Washington Black opens on a Barbados sugar plantation, but it doesn’t stay there. Instead it roams continents, becoming something of an epic in the style of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, about the life and times of George Washington Black, born into slavery and named by his master at the time.
“I was a field nigger. I cleared the cane, only my sweat was of value. I was wielding a hoe at the age of two, and weeding, and collecting fodder for cows, and scooping manure into cane holes with my hands. In my ninth year I was gifted a straw hat and a shovel that I could scarcely lift, and I had felt proud to be counted a man.”
Washington’s fortunes are to change one night when he is ordered to wait at table in the house, where the plantation owner is hosting his brother ‘Titch’, visiting from England to pursue his dream of building something he calls a ‘cloud cutter’ (which sounds like an early hot air balloon). Over dinner Titch talks his brother into lending him a slave to help with his endeavours. In this way Washington becomes Titch’s assistant. Under the man’s tutelage Washington discovers a talent for drawing and learns reading and calculating. The two make a mad escape in the hot air balloon after Titch’s brother demands his slave back. But shortly after, Titch abandons his charge, who, we are reminded, is still only a boy.
And so begins the next part of the adventure. Via an interlude in an arctic research post, Washington ends up making his way alone in Nova Scotia, still not sixteen years of age. Life is tough.
“White men were everywhere aggrieved, and they would sometimes rise up against us black devils, the miserable black scourge who would destroy their livelihood by labouring at cheaper rates.”
With a price on his head, Washington lives in terror of being found by bounty hunters. But his worst fears are never realised, and he lives to see the abolition of slavery. He gets to realise his scientific and artistic talents when he teams up with an eminent marine biologist, however his contribution is never fully acknowledged, and he remains untethered by his desire to find out what happed to Titch, the benefactor who disappeared from his thirteen-year-old life. Ultimately this is what propels him on towards the end of the story.
Washington’s narration is spot on: distinctive and convincing, alternating between the terrified apathy of one raised in captivity, and the analytical hindsight of an intelligent, educated man. The tone is detached – and the less immersive reading experience might be a drawback for some, but this is a closet which houses ugly skeletons and, possibly, taking some of the emotion away allows us to see the horror of it more clearly. But Washington Black can also be read as a celebration of trailblazers everywhere, and a reminder of how arbitrarily the course of a life can be changed. Washington has talent, but there is nothing behind his original escape but complete chance – he is chosen because he is the correct weight for ballast.
Any Cop?: I’m not a huge fan of historical novels, but this one won me over. A swashbuckling epic which entertains, revolts, educates and amazes.