Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl
Kidnapped from Galway, Ireland, as a young girl, shipped to Barbados, and forced to work the land alongside African slaves, Cot Daley's life has been shaped by injustice. In this stunning debut novel, Kate McCafferty re-creates, through Cot's story, the history of the more than fifty thousand Irish who were sold as indentured servants to Caribbean plantation owners during the seventeenth century. As Cot tells her story-the brutal journey to Barbados, the harrowing years of fieldwork on the sugarcane plantations, her marriage to an African slave and rebel leader, and the fate of her children--her testimony reveals an exceptional woman's astonishing life.
When he has finished attending the select sick of Speightstown Gaol, Peter Coote retires to his office to wash his hands. The slave named Lucy holds a basin of tepid water as he rubs his long fingers with soap, then rinses them. He raises his wet hands as she bends to set the pan on the fieldstones of the floor. Water trickles down his fingers and over his pulse, soaking the thickness of rolled-back linen and lace cuffs, as he waits. The pan scrapes on the floor. The water feels unclean; she moves too slowly, but he tries never to show impatience before an African.
Behind Coote the shutters stand open for any breeze from the garden of fruit trees. His back is to the light coming through the window, so that as Lucy straightens she cannot see his features, only a dark shape of head and body with a thin aura of light around the head. She cannot mark him staring at her hands, pink on the palm, earth-brown and tough from labor on top, as she takes the blue-and-white towel from her shoulder and offers it. She waits in silence as he wipes his hands in the cloth. Then from the dark shape that is his face his thin but pleasant voice says, "Lucy, when we are done, fetch the white woman to me."
"Cot Quashey," Lucy says.
"I believe the only white female on the prisoners' roster is named Cot Daley," Peter corrects cheerfully. He rolls his clammy shirt cuffs down. Lucy tosses the towel over her shoulder once again and bends to lift the basin of soiled water, humming softly. "Before you leave," Coote instructs her, "close the jalousies. No damn use to wait for a breeze. Even the parrots desist their squawking in this heat. Listen . . ."
The slavewoman holds the basin motionlessly. With no reaction at all to his instruction, she stares at the wall to the left of his shoulder and continues to hum. Filtered sunlight limns the soft curve of her young cheek. He feels the usual twinge of irritation at a lack or slowness of response, but turns the feeling into evidence for his hypothesis. Coote is conducting a firsthand inquiry to advise his merchants' group in Bristol, concerning which of the lower races brought to bondage have the ability to focus, concentrate, think, obey, multiply, perform brute rote activity, etc.-and to what degree. Would it not be sound business to know which type of servant to purchase for which sort of work? Near fatal mistakes have been made in the past. He waves toward the window.
Lucy perches the pan on her hip and rolls the wooden slats almost closed with her free hand. When she has left the room, he goes to the escritoire and notes his observations of her "docile slowness" in the margins of the Apothecary's Journal. Then he takes down another ledger which contains the treatments given the sick at Speightstown Gaol and tallies the expenses for the medicaments dispensed this morning. Finished, he puts the ledgers back upon their shelf and pours himself tea before setting out the materials for the upcoming testimony. A batch of parchment. A small pot of squid ink. A wooden box of quills. A tray of white sand.
As he organizes himself he hears the water from the basin being hurled onto the hard-packed clay of the yard. It makes an oval slop, the sound of the shape of its shadow. The sudden action in the sleepy garden disturbs the dozing parrots. They craw and rustle for a moment. The sound their wings make flapping is the sound of something much larger than Peter Coote knows parrot wings to be.
When he is ready he steeples his hands, which emerge from their cuffs of flower-patterned Irish lace, on the thin sheaf of paper. His elbows lean lightly on the arms of a fruitwood chair. When the slave and the prisoner come to the door he says, "Lucy, you may take the tea things." To the other he says gravely, "You may sit down." He has removed a small velvet-backed chair from its place facing the escritoire because he knows the Irishwoman's back is at a stage of suppuration, despite his washes of comfrey and alum. Silk velvet stains easily-he has placed a low backless stool in its place. The prisoner slumps upon it now.
Lucy gathers his tea things onto a tray. Without a word she moves into the shadow of the fieldstone hall. Peter Coote watches her go, marveling at why her buttocks, beneath the rough-spun indigo-dyed petticoat, seem to swell immediately below her waist, perhaps six inches above the position of his own or those of the white woman seated now before him. He has noted this formation in African men as well as women, and postulates that it denotes, or perhaps leads to, a deformation of sensuality.
"Now," he says to the white woman. "You are wise to come forward under the circumstances. The flogging is over and done with, but the exile is yet ahead . . . as it says here, 'in the Caribbe islands, according to the Governor's pleasure.'" He looks up at the woman. He sees nothing; nothing memorable. An aged face and slight body, clad in a gray Osnabruck petticoat bedraggled at the hem. A rough wool shawl draped across the festering shoulders. Skinned-back hair under an unbleached cap makes her cheekbones jut like a red Indian's. The eyebrows are a faded cinnamon, eyelashes so blond they're almost albino. A few snaggled teeth, large pale eyes. To this nothingness he finishes, "And you will want to incur the Governor's pleasure when it comes to selecting your future home. A civilized place like Jamaica, perhaps, where a woman like yourself can earn a living from small barters . . ."
Peter Coote smoothes the lace of his cuffs back from his wrists. He uncaps the jar of ink, positioning it to the upper right of the stack of parchment, and intones, "So then, biddy. Kindly begin your testimony concerning the plot which our Governor has foiled. In which the Irish and the Africans together on this island"-he is writing his own words-"planned to rise up against the masters which God gave you in this life." From the hallway through the open door comes a slight rattle of silver against china. "Lucy! Go away from there," he calls sternly. Bare feet recede down the corridor until their slap diminishes entirely.
"I care not which rock I end my days on," the woman before Peter Coote says suddenly. "But I will tell my story, for my own purposes."
Coote chuckles dryly. "You are hardly in a position to further your own . . . purposes," he remarks after a pause.
The haggard prisoner before him insists, "I am indeed."
"Well what then?" asks Coote, choosing the path to amusement over that to annoyance.
"I will tell the Governor, Colonel Stede-or you as his man-I will give you testimony on one condition."
"And that, pray tell?"
"That it be full testimony. That you record everything I say, not simply what you seek."
"That is the trade?"
"If I'm to sing I must be given your word."
"But . . . what if I don't want to give it?" smiles Coote, lifting his powdered eyebrows toward her quizzically.
"I am ill, sir, who knows that better than yourself? I may have a hard time in the remembering of details," replies the woman curtly.
Everyone knows the transparent craftiness of the Irish. Coote refuses, now, to let his future fall into her hands. The task he's taken on is to serve the Governor by obtaining revelations from the captives who were involved in the latest plot.
"All right. Let us begin," he shrugs, dunking and wiping his quill, "at the beginning. Tell your full name and how came you here, unto this island."
Reprinted from Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl by Kate McCafferty by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, inc. Copyright 2002 Kate McCafferty . All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.Strange. Compelling. Unexpected. (USA Today)
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