Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

This was Vonnegut’s sixth novel and his commercial and critical breakthrough, quickly becoming a classic of counter-culture literature, its anti-war message chiming perfectly with the widespread protests across America against the Vietnam War, and then given an extra boost when it was made into a hit movie in 1972.

Both the anti-war message and Vonnegut’s laid-back, sardonic attitude are captured in the book’s jokey author biography:

Kurt Vonnegut Jnr
A fourth-generation German-American
now living in easy circumstances
on Cape Cod
[and smoking too much],
who, as an American infantry scout
hors de combat,
as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany,
‘The Florence of the Elbe,’
a long time ago,
and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel
somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic
manner of tales
of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers
come from.
Peace.

That final ‘Peace’ says it all. You can almost smell the dope and patchouli oil.

Vonnegut was an American POW during the Second World War. He was taken to Dresden and set to work along with other POWs – among other things in a syrup factory – and so happened to be there during the notorious Allied bombing raid which flattened this beautiful and historic city on the night of 13 February 1945.

Vonnegut survived because he and other POWs had been billeted in a disused slaughterhouse. This happened to have no fewer than three levels underground of natural cold rooms where meat had been stored. Vonnegut, fellow POWs and their guards took refuge there on the night of the Allied raid and firestorm.

Vonnegut gives this experience and much else of his own life to the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, but mixes it – bewilderingly but powerfully – with a science fiction story wherein Billy is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. And with a third element – which is that during the war Billy came ‘unstuck in time’ and from then on, periodically through the rest of his life, Billy’s consciousness keeps moving between different key moments of his life – one moment a POW captured in the snow in 1944, the next making a speech to fellow Lion’s Club members in 1967, one moment a boy of 12 taken to the Grand Canyon by his parents, the next a middle-aged man at his daughter’s wedding, and so on, for a number of other cardinal scenes in his life.

The text therefore mostly consists of fragments, any lengthy description of a particular scene liable to switch, with no warning, to another.

The odd thing is that despite this staginess, this artifice – it works. In fact it works more effectively than any straightforward account of the facts could have.

Even despite the opening chapter (pp.9-22) which consists mainly of fragments describing Vonnegut’s repeated failure to write this book. In these introductory pages he describes his visits to fellow war veterans and how, after a few drinks, they found they had nothing to say to each other. He candidly admits that, as a middle-aged man, he has gotten into the habit of staying up to late with a bottle of scotch, getting drunk and then ringing up old friends and acquaintances from the past, sometimes maundering on to complete strangers.

In other words, he sounds fucked. But it’s the inclusion of the admission of his failure to make his traumatic memories cohere, and his openness about the obvious emotional toll they’ve taken on him, which make the narrative which follows, deeply fragmented though it is, all the more powerful.

Billy’s biography

Despite all the apparent tricksiness, it is not too difficult to piece together Billy’s biography, in fact Vonnegut summarises most of it right at the start of chapter two, which is where the narrative proper begins.

Listen:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. (p23)

Vonnegut likes short declarative sentences. And short paragraphs. He worked on newspapers for a while. Then as a press officer. Which taught him to keep it short. And snappy.

Bill Pilgrim was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York, the only son of a barber. He grew up to be tall and gangly, looking like a Coke bottle. He attended the Ilium school of optometry for one term before being drafted into the army. He was taken prisoner during the German advance of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). There is an extended sequence describing his miserable march through the snow with two scouts and an aggressive bullying corporal named Roland Weary. The scouts eventually leave them and, a little later, they hear them being shot by a German patrol. So it goes.

He and hundreds of other American POWs were transported by overcrowded trains to a POW camp. The bully who gave him such a time on the march, Roland Weary, dies on the train. The base is really an extermination camp for Russian soldiers who were being starved to death. Within this camp was a small number of British officers who’d been captured at the start of the war and were living very well on Red Cross parcels. After various incidents here (such as witnessing the British stage a production of Cinderella). Billy starts laughing at this, the laugh becomes uncontrollable and turns into a shriek. They give him a shot of morphine. So it goes.

Then he is shipped to Dresden where he is billeted in a disused slaughterhouse and set to various labouring jobs, clearing rubble, and helping out in a syrup factory (where everyone steals as much syrup as they can eat).

One night 600 Allied bombers come and destroy Dresden, sparking a firestorm which incinerates everyone above ground. When Billy and the Germans emerge they discover the entire city reduced to smoking rubble littered with what seem planks of burning wood but are, in fact, smouldering corpses. So it goes.

