October 1781, Charles Town, South Carolina
PROCLAMATION: COMMANDANT OF NEW YORK, THE BRITISH ARMY
ALL NEGROES THAT FLY FROM THE ENEMY’S COUNTRY ARE FREE—
NO PERSON CAN CLAIM A RIGHT TO THEM—
WHOEVER SELLS THEM SHALL BE PROSECUTED WITH THE UTMOST SEVERITY.
John trudged the rutted lane on reluctant legs, still weak and barely recovered from his injuries. He would have preferred to stay in the hospital, on his trolley with the sheet pulled over his head, hiding from the world. Instead he went to rejoin his regiment. His foot slipped on the scree and he fell to his knees, where he paused, gathering his will before pulling himself up and continuing the journey. A hot wind whipped grit into his face, and he put a hand to his eyes to protect them.
He found the sergeant on the parade ground, about to make an announcement. The soldiers huddled close, for the wind threatened to steal his words.
“John. John is back.” Rough men greeted him, fumbling for kindness. “Yer lookin’ grand, John.”
“Did they stretch you, up there at the hospital? You’re taller than ever.”
“Listen up. I have news. Talk to John later,” the sergeant interrupted, pulling them to attention. “York Town is gone.” Blank looks met his words. “Cornwallis surrendered. The rebels have won the town.”
“There were eight thousand men stationed there.”
“What does this mean for us?”
“We’re done for is what it means.”
“The war is over, then?”
“We’re going home?”
“Nothing is known for sure. But I wager we can’t win. Not now. They’ll be suing for peace, to be sure.” The sergeant had chosen not to look at John. His glance lingered on the other men and the spaces around him.
It was too early to celebrate. But on the beaten ground before the barracks in the rubble of a battered town, in the windy heat that made every breath an effort, amid the stink of decay and the buzz of flies, tired soldiers stretched and shrugged and seemed to settle into more comfortable shapes, as though already retiring to their armchairs at home—that place they called home across the sea.
Slouched against the trunk of a tree, all but hidden in its shade, John called out. His words cut through their thoughts, and they were surprised. His voice had changed. It no longer held the soft roundness of childhood, nor the uncertain down of youth, nor even the muscle of a man. It prickled like a porcupine, sharp and protective of the soft belly hidden within. Nor had he thought to put on his smile. All life had fled from his eyes, leaving only smudges in the dull black of his face. “What of the captured soldiers? Our men? What have they done with them?”
“Taken to camps. Exchanged.” The sergeant paused. “Except for the blacks.” He took a long breath, as if dragging in courage for his next words. “Washington has called for the return of all former slaves.”
“We have a promise,” John said. “The British promised us. If we fought for you, we would be free.”
The sergeant could not look at the man, a former slave. A ripple seemed to pass through the group, a barely perceived shuffling. In a circle of men, John stood alone.
No, not alone, for his master seemed to stand before him, a sneer upon his face, eyes lit with triumph. He dangled a whip in one hand, a collar and shackles in the other.
“Got you now, Boy.”
1769, North Stonington, Connecticut
A hand clasped Boy’s, trapping his soft skin within its grip—bony fingers wrapped around his own, guiding them into the earth.
“Like this,” Ol’ Ma encouraged him. “Pull from the root. Else you’re just making more work for yourself.”
They crawled in the furrows of the field, pulling weeds from around newly planted maize. One was too old, the other too young, to drive a plough or wield a hoe. The spring sun hung above the horizon and behind clouds, too timid to show itself. The soil held the cold and damp of winter and clung to Boy’s hands and knees and feet. Nor had the breeze that ruffled his hair and blew up his shirt noted the change of season.
The child crept forward, but a stone dug into his knee and he winced. His lower lip quivered. “Can we rest soon?”
“A little longer.”
He tore his hand from her grasp, sat back on his haunches, and sucked at his fingers to warm them. His eyes followed the straight lines of young shoots. Their green spears marched like warriors in formation until they blurred into a single point and ran into a wall of trees. The forest surrounded them on all sides, making a prison of the farm.
