Testimony Of An Irish Slave Girl
“We might owe expression of the truth that other people lived, when they were so marginalized that their words and their lives were completely devalued.” —Kate McCafferty, 2003, NY State Writers Institute
That’s the task McCafferty takes upon herself in writing Testimony Of An Irish Slave Girl, the finely detailed and vividly imagined story of the life of Cot Daley. Daley is an Irish girl, living at the time of Cromwell’s Protectorate, when she is kidnapped, shipped to Barbados, and sold into a lifetime of indentured servitude.
Based on intensive historical research, Daley’s story is a fictional stand-in for the testimony of the estimated 50,000 to 80,000 Irish men, women and children shipped to Barbados by the English in the early and mid 1600s. (To give an idea of the scale and brutality of 17th century Caribbean slavery, the entire population of Barbados in 1700 was under 50,000.)
Peter Coote, a lowly doctor who aspires to join the landed gentry, has the task of securing and transcribing Cot’s testimony “concerning the plot which our Governor has foiled in which the Irish and the Africans together on this island…planned to rise up against the masters which God gave you in this life.”
Daley, prematurely aged from her labors, suffering from the untreated wounds of her whipping, knowing the end of her life is near insists, “I will tell the governor, Colonel Stede—or you as his man—I will give you testimony on one condition…that it be full testimony. That you record everything I say, not simply what you seek.”
Having negotiated her terms, Daley recounts her entire life’s story, beginning with her family’s history as seanachies, “what you call bards”, continuing with her childhood in Galway City as the daughter of a leather worker and a market woman, until her capture by slavers at age 10.
Continuing with her journey on the Middle Passage, her sale to one owner, then to another, Daley’s tale is modeled on those of actual slave narratives (e.g., Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl) and so the reader is transported—if only imperfectly in one’s own imagination—to the food, the smells, the tools, the clothes, the colors, the constant dangers, the fleeting pleasures, and the unending lifesucking labor of life on a 17th century sugar plantation.
In the end, having given no more and no less information to her interrogator than she wanted, Daley concludes, “Yes, if you asked me why I carried pistols with my papayas, ’tis because Afebwa is as much my ancestor as any Daley. And I have come to know that I too will become everyone’s ancestor. So I must choose the right road for the progeny. I’ve mothered: I have chosen where to set my mother’s-feet. That this inverted paradise, sir, might become someday that garden-heaven, where people are at peace and plenty. Free, to discover their very destinies.”