To Shoot Hard Labour by Keithlyn and Fernando Smith
A Long Preamble
The full title of To Shoot Hard Labour , which I was first introduced to as a secondary school student and have referenced in the years since, is To Shoot Hard Labour The Life and Times of Samuel Smith, an Antiguan workingman 1877-1982 (first printing 1986). You may immediately pick up that the title structure is reminiscent of the true-to-life literary genre known as the slave narrative – famous examples of which include Twelve Years a Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River in Louisiana (published 1859); Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by himself (published 1845 by the anti-slavery office in Boston); and The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, related by Herself (published in England in 1831). The subject and author of the last of these actually spent some of her time in enslavement in Antigua, where I live, the locale of the post-slavery narrative told by Samuel Smith to his grandchildren, co-authors Keithlyn and Fernando Smith.
The slave narrative emerged in the colonial era as a genre and a tool of the anti-slavery movement concerned with dismantling chattel slavery in the Americas – other references will say North America but I am being very specific. It shouldn’t need to be said in 2020 with all the material (e.g. slave narratives) at our disposal, but chattel slavery – the brutal multi-generational-generational-generational form of human trafficking and enslavement of Africans fed by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the need (read: greed) for labour for the mass production of sugar and cotton that built the European and North American (meaning USA) economies – happened across the hemisphere known as the Americas. The Americas includes North and South America, and the Caribbean. This is historically the so-called ‘New World’ over which European powers fought and which they colonized over hundreds of years – beginning with Columbus’ wrong turn at Hispaniola, modern day Haiti (French) and the Dominican Republic (Spanish) in 1492. The first enslaved Africans arrived in the New World in the 1500s. To Shoot Hard Labour, in its sweeping introduction, spoke of Las Casas, the Catholic priest known as the protector of the ‘Indians’, the Kalinago and other indigenous groups being exterminated for European profit, who proposed that the colonizers look instead to Africa for labour. In this introduction, it said the first enslaved Africans landed in the New (to the colonizers) World in 1502. The Old World powers of England, Spain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands (Dutch) divvied up and dominated Africa (which they mined of her natural and human resources) and the colonies they claimed in the New World, often through violence. England emerged as a superpower – an empire upon which the sun never set, in to the 20th century, until its former colony, America, which had greatly expanded its fortunes and influence since declaring its Independence in 1776, rose up to take that spot. Forgive me for being hand wave-y on the details of globalization but this is intended as a discussion of the book To Shoot Hard Labour, not a New World history.
However, I am writing this in the summer of 2020, a summer in which the newly announced Vice Presidential hopeful on the US Democratic party ticket Kamala Harris is US (i.e. North American) born to a father from Jamaica and a mother from India. The fact that these are both former colonies of England, and that Jamaica was, like the entire Caribbean, a chattel slavery colony is not the point but it is not irrelevant. Harris’ Blackness, and her connection to the struggles of Black people who have fought their way from slavery to freedom and beyond, have been called in to question with sentiments like “She’s not Black. She’s Jamaican.” As I said on my social media, make it make sense. If you know the history of the New World, you know that Blackness and Jamaica are not mutually exclusive. The English speaking Caribbean, including Jamaica, and other non-English speaking former colonies, are majority Black, and have been for centuries at the forefront of anti-slavery, labour rights, and independence movements, and for decades at the forefront of the reparations movement specific to the injustices of chattel slavery. It is a movement that has been centred in American discourse this election cycle – and we love to see it – because it’s all about reparative justice. This is something that should unite, not separate us. We are diasporically – through our ties to a common motherland, Africa, and through the inheritance of a common brutal experience here in the New World – family. But here we are and it needs to be said – some of the most brutal forms of chattel slavery existed in the Caribbean and the post-slavery narrative To Shoot Hard Labour is one man’s testimony.
