The Spark: The Boy who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye

Sargrenti front cover low res

The Spark is a series of guest blogs highlighting new African fiction with authors writing about what lit up this book in their heads.

Manu Herbstein was born in Muizenberg in 1936. When, aged 23, he left South Africa, it seemed to him that apartheid was on its last legs. He thought he’d be back by the end of the 60s. In the end he didn’t return until 1992. He spent the intervening 33 years pushing a slide rule, designing bridges, buildings, roads, wooden furniture and toys, and writing technical reports in London, Abeokuta, Cape Coast, Bombay, Accra, Lusaka and Cumbernauld.

In 1970 he and his wife returned to Accra, where they’ve lived since. He has dual Ghanaian and South African citizenship.

Here’s Manu on his novel, The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye

The Spark for The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye by Manu Herbstein:

Manuhead

In 1995, northern Ghana became the scene of serious civil strife in what came to be known as the Guinea Fowl War. Reading the history of the area and its peoples led me to speculate that this violence had roots in events more than two hundred years before, in the time of the slave trade. In 1961 I had paid the first of many visits to Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese  in 1482 and the centre of their Atlantic slave trade until the Dutch expelled them in 1637. In 1995 I started drawing these threads of history together, doing research for a novel. Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book. The Pan Macmillan (SA) Picador Africa edition is out of print but an American edition is still available from on-line vendors.

My fifth novel, The Boy who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye, published by Techmate in Ghana (no website; email: techmatepublishers@gmail.com ), is set in the Gold Coast in the 1870s. It pretends to be the transcript of a handwritten diary discovered by the anonymous narrator in an old trunk.

In contemporary Ghanaian novels the author’s list of acknowledgements often includes thanks to God. This novel is introduced by the pouring of libation to the diarist’s ancestors.

On 13th June, 1873, British forces bombarded and destroyed Elmina Town, using the castle’s cannons and gunboats in the lagoon. Later that same year, using seaborne artillery, they flattened ten coastal villages. Then they headed north. On 6th February, 1874, after looting the palace of the Asantehene, Kofi Karikari, in Kumasi, troops under the command of Major General Sir Garnet Wolseley (known in Ghana as Sargrenti) blew up the stone building and set the city on fire, razing it to the ground. Their loot included the solid gold mask featured on the cover of the book, which to this day resides in the Wallace collection in London.

My 15 year old diarist, Kofi Gyan, witnesses and records these events.

The novel opens with a scene on the beach below Cape Coast Castle, from which, in the course of the eighteenth century, British traders despatched some half million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. Kofi and a friend are engaged in a watermelon seed spitting contest. Fanti canoeists ferry ashore a newly arrived war artist, Melton Prior. When he declines to pay the proper fare, they teach him a lesson by tipping his luggage into the surf. Kofi and his friend rescue it.

Prior, correspondent of the London Illustrated News, rents a room in the home of Kofi’s grandfather and later offers Kofi employment as his assistant and interpreter. This gives the lad a chance to observe Prior and his racist fellow journalists at close quarters. One of them is Henry Morton Stanley (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume”), correspondent of the New York Daily News. Another, G. A. Henty, would later celebrate British imperial heroism in 99 books. His long series of best-selling young adult novels still has a niche market amongst ideological sympathisers. 

In his diary Kofi describes the anguish of war, the defeat of the Asante army, the looting of Kofi Karikari’s palace and the destruction of Kumasi.

Back in their headquarters in Cape Coast Castle the British auction some of their loot. Traumatized by his experience of the war and outraged at the injustice of the British action, Kofi screams a protest and accusation at the auctioneer. Wolseley slaps him viciously on both cheeks and orders his arrest. Before he is dragged away Kofi, champion spitter that he is, succeeds in striking each of Wolseley’s eyes in turn.

21 years later Kofi adds a final entry to his diary. The British are again preparing to invade Kumasi. In London, Wolseley, now Lord Wolseley, is the planner-in-chief.

Annie Gagiano, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Stellenbosch writes, “I read The Boy who Spat … with great interest; African texts narrated from children’s perspectives are of particular interest to me and I think yours is a fine addition to the corpus. I think the book is especially striking as a reminder of the sheer arrogant brutality of the British and their contempt for a civilization they were too dulled in imagination (by the advantages of power) to recognize as such. You get the ‘flavour’ of both their speech and actions just right. And I think that the tone of straightforward candour in which the story is rendered is well achieved and convincingly maintained. I hope a book like this can be read by many of the continent’s young people who cannot understand what colonialism was, and did.”

“Wolseley” should ring a bell with South African readers. The Boland town which bears that name was established in 1875 to honour the British general for his valour in defeating the army of Kofi Karikari. Sir Garnet himself showed up in South Africa in 1879. Arriving just too late to add to his glory by also defeating Ceteshwayo, he was appointed Governor of Natal and the Transvaal and High Commissioner of Southern Africa.

The Boy who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye has over 70 illustrations, most of them based on drawings by Melton Prior

Jane Carruthers collected Prior’s later work in South Africa in Melton Prior, War Artist in South Africa, 1895-1900 (1000 limited edition, Brenthurst Press, 1987)

These imperialist generals and journalists did get around.