Slavery Past & Present: A review of Cane Warriors

In my last post I spoke about shadowing the 2022 Yoto Carnegie Greenaway Award for children’s literature. Cane Warriors by Alex Wheatley is a Young Adult novel on the shortlist for the Carnegie section of this award. I began reading it on a recent road trip to Johannesburg, a part of South Africa in which I grew up. Images of my happy childhood flashed through my mind as we travelled: roads with no shoulder; steel window frames (that would rust in ten minutes in the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal – KZN – I now call home); cold crisp night times; deciduous trees shedding barrow loads of autumn leaves; and brown grass that indicates a no-winter rainfall area. This latter is especially meaningful when considered against the terrible floods KZN experienced in April 2022. As I am writing this, access to municipal water is still in question in KZN after aqueducts and wastewater treatment plants were ripped apart in a matter of hours, cutting off water supply to thousands. After frightening and destructive political riots in the province nine months earlier, and job-shedding generally because of COVID lockdowns over the last two years, KZN indeed feels like a beleaguered province. Although hardly a paradise, Johannesburg felt like a good escape for me from the burdens of home. And I could be with friends and family for whom KZN’s issues were intangible. Unless you physically and geographically experience something, it can be easy to miss the gravity of it.

And I think the British slave trade of the 1700s that Wheatle speaks of in the afterword of Cane Warriors is a bit like that: if you weren’t a slave it is easy now to gloss over this dreadful time in history. What Wheatle does in Cane Warriors is to bring to life, for the uninitiated reader, this period in history in the form of a small battle. A battle in which a historical warrior named Tacky instigates a fierce uprising amongst some of the slaves in Jamaica. It’s interesting that instead of Tacky, for his protagonist Wheatle uses a young (presumably fictional) boy named Moa. Moa, at fourteen years of age, joins his special friend Keverton and a group of older men led by Tacky, in the focused killing of slave masters. They do this in an effort to free their fellow slaves and to set up homes and vocations for themselves. I really felt myself rooting for Moa and Keverton’s dreams of future families. But at the same time I dreaded what I knew must be the outcome: failure. And indeed this is what happens. Despite killing several landowners the rebellion is fairly quickly quashed and work on the cane plantations resumes.

What Moa has to do is way beyond what I would ever have been called on to do at fourteen: murder cruel white masters. Although quite gruesome, Wheatle’s narrative is not beyond a YA audience. He has created a young hero with whom the reader can empathise. And he has created for the YA audience an important text. One in which they will begin to appreciate the depths of what it must mean to be owned by another human being and used merely for the enormous financial gain of another. Whilst the narration of Cane Warriors is in plain English the dialogue is in Jamaican English dialect. I found this quite difficult to understand to begin with – as other readers might do – but I soon got into it. There are many instances of humour that the language elicits too, which makes it enjoyable. 

But more than bringing to life something from the hidden past, Wheatle’s Cane Warriors makes the subject of slavery relevant to today. His story, with characters the reader is drawn to, shows the important way fiction can speak to prevailing problems. And in the afterword Wheatle writes of his vociferous support for slave reparations now, and mentions Amnesty International’s current work against modern-day slavery. This further adds to the text’s relevance.

While in Johannesburg I continued to enjoy my reminiscing. But it didn’t take away from the problems that waited for me back home. The floods have changed our province and its people, and repair work must begin.

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