I first encountered Zora Neale Hurston when I read Their Eyes Were Watching God from my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. I found it surprisingly moving and relatable. So, when I saw that another book that Hurston had written was recently published, I figured it was worth reading. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” (2018) is the non-fiction recounting by Cudjo Lewis to Zora Neale Hurston of being captured in Africa, shipped to the United States through the middle passage, his time as a slave, and his life after slavery. Hurston gathered the details of Lewis’s story in interviews from 1927. Her book was not published at the time because publisher’s did not like Hurston’s use of Lewis’s vernacular, and they did not like the depiction of the role Africans played in capturing Lewis.
Oluale Kossola was a member of the Takkoi Tribe in Nigeria, led by King Akia’on. He was a son of his father’s second wife, and at about nineteen years old, was just becoming a man. His village was attacked and many of it’s people slaughtered or captured by the Dahomey. It was a gruesome affair that, unsurprisingly, still haunted Kossola when he retold it decades later. Kossola, was taken captive and brought to the coast. His murdered kin had their heads cut off, and the Dahomey brought the heads with them, cooking them along the way to clean the skulls.
Kossola and others that were captured were put in a barracoon near the coast, and were eventually sold to a slave ship: the last ship to risk the English and American ban on the slave trade before the Civil War. It was 1859. About 120 slaves, men and women, were forced to lay in the three-foot-high cargo area until they were finally brought up on deck, unable to walk. After that, they were allowed to spend more time outside. When they arrived, they were split between the shipowner and the men who’d bought them, and began their lives as American slaves.
Kossola’s name was changed to Cudjo Lewis because it was easier to say. He describes how hard the work was, and the discrimination and verbal attacks they suffered from slaves who’s been born in America. After five years and six months of slavery, the Civil War made Cudjo a free man. More than anything, he wanted to go home, but he quickly learned that it was impossible to get the funds for such a journey. Instead, they were forced to make a home as best they could in America. Cudjo and his fellow, recently-arrived and recently-freed slaves were able to rent and then buy some land from their former owner. They called it Africatown, near Plateau, Alabama.
Cudjo Lewis goes on to discuss the rest of his life, including his marriage to Abile (called Seely) and his children. It seemed that the violent attack on his village and the continued, forced separation from home haunted him more than anything.
Barracoon is a quick read and a fascinating bit of history. Hurston described her visits to Lewis as he slowly recounted his life to her. This is just one, personal story–one where I often wanted more details. Although Hurston included some information about the slave ship and slave owners, it does not look at the big picture or provide too much context. There was a lengthy introduction that discussed some of the issues surrounding why the book was not published at the time, as well as allegations of plagiarism in an earlier article on this topic by Hurston. I’m impressed by Hurston’s life and work, and I’m glad I was able to read something else by her.
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