Not With Silver, by Simi Bedford

From slaves to strangers in an African Utopia
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In 1792, nearly 2,000 Black Americans landed in Freetown, shipped there by the British enterprise, the Sierra Leone Company. They were former slaves who had fought on the British side during the American War of Independence. The British promised to free them in return for military service. After the war many found grudging refuge in Nova Scotia, and the Sierra Leone Company offered to return them to Africa.

The Company's motives were a mixture of the commercial and the philanthropic: it wanted to experiment in trading in produce rather than slaves, and also to introduce "the Blessings of Industry and Civilisation" into Africa. Economists like Adam Smith and Abolitionists like Olaudah Equiano had been appealing to people's pockets, rather than their morals, in arguing that it was more profitable to trade with Africans than in them.

A series of disasters nearly put an end to the project. The American Blacks found the promised free land plots were as yet uncleared of bush. Malaria and dysentery saw off dozens. The French bombarded the lightly defended Freetown in 1794, French sailors looting and laying waste to the settlement.

Simi Bedford's novel attempts to breathe life into the historical data by creating Africans with character and spirit. The first section, set in mid 18th-century West Africa, is a richly textured re-imagining of court life, governed by an elaborate set of rituals and ceremonies. The society is hierarchical and decorous, as Bedford counters racist descriptions at the time of Africa as a natural and civil wilderness. She has meticulously researched Nigerian cultural life, and her novel captures the sounds of Agogo bells and talking drums, the golden colours of the court, the ceremonial scents of indigo and camwood.

White traders intervene and a young aristocrat, Abiola, is betrayed into slavery. In America he is sold to a harpsichord maker and given the name Cornelius. His plot to escape back to Africa is frustrated. Stuck in America, he tries to re-create family life. A fellow slave, Delilah, bears him a daughter. Other slaves befriend them.

They are all "children of the same mother", Bedford showing how the conditions of slavery created a pan-African ideology which was to free Africa from British colonialism. The embrace of Christianity is also seen positively, helping to bind a community of self-sacrifice and survival. Christian belief in an afterlife chimes with West African religion, opening up the prospect of a final escape from the cruelties of the plantation.

This section of the novel deals with familiar material, but Bedford eschews the lyricism Toni Morrison's Beloved and the playfulness of Charles Johnson's Middle Passage in favour of a sociological analysis of the plantation. Not With Silver picks up again when Bedford returns the American slave family to Africa. They rebuild their lives, settling down to farming and trading.

Bedford's novel could have easily succumbed to a comforting sentimentality, indulging in an African American idyll of return. But she exposes a series of uncomfortable truths about the settlers. For all their reverence for ancestry, they are not African in language, religion and culture. They are foreigners in their "homeland".

Worst of all, Delilah and others engage in illegal slave trading. Not only are Africans collaborators in maintaining the trade but freed descendants continue the crime against humanity. The reconciliation of commerce and philanthropy, such as that espoused by the Sierra Leone Company, is an almost impossible ideal.

David Dabydeen edited the new 'Oxford Companion to Black British History'

Jonathan Cape £17.99 (357pp) £16.19(free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Comments