MY NAME RINGS no bell […]
but footnotes know me well
footnotes where history
shows its true colors
and passing reference is flesh
These lines, from John Agard’s poem “The Ascent of John Edmonstone,” give voice to an enslaved man, born in British Guiana, whose influence has been all but erased from history. Edmonstone taught Charles Darwin the taxidermy skills he deployed during his famous voyage on the H. M. S. Beagle, and his descriptions of the South American rainforests may have inspired Darwin to explore the tropics. Yet Edmonstone, muse and teacher, has gone unacknowledged.
In Agard’s poem, footnotes are where history shows its true colors: they reveal how power, held or withheld, has muted the contributions of people like Edmonstone. To be called a footnote to history is usually a put-down. I would, however, like to rehabilitate a footnoted existence, somewhat, in this essay. To be footnoted is to be cited, and to be cited is to be published. Lal Bihari Sharma, author of the 1915 songbook Damra Phag Bahar, or Holi Songs of Demerara, also could have declared: footnotes know me. First-person testimony, written by indentured immigrants, is rare: only three literary texts about the system that replaced slavery in the British Empire, by laborers who experienced it personally, are known to exist. Holi Songs of Demerara is the only one to emerge from the English-speaking Caribbean. The other two were memoirs by men from Fiji and Suriname.
It was in fact as a footnote that I first encountered Lal Bihari Sharma. I learned about him in June 2011, while reading a scholarly monograph during the final lap of research for my 2013 book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. That book is partly a narrative history about indentured women in the Caribbean and partly a memoir about my attempts to uncover the mystery behind my great-grandmother’s exit from India, in 1903, as a “coolie” (or indentured laborer). She was born in the very same district of the very same region of the very same state in India as Sharma, and they came from the same caste background. The monograph’s author, a Delhi-based labor historian, described the songbook as rich with sensory details about life on a sugar plantation in British Guiana, told from the perspective of an indentured man.
Even those among modern writers who were interested in the story saw it as an extinct form. The story to them was an old-world relic that was out of place in the complex of modernity. Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” interprets the death of the story as the necessary consequence of the birth of the modern era, in which the “communicability of experience is decreasing”. Benjamin’s essay celebrates the simple pleasures of reading the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov’s stories, by identifying “a new beauty in what is vanishing”.
Then there is Virginia Woolf’s essay on Chaucer, which indulges a similar nostalgia the modern writer felt for the straightforward tale. Chaucer, Woolf writes, “has pre-eminently that story-teller’s gift, which is almost the rarest gift among writers at the present day”.
So this essentially was the modern stance towards the story: informed by a belief that the talent for spinning yarns, a vestige from a more innocent past, was the rarest of gifts. The story, in this view, transcended all artistic ideals, even if, for the writer, it meant catering to popular tastes. As the man on the golf course in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927) says, “You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story.”