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History professor turns to fiction
to give African soldier a voice
Black soldiers in the 19th century struggled between loyalty to their brethren, the black slaves toiling in the fields, and the British army they served.
In the new historical fiction Congo Jack (1997, Pinto Press), history professor and Asian American Studies Institute Director Roger N. Buckley brings to life the experiences of black slaves serving in the British regiment in Dominica during the time of slavery, war and revolutionary change.
The novel is based on the story of Madu, a member of the Margi tribe in Nigeria who is stolen and sold to the British army. He is given the name Congo Jack and put to work as a soldier serving the British regiment. When he is tried with six of his comrades at an army court martial for allegedly participating in a mutiny, he becomes aware of his misplaced loyalty and chooses to die, in an effort to redeem himself from his earlier service in support of slavery.
"I wanted to give a stolen African, deprived of his original name and identity, his own dramatic voice, and hence wrote this novel in first person," Buckley says. "Congo Jack is not a hero. He is just an ordinary man, like most of us, who is faced with a difficult situation in which he has to make a life and death decision regarding misplaced loyalties."
The novel, begun in 1990, took seven years to complete. Buckley was spurred to write it by his fascination with a document he came across in England in 1972, the court martial testimony of slaves in 1802 connected to the mutiny of the British Eighth West India Regiment at Dominica in the Caribbean.
The novel carries a message that has implications for our lives today, he says.
"It is important that we learn to be careful in the investment of our material and emotions in the right direction and in the right people in our professional and personal endeavors. It is also important that we do not get carried away by glamour and other attractions," he says.
Buckley holds a Ph.D. in British imperial history, with an emphasis on the Caribbean, India and Africa, from McGill University in Montreal. Born in New York City of West Indian immigrant parents, he now lives in Coventry.
He is also the author of Slaves in Red Coats: The British West India Regiments, 1795-1815 (Yale University Press, 1979) and the forthcoming book, The British Army in the West Indies, 1792-1815: The History of a Military Community in an Age of Revolutionary Change, to be published next year by the University of Florida Press. He is also editor of The Haitian Journal of Lieutenant Howard, York Hussars 1796-1798 (University of Tennessee Press, 1985) and The Napoleonic War Journal of Captain Thomas Henry Browne, 1807-1816 (Army Records Society, 1987).
Buckley, who received research funding to write Congo Jack during a sabbatical leave, is currently writing three other books based on true stories. Hanuman is set in India during the British Empire; The Patricks is set in the United States during the American-Mexican war; and Yuri Kochiyama is a biography of the civil rights activist.
Usha R. Palaniswamy