A further tribute to the Image of God, carved in Ebony.
Here is a
‘challenge to the Old World’. A pathological dissection of
the soul of a continent; an empathization with the
struggles against oppression; and the sharing of the aspirations of a people. SHARLOW.
WHEN GODS WERE SLAVES is a
novel of the human tragedy. At
Ile-Ife, the Garden of Creation, young Akinjiya
experiences the mystery of Oya. It is the land of
Soyinka’s palm-wine girl, and where the bata-drums
beat. A land of cultural infinity.
The sub-title: A SEARCH FOR TRUTH defies the historical texts, and brings to light some of the imperial farces played out in Willieforce’s England. Set against the most pernicious system of the other millennium, it is a story of passionate love, a testing of faith, and the struggle for survival along the road of Destiny. It is Anyika, meaning endurance – and much more.
Finally, it is a tribute to the race of man.
WHEN GODS WERE SLAVES achieves the perspective of
returning the pride and dignity of the African, defamed through the system of
“… marvellous imaginative empathy.” Professor Frank Birbalsingh, York University, Toronto.
Undoubtedly one of the few great
classics to grace the literary world. The reader is enthralled by the mysticism of this novel!
novel yet to restore and celebrate the dignity of the African!
When Gods Were Slaves is currently being studied as part of the curriculum
of the African Studies Program at The University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Adult Trade Paperback: ISBN 0-9744096-1-8
Scroll for Review
Marvellous imaginative empathy in ‘WHEN GODS WERE SLAVES’.
Sharlow Mohammed, When Gods Were Slaves, 1993
When Gods Were Slaves is a novel dealing with Caribbean history during slavery, that is to say, before Indians first came to the Caribbean in 1838. The action of the novel opens in 1798, near Ile Ife, Nigeria, where a group of Nigerians including Akinjaya, the oba’s son, is captured by European slave traders. The scene then shifts briefly to Bristol, one of the British ports that gained most wealth from profits of the slave trade.
There is then a second shift to the Caribbean where Akinjaya and his friends, having already been shipped across the Atlantic, arrive as slaves on a Trinidadian plantation owned by Philip Miller, a young Englishman earlier shown in the scene in Bristol.
This Trinidad section of the novel is the longest and most important, since it provides a comprehensive portrait of plantation life in Trinidad during the first three decades of the 19th century, until Emancipation, when all slaves in British colonies were freed between 1834 and 1838.
In addition to the hardships and brutality which we expect in a portrait of a Caribbean sugar plantation, we are given discussions on the economics of the slave trade, administrative details of plantation life, West African historical and religious lore, and Yoruba linguistic expressions, exclamations and speech rhythms. There is also a sensitive presentation of the thoughts and feelings of white (British) masters and black (African) slaves, and of their unequal relationships.
Here, for example, is Akinjaya’s reaction to news that Emancipation is imminent:
“Yepa, omoge,” he (Akinjaya) spoke out now. “Akinjaya is unable to do anything while he is a slave..... It is a race of naked evil, without a God, without an ‘ori’! Wo! see the condition of the slaves here; look at the few children, ‘omoge’.”
“They have no life. They will never have a life. They are born wretched as those of the ‘Eni-orisa’. See how their lips hang from want of milk; see how their noses twist and swell because they cannot breathe. The whiteman is not … cannot be truly human.”
In Yoruba-influenced English, which is not an obstacle because the author provides a glossary, Akinjaya expresses bitter hatred and distrust of white slave owners and all their works. But he acknowledges that he speaks from a position of weakness; for while Emancipation may free enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, it will also help the British to compensate for their decreasing profits from West Indian sugar by stimulating British manufacturers, entrepreneurs (and missionaries) to create new colonies and new markets in Africa and elsewhere.
Although much of the appeal of When Gods Were Slaves rests on these authentic, historical records, the novel should not be regarded as an historical treatise. There is a fictional love story, for instance, involving Akinjaya and Elewa, just before they are captured in 1798. The two lovers survive for many years in Trinidad, but not as a couple, and their enforced separation is typical of the multiple fractures and dislocations engendered by slavery. This lovers’ sense of personal grief and loss could not be reproduced by a standard text of history.
