Wednesday 27 June 2018

The Story of the Last Slave

'Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave' was written by Zora Neale Hurston back in the late 1920s and finally published this year. It is the story of Oluale Kossula, also known as Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving member of a group of people shipped as slaves from West Africa in 1860. Though the trading of human beings as possession still continued the importation of new slaves had been banned in 1807. Zora was spent several months visiting Cudjo, getting to know him and learning the background of his life as well as his experience of being enslaved, and the tragedy of his life afterwards. There are several suggestions why the book failed to find a publisher at the time: some sources say it was because the story is told from the perspective of a former slave, using his own words, others because it describes the active involvement of tribal kings in Africa in the capture and selling of slaves. I am having trouble writing the review, because once you start reading around the issue of slavery and its supposed end you begin to feel that the title is a very naive one. This is not the story of the last slave, because as many millions of people today experience the bonds of slavery and slave like working and living conditions as were bought and sold during the era we think of as the Atlantic slave trade

Kossula was taken captive by a neighbouring tribe after an attack on his town and imprisoned in a barracoon  at Ouidah. From there he was one of 110 slaves taken aboard the ship Clotida and then transported to Alabama. He lived as a slave for more than five years before being freed by Union soldiers in 1865. Unable to return to Africa he worked with other former slaves to found their own town, Africatown, where he married and raised a family. One by one their children died leaving Cudjo and Seely to grieve, and by the time he meets Zora he has been living alone for many years, though with a daughter-in-law and some grandchildren living nearby. After being injured by a train and unable to work he became a church sexton and was also provided with some financial support by Charlotte Mason who sponsored Zora's research into his life story. He became a well known story teller and was interviewed many time about his life both in Africa and in America. 

The book is a very matter of fact account of his life, he does not waste his time wanting what is not possible and is often grateful for the decent treatment that he sometimes receives, and especially for his freedom. He does not relate anything startling or unusual, and Zora describes a life spent caring for his family and taking care of his house and garden. It is the very ordinariness that is its charm; he was one of millions, and to know his story is to know something of theirs too. Two quotes from the very brief chapter about his enslavement, one describing the work, and the other his freedom:

 "Oh, Lor'! I workee so hard! every landing, you unnerstand me, I tote wood on de boat. Dey have de freight, you unnerstand me, and we have to tote dat, too. Oh Lor'! I so tired. No sleepee. De boat leak and we pumpee so hard! Dey ain' got no railing on de boat and in de night time if you doan watchee close you fall overboard and drown yo'self. Oh Lor'! I 'preciate dey free me.
Every time de boat stopee at de landing, you unnerstand me, de overseer, de whippin' boss, he go down de gangplank and standee on de ground. De whip stickee in his belt. He holler, 'Hurry up, dere, you! Runnee fast! Can't you runner no faster dan dat? You ain't got 'nough load! Hurry up!' He cutee you wid de whip if you ain' run fast 'nough to please him. If you doan git a big load, he hitee you too. Oh, Lor'! Oh, Lor'! Five year and de six months I slave. I workee so hard!" (p.60-61)

"Know how we gittee free? Cudjo tellee you dat. De boat I on, it in de Mobile. We all on dere to go in de Montgomery, but Cap'n Jim Meaher, he not on de boat dat day. Cudjo doan know (why). I doan forgit. It April 12, 1865.  De Yankee soldiers dey come down to de boat and eatee de mulberries off de trees close to de boat, you unnerstand me. Den dey see us on de boat and dey say 'Y'all can't stay dere no mo'. You free, you doan b'long to nobody no mo'.' Oh, Lor! I so glad. We astee de soldiers where we goin'? Dey say dey doan know. Dey told us to go where we feel lak goin', we ain' no mo' slave." (p.62-63)

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