Miranda is a black ex-slave, now the owner of a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the late eighteenth century. Her battle to overcome prejudice and to raise the status of African slaves by teaching them to read and write makes compelling reading. Her personal struggle with an overseer who preys on black women to satisfy his sexual appetite has far-reaching consequences.
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The island lay before them like a green jewel in a turquoise sea. At the sight of it tears sprang to Miranda's eyes.
"We're home, Daniel," she murmured to the tall man at her side. He did not reply but clasped her hand and together they stood on the gently heaving deck gazing at the speck of land in the distance.
"It seems a lifetime since we left Jamaica. Do you remember how excited we were at the thought of going to England, Daniel? We had no idea what it would really be like; perpetual grey skies and cold that seeps right into your bones." She shuddered.
Daniel smiled down at her, his dark eyes teasing. "You always were like a cat, Miranda, seeking any spot of warmth to lie in." Then his voice grew serious. "Don't forget, England was a land of freedom where we were no longer slaves."
"Freedom!" Miranda exclaimed. "What does that mean when you're black and everyone treats you as an inferior? Even the poorest people in the streets despised us."
"The fact remains, we were free." Daniel's voice was firm. "We were paid a wage for our work and had a master who showed us respect."
"I suppose you're right, Daniel, and I should be grateful, but all the same ..." Her voice trailed away.
"Without that master neither of us would be here," said Daniel thoughtfully. "How strange that we learned only recently we were his children. It accounts for a great deal: the way we were singled out from other children on the plantation and taught to read and write."
"But do you think it was really to our advantage Daniel? The other slaves resented us - perhaps not you, but certainly me."
Daniel's voice held a hint of laughter. "That's not surprising my dear. Your bearing was always a trifle haughty and besides, your promotion to lady's maid at such a young age would have aroused envy in the girls."
There was truth in this and for a moment Miranda was silent. "How do you think they'll feel when we return to the plantation as their new masters?"
"What concerns me is how the new manager, the one who's taken over from James McDonald will care for taking orders from an ex-slave."
"He'll like it even less when he hears I am joint owner with you."
Both of them were silent, thinking back to the strange chain of events that had led to this overturning of the old order.
Daniel and Miranda had grown up on a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the late 1700s, unaware that the owner, Mr Cummings, was their father. All each of them knew then was that their mother had died when they were very young, which was not unusual for female slaves on a plantation. They were placed in the care of two different women and when they were old enough were brought into the big house to have lessons in the schoolroom with the son and daughter of the white overseer. It soon became clear that the slave children were exceptionally bright and Daniel in particular was quick at figures, so as soon as he reached adolescence the master used him to assist in the business side of the plantation, while Miranda was given the position of lady's maid to his wife.
When Miranda was sixteen and Daniel twenty their mistress died and the bereaved husband decided to leave Jamaica and take up residence in England for a season. He offered to take Daniel with him to act as his steward and Miranda to be a servant in his English household.
Shortly after their arrival in Bristol Mr Cummings met Clara, a young woman whose father was a well-to-do draper. She was attractive and intelligent and willing to marry a man old enough to be her father. Soon after the wedding she became pregnant, much to the delight of her husband whose first wife had been barren and left no heir to the plantation.
Then they received bad news from Jamaica. A disease to the sugar crop had left the plantation on the edge of bankruptcy and it was necessary for Mr Cummings to return to Jamaica and supervise his affairs, leaving Daniel in charge of the household in Bristol. While he was away Clara, his wife, heard John Wesley preach on the evils of slavery. She wrote to her husband urging him to free his slaves. This he refused to do at first, but as he lay dying of a fever he had a change of heart and granted them their freedom.
Clara was now a widow with a young daughter and gradually she came to lean on Daniel's support until, eventually, they both recognised that they were in love. As followers of John Wesley, who taught that all men were equal regardless of race or colour, they decided to marry in spite of general disapproval.
Miranda, Clara's maid, was heart-broken when she learned of this decision as she had loved Daniel since they were children. Then a letter arrived which had been delayed at sea, written by Mr Cummings before he died. In it he stated that Daniel and Miranda were his children by a slave girl on his plantation. On learning this, Clara and Daniel, who now owned the plantation, decided that Miranda should be made a joint owner with them. She volunteered to return to Jamaica as the mistress of the estate. Daniel agreed to accompany her and stay on until she had settled in.
Now, as they stood on the deck of the ship, the soft trade winds ruffling their hair and garments, both Miranda and Daniel reflected on the changes that had taken place in their lives since they left this land eight years before.