Billy is liberated by the Russians, repatriated to Allied lines, and then back to the States. He re-enrols in the Ilium School of Optometry and becomes engaged to Valencia, the fat, ugly daughter of the founder of the school, who is addicted to eating candy bars and cries on their wedding night because she thought no-one would ever marry her.

In 1948 Billy suffers a mental breakdown and checks himself into a ward for nonviolent mental patients in a veterans’ hospital near Lake Placid, New York.

Here he meets a character mentioned in previous novels, namely Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the works of a prolific science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout (who will be one of the two main figures in Vonnegut’s next novel, Breakfast of Champions). Later on, in 1964, Billy bumps into Trout, as he tyrannises the pack of newspaper boys who he bullies into delivering papers, his only form of income since nobody will publish his numerous novels and, even if they do, Trout never sees any money from them. Rosewater has a big trunk of Trout’s sci-fi novels under his bed and during his stay in the hospital, Billy becomes a big fan.

Then he checks out and resumes his career as an optometrist. Marrying the boss’s fat daughter was a shrewd career move. His father-in-law gifts him a successful optometrist’s practice and Billy goes from strength to strength. He gets rich. He has two children, Barbara and Robert. Barbara marries an optometrist. Robert has a troubled school career (alcoholic at 16, desecrates graveyards) but turns his life round when he joins the Marines and goes to Vietnam.

In 1964 Billy meets Kilgore Trout and invites him to a party of optometrists. Trout chats up the most sensationally sexy woman in the room. When, in his excitement, he coughs on a canape, fragments of wet food land in her cleavage. Trout is that kind of character. Vonnegut is that kind of writer. Billy had planned to give his wife a big jewel as a wedding anniversary present, but is overcome with memories.

In 1967 Billy claims he was kidnapped by Tralfamodorians and taken to their planet in a flying saucer, where he was put in a zoo for the entertainment of Tralfamadorian crowds, and was soon joined by former movie star Montana Wildhack. Billy is laid back about the experience. He’s seen worse. He’s seen nearly the worst that human beings can do to each other. But Montana is hysterical for the first few weeks. Eventually they settle down together in their cage and mate, much to the cheers of the Tralfamadorian crowds.

In 1968 Billy is aboard a planeload of optometrists flying to a convention which crashes into Sugarloaf Mountain, Vermont. Billy is the only survivor. His wife, Valencia, in her worry, drives to the hospital but at one stage hits the central reservation, scraping the exhaust off the car. By the time she gets to the hospital where Billy is she is suffering from a fatal dose of carbon monoxide poisoning, and dies. So it goes.

After getting out of the hospital Billy goes to New York City where he gets airtime on a radio station telling everyone about how he was kidnapped by aliens from outer space and kept in a zoo. His grown-up daughter, Barbara, is furious and insists on coming to look after him (which feels a lot to Billy like nagging, hectoring bullying).

Billy is killed on 13 February 1976. Remember the soldier who died on the train, Roland Weary. Well another soldier, a really unpleasant psychopath named Paul Lazzarro, gives Weary his word of honour that he’ll take care of the dirty rotten fink who Weary blames for his death – the entirely innocent Billy.

And so it is that in 1976 that same Paul Lazzaro assassinates Billy using a laser gun with telescopic sights, while Billy is addressing a big rally about his flying saucer experiences. So it goes.

(It’s worth noting that, in a few throwaway sentences, Vonnegut tells us that by 1976 the USA has been divided into twenty smaller nations ‘so that it will never again be a threat to world peace’. Chicago has been hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen, p.96. This is not intended as any kind of prediction, it just continues the vein of pointless absurdity.)

POW

Central to the impact of the book is the powerful account of being taken prisoner, packed into cattle trucks so full people take it in turns to lie down, for days surrounded by the smells of poo and piss, and then arriving at the death camp more dead than alive. The surrealism of the brisk well-fed British officers among the starving Russians (kept in a separate area, behind barbed wire) and then onto the detailed, first hand account of a) labouring in Dresden in the build-up and then b) the night of the firestorm and then c) the aftermath.

These scenes, in their winter misery, reminded me of concentration camp memoirs I’ve read:

They also account in a roundabout way for the comment Vonnegut makes about the nature of his own book (he is prone to stop and comment on the text at random moments.)

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters. (p.110)

This fictional worldview, or attitude towards fiction, is related to the way Vonnegut repeatedly refers to people as machines. All the inhabitants of Tralfamadore are machines and don’t understand why the inhabitants of planet Earth won’t just accept this simple truth.

