Book Review – Yvonne Shorter Brown
When Conchi Blows
Omar Sheriffe Vernon el Halawani,.
North Charleston, South Carolina:
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. 558 pp.
Excerpts from Review by Yvonne Shorter Brown, author of Dead Woman Pickney: A Memoir of Childhood in Jamaica.
The general reader as well as humanities and social science academics of Caribbean literature should welcome this long needed epic novel of nineteenth-century sugar plantation regime in Jamaica. When Conchi Blows, written by the late Omar Sheriffe Vernon el Halawani fills a gap and complements the excellent historiographies that Jamaican historians have constructed, especially since independence.
Vernon el Halawani recreates every imaginable detail of plantation life – its sights, landscape, sounds and smells. The brutal work regimes of the labour-intensive preindustrial capitalist enterprise of sugarcane plantation, sugar manufacturing, rum distillation, and molasses that required both man and horsepower are described by descriptive language that transports the reader to the various plantations of St James of the time.
This novel is chock full of details, no doubt gleaned over a lifetime of research, family history and participant observation of contemporary Jamaican society. I appreciated the details about the network of plantations and their social connections; descriptions of social and racial composition and hierarchy within each group; the labour regime around sugar and rum production; the related trades, and modes of transportation.
Vernon el Halawani constructed various points of view about slavery and freedom that takes the reader beyond the binaries of slave and master, black and white, merchant and planter, crown and colony. Characters such as the Jewish peddlers, the prostitutes, the tradesmen, and the higgler women, making an independent living amid overseer gluttony, sports, debauchery, were very interesting. So were the characters that played their roles in spreading the Christian gospel through the Baptist and Moravian mission churches.
This complex story of slavery and emancipation struggles in Jamaica and the role of Christian ideas of freedom and equality, which Daddy Sharp was able to re-interpret from the Baptist and Moravians in contrast to the Anglican interpretation constitute another telling of the plotting of the Sam Sharp Rebellion. The aspirations of the enslaved Africans as articulated by Daddy Sharpe and his African co-leaders were carefully drawn, showing different attitudes to freedom as exemplified by the characters Edward Lawrence and is wife, as well as the overseers and investors.
I found the very powerful Galloway character most intriguing in the number of roles he occupied, and the ways in which he used his power. He resisted the sexual exploitation of the women as exemplified in his rescue and honouring of his brutalized “housekeeper” and her son. His advice to Neddy about homosexual exploitation of young boys was original. This topic is seldom dealt with so explicitly in the literature.
Vernon el Halawani’s treatment of the oppressed Irish and Scots brought some historical complexity to the narrative. The “white” dispossessed, and displaced of the British Empire are often erased from historical accounts. The history of the Highland Clearances in Scotland by the Scottish and English capitalists and the wars of English colonization of Ireland are usually overshadowed by accounts of the potato famines as push factors, in their forced immigration to the Caribbean colonies and the US colonies, during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Even though class and race distinctions are clearly drawn, Vernon el Halawani skillfully leads the reader to see the entrapment and resultant persistent social and psychological pathologies that the set of circumstances bred.
The lifelong work of Jamaican psychiatrist, Fred Hickling has shown how these legacies of brutality and social division play out in the Island today. George Beckford’s plantation thesis of
underdevelopment has given us a historical material understanding of how and why structural poverty is endemic to the island even three hundred years later.
Other Book Review: Share, October 23, 2013