Manu Herbstein’s first novel, Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, is a meticulously researched historical novel that offers a vividly rendered picture of the atrocities of the slave trade. Its ethnographic realism with its emphasis on historical detail and ethnic mapping of alterity links it more to the early postcolonial fiction of the mid-twentieth century than to the postmodern experiments that have been widely used in the new historical novel of the last two decades. While throwing the development of the genre of the postmodern historical novel back twenty years, it also constitutes a reminder of what postcolonial literature was originally about.
Set in late-eighteenth-century West Africa, Ama tells the story of the Bekpokpam girl Nandzi, its admirably resilient heroine. The novel opens with Nandzi’s abduction by a party of slave raiders assembling the annual tribute due to the Asante Confederacy. She is later selected as a personal present to the Queen Mother of the Asante. Given an Asante name, Ama Donko, which she is to retain despite various further – similarly enforced – name-changes, she resiliently settles down to her new life. After the old king’s death, however, his adolescent successor falls in love with this voluptuous new slave, who is consequently transported to the coast “for reasons of state” (ch.11) and sold to the Dutch. It is once again her extraordinary beauty that singles her out. De Bruyn, the Director-General of Elmina, which the Dutch had taken from the Portuguese in 1637, takes a fancy to her. He names her Pamela and decides to teach her to read and write in English, so that she can read out novels to him. Among the books they read together is A History of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, an abridged version of Samuel Richardson’s mid-eighteenth-century bestseller. The plot of Pamela’s eventually rewarded good behaviour seems to be re-enacted and its promises fulfilled when De Bruyn grants Ama/Pamela her freedom in his last will, but the document is burnt by his temporary replacement and Ama sent to Barbados on a slave ship, The Love of Liberty. The rest of novel maps the transatlantic slave-trade, evoking the conditions on board ship in lurid detail. Eventually a storm blows the ship off course, forcing the captain to sell the slaves in Brazil to pay for the repair of the ship. Ama is set to work on a sugar cane plantation, works as a maid, and marries Tomba, a rebellious slave whom she already tried to help on the slave ship. When Ama is raped, Tomba guts the rapist, and they have to flee. The epilogue records Ama’s plans to tell her son her story. The glimpse of hope that is invested in this child prefigures the fight for the abolition of the slave trade in Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century.
While there is no lack of atrocious villains and personal hostilities in the novel, it repeatedly hints at a less tangible cause of human suffering. It is the economic order of capitalist free trade and the political as well as financial decisions underlying slavery and the slave trade with their securely remote beneficiaries that directly and indirectly inflict the injustices suffered by their victims. The wide range of non-African characters in the novel emphasises the complexities and international involvement of the transatlantic slave trade. The novel offers insight into the possible motivations of those who buy or sell slaves as well as into the minds of their victims.
Manu Herbstein, Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade. E-Reads, 2001.
Last modified: 3 December 2002