Word of Colour

Cane Warriors

Book: Cane Warriors

Author: Alex Wheatle

Publisher: Andersen Press

Publication date: October 2020

Price (Hardback): £12.99

You can purchase the book here

Review by Tricia Wombell

The way the history of the slave trade is taught in UK schools, from the perspective of the abolitionists, gives the impression that the British weren’t involved in the trafficking and horrific mistreatment of people from across the Americas for centuries.

Also, this inaccurate teaching overlooks the fact that enslaved people did rise up and seek to free themselves. Not just once or twice – but regularly.

Award-winning YA novelist Alex Wheatle’s latest book Cane Warriors draws out this truth in his moving tribute to the Tacky Rebellion of 1760 in Jamaica, one of many uprisings that took place in the Caribbean, often in Jamaica, from the 1690s through to the 1834, when slavery was abolished.

Cane Warriors’ narrator is 14-year-old Moa, who is on the cusp of becoming a man. He’s informed by another plantation worker that there is going to be a rebellion on Easter Sunday, when the slave owners and the overseers will all be together.

Moa is nervous about what he will have to do, but there is never any doubt that he will take part. He seeks out his parents to tell them of his plans as he is quartered with other cane cutters while his parents live separately elsewhere on the estate.

His mother, a cook in the main house, lives in terror of abuse from the lady of the house, for the tiniest of errors. His father suffered a life-changing work accident, but still has to labour in the same place, where his blood still stains the machinery that he uses every day.

Moa gets his mother’s blessing as she wants at least one of her children to be free from slavery, but he doesn’t secure his father’s support, as he stoically believes “It’s better if you stay here and live”.

As the 72-hour countdown to the uprising begins, we are with Moa as he mentally prepares himself for what is to come. The details of how the business of sugar cane production works is carefully detailed, based upon free labour from young children clearing weeds among the cane rows.

We see people dying from exhaustion in the field, and being buried where they fall – with no mourning allowed – all harrowingly depicted, as are the brutal attacks and scars that the workers endure from the inhumane overseers and plantation owners. Even if you have read about these traumatic experiences before, it still a heart-breaking read.

Wheatle is best known for his much-loved Brenton Brown series, that began with his debut Brixton Rock (1999) set in the aftermath of Brixton riots of the 1980s which, and part of his life story is featured in Steve McQueen’s much anticipated Small Axe series to be aired on BBC1 and Amazon Prime in the autumn.

More recently, Wheatle has moved into writing for a YA audience, with his award-winning Crongton series featuring the admirable Liccle Bit and his network of likeable young friends taking their first steps into challenging adult life, much like Moa.

Cane Warriors is not the first time that Wheatle has delved into historical fiction. His Island Songs (2005) charted the movement of Jamaicans from the island to Brixton in the early part of the 20th century. What is special about Island Songs is the focus on the women and the telling of the stories from their perspective.

Cane Warriors is an important work in the YA canon, especially as it is based on the true story of Tacky, who was a skilled warrior and leader from what is now the central part of Ghana. It seems to be well recorded, if not so well known, that the Akan people never settled into having their freedom taken away and often led the rebellions and uprisings that took place throughout the Caribbean. In 1765, the Jamaican authorities tried to enact a law against the ‘importation’ of people from that region.

What Wheatle gets across in this captivating story, is that while the cane warriors only had the agricultural tools that they worked with, they kept their anger in check and worked in an organised military fashion to outmanoeuvre the English for many months. Part of this was to do with the mountainous Jamaican landscape, that neither the British, nor the Spanish before them, were able to completely control.

At the heart of this important story is Moa’s belief and dream of a better life. A true story that people – young and older – will now discover, and its role in British history.