Rock of Ages
John Gilmore, The Caribbean Review of Books
Limestone is an ambitious attempt to tell the story of Barbados and its people, by a well-known Bajan writer of poetry and prose fiction, currently resident in the United States. Anthony Kellman begins part one with the original Amerindian inhabitants of the island, driven from their homes by the arrival of the Europeans, and swiftly moves to the arrival, in a Barbados abandoned by the Amerindians, of the first English settlers, who bring with them enslaved Africans and all the horrors of slavery. The story is then taken down to the slave uprising of 1816, usually known after the name of one of its leaders as the Bussa Rebellion. Part two covers the period from the aftermath of slavery and ending of the apprenticeship system in 1838, through the long years when the formerly enslaved and their descendants had to struggle for survival in a system which told them they were now free and equal, but which preserved great disparities of both status and opportunity based on colour and class, to the campaigns for political equality and freedom in the early twentieth century, Independence in 1966, and down to the death of the island’s first prime minister and “Father of Independence,” Errol Barrow, in 1987. The third and final part tells the story of two present-day Bajans, Livingston (who appears to be at least in part an autobiographical figure), and Levinia. Their diasporic wanderings, caused by the lack of career opportunities at home, and their brief meeting back in Barbados, which leads to nothing, suggest the continuance of the problems of the past into the present.
The history centres round a few major figures: Bussa, Samuel Jackman Prescod (the editor of a newspaper tellingly called The Liberal, and the first non-white elected to the Barbados House of Assembly), Clement Payne (the popular leader whose deportation sparked the working-class rebellion of 1937), Grantley Adams (the lawyer who overcame his initial reluctance to defend Payne, and so became the leader of the labour movement, eventually becoming premier of Barbados and the only prime minister of the brief Federation of the West Indies), and Barrow. However, there are other figures who become representative, such as one of the earliest slaves, introduced as Nameless, who has a European name imposed on him as part of the process by which “Here they saw him as less / than a man,” a process which reaches its culmination in the gruesome description of how Nameless, now Simon, is castrated as punishment for having aroused the lust of a white woman. Other, briefer portraits make up a panoramic collage of the lives of ordinary people, such as this one from the nineteenth century:
In the city, Nancy Daniels,
African-born domestic dwells,
head-tied, wrapped in dress and shawl
of silk brocade, makes her daily call
on God, her thick-veined hands clutching
her leather-bound Bible, lifting
her eyes veiled with cataract’s stain
or from seeing too much pain.
A section on the visit of King Jaja of Opobo (in modern Nigeria), who was exiled by the British for his resistance to colonialist expansion, focuses around the well-known Bajan folk song “King Jaja Won’ leh Becka ’lone”. Jaja spent less than two months in Barbados in 1891, but the popular enthusiasm which Kellman describes (with historical accuracy) as greeting the presence of a real African king in Barbados helped to reconnect Bajans with their ancestry. Kellman links the visit to both the past and the future: a bystander sees in Jaja the image of Bussa, and, in true epic fashion, Jaja himself is made to prophesy the glory to be brought to his people by Barrow.
A particularly effective passage traces Bussa’s development as a revolutionary leader and tells the story of the 1816 rebellion against slavery and its swift and bloody defeat. Kellman imagines Bussa’s spirit, on his return to Africa, watching the careful, loving burial of his mortal remains in Barbados, symbolising how his memory and the spirit of resistance will be preserved among those who knew him, and their descendants. The fact that very little can be said with certainty about Bussa himself allows for the exercise of artistic licence, but I did wonder if the same technique works as well when imagining the thought processes, even the dreams, of the more recently dead, such as Adams and Barrow. While we have become accustomed to various forms of docudrama, some readers may feel a little squeamish about the application of authorial omniscience to the ideas and motives of those who were personally known to many still living. The suggestion that Barrow saw himself as another “self” of Adams, the one who took forward a struggle which the older man had become reluctant (for whatever reason) to continue, is something which rings true. More questionable are the thoughts given to Adams as he considers the reluctance of the black masses to trust him:
I had thrust
myself into white arms, destroyed Black
leaders, married an English lass.
It is true that Adams had destroyed the career of the campaigning journalist Clennell Wickham by representing the opposite side in a libel case in 1930, and that in 1937 he at first refused to represent Clement Payne. It is also true that his dealings with the predominantly white class of merchants and planters who controlled so much of Barbados were marked by compromise as well as conflict, as Adams and the Barbados Labour Party which he led gradually eroded their political power (thus paving the way for the more radical politics of Barrow and his Democratic Labour Party). But the suggestion which this passage appears to make, that Adams became a pro-colonialist conservative because he had “married white,” is at odds with historical fact. Far from being “an English lass,” Adams’s wife Grace Thorne was a born and bred Bajan, and while her family had objected to the marriage because of the darkness of Adams’s complexion, she was herself of mixed ancestry.
While Kellman knows his history well, there are a few anachronisms. Taking tea appears in a number of places as a mark of upper-class life (ignoring the long-established fondness of Bajans of all classes for tea-tea, as well as cocoa-tea and coffee-tea!). It was certainly established in Barbados by the mid-eighteenth century, and has a prominent position in John Singleton’s poem A General Description of the West-Indian Islands, published in the island in 1767. However, tea was only introduced into England in the 1660s, and it is perhaps unlikely that a planter’s wife in Barbados would have been “sipping Sunday tea” as early as 1675, as occurs in Kellman’s description of the slave conspiracy of that year. The names of now-obsolete horse-drawn vehicles add period flavour, but I would question the image of Bussa watching “the broughams, / buggies, gigs rolling / gently over the countryside,” and the way in which Kellman has “the planters’ / shining black broughams slow- / wheeling to town” during the seventeenth century, in an earlier passage. The carriage known as the brougham was not given this name — after the Scottish politician Henry, Lord Brougham — until 1838, long after Bussa’s death. In any case, the country roads of Barbados were notoriously bad — the process of improvement only began in the early nineteenth century, before which most cross-country journeys would have been performed on foot or on horseback, rather than in wheeled vehicles of any kind.
Much of the poem is written in short, irregular lines, and rhymed. Like some of Kellman’s other work, this style is inspired by the rhythms of tuk, Barbados’s indigenous music. It is perhaps difficult to sustain this over long passages, and sometimes the results seem flat, or even dangerously close to doggerel. Usually, however, reading aloud will improve the effect considerably, and there are many places where the chosen style makes an excellent match for the subject matter, as in this passage from the description of King Jaja’s arrival:
Four old men, vigour roused with zeal,
pound out praise on instruments of steel,
penny-whistle, snaredrums, bass.
Excitement on each glistening face,
as sweat rolls down with force of war
they knock against white rule’s closed door,
hammering hard to pry open a space
for this king, moving with limping grace
on to the teeming waterfront,
whose presence made their spirits mount.
Both the approach to the entire sweep of the island’s history and the manner in which it is conveyed make Limestone an impressive tour de force. It deserves a wide readership.
This review relates to the book
by Anthony Kellman