Ma had told him that Indians once lived there, and their gods lived there still. Not powerful, though, not like the African ones. Else, why they go let the Indians die?
Elijah worked down there at the edge of the forest, burning roots, clearing more land. Smoke billowed into the sky, mingling with the clouds, reflecting the fire in violent reds and purples, soft pinks, grey and mauve. He would return home that night, black with soot, eyes red and swollen from the smoke, rubbing the small of his back with one hand. “Stand on my back. Walk out the aches,” he would ask Boy, laying himself down on the dirt floor of the hut with a groan.
But Ol’ Ma would shuffle him out the door with her broom stick. “Not till the chile has eaten an’ you has washed yerself.”
And though Elijah could pick up the old woman with one hand and toss her over his shoulder, he would do as he was told.
Boy’s gaze sought his mother. She pushed a plough behind two cows at the far end of the field, close to Elijah. A smoky haze hid her lower body, separating her from them, and to Boy’s eyes it seemed that she did not walk upon the earth. He dreaded the icy silence she would carry home with her tonight. She might complain about working in the kitchen, but sure as God is in his heaven, she didn’t take to field work.
“Better not let the master see you dreamin’ your time away. He’ll whip your hide.” Ol’ Ma’s voice broke into his thoughts.
Boy knew Master Randall wouldn’t lash him. Master said it was an ungodly thing to do to ignorant savages.
But, the child reflected, ain’t it ungodly to lock me in the shed all night, let me near freeze to death? “Why’s I have to do this? Why can’t I feed the chickens?” he whined, returning to his task.
The mistress had given him a chick of his own, and it had grown real big. Now hand-fed Beaker followed Boy around the yard as he swept, pecking at his toes, attacking the twigs of the broom.
“Master says you’re a big boy now. Gotta earn your feed.”
Boy paused, digesting the idea. The child dreamed of the day when he was growed and a warrior like his father. He would fight Indians and kill bears. And when he came home at night, his mother would smile and tell him he was a brave boy.
“Master says you’ve been spoilt too long, getting too big for ya britches.”
Ol’ Ma rarely made mistakes with him, but at this his little body tensed, and he turned to her, hands on hips and bottom lip out.
She hustled to recover the advantage. “Master says, if it be true you’re the son of warriors, then you’re strong enough now.”
When did I start wheedling the boy, Ol’ Ma wondered. I ain’t doing him no favours, building him up like this. He sure get to thinking he’s above his station.
She yanked at a stubborn root. Should give the little whelp a hiding. Thinks his six years on this earth gives him all the answers. Talk back to Our Blessed Jesus he would. She glanced over at him. He wore a sulk upon his face but kept pace with her.
Ah, my little mite. She moved to tousle his head, but he jerked away. She shook her head and smiled.
“Stop laughing at me. I’m not funny.”
He can huff if he likes, but I know. Tonight he’ll have forgotten, and he’ll heat up the water and rub my feet till I think I died and gone to heaven. Sure, I don’t know where that boy got all his loving from.
She gave him a sideways glance, and he held up a hand. An ant had left an angry swelling, and he rubbed it dramatically, moaning loudly, but still he avoided her gaze.
The injured warrior.
The truth was Ol’ Ma had sworn never again to smack a black child, not if her life depended on it. Thirty, maybe forty years ago, she had clouted her own two boys. A smack on the mouth for a word badly spoken, a tap to the head for a sullen look. Then she saw how others in this world did the job more thoroughly than she could. She had been in the South then. They had sold her youngest—“Buck: 200 pounds”—but he was her baby, just fourteen. She had watched him stumbling behind a cart, his wrists bound, twisting to catch a last sight of her. Then she’d watched her eldest, a humble boy of not yet sixteen years, strung up by his feet to a tree and left to hang. It had taken him three days to die. She had knelt on the ground below him, holding his gaze for every second. She’d poured so much love into him that she thought she’d be all dried up and have no more for anyone else. The master and the mistress had strolled by to observe the progress of his death. They never told her why he had to die. Then they sold her. She thought it a blessing to arrive in the North.
