David Dabydeen’s ‘Turner’ (study notes)

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David Dabydeen’s ‘Turner’ is set at sea and based upon J.M.W Turner’s painting, ‘Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying’ (a.k.a. ‘Slave Ship’).

J.M.W Turner’s painting, ‘Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying’ (also known as ‘Slave Ship’) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840, to critical acclaim.  Though its subject is the shackling and drowning of African slaves, for the critics this was a mere afterthought. So much emphasis is placed by critics like Ruskin upon Turner’s composition and use of colour in the painting (the ‘genius’ with which he illuminated the turbulent sea and sky during a typhoon) that the Africans lost amongst the swirling water are overlooked and forgotten. Ruskin even goes so far as to say that ‘Slave Ship’ was ‘the noblest sea… ever painted by man’.

Dabydeen, though, uses English (the language of the coloniser, the slave-master, and of Turner himself) to ridicule the notion of both Turner’s nobility, and that of all white colonisers. Achebe would argue that Dabydeen’s choice to address this issue in English (rather than trying to replicate the native dialects of the slaves) creates a form of vocal opposition with great cultural and political power.

In the ‘Preface’, Dabydeen notes how ‘it was not unusual for ship captains to order the drowning of sick slaves (who would fetch a low price upon arrival in the Caribbean), and to claim their insurance value on the basis of goods lost at sea’. This demonstrates the generalised white master’s disregard for the slaves they bought, sold, and held captive under the pretence of ownership.

Turner, equally, through the intensity of his painting, shows that he must have secretly ‘savoured the sadism he publicly denounced’. So, Dabydeen makes him the captain of the slave ship; the man directly responsible for having slaves thrown overboard. He also manipulates the Eurocentric perception of Turner as a generous man who showed kindness to children: the ship’s captain is instead portrayed as a paedophile whose only regard for the slaves is in financial terms.

A number of examples of this are highlighted below:

‘The ship anchored in compassion And for profit’s sake (what well-bred captain Can resist the call of his helpless Concubine, or the prospect of a natural Increase in cargo?)

‘[Turner’s] blue eyes smile at children As he gives us sweets and a ladle from a barrel Of shada juice. Five of us hold his hand, Each takes a finger, like jenti cubs… As he leads us To the ship. Why is my mother screaming… And where is my father? Why does Turner forbid her to touch us? …Why are all the elders in chains?’

‘I [see] the silver buckles On the black leather boots which we lets us Polish, till we can see our faces. Each days boys scramble at his feet, fighting To clean them first.’

‘At sea, Turner’s smile shrunk like a worm’s Sudden contraction; strange words spat From that gentle face that so often kissed us, His favoured boys, in quiet corners, Unseen passages, and when cold night winds Growled outside, curled us warmly to his bed… I lie dazed, barely able to cry’

‘Turner… sketches endless numbers In his book, face wrinkled in concentration… Like my father Counting beads at the end of each day Reckoning which calf was left abandoned In the savannah… He checks that we are parcelled In equal lots, men divided from women, Chained in fours and children subtracted From mothers. When all things tally He snaps his book shut’

‘He beholds A boy dishevelled in his bed’

‘Turner… Sits cross-legged before [Rima], beguiled by song. Afterwards he will go to Ellar, the second-born, Whom he will ravish with whips, stuff rags In her mouth to stifle the rage… By the time he has done With her he has taken the rage from her mouth. It opens and closes. No word comes. It opens And closes. It keeps his treasures… He is content. He has made her the keeper.’

‘He whispered eloquently Into our ears even as he wriggled beneath him, Breathless with pain, wanting to remove his hook Implanted in our flesh.’

In this poem, Dabydeen assigns a voice to one of the lost souls thrown overboard on the journey to the Caribbean, thus reversing the colonial objectification of slaves in Turner’s original painting. His narrative focuses upon the submerged head of the African in the foreground of Turner’s painting, whom Dabydeen notes has been ‘drowning in Turner’s (and other artists’) sea for centuries’. Consequentially, the slave ceases to be ‘goods lost at sea’, partially regaining his awareness and consciousness. He gains a voice with which to remember; to reflect; and, most importantly, to accuse.

Through Dabydeen, the African slave is given the opportunity to ‘write back’ fiercely and eloquently. This allows him to challenge both colonial processes and the depiction of Africans (which is either stereotypical, or else completely absent) in Westernised historical narratives, as well as in artwork. Dabydeen mounts a challenge not only against slavery, but against the appropriation and denial of the African voice (and its rich, heterogeneous history). Unlike Eurocentric depictions of the African, here the narrator is given an intelligible voice with which to represent himself (something Achebe would approve of).

Although issues of gender remain somewhat confused, and the slave flows between the previously fixed roles of ‘male’ and ‘female’ (through the introduction of the idea of ‘motherhood’), the race of the slave remains fixed throughout the poem. Despite the fact the sea has bleached him of all colour, the African still identifies himself as a ‘nigger’.

For example:

‘It confirmed [my] breed, Tugging my hair spitefully, startling me With obscene memory. ‘Nigger!’ it cried, seeing Through the sea’s disguise… Recognising me below my skin long since Washed clean of the colour of sin’

When the African awakens, he is only able to partially recollect his former life. He invents for himself both a body and a biography, creating an imagined landscape to identify as his ‘homeland’ (contains numerous examples of made-up names for animals (particularly birds), plants and fruit).