Tralfamadore

From the start of his career Vonnegut played the textual/fictional joke of having characters from one novel reappear in others.

Thus the town Billy’s born in, Ilium, is the setting for the first part of the novel Cat’s Cradle as is its General Forge and Foundry Company.

In hospital Billy is put in a bed next to Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord of Harvard, official Historian of the United States Air Force. This is a coincidence because the main character and master of destiny in The Sirens of Titan is Winston Niles Rumfoord.

The biggest recurring topic is the planet named Tralfamadore (which appears in five of Vonnegut’s novels). Anyone who’s read The Sirens of Titan knows that, on one level, it is all about a denizen of Tralfamadore marooned on Titan after his spaceship breaks down, and that all of human history (in this version, anyway) has in fact been shaped entirely by his home planet sending messages to him.

In Slaughterhouse-Five we learn that Tramalfadorians are:

two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings about time.

So far, so frivolous and silly. But the biggest thing Billy learns from the Tramalfadorians is that:

’The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.’

Various other aspects and quirks of Tralfamadorian life and thought are made up for our amusement (such as that the Tralfamadorians have five sexes, all of which are required for successful reproduction). But this is the key one. They explain a) how all moments of time exist simultaneously so b) that is why Billy can slip between them so easily and c) that’s why it doesn’t matter. Which brings us to ‘so it goes’.

So it goes

The book popularised Vonnegut’s catch-phrase, ‘so it goes’.

The author writes this every time he describes anyone dying, either in the war or by accident or of old age. It appears several times on each page, and 99 times in the whole (relatively short) book. Once upon a time it was cool but I eventually found it irritating and distracting.

But on the same page as he explains the Tralfamadorian way of thinking about, and seeing, time, he also explains the phrase’s origin:

‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”’

So this phrase ‘so it goes’ turns out to have more philosophical (or theological) than first appears. It indicates why the Tralfamadorians are relaxed about death – because it is only one stage in a person’s existence, and all the other stages of his or her existence continue unaffected by their death. And so it indicates how the author, too, has adopted this point of view.

That’s the nominal aim. But having read the first chapter in which Vonnegut describes the psychological problems he had writing this book – plus the scenes of Billy Pilgrim in the mental hospital – it’s difficult not to read the entire ‘so it goes’, throwaway kind of levity as in fact a form of psychological defence mechanism.

As he describes atrocities, random deaths, cruel accidents, suicides, immolations, plane crashes and the endless dumb pointlessness of the world, it’s hard not to see the ‘so it goes’ mentality as the coping mechanisms of a very unhappy man.

Folk wisdom

Vonnegut is addicted to sharing his wisdom with us. He is in the line of what Saul Bellow described as ‘reality instructors’, a line which goes back to Thoreau and beyond.

All Vonnegut’s novels are designed to persuade us that there is no meaning to life… and it doesn’t matter.

The same thing is said time and again. Thus a German guard punches an American POW, knocking him to the ground. The American asks: ‘Why me?’ The German guard replies: ‘Vy you? Vy anybody?’

Similarly, when the Tralfamadorians abduct him, Billy asks them: ‘Why me?’ to which they reply that they are all of them just embedded in this moment of time, like a prehistoric ant embalmed in amber.

‘There is no why?’ ‘Why?’ is the wrong question to be asking.

You can see why this Zen-like sidestepping of the anxious questions of Western philosophy appealed to the 60s generation, the spirit that made Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance such an instant best seller when it was published in 1974.

But pretty often it sounds no different from homespun folk wisdom, with no particular secret or mystique about it. Here’s Billy chatting with a Tramalfadorian:

‘But you do have a peaceful planet here.’
‘Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments – like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?’
‘Yes.’
‘That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’

‘Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’ Not a dazzling revelation, is it? But then the thing about living wisely – as of eating a healthy diet – is everyone knows what they ought to be doing, it’s just that most people can’t or won’t or don’t do it.

Vivid writing

Notwithstanding that Vonnegut’s baseline style is the crisp brevity of newspaper journalism, he routinely comes up with great lines, descriptions and verbal effects.

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table-two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out.

This description is charged by the fact that Billy is himself lying in a hospital bed, too weak to get out.

Elsewhere Vonnegut nails aspects of his society and times with an accuracy made all the more lethal by the calm simplicity of his phrasing.

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

Set pieces

And like the other Vonnegut novels I’ve read, it is just crammed full of stuff. Characters, events, insights, jokes, wisdom, the author’s own hand-drawn illustrations.

