Sometimes a newspaper headline tells you all you need to know about a story: there’s no need to read the 1,500 words of explanation underneath it. Some books are like that too once you have read the blurb on the back cover the reader’s job is done, because there’s nothing more to be learned.
Herman Hall’s new book on the Belvidere Estate in Grenada is definitely not in that category. Hall tells the story of the estate and its most famous – or notorious – resident in three ways: through his own memories of Belvidere; through the voices of the previous generations who lived and worked there; and through written historical sources. This somewhat unconventional treatment works well and Hall’s background in journalism means he knows how to tell a good story – as guests at the UK book launch at the Grenada High Commission discovered on 27 June.
Hall grew up in a barrack, a small and rudimentary sort of dwelling that had hardly evolved from the slave huts of the 19th century. Nor had the estate hierarchy or people’s diet, health and way of life. Slavery had been abolished in 1838, but the system survived. The work was hard, the poverty oppressive and, for a small child in the early 1950s, the boredom was stultifying.
Those who long for the simpler times of the past really need to read his autobiographical reminiscences. There’s not much to be sentimental about, apart from the camaraderie that comes with shared hardship. The author recalls the frustration of being cooped up behind the ‘half-bar’ that blocked the barrack entrance. However, the budding journalist responded by listening to the conversations of the elders, and these form the second strand of his book.
The subject that cropped time and again in their tales was an event that shook the colonial authorities in London to the core and had far-reaching effects across the Caribbean: the uprising of 1795, led by Belvidere’s owner, Julien Fédon. The story of the insurrection and the subsequent murder of Governor Ninian Home and 47 other captives is well known, but a lot is missing from the official papers and other written sources.
This is where Hall’s technique comes up trumps. Many of those details have survived – just not on paper. The oral tradition that passed history from one generation to another by word of mouth remained strong on the estates, where only a few could read and write. The book convincingly shows that Belvidere workers’ tales were soundly based on historical fact. And, yes, there are some interesting revelations about the Grenadian contribution to Trinidad Carnival and calypso too!
Belvidere played a part in more recent history too, including strikes organised by Eric Gairy, the turbulent years of Maurice Bishop’s People’s Revolutionary Government and the US invasion of 1983 an event that allegedly put the Queen at loggerheads with her prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Perhaps the best recommendation for this book is that reading it made me want to start my own researches into some of the many subjects Hall covers in these 200 pages (thankfully, he has included a good index). It will certainly appeal to anyone with a lively interest in Julien Fédon’s revolution, wider Caribbean history or the realities of plantation life in the pre-independence era.