With You in History: Using Traditional Forms to Tell Black Britain’s Story

In the nineteenth century, Britain’s G. A. Henty was advertised as “The Boys’ Historian” because of the novels he published. And while Guy Arnold, who wrote a monograph about Henty entitled Held Fast for England: G. A. Henty, Imperialist Boys’ Writer (Hamish Hamilton 1980), claims that “Henty was no historian, nor did he ever claim to be one” (88), the fact remains that many British boys in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had their first grounding in imperial history from Henty’s stories and novels. The books, which had titles like With Wolfe in Canada, With Clive in India, A Roving Commission or Through the Black Insurrection of Hayti, and The Young Colonists: A Tale of the Zulu and Boer Wars offered British (and other) readers a chance to experience vicariously the conquering and securing of the British Empire throughout the world, with frequent reminders about white British superiority. One of the key reasons for Henty’s success is that, unlike a traditional history book or even many historical novels, his stories used a young white British boy (there were a couple of exceptions, where a girl character was center stage) to focalize the history. When Henty used a title such as With Wolfe in Canada, he addressed both his main character (in this case, teenaged doctor’s son from Sidmouth, James Walsham) and his potential reader as being with Wolfe; essentially, Henty was urging the reader to go along on the journey.

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George Washington calls the main character of Henty’s novel “a spirited lad”.

 

Any readers choosing to do so were rewarded by “introductions” to famous figures in history. In With Wolfe, for example, not only does James interact with those involved in the battle over Quebec in Canada, he also meets General George Washington, the future first president of the United States:

James resolved, at once, that he would speak to Colonel Washington, and ask him if  he could join the Virginian militia. He accordingly went up to him, and touched his hat.

“If you please, sir, I am anxious to join the Virginian militia, and, as they tell me that you are adjutant general, I have come to ask you if I can do so.”

“I see no difficulty in it, my lad,” the colonel said; “but if you have run away from home, in search of adventure, I should advise you to go back again, for we are likely to have heavy work.” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17766/17766-h/17766-h.htm)

James manages to convince Washington that he is not a mere adventurer, and the general calls him a “lad of spirit” and organizes his entry in this militia, recommending he go to the stores for “a brace of pistols and a sword, a blanket, and cooking pot”. James, and the reader, are riding by Washington’s side when the battle begins.

 

Henty’s style of writing invites identification with the young protagonist, rewards that identification through equality of status with “history heroes” like George Washington, and then enforces the values—including white privilege and white supremacy—of empire through use of language by, about and for non-British, non-white subjects and characters in the books. In With Wolfe, Washington discusses the Indian tribes as savage, in more ways than one: “The Indians will pounce upon a village or solitary farm house, murder and scalp the inhabitants, burn the buildings to the ground, and in an hour be far away beyond reach of pursuit,” he says, and Henty describes them elsewhere in the book as “swarming”—a word which suggests animal, rather than human behavior. These are just a couple of examples, and With Wolfe is not the most racist of Henty’s novels; his description of Black people, whether slaves or insurrectionists or rebel fighters, are far worse. British empire history and racism go hand in hand in the 19th century boys’ adventure novel.

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Johnson’s history is both similar to and different from Henty’s. Cover illustration by Royston Knipe.

 

I mention all this because I have recently been reading historical novelist Catherine Johnson’s Blade and Bone (Walker 2016), a sequel to her 2013 Sawbones (also published by Walker). I had a brief moment of déja vu at the beginning of Blade and Bone when the main character, Ezra McAdam, finds himself in Revolutionary-era France. Sixteen-year-old surgeon’s apprentice Ezra is performing an amputation on an infantryman when a historical figure enters Ezra’s makeshift operating theatre: “Lieutenant Colonel Dumas, the head of the American regiment” (10). Like Washington did in Henty’s novel, Dumas praises Ezra’s skill, gives him guns, and invites him to stay with the regiment. The respect Dumas accords a mere boy is not depicted as surprising in any way, because the reader has already been encouraged to identify with Ezra, the character through whom the novel is focalized. In this way, Johnson’s novel is a 21st century version of 19th century Boys’ Adventure stories such as those written by Henty.

 

However, while Johnson may be writing boys’ adventure, she is not writing the novel of empire. In fact, in many ways, Johnson’s novels act as anti-Empire narratives. Ezra is not, like James Walsham, a born-and-bred white British lad but a former mixed race West Indian slave. Unlike slaves and former slaves in Henty’s novels, Ezra is not an escaped slave turned rebel (or, “insurrectionist” in Henty’s terms) nor is he brought to England as a servant or page boy. Instead, he is taught to use his brains and his hands to become a surgeon, nearly equaling the skill of his employer, William McAdam, by the time of the surgeon’s death. Dumas, too, is the mixed race son of an enslaved mother and a white father who did not remain in slavery but was educated in France, becoming the first Black person in the French army to be made a brigadier general. Both the fictional Ezra and the historical Dumas defy their imperially-designated roles in life, but while both are remarkable, neither is shown by Johnson to be so remarkable that readers could not aspire to similar greatness.

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Johnson’s character Ezra McAdam first appeared in Sawbones (2013). Cover image by Royston Knipe.

 

Additionally, Johnson writes Ezra as a British character who neither likes nor approves of the idea of Empire; in so doing, she reminds us that although Ezra may have been of the minority opinion, he was not alone and surrounded by the flag-waving British imperialists of Henty’s novels. For Ezra, Empire and slavery are inextricably linked throughout the world; in Sawbones he tells the son of a Turkish sultan, “No one man should belong to another. No man should have that power. That is wrong . . . My life has been thrown into chaos because of your stupid empire” (189). And in Blade and Bone Ezra writes to his friend Loveday Finch that “I think it a sign of Great Advancement for any people to want to Govern themselves without the Intercedence of any Kings or Lords or Suchlike” (7). Ezra is an anti-monarchist, and in favor of the principles of the Revolution (though not, as he later finds, the methods of it); but he is not anti-British. At the end of the novel, he wants to go home—and home means London. Johnson’s novels, like Henty’s, take the reader through British history by creating a young, highly skilled British character who meets up with famous figures and has a hand in affecting history. But unlike Henty, Johnson takes readers with her through different kinds of histories, and makes room in the past for Black Britons and anti-imperialists.

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