Claudia Gualtieri
 
SAM'S STORY: A SLAVE NARRATIVE IN PIDGIN ENGLISH IN G. A. HENTY'S BY SHEER PLUCK: A TALE OF THE ASHANTI WAR (1884)
 
 
 
 

George A. Henty's career as a writer of the Empire was very successful. He wrote more than a hundred volumes of fiction between 1868 and 1904 1. In 1874, the year of the defeat of the Ashanti by the British, he went to the Ashanti territory in West Africa following a British military expedition commanded by Sir Garnet Wolseley and drew inspiration for his adventure tales from his travelling. By Sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti War (1884) partly reports this experience.

Henty's writing was, and is, well-known as typically colonial. As Fredric Jameson argues in The Political Unconscious as regards the historical constraints which affect the production and reception of any literary work in different times, in empire writing the ideological perspective from which facts were apprehended greatly influenced their representation. Also, how books about the Empire were received and used in colonial times attests to the pervasiveness and dominance of colonial discourse in that time. Illuminating studies have investigated how colonial ideas were supported and distributed through propaganda at the time of the British Empire. A number of critical studies have also pointed out that travel writings of the Empire show many common characteristics as regards their style and structure: they are based on a (pseudo) scientific framework, proclaim masculine and class-biased ideas, and are imbued with colonial prejudice. This fiction drew inspiration from imperial resources and became itself a validating discourse within the Empire 2.

With reference to Africa, a vast body of scholarly writing has explored how an image of Africa is forged in colonial writing. This construction contributed to the dissemination and reiteration of colonial stereotypes which in most cases stressed the negative sides of a generalised Africa in contrast with the positive qualities of Britain. The notion of Africa without a history can be detected as a popular colonial convention in Henty's fiction in general and in By Sheer Pluck in particular. As Mudimbe claims in The Idea of Africa, the image of Africa in western thought has been assumed as being a paradigm of difference. But, as Mudimbe goes on to say, this colonial image can be deconstructed by moving beyond a conventional condemnation of colonial discourse on the one side, and a search of pure origin and authenticity on the other side (Mudimbe: 1994, xv-xvi).

Reading By Sheer Pluck as a tale bearing reference to history, this paper will try to adopt Mudimbe's perspective and attempt to conjugate an analysis of conventional colonial images of West Africa with a reading of different kinds of narrative and uses of language in the text. In By Sheer Pluck historical memory could be seen as only single-sided and colonial. The narrator's and the British protagonists' comprehensive surveys of the Ashanti history and wars, and of British colonial campaigns in West Africa, illustrate this by introducing the reader to what appears to be the authoritative history of the Empire. However, other memories are recuperated and narrated which also shed light on ways in which official history is formulated and told in the text. These memories participate in expressing the negotiating power of narratives in that they can be seen, even if understatedly, to offer alternative methodologies of history. These historical memories may be interpreted as participating in deconstructing the colonial convention of Africa without a history not only by shadowing forth other histories which are different from, and unrecognised by official history, but, more importantly, by suggesting that there may be ways of reading an apparently totalising concept of history as less than official and authoritative. From this perspective, Bart Moore-Gilbert's conviction in Writing India when he challenges orthodoxy about Rudyard Kipling's literary work, proves useful here, too. He argues that forms of hybridity and political resistance may be found within colonial discourse in books such as Kipling's which have been traditionally considered imperialist and monologic. In addition, Homi Bhabha's advice in The Location of Culture "to think beyond narratives" as a mode of articulating cultural differences through strategies of representation which may have a fertile terrain in in-between spaces (Bhabha: 1994, 1), will help to look beyond conventional readings of colonial representations of West Africa to find nuances of meaning and different histories. These histories also unravel complex forms of cultural participation even though, as Elleke Boehmer argues in Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, forms of cultural "opacity" and "untranslatability" should be taken into account (Boehmer: 1995, 245).

By Sheer Pluck can be read as constructing a particular version of colonial history, or offering a layering of different historical narratives. In the light of Hayden White's theory of history as a literary artifact, and combined with Fredric Jameson's notion of narrative as a socially symbolic act which focuses on the ways in which history can be formulated and interpreted, we can see how the tale departs from official history and how inserted tales, such as Sam's narrative of his life, are presented as functional to the discourse of the Empire, as either private or fantastical, but not as fundamental. Different levels of historical narrative then unfold in By Sheer Pluck and reveal what Mudimbe calls in The Invention of Africa their "conditions of possibility" (Mudimbe: 1988, 16). In particular, Sam's story of his life as a former slave and then as the chief of his village, can be read as a re-narration of colonial history and can help to illustrate how the official history of the Empire can be read only as a partial account. In the following discussion I have taken history to mean an official and unofficial narration of the past.

