It is less of a tautology to claim that orthodox historians to this day have read the abolition of slavery, a step first taken by Britain in 1807 and followed later by other powers, as the event that ushered in a reversal of chattel slavery. Nevertheless, the end of chattel slavery for Wayétu Moore in She Would Be King (2018), underlies a regression towards wage labour, a policy deemed far worse than slavery, ensuring not only a second life of the nefarious institution but also the foundation of a system wherein workers prostitute themselves every single working day in contrast to slaves who were sold once or twice in a lifetime.
In the author’s eye, wage labour stands for that descent into the proletarization of people and communities, their systemic impoverishment through the appropriation of their labour time, amounting to civil wars and overall societal unrest. Readers may recall that Moore’s stated objective from writing the novel has been her attempt to specify the reasons that lead to Liberia’s civil war (1989-1997) during which she, a toddler (born in 1985), and her family were forced to flee the country and settle in the US. It is worth recalling that Liberia is the first nation-state in Africa. Its independence dates back to 1847, well before countries such as South Africa, Egypt or even Ethiopia. But the country has remained largely unstable and the advantage of Moore’s novel is that it promises to take its reader to the motoring principle behind that instability and violence, that is, to the foundation of wage labour system.
Moore’s early attempts in fiction writing is a children book titled: I Love Liberia (2011). She similarly champions a non-profit business adventure called ‘One Moore Book’. Note the pun in ‘Moore’, highlighting both the word ‘more’ and the author’s last name. The project aims at circulating “… culturally relevant books to children who are underrepresented and live in countries with low literacy rates.”(1) Besides, Moore’s faith in the universal extension of knowledge to unfortunate young minds underscores her initial cause of dispelling illusions and falsehoods, including those that have put Liberia on the road of misery, impoverishment and interminable wars.
Several observers and experts will keep reiterating that behind that generalized instability and descent into bloody civil wars lies the same people’s backwardness, incapacity to found an enduring social contract and endemic divisions between multiple social components. All these factors should perhaps be approached with a grain of salt because the listed ‘reasons’ subscribe more to the logics of justification, not explanations. Indeed, such arguments are culturalist in nature and all they succeed in achieving is to blame the victims and, in the meanwhile, lift the blame from the real harm-inflictors, both people and structures. The present essay underscores the need to consider the author’s approach and setting of the story, since taking that into consideration, I claim, can be conducive to register exactly what happened, and the way in which what indeed happened (not that which is fancied as what happened) had ushered in in the long term the civil war of the 1990s.
The differential between that which indeed happened and that which portends to have happened is a historiography that promises to propagate towards universal emancipation. Leaving that which triggered the author’s own exile unexamined is to remain stuck in superficialities-sold-as-histories, with the cost of ensuring that cycles of violence will not only keep emerging but those cycles’ rhythm will have to be confronted with a telling regularity.
Before detailing on wage labor, there exists the need to broach first on several social players of modern Liberia as traced by the author in She Would be King. We find at least two main components: the first is the Vai and other indigenous communities as represented by Gbessa’s story in the early part of the novel, offering a window into precolonial life in an African village before European intrusion. Through the stigmatization of Gbessa on the ground of her ‘ill-fated’ birth date, Moore illustrates that precolonial life, that is, well before the incursion of European powers into the continent’s interiors, life in Africa was far from being either idyllic or perfect. Readers find that Gbessa is cursed simply because her birth date coincides with an event interpreted as a bad omen. Through no fault of her own, and at the age of eight, Gbessa is sentenced to die by abandoning her in the deep jungle. Her parents are ostracized for bringing a child on a ‘wrong’ day, overlooking how the wrong day is wrong only in the calendar of alienation!
