Review of Kevin Lowther's The African American Odyssey of John Kizell
The African American Odyssey of John Kizell: A South Carolina Slave Returns to Fight the Slave Trade in His African Homeland
by Kevin G. Lowther (Sierra Leone 1963–65)
The University of South Carolina Press
$39.95 (hardcover) Kindle & Nook $15.
Reviewed by Jeff Fearnside (Kazakhstan 2002–04)
JOHN KIZELL LIVED A LIFE THAT could easily read as fiction. Born in West Africa in about 1760, he was falsely accused of witchcraft in his home village in order to dispose of him as a slave. He survived the infamous Middle Passage across the Atlantic (one in five of his fellow captives perished) and was purchased in Charleston, South Carolina, on the eve of the American Revolution. During the war, he took up arms as a loyalist, believing this the best path to freedom. In payment, he and a number of other black loyalists were evacuated by the British to Nova Scotia, where they eked out nine years, at first literally living in holes in the ground. Kizell’s life came full circle when he returned to Africa to help establish Freetown in Sierra Leone. This settlement endured numerous problems as well, but he would spend the remainder of his days in the region, becoming a respected elder among his people and fighting against slavery to the end.
In his preface, the author Kevin G. Lowther states that he originally considered utilizing this story in a historical novel. Despite the understandable desire to do so, he wisely elected to take a different approach, and the results are extremely gratifying. In this first full-length biographical treatment of Kizell’s life, Lowther has done something not easy to do: he’s written an account substantial and well researched enough to satisfy a scholar (with forty pages of notes and an extensive bibliography), and yet riveting and accessible enough for a general reader. Its brisk pacing and vivid portrayal of setting — likely enriched by the author’s own long connection with Africa — are novel-like.
Lowther lived in Sierra Leone for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, and his subsequent experience managing a humanitarian organization’s work in southern Africa encompasses nearly three decades. While he clearly brings all of that life lived and a love of his subject to this book, his experience as a former newspaper editor allows him to remain clear-eyed about it. He knows when to make connections and when to let the facts speak for themselves.
Especially admirable is how well the book places Kizell in the context of his times, even though, as Lowther admits, there is precious little that survives about Kizell himself. Despite his being “the leading black writer of his time in Africa,” his body of work was composed largely in the space of a decade, from 1806 to 1815. Lowther fills in the gaps with an in-depth look at Kizell’s world through the materials about it that do survive. This necessitates occasionally making educated guesses about Kizell and what he did, yet these conjectures are always at the least plausible, and Lowther makes it clear when he is drawing conclusions based on the best available evidence. A good example of this occurs in this passage early in the book:
No documentation or firsthand accounts of Charleston slave sales and auctions in this period have ever been found. The Africans delivered in the Blossom [the ship Kizell was transported on] were consigned to the firm of Robert, John and James Smith. Their sale was advertised on May 25. There the trail ends. Nonetheless enough is known generally of the selling of slaves in Charleston to provide a telling portrait of the business that governed the immediate destiny of John Kizell.
Lowther then goes into a detailed account of the “industrial-scale marketing” of slaves in that place and time. It is chilling how widespread and accepted it was. Lowther quotes Leila Sellers, author of Charleston Business on the Eve of the American Revolution, who notes that “to deal in slaves and indentured white servants was a highly honorable employment” among respected white businessmen.
Earlier, Lowther had painted this even more direct ship’s deck view of the terrible passage from Africa:
A day seldom passed during the several weeks at sea when someone did not die. There was filth and feces. There was fever and dysentery. There was a stench that suffused every nook and cranny. And there was fear-among the crew, especially when Africa remained near, and among the humans stored below.
Many Africans believed that their white captors were cannibals who would eat them. In a very real way, we understand as we read, these slaves were consumed. They were sustenance to an entire economic system that relied on them and the cheap labor they provided in order to create some of the richest colonies of Great Britain.
So many contradictions abounded in this. Lowther reiterates Thomas Jefferson’s charge against King George III, of his “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery” — yet Jefferson was a lifelong slave holder. Through a well-chosen quote from historian Sylvia R. Frey, we learn that James Madison understood “the dilemma of a slaveholding society about to embark on a war against tyranny: how to prevent their slaves from imbibing the heady notions of liberty and equality . . ..”
Most of the white slaveholders were professed Christians. An Englishman named William Crundell — “one of the worst” of the white slave traders, Lowther writes — believed that slavery was ordained by God, and he stoutly defended what he felt was his right to trade in human beings, stating, “If God did not like it, why did he not put a stop to it?” Even the African kings entreated by Kizell believed “that slavery was in the natural order of things. He had heard it as a boy; he had heard it in America; he heard it to his last days.”
This book is packed full of relevant, intriguing, and often surprising details. Sometimes they bring about small but profound epiphanies, such as when we read of “slave trader John Newton, years before he repented his sins and wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace,'” and the words of that venerable song suddenly take on an entirely new level of depth and meaning.