Boy and Ol’ Ma pulled weeds together all morning. The sun climbed higher. The furrows slipped away beneath their knees. Their sacks filled with weeds. They emptied them.
“You want to sing some?” she asked. “Pass the time?”
He shook his head. “You got a voice like a coon.” But he looked sideways at her and giggled at the face she made.
She laughed. “I sees a flower this morning. You’re still snoring away in the hut. But this flower—prettiest thing you ever did see, peeping up from the slush. First of the season, I reckon. Covered in dew. It sparkled like it were wearing jewels. Diamonds maybe. I put it in my box.” She picked up a pebble, wiped it clean with her spit, and held it to the sun. “This is pretty, ain’t it?”
“What box? You ain’t got no box. I knows what you got, and you ain’t got no box.”
“I got a box. A memory box. Put all the things that make me happy in that box. Take them out when I’m down and need cheering.”
“What’s in your box?” He picked up a stone, held it to the light, and tossed it aside.
“So many things. You in my box. When you asleep. Not when you awake and giving cheek.”
He laughed at that. “Tell me a story.”
“Did I tell you the one about the chief and his best friend? They were close all right. Couldn’t tear them apart. The best friend, his name was Adisa. He had this habit, see. Anything that happened, didn’t matter what it was, he would say, ‘That is good.’ Then one day they’s out fighting in a big war, and the chief loses his thumb. Cut right off! ‘Well,’ says the friend, ‘that is good.’ This makes the chief real mad, and he sends Adisa away. ‘Don’t ever come back,’ says the chief. Well, the months go by. The chief, he out hunting and gets caught by another tribe. Those fellas, they were gonna eat the chief. Have him for supper.”
“No!” Boy interrupted. “You can’t eat people!”
“This is my story, and they were going to eat the chief. Anyway, just before they stick him in the fry pan, they see the chief’s thumb is missing. ‘Can’t eat this fella,’ they says, ‘he ain’t pure.’ And they let the chief free. Well, thinks the chief, sure is a good thing I lost my thumb. And he feels real sorry for sending away his friend and goes looking for him.”
“Does he find him?” Boy had stopped picking weeds.
“You get back to weeding and I might tell you. Yes. And you know what the friend says?”
Boy shook his head.
“He says, ‘Well, that is good. Sure is a good thing you sent me away.’ The chief was mighty puzzled about that. He couldn’t think why it was a good thing. Nope, not at all. Can you?”
Boy shook his head again.
“See, thing is, that friend not been sent away, he would have been with the chief when he was captured. And he would be the one cooked up and fried in a pan.”
They continued working, crawling up and down in the mud, following the lines of maize. They filled their sacks again. They emptied them again.
When Ol’ Ma felt sure that the master was sitting down at table, enjoying a glass of wine, some cold ham and apples maybe, or the beef pie she had seen cooling on the window sill, she sent Boy off to Elijah, to rest and nibble on the corn cobs she’d boiled for their lunch.
Beaker clucked, pecking in the dirt for the grain Boy dropped. Ol’ Ma had told the child to sweep the yard, and he would, in a moment. But Beaker had found him and demanded his attention. The sun caught in her feathers; glistening russets and orange fell like a cloak over her green chest. I will put you in my box, Boy decided. If Ma could keep a box, he would too. And his box would have more beautiful things in it.
He crouched to pick up the chicken, nestling her to his chest and under his cheek. She stretched her head to the side so that he might scratch under her chin. I could eat you up, you are so beautiful. He buried his face in her soft down. You even smell nice. No, I would never eat you. She complained, fluttering her wings, before settling with her head on his shoulder. He stood nursing her like a baby, his fingers fondling her soft underbelly, her body warm against his in the chill morning.
The lad’s head shot up. The master stood over him. In the early light, his shadow stretched the length of the yard.
Boy stared. His throat constricted as if it would say something, but words wouldn’t come. He clutched Beaker tighter, earning a squawk for his efforts.
“Fetch a chicken to your mother. We need it for lunch.” The master looked at Boy as if for the first time. “What are you doing with that one? It will do.” He turned toward the house.
