The Red Slave

I have just finished one of the most intriguing books: ‘In Search of The Red Slave- Shipwreck & Captivity in Madagascar’ by Mike Parker Pearson & Karen Godden. This is an account of an archaeological investigation with lots of detours, into the story of Robert Drury’s Journal, which was published in 1729, claiming to be the account of a young sailor shipwrecked on the island and spending 14 years in captivity. The journal was often attributed to Defoe, but the mass of accurate detail suggested there was a truth in there.

The Journal is a mis-title as it is more an account, and written 12 years after Drury’s return, so doubts can be raised as to its accuracy, and why it took so long – the authors question how well the author could recall detail, but I think that is less a problem- back in those days, there was so much less to clutter their memories, and the loneliness of being amongst strangers gave him plenty of time to go overheats in his mind so they were firmly fixed there. I think anyone who has survives life threatening events never forgets them, and his life in captivity involved several attempted escapes and fighting in several wars. Anyone who has spoke to war veterans knows how vivid these memories are decades later. His claim to have been unable to speak English when rescued is another problem, as to whether such a person could have written the ‘8 folio sized quires, each of nearly 100 pages’ which had been edited down to size by Defoe, but such details were often included in early novels, so the borders between fact and fiction at the time were extremely weak.

Robert Drury did exist. As the book records, The Court Minutes of London’s East Idia Company of 18 Marc 1729:
“Request of Robert Drury being read representing he had lived on the island of Madagascar 15 years, that he has now an offer of returning thither in the Sweeds service but will not engage I it if the Company have any objection thereto, or that they will be pleased to afford him an employ in their service whereby he may be able to get a decent livelyhood”

I think this last line gives the game away. Is journal was published the following Ma with an affidavit from the highly respected and successful Captain William Mackett who claimed he had brought back from Madagascar, and that Drury’s story was authentic, though he died several weeks before the book was released.

Drury had been shipwrecked on his first voyage, so his skills as seaman were minimal, but his extensive knowledge of the local language and culture would have made him a valuable crewman for the only ships that visited Madagascar, the slavers.

Government documents from 1721 show that many vessels from Bristol & elsewhere that set sail to Africa for slaves often went instead to Madagascar, then a great resort of smugglers, ie pirates, where slaves were much cheaper. The East India Company had a monopoly on trade with India, so they appealed to the government to intervene, as it undercut their Indian trade in guns & stores.

In 1752 Richard Beckford, one of the Jamaican slave kings, then Mp for Bristol spoke in the House of Commons:
“Many gentlemen here know that formerly the sugar colonies were supplied with negroes from Madagascar, a vast Island abounding with slaves, from whence the colonies drew large quantities till the East India Company interfered and prevented private traders from carrying on a commerce which they despised.”

It seems likely that the trade with Madagascar had dried up by 1729, so Drury’s valuable knowledge was no longer in demand, hence his decision to publish. He was for a time a porter at East India House, the sort of job given to respected but retired sailors. He seems never to have married and died in 1733 aged only 45 which suggests he may have suffered some chronic illness from his time away, such as malaria.

The debate on the journal continues, through research in the 1950s established that a sailor called Robert Drury had been on board the Degrave when it was shipwrecked as he claimed, but the original document has long vanished, which is a common ploy for novelists of the time.

The story seems to have been a quite extraordinary one, but has never been very popular. Apparently it is not very well written, and all post Crusoe books existed in the shadow of Defoe’s great creation myth, of white superiority, of the goodness of capitalism, a manifesto for the modern age rather than just an adventure story. As Pearson & Godden note:

“Robert Drury’s Journal is a subversive book because its world is one turned upside-down. The white man is he slave. The concept of Christianity is made to look ridiculous. The savages are actually more human than the civilized. Ultimately Drury is not a spokesman for a powerful culture overwhelming all in its path, but one of the little people whose views and experiences differed hugely from those of his more chauvinistic and self-confident contemporaries. He is, by the end, almost more Malagasy than he is English. So it is no wonder that the book became largely forgotten. It expresses ideas that undermine the ideology of colonial expansion and world domination – hardly suitable fodder for Drury’s contemporaries involved in commercial enterprise and, later on, definitely not an instructive model for the Victorians intent on building their empire.”

Drury’s story has been largely forgotten in the west, but the archaeologists found no trace of his story in Madagascar: why should they, as he was merely one of many thousands of slaves, from one of countless shipwrecks in a culture where people are largely migratory, and with strong traditions of ancestor worship.

As the authors conclude:
“Robert Drury’s life reveals something about hw the world has come to be as it is today and, in particular, the long history of the relationship between the western world and a people lie the Tandroy who live far away from Europe and America. The Malagasy themselves express quiet misgivings about that relationship and puzzle over how the western world perceives them and their country: why do we spend so much money conserving heir island’s wildlife when so little is invested in the human inhabitants? Perhaps we care more about animals and plant than we do about people?”

This is the kind of history I love reading about and try to write myself. It is not just about an old journal, but the struggles of modern archaeologists in a hostile environment trying to deal with the many cross cultural misunderstandings, of trying to get supplies for their journey, dealing with tropical diseases and the many cultural difficulties, not the least that they were often seen as cannibals or accused of frightening local children, It is also the incredible friendships and kindness that they found there.

This is a brilliant, unusual, insightful book not just about a strange, forgotten corner of our own history, but one that challenges so much about who we are, what we believe and how we behave amongst ourselves and to other cultures today.

4 thoughts on “The Red Slave

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