Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  


Richard Adams

  © 2014 Richard Adams

  Richard Adams has asserted his rights in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

  Published by Watership Down Enterprises

  First published in eBook format in 2014

  ISBN: 978-1-78301-588-7

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the Publisher.

  All names, characters, places, organisations, businesses and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  eBook Conversion by


  “I acknowledge with gratitude the help I have received from Professor David Richardson, University of Hull, and from Mitch Upfold, and from my secretary, Mrs Liz Aydon.”






  Richard Adams


  To Juliet, with much love from Dad


  In the half-lit, foetid shack the new-born baby, slippery with blood and with part of the caul adhering to its head, was received by grimy hands and laid down, wauling, among the rubbish on the earth floor — vegetable peelings, a rag damp with dirty water, a few crushed insects, an old, shredded blanket, and the entrails of a drawn fowl.

  From outside came faint sounds of splashing in the trench that ran the length of the hovels’ backs, where a boy was stabbing with a pointed stick at the floating body of a rat. From further off sounded, for a moment or two in the still air, the falling twitter of a gaze-finch perched on a clump of laurels. Nearby, a tethered horse continually tossed its head, tormented by the flies. In the blazing, noonday sunshine, a sudden gust of wind stirred the glossy laurel leaves and slammed to and fro the shack’s broken shutters, banging them against the unglazed window frames.

  On the floor where the baby had been born, black bodies, both men’s and women’s, lay this way and that; mostly alive, and a few dead, while some, blinking and twitching, might have been either dying or recovering, there being no one near enough to tell which; or care, for the matter of that. Some backs and shoulders were marked with weals of whipping – good for the flies, these — while others, sweating and unscarred, shone smooth as the laurels.

  The baby wauled again, an angry, frustrated cry. The same dirty hands picked him up and dandled him back and forth for a few moments.

  ‘Ay boom-a-boom, Ay boom-a-boom, baby.

  “Dis baby gwine to live, gwine to live, boom-a-boom.”

  “How you tell? Mostly dey dies. You knows dat.”

  “Ay boom-a-boom, Ay boom-a-boom” – pause.

  Then, “Hey, Missus Mudder, here he is, yore baby boy. You take him now.”

  Speechlessly, straining, the mother half-raised her gaunt body, bending forward clumsily; her skeletal arms took the baby and pressed his mouth to a dry nipple. She wept, trembling. One of the two women beside her was just in time to snatch the baby as the mother fell backwards.

  “No milk?” The other woman nodded corroboratively and then called, “Sam! You Sam!”

  Outside a boy, aged perhaps eight, came running, pressed his shoulder against the door which grated across the threshold, stepped over one body, then another and took the baby as the first woman held it out to him.

  “You Sam, you knows Missus Ethel?” (She pronounced it “Heffle”.)

  He nodded, wiping the baby’s sticky body with an open hand.

  “Know where she at?”

  He nodded. “She work, dey all workin’ tobacco.”

  “You take baby. Ax Massa Janny, say O.K. she give the baby milk.”

  “Miz Heffle gettin’ milk?”

  “Ay does she.” The woman gestured impatiently. “Go ’long now.”

  Sam spat on the floor, split his black face in a grin of white teeth and was gone.

  Outside, among the short shadows, the boy in the trench had succeeded in spearing the dead rat and waved it triumphantly at Sam as he jumped across. Sam paused.

  “Gwine eatim?”

  “Cookim. Beamy Boy gettin’ fire dis evenin’, let me cookim.”

  “No eatim now?”

  “Beamy Boy got knife. ’E skin ’im, cut off no-good bits. Den cookim ’e good.”

  Sam nodded and began pushing himself a short cut through the laurels in the direction of the dirt path leading to the tobacco fields. The boy shouted after him, “Snake in dere!”

  “Fuck snake.”

  “Maybe snake fuck you.”

  Without replying, Sam dragged himself forward, clutching at the laurels, and at length emerged on the open path. From here he could see the tobacco fields and the long line of slaves, each with a wicker basket on his arm, stooping to tug at a bush, then straighten up and drop his handful into the basket. They worked deftly, with a weary, practised skill.

  The baby was still crying; a good sign, thought Sam. He splashed into a narrow stream, stooped to drink, and then began to run towards the white overseer, hoping to give the impression that he had run all the way. As he came up, the overseer turned to face him, one hand on the leather whip at his belt.

  “Whose baby is this?”

  “Miz Barb Brown baby, Massa.”

  “She still alive?”

  “’Tink so, Massa. Only she sick very bad. No got milk. Missus Kathy at infirm’ry, she tell me tote baby ‘ere, say Miz Heffle got plenty milk.” He fidgeted with his bare feet. “I go now and ax her, Massa?”

  The overseer made no reply. He took the baby from Sam, silenced it by giving it a finger to suck and then turned it round and upside down, examining it from all sides.

  “’E big fine baby, Massa Janny, sir! He gwine make you damn’ good nigger.”

  Johnny nodded, returning the baby.