The genre known as the slavery narrative grew out of the lived experience of enslaved (and formerly enslaved) people, some 6000 of them across North America and the Caribbean through the 18th and 19th centuries. They were autobiographical and, given their use as an anti-abolitionist tool, emphasized the struggle, with religion and progress being recurring motifs. As with many slave narratives, To Shoot Hard Labour is an ‘as told to’ and, in fact, Papa Sammy ends by telling his grandsons, “I hope that you will write down exactly what I am telling you. If you do, the people will see how far down in the mud arwe come from.” (p. 162)
To Shoot Hard Labour veers from your traditional slave narrative in that it begins in 1834 – the year slavery legally ended in the English speaking Caribbean, with the four year apprenticeship in all colonies but Antigua being a technicality that extended it another four years. I, therefore, describe it as a post-slavery narrative. Its main theme, beginning with Papa Sammy’s ancestor Rachael’s long walk across Antigua to re-connect with the daughter sold off years before, is the quest for freedom, life, humanity in a world determined to keep Black people underfoot. “Only when they find Minty they really believe that slavery was all over for sure.” (p. 32) But not without scars, “Minty had a brand on she hand.” (p. 32)
The book is a stark reminder that the legal end of slavery did not mean its end in practice. In some ways, even in a country, politically independent since 1981, with Black leaders and a majority Black population, the struggle for true self-actualization continues. The ways in which the struggle continues and in which they have been brought in to sharp focus in 2020, the year of the COVID-19 global pandemic and the globally resonant Black Lives Matter uprising sparked in North America/the US, and the economic and social quakes sparked by both, is more heavy lifting than this piece can do.
But let’s talk about this book though.
I covered a lot of ground in the 13th installment of my CREATIVE SPACE column of 2020 (SAY THEIR NAME: IN MEMORIAM) in which I wrote about To Shoot Hard Labour by telling the stories of some of the people beaten, raped, and killed, casualties of anti-Blackness post-slavery in Antigua, as well as some of the unsung freedom fighters (labour rights activists). There is likely to be some overlap but I’ll try to tread ground not covered there, here. I urge you to read that article as a companion to this one.
As the nation was reminded during a month long on air book club discussion of it in which I participated,
, this book covers a lot in its 100 plus years, and even if you’ve read it before, you’re likely to learn something. And even if you’re not from Antigua what you learn will be educational and impactful as you consider the arc of human history in general and the experiences of Black people in the New World specifically. The particularity of it makes it more potent, not less.
“Just a little away from the market on Church Street in an open space under a big mahogany tree was the old slave market where the bakkra use to sell our generations. That mahogany tree had hoods and spikes in it. After slavery end, Delos Martin, a Scotchman built a business place just west of it and that would block the view of the courthouse at the corner of Scotch Row and Church Street… The little hill at the head of the city – the one in a straight line with High and St. Mary’s Streets – was called Gibbet’s Hill. It was the place where the open gallow was built – close to what is now called the Botanical Gardens – but the slaves use to call it Dribbet House. The open gallows was like the frame of a house. Them gallows would have three or four planks overhead. The slaves used to be tied with rope at the neck or shoulders, around the waist or any part of the body for that matter. They was then pulled up and tie to the overhead planks and they would be left there to swing. A portion of food would be left in front of them, but that food was to let the slaves see it and not reach it. They were made to swing there till they dead. Nowadays, when you want to show how harsh you want to deal with somebody, you say ‘Me go kill you’. Back then we use to say ‘Me go gibbet you.’” (p. 95)
A long quote, yes, but hopefully you see what I mean, that you don’t have to know those places to see and hear, in Papa Sammy’s own voice, with the vivid descriptiveness of lived and/or handed down memory, the history being revealed. For me, the reading comes with a sense of loss and reclaiming, as, though I grew up here and know the named streets, these places as described weren’t known to me. And there are stories of numerous places for us to re-discover – from the baobob (or as Papa Sammy called it bear bob) tree (the one on the Freemansville main road) which has the distinction of being both near a former market where enslaved people were sold and Stony Hill Gully where enslaved people plotted freedom, in 1736 (enduring public torture and death as a consequence), to the lawlessness and licentiousness of bakkra spaces like Guiana Island and Willoughby Bay.
