Turning History Inside Out

It’s not hard to imagine the Hollywood pitch meeting for an adaptation of Esi Edugyan’s new novel, Washington Black. “It’s 12 Years a Slave meets Jules Verne ...

This is the 14th installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.


It’s not hard to imagine the Hollywood pitch meeting for an adaptation of Esi Edugyan’s new novel, Washington Black. “It’s 12 Years a Slave meets Jules Verne; imagine if Journey to the Center of the Earth had, like, a social consciousness.” For Edugyan has crafted a sophisticated, literary update of the Victorian adventure story, powered by the inventiveness of its characters.

Washington Black begins in 1830, when its title character is an enslaved field hand on a Barbados sugar plantation incongruously called Faith. “I cleared the cane, only my sweat was of value.” Our hero, known as Wash, is just 12, and dares not even dream of such globe-spanning adventures as he will soon undertake. The only place beyond the plantation he can even imagine is “Dahomey,” the collectively imagined idyll from which the enslaved workers were taken.

Christopher Wilde—Titch—is the brother of the cruel new plantation master. Their father is a noted naturalist, off doing fieldwork in the Arctic. One senses from the Wilde brothers’ personas that père Wilde would be distant and chilly even without this geographic remove. Still, Titch has inherited his father’s enthusiasms. “Never had I seen a mind so afire,” Wash observes. Titch sees Washington’s potential, as well as the inhumanity of Faith’s operating principles. His brother corrects him brusquely: “They are not the help, Titch. They are the furniture.”

With Titch as a patient teacher, Wash learns to read and discovers a passion for drawing: “I felt something vital, some calming thing, go through me as I worked.” Titch stands in awe: “Rarely have I seen nature so faithfully rendered. You are a marvel, truly.”

Titch has soon nearly adopted Wash, who becomes his assistant in his “scientific endeavours,” in particular the preparations for launching what Titch calls his “Cloud-cutter,” an experimental “aerostat” or lighter-than-air vehicle tethered at its stages of ascent. The process of design and refinement has been long, as Titch explains: “I have tried passing sulphuric acid over iron filings. I have tried animal bladders, silk stockings. Paper sacks. … But they were all abandoned. I think nothing works so well as hydrogen, simple hydrogen, and canvas.” Even if this language evokes the specter of the Hindenburg for a modern reader, Titch’s fervor is contagious.

The process of developing the Cloud-cutter and preparing for a flight expands Wash’s horizons in ways both metaphorical and literal: “Oh, how different the world did look from that height. Imagine it: my whole life I had lived on that brutish island and never had I seen its edges, never had I seen the ocean in its vastness, the white breakers rolling in upon the beaches. … I stood shaken, confused by the incontestable beauty.”

And indeed, through circumstances that will not be spoiled here, the Cloud-cutter enables Wash to journey beyond Faith, beyond Barbados. In Edugyan’s imagistic language, we can feel the excitement and the danger of these travels. “The ocean is never blue but some constantly changing colour.” “Sailing, we glimpsed in the passing black waters eerie, exquisite cathedrals of ice.” “I attempted to express the awe of it in my drawings.”

It is impossible not to think of Jules Verne. The first thought may be of the film version of his 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days—but in the original text, Verne’s intrepid Phileas Fogg made no portion of his journey by balloon, and considered this means of transport only once, as “venturesome, [though] not … capable of being put into practice.”1 In 1863, Verne published Five Weeks in a Balloon; or, Journeys and Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmen. Two of these Englishmen are Dr. Samuel Ferguson and his “manservant,” who use a hydrogen balloon customized with Ferguson’s innovative mechanism permitting long-distance flight without requiring the off-boarding of either gas or ballast.

Edugyan’s description of the mechanical contraption of the Cloud-cutter feels distinctly Verne-esque. There’s a sense of the giddy excitement its builders feel, the enthusiasm that motivates them to spend hours on an unlikely project.

A voyage into the unknown, here as in Verne’s tales, presents clear dangers; in Washington Black, Wash’s status as a former slave puts him in additional peril. Several characters are described as having “judging” eyes, as if to prevent Wash from ever relaxing into himself and his adventures. A persistent bounty hunter, sundry racists on multiple continents, and extreme weather all raise the stakes considerably; while it was hard to imagine that Phileas Fogg would not survive his trip Around the World, especially with the unflappable Passepartout as his companion, readers’ hearts will be urgently in their throats with well-founded concern for Wash. “When the wind stirred, it would scythe through the skin as if we were the cane and the wind were our terrible reaping.”

Verne’s Englishman who spent Five Weeks in a Balloon, Dr. Ferguson, was part of a society of gentlemanly “bold travelers, whose wandering disposition had led them to all parts of the world.”2 The hazards they faced included “physically or morally [escaping] shipwreck, fire, the tomahawk of the Indian, the club of the savage, the stake, or Polynesian cannibals.” In making her “bold traveler” young Washington Black and giving him ingenuity and a dry wit, Edugyan has neatly inverted Verne’s formula: Wash and his half–Pacific Islander (hapa) friend are in fact the heroes of this story, with the greatest danger to themselves posed by British “gentlemen” and “civilized” 1830s social mores.

In this way, Washington Black is to Verne what Wide Sargasso Sea was to Jane Eyre: an anticolonial response to a familiar touchstone and a widening of the narrative lens to include, humanize, and fully realize those who were flattened out by Verne and Brontë. And Edugyan has performed this response not in arid academic prose, but with lyrical writing and a story that spans the globe while probing one man’s heart.

“Washington Black” infuses modern energy and a sense of magical adventure into the hard truths of slavery and systemic racism in order to cast an inventive narrative spell.

Throughout his adventures, Washington Black is increasingly aware of being viewed as exceptional. Who would have guessed that an enslaved man had such a delicate way with a paintbrush or was capable of detailed observation of the natural world? His talent surprises various (white) men. In one case, Wash “felt both [the man’s] intense awe and his mockery, as if he were watching some insensible creature perform an unnatural act, as if a hothouse plant had learned to speak.” He understands that they must believe in his singularity. For what would it mean if those fields were full of thoughtful, talented humans whose only social value had been their sweat and toil? Wash recognizes the tension in an enslaved woman whose silence “was marked by a held-in rage that I have only now, several years later, come to understand as the suppression of will. For she was a ferociously intelligent woman, and it strained her to have to conceal it.”

Edugyan’s novel is also an anticolonial response to old-fashioned science. Verne was the patron saint of a science that was exploratory, penetrating new frontiers, with visionary novels that inspired generations of scientists while also baking in the sense of scientific and