While he is in the prison camp Billy meets an American traitor, Howard W. Campbell Jnr who is trying to raise an American Nazi regiment to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. Obviously he’s a traitor Fascist, but he is not stupid and Billy reads the lengthy monograph Campbell has written which is a cunning blend of truths and falsehoods about the American character, and which allows Vonnegut to slip in some pretty bitter home truths:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves… It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor… Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since Napoleonic times.

In a different mode, there is an impressive writerly tour de force where Billy has a vision of the bombing of Dresden happening in reverse, with miraculous old buildings rising from a rubble-strewn wasteland, friendly planes flying over hoovering up all those nasty bombs, flying back to England in pretty poor shape but, luckily, fleets of fighter planes meet them and suck out all the bullets and flak so that they finally land back at their airfields in pristine condition, and everyone is happy!

Shell shocked prose

But the most consistent style or tone is shell-shocked numbness. The author tells things in sequence like a zombie. Zombie prose. Then this then this then this.

Billy survived, but he was a dazed wanderer far behind the new German lines. Three other wanderers, not quite so dazed, allowed Billy to tag along. Two of them were scouts, and one was an antitank gunner. They were without food or maps. Avoiding Germans they were delivering themselves into rural silences ever more profound. They ate snow.

Dazed wanderer prose. Sometimes, when applied to actual combat, to soldiers shooting each other or planes dropping bombs, you can see how describing things in this simpleton, child’s eye way, is designed to undermine the army press release, conventional ways of seeing atrocities. To force us to realise that ‘combat’ means one bunch of men trying to send bits of metal at high velocity through other men’s bodies.

But at other moments this numb, dumb, dazed, zombie prose seems to me to convey nothing more than shell shock. Mental disturbance. An inability to function which isn’t glamorous or counter-cultural, but masks deep pain and unhappiness.

As a part of a gun crew, [Weary] had helped to fire one shot in anger-from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of a zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.

What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-millimeter snout around sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but Weary. So it goes.

Telling what happened with no emotion, affect or intellectual intervention, no defences, no assimilation. The wound still red raw and gaping.

It comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that Vonnegut suffered from chronic depression, and within a few years of Slaughterhouse being published, a difficult break-up with his wife and his son’s mental collapse prompted him to start taking anti-depressants. In 1984 he tried to commit suicide. I think you can hear not only Vonnegut’s war-torn past, but also his troubled future, in the prose of Slaughterhouse-Five.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

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Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery by James Walvin (1992)

Tobacco for the pipes of Englishmen, rum to temper the squalor of life between decks on British warships, coffee for the fashionable society of London’s clubs, sugar to sweeten the miserable diet of working people – these and other tropical products spilled forth from the cornucopia that was the slave colonies of the Americas. (Introduction)

James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is the author or editor of thirty books, most of which have been about the history of slavery and the slave trade. In 2007 he was curator for the Parliamentary Exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was also adviser to the Equiano Exhibition held in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

A thematic approach

Black Ivory isn’t a chronological history. You realise this when you come across, in chapter two, an account of the famous legal case, Somerset versus Stewart (1772) which helped to crystallise the movement for the abolition of slavery. It feels odd to start the slavery with its ending. Here, as in many other places, chronology, is completely abandoned.

Instead, the book explores the issue of slavery thematically, with chapters devoted to how the slaves were captured and bought in Africa, how they fared on the notorious Atlantic crossing, their landfall and auction in the West Indies or America, life on the slave plantations, the prevalence of disease and death, issues of sex, recreation, religion, rebellions and runaways – before a final section returns to the ‘crusade’ against slavery by reformers in Britain, and its final abolition.

The trade in slaves was made illegal in 1807. Britain abolished the actual condition of slavery, throughout the British Empire, in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Figures

It is a pretty well-known story. Both my kids studied the Slave Trade at school, and we are reminded of it every October during Black History Month, plus the occasional documentary, TV series or movie. I remember the impact of the original TV series of Roots, shown back in 1977. I was horrified by the movie Twelve Years A Slave, and so on. It is not an overlooked part of history.

That said, on this reading, some stories or insights stood out for me:

Unknown figures How contested the numbers are. Some authorities say 12 million captive Africans were transported to the Americas, some say 15 million.

The Middle Passage The perils of the Middle Passage when a high percentage of the slaves died in the appalling conditions below decks, are well known. About 12.5% – or 2 million – of all the Africans transported died on board ship.