  “O.K., you take him to Missus Ethel. Not take too long time, tell her.” Again he put his hand on the whip.

  “When baby finish feed, Massa, I take ,im back ome?”

  “No, he’ll sleep. You keep him in the shade, under those trees.”

  He pointed. “I’ll tell you later when Miss Ethel’s to feed him again. You watch baby and you work, see? You know how to plait thin sticks for baskets?”

  “Yes, Massa.”

  “There’s a pile of thin sticks under the trees. If I see you not working, I’ll whip you, understand?”

  “Yes, Massa.”

  Sam carried the baby to Miss Ethel in the line. She saw him coming and, guessing the nature of his errand (to which she was not unused), put down her basket and opened her torn, dirty blouse. No other slaves stopped working.

  “Massa Janny, he say O.K. for milk?” She grinned.

  “He say you milk not too long. Den I keep him here for next time milk.”

  Miss Ethel put the baby to her breast. “Massa Janny must reckon baby make damn’ good nigger, else he not say do dis.”

  A sudden thought struck her. “Who mudder?”

  “Miz Barb Brown.”

  Ethel stared, wide-eyed. “She not near time. Baby come too quick?”

  “Not know, Missus.”

  “No one tell you?”

  “No, Missus.”

  The sweat stood on Ethel’s forehead and across he
r broad face. Great drops ran down her breasts in runnels and fell to the ground. There was a long pause, as though the heat had struck them both voiceless. Finally, as though with an effort, Ethel said, “Miz Barb Brown – she die?”

  “Not know, Missus. But she lookin’ terrible bad.”

  The silence returned, until the overseer shouted angrily across to them. “Ethel, if you don’t want a damn’ good whipping, you get back to work.”

  Sam took the baby, asleep now, and carried him across to the dark shade under the trees. Here he found two stacks of wide, flat baskets, covered with cloths; the slaves’ evening meal.

  There was a smell of warm, ground maize. Sam’s mouth began to water. Looking carefully all about him and making sure of a tree trunk between himself and the overseer, he pushed his fingers under the nearest cloth, drew them back covered with maize mash and quickly sucked them clean. Then, making a show of searching here and there for the best spot, he laid the naked baby in a hollow in the thin grass, picked up a handful of withies from the nearby pile and set to work plaiting, only pausing now and then to brush away the flies.

  * * *

  Baby, Thou Child of Joy! My heart is at your festival. It is only a few hours since your sleep and your forgetting. Before, you were one and indivisible with God, in that imperial palace whence you came to us, trailing clouds of glory. Those clouds are still about you. They envelop you; my eyes cannot pierce them. I see only the clouds and must believe that you lie at their heart.

  What are these trailing clouds, Baby, lingering, leaving their traces, their wisps from the centuries behind as you are pressed helplessly forward, drawn second by second into your life, your indiscernible future? Among them, as they momentarily part, are revealed glimpses of what once comprised reality — all manner of folk, creatures and material things inhabitant of the past; your past, Baby, whence you have so newly come.

  Between the clouds for an instant is revealed one Antam Gonsalves, a Portuguese of long ago, a captain who captured some Moors and was ordered by Prince Henry the Navigator to return them to Africa. In exchange he received not only gold but also ten black men. They, as it turned out, were forerunners. Portuguese forts sprang up along the coast of Africa, whence consignments of blacks were brought into Spain and Portugal, the nucleus of a new trade to the western colonies, where many were set to work in the mines.

  The clouds merge, the disclosure vanishes. Baby, we peer into thick darkness. Some huge, amorphous bulk is coming to birth, obscene and vile, dispersing the clouds, blotting out all but itself.

  O Cruelty, impregnable, all-conquering, be thou adored for ever! Already we had perceived thine envoys here and there about the world; but they were mere trifles. How could we have conceived of Thee? O Evil supreme, now Thou art come Thyself! In thy train follow Agony, Grief and Misery omnipotent! Nothing so vast, nothing on Thy scale was ever known in the world until now. By what Name are we to worship Thy divinity? By what Name shall we adore Thee?


  Ah, Master, by Thee we know now that Socrates was a fool, Marcus Aurelius a dunce, Jesus Christ a trickster and a liar. No man can serve two masters.


  The clouds roll together once more: we can no longer see Thee whole, but we can hear Thee, O Master. Those are Thy flames roaring through ransacked villages, Thy mothers bereft, Thy silly, defenceless victims screaming, Thy whips striking home.

  And those are our ships, fit to sink with gold, O generous Lord, their prows indistinct once more in the clouds, but visible enough to us, Thy faithful followers. They are our reward for serving Thee.

  * * *

  My real mother died when I was born – in the year 1759 – and from all that I was ever told, I’d probably have been left to die too if it hadn’t been for Missus Kathy taking a fancy to me when I was nothing but a new-born baby. Missus Kathy was a nurse — or what they called a nurse — in the slaves’ infirmary on the estate. It seems that my poor mother — Miss Barb Brown she was called – was ill and weak even before she bore me, and Missus Kathy, who delivered me, was much surprised when she saw that I was such a fine, healthy baby. Slave babies without mothers were mostly left to die, and probably, as I say. I’d have died myself without Missus Kathy. She was a good, kind-hearted lady.

