12th March 1766, Savanna la Mar, Jamaica
“Dogs, that’s what we are. Nothing but dogs.”
Cyrus the mulatto was speaking to Plato the slave. It was close to midday and the sun was punishing this part of the island and all who trod on it. Both Cyrus and Plato had errands to run, but they weren’t urgent. The morning had already ground to a halt, and Cyrus sat in the main square, taking a short rest to conserve energy for later in the day, when his real labour would begin. He reflected on the lot of the slaves in the fields. A painful time for them, this. It was harvest, and the slaves had little relief from the heat and toil. The trade in sugar waited for no man.
“Dogs,” said Cyrus again.
Plato turned and gave him a lazy stare. “What?”
Cyrus nodded to the centre of the square. There was a small, sandy-coloured mongrel staggering around in the heat of the morning. Its legs were stiff and moved in random jerks. Its head twitched, ears flat, tail spinning around in wayward circles. A few feet from the dog stood a stout white man: a farmer, judging by his clothing. He was deeply engrossed in conversation with a man of similar stature and appearance, and was paying no mind to his pet.
“But you are a free man,” said Plato.
Cyrus ignored the remark. He knew he was relatively privileged. After all, he was the son of Joseph Cornishe, the white plantation overseer from whom he inherited his icy blue eyes. But he had the smooth brown skin and rich black hair of his mother, the slave girl only ever known as Lucy, and it was this that was destined to define him. In any case, he hated his father, and his father hated him. That’s why he’d sent him away. Ostensibly, it was to learn a trade, but Cyrus knew that what Joseph Cornishe really wanted was to be rid of his mixed-race son. And so he’d ended up here in Savanna la Mar, apprentice to a carpenter. At the age of twenty-one he was all set up for a semi-skilled profession, on a par with blacksmiths, shoemakers and tailors. In the future he could expect a reasonable living, with a similar income to a sailor or a fisherman. But he could never aspire to a position higher than that.
Cyrus nudged Plato’s arm. “See there? That dog is free. He has no leash; he can run away any time he wants. He could easily outrun his master right now, and would never be caught.”
“But if he ran, he’d be captured or shot or beaten,” Cyrus continued, warming to his subject. “There is nowhere for that dog to go. He must stay near his master or die. What kind of freedom is it, where you have nowhere to go?” A fly settled on Cyrus’s arm. He didn’t bother to brush it off. “He has no leash, but he may as well be tied to his master with a chain.”
“Ain’t nobody free in the eyes of the Lord,” said Plato.
Cyrus turned to him with a look of disdain. “My friend, it will do you no good to listen to the Christian.”
Plato stared at him now. “You sayin’ there ain’t no God?”
“There may be a God. But He is certainly not as the Christians describe Him. Just look at their works.” Cyrus gestured around the square. European-style buildings clustered around this part of town, jostling for prominence with palm trees and traders’ awnings. “Trade, slavery, buccaneering. What God would have it so?”
“Do you dare to question your Father?” came a hoarse voice from behind them.
Cyrus turned around to discover a shambolic white man glaring at him. He wore dirty blue breeches and a ragged white shirt. His hair was tousled and his face was red, most likely caused by excessive drinking rather than exposure to the sun.
“It is not God who enslaves you, it’s the devil!” barked the red-faced evangelist, ensuring he could be heard by anyone within earshot. “Since Adam’s primal disobedience, all mankind has been a slave to the forces of evil. The only way out of your prison of sin is to open your hearts to God’s grace. Your soul is imprisoned in the dungeon of your flesh. You must find your way to the City of God to avoid eternal damnation. Only God will show you the way.”
Cyrus snorted. “Put away your Augustine and pick up your Voltaire,” he said, turning his head away from the zealot.
The preacher’s face darkened. Cyrus noticed that Plato was shifting uncomfortably beside him.
“It is Calvin that shows us the way,” the preacher replied, slurring his words somewhat. “And that French bastard Voltaire is a corruptor of our times.”
“I see no difference between Calvin, Augustine or any other Christian thinker,” said Cyrus. “They are the true sinners. The self is divided, yes, but not by God or the devil. It is society that separates us.”
“What are you doing?” hissed Plato under his breath.
The dog across the square was diverted by the commotion, and pricked up its ears to identify the source of the shouting. It stopped its insane circling and focused its attention on the loud and violent man who was now gesticulating with both arms, as if fighting off demons. With a low growl, the dog darted towards the Calvinist and sank its teeth into his calf muscle.
“Argh,” yelled the preacher. “Get this beast off me!”
He shook his leg, but the dog had a strong grip. The commotion alerted the farmer, who hurried over to pull his pet away from its victim.
“You’ll pay for this,” said the preacher. “I’ll shoot the mutt myself.”
“The beast makes a distinction,” said Cyrus. “Are we not told that against the sons of Israel, a dog will not even bark?”
“Damn the children of Israel.” The preacher was sweating profusely, and there was a light foam around his lips.
“We have to leave,” said Plato. “We cannot stay here.”
“Why not?” said Cyrus. “This is a public place.”
“I ain’t ready for the lash, that’s all.”
By now the dog’s owner had managed to wrench the dog free of the preacher’s leg, leaving an angry wound that oozed thick blood. The preacher fell upon the ground, rubbing the gash and proclaiming that the devil himself had taken possession of the hound.
“This is a good working dog,” said the farmer. “He’s troubled by your manner, that’s all.”
“I am a man of God!” shouted the preacher.
“Come,” said Cyrus, taking Plato by the arm and moving off into a side street.
“Tsk,” said Plato as they hurried out of the square. “You nearly get us killed.”
They dodged through the back streets of Savanna la Mar. Slaves and servants shambled on their errands and chores. Shopkeepers sat in the shade, fanning themselves. White merchants gathered together in small groups here and there to discuss news from abroad and the politics of the day.
“You know, these are changing times,” said Cyrus. “Look around you. The white men are outnumbered by negroes here. Ten to one.”
Plato turned his head. “Yes, but they got the weapons,” he snapped.
“You don’t think we have weapons? Look at the tools they give us: knives, shovels, saws, axes. If it can cut through sugar cane and wood, it can cut through people.”
Plato shook his head. “You heard what happen in Tacky’s Rebellion? I knew some of them people. Do you know what they did to them?”
“Tacky came close,” said Cyrus. “We will be more prepared next time.”
“Hmm,” said Plato. “You think maybe the Maroons will have better fortune.”
Cyrus stopped walking and stared at him. “The Maroons? What about the Maroons?” He had barely finished his sentence when a tug at his collar yanked him to the ground.
“Is this the one?” A large white man in dirty white work shirt, grubby black shoes and a broad-brimmed hat stood over him.
“That’s him,” said the preacher, who was waddling to catch up with them. “The mongrel half-caste. Hold him still! I’ll have him beaten for insolence.”
“Run,” Cyrus hissed to Plato. “And tell Tom Hartnell what is happening here.”
Plato bolted down the street without looking back.
“It’s the cells for you,” said his captor.