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Saturday, 9 February 2019

Travelling Back into History...

During the 1970s I had several fictional novels centred on Negro slavery of the Caribbean and of the Deep South, covering the last sixty years of that era between approximately AD 1800-1865. Three of these books, all by the same author, belonged to my father, but after finishing with them, he insisted that I should read them myself, a good way to open my eyes to the brutal realities of history.*

Although told through fictional characters, the locations were real enough. For example, according to the novel, Dumaine Street in New Orleans was where Madame Alix DeVaux was supposed to have had her infamous bordello, which became the popular venue where her illegal Negro son, Drum, took on all comers in its popular Saturday evening pastime of negro-fighting. Here, slave owners would pit their fighters against each other amidst swopping of bets, with the victorious owner having thousands of dollars of winnings stuffed into his bag. Consequently, the losing owner was not only left out of pocket but sometimes lost his crippled slave fighter by means of death, either in the arena itself or afterwards through gunshot, or less severely, left alive but permanently scarred by a whip.

Although I wasn't yet a Christian when I read all three of these books, nevertheless, as a teenager, I was already emotionally immune to such brutal narration. This was because, during the early years of my working life, mainly between 1968-1973, there was enough smut and crudeness going around the all-male workplace in where I had to grow out of schoolboy adolescence pretty quickly. Whether such tales actually held up to the reality of history, or whether many of these incidents were exaggerated to make enjoyable reading, I can't be sure. But in 1978, whilst backpacking alone across the USA, New Orleans in the southern State of Louisiana was one of my stops along the way, consisting of a three-night stay at a YMCA a short walk from the French Creole Old City.

Maybe such books did hint in reflecting true history rather than dwell on colourful exaggeration. One afternoon, whilst in the YMCA communal showers, I felt ill at ease as I was gawked at by another male - something far from unusual for me back then, with the realisation that such occasions were also very common during those slave days, as highlighted in those books. However, I saw that prominent locations such as Dumaine Street actually exists. As I walked through this otherwise unassuming Creole throughway, I could have picked out any of the townhouses as once home to DeVaux's bordello and her slave fighter Drum.

Dumaine Street, New Orleans. Visited 1978.

Other locations, such as the Old Absinthe House, a bar frequented by slave owners whose plantations were nearby, was still there in 1978, where I enjoyed a drink in this historic venue. Kyle Onstott's books narrate that the Old Absinthe House at Rue Bourbon was frequented by pirate Jean Lafitte during the city's height of slave prosperity, and where he held his business meetings. And history confirms Jean Lafitte to be a real historical figure, along with his brother Pierre, who, according to the novel, had a blacksmith shop in the town. In the novel, the retired Napoleon soldier Dominique You had a rapport with Alix DeVaux and was one of her regular customers. Dominique You was also a historical figure who had close associations with the Lafitte brothers.

If factfinding from fictional books can be so plausible, and the characters and locations were real people and real places, then other details connected with life in the Deep South which comes to light must also be based on truth. And plantation life was fully detailed. And that is especially when the owners, usually a married couple, have a daughter as their firstborn. If the firstborn had been a son, there would have been no problems. The son would be the natural heir to the plantation, its land, barns, crops and slaves, as well as the house itself. And he would have grown up specifically groomed for this. His future wife was normally a daughter of another plantation owner.

But if the firstborn was a daughter, then she would need to marry, either someone from outside, or she would marry the heir of another plantation owner and move out of her home to settle with her husband at his property. However, there were occasions when the suitor agrees to leave his home to live at his wife's plantation. According to the novels, such suitors usually have an older brother who is the rightful heir, or he could be a poorer man from the streets, who will marry the heiress for his own advantage. 

There has been, however, a small minority of strong-willed women who had chosen to remain the sole heir of her plantation after her father's demise and has developed a good knowledge of management and slave handling. A man from elsewhere may marry her, again for his own gain, but finds himself disillusioned when forced to remain subservient to her. Fiction loves to poke fun at such characters!

Old Absinthe House - I had a drink here in 1978.

However, the majority of women in the Deep South grew up with an instinctive fear of lifelong spinsterhood. They would be willing to marry anyone who came along, regardless whether he's Mr Right or not. As already mentioned, a poorer man who has no property or slaves of his own would offer his hand to marry a desperate spinster in order to inherit her father's plantation with its servants, even if her Dad is still alive and well, with years yet to go.

And it makes me wonder if true love really existed in such an environment and culture. And I think the churches at the time were mainly to blame. Across the Caribbean, along with French and Spanish societies in the Deep South, they were Roman Catholic, which by then, had forgotten about the free grace available to all through faith in Jesus, and instead, the churches emphasised oral confession, penance and good works, praying to Mary, and the keeping of the Sacraments to earn Heaven together with submission to the Pope and regular Mass attendance.