Deaths in Africa But I hadn’t thought so much about the ‘wastage’ i.e. deaths and disablements caused to captives within Africa, on their sometimes very long journeys to the coast. These began with kidnapping, capture in war, being sold on by their African owners, followed by periods of slavery to local people en route, being passed on along sometimes very long trails to the sea, and ultimate sale to white ship captains.

A large percentage of captives died during this process and, even when they made it to the coast, captives often spent months at the coastal forts built by slave companies, in grim prison conditions, waiting for a ship to dock, and here many more died in  a misery of starvation and disease.

Taking all this together, Walvin quotes a guesstimate that as many as 24 million Africans were initially enslaved, within Africa, in order to produce the 12 or so million who were enshipped across the ocean.

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Death on arrival And I hadn’t realised that the high mortality rate continued after the slaves’ arrival in the Caribbean or America. Their health undermined by the squalor of the Atlantic crossing, plus mental deterioration and depression, plus being thrown into harsh forced labour in an alien environment filled with new pathogens, mortality rates were as high as 33% after the slaves arrived.

A third of imported slaves died in their first three years in the West Indies; on the Chesapeake (the tobacco-growing plantations of Virginia) about a quarter of imported slaves died in their first year.

It is this high rate of ‘wastage’ which made the trade so voracious, so insatiable for new flesh, for the century and a half or so from the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish (1655) to the abolition of the trade in 1807.

Gender imbalance Twice as many men were transported as slaves, as women. (p.119) It was thought that men were tougher and would make better workers.

In Walvin’s chapter on ‘Women’ he describes how the tiny island of Barbados was an exception in having a more equal balance between the sexes, and also more white women among the planters. The result was a marked ‘civilising’ or restraining influence on the male planters i.e. less sexual violence against women slaves.

This can be deduced from the markedly lower number of mixed race births during the 1700s, compared to other islands more dominated by single white men, who raped and impregnated their African women with impunity.

Lack of accounts

Given the enormous numbers involved it is striking how very, very few accounts we have by slaves of their experiences. One of the most important was by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), captured as a boy in the Igbo region of what is today southeastern Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, then on to a Quaker trader, eventually earning his freedom by trading and careful savings, in 1766.

Eye witnesses Walvin quotes the journals of a ship’s doctor, Alexander Falconbridge, who gives evidence of conditions onboard a slaver, and we have the testimony of John Newton who was a slave ship captain until he underwent a religious experience and became an abolitionist.

(I feel a strong sense of unreality every time I read the fact that it was this John Newton, who admits in his journals to torturing slaves, who went on to write the inspiring hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn which President Obama sang at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, shot dead in a Charleston church by a white supremacist).

Walvin quotes from a few plantation owners – from the voluminous journals of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, from the aptly named Thomas Roughley, from Robert Carter and William Byrd, from a journal kept by Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica. But all in all it’s striking how few accounts there are of the entire system and experience.

The result is that although Walvin has structured his themes so as to give a comprehensive overview of the different elements of slavery, he is often forced to speculate in order to fill in the details of various aspects of slave life, and this rather weakens the punch of his narrative:

We do not know how much co-operation existed between the slaves. Did the strong help the weak? Or did the greedy and the desperate take advantage of their weaker shipmates to satisfy their own cravings? (p.52)

We will never know the full extent of their mental suffering… While it is difficult to prove the point, it seems fairly clear that depression often worsened slaves’ physical condition. (p.55)

What we can never know about the slave trade is the extent of capricious, casual or sadistic violence involved. (p.57)

It was likely that slaves continued to use their own names… (p.63)

What went through their minds, those new slaves, as they shuffled off to their first day’s work? (p.66)

We can only speculate how far this development of slave communal living was a transplantation of African village life. (p.84)

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had cut off the supply of new Africans and most planters felt obliged to reorganise their gangs and make more pressing demands of them to make up the shortfall. What effect this extra effort had on the health and fertility of women slaves we can only speculate. (p.123)

[Persistent lack of enough food led to thefts which were savagely punished]. What effect this had on the mental equilibrium, particularly on those who had endured the Atlantic crossing, we can only speculate. (p.149)

Children inherited their mothers’ slavery, and belonged to her master. Did this, as some have claimed, alienate the slave fathers? Were they stripped of their manhood and their sense of primacy within the family group by the superior and overriding power of the slave-owner? It is of course hard to tell and the evidence is contradictory and confusing. (p.210)

I am not questioning the immensity of the suffering. I am just pointing out that Walvin’s book never stops reminding the reader that there is a surprising lack of evidence and testimony about large aspects of the slave experience, and so that historians of slavery like himself are continually forced to speculate and guess – and that this makes, in many ways, for a rather frustrating read.