Yet when Akinjaya becomes involved with another woman, Elewa is quick to approve, her selfless sacrifice and love lending tragic depth and a sense of nobility to joint African sorrow, especially when it is juxtaposed to the acts of lust and carnal pleasure in which whites regularly indulge.
Nobility may seem implausible in people whose brutal victimisation reduces them almost to the condition of animals. But the slaves in When Gods Were Slaves are not noble victims who are too good to be true. They are also capable of stealing, disobedience, and revolt, although treachery and betrayal among themselves causes their attempted revolt to fail and bring gruesome reprisals upon themselves.
In fact, Sharlow’s portrait of plantation slavery is more plausible than similar portraits by Edgar Mittelholzer (in his Kaywana trilogy) and H.G. DeLisser (in his The White witch of Rosehall), both of whom tend to incorporate elements of romance or sensationalism into their fiction. Even less romantic West Indian novels about plantation life like Ada Quayle’s The Mistress and Orlando Patterson’s Die the Long Day fail to capture the blend of sympathy and objectivity that is found in When Gods Were Slaves.
For there is no doubt about Sharlow’s commitment to African victims in his novel, nor about his intention to win sympathy for their plight. Hence the detailed record of victimisation and brutality. But this does not mean that the interests of the victimisers – the whites – are neglected. We are allowed to share Philip Miller’s fear and anxiety when he contemplates the economic consequences of Emancipation on his plantation. Similarly, the presentation of his wife’s sexual frustration and eventual indulgence makes her out as less of a slut, like her French friend, Claudine LeBlanc, than a neglected, alienated woman, alone in a foreign land, without family or friends.
Thus, although much of the appeal of When Gods Were Slaves lies in its sympathetic exposure of the abuses of slavery and the plantation system, its real success is in projecting this appeal objectively through credible human personalities, situations and relationships. This expert blend of sympathy and objectivity may have little affinity with the writing of the generation of West Indian authors mentioned above, but it strikes a chord with the fiction of the most promising of the younger generation of Caribbean writers – Caryl Phillips – whose Higher Ground and Cambridge describe the interaction between Africans and Europeans with sharp insight into the behaviour of both slaves and masters, yet with unswerving commitment to the plight of the former.
It is nice to think that the time has at last come when West Indians can look squarely at their horrifying history without guilty evasion or retaliatory exaggeration. It is even nicer to see an Indo-Caribbean writer generate such marvellous imaginative empathy for events that precede the first Indian contact with the Caribbean.
A Review from Heinemann's Publishing Co. Bristol.
A Review from Heinemann's Publishing Co. Bristol.
When Gods Were Slaves or A Search For Truth
The first of these two titles is more appropriate for the novel which has an epic theme.
It is obviously a well-researched work of literature which deals adequately as well as
convincingly on the subject of African ancestry and slavery.
The setting for most of the novel is Trinidad, but the earliest chapters or Part One are set in Ile-Ife, Nigeria around 1798. The author has obviously taken great pains to convey African village life, customs and language realistically, and the reader is given a glossary. The narrative technique is very successful in conveying the rich fabric of life of the African villagers prior to the coming of the white man.
Ile-Ife is one of the many African villages with internal leadership. The Oba Oyedele is about to pass on leadership to one of his sons when the narrative begins. He has two sons: one is Akinjiya, the hero of the narrative, and the other is Olote (whose name is translated in the glossary as Judas). Olote, through the influence of his evil, jealous mother seeks to punish both his father and his heir elect, Akinjiya, for slighting him in the selection process. They are plotting unknown to Akinjiya, who in spite of the medicine man's warning on Mount Arira, is pursuing his youthful pastimes, which include his courtship of "dudu gan"Elewa.
The element of foreboding is present from the opening pages, which tell of Akinjiya and his friend Akinkanju (the brave one), climbing sacred Arira, the abode of the Gods. They come upon a medicine man who explains that in his water-bowl he sees: "only war and destruction, treachery and murder. Evil has arrived in the holy land."