The second category of social actors are returnees, victims of slavery but who found themselves obliged (like June Dey) or entreated (like Norman Aragon) to return and find peace in Monrovia. Let us recall that these last two characters are themselves descendants of enslaved Africans who do not necessarily come from Libera, or even nearby localities such as the Ivory Coast or Ghana. Throughout the decades and even the centuries, the first enslaved people died and their enslaved descendants simply retained “Africa” or its idea less as their place of origin and more as a place where they used to be free, their humanity round and unquestioned. It should be noted that places such as Cameroon, Nigeria, Tanzania or the Congo are recent inventions that come with colonial expansionist plans and labels since by the time chattel slavery become generalized, these appellations (not places) simply did not exist.
In She Would be King, we find this affinity with Africa, less as a geographical space or biological affiliation and more as an existential attachment to a promise for emancipation with Nanni, Norman’s mother. Despite having the choice to live among several Maroon communities in Jamaica, Nanni always feeds Norman, her son, the obligation to leave Jamaica and to re-join Africa. To seize on her steadfastness in bonding with Africa, readers cannot miss how she endures Callum’s pseudo-scientific whims, slavery and even rape, all for the sake of earning a boarding passage to Africa. Africa, she seizes, is both the physical territory and mental space conceptualized as existential freedom, a radical breach with the reductionism of one’s humanity that underlies her life as a slave. Nanni, Norman and June Dey, as elaborated below, are Pan-Africanists avant la lettre. Well before the foundation of the early to mid-twentieth century movement of Pan-Africanism, we read that slaves in the Americas entertained not only exalted dreams but elaborate plans to equally find and found freedom in Africa. Alternatively, freedom became synonymous with their idea of Africa. The two are intricately attached so much so that they serve as a prerogative for Africa-as-freedom and freedom-as-African.
The runaway slave June Dey similarly comes from a tobacco plantation in Virginia, named Emerson. His biological father is a slave from a neighbouring plantation who was cheaply sold to the Emersons in the hope of saving the crumbling plantation capital and helping it regain its former wealth and glory. We read that June Dey’s father, June, killed the overseer in his last incarcerating place because that overseer had killed his wife and baby. June is subsequently killed in Emerson because he dared to defend his second family, the one he founded after arriving at Emerson and from this union June Dey is born. June Dey’s biological mother, Charlottes, occupies a mixed space between a domestic and field hand. During the day she serves in the mansion but at night she sleeps in a shack with other field slaves. She too was brutally murdered soon after getting rid of June. Their baby christened Moses, was trusted to Darlene, a domestic slave and another victim of the infamous system. Even when no one dared to divulge a single word in respect to his father’s feats, June Dey or Moses truly stands to his biblical sake name. The insurrectionary spirit becomes contagious and is transferred from father to son nevertheless. He was raised as a domestic, but when Mr Emersons decides to dispense with some slaves in order to raise funds for a second nearby plantation that would plant cotton, June Dey leads the insurrection that brings the Emerson plantation and its expansionist plans all down.
Indeed, we read that the two June Dey and Norman Aragon are repatriated to Monrovia: Norman because that was his mother’s dying wish but for June Dey the trip was totally unplanned. After his spectacular fight against the masters of Emerson, the opportunity presented itself as the runway June Dey is knocked out of consciousness and finds himself in a ship, run by the famous American Colonization Society (ACS) and is bound for Africa. All over the 1840s, the ACS used to raise resources from the US Congress to secure the repatriation of both free and freed Africans to Liberia. Meanwhile, the ACS established a footing for US imperial planners during the heated race for colonies.
When knowing that even Gbessa too had been in exile as she was excommunicated from her village on the pretext of being cursed, the three characters conceive of Africa less as a place of origin and more as a promise for greater, that is, communal emancipation. This suggests how readers are invited to favour ideological affiliation, not biological association. Indeed, Norman and June Dey meet outside the Monrovia prison searching for ways of reaching Freetown which is much of a mythical land and which involves how it is less a physical territory and more of a life journey.