By Sheer Pluck is a "tale of the Ashanti war", as the subtitle announces, and is expected to develop in twenty-three chapters, about three hundred and fifty pages, which are the total length of the book. Yet, for the first seven chapters (about a hundred pages), there is no mention of it: what we find is the story of a boy whose life is marked by a number of misfortunes, first, and "heroic" adventures, after. Within the frame of the narrative of Frank's childhood and adventures in West Africa, three major tales are told: the sailor's yarn, the narrator's tale of the Ashanti war which the British protagonists help to complete, and Sam's story of his life. These narratives, in turn, contain other tales as renarrations: Sally's story of her life and slavery which is retold by her husband Sam; Frank's report by gesture to the local people of one of his adventures, which is retold by the narrator; the British travellers' report of their adventures to Sam, the local people's narratives of their exchanges with their neighbours which are retold by the narrator, and a number of slave stories which Sam reports from some slaves he met. These tales self-reflexively work against a traditional representation of history, and enunciate an alternative methodology of narration in telling a story of colonial times. They intersperse the narrative and create its fabric even to the extent that the official history of the Empire can be read as yet another "tale", yet another interpretation of events. A complicated tale of history then develops which includes, though it does not coincide with, the discourse of the Empire which "officially" begins only on page 227.

Renarration very evidently becomes a structuring principle in Sam's story. We find out that he is an educated West African whom the travellers meet in a village far from the coast. Almost three chapters (12, 13, and 14) are dedicated to his narrative in Pidgin English. But the tale is also a renarration of other stories, and speaking is often dramatised within the story: "After dinner white gentleman tell me what they came here for. Me tell dem if they like about my trebels, but dat bery long story" (BSP, 170). Within Sam's narrative of slavery, his wife Sally offers her own tale: "Next day she told me all about it" (BSP, 198). In the shape of a spiral a number of tales fold one into the other &endash; Sally's tale into Sam's tale into the narrator's tale into Henty's.

One reading of Sam's story could focus on the use of colonial stereotypes and on the repetition of the popular clichés of slave narratives in the text. As the chief of his village Sam welcomes the British travellers: "Me chief of dis village. Make you berry comfortable, Sar" (BSP, 168). Speaking Pidgin, Sam obviously speaks an "incorrect" form of English from the colonial point of view 3. This characteristic of his speech is a mark of the "inferiority" of his narrative in comparison to that of the British travellers. However, it is exactly the peculiarity of his language which also signals and makes possible the emergence of different voices in By Sheer Pluck. So Sam's language shows characteristic sound variations (i.e. "d" or "t" in place of "th", "b" in place of "v") and grammatical mistakes together with quite complex and grammatically correct forms, as well as, again the use of racially tainted words &endash; such as "stupid niggers" (BSP, 169) &endash; which, in his speech, connote the degraded condition of West African people before civilisation and Christianisation. Sam, it is true, speaks disparagingly of the village where he was born: "bery dirty and bery poor", and of himself as "I jus' dirty little naked nigger like de rest" (BSP, 171), but his story also tells of the time when he is taken as a slave and brought to America in a terrible journey.

Sam's opinion on the slave trade voices a widespread colonial attitude to the issue in Britain. He condemns African peoples' participation in the business, blames the Spanish &endash; "All bery bad business dat. But Sam he tink nothing. Dey were Spanish men, and de way dey treat us poor niggers was someting awful" (BSP, 172-73) &endash; and celebrates the British: "I had heard from de oder slabes dat de English did not keep black men as slabes, but dat, on the contry, dey did what dey could to stop de Spanish from getting dem away from Africa" (BSP, 178). He also expresses an apology for slavery based on philanthropic ideas which is worth quoting at length:

 

Me trabel a good deal, and me tink dat no working people in de world are so merry and happy as de slabe in a plantation wid a good massa and missy. Dey not work so hard as de white man. Dey have plenty to eat and drink, dey haal deir gardens and deir fowls. When dey are sick dey are taken care ob, when dey are ole dey are looked after and hab noting to do. I have heard people talk a lot of nonsense about de hard life of de plantation slabe. Dat not true, sar, wid a good massa. De slabe hab no care and he bery happy. If all massas were good, and dere were a law dat if a plantation were broken up de slabes must be sold in families together, me tell you dat de life on a plantation a thousand times happier dan de life ob a black man in his own country" (BSP, 185).

 

In a completely different way from Olaudah Equiano's autobiography which opposes colonial ideas by showing the evil of the condition of slavery, and by using subtle irony as a sharp mode of criticism and resistance, Sam seems to speak for the colonisers when he defends some forms of slavery, therefore he indirectly seems to consent to the condition of inferiority in which black people are kept 4. It must be remembered that Sam's story is included in Henty's novel, while Olaudah Equiano speaks for himself in his narrative. However, Equiano's story also contains many clichés of slave narratives, which Sam employs, too.