It’s worth noting that though the book, in the spirit of narratives is autobiographic and, as a result, largely anecdotal, it is not so easily dismissed as a history. For one, it fills the gaps left by the original history of dates and more official sources, i.e. the colonizer’s perspective, and for another it makes a valiant effort to fact check itself. For instance, when Papa Sammy gives 1904 as the year the Gunthropes sugar factory became operational, there’s a footnote that references “Sir Francis Watts, who played a leading role in the establishment of the first central sugar factory” (p. 115) as saying that it was planned in 1903 and reaped its first crop in 1905. The centralization of at least some part of the sugar production process, by the way, began opening up the world of people who had known only plantation life – a very narrow world indeed.
Sugar was king during much of slavery, plantation days, in the Caribbean and this changed only ever so slowly post-slavery. Massa (also called bakkra – literally “back raw” according to one source much like “cracker” a pejorative for white in the US is, according to some sources I’ve seen, a reference to the sound of the whip hitting Black flesh) was still Lord and master and magistrate, and the formerly enslaved was still for all intents and purposes enslaved. As Papa Sammy said, “in those days, nega if them right, them still wrong” (p. 118)
While the story doesn’t scrimp on the sorrow, it doesn’t wallow in victimhood. It speaks concurrently of the rise of free villages; the harnessing of skills and resources (e.g. female-centered work in medicine – a fair amount of folk remedies included); the lingering effects of enslavement (e.g. children still carrying the so-called massa’s name and harsh corporal punishment of children, continuing the pattern from the plantation) the rise of the workers’ rights movements with sometimes fatal consequences (as during the 1918 ‘riots’); governorship and business and ownership or lack thereof and the transformation of the country; the push for voting rights and ways the community worked together (e.g. “the swap, throwing the box and working the lift was the main things that prevent us from eating each other” – p. 116). And there was beauty; I can verify that as Papa Sammy said there is no better vantage point for sunset viewing than Clark’s Hill, which is a rising in the middle of the island.
Chattel slavery was not indentured servitude, no matter what some meme said; and the fact that we seem to be forgetting that makes books like To Shoot Hard Labour even more valuable. Consider that post-slavery, movement was restricted – you couldn’t just switch employers for instance and you would be punished physically or locked up for not going to work; you still effectively lived in slave quarters (called the ‘nega-house’ where there was no privacy); you did not police yourself in any way – in fact, “whenever there was a fight or quarrel among nega-house people, it would be massa that would decide who was to get punish and how the punishment would be” (p.38) and who in fact still had and exercised the power of life and death with impunity over the people he once owned. Consider that post-slavery, you did not own the land you worked nor what it produced unless bakkra said so, that prison labour (literally a jail cart which moved where the work was) was effectively another form of slave labour. Consider all this and more through the lens of current conversations re Blackness, reparations, etc. Consider all this and more was witnessed over the 100 years Papa Sammy lived, dying the year after Antigua arrived at political Independence.
Who else to tell this story even if in the telling he disrupts some of the established narrative – e.g. bringing nuance to the story of modern Antigua, dinging the mythology, speaking to the jealousies and infighting, and to the missed opportunities and broken promises even with Black leadership.
You can hear the heartbreak in his words as he reflects on the mahogany tree that once marked the slave market in town, for instance: “It was our government and black people that pluck up that tree.” (p. 161). It is we, now in charge, he insists who have forgotten and that’s the heartbreak of this book, but that’s also the hope. These stories are hard to read but they need to be told because – there is much that was done that we can learn from, there is much that was done to us that we must never forget. Why read this book, beyond it being riveting history, well, to quote Papa Sammy, “I want the young generations to remember” (p. 161) and this is important because, to quote him further, “I hope that the day will never come again when our people have to suffer indignity like my generation and others have to.” (p. 162) Indignity, when you read this book, and books like it, you will see that that’s putting it mildly.