Historical fiction

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
CORAM BOY. By Jamila Gavin. Mammoth pound;5.99. CHAINS. By Frances Mary Hendry. Oxford University Press pound;6.99

In the mid-18th century, itinerant pots-man Otis Gardiner travels around the west of England and, reluctantly aided by his abject, half-witted son Meshak, supplements his income by taking, at a price, babies born out of wedlockto desperate farm girls andfine ladies.

The mothers think he is taking the children to Thomas Coram's new foundling hospital in London, so he becomes known as the Coram Man to his grateful clients whom he blackmails thereafter by extorting annual sums for the children's keep. Only Meshak knows the truth - that the infants are buried, often still alive, in the woods and ditches of Gloucestershire.

Against this grim background, Jamila Gavin tells the story of Thomas and Alexander, sons of a carpenter and a landowner respectively, united as fellow cathedral choristers and again as adult musicians. Alexander, disinherited by his father for pursuing a life of music rather than estate management, leaves home never knowing that one ignorant sexual act has left the girl he loves pregnant and prey to Otis Gardiner and his collaborators. But for reasons of his own, this is one child that Meshak cannot abandon and he does indeed take the baby to Coram's hospital. The boy grows up with a fine singing voice and events begin to come full circle.

The book can hardly be said to have a happy ending - we have been racked by too much grief for that - but at least it focuses on a time when social attitudes were beginning to change and Coram's actions were seen as righteous rather than eccentric

Towards the end, the repellent Gardiner re-invents himself as a slave trader, opening another vile chapter of 18th-century history which Frances Mary Henry examines in Chains.

In 1794, Juliet Smethwick, anxious to prove herself, dresses as a boy and takes her brother's place on the slaving ship owned by their father. What initially strikes her as a daring adventure becomes a hideous education in the realities of the slave trade.

Along the way she encounters Dand, a crofter's son who has been abducted, bought and sold as casually as any slave, Hassan, the son of a West African slave trader who becomes a slave himself, and Gbodi, a child whose village is overrun by slave-takers. Their interlinked experiences are recounted in unsparing detail.

Dand learns to survive, Gbodi to kill. Hassan maintains to the end his belief that man must endure what Fate, or Allah, wills. Juliet is coming to the conviction that what her family has been party to is unequivocally wrong and must be changed, abolished even.

Thoroughly researched and well intentioned though it is, and as much as the author strives for even-handedness, Chains may make uneasy reading. The British slave trade may be history, but the attitudes that permitted it to flourish are not. A useful glossary gives meanings for such archaisms and dialect words as barracoon, coffle, quine and lallygagging, but it does not explain nig-nog, nigger and nigrah, words that seemed at last to be slinking towards obsolescence. Along with quine and lallygagging, they may be appropriate to the book's timespan, but they are not good to see.


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