Undermining the exceptionalism of slavery

Walvin is obviously outraged by the existence of slavery and its thousands of disastrous and humiliating ramifications for its millions of victims – but he often undermines his own indignation by placing the suffering of the Africans in contexts which, surprisingly, tend to minimise or lessen it.

For example, his chapter about the Middle Passage is grim enough, with a description of the layout of the average slave ship, the appalling lack of space, and the reality of the lake of vomit, blood, faces and urine which the slaves were soon lying in with the result that it was a continual problem for slavers that so many of their charges died en route.

But he lessens the appalling thrust of his descriptions by pointing out that, as a proportion, more European sailors died during the Atlantic Crossing than blacks! The slave mortality rate was around 12%, but the mortality rate among European crew was as high as 20%!

Similarly, he emphasises the ubiquity of violence in intimidating, coercing and punishing the slaves aboard ship. But again undermines the initial impact, by telling us that ordinary members of a ship’s crew were also subject to appalling discipline and were also frequently put in chains or flogged, sometimes to death.

Time and again he points out that this, that or the other aspect of slave life was appalling – but then undermines the impact by going on to say that, of course, a lot of this was true of the sufferings of non-slaves – poor sailors, poor servants in England, the poor everywhere.

Slaves were not alone in enduring overcrowding, poor food and insanitary conditions on board ships: it was the lot of indentured (free) labour travelling to America in the seventeenth century, of convict labour travelling to Australia and of naval and military postings. (p.52)

The masters often lived in great material comfort; slaves lived in primitive housing and wore the simplest of clothes. The masters ate lavishly, the slaves survived on the most basic of diets. We could of course paint a similar picture for the gulf between rich and poor in Britain at much the same time. (p.73)

Plantation slaves everywhere lived in meagre circumstances. Their homes were generally ignored by visitors or residents; when noticed they were airily dismissed. (But so too were poor domiciles in Europe.) (p.84)

[Slave] babies who died in that period were not accorded full burial rites, but it has to be said that much the same was true in Britain at the same time. (p.148)

Slaves were not alone in requiring a new discipline when transplanted into an utterly alien working environment. The same was true for working people translated from rural to the first industrial occupations of early nineteenth century Britain, and a similar story unfolded in North America among immigrants employed in new industries. (p.237)

Slaves were not the only people to be beaten. Whipping a child or striking an inferior were broadly accepted [throughout society]. (p.238)

Beating people was not of course restricted to slaves. When industrialisation began to absorb ever more people in Britain in the early nineteenth century, the most bitter complaints were often about the physical abuse of workers. In the textile industries, parents objected fiercely to the whippings and cuffings doled out to their children. (p.242)

In other words, the net effect of Walvin’s book is regularly to make you reflect that almost everyone in Georgian and Regency Britain and America suffered appalling levels of physical abuse, exploitation and the most unbelievably violent punishments, up to and including frequent doling out of the death penalty.

You are just reeling from another description of brutal punishments meted out to, for example, runaway slaves, before Walvin is pointing out that the same level of brutality – being put in the stocks, in irons, whipped, flogged, beaten, publicly hanged – were punishments just as readily administered by the British in Ireland or in the new convict colony of Australia.

The surprising autonomy of slave life

His chapter about working life on the plantations paints a grim picture of very long days of unremitting and back-breaking labour. That’s what I expected. What surprised me was the extent to which many slaves had a surprising amount of autonomy, both about the work they did, and how they did it, and the length of the working day.

The ‘task system’, widespread in the rice plantations of the Deep South, allotted slaves a task for each day and, when they were complete, their time was their own, to tend their gardens, to practice crafts, make music, be with their family, whatever.

I was surprised to learn that in the tobacco plantations, slaves often created their own villages and had their own houses with their own veg plots. They developed sophisticated creole languages. They were given days off to cultivate their plots, and took every opportunity to let off steam by dressing up, singing and dancing.

His chapter ‘Slaves at Ease’ gives plentiful evidence that slaves made music wherever possible, out of anything – creating rhythmic work chants in the tobacco or sugar cane fields, making drums and shaker type instruments from whatever was at hand, and learning the fiddle in particular if given half a chance.

Slave festivals such as the two or three-day John Canoe festival became well-known events when every slave dressed up in whatever costume could be manufactured, and danced and sang all day long.

