On a recent flight I watched Fire in Babylon, a fascinating documentary on the West Indies cricket team. I remember watching their test matches against England when I was a teenager but am ashamed to admit that at the time I had no idea of the political importance of their victories.
One of my favourite scenes in the film is when a member of the crowd holds up a sign saying “Black Wash” after the West Indies beat England 5-0, a resounding win over their former colonial masters.
The trailer for the film sums it up perfectly, “They brought the world to its knees and a nation to its feet”, as the team accomplished a winning streak of 29 Test series between 1980 and 1995. As the great Sir Viv Richards says in the film: “My bat was my sword.”
I would have known a lot more if Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island, had been around when I was young. She tells the story of Jamaican immigrants to England in 1948 just after they had fought for the Empire in the Second World War.
Although it is very recent history, it is shocking to read about what people went through purely because of the colour of their skin: “A devout Christian, Curtis was asked not to return to his local church for his skin was too dark to worship there” and “Louis now believed bloodyforeigner to be all one word.”
One Englishwomen says: “All those coons eyeing her and her daughters up every time they walked down their own street. Hitler invading couldn’t have been any worse.”
When Hortense, who had been a teacher in Jamaica, arrives in England she asks herself how the “Mother Country”, which she has known all her life, does not know her:
Can this be that fabled relation you heard so much of? This twisted-crooked weary woman. This stinking cantankerous hag. She offers you no comfort after your journey. No smile. No welcome. Yet she looks down at you through lordly eyes and says, ‘Who the bloody hell are you?’
I imagine my parents received similar reactions when they arrived in England from Bangladesh in the 50s and 60s. Yet it is heartening to see that progress is possible as our family is now a wonderful mix from Bangladesh, Spain and England.
Andrea Levy’s latest novel, The Long Song, is set even further back in Jamaica when “the coffin with the words, ‘Colonial slavery died July 31, 1838, aged 276 years,’ was lowered into the ground” and “a joyous breeze blew.”
The treatment of the slaves was even more shocking , including women:
Half-way between the town and Shepperton Pen, they had come upon a naked slave woman, tied to a coconut tree by her arms. As her feet could not reach the floor, she was slowly spinning in the sun’s heat. Dangling juicy as roasting meat upon a spit, crows kept pecking at her to test her as food. As she spat and kicked to shoo them, she would start to spin faster. She had been beaten before being tied up—with a stick or a short riding whip—for her skin, dusty and black, was in places torn off, creating a speckled pattern that appeared like dappled sunlight upon her.
The small boy had been running with messages to rebel slaves—a crime—there was no doubt in Howarth’s mind upon that. But the boy was then sealed into a barrel which was roughly pierced with over twenty-five long nails hammered into the shell. The boy, still trapped within that spiky cask, was then rolled down a hill.
This further explains why the West Indies cricket team was so important:
And for any number of legendary West Indian fast bowlers – a proud lineage that ran from Andy Roberts to Curtly Ambrose – the ball was a bullet. If the odd bruise was inflicted, the odd bone broken, that was as nothing compared to the suffering of the African people under the yoke of slavery. (The Daily Telegraph)
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