A Story with Water

Tonight I finished Emma Langdon Roche’s Historic Sketches of the South (1916). Roche’s position toward her subject—slavery in Alabama—is doubtless problematic. On the one hand, she shows surprising sympathy and respect for the survivors of the Clotilde, the last slave ship to come to America, and yet she also goes to great pains to note the complicity of Northern colonists and the English in the American slave trade (“In fact the English, including therein the colonists of New England, became more extensively engaged in the [slave] traffic than all other slave-trading European nations combined” p.8) and suggests throughout the book that slaves conditions and opportunities improved greatly in their contact with whites.

The book nonetheless offers up valuable stories of Tarkars brought to Mobile on the Clotilde–repeatedly emphasizing how they longed to return home. Roche rarely addresses and never satisfactorily resolves the contradiction between her claims that the Tarkars have benefited from their forced immigration to America and their undying wish to return home. Following their wishes, she uses their Tarkar names rather than their American names (for instance, Kazoola rather than Cudjoe Lewis), as the Tarkars hope that through her book “these names might drift back to their native home, where some might remember them” (121), but she always returns to their gratitude to God whenever the subject comes up. Roche merely claims that Kazoola and the others, however much they might want to return home, are grateful that they were able to stay together and form a community and that they are very proud of their conversions to Christianity. She seems to suggest that their gratitude for having survived the Middle Passage and being able to maintain their own community in Africa Town balances their sorrow at having been captured, transported to a foreign land, and been enslaved.  In a late chapter in which Roche relates a number of small stories and parables by Kazoola, she includes a remarkable passage about Kazoola’s first encounter with the sea that ends with Kazoola’s thanking God:

Though Kazoola has an intense longing for home, he regards his advent to America as a part of the goodness of God and enjoys telling how after Foster [captain of the Clotilde] had bought him at Whydah, he was sold by one of Dahomey‘s men and hidden under the white house. Urged by an innate curiosity about the mechanism of things, he stole from his hiding-place and climbed upon the stockade fence; “I hear the noise of the sea on shore, an’ I wanta see what maka dat noise, an’ how dat water worka—how it fell on shore an’ went back again. I saw some of my people in a little boat and I holler to them. Then Foster spied me, an’ he say, ‘Oh hee! Oh hee!’ an’ pulla me down. An’ I was the last to go. Supposy I been lef’ behind–what become of Kazoola? Or supposy de ship turna over, an’ de sharks eat us. Oh Lor’! God is good!” (114-115).

What an arresting story: “I hear the noise of the sea on shore, an’ I wanta see what maka dat noise, an’ how dat water worka—how it fell on shore an’ went back again.”

How that water works. That is a place to write from.

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