The ‘crop-over’ was the period when the final harvest sugar cane or tobacco was completed and was traditionally a period of celebration, music and dancing. And, as so often, Walvin highlights how similar it was to non-slave contemporary culture.

These activities look remarkably like many of the pleasures of common people in pre-industrial Europe; their leisure moments dictated by that special mix of the rural year, prevailing religious custom and the powerful traditions of local popular culture. (p.175)

I imagine it’s the last thing Walvin intended, but his description of slave spare time recreation makes it sound like a lot of fun, more fun than my spare time.

Another surprising thing is to learn that slaves often had sufficient autonomy to make money. The brutal and sexually exploitative slave owner Thomas Thistlewood kept a diary which is a goldmine of sociological detail. Among other things, it shows that many of his slaves were free to sell whatever produce they generated on their cottage plots, including livestock and creatures caught down by the river (turtles). They were allowed to take these to local markets on their days off and the sharp traders among them became well off. For example, Thistlewood details his favourite slave concubine making him presents of a gold ring, among fruits and other luxury foodstuffs. A slave giving her owner high-quality gifts!

Something similar happens in his chapter on domestic servants. In the houses of the big planters black domestics were often treated harshly and subject to sexual attack by white men – but there were also myriad opportunities for them to exert their own power and influence, suckling and bringing up the master’s white children, teaching them black fairy tales and songs, and in the process often rising to positions of influence and even power over their white families.

Black triumph

The net effect of these chapters, and of Walvin’s book as a whole, is to take you beyond the narrow cliché of young slave men being worked to death and brutally punished in concentration camp-style tobacco and sugar plantations – and to make you realise that something this vast, a social and economic enterprise and experiment this enormous and so far-reaching, spread its impact all over the West Indies and the south of America and created entirely new social realities.

There were black settlements on every plantation, black quarters in the booming towns where freed blacks lived and traded with slaves up for the market, blacks creating new languages, creole and pidgen hybrids of English and African languages, creating a world of social, economic and power opportunities for the slaves, many of whom rose to become overseers of plantations and factories, ended up running the business, became skilled clerks and administrators, as well as acquiring a wealth of other trades and skills.

Walvin tells us that black sailors were working on British ships in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century, and my recent reading of the American War of Independence gives ample evidence of how black soldiers fought on both sides of that, and subsequent, American wars.

So, despite the odd way he sometimes waters down the power of what he’s saying  by making comparisons to the sufferings of poor whites in Georgian England or colonies, overall Walvin’s book paints a broad and convincing picture of the institution of slavery as more than a self-contained, tightly compartmentalised aspect of West Indian and British-America life, but more like an enormous tide or tsunami which swept over the Indies and Americas.

Slave labour not only fuelled the economy of the colonies and the motherland, but transformed everything it touched, infusing African and black personnel into every aspect of imperial life, as sailors, soldiers, traders and craftsmen, as artisans and musicians, as domestic servants rising to run entire households, as the creators of new languages, customs, styles of music and story-telling.

The black or African element penetrated every aspect of imperial life, colouring it and transforming it for ever. Black Ivory shows how the African contribution became vital to British and American economics, culture and society for at least three centuries. Mechal Sobel wrote a book about slavery in 18th century Virginia and its title summarises this collaborative nature of what happened: The World They Made Together.

Southern reluctance to let go

On a smaller note, Black Ivory also helps you understand how, although it ends with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the institution was so multi-faceted, had become so intertwined not only with the economic but with the social and cultural and personal sphere of the American South (by which I mean the ubiquity of black servants, nurses, valets, stable hands, plantation managers and overseers and so on who had become intimate family members and intricately entwined in all aspects of southern life) that it was literally impossible for white southerners to conceive of life without their black slaves, black domestics and black dependents.

Which goes a long way to helping you grasp why slavery in the South could only be abolished after a gruelling, bloody and devastating civil war.

It doesn’t make you sympathise with the southern slave states. But it does give you a sense of the way that every aspect of life had become utterly imbued with the presence of blacks – slaves or free – so utterly intertwined with them, that southerners literally couldn’t conceive of life without them.

So although its sub-title is a History of British Slavery, by the end I felt that calling it a history of ‘slavery’ was too narrow, too limiting and too negative – almost insulting.

What Walvin’s book feels like, by the end, is a record of the thousand and one ways in which Africans / blacks / slaves triumphed, rose above and remodelled the institution which sought to dehumanise them, and not only shaped West Indian, American and British life, but became an essential, integral part of it.


