Cockney captive turns the tables

In Search of the Red Slave
May 9, 2003

This is a work of archaeology in two very different senses. First, it is an account of several seasons of gritty fieldwork with bucket and trowel in southern Madagascar. Second, it is an exercise in literary excavation, an attempt to tie a historical text to both the milieu of its production and the world of which it claims to be an authentic and accurate account.

Madagascar: or Robert Drury's Journal During Fifteen Years' Captivity on that Island, published in 1792, purports to describe the adventures of a shipwrecked English sailor and the culture and politics of the world in which he found himself an unwilling captive. It is the centre about which this book turns.

We have had captivity tales before. The idea of the white slave - as every Sunday newspaper knows - titillatingly inverts the normal power relations between the West and the rest and shockingly questions cosy assumptions of dominance.

But while this explains the literary success of the genre, it also shows why scholars have been right to doubt the veracity of such works. Drury's journal has often been dismissed as no more than another effusion of that ubiquitous 18th-century hack Daniel Defoe, whose own Robinson Crusoe demonstrates that such memoirs are just too handy and sensational a vehicle for political and epistemological propaganda to be unquestioningly believed. The only curious thing is that the authors seem to consider that, in this, travellers' tales are inherently different from academic anthropology.

Robert Drury sailed off in search of adventure and profit in 1701 on an East India Company vessel, the Degrave, bound for India. It was a time when there were briefly two such companies, locked in competition, and the system worked about as well as that of having two popes.

The historical and political background is excellently captured here, with a wealth of fascinating detail about trade and politics. For example, an imported luxury for homesick Indian epicures was putrid Thames river water whose taste they yearned for nostalgically. A magpie eye for such snippets enlivens the book throughout.

But all was not well with the Degrave. With her bottom damaged by an inept pilot, she was forced off course and dodged the ravages of disease and pirates to end up shipwrecked on the shores of south Madagascar that were home to the Tandroy people. Massacre and enslavement follow, and Drury goes native, marries, herds cattle and speaks the local tongue with a Cockney accent. Attempted escape leads to brushes with death and castration and, in order to survive, Drury engages in the internecine civil wars that roll across the area and ends up as a bodyguard in the Sakalava royal house.

Drury's tale is intercut with the archaeological journal of the same territory. His tales guide their search for sites to survey. Their researches confirm the accuracy of his ethnography. A benevolent circle of mutual confirmation develops, which underpins the authenticity of Drury's work as more than a mere literary exercise and speculation.

But this is an unequal partnership. The history is more vivid than either the prehistory or the contemporary archaeology. Perhaps it is merely the result of professional modesty that the excavation results themselves seem relatively slim, so that the contemporary Malagasy seem to feel a need to better justify all this effort and expense. A few sketches and surveys and some hypotheses about giant birds leave them unmoved. They suspect the team to be adventurers in search of a grisly cure for Aids, there to prey on the populace and carry off their heads. The historical continuities of all this are only too clear.

And Drury? He finally made it back to London after 16 years of exile, returning to a world he had left as a boy of 14, which he scarcely recognised and whose language he had largely forgotten. Turning his misfortunes to positive use, he returned to Madagascar and went into the slave trade on his own account. We might be a little less shocked by this than the authors. Amistead pieties notwithstanding, it was a fairly common practice for slaves - black and white - to become slavers.

Inevitably, it is the shadow of Defoe that hovers over this work, for the authors cannot entirely discard the notion that he may have been the botching editor of a larger, more worthy, work, now lost. We might wish to comfort ourselves with the recollection of an 18th-century squib that has Defoe beaten up in Stoke Newington by his creation, Man Friday, for making him stutter and stammer bad English even after so many years of exposure to the tongue.

Nigel Barley is an anthropologist and writer, formerly on the staff of the British Museum.

In Search of the Red Slave: Shipwreck and Captivity in Madagascar

Author - Mike Pearson and Karen Godden
ISBN - 0 7509 2938 3
Publisher - Sutton
Price - £14.99
Pages - 217

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