The Protestant church leaders of the day had loved to emphasise "poor sinners invited to sit at the Lord's banqueting table" with hardly any understanding of the Atonement made by Christ on the Cross and his Resurrection. In addition, they also had a hatred for all the "Papists from Babylon the Great" alongside interdenominational disputes among themselves along with their lack of emphasis for a commitment to Christ, according to these novels. And I suppose that had they taught faith in Jesus Christ to Biblical standards, slavery would have crumbled beyond recovery.

Really, I can't help but feel sorry for those women who marry just to escape spinsterhood. They are well aware that the principal motive of the man is not so much love for her as his desire for such an inheritance, instantly transforming him from a back-street commoner to a wealthy plantation owner just by sliding a ring on her finger. With the property under his name, she knows that he can sell as much as he wants and then pocket the proceeds, yet her fear of separation and abandonment will always be at the back of her mind.

However, would that kind of relationship really generate a true love in her for him? Quite a point that is! These novels seem to be far more about dry, loveless marriages of convenience than those bonded by true love.

Plantation House - the type featured in Onstott's novels.

And I think this could be the shortcomings of many evangelical Christians throughout history. At exactly the same time frame as depicted in Kyle Onstott's novels, English novelist Charles Dickens was writing his novels. In one particular book, he describes regular church-going Christians of around the 1830s, and mainly of the Anglican Church, as viscious and nasty, unkind, having a very punitive attitude towards those who don't fit their wealthy model and possessing an unrealistically high moral bar from which they judge others, especially towards the rough-living, the poor and the criminal-minded. **

The very kind of loveless church institution which was the spawning ground for such a Carribean and Deep South slave-owning attitudes and way of life during the same time period.

What a contrast to that of the love Jesus Christ has for his Bride. His love for his Bride, which I understand is the Church, was of great sacrificial cost. It meant that this man who committed no sin whatsoever had to die a criminal's death to redeem and purchase his own Bride.

Fortunately, I live in the day when the Holy Spirit is moving among his people. Believers who take the Bible more seriously and making it more applicable for daily living. However, we still have a long way to go. In one area which needs further progress is the need to repudiate Evolution, whether Darwinian or Theistic, and accept as history the record of a literal six-day Creation, the Fall, and the Flood as recorded in Genesis.

However, I do believe that reading those books on Negro slavery, learning the truth of history, and even visiting the actual places connected with such history, brutal as it was to present standards, has opened my eyes to what evil was all about, what it can entail, and what it's all about at present, and the need to draw upon God's goodness to empower my love for my brothers in Christ, and to enhance my own marriage to Alex with genuine, sacrificial love - the same kind of love Christ has for his Church.

Except, of course, my love and marriage will never be perfect, due to our sinful flesh which embodies each and every one of us. Therefore our need to draw on the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. To read such books and learn to avoid those mistakes and sheer greed made by these slave owners, along with the fear, when it comes to love, marriage, and interpersonal relationships.
*Kyle Onstott, Mandingo, Drum, and Master of Falconhurst. 1957, Pan Books
**Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1837.


  1. Dear Frank,
    It is indeed fascinating to travel to places like New Orleans, so rich in history, and to read historical fiction that helps us imagine what life may have been like in those times, whether romanticized or exaggerated for the sake of good reading, or not. Many motives may underlie marriage even in today's society, and not all of them pure. As you say, even when two people genuinely love God and one another, there can be problems because we still have a sin nature. Praise God that the marriage of Jesus Christ to the church is based on self-sacrificing, agape love, and that we as the church are made perfectly holy through His imputed righteousness. Thanks for the great post and God bless,

  2. Hi Frank,
    I have never liked anything to do with slavery or prejudice. When my husband and myself and son were on a ship once we called into Cape town. When we were coming back to get onto the ship we asked a coloured taxi driver to take us. He said he was not allowed to because we were white. We said that was disgusting. He said if we got in and stayed down he would take us. We did that and he took us. I would not have wanted to get into a taxi with a white driver there who was prejudice, we would rather give that man the money.
    I was brought up in a place in South Wales near to a dock, and we had all nationalities and colours living there. It was a lovely place and I would not have wanted to spend my childhood anywhere else.

  3. As I was reading and pondering your thoughts on injustice, whether real or in fiction, the verse in Romans came to mind...Romans 8:28, a promise that somehow God uses all of these things for good. That is so wonderful it is beyond our comprehension.