And then it dawn on them that you can't defeat people

Earl Lovelace won the Commonwealth Writers Best Novel award with 'Salt' and has been on tour reading his work. This is an extract

I watch my father's uncomfortable smile as he looks on at the scene, wanting a better welcome for his brother, but neglecting to intervene for fear of offending my mother and giving her the excuse he suspects she is looking for to extend her hostility to him.

I look to see what kind of danger Uncle Bango brought with him into our front yard on those Saturdays, but there was nothing I could identify as threatening. And I knew of no possession of his, or of any previous differences between either my mother and him, or him and my father, no family quarrel. All that I could see separating him from my other uncles was this story that he was ever willing to tell. So it had to be his story.

"Watch the landscape of this island," he began with the self-assured conviction that my mother couldn't stand in him. "And you know that they coulda never hold people here surrendered to unfreedom." The sky, the sea, every green leaf and tangle of vines sing freedom. Birds frisk and flitter and whistle and sing. Just so a yard cock will draw up his chest and crow. Things here have their own mind.

The rain decide when it going to fall. Sometimes in the middle of the day, the sky clear, you hear a rushing swooping sound and voops it fall down. Other times it set up whole day and then you sure that now, yes, it going to fall, it just clear away. It had no brooding inscrutable wilderness here. There was no wild and passionate uproar to make people feel they is beast, to stir this great evil wickedness in their blood to make them want to go out and murder people.

Maybe that madness seized Columbus and the first set of conquerors when they land here and wanted the Carib people to believe that they was gods; but, afterwards, after they settle in the island and decide that, yes, is here we going to live now, they begin to discover how hard it was to be gods.

The heat, the diseases, the weight of armour they had to carry in the hot sun, the imperial poses they had to strike, the powdered wigs to wear, the churches to build, the heathen to baptize, the illiterates to educate, the animals to tame, the numerous species of plants to name, history to write, flags to plant, parades to make, the militia to assemble, letters to write home.

And all around them, this rousing greenness bursting in the wet season and another quieter shade perspiring in the dry.

On top of that they had to put up with the noise from Blackpeople. Whole night Blackpeople have their drums going as they dance in the bush. All those dances. All those lascivious bodies leaping and bending down. They couldn't see them in the dark among the shadows and trees; but, they could hear.

They had to listen to them dance the Bamboula Bamboula, the Quelbay, the Manding, the Juba, the Ibo, the Pique, the Halicord, the Coromanti, the Congo, the Chiffon, the Banda, the Pencow, the Cherrup, the Kalinda, the Bongo. It was hard for Whitepeople. It had days they wanted to just sit down under a breadfruit tree and cool off, to reach up and pick a ripe mango off the tree and eat it.

It had times they just wanted to jump into the sea and take a sea bath, to romp with a girl on a bed of dead leaves underneath the umbrella of cocoa trees. They try, but they had it very hard. They walk a little distance and then they had to stop, perspiration soaking them, sticking their clothes to their bodies. It was so hot. They had to get these big roomy cork hats to wear to keep their brains cool.

They had to get people to fan them. People to carry their swords, people to carry cushions for them to sit down on. They had to get people to beat people for them, people to dish out lashes - seventy-five, thirty-five, eighty-five. But, what else to do? People had to get licks to keep them in line. How else they coulda carry on The Work, feeding all those people, giving them rations, putting clothes on their back. And it was hard. It was very hard to mould the Negro character, to stamp out his savage tendencies.

They tried to make provisions for allowing him innocent amusement after Mass and until evening prayers, to see that he didn't cohabit without benefit of matrimony, to lay out the work for him to do, to pass around later to see that he do it. No, really, they try. They reduced the number of lashes to twenty-five. They tried in administering the floggings to make sure and not to cause the effusion of blood or contusion; but, what else to do?

There was no natural subservience here. Nobody didn't bow down to nobody just so. To get a man to follow your instructions you had to pen him and beat him and cut off his ears or his foot when he run away. You had to take away his woman from him and his child. And still that fellow stand up and oppose you.

But these fellars here. These fellars was the most lawless and rebellious set of fellars they had in the Caribbean, the majority of them dangerous rebels exiled here from the other islands, men that had no cure, fellars whose sport was to bust one another head, fellars who make up their mind to dead, who land on the wharf from Martinique and Grenada and St Lucia and from wherever they bring them singing.

And it wasn't just men alone. It had women there that was even more terrible. They had to ban them from talking. They had to ban them from walking and from raising up their dresstail and shaking their melodious backsides. They wasn't easy. The plantation people couldn't handle them. They beat them. They hold them down and turn them over and do them whatever wickedness they could manage; but they couldn't break them.

And then it dawn on them that you can't defeat people. Then they find out that people too stupid to be defeated. They too harden. They don't learn what you try to teach them. They don't hear you. They forget. You tell a man to do something and he tell you he forget. You tell him to shoot and he forget to load the rifle. You tell him to get up at five, and nine o'clock he now yawning and stretching: he didn't hear you; or, he hear something different to what you tell him. You is the expert, but he believe that he know better than you what it is you want him to do, and he do it and he mess it up.

Four hundred years it take them to find out that you can't keep people in captivity. Four hundred years! And it didn't happen just so. People had to revolt. People had to poison people. Port-of-Spain had to burn down. A hurricane had to hit the island. Haiti had to defeat Napoleon. People had to run away up the mountains. People had to fight. And then they agree, yes.

We can't hold people in captivity here.

But now they had another problem: it was not how to keep people in captivity. It was how to set people at liberty.

From 'Salt' by Earl Lovelace. Faber & Faber pounds 15.99. Copies can be ordered from Faber and Faber Ltd, 3 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AU. Cheque for pounds 13.99 payable to Faber & Faber, or by credit card. Phone 01279 417134. Readings from Commonwealth writers at the Birmingham Readers and Writers Festival today - 0121 440 3838.

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