  Missus Kathy’s abode – she always called it that and wouldn’t let any of us call it anything else – was a wooden hut like all the others, just a short way from the infirmary. No doctor, no trained nurses, hardly any beds; just a few good souls like Missus Kathy who were ready to do what they could to help. Of course the white men, Massa Reynolds and his two grown sons, never gave her any money for what she did, but all the same she got some good of it, because if it hadn’t a’ been for her being “on infirm’ry”, as they called it, she’d have been in one of the labour gangs working on the tobacco, out on the plantation. A lot of niggers didn’t last long at that. “Field niggers”, as they were called, were roused at first light and worked till midday. Then they got the first meal of the day, and what they got was ground maize. Then they worked till sunset, when they got their second meal of maize and apples. They only got the apples to stop them getting scurvy and to clean out their bowels and that. There were plenty of women field niggers as well as men. The huts where they lived were always dirty, stinking and full of rubbish – terrible places, really – because after a day’s work they were too tired to clean them, and anyway most slaves didn’t care whether their huts were clean or not. They’d never lived any different.

  Missus Kathy always kept our abode clean. She made us help with cleaning it, too, and wouldn’t let us act untidy with our clothes or leave rubbish on the floor. It was an earth floor, of course, like all the others, but the way Missus Kathy went on you’d have thought it was polished parquetry.

  I dare say that if you’ve followed me this far, you’re puzzled that here’s a plain nigger talking to you like he was an educated man. Well, just stick around – that’s to say if you want to – and you’ll learn how this came about.

  Missus Kathy was forever rubbing it into us that we were what she called “a family” and a good cut above the harum-scarum niggers who lived all over the estate like a bunch of cockroaches. For one thing, we had a father; or anyway she had a husband, kind of style. Who my “real” father was I never had any notion and didn’t care either. Precious few niggers knew who their fathers were. If anyone said “That man’s my brother”, the next question he got was “Same father, same mother?” If he said “Yes”, he could pass for respectable. If he said “Same mother, different father”, that was tidy. But “Same father, different mother” was no relationship at all, and you let him know he’d have done better to keep his mouth shut in the first place.

  I always kept mine shut, for of course I couldn’t boast of any real parents at all, but for practical purposes we had got a father, and a good ‘un, too. His name was Josh and he most certainly wasn’t a cockroach. He had a regular, skilled job in the stables, looking after the white men’s horses. There were seven or eight of them altogether, known as “grooms”. And you’d better believe it when I tell you that the white men chose the grooms carefully and set a lot of store by them, because for the most part precious few niggers knew anything about horses. No experience, you see.

  Taken altogether, there were about as many skilled workers on the estate as there were field niggers: bakers, tinkers, leather-workers, cobblers, tailors, blacksmiths, coopers and so on. In fact, not counting the profits from the sales of tobacco, the estate was just about self-supporting. And it was self-supporting for population, too. Our women had plenty of babies and there were always children old enough to work. They started work when they were six; toting water, picking up trash and so on. I don’t remember that we ever needed to buy slaves straight off the ships. Just as well, too, because new slaves were that ignorant they were useless even when they’d been whi
pped; and quite a few just used to lie down and die.

  But to go back to our father. I never really got to know anything about Josh; I mean, where he’d come from or whether he’d grown up on the estate; how he’d come to know so much about horses and horsemanship (for he could ride as well as any white man and better than most) and how he knew such a lot about sick horses and doctoring them. Massa Reynolds thought highly of him and often used to take him along when he went to horse sales or to meet someone who was offering a horse for sale. Josh was even allowed to ride by himself into the nearby town to do errands for Massa Reynolds and his family.

  One thing Josh never thought of trying to do was to get a better abode for Missus Kathy and our family. He told Missus Kathy – and I was there when he told her – that he somehow felt in his bones, as he put it, that Massa Reynolds didn’t like the notion of him having a wife and family. He didn’t want to know that Josh had a finger in any pie except himself and the horses. Josh told Missus Kathy that he couldn’t say how he knew, but he was sure that if he said anything to Massa Reynolds about her or about us children, he’d fall out of favour and probably lose his position. And Missus Kathy accepted this, partly because she knew that Josh loved her and never even looked at another woman, and partly because he brought home so many “perks” as he called them: lamb and pork, baskets of eggs, butter and cheese and the like, which Massa Reynolds used to give him whenever he worked extra long hours; and sometimes when Josh had given him good advice about a sale or a purchase or about a winner at the local races and all such things as that. For Josh got to learn inside talk from black grooms in other stables; things that white men didn’t usually get to hear at all. He used to say to Missus Kathy that we had a fine position on the estate and we should always take care not to do anything to spoil it.

  I was the one who stepped out of line, though I never knew — never have known — what happened to the family, or whether anything did. But I tell you, I still wouldn’t act any different now from what I did.