Occasionally, the details rise almost to the level of poetry. For example, Lowther writes that some former slaves, on hearing of blacks being resettled in Africa, “would have resurrected tangible memories of their homeland, of malagueta — the peppery ‘grains of paradise’ for which early European visitors had named the continent’s west coast.” Several pages later, this detail is repeated and its symbolic meaning expanded when we read of freed black settlers deciding whether to relocate to Africa:
Most of the African-born chose to return to their world. At least one was going only to touch African soil — to smell her dear malagueta — one more time. She had lived longer than a century and wished to die in Africa. She would survive the difficult voyage.
The issues this book raises are many and complicated, and Lowther wisely neither sugarcoats this nor attempts to provide any easy answers. Rather, he lays out the available evidence in all its complexity, directly and succinctly, as here:
Scholars disagree on the origin of domestic slavery in West Africa. Walter Rodney argued that it evolved and expanded in response to foreign demand for slaves. John Grace, however, believes there were “social institutions akin to slavery” well established in what is now Sierra Leone before the arrival of Mane invaders [in the sixteenth century]. Grace contends that the Mane imposed “the harsher form” of servitude and that the external slave trade merely distorted, rather than energized, the indigenous form.
White Europeans and Americans may have committed some of the worst atrocities in enslaving other humans, and they were certainly responsible for expanding the trade into an industry during the colonial age, but they were by no means alone. As partially noted above, the Africans themselves had a history of enslaving their own people, from the coastal tribes for whom a type of indentured servitude was an integral part of their societies to Muslims in the continent’s interior who looked down upon non-Islamicized Africans and considered them chattel. Often, former slaves who returned to Africa would become slave owners themselves. A hierarchy existed among the Africans, with mulattoes on the lowest rung.
But what stands out even more in this book is the almost pathologically paternalistic attitude then among whites toward blacks, even among those whites who were, for the times, racially enlightened — that and the many broken promises of the white elite to the various black classes they were supposedly helping. Time and time again, the book recounts instances of the rich and privileged fiercely protecting the rights not of the downtrodden poor but of the rich and privileged; of the ostensible high moral values of supposed reformers even as they consistently placed financial profits before anything else; of laws being passed and then conveniently ignored when they interfered too strongly with the status quo. Everything outlined above could well describe events today. That’s what stands out most of all: that we never fully learned the lessons of some two hundred years ago. Lowther notes that this seemingly long-ago history is still affecting the identity of Africans today and how they interact with each other and the wider world. Given the context he so ably lays out, the long and terrible civil war in Sierra Leone (1991–2002) is no longer as surprising as it first seemed. Lowther eloquently writes,
Slavery and the slave trade defined John Kizell’s life, as they did for millions of black and white people. In ways that will never be truly understood, on either side of the Atlantic, the legacy of the “African trade” remains embedded in the souls of black folk and white folk as well. All carry history’s “slavery” gene — recessive but never entirely expunged.
So exactly who was John Kizell? Even with this important biography — which has “rescued Kizell from obscurity,” according to respected educator and public historian Joseph Opala in his insightful foreword — certain details remain unknown. Was he an ethnic Kim, Sherbo, Vai, or Mende? Did he ever revisit the childhood village he was kidnapped from, and if so, did he face those who had sold him into slavery? Admittedly, these are details unimportant to the broader story. A more intriguing question is this: after all his years of tireless crusading, did he live to see slavery finally outlawed in the British Empire? We don’t know. His last surviving letter is dated 1830, when he would have been about 70. Great Britain made slavery illegal in 1833.
But what has survived about Kizell is more than just fascinating. It’s tempting to say that The African American Odyssey of John Kizell should be required reading for anyone interested in better understanding the nature of slavery and of race relations between blacks and whites in North America and Africa. This book is also highly recommended to anyone interested in revolutionary America, Africa, colonial history, or history in general, or who simply wants to read of a real life and times as compelling as any in fiction.
•[RPCVs from Kevin’s Peace Corps training group have been contributing funds (for 80 books so far) to send to Sierra Leone. These will be distributed to schools and libraries later in the year, fulfilling Kevin’s intent to ensure that Sierra Leoneans have access to their own history. Kevin also is trying to send copies to Liberia, where Kizell is known for his role in the founding of the country. If there are Liberian RPCVs interested in this project, please contact this site, and we’ll get the word to Kevin.]
Writer Jeff Fearnside lived in Central Asia for four years and traveled widely around the region. He has published fiction, poetry, and various forms of nonfiction in a number of prominent journals and anthologies. Most recently, New Madrid nominated his essay on the Aral Sea for a Pushcart Prize, while his essay about his host father in Kazakhstan has just been re-released in The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing). He has essays forthcoming in the Potomac Review and ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. He currently lives with his Kazakhstani wife Valentina in Prescott, Arizona. You may visit his website at Jeff-Fearnside.com.
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