Akinjiya and Akinkanju at seventeen, have every reason to be sceptical about the medicine man. They live in a thriving African community. The author tells us that Ile-Ife conducted a flourishing commerce at this time, and had for a long period produced a surplus of fine goods. They were united by their religion and their communal lifestyle. Religion was the code they lived by. Rules were determined by the ancestors and elders. So too was the question of succession. It was supposed that Olodumare had already 'set down' the direction of each person's life, and that could not be changed. In Akinjiya's village, no household was without a shrine devoted to the respective deity. In addition, rural villages and tribes enjoyed healthy rivalry indulging in pastimes like wrestling (Gidigbo) which, "had been the custom of their ancestors, and of their fathers and they felt proud to emulate their traditions (P. 26). The market place was the centre of village life. It was the place where relationships were formed and secrets divulged." They were hospitable for we are told that they welcomed strangers, including the Whiteman. Even refugees fleeing the Jihad from the Oyo Empire were allowed to keep their religion.
All of this was at first threatened and then destroyed by the white man. Whether he came as a missionary or as a slave-agent (oyinbo) the white man's purpose was the same - to divide Africa by encouraging treachery and disloyalty among the tribes, thus making it easier for his religion to gain control. Early in the novel we hear of the Oyinbo who lives on the coast: the white man who 'walks with his weapon of death'. 'who is cunning 'beyond the Gods' and who is inciting the villagers against each other. Soon the Africans are warring against each other, "all in order to trade their people for the white man's guns, iron bars, and pots and pans."
Akinjiya's village is destroyed and his people enslaved because Olote did not really understand the white man's motives. Denied succession, Olote merely wanted to remove those who might oppose his rule, but the chief Oyinbo wanted slaves. He had paid Olote with cowries. So Olote too is betrayed by the white man as he is killed along with other villagers in a savage display of the white man's force. The white man's greed and religion plunged all Africa into Civil Wars:
"the white man had set up their own kings and the
religion of Christianity divided the people." (p. 295).
This brief summary of Part One in no way conveys the richness of the description, the skill at developing character and the convincing dialogue which makes it worthy of print. So authentic has been the use of African names and dialect that the reader is unaware that the novelist intends to develop a West Indian theme.
This theme is not developed until the seventh chapter of Part Two. However, by means of contrast the author introduces us to the white man in his own world. The white colonials are at first located in Bristol. Ironically, they begin as champions of the cause of Abolition. Young Phillip Miller is a member of an anti-slavery group, but despises niggers. He is sent out to the plantation by his father who believes 'the plantation teaches a lesson'. Phillip, you see does not share the wisdom of the elder James who admits:
"I would have been a fisherman and Bristol a fishing
village if it were not for sugar ... What is irksome to
me is the blindness of the Abolitionists, who fail to
see not only the contribution of shipbuilding to the
nation as a whole, but the dire consequences of
putting an end to the slave trade".
So young Phillip takes his younger wife Elizabeth (a royal pun intended?) and sails for the new world where he becomes "King of the Niggers". At first Phillip's moral scruples merely prevents him from copulating with the slaves. He believed that indulging in 'black flesh' corrupted one's conscience! However, when he comes to realize that ultimate power means power over body and soul, he relinquishes his scruples. He would savagely beat and rape his female slaves at the same time. This is when he introduced the slaves to Christianity. It is the African who best express what Christianity meant to the whites:
"They had whipped their God and nailed him to two or
three trunks so that he would die slowly. While murdering
their God, someone had seized a spear and pierced his ribs;
and the God's blood pardoned all the white man's crimes
in the world." (p. 146).
The white man's God had also preached "Love those that hate you", so that slaves were encouraged to love their masters. However, the slaves had also been told that the white man's God had "created all men equal in its own image", an idea contradicted by the white man's greed and cruelty. In the course of the narrative the slaves show themselves to be morally superior even if judged by the Christian God's standards. For one thing, the white man physically and mentally abuses the slaves. Men are beaten into fear and submission and women are treated as animals. Yet they never degenerate morally as the white characters do. Phillip's wife, Elizabeth, is the essence of probity when she comes out to the colony. In time, she too gives in to savage, physical desire. Phillip at the same time is keeping a white woman, Claudine, and sexually abusing female slaves.