“Master, sir. This one here’s mine. The mistress…” He dropped Beaker to the ground. The bird poked in the dirt around Boy’s feet, ignoring his kicks urging it to run.
The master spun on his heels. He towered above Boy, blocking the light.
The child couldn’t see the expression on the man’s face. He stared up, frozen, unable to breathe. He would have liked to say he would get another one, there were lots of other chickens… But his tongue refused to move. Only his heart pumped, ready to burst.
No sounds came from the house, or the barn, or the slave hut yonder. Even Beaker had ceased her pecking and looked up at them, black eyes alert.
The master broke the moment. He bent. He lifted the bird. He twisted its neck. He thrust the chicken into Boy’s arms. “Take it to your mother.”
Ol’ Ma startled when the boy stumbled through the door and into the hut. He ignored her questions. Instead he fell upon his bedding, where he lay curled tight and rocked back and forth.
She picked him up and held him in her arms, holding him as close to her heart as she could, willing him to cry out. But he didn’t. He stared into the distance, beyond the hut, beyond now. Only when his mother returned did the old woman find out what had happened.
“Remember Adisa, Boy. It is good. It is all good.”
He turned towards her, his chin jutted forward, eyes wild, fists clenched. Then he threw himself at her, pummelling her as hard as his six-year-old strength would allow. “It is not good! It is not good, you stupid old woman. It is not.”
Eleven ships departed from England in May 1787. Sails billowed pink in the dawn light; the sea sparkled with a thousand gems and the gleam of a new day. They were to travel ten thousand miles to found a new colony in what was to become known as Australia. Chained below decks, 732 convicts fretted for the families they might never see again. They included eleven African-Americans and a former slave, John Randall, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.
Of African descent, John was born in the English colony of Connecticut in 1763. Throughout the country, settlers were hissing their discontent. Lawyers argued, milkmaids gossiped. The colonies chafed under the yoke of England. They talked of freedom; they said all men were created equal. And John listened. When the War of Independence broke out, he risked everything to escape for the chance to stand tall as a free man.
John is the Forest Gump of the eighteenth century: slave, soldier, convict, gamekeeper, farmer, and member of the infamous Rum Corps. His life spans three continents and many world-changing events of the era.
His dreams are simple: to be counted as a man, to hold a wife with rosy cheeks and own a farm with apple trees. But he is a flawed character, and throughout the course of the novel he transmutes from Boy to John and, eventually, to the aptly named Black Randall. But we all love a bad boy. He is a charismatic figure in the infant colony that was to become Australia, and when he marries the vibrant Mary Butler, has a child, and is granted land, it seems he has fulfilled his dreams. But famine, fire, and corruption plague the new settlement. After a lifetime of losses, the death of his daughter finally breaks him.
I spent ten years researching John’s history, after which I felt compelled to write Black Randall. I needed to stick a toe in the muck of his experiences, to explore the roots of his resilience, the costs of his survival. I wanted to honour him, this broken man, for Black Randall is a reminder of the diversity on which our country was founded.
And whilst nations erect walls to keep out refugees and immigrants, it is exhilarating to consider that the whisperings of disenfranchised settlers in a distant colony became a tidal wave that overthrew England, the mightiest power on earth. Those same events resulted in the destruction of a culture that had survived for sixty-five thousand years, but they also sowed the seeds for the birth of a new nation four thousand miles away. We are one earth.
I stand under the Sydney Harbour Bridge and marvel at the sparkling, vibrant city that would never have come to be had it not been for the milkmaids, tavern keepers, and farm hands who refused to bow to the greatest army ever known to man. Four thousand miles and two hundred years away, they are testimony to the interconnectedness of this world.
Jo Anne Braithwaite lives in Noosa, Queensland, a place she considers to be paradise. She wonders about coincidences. Before she even knew of her ancestor John Randall, she was married at a golf course in Carlingford, Sydney. Only many years later did she discover that the it was built on the land John Randall had been granted upon his emancipation from convict status, over two hundred years earlier. This is Jo’s first novel, and she is seeking publication.
Embark, Issue 12, April 2020