Occasional Essays
November 24, 2006
Pharcel: runaway slave

Director General turns novelist

Alick Lazare, Director General of Finance in Dame Eugenia Charles’ Dominica and now the leading consultant in Government Finance in the OECS has written his first novel. This is certainly not his first literary work for he has published short stories. It however is his first attempt at a full length novel. The story is about the life of a runaway slave. It should be of great interest to Vincentians since the detailed description it gives of the lives of runaway slaves parallels that of our own Black Caribs. {{more}}

The many camps occupied by the runaways deep in the forest, each with its own leader; the frequent raids by them on the plantations and the punitive expeditions sent against them; the heavy reliance of the runaways on the assistance from the French in their struggles; the quarrels between planters’ and colonial government; the parlous state of the planters finances; the low opinion of the planter class held by the few intellectuals in the society, perhaps the priest and the leader of the militia; they are all there!

The book starts off at a galloping pace with a racy, attention-grabbing first chapter of erotic voyeurism and sex. Sex among the planters, sex among the runaways and sex between the slaves and the planters. Hooked, the reader is led through fast turning pages of crime and punishment as Pharcel, a virile young slave, is made to pay the price and subsequently flees the plantation for fear of further retribution.

He joins the maroon camp of Coree Greg, an old African of the Kongo nation, a very wise old bird whose only wish is to keep his camp out of trouble until he feels the time is right for total insurrection. One is soon translocated with Pharcel into the politics of resistance. Pharcel falls foul of Bala the leader of an attractive blood and thunder camp, which draws the younger men. Bala is a very brave man but impetuous. He lacks the foresight of Coree Greg and in the end pays a harsh penalty.

Then there is suave, educated Paulinaire, a Martinican mulatto with a plan filled with revolutionary fervour. In the stratified society of the 18th century he aims to use slave uprisings to remove the white planters and implant his light skinned kin in their place. Coree Greg’s assessment of him turns out to be sound. He and some other camp leaders declare that they would never trust a mulatto and moreover the man is a theorist who has never had to cope with the harsh conditions of runaway slave life in the forest. They think that when put to the test Paulinaire would be found wanting. And he is.

Several women feature in the story; Elise the French planter’s wife, Kumeni the Carib, ravaged Betty, Presente, no I jest not! That is the name she uses as she titillates our hero. But Alick loses the opportunity to define their characters and they appear as sex objects or crones.

As we know from our own history the militia of those days was a pretty poor fighting force. They got up to all sorts of things other than what they were supposed to do..In St. Vincent’s case it was land grabbing. In Alick’s novel it is a love triangle. The white planter’s wife Elise rejects Captain Marshall’s advances once Pharcel is on the scene. The Captain, driven by jealousy and the ignominy of losing his woman to a slave, abandons military strategy to concentrate on avenging his injured pride.

Pharcel weaves through all these communities and ends up leading an improbably idyllic camp of self sufficient escaped slaves, only to leave it in search of something else. But that I’ll leave you to find out about for yourself.

Long passages of lyrical scenic descriptions lacing through the story get a bit repetitive after a couple of times. Similarly certain adjectives are overused. Like the schoolgirl who finds amusement at counting the nervous ticks of a teacher I was tempted to monitor usage of words like ‘ebony’. There is also the problem of switches in writing style when Alick’s academic norm imposes on the newly assumed story-telling persona.

The book is an extremely good buy, particularly at this time when we are about to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. It should soon be available in local bookstores including the one run by this newspaper. Make sure your Christmas stocking has one.

ISBN 0-595-39578-3