In the course of the narrative Phillip makes his fortune and returns to England, where he could enjoy his plunder, but not before ensuring that his son is taught the same cruelty. He is taught that he is superior in, 'intelligence, physique and civilization' to the black nigger. He is also taught how to assert this. Therefore, when slavery is abolished the whites will still keep their superiority over the black African by perpetrating racial myths. The Africans, of course, are powerless against the white man's might, but at least they are conscious of how the myth of black inferiority is perpetrated:
"He would be returning to live among the elders in his
land, there to train his son to seize the property of
Africans and other races." (p. 251)
Indeed the Emancipation Bill is passed but planters do their best to extract all the slaves had to offer in terms of labour. In the period of apprenticeship:
"slaves were to continue to labour for another six to
twelve years, and were never to own sufficient land
so as to find themselves in competition with their
The white man's character deteriorates in the novel while the black man's develops in spite of his condition of enslavement. The harshness of slavery is readily conveyed. Mention is made of the planters deliberately ignoring any existing slave code. The African is at first dejected and acquiescent. "They had hoped that it would have been as humane as African slavery", but having endured and survived the rigours and humiliation of the Middle Passage, they arrive in the colony deprived of their 'ori' or soul: "Each lamented to himself and his group: they lamented for their homes and their bereaved and dead families left behind". Some thought of rebellion, but the experienced plantation slaves warned that, "Here the white man with his land, money and superior weapons beat the slaves into physical and mental deformity. Akinjiya "who was a pillar of strength and perfection survived by moulding his body into cold steel" but this also "warped his inside".
The slaves, however, struggle to salvage some of their past. They held firm to their religious beliefs and found comfort in the 'bata' drum and the dance. The latter becomes a medium for cohesion among the tribes. They see their families torn apart and their women taken away and abused. As Akinjiya's son Ominira learns: "Slavery did not allow for happiness". Ominira is separated from his parents for some fourteen years. During this time the Emancipation Bill is passed; the slaves become restless and rebellious. They no longer settle for peaceful submission, but challenge the plan of apprenticeship which virtually enslaved them to the white man for another twelve years.
Aknijiya eventually leads the freed slaves off the plantations and into the streets of Port-of-Spain, seeking a new life. Of course, they are held up to ridicule by the white officials and denied every chance of altering the course of their lives. However, at the end of the novel Ominira's daughter is married to a teacher.
The narrative method is entirely successful. There is a careful blend of historical accuracy and imaginative insight. This along with the author's descriptive powers make for excellent reading. There are several descriptive passages, for example, the description of tropical weather:
"The rains came early that season and as July extended
the winds accompanied with an unusual fury. Overhead the
sky turned dark grey as clouds rumbled and amassed on one
another, and when it poured, the anger of the wind
uprooted several large trees. Even the dark night became
alive with the bursts of cracking thunder and the threats
of forked lightning". Slaves huddled themselves in the
barracks and their huts, wondering if the elements did
not wish to see them free." (p. 239).
Then there is the descriptive passage in which Akinjiya bears striking resemblance to Lear in the Storm laughing and welcoming the elemental fury:
"Akinjiya was suddenly laughing, laughing with an inside
gladness he could never understand nor control". (p.279).
On freedom day all of nature appears to share the slave's euphoria as they:
"began to see the world of Nature with another eye.
There was freedom in the green and healthy trees, in the
air and in the land. Freedom in the mind and thought". (p. 281)
The manuscript is very worthy of publication. Its most positive quality is the fine blend of historical accuracy and imaginative insight. The techniques of characterization are also very commendable. Both Phillip Miller, the slave master, and Akinjiya, his 'royal' slave are convincingly human types. The story makes for entertaining reading, indeed.