The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah
At fifteen, Aminah is already a beauty, attracting the unwanted attention of traders passing through her village. But that’s as nothing to when the slavers arrive, torching the houses and binding men, women and children in a forlorn chain to march towards the trading post at Salaga, whose hundred wells were built to bathe the slaves arriving there after a long journey. While she’s lucky not to be sent further on to the coast to be shipped abroad, life isn’t easy in her new home, especially as the man of the house comes every night for the sexual favours he can’t get from either of his two wives.
As the daughter of a chief, Wurche’s life seems, on the surface, a world apart. But with a stronger interest in horse racing, shooting and politics that is considered seemly for a girl of royal blood, she also has to fight for autonomy. For a while, her father indulges her until he decides to marry her off to cement an alliance with another tribe to defeat their common enemy. Although Wurche has always argued for African unity, especially as the Europeans compete to plant their flags in the territory, with her husband there is only discord.
The women’s trajectories coincide when Wurche, disconcerted by her lover’s apparent interest in the slave girl, buys Aminah to take care of her young son. Now treated well, Aminah is torn between her affection for the child and her desire for freedom. As war cuts through the region, and Salaga itself begins to crumble, along with the trade in which it is based, both women must also grapple with their attraction to men whose roles in the business they cannot condone.
Published by small Nigerian press Cassava Republic, who supplied my review copy, I enjoyed this novel’s focus on strong women in a patriarchal society and the complex politics of the slave trade. Although I did already know that Europeans didn’t initiate slavery, but exploited an existing system, I was intrigued by the statement in the press release that the author forces us to rethink the idea of imperialism as an external force as she contemplates the internal struggle for power within Ghana, thus restoring African agency. It made me rethink how some of us, perhaps for fear of our own racism, might inappropriately cast Africans as passive victims.
Homegoing, which I reviewed last year, is another novel about slavery around the Gold Coast giving a taste of what might have become of Aminah and her descendants had she been transported to America.
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson
Giving birth to her fourth child in the squalid bowels of a Barbary pirate ship, things don’t look good for Asta. But at least she and her baby are alive, unlike her friend Kristín, shocked into a bloody premature labour by the pirates who chased her across the lava of their island home. At least her husband, the pastor Olafur, is at her side, rather than left for dead like the other priest, her uncle Jón. At least her eldest daughter is safe on Iceland’s mainland and her other two children with her in the hold.
Arriving in Algiers a month later, the Icelanders are dazzled by the sparkling white buildings and the unfathomable heat. Almost immediately, the couple’s eldest son is snapped up by the pasha, never to be seen again. But Asta finds relative sanctuary in the harem of a rich merchant, allowed to keep her three-year-old daughter, Marta, and newborn son. Meanwhile Olafur, whose diplomacy and curiosity had already attracted the attention of the ship’s captain, is dispatched to Copenhagen to persuade the king (Iceland at the time coming under Denmark’s jurisdiction) to buy back his subjects’ freedom.
It takes nine years until an emissary arrives in the city with the ransom money, but it’s not only language difficulties and red tape that means only a tenth of the kidnapped islanders attempt the arduous journey home. Several have died and the children have been naturalised, fluent in Arabic, brought up as Muslim and remembering little of their cold and damp northern homes. Others, despairing of ever being rescued, or preferring life in the cosmopolitan city where they never go short of food, opt to remain, women converting and marrying the man who bought them.
Asta too has this option, and it’s no easy choice. She’s grown fond of the merchant and, for all she knows, her husband back in Iceland, twenty-five years her senior, might be dead by now. If she goes back, she must leave behind her children; although perhaps, given their acculturation, they’ve already left her.
Picking up on the history of the moors of the Mediterranean where Court of Lions, set in Granada, left off, Sally Magnusson’s debut novel provides a fascinating insight into a period when not only Iceland, but many other parts of Europe, were beset by slavery of and by both Muslims and Christians alike. But, interesting as that is, the strength for me of The Sealwoman’s Gift lies in its exploration of the wider psychological territory of the human response to unbearable trauma and loss.
Just as a child going missing changes everything for the family involved, the uprooting of the Icelanders from their homeland, even if the ransom is paid, cannot be undone. Can religion, as it is Olafur’s job to maintain, ease the pain, or does the cruelty of the circumstances render belief in The Great Architect of the Universe impossible? Is it better to adapt or cling on to hope that the former life will be restored? Do stories – Asta’s sagas along with the tales with which the women entertain themselves in the harem – help or detract from the truth? When does imagination drift into delusion?
This psychological depth, along with engaging prose and meticulous research into the history on which this novel is based, makes The Sealwoman’s Gift another contender for my books of the year. Thanks to Two Roads for my review copy.