Back in 1647, Richard Ligon of England got on a boat to Barbados to try to change his fortune. He lived there three years, then returned to England and later, while in prison for debt, he wrote a book, A True and Exact Historie of the Island of Barbadoes. It was immediately popular, hailed as a scientific environmental study (with pull-out drawings!), now considered “perhaps the most important document regarding English colonization efforts in the 17th-century Caribbean”, a primary source on the West Indies then.
Flash ahead 370 years. In February 2017, I buy the book at Frenchy’s second-hand shop in Oromocto (the 2011 edition, its first reprint since 1673). I am thrilled because I am shortly going to Barbados, by way of a boat going to Europe. (I use boats for transportation across the Atlantic.) The boat will spin its wheels in the Antilles before crossing the Atlantic, and it will be in Barbados for one day. I look forward to reading the book during my week on the boat before I land in Barbados.
I see that the book also tells of Ligon’s stops in the Cape Verde Islands off Africa, on his way to Barbados “to trade for Negroes, Horses, and Cattle which we were to sell at the Barbados”. My boat will also make stops in and around those islands. I am doing his trip in reverse! His voyage took 22 days, mine will take 21.
I examine my prize book before packing it and see that it was purchased in 2012 by Clark University near Boston. I notice a printout tucked into the back pocket and find it is overdue by three months. WTF, eh? I send an email to the address, saying, you looking for this book? They answer “this book was not discarded… It was on loan to another university last semester and should have returned to us… Unfortunately, you purchased a book from Frenchy’s that they had no right to sell. Perhaps if you contacted the owner and showed this e-mail exchange you could be reimbursed? Ultimately, though, this particular copy belongs to Clark University, and we would be extremely grateful for its return…”
I don’t want a refund, I want the book. But a librarian wants it back. And I love librarians.
I write to Frenchy’s to say you sold a hot book. They reply that their suppliers in the U.S. are told to ensure that they are supplying stuff that is legally for sale, and sorry.
I tell Clark University that I will return their book and I mean to. But I’m getting ready for two months away and I neglect shipping it and here I am on the ship to Barbados with the book. But I will return it, and anyway jeez, I know that once I return it, the book will gather dust between doctoral students – and I’m reading it for pleasure. That should count for something.
Anyway, the book is a delight. It’s a sensitive soul’s journal. It’s a pleasant read even if the nerdy gentleman author does go on about everything he sees, fish they catch, the trees, the flowers, the fruits, the character and shape of women, and of their breasts. There are pages devoted to the pineapple (“when it comes to be eaten, nothing of rare taste can be thought on that is not there”). He comments the relations between classes, the beliefs and morals of the enslaved Africans and Indians, the diet fed to slaves and servants, the swimming prowess of slaves, and enough detail and diagrams about the sugar-making process to do it yourself.
The author is a man of his times – he repeats the racist tropes – but he is interested in, even learns from, the locals, the slaves and the servants. For example, among the problems that he deplores that the English planters must face are the potential rebellions of slaves while coming on ships from Africa, which “extremely retard the work of sugar-making”. But he goes to the Master to defend, or on behalf of, a servant or slave. In one incredible exchange with a Master, Ligon is advocating for a slave, Sambo, who wishes to become a Christian. The Master tells Ligon that the laws of England forbid making a Christian a slave. “I told him, my request was far different from that, for I desired him to make a Slave a Christian.” But the Master says once he is a Christian, the slave could no longer be held as a slave and the other planters would not appreciate the precedent. “So I was struck mute, and poor Sambo kept out of the Church; as ingenious, as honest and as good a natured poor soul, as ever wore black, or eat green.” (That law was later changed so you could keep your slave even if they were Christian. Progress, eh.)
I will now return my book to its owners. We’ve had our adventure together.
Me and my book on the bridge, in Bridgetown, that is a successor to the indigenous bridge which the English planters found when they landed in uninhabited/abandoned Barbados in the mid 1600s.