Related links

Other posts about American history

Youth by Joseph Conrad (1898)

Youth, the shortish short story (30 pages) Conrad completed in June 1898, sees the debut of Charles Marlow, Conrad’s alter-ego, the fictional narrator of this and his two most famous stories, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Marlow’s arrival marks a step change in the quality of Conrad’s work.

Marlow enforces discipline

Because the story is narrated by a character, not by the omniscient narrator he’d used in all his previous works, Conrad has to make a big effort to rein in the stylistic excesses I have described in previous posts. For example, Conrad’s short story The Return strikes me as being almost unbearable to read for its sustained note of manic hysteria. Conrad uses free indirect style to take us inside the mind of Alvan Hervey as his wife’s infidelity triggers what feels, trapped inside his head, like a nervous breakdown. In fact, this is just another outing for the hysterical, panic-stricken, horror-obsessed nihilism which characterises all of Conrad’s fiction up to this point.

It is with immense relief that one turns to Youth because this hysteria is reined right in and Conrad’s stylistic excesses, though still noticeable at moments, are in general held in abeyance in order to foreground the practical, no-nonsense voice of Charles Marlow.

Plot

The plot is simple. The 20-year-old Marlow is second mate on the Judea, contracted to take coal from Newcastle to Bangkok. The boat encounters a number of problems which repeatedly delay its departure from England, then it hits storms off Africa, and then the coal in the hold begins to spontaneously burn as they enter the Indian Ocean.

Eventually the crew are forced to abandon ship, and Marlow docks in the East having commanded a 14-foot ship’s boat and crew of two for the last week of the ill-fated journey.

Style

The style is blessedly restrained. Both the character of Marlow and the nature of the ‘story’ i.e. a detailed account of the maritime problems encountered by the ship – dictate a much more factual style than anything Conrad had previously written.

We had been pulling this finishing spell for eleven hours. Two pulled, and he whose turn it was to rest sat at the tiller. We had made out the red light in that bay and steered for it, guessing it must mark some small coasting port. We passed two vessels, outlandish and high-sterned, sleeping at anchor, and, approaching the light, now very dim, ran the boat’s nose against the end of a jutting wharf.

Shorter sentences. Fewer subordinate clauses. Much more factual content. A lot less tautology or redundancy. A blessed relief, though the old Conrad is still there, straining at the leash:

O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it! To me she was not an old rattle-trap carting about the world a lot of coal for a freight—to me she was the endeavour, the test, the trial of life. I think of her with pleasure, with affection, with regret.

There was not a light, not a stir, not a sound. The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave.

This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise.

But the familiar lyricism, the repetition and apposition, is justified by the fundamental idea – that this is the character Marlow’s paean to the vividness and optimism of naive and romantic youth. Well, just about justified.

Framing device

Youth starts with the identical setting made famous by Heart of Darkness, i.e. after dinner in London five mature and successful men of the world who have all experienced the sea sit and smoke cigars, chatting. The anonymous narrator is one of them; he sets this scene, describes the audience a little, and then lets Marlow begin his tale.

The frame device, the tale-within-a-tale, does several things:

  • It distances the tale. No matter what happens we know that Marlow survived and is telling it to us now. Though we are caught up in the events he narrates, we are not actually lost in a moment-by-moment helter-skelter of hysteria with a totally unpredictable outcome, as we are in the key scenes of Almayer or An Outpost
  • Marlow is telling his tale to a suave and knowing audience. This has an important effect in toning down the hysterical style of the earlier novels and stories. Although Marlow is still given lines of improbable lyricism, Conrad is conscious of them, limits them, and excuses them – Marlow himself justifies them as he speaks them – because this is a tale of high spirits and boyish optimism.
  • Marlow is English. Unlike the protagonists of Almayer and Outcast and Outpost and Karain. It is as if hysteria is characteristic of the lesser Europeans, the Dutch and Belgians. Conrad emphasises Marlow’s Englishness by making him use the upper-class slang of the day – ‘Pon my soul’, ‘The deuce of a time’. And the Englishness of narrator and audience guarantees a sang-froid, the famous stiff upper-lip, which limits and disciplines Conrad. Enforces restraint. And his prose is all the more effective for it.

For those who like patterns, it is pretty that Conrad published Youth, Heart of Darkness and The End of The Tether in one volume in 1902 (Youth, A Narrative, and other tales) – one representing youth, one representing maturity, one representing old age.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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