Presentation on theme: "Caryl Phillps, Crossing the River (1993) Crossing the River explores the issues of slavery and black diaspora from different points of view; it is a fragmented."— Presentation transcript:
Caryl Phillps, Crossing the River (1993) Crossing the River explores the issues of slavery and black diaspora from different points of view; it is a fragmented novel built of four different sections linked together by a common prologue: Prologue: lamentation by an African father guilty of having sold his three children (Nash, Martha and Travis) to a slave-trader; I section: story of Nash, a slave sent to Liberia by his master as a missionary; II section: story of Martha, an ex-slave who crosses America as a pioneer looking for her lost daughter; III section: logbook of a slaver captain, James Hamilton, where we find reference to the purchase of '2 strong man-boys and a proud girl'; IV section: story of Travis, a black American servicemen in England during the WWII;
A chorus of common memories The stories of the children develop in different times and spaces, covering 250 years and the three sides of the slave trade triangle they represent the offspring of the entire African continent; The African father is haunted by the memory of what he has done to his children; The voice of the slave-trader who has bought the children is present too, both within the prologue and in the third section (logbook and letters to his wife); Memory is something fragmented which can only be rebuilt by a chorus of voices. Memory and past are fragmented and can only be rebuilt by a chorus of voices
A polysemic title T he title of the book can have many meanings: Literally it refers to the river the three children had to cross to be sold as slaves; By extension it refers to all Africans who crossed waters in their trip to the colonies, to whom the book is dedicated; Metaphor of the borders we have to cross in order to meet others (i.e. the border which has been established between blacks and whites); Idea of the river of life which has a precise spring but then crosses spatial and temporal zones coming to an unknown destination; Fluidity between cultures and in the process of building one's own self.
Crossing the River: third section Section which is entitled as the whole book: it can be considered as the turning point which caused all the other events described, the spring of the river; It tells the story of captain James Hamilton, who sets sail on the Duke of York for Africa on 24 April 1752 in order to return with a cargo of slaves; The section contains many fragmented diary entries and two letters addressed to his wife; It establishes a creative dialogue with the work of John Newton, an English slave-trader, author of Journal of a Slave Trader (1764) and Letter to a Wife (1793); he later became a speaker against the slave trade; The voice of the colonialist himself is taken into account;
The logbook The first contact Hamilton has with Africa gives us a sense of uncertainty: different and dangerous weather conditions, different animals, reference to the deep water they're sailing in; The only voice we have is that of the white slave-trader but the fragmentation of the diary leaves space for the unspoken words of both slaves and crew; The voices of the slaves can be imagined by the reader thanks to some reference to their repeated attempts to rebel: “surprised 4 attempting to get off their irons, and upon further search in their rooms found some knives, stones, etc.” (p.114) Hamilton has a dispassionate tone, expression of the commercial detachment he feels when treating with slaves: black people are objectified, their lives have no value for him as such: “this afternoon, bartered with a Frenchman for 2 anchors of brandy, 20 cwt of rice, and a man slave of quite unnatural proportion” (p.111)
The logbook The slaves are not called by name but by number: “At 7 pm. departed this life Edward White, […] 7 days ill of a nervous fever. Buried him at once. Put overboard a boy, No. 29, very bad with a violent body flux”. (p.116) When they die or are just very ill, the slaves are thrown in the water. Their illness is just seen as a menace for the business; The captain complains of his ill-luck in the trade, not at all sympathetic to the traumatic fate of the people he buys. African people are also held responsible for the slave trade: “Bought a pair of man-boys from an African prince, as they are styled” (p.110 ) Here we can also notice how Hamilton refuses to accept the African social organization: blacks shouldn't be allowed to call themselves princes.
The letters Hamilton writes very passionate letters to his wife which demonstrate he is capable of love: clear contrast with his lack of feelings and humanity as expressed in the logbook; He is working as a slave-trader to provide financial security for his family while destroying the family of others and he doesn't see it as a paradox; He experienced a loss in his family too: he is searching for his father's last steps; He refers to his wife as “my better, precious part”, which “is safely at home”: also his better part as human being, compassion, has been left “at home”; (p.109) humanity seen as linked to womanhood;
A complex character The characterization of Hamilton is not clear-cut: The letters prove he is not totally inhuman but he cannot relate the kindness he has to the slaves; His life is seen as precarious too: he fells ill and his life is in danger. We don't know if his trip ends with a safe landing; The ambiguity of Hamilton is demonstrated by his association with captain J. Newton, who in the end took part in the anti-slave trade campaign. We need to read his diary together with his letters to understand his complexity and multidimensionality; Phillips problematizes the figure of the slave-trader: he's not just a stereotyped figure.