A number of examples are highlighted below:

‘I have given fresh names to birds and fish And humankind, all things living but unknown, Dimly recalled, or dead.’

‘Small boys like I… [fished with] Branches stripped and shaped from the Impala tree… They bend so supple, Almost a circle without snapping’

‘We play Games as our father milks, crawling… Like warriors, then springing up At the other side to hurl spears at enemies, Hiding behind the chal-tee tree in the cow-pen’

‘My mother caught me with my fingers In a pa-noose jar’

‘When I awake The house I built from barak shells, painted With the green juice of a siddam, is in shambles’

‘[Turner] gives… a ladle from a barrel Of shada juice. Five of us hold his hand, Each takes a finger, like jenti cubs… As he leads us To the ship.’

‘Birds I call by their plumage and cry As these hundred years and more I have made Names for places dwelt in, people forgotten: Words are all I have left of my eyes, Words of my own dreaming and those that Turner Primed in my mouth… My mind a garment of invention.’

‘Birds circle [vengefully], but I call them Gentle names – Flambeau, Sulsi, Aramanda. This one… I baptise Tanje after the strumpet Of our village.’

‘Tables laden With meats, spices of odalan, nutmeg, Cinnamon, and berries that multiply on vines, Yams, jilips, achroes, blue aramantines Picked lavishly from the soil.’

Dabydeen invokes the oral tradition of Africa: a pre-existing, ‘self-constitutive’, sophisticated and complex system of chronicling history, in an alternative to the (European) written form, imposed by colonisation and its respective historical narrative (a point noted in detail by Liz Gunner). The narrator evokes memories of his former life: of the African oral tradition of passing wisdom down through generations; of hierarchical social structures encompassing gods, ancestors and elders, dependent on ritual and prophecy.

Examples of this are noted below:

‘The wisdom Of our village elders passed down forever (Until Turner came) which we suck in from birth’

‘Only Manu knew… He will summon up The spirits in his own time… His women… Mix the ancient ingredients, arrange The scared bowls around his body… The spirits stay silent Until he… Howls. The villagers scatter… Between shrieks he prophesies The stranger… Who will bless us and decapitate the gods, Who will make marks on the earth with his finger Writing boundaries, who will fashion metal With new sorcery to kill us in herds, Who will deliver us from evil and disease, Teach us new ways to reap and speak.’

‘We…looked To Manu for guidance, but he gave no instruction Except… That in the future time we must learn to live Beadless in a foreign land; or perish.’

‘Or each must learn to make new jouti, Arrange them by instinct, imagination, study And arbitrary choice into a pattern Pleasing to the self and to others Of the scattered tribe; or perish… Though each with wear different coloured beads Each will be Manu, the source and future Chronicles of our tribe.’

Here, we see that the narrator resists the urge to fabricate an idyllic past for himself. This mirrors the importance Achebe places on not pretending that ‘[the] past was one long, technicolour idyll’ in his essay, ‘The Role of the Writer in a New Nation’. Achebe stresses the importance of not ‘glossing over inconvenient facts’ when reconstructing aspects of African history in literary (written) form (also in the essay ‘The Role of the Writer in a New Nation’).

The narrator remembers waiting, as a boy, to ‘ambush… the English [Coming] from another village, [intending to] plunder The crops, burn the huts, stampede the goats, Drag girls away by ropes.’ Dabydeen notes that ‘[the narrator’s] real desire is to begin anew in the sea, but he is too trapped by grievous memory to escape history’.

Neither, Dabydeen argues in the ‘Preface’, are the slaves able to ‘escape Turner’s representation of them as exotic and sublime victims’; they have been ‘stained by his language and imagery’.

‘Words are all I have left of my eyes, Words of my own dreaming and those that Turner Primed in my mouth… My mind [has become] a garment of invention.’

Of course, Dabydeen is referring to Turner’s role as both colonial artist and captain of the ship, and so this challenge of both ‘language and imagery’ can be interpreted as accusation of all the perpetrators of colonial subjugation: both those perpetuating slavery/colonialism and those depicting it on canvas and in (Eurocentric) literature.

Achebe would certainly argue that European anthropological portrayals of African societies use language as a weapon against them: depicting them as ‘exotic’, but mentally inferior, illogical and underdeveloped; savages fortunate enough to be ‘liberated’ by the arrival of the colonisers.

A still-born child – thrown overboard at the beginning of the poem –emphasises this inability to escape the colonial intrusion upon personal (i.e. subjective) histories. The child, which the narrator names ‘Turner’, becomes the agent of his self-recognition in the text. As it floats towards him, he longs to ‘mother’ the child, but ‘drowning as it is in memory of ancient cruelty’, it is thus unable to face the prospect of a future.

‘The part-born… Tossed overboard. Such was my bounty …that at first I could not believe this miracle of fate, This longed-for gift of motherhood.’

‘What was deemed mere food for sharks will become My fable. I named it Turner’

‘I had forgotten the years, now wakened By the creature that washed towards me. Yet another ship passed, familiar sails stretched… For years I had known These scenes, and I had forgotten the years – Until it broke the waters, close To my face, salt splash burning my eyes Awake.’

‘It broke the waters and made the years Stir.’

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