Iam a negro and a free man, but close to death. I was born in Guinea in 1760, I have been told, and was sold to a ship’s captain from Bristol. He bought me with red cloth. I know now that cloth came from Stroud. I was taken to Barbados. I can do no better than to describe that voyage through the words of Olaudah Equiano (I was later taught to read and write by a minister on the plantation. I have carried two books with me always since on my travels: The Bible and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African):
‘This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.’
I excelled at my studies and so became a servant to ------------ -------------------. My artful dissimulation enabled me to play perfectly the role of periwigged, liveried footman. There never was a more attentive peacock. At length, my master decided to return to his estate in England. I was given the ‘privilege’, as he put it, of voyaging to England too. There would be no return to Guinea for me; that was my hoped-for reward, but that was a mere phantom.
My master’s estate was in the south of the shire and north of Bristol. After about a year, a coachman ‘of sable hue’ arrived one day with some new materials for my master’s chosen livery: Stroud Scarlet; Uley Blue and Berkeley Yellow. He called me over before the coach departed and whispered in my ear. He told me that my long lost brother was in this country too – and only some 30 miles away.
I resolved to ask for my freedom, and head north for Rodborough, near Stroud. Alas! My plea was peremptorily refused – how could I be such an ingrate? The following night I exchanged my livery for fustian brown and disappeared into the darkness of the night. Comforting light for a fleeing slave! I concealed my person in the newly planted hedgerows by day and walked by night, keeping the moonlit River Severn on my left and close to sight. My coachman friend had told me that I should go to Arlingham, where there was a chance of obtaining a place on a crew of a vessel heading for Gloucester. My good fortune continued and I duly found a place on the Quadrille, bound for Gloucester. Here I met more men of colour, some from America.
One of these mariners told me the whereabouts of Rodborough and that he had heard that a negro was in habitation there. This news spurred me as much as my hearty dinner – my brother! The mariner advised me to head back toFramilode, so that I might join a crew on a ship heading for Stroud through the Stroudwater Navigation. When I mentioned the Quadrille, that was sufficient testimony to my prowess, and I took my place on the Sabrina.
I alighted at Wallbridge to take the path up the hill to Rodborough. It was with a little trepidation but much expectation that I entered that parish on that autumn day. I sought out the clergyman at the church and explained my quest. I showed him my Bible in my bag; my name in the front’s piece seemed to reassure him of my bona fides. He looked at me solemnly and dropped his gaze. He asked me to follow him and this I did, following in his dolorous wake.
He lifted the parish register and leafed through the pages. After some moments of pensive perusal, he showed me this entry:
1st July, 1778, William Jubiter, ye black, buried.
I buried my head in my hands and cried the salt tears of loneliness. At length, I was led from the church and so made my melancholy descent back to Wallbridge. I despaired of human company and recoiled from the thought of contact, such was my sadness. I resolved to make a solitary way along the cut and so reach the River Thames; and thence to London. The beauty of the bosky hills and vales; the serenity of the sylvan shade; the laughter of the waters; the wind in the reeds; the white stone cottages like so many pebbles thrown on the hillsides; the pure green fields – all of these conspired to give me endurance, fortitude and make thanks to God. Two days walking led me to Lechlade where I found a place on the William Butler, bound for Deptford. Here I found friendly mariners and also negroes. They told me that the riversides in London possess a whole reticulation of havens and hidey-holes for escaped slaves and servants. A trudge through a labyrinth of streets, creeks and chimneys led me to my haven, where I presently lie on my bedding.
The death-rattle of my cough echoes the call of the birds of my homeland in Guinea. My birthplace is no phantom now. The call of my mother and father is as insistent as the waves on the shore-line of my village. I know that I shall, at last, be returning to that bourn ere long. These are the last words that I shall write.
Story written by Stuart Butler, August 2013, inspired by an entry in a parish register.
“Non-fiction uses facts to help us see the lies. Fiction uses metaphor to help us see the truth.”