeling of being constantly stared at like an exotic migratory bird.
The buildings on the estate consisted of the main house, called the great house, a sprawling slave quarters, a storage structure where various tools and agricultural implements were kept, the mill where the cane was converted into sugar, molasses, and rum, a boiling house, a curing house, and the paddocks and stables where the horses were kept. There was also a butchering shed and an outbuilding where hogsheads of sugar and rum awaiting transshipment were stored. Every facility was relatively close together to make transportation from one to the other easy.
The plantation consisted of 1,500 acres cultivated mainly in sugarcane. Experience had taught the planters over the years that sugarcane, unless grown on a large scale, was not a profitable crop. Even on a large estate, growing cane was capital-intensive, requiring a huge labor force and expensive boiling and milling equipment, and it was only by large-scale manufacturing that the plantation was able to survive. Over the island’s history the consolidation of estates became an inexorable necessity, and at one point flyspeck Jamaica—all 4,411 square miles of it—had more jumbo estates in production than did the entire continental U.S.
Hartley had been in Jamaica about two weeks when he fell sick. The sickness began with a feeling of fatigue, which at first he blamed on a visit to the boiling house and its hellish temperatures that often reached 140 degrees Fahrenheit. But by evening he was feverish and wracked with chills that the people around him quickly recognized as the onset of yellow fever. Meredith, on being informed of his companion’s illness, ordered him immediately to bed. Hartley needed no prompting and in the dim room, he crawled into bed under a sheet and a bedspread, chilled and trembling. Cuffy brought him a pitcher of lemonade and hung around his bedside, looking anguished and doing his best to be useful. Hartley was hardly aware of him, for his mind was in that place of fragmented dreams and delirium that the feverish inhabit. When he was awake, which was seldom, he was hardly aware of his surroundings, his consciousness flickering like a windblown candle.
He began to vomit. Since his confinement he had eaten no solid food but had taken in only liquids. The cook for the great house sent up a succession of broths with Cuffy, who sat on the edge of Hartley’s bed and tried to spoon the oily liquid down his master’s throat. For several days Hartley lay suffering in soundless agony—day passing into night, morning turning into afternoon—feeling more wretched than ever before in his life. Every white person in the great house sympathized with his suffering, for every one of them had either experienced it themselves or seen other newcomers ravaged by the sickness. Most of the people who were around him did not think that he would survive. On one visit Meredith said to Cuffy as they passed in the doorway, “You better make a coffin for your master.”
But by the fifth day, Hartley was stronger and apparently getting better. His fever abated, and he stopped vomiting altogether. What was an even better sign was his restiveness at being cooped up in the bedroom. Meredith and others in the great house observed these signs with alarm rather than hope, for they knew that he had now come to the crossroads where his sickness would either leave him or it would relentlessly return with a renewed virulence. Hartley, not understanding the nature of his illness, was eager to get to work and one morning appeared at the breakfast table, keen on beginning a full day, only to be excused from work and told to return to bed.
“But I tell you,” Hartley insisted, “I’m all well again. I feel almost up to my full strength.”
An Irish overseer by the name of Yates cautioned him gravely: “It’s the fever you had, and it is known to come back just when you think you’re getting over it. And the second time, it’s much worse.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Meredith said with exasperation. “It just seems to be over. But it isn’t over.”
“How do you know when it is over?” Hartley asked.
The cook, an old Ashanti woman named Delilah who rode roughshod over the Irish overseers, snapped, “It over when we tell you it over.”
For the next few days, the people around him watched Hartley closely for symptoms of the second stage of the disease to appear, making him feel like he was passing through the perilous strait between life and death. He felt more helpless than he ever had in his life as he awaited either a blow or a reprieve. What made it worse was his awareness of his condition and his recognition that nothing he thought or did or said or chanted would affect the outcome. So he reluctantly did as he was told and remained in bed long after he felt it necessary. Meredith lent him a copy of Edward Long’s The History of Jamaica and having nothing better to do, he began to read about the island.
He learned that history credits the start of the sugar industry to Sir Thomas Modyford, governor general of Jamaica from 1664 to 1670, who arrived from Barbados in 1664 accompanied by 700 planters and their slaves. In the years to follow, other groups of planter families and their slaves came from the Leeward Islands and Suriname. Jamaica, which the English took from Spain in 1655, initially struggled to survive and actually suffered a decline in population. The census of 1661, taken by the Spanish, showed a population of 2,956 (2,458 men, 454 women, and 44 children).
In the early years of English colonization, Jamaica was a bigger producer of cocoa than of sugar. But in the summer of 1670 a cocoa blight hit the island, destroying all the trees. Jamaica turned to sugar, and the industry grew rapidly, from 57 sugar mills in 1670 to 1,061 in 1786. St. Ann, Trelawney, and St. James became the mecca of growth with some 15 new sugar estates being established between 1792 and 1799. With the growth of new estates came the flood of slaves from Africa until by 1805 they outnumbered whites by more than ten to one. And all this industry and effort was producing profits that immediately left the island and ended up in the pockets of unseen and often unknown absentee proprietors.
All this and more, Hartley Fudges discovered during the week when he seemed to be getting better from the yellow fever. But then the second wave of the disease struck and overnight he was languishing on his deathbed, and there was nothing anyone or any science or any folk magic of 1805 could do to save him.
A healthy young man only rarely sees himself as part of a social pattern. If anything, he imagines himself and his individual destiny to be utterly unique. But the sick man is always trying to spot the cause and patterns behind his sickness, if only to take refuge from the belief that nature has singled him out for some special horrible death or infirmity. So as Hartley Fudges slipped into the delirium of his fever, he began to inspect the life patterns that had brought him to this sorry pass. He began to see himself as one of many migratory English men forced to leave their homes and risk their lives on some foreign shore where they were likely to die among strangers.
Oddly enough, he began to see the little stub of life he had so far lived as funny and irrepressibly comical. As he was enveloped and consumed by his fever and sickness, he would occasionally remember some episode from his earlier years and laugh uproariously over it. The people in the great house thought he was deranged from his sickness and expected him to die anytime now.
“Poor fellow,” muttered Meredith at Hartley’s bedside. “I thought he would fit right in.” He headed for the door. “Tell me when he’s passed,” he added over his shoulder to Cuffy.
“Me massa not goin’ dead,” Cuffy retorted in a voice that snapped like an overseer’s whip.
“Whatever you say,” Meredith said, wrinkling his nose at the reeking stench of sickness and death that wafted from the bed.
Hartley broke into another insane laugh.
ContributorAnthony C. Winkler