They remained on deck watching the island grow larger as they approached it. Against the deep blue sky the distant hills shimmered in the heat haze while along the shoreline sprawled rich vegetation. At the water's edge a ribbon of white sand marked out the boundary of the land.
Both Miranda and Daniel were unused to such vivid colour after the muted shades of England and they screwed up their eyes as they gazed across the dazzling water.
At last the ship reached the harbour and here the scene changed. Instead of the jewel-like island seen from a distance, a pall of dust and dirt hung over everything. Miranda and Daniel prepared to leave the ship after collecting their belongings from the cabin. Their luggage from the hold would be delivered to the plantation by carrier once it was unloaded.
As they descended the gangway, heat rose up to meet them. The cooling breeze on the ship had shielded them from the burning rays of the sun, but here there was no breeze and no shade. As they stood waiting for a cab they watched black men passing them carrying heavy loads on bare shoulders, their bodies glistening with sweat. Others were unloading cargo from the holds of ships tied to the wharf.
Miranda wrinkled her nose at the stink of sweat overlaid with the sweet cloying smell of molasses and sugar coming from the barrels standing on the quay. The air was ringing with shouts and cursing. Then came another sound different from all others: the wailing of human beings at the limit of their endurance.
Miranda turned her head and saw a sight she would never forget: slaves being unloaded from a ship that had just docked at the wharf: men, women and children, chained together and herded by men with whips who shouted curses at them. Now the smell that reached Miranda was the sour smell of human misery and she watched pityingly as poor human creatures passed by them, heads hanging down and shoulders drooping. Little children with bones showing through slack skin clung bewildered to their mothers, tears streaking their faces.
Miranda couldn't help herself. She ran from Daniel's side towards a small child who was crying bitterly, and taking a handkerchief from her pocket dabbed it on the child's cheek and bent to kiss him. He looked up in wonder at the beautiful woman leaning over him and his mouth fell open. His mother also gazed at Miranda. Then she smiled, a wan smile which briefly showed a set of perfect white teeth.
By now Daniel was at Miranda's side. "I want to buy these two and take them home with us," she said.
She was unaware that the gang of slaves had come to a halt. An angry man carrying a whip strode towards them.
"What do you mean by interfering with my cargo?" he demanded, scornfully looking Miranda up and down.
"My sister here took pity on a little child in distress," said Daniel quietly. "These poor people have endured dreadful conditions and we are very concerned about them."
"People!" spat out the man, "Animals more like. Look at them, poor specimens all of them. Lucky if we fetch enough to pay for the trouble of transporting them."
"In England we are campaigning to have this abominable trade put to an end. No human being should be subjected to degradation like this."
"Oh, you're an abolitionist are you? I suppose you were given your freedom by some well-meaning Englishman."
"As a matter of fact we were and now we are the owners of a plantation in Kingston. We would free all these poor creatures if we could, but as that isn't feasible we would like to purchase this mother and her child."
"That's impossible before they come up for auction," the man began, and then a calculating look crossed his face. "On the other hand, if you're willing to pay ready cash I think I could do a deal with you."
"Good," said Daniel and taking out a sovereign he held it out to the man who took it and gazed at him dumbfounded.
"That's for the mother and the child. Now would you release her from her chains immediately and leave her and the child with us."
Without another word the man bent down and unfastened the chain. Miranda gasped when she saw the raw and bleeding wound on the woman's ankle. She took the same handkerchief from her pocket which she had used to wipe the child's face and tenderly wrapped it around the woman's leg.
The slave driver muttered something under his breath which sounded like, "You fool!" before he turned back to the other slaves standing patiently in the sun. This time he merely ordered them to move on, but did not flourish his whip or curse them.
"You wait here while I get a cab," said Daniel to Miranda. "I'll be as quick as I can so you don't have to stand in this sun," and with that he was gone.
Miranda looked with concern at the woman. She was swaying on her feet as though she was about to faint.
"Wait here while I get you some water," she murmured and seeing a horse trough on the quay she crossed to it. Fortunately there was a tin mug lying on the ground nearby so she scooped water into it. She offered it to the woman who gulped it thirstily. The child started to cry again and Miranda absently stroked his head, then withdrew her hand in horror as she saw his hair was crawling with lice. There and then she determined that the first thing she would do for these two when they got home was to give them a thorough bath and put them into clean clothes.
Suddenly Daniel was at her side. "I've got a cab at last. It wasn't easy as there was such a demand for them. It's waiting at the corner."
"I don't know that the woman could walk that far. I'll help her and you carry the child, Daniel."
