• Margo De Weerdt

Barracoon: The story of the last slave, Zora Neale Hurston

Updated: May 25, 2021

I’ve had my eye on this book for a while before I bought it. It’s the kind of book that you encounter multiple times in different bookshops, it catches you eye, it intrigues. Third time is a charm, bought and placed it on the ‘to read’ pile.

Why did it intrigue me? Well, the subject in the first place. I, a white Belgian woman, know too little of this subject, sadly, and I need to educate myself more. Secondly, I’m thoroughly fascinated with history, stories and people.

So, this book is written by Zora Neale Hurston in 1931 and published only in 2018. Even with a time gap of 90 years, this book is still very relevant to understand parts of the world we live in today.

Zora Neale Hurston is an American author, anthropologist and filmmaker. She was born January 7 in 1891 and died on January 28 in 1960. She has written many, many more novels, essays, stories, etc. Her most famous work is ‘Their eyes were watching God’, another one that’s added to the ‘need-to-buy-or-get-from-the-library-to-read’ list.

This book tells the life story of Oluale Kossola, or his American name: Cudjo Lewis. He was born circa 1841, in the town of Banté in West Africa. Aged 19, he survived the raid & massacre on his home town by Dahomian warriors, was chained and transported to the coast, to Ouidah, near the Bight of Benin. From the barracoon cages by the coast, together with more then 100 others, he was sold by the Dahomey to Captain William Foster of the Clothilda, the last slave ship. They were transported over the Atlantic to America, Alabama, to the plantations of the Meaher brothers. They lived in slavery until 1865. After that, when they were freed, they started their own town: Africatown, nowadays in Mobile, Alabama.

Kossola still lived their when Hurston went to interview him, he was in his 90’s.

This is a rough outline to the life story of Kossola. Hurston wrote it in his own dialect. This makes it a little difficult to get into at first, but after a few pages you get into the rhythm of the words and sentences. It makes the story very personal, like Kossola is talking to you directly.

Because it is published posthumously, they added an extra introduction, extra foreword and at the end more info on the author & the writing. This helps to give more context to the story, I found it quite helpful to get a better image of the circumstances and context in which this book was written by Hurston.

At the end are also some of the stories, parables that Kossola told Hurston.

This entire book is not an easy read. Due to the subject it is quite emotional, his story is a hard one. But it is necessary that it is told. In the introduction of the book, Hurston herself points it out accurately:

“… All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold. The Kings and Captains whose words moved ships. But not one word from the cargo. The thoughts of the ‘black ivory’, ‘the coin of Africa’, had no market value. Africa’s ambassadors to the New World have come and worked and died, and left their spoor, but no recorded thought.”

And then she recorded the story of Kossola in 1931, the last one to tell this horrific narrative from the perspective of ‘the sold’. And besides that, tell the story of his live, his happiness, his losses.

Highly recommend.

It’s a heartbreaking, beautiful, unbelievable book.