Johnson's Dictionary
Winner of the 2014 Guyana Prize for Fiction, Johnson's Dictionary is set variously in 18th century London and Demerara in British Guiana. It is a celebration of the skills of the enslaved as organisers, story-tellers, artists and mathematicians, hidden in the main from their white masters and mistresses, that is resonant with an undying human urge for freedom.
David Dabydeen
ISBN number
Historical fiction
Fiction, Novel
Country setting
United Kingdom
Publication date
29 Jul 2013

Galley, gallery, gallimaufry: In a novel set in 18th century London and Demerara (in British Guiana), that might be dreamed or remembered by Manu, a revenant from Dabydeen’s epic poem, “Turner”, we meet slaves, lowly women on the make, lustful overseers, sodomites and pious Jews – characters who have somehow come alive from engravings by Hogarth and others.

Hogarth himself turns up as a drunkard official artist in Demerara, from whom the slave Cato steals his skills and discovers a way of remaking his world.

The transforming power of words is what enlightens Francis when his kindly (or possibly pederastic) master gifts him a copy of Johnson’s Dictionary, whilst the idiot savant, known as Mmadboy, reveals the uncanny mathematical skills that enable him to beat Adam Smith to the discovery of the laws of capital accumulation – and teach his fellow slaves their true financial worth. 

From the dens of sexual specialities where the ex-slave Francis conducts a highly popular flagellant mission to cure his clients of their man-love (and preach abolition), to the sugar estates of Demerara, Dabydeen’s novel revels in the connections of Empire, Art, Literature and human desire in ways that are comic, salutary and redemptive.


David Dabydeen

David Dabydeen was born on a sugar estate in Berbice, Guyana in 1957.
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