Miranda put her arm around the woman's waist and half carried her to the cab. It was like carrying a skeleton wrapped in loose skin and Miranda was almost afraid of tearing that delicate tissue. Daniel lifted her and the child into the cab, then jumped on beside the driver.
Miranda sat close to the woman with her arm protectively around her, afraid that the jolting of the carriage would cause her to topple onto the floor. The little boy leaned against Miranda looking trustfully up into her face. Miranda felt her heart swell in her breast as she gazed down at him.
The smell of human excrement was strong in that confined space, so Miranda leaned across to pull aside the leathern curtain hanging over the window. She did the same for the other one and the draught this created gave some relief from the fetid air. Through the open window she watched the passing scene: field after field of sugar cane laid out in neat rows of waving greenery. From time to time a homestead would appear, set well back from the road and approached by a long driveway.
Miranda wondered how long it would be before they reached their own plantation, called Fairview. Already they had been an hour and a half on the road since leaving Kingston. Finally the carriage slowed down and they entered a tree-lined drive. At the end of it stood a large white house built in the classical style. A lump came into Miranda's throat. Here they were, home at last, after eight long years.
As they drew nearer to the house Miranda became aware of changes. Gone were the carefully cultivated flower beds bordering the driveway. In their place were tubs of sprawling shrubs that nobody had bothered to clip into shape. She also noticed that weeds were poking through the gravel of the carriage-way.
The cab drew to a halt and Daniel came round to the door.
"Here we are at last," he said looking past Miranda and peering into the carriage. "How have our passengers weathered the journey?"
"I think they've slept most of the way," replied Miranda, glancing down at the two beside her. "Perhaps we should leave them here until we've been inside and found a suitable room to put them in."
With that she took Daniel's proffered hand and sprang lightly from the carriage.
Hand in hand they climbed the steps leading to the porticoed entrance. Daniel reached for the door pull and gave it a sharp tug. They waited, but nobody answered. Daniel tried again and after some seconds the door was opened, not by a servant in livery as they would have expected, but a maid in the standard dress of a house servant. Her mouth fell open at the sight of them.
"You seem surprised to see us," said Daniel. "I did write to inform Mr Smith we would be arriving sometime in September, although I could not give an exact day. Would you let him know that we are here?"
"Who shall I say you are, Sir?"
Daniel glanced across at Miranda, raising an eyebrow. "Tell him that the new master and mistress have arrived from England and are now in the house."
She scurried off and Daniel turned to Miranda saying a trifle grimly, "Hardly the welcome we would have expected. Still, now we are here we might as well look around."
"First we must find a room suitable for the woman and her child," said Miranda firmly, conscious of the two out in the carriage.
"Very well, let us look downstairs for somewhere suitable. They would hardly be able to manage stairs in their state."
"I know the very place. When I was maid here there used to be a small sitting room at the back of the house where my mistress would sit to do her embroidery."
Miranda hurried along the passage pushing doors open while Daniel followed her.
Finally, she came to a door second from the end. Throwing it open she said, "This is it. There's even a sofa and an easy chair. It will do perfectly for them. Let's bring them in straight away, Daniel."
They made their way back along the passage and through the open door.
The cab was still waiting outside, the driver leaning negligently against the carriage door. Daniel went across to speak to him while Miranda peered inside the carriage. To her consternation she saw the woman lying crumpled in the corner.
"Daniel, come quickly!" said Miranda urgently. "The woman's unconscious and may even be dead."
He reached inside the carriage, carefully placing his arms around the unconscious woman and lifted her out, carrying her as easily as if she were a child, while Miranda followed with the boy on her hip.
When they reached the room at the end of the passage Daniel laid the unconscious woman gently on the sofa and Miranda lifted the child onto a chair.
"I'll go and fetch water from the kitchen," she said.
Miranda was back in minutes followed by two servant girls, one carrying a basin of water and the other a jug and a towel draped over her arm.
Miranda soaked the towel in water and tenderly sponged the face and chest of the inert woman. Her eyes flickered open, then closed again. Miranda continued to sponge her, wringing out the towel every few minutes. Then she held a cup of water to the parched lips. As the woman sipped, strength seemed to return to her. She looked across at her child and lifted her hand feebly to point at the jug of water, then to him. Miranda left her and crossing to the child offered him water. He took the jug with both hands and drank from it noisily. The mother sat up and watched him, a smile playing around her lips. She attempted to stand, but Miranda gently restrained her.
Excerpted from "Miranda"
Copyright © 2017 Elaine Blick.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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