forty

Above all other considerations, this is simply an extraordinary document, a piece of history we are lucky to be able to access.

As well as being a fine novelist – Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston was also an anthropologist in the early decades of twentieth century. In 1927 she was sent from New York to Mobile, Alabama to meet the last known survivor of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to trade with the US. He was known as Cudjo Lewis, although his name was Kossola. He had been brought from Africa a teenager, in 1860, and was enslaved for five and a half years, until Union soldiers turned up one day to tell them they were all free to go…that they had nowhere to go and not a penny to their name seemed of no importance to either the soldiers or the government.

Hurston lets him speak, which some days he is more inclined to do than others, and he tells straight forward stories of his youth in Nigeria, life in the small kingdom, the hierarchies and customs of the place how he was captured and his days in the compound (the Barracoon of the title), weeks on the ship, and finally his time in the US. At other times he is cranky and will barely tolerate Hurston’s company, while again, at other times he speaks in rambling analogies or morality tales from his homeland. Always his speech is represented as heard by Hurston, so there is a deal of phonetic spelling to overcome, but once you hit that groove it is easy enough to follow.

The document is fantastic, the story of course is horrific, but to hear it directly from the mouth of a victim is a vital and sobering experience. It is not a long read. The introductions and foreword by Deborah G Plant, Alice Walker and Hurston herself, all add greatly to the understanding and emotional resonance.

In terms of importance it is in the first rank.

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