A log book for heroes

A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain, 1700 - 2000
August 29, 2003

In 1562, John Hawkyns purchased about 300 Africans whom he then sold to Spanish plantation owners in the Caribbean. Queen Elizabeth facilitated a second transaction in 1564 by lending Hawkyns a ship, The Jesus of Lubeck.

This was followed by an official crest and a coat of arms. England, contra her advocacy of freedom, was now complicit in the slave trade.

It is fitting, then, that C. L. Innes should have delivered the opening chapters of A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain, 1700-2000 as a lecture in Rochester, Kent, before a predominantly British-African audience at the opening of the Medway town's annual "black history month" in 2002. In the story of these ports and towns are echoes of early elisions in official history. Innes' book might be read as a project seeking to correct some of these.

She achieves this to an extent through a historical and contextual positioning of her work, by placing her narrative within the framework of slavery, empire and its end. Her opening - involving slave narratives of Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano - draws attention to "the equation between writing, civilisation and humanity" that marked the 18th century, when literary creation was vital to debates on the abolition of slavery. At the height of the colonial enterprise, arose this post-colonial tension: the hitherto voiceless invested the literary landscape with a political geography.

Innes covers the same areas as Paul Edwards, James Walvin and David Dabydeen. The first half engages with the production and reception of early black writing and is a fitting companion volume to Edwards and Dabydeen's Black Writers in Britain 1760-1890: An Anthology. The frames of reference overlap: 13 of the 19 writers in the anthology are also examined by Innes.

More important, these early writers' reversal in their work of norms of colour, appearance and the categories of observer/ observed problematises certain post-colonial categories. They demonstrate an assumption of agency long before late-20th-century academics came to delineate agency as a concept.

Moving on from the early narratives of Dean Mahomed, Robert Wedderburn, Mary Prince, and the sisters Cornelia and Alice Sorabji, Innes comes to C.

L. R. James, Una Marson, Mulk Raj Anand, Aubrey Menen and their London contemporaries. Alongside runs a documentation of the anti-imperial movements and journals.

The epilogue engages with V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ben Okri and Zadie Smith, among others - all of which makes the book, like the post-colonial project itself, diffuse. While English literature is subdivided into categories such as Shakespeare studies and Victorian studies, post-colonial literature is the study of what Arun P. Mukherjee calls "a bunch of countries". He remarks that "the western university has constituted a field called post-colonial literature where the literary productions of (half) the world are crammed and are usually taught by one heroic individual".

A History of Black and Asian Writing leaves the reader with a quiet thought. The insecurity of early African writers that led them to assert originality and authorship by insisting their works were "written by themselves" is absent in Alice Walker's dedication in her Pulitzer prize-winning The Colour Purple, where she acknowledges the spirit "without whose assistance neither this book nor I would have been written".

Dipli Saikia has recently completed a PhD at the University of Bristol.

A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain, 1700 - 2000

Author - C. L. Innes
ISBN - 0 521 643 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 308

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