Since the eighteenth century, native Africans had been writing their own books in English and in Pidgin English, and in the nineteenth century many West African writers published their works in English 5. Henty may well have known about this and used West African writing or an impression thereof to give credibility and a touch of local colour to his story. Like many slave narratives, Sam's story opens with the description of his native village, of his capture, and of a journey to a river. As a popular convention in autobiographical and travel writing by West Africans, the first sight of a river &endash; a boundary &endash; coincides with the first sight of white men. Both are a worrying and unpleasant surprise: "Well, at de mouth ob dat riber Sam saw de white man for de first time; and me tell you fair, sar, Sam not like him no way" (BSP, 172-3). The story develops around other conventions of slave narratives. The wicked condition of slavery is voiced through the image of longed-for death: "We wait in the barracoon wishing dat we could die" (BSP, 173); "For a time I not care whether I libe or die" (BSP, 178). The fear of the whites is expressed through a reversed colonial stereotype of the African as a savage. White men are thought of as cannibals: "We talk dis ober among ourselves, and s'pose dat dey going to eat us when we get to land again" (BSP, 174). Moreover, as Equiano writes in the narrative of his life, the condition of being a slave is often marked by the impossibility of understanding either European languages or the reasons for what is happening: "Den some white men seize me and say someting in a language which I not understand" (BSP, 179). Again, as a popular convention, happiness for the slaves is connected with the minimum which can guarantee survival and limit suffering.

Sam's story moves from exile from his own land, to adoption in Britain, to the redemption (from a colonial point of view) which marks his return to West Africa as a teacher and a chief to his people: again a familiar redemptive pattern. As an exile he says that he had forgotten his own language and was at first hardly accepted by the people of his village (BSP, 199); as an adopted son of the Empire he wants to live in a British colony: "Den I told Sally dat I should like to libe under de British flag" (BSP, 199). And then as a westernised West African he also wants to export civilisation and Christianity using three of the important tools of colonial power: the Bible, muskets, and progress: "'I would come back to Africa and teach dese poor niggers here de ways ob de white men, and sar', and he pointed to a Bible standing on the chest, 'de ways ob de Lord'" (BSP, 199); "Still, de twenty muskets dat I bring make de people of oder villages respect us very much" (BSP, 200). Following a convention well-known in colonial writing, "good" Africans have either noble or European origins, and so make good. Sam goes back to the village where his father was a former chief and becomes the chief himself.

By the time the story has approached the present of the narration, the period of the slave trade has passed, as the chief says, the village is now governed on the British model, and the British lifestyle is imitated. Gardens are well kept and houses have fences (BSP, 200). British culture and religion win out over the local, and the superiority of British civilisation is never under discussion. The needs which civilisation brings about turn the simplicity of the West African world view into something more sophisticated. In the text, British civilisation is always represented at the highest, almost unreachable standard, and the West African chief's story can be seen as an additional device in By Sheer Pluck to illustrate the continuation and consolidation of British imperialism. Through the export of civilisation, religion, weapons, and language, the British Empire creates local political and social units in West Africa which will become, in certain minor respects, similar though never identical to the British model. An example of this attempted mimicry is given in the description of Sam's local house which is surprisingly (for the travellers) furnished in European fashion: "The interior of the hut was comfortably furnished and very clean". Furniture and taste are British: "A great chest stood at one end of the room, while on the shelf were a number of plates and dishes of English manufacture" (BSP, 169). However, efforts to imitate the colonisers prove imperfect: the house is called "hut"; "a sort of divan", "an attempt at a table", and "cheap frames" focus more on difference than on similarity with the British model (BSP, 169). And while wonder is expressed at any successful imitation, disparaging words reflect the British travellers' disappointment at failed mimicry. In the conclusion, the colonial device of the redemption of native-born people is repeated when Ostik, the travellers' local guide and interpreter, wants to follow his "master" Frank to England (but Frank refuses saying that the weather would be too cold for him) (BSP, 352). The colonial fear of racial and cultural mix is avoided in Henty's novel: the tale ends without disrupting the established order.

However, an alternative reading of Sam's story could focus on ways in which the very inclusion in By Sheer Pluck of this long narrative in Pidgin English is significant and potentially disruptive. As a rare example in popular imperial fiction, Sam's story is in "his" language and suggests the emergence of local voices. Sam is very obviously the narrator of his own history. Clearly, as the above discussion has tried to illustrate, Sam's story draws on colonial conventions and contributes to reiterating colonial stereotypes of the African, but it can also be read as a participation in their methods of filling in history and as an appropriation of the colonisers' language by people in the colonies. The inclusion of slave stories in colonial fiction testifies to a form of covert cultural interaction which ambivalently emerges both to sustain colonial stereotyped conventions of the African and also to set up other cultural perspectives from which different histories can be (and will be) narrated.

These modes of appropriation are central to postcolonial theories of history and language. As has been widely discussed in postcolonial theory, the English language, one of the most powerful instruments of colonisation and domination, has been appropriated and so transformed in the ex-colonies. Pidgin forms of English attest powerfully to this process of adaptation. The forms of communication which are in place between colonial travellers and local people change the dynamics of the imperial system from within. As a narrative built on narratives By Sheer Pluck illustrates the intrusion of different histories within the official history. Even more importantly, perhaps, as regards the colonial notion of Africa without a history, Henty's inclusion of Sam's slave narrative in Pidgin English in By Sheer Pluck can be read as an admission that imperial ideology cannot completely control and silence other histories.