Why underlying the symbolic meaning of the land? Lest Africa is fetishized, the simple act of setting foot in Africa registers as just the beginning of the journey, the commencement of the arduous work, neither an end in itself nor a call for passive resignation. Moore’s vision for Africa serves the facilitation of encountering like-minded individuals to unite the efforts and beat up against intruders for collective and communal emancipation. Encountering Gbessa when she is literally on the verge of death (she has been beaten by a snake), Norman has been at that point looking for a medicinal herb (significantly, a living root—not one that is cut) to attend to June Dey’s terrible stomachache. Instead of caring for one, Norman has now to attend to two patients whom he barely knows. He could have simply abandoned them to their fate and carried out his journey alone. But he realized that a journey is meaningless without companions and fellow travellers. Once this initial task of caring for the physical well-being of committed Africans is successfully carried out, facing intruders both local and foreign is next on the agenda. The three face French soldiers as the latter are burning villages and driving the inhabitants into the slave market. Unparalleled feats of success are achieved as Norman and June Dey save the villagers and they all eventually mount a rebellion against the French enslavers. Historically, France was a latecomer in the slave trade and France grudgingly abolished slavery as late as 1848. French enslavers take Gbessa a prisoner; later, she is stabbed and is left bleeding. But Gbessa’s curse specifies that she cannot die. She stands for the undying spirit of insurrection, which explains why soon enough, we meet Gbessa in Mr Johnson’s mansion, taken care of by Maisy, a servant. Understandably, Mr Johnson plays a prominent role in the young and independent republic of Liberia.
By then, the narrative may look like it slides into insignificant preoccupations: Gbessa’s marriage with a prominent army lieutenant, Gerald Tubman, in the then newly founded Liberian army. The union starts as a marriage of convenience but eventually becomes rotating around love. The new elites of settlers badly desire peace. How else to achieve that peace and trust with the unruly tribes of the interior except through a marriage with Gbessa? The union stands as a pledge, not a testimony, that Liberia will hopefully remain a single and functional entity. June Dey and Norman are now mixing with the crowds. But the mixed marriage should not lend a superficial reading of the novel. Already, readers notice that within early Liberian high society, composed of individuals who themselves had been slaves or had experienced slavery at a close range in pre-civil war America have themselves resorted, however indirectly, to enslaving practices in the form of wage labour.
Maisy’s fate, when closely considered, speaks volumes. Kidnapped is one of the last enslaving raids, her entire tribe was annihilated. As a sole survivor, she is now a servant of Mr Johnson. The latter is presumably a popular leader of the young nation but in fact he is the spokesperson of the settlers, those now powerful people repatriated by the ACS. In a dialogue between prominent ladies, Miss. Ernestine raises the remark that in being a house servant Maisy brings unhappy reminiscences regarding the fate of domestic slaves on plantations in the antebellum United States. The snide remark is swiftly answered with a tinge of irony where Mrs Johnson points at the rumours which circulate how Miss. Ernestine could be abusing the native inhabitants in her coffee plantations, treating them like field slaves, implying that she perhaps should mind her own business before attending to others.
The conversation between the ladies, however calm in tone and seemingly casual, even friendly, remains eye-opening. What cannot be missed, however, is how these early founders of the Republic of Liberia were not only conscious of the cultural divisions between the inhabitants but were also aware of the long-term consequences of these divisions. The bombastic and celebrations attitudes of starting a social order that promises to be a rupture with the practices of the past and its institutions, such as slavery, is now increasingly challenged. The ladies, as the exchange illustrates, are in no way fooled by the promises of new or egalitarian beginnings, allowing us to fundamentally question the chances of new beginnings or how the idea of new beginnings serves as a strategy to fool idiots and simpletons. Engrossed in their thriving businesses, the founding elites were aware that they were leaving behind other social actors and that marginalization would be a time-bomb, which if not immediately addressed, social unrest and even generalized instability will transpire into the future. Nevertheless, each selfishly clanged to short term interests and business calculations. Interests and calculations turned out in the long run to be costly miscalculations.
