Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Reviewed by Harriet

This little treasure of a book tells the story, in his own words, of the last survivor of the last, illegal, cargo of enslaved Africans to be brought for sale in America. The horrors of slavery have been highlighted in literature and film before, but this account is unique in its freshness and immediacy, and in the fact that it covers the life of one man from his first nineteen years in Africa to his capture, imprisonment, voyage across the Atlantic, enslavement and subsequent years of freedom. The man, known in America as Cudjo Lewis, was interviewed in the late 1920s by the African American cultural anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who spent many fruitless years trying to get the book published. Amazingly, this is the first time it has appeared in print.

Hurston had conducted her first interview for the purpose of an article in the Journal of Negro History. But this was an essay, and she returned to Alabama a few months later in order to record her subject’s experience in his own words. In the resulting text she starts with an introduction giving a historical account of the circumstances behind his story, and then moves on to the series of interviews she conducted.

Briefly, the facts are these. The so-called transatlantic slave trade had been abolished by Britain in 1807 and by the US, nominally at least, in 1808. But the money to be made, and the efforts of pro-slavery individuals in the US, meant that the trade continued illegally for many years. This was made possible by the fact that powerful African tribes not only kept slaves themselves but also sold captured individuals to the slave traders. The very last of these traders were a collection of bold and greedy men who, in 1860, fitted up a ship called the Clothilde and sailed for the west coast of Africa. The 110 captives they brought back were sold in and around Alabama, and remained enslaved for more than five years, until, after the civil war, they gained their freedom. One of these captives was Cudjo, who Hurston always refers to by his African name, Oluale Kossola. This is how she greets him when she turns up at his house for their first meeting, much to his great delight:

Oh Lor’ I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me my name from across the water but you. You aways callee me Kossola, jus’ lak I in de Africky soil.

Ironically it is Hurston’s determination to reproduce Kossola’s speech patterns that prevented her book from being published – publishers wanted her to transcribe her interviews into ‘readable’ language and she refused. Reading it today we can only be grateful for her decision. Kossola’s story is told over a series of meetings held at his house in what was known as Africatown, the settlement founded by a group of freed slaves after the civil war. Hurston turns up at the house on a number of occasions, usually bringing presents – watermelon, peaches, crabs – which she shares with Kossula. Sometimes he is tired (he is 85 years old) and sometimes not in the mood for an interview, but mostly he is willing to talk and glad of the opportunity to tell his story. He’s glad of the company, too – his wife and sons have died, and he’s lonely. And he wants his story to be known because maybe someone will read it, and,

‘maybe dey go in de Afficky soil someday and callee my name and somebody there say “Yeah, I know Kossola”’.

Cudjo Lewis, photographed on 1 Jan, 1914 by Emma Langdon Roche via Wikimedia Commons

Kossola (right) tells the story in his own way. When he starts describing his father and grandfather, Hurston tries to stop him, but his family and heritage are important to him. He tells of his growing up in his village, his training aged fourteen to be a soldier. At the age of nineteen he sees a girl he would like to marry, but there are weeks of initial rites to be carried out, and before these come to an end his village is attacked by the vicious female warriors of the Dahomey tribe, who slaughter many of the townspeople and capture more than a hundred others to be taken to the coast and kept in a fenced enclosure known as a barracoon to await transportation to America. Then there’s the terrible journey on the Clothilde, Kossola terrified of the sea and the wind and weakened by the confinement and the lack of proper food. He describes the harsh conditions of labour on the plantation where he has been sold, the confusion of the slaves when they hear of the fighting in the war and their eventual learning that they are now free. But freedom brings its own problems – they find some land and hope to be given it, but no, they must work to buy their land and build their houses, and eventually Africatown comes into existence.

You might hope that after freedom all would be plain sailing but no, life continues to be hard and painful. Kossola marries and has a fine family of sons, but the Africans are continually oppressed by American-born blacks, who look down on people born in Africa. Indeed, Kossola’s sons are attacked for being born of African parents, and by the time of Hurston’s interview, all of them have died. But the old man carries on, with just the company of a daughter-in-law and some grandchildren, and with the Christian faith he has absorbed over his long life.

Kossola’s story, and the appendix containing some of the stories he told Hurston, takes up a bare 117 pages of this book – the rest is a very thorough contextual introduction by the editor, Deborah G. Plant, plus notes and a glossary. All these are useful to have, but the real meat of the book is the story of Kossola himself, in his own vernacular, plus the lively interjections of Hurston herself as she describes her meetings with the old man, complete with their consumption of watermelon, peaches and crabs. This is truly a really important book, and one that should be read by anybody with any interest in what is one of the most tragic episodes in living history.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave (Harper Collins, 2018). 978-0008297664, 154pp., paperback.

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