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A bloody 18th-century rebellion lives long in the memory of a Caribbean estate in Hall’s debut memoir.
The author was born in 1945 and grew up on a spice estate in Grenada called Belvidere, where planting and harvesting had gone on since the 18th century. The stilt-supported barracks of the laborers almost perfectly resembled the cabins of their enslaved ancestors, and their children were barred from exploring the parasite-ridden outdoors or the kitchen buildings where food was prepared on stone slabs and “dried wood and oil-rich nutmeg branches, placed between the stones, served as cooking fuel.” At Belvidere, from a perch on his family’s front doorsill, Hall heard stories of the estate’s notorious former occupant, Julien Fédon, and the bloody rebellion he incited in the spring of 1795 that “seized and plundered British estates,” assumed control of the island (except for the seat of government), and eventually cost the lives of thousands of Grenadians. Inspired by the revolutions in Haiti, the United States, and France, Fédon, a seasoned French officer, masterfully played various sides of the struggle—French, British, Grenadian, and Hessian—against one another, and nearly succeeded in changing the history of the western hemisphere. In this volume, Fédon’s story alternates with chapters in which Hall tells of his own childhood on the plantation in a sweet, nostalgic tone. He describes it, convincingly, as a melting pot, encompassing “poor whites” and people whose skin color he describes as “black as tar,” as well as plenty of East Indians. Among the latter was the author’s adopted mother, an illiterate farm laborer who nearly burst with happiness when her son was admitted to exclusive schools. “Wherever people came from,” one wise old resident told him, “we were one people when we worked at Belvidere.” Hall brings the world of his youth to life with anecdotes that live up to the high billing of their chapter titles. Readers learn about the fascinating mix of religions at Belvidere, as well as about the custom of swinging children over gravestones to protect them from curses; sightings of ghosts in the dismal woods; and the legend of the “loupgarou,” island vampires who were allegedly capable of manifesting themselves as giant balls of fire. As a result, Hall’s book will absorb readers for hours.
Childhood memories alternate with scenes of revolution and defeat in this complex work from a promising new voice. Kirkus Review
By Dunbar Campbell on November 16, 2016
Format: Perfect Paperback
Belvidere Estate – Fedon’s House, by Herman G Hall
Socanews, London, UK
Sometimes a newspaper headline tells you all you need to know about a story: there’s no need to read the 1,500 words of explanation underneath it. Some books are like that too once you have read the blurb on the back cover the reader’s job is done, because there’s nothing more to be learned.
Herman Hall’s new book on the Belvidere Estate in Grenada is definitely not in that category. Hall tells the story of the estate and its most famous – or notorious – resident in three ways: through his own memories of Belvidere; through the voices of the previous generations who lived and worked there; and through written historical sources. This somewhat unconventional treatment works well and Hall’s background in journalism means he knows how to tell a good story – as guests at the UK book launch at the Grenada High Commission discovered on 27 June.
Hall grew up in a barrack, a small and rudimentary sort of dwelling that had hardly evolved from the slave huts of the 19th century. Nor had the estate hierarchy or people’s diet, health and way of life. Slavery had been abolished in 1838, but the system survived. The work was hard, the poverty oppressive and, for a small child in the early 1950s, the boredom was stultifying.
Those who long for the simpler times of the past really need to read his autobiographical reminiscences. There’s not much to be sentimental about, apart from the camaraderie that comes with shared hardship. The author recalls the frustration of being cooped up behind the ‘half-bar’ that blocked the barrack entrance. However, the budding journalist responded by listening to the conversations of the elders, and these form the second strand of his book.
The subject that cropped time and again in their tales was an event that shook the colonial authorities in London to the core and had far-reaching effects across the Caribbean: the uprising of 1795, led by Belvidere’s owner, Julien Fédon. The story of the insurrection and the subsequent murder of Governor Ninian Home and 47 other captives is well known, but a lot is missing from the official papers and other written sources.
This is where Hall’s technique comes up trumps. Many of those details have survived – just not on paper. The oral tradition that passed history from one generation to another by word of mouth remained strong on the estates, where only a few could read and write. The book convincingly shows that Belvidere workers’ tales were soundly based on historical fact. And, yes, there are some interesting revelations about the Grenadian contribution to Trinidad Carnival and calypso too!
Belvidere played a part in more recent history too, including strikes organised by Eric Gairy, the turbulent years of Maurice Bishop’s People’s Revolutionary Government and the US invasion of 1983 an event that allegedly put the Queen at loggerheads with her prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Perhaps the best recommendation for this book is that reading it made me want to start my own researches into some of the many subjects Hall covers in these 200 pages (thankfully, he has included a good index). It will certainly appeal to anyone with a lively interest in Julien Fédon’s revolution, wider Caribbean history or the realities of plantation life in the pre-independence era.
September 15, 2016, Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago
September 21, 2016, Gouyave, St. John’s, Grenada
September 22, 2016, Marryshow House, St. George’s, Grenada
October 26, 2016, Washington, DC
November 5, 2016, Toronto, Canada
December 4, 2016, Brooklyn, NY
The saga of Julien Fédon, a French mulatto, is a hidden secret. Herman G. Hall brilliantly introduces Fédon through the voices of estate laborers.
As he presents Fédon, Hall takes the reader to experience life on a 20th century West Indian estate; to be exact, the decade of the 1950s on Belvidere Estate, Grenada.
Belvidere Estate – Fedon’s House is about boyhood days, storytelling, duppy and ghosts, maroons, plantains and calypso.
Julien Fédon is the only person who led a slave uprising in the 18th century West Indies but was never caught dead or alive.
In 1795, Fédon declared all slaves in Grenada free and they took their freedom until the British restored slavery.
Fédon captured Lieutenant Governor Ninian Home and 47 other elite British subjects then murdered them in the treacherous mountain.
To quell the rebellion, the British recruited German mercenaries and thousands of sailors and soldiers to defeat Fédon in the high and thickly wooded mountains.
L to R: The author and Dennis Aberdeen at Mount Qua Qua in June 2015.
The author at Fedon’s Camp, June 2015