The natives, non-educated members of the interior tribes, were treated by returnees from Jamaica, the US and other places (who were mostly enslaved) as second-class citizens. Reading the history of coups in Liberia, it is these two social players that constantly seek to undo and cancel each other. Even in the civil war that pushed the author’s own parents to leave for the US, it was Charles Tylor ousting Samuel Doe. The latter comes from the Krahn ethnic group, whereas Tylor is a descendant of the socially upscale minority, a descendant of nineteenth-century returnees from the US. The feud is more about who holds monopolies over-extraction licenses for foreign companies to mine gold and diamond. Still, the feud is exacerbated by the historical divide that goes back to Liberia’s unhappy foundation. This divide ushered in yet another cycle of violence and looting for diamonds and other valuables. Both Tylor and Doe met with a violent end and both were re-enacting the feud between on the one hand descendants of former slaves, who to this day think themselves more entitled to rule since they have been more civilized and on the other descendants of native inhabitants, who excel in selling their credentials as the eternal victims of the brain-washed former slaves!
This brings readers back to She Would be King where lieutenant Gerald suggests at first and later instructs Gbessa not to manually work in the farm, and to call for the help of the plenty servants he is hiring so that she can lead a life of a lady. As the wife of a dignitary in the young republic, he wants her only to supervise the workers simply because Gbessa is now a society woman and her social manners should reflect the social pomp of members of the high class. Any other Gbessa’s reaction, Gerald reasons, reflects poorly on him, his social status as well as his chances of promotion. Naturally, his eye lies on more prominent roles in the leadership of the young nation. In his mind, he did not marry Gbessa to remain ‘stuck’ with a secondary role in the army or administrating the barracks. Readers may evoke how Gbessa reacts: despite the plentiful abundance of servants/slaves, she adamantly rejects and prefers to carry out domestic duties, both indoors, in the garden and the adjacent field, herself. Readers find out that Gbessa was particularly mindful not to charge the numerous servants and workers with any task, domestic or otherwise. For her, the practice however inadvertent summons slavery. No one can pretend that the fresh memory of the inhuman practice is not overshadowing people’s everyday interactions. Closely considered, the practice itself, not just its fresh memory, casts its gloomy footprints on wage labour, rendering the latter anti-egalitarian. Thus, wage labour sows the seeds of socio-political fragmentation and disharmony.
Bourgeois economics specifies that hiring aids and workers falls into the eternal norm of the division of labour where each individual works according to his or her skills set and fairly receives remuneration according to the tasks executed. Only the division of labour—through wage labour—found the basis of civilization, according to the same bourgeois theoreticians. But in line with Karl Marx’s elaborations on the division of labour in The German Ideology (1848), Gbessa categorically rejects this commonsensical presupposition and deems it in service of justification, not an explanation.
Indeed, the system of labour does not consider the worker’s actual coercion to grudgingly accept a wage in exchange for the task performed. In addition to seeking excellent and skilled performances, the division of labour primarily shuts means of independent subsistence, of that genuine aspiration of making a living without being forced to work for some boss or a hiring institution. Thus, wage labor, Gbessa reasons fuels inequality and sows seeds of generalized instability. Readers of the novel note how Gbessa’s soulmate, Safua, raises a rebellion against the leaders of the new republic because of the communal values which the wage system has been busily destroying. The Vai community–like several in the pre-colonial setting—cherish communal freedom. The Vai resisted the appropriation of their grazing lands and fiercely rejected domestication through wage labour. Now it is Safua’s son who is in charge of resistance. Readers close reading Moore’s novel wherein Gbessa hopes against hope to stop the bloodbath, making sure not to pit the Vai against the settlers who are now the de facto rulers in Monrovia. Hence, the idea of Gbessa being king, as suggested in the title, should be taken as a pun: both a king and its negation, since Gbessa is a woman and the right expectation is rewarding her with the title of queen, not king, for active attempts to lift violence and foster the sense of citizenship among suspecting and uncooperative interior tribes. Indeed, Moore’s title squeezes her project as one that is radically egalitarian. In refusing to call the aid of workers and domestics, Gbessa rejects the title of king or queen. She views the title not only as the expression of an unearned or undeserved privilege but simply as the formalization of wage labour, the essence of slavery and disharmony.
Université d’Adrar (Algeria)