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Joanna Scott: The Closest Possible Union

Joanna Scott’s second novel is set on a slave ship. It is narrated by a fourteen-year old boy, son of the owner, and documents his trials and tribulations, his sense of adventure and, above all, his fears. The beauty of this novel is that we see everything from his perspective. While the issue of abolitionism comes up – and the book is set in the period when trading of slaves has essentially been banned by the international community and the British navy is trying (often unsuccessfully) to suppress it – he still considers it as quite normal and acceptable. But we also see the excitement, mixed with fear, that he has as they approach Africa.

The boy is Tom Beauchamp. He is the son of Charles Beauchamp, owner of the ship and after whom the ship is named. However, apart from himself, only the captain and the first mate know his real identity. Charles Beauchamp had instructed the captain to make Tom a gentleman. The rest of the crew thinks he is merely a cabin boy. One of the key themes of this (as in many other novels) is that things are not necessarily what they seem. The crew initially think that the ship is a whaler. Only when they are at sea and they see whales ignored and the ship being fitted out for storage of people below, do they realise that the ship has another purpose. The crew are happy with the change, as there is more money and less work involved in slave trading.

Tom is naturally apprehensive. He finds the captain to be rough but not too cruel, at least towards him. The crew certainly seem to be hard men and Tom generally avoids them as much as possible, during the entire voyage. His first exposure to violence is when one of the crew, Peter Gray, is seized early on and it looks as though he is to be keelhauled over some dispute. This is avoided but, during a meal, one of the crew seizes him and forces a live roach down his throat. The captain rescues Gray and takes him and Tom to his cabin. Gray is undressed and revealed to be a woman. For the rest of the voyage, she will remain in the captain’s quarters. Tom is naturally unsure of women at his age and wary of her. However, she does tell him her story, though Gray, like others on board, is an unreliable narrator. She had come from a well-off seafaring family. Her father had fathered a son from a mulatto woman, called Quince. When he father dies, Quince is left without a penny. He leaves and the young Peter Gray (we never learn her real name) tries to follow him. She is unable to do so but vows to find him. We soon learn that the African slave trader that the captain will be dealing with may well be Quince, though, again, the source of the information is unreliable.

Apart from the captain and Peter Gray, the only person Tom is somewhat close to is Brian Piper, the mess boy. It is Piper – again an unreliable narrator – who tells Tom of the captain’s many wives and the fanciful stories about each one. When Tom mentions the stories to the captain, he does not deny but nor does he confirm it. Brian Piper works for Jack Carvee, the cook, but Carvee dies after an incident with another crew member. Death is, of course, very present on a ship. Indeed, we start with a burial at sea about two weeks into the voyage, when a corpse they seem to have been carrying since they set out is buried, We never learn the identity of the corpse. Carvee is not the only crew member to die at sea. While we do not get any Conradian tempests, bad weather does occur on more than one occasion and one squall blows a crew member overboard.

Much of the story is Tom’s interaction with the crew, the captain, Gray and Piper but we also follow his thoughts and fears. He talks to his absent parents and worries about the crew, the captain and even Peter Gray. But he also has a few experiences, seeing a shark captured, experiencing bad weather as well as learning sea stories such as about the slaver whose crew is blind but for one man or how a captain escaped the Royal Navy’s wrath by dumping all the slaves overboard before the Navy caught up with the ship.

Both in the language she has Tom use and Tom’s views, Scott writes from a contemporary perspective, not from a modern perspective. There is no liberal heart-pounding about the evils of slavery, even though Peter Gray and a missionary they take on board preach against it and we do see some cruelty towards the slaves. It is this that makes this such fascinating novel as all too many slave novels focus on preaching about the evils of slavery which, surely, in this day and age, we all agree on. Scott is an original writer and it sad that this book is out of print.

Publishing history

First published 1988 by Ticknor & Fields