I have just finished reading Andrea Levy’s The Long Song for the World Party Reading Challenge for books set in Jamaica and so while I’m finding myself thinking in the style of Miss July’s Jamaican patois, I shall do my very best not to write in it!
I really enjoyed this novel in which we view the abolishing of slavery in Jamaica through the unreliable eyes of Levy’s main character Miss July, interrupted by the odd interjection from July’s son Thomas, who questions her recollections.
Born on a slave plantation and taken away from her mother to become a ‘lady’s maid’ at around nine years old, July is forced to wait hand and foot on her ‘Missus’, Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantation owner John Howarth. Caroline soon becomes almost entirely dependent on July, and the relationship between the two of them is one of the main strands of the novel.
It is when July is in her late teens that the plantation’s slaves start smelling the whiff of freedom, but it is still many years before emancipation, and the road there is far from smooth.
As is inevitable in any book about slavery, this novel is confronting. And at times it is almost unbearable to witness the attitudes of the plantation owners.
In one scene, Howarth is showing off the strength of his slave Kitty to Caroline.
“Show your mistress your legs,” (Howarth says to Kitty)
Kitty did not move.
“Lift up your skirt and show her your legs.”
When Kitty still did not take heed of his command he huffed,”Oh, good God,” before grabbing the worn cloth of Kitty’s skirt and raising it almost to her waist. Kitty turned her head to one side as John Howarth beckoned his sister. He commenced rubbing his hand up and down Kitty’s leg saying, “Come and feel the muscles.”
This is not the worst example of the liberties whites took with the bodies of their slaves, but it does reveal the casual indifference they had towards them – treating them as nothing more than livestock.
There is no gloss to be seen in Levy’s account of daily life on the plantation – from the birth of children to the reality of daily ablutions, the raw physical nature of plantation life is revealed in all its glory. Here are just a couple of examples:
“But Kitty did at that moment fall upon her knees and, with her heavy belly brushing the dirt floor, crawl upon the mat. Soon the trash, which was the substance of her mattress, was soaked through with Kitty’s sweat – it squelched underneath her as she writhed, tormented, for some position that might ease her pain.”
“One–wearing a bright-red madras kerchief upon her head and an apron at her waist that was so splattered with stains it did appear like a map — was chewing upon something with her mouth agape. Another picked at the contents of her nose, wiping it upon the filthy rag of her skirt as she angled her head awkwardly so she might better see through an eye that was bruised-bloody, swollen and half closed.”
All the worst of human physicality is proudly displayed in this novel – and it is not for the squeamish!
But despite being in a novel which appears to be coated in sweat and grime, July emerges as a truly irrepressible character. She is mischievous and feisty, intelligent and quick-witted and her ability to outfox her lazy, dim mistress is true entertainment.
The Baptist War
While Levy moves through various time periods, it is the lead up to and the years following the abolishing of slavery in the British Empire which hold the most interest for me.
There is very little historical fact and background included in the novel itself because as July points out, without the benefits of modern communications, she really didn’t know what was going on around the island throughout such pivotal events. Referring to the telephone she says “If there was such an invention at the time of this Baptist War (as my son does name it), then I am sure I would have known what was going on everywhere at one time. But there was not.”
So, as July is unable to furnish us with the facts, here’s what I have been able to find out.
The Baptist War of Christmas 1831 was an uprising which saw as many as 60,000 slaves mobilised. It had begun as a general strike but soon became a fully-fledged rebellion lasting 10 days. Led by the Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe the uprising was soon repressed by the plantation owners and Sharpe was hanged. Around 500 slaves were killed during the revolt or executed afterwards.
Statue of Samuel Sharpe in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Image by Pozole via Wikimedia Commons
But while the rebellion was unsuccessful, it is thought to have contributed to the call for emancipation, which finally came in 1938.
For July and her fellow slaves, this period is filled with much uncertainty, and it is heartbreaking to witness these promises of freedom being routinely dashed. And even when the slave-trade is completely abolished, things do not necessarily improve – the rules are all gone, and plantations are not obligated to hire or house the people who have worked their lands for generations. The former slaves do not emerge into a level playing field.
It is distressing to realise how deeply the arrogance and contempt of the white plantation owners ran both before and after abolition. Even apparently ‘enlightened’ characters are unable to contemplate a world in which the former slaves might have their own ideas, ambitions and abilities – and in fact do all they can to crush their entrepreneurial spirit.
New life for Falmouth?
The novel is set in Falmouth on Jamaica’s north coast; it had one of the busiest ports on the island and was central to the slave trade. With nearly a hundred plantations producing sugar and rum, Falmouth was wealthy and vibrant during its heyday with as many as 30 ships in the harbour on any given day.
But with the end of slavery, the town suffered a rapid decline. This has left at least one positive legacy. With a lack of development over the years, many of Falmouth’s original buildings are still standing, making it one of the best preserved Georgian towns in the Caribbean.
Falmouth has recently experienced a resurgence, as cruise companies realise its potential both for historical tourism and as a landing point for those wishing to visit Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. In fact one such cruise liner has spearheaded the building of a new port, which it is hoped will bring much needed commercial activity to the town. As with all projects such as this there is some controversy, but those behind it say it will be sensitive to the historic nature of the town. If anyone has been to Falmouth recently, I would love to hear your thoughts on this…I understand it is still very much a work in progress.
In so many ways this is a heart-breaking novel and reminds us that it often takes generations before real change is made. And even when it does, there are new sets of problems; the legacy of what has come before. But despite the dark history being told here, Levy’s (and July’s) narration manages to pick out the light moments and give us plenty to smile about along the way.
On finishing this novel I couldn’t help but think how much I’d love to sit down with Miss July to share a cup of tea and some of her finest naseberry preserve – and have her tell me some more of her marvellous stories. Of course, I know Miss July has a habit of bending the truth from time to time, but I think I can live with that!
P.S. Have you read The Long Song? Have you ever been to Falmouth? Let us know in the comments what you thought….
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.