The second book in my slavery themed read is James Robertson’s 2002 Saltire Book Award winning “Joseph Knight”, a fictional account of an C18th ground-breaking judicial case.
Knight’s action was a milestone in Scottish legal history, yet very little is known of what happened to him after he was freed. Robertson uses that uncertainty to form the framework of his novel. It is 1802 and Knight’s former owner, Sir John Wedderburn, is approaching the end of his life. He initiates a search for Joseph Knight. The reason is unclear but throughout the search, Wedderburn reminisces on his life and how things came to pass.
The memories start in 1745 at the Battle of Culloden. Wedderburn is “out”, meaning he is fighting with the Jacobites. The disastrous outcome means he must flee for his life. He makes his way to Jamaica where he becomes a plantation owner. He is joined by three other brothers who react with differing degrees of moral dissolution to the opportunities that present themselves.
The section in Jamaica portrays the horrors inflicted on the African slaves – and it’s certainly no holds barred . The outrages depicted in “Joseph Knight” make those shown in Barry Unsworth’s “Sacred Hunger” seem gentle and humane by comparison. Particularly vicious is the death by slow-burning imposed on those leaders of the slave rebellion.
The character of Sir John Wedderburn is one of the strengths of Robertson’s novel. It would have been easy to portray him as evil with no redeeming features. But Robertson’s palette is more subtle. It is true that Wedderburn, a former rebel, now slave owner, displays a surprising lack of empathy for the African slaves in Jamaica. Yet he strives to maintain decency in line with his C18th Christian beliefs. Unlike his brothers, he refuses to take advantage of the opportunities afforded him vis-a-vis the black women slaves. His motivation with regard to the plantation is to make enough money to return to Britain (once an amnesty has been announced) and reestablish the Wedderburn dynasty and ancestral home. He has no wish to ruin his reputation or his future lineage by siring illegitimate mixed-breed offspring during his plantation years. At the same time, however, he has no compunction is punishing those who disobey him, cruelly it is true, but not quite so cruelly as others may do. He is a product of his time – one of the decent ones and thus he retains an element of sympathetic understanding from the reader.
Joseph Knight is a slave boy, 8 years old at the time he is bought by Wedderburn. He is to be trained as a butler so that he can enhance Wedderburn’s standing and reputation when in Scotland. Wedderburn treats the boy well and educates him. The question of affection and love, on Wedderburn’s side at least, remains ambiguous. Knight, however, cannot feel gratitude. Displaying the loose morals so abhorrent to Wedderburn, he first gets the housemaid pregnant and then, runs off and marries her without permission. Finally he uses his education to bring the famous courtcase against his owner.
The second half of the novel concerns itself with the preparation of the court case and introduces us to the famous historical personages of the time: the outrageously behaved James Boswell, the better behaved Samuel Johnson and the atheist, David Hulme. Robertson recreates many a conversation between the first two discussing the legal landscape and arguing the pros and cons of the case. Finally we are brought to the court and experience the arguments and, ultimately the final judgement.
Surprisingly the language of the court is Scots – an historically accurate detail for Scots was the language of the C18th Scottish judiciary. The language and arguments in this second half of the novel expertly reconstructed by Robertson from detail contained in the diaries of the key players and legal transcripts.
The biggest surprise, however, is the way in which Robertson treats his title character. In Sir John Wedderburn’s study there hangs a portrait of his three brothers in Jamaica. In the background there is a shadowy figure. A close inspection shows that this is the figure of a young black boy. An attempt has been made to paint over this shape, to expunge it from the painting. Similarly Knight remains a shadow throughout the novel. He is never an actor in the play. His story is woven throughout the tales of others. Gradually he appears in vital scenes such as those at the Scottish courthouse but he is never given a voice — at least not until the final 30 pages of the novel.
I questioned Robertson about why he chose to write the novel in this way at the recent recording of Radio 4’s Book Club. The show will air on 7 October 2007. If you hear that question on air, those are my particularly undulcet vocal tones! Should the question end up on the cutting room floor (the recording lasted 1 hour 15 minutes for a show of 30 minutes duration), I’ll edit this post to reveal the answer that Robertson gave.
In the meantime, I’ll end this post with two pictures: one of Robertson signing my copy of “Joseph Knight” and the second, a collage of pictures drawn by primary school children in Dundee. Thanks to the Beeb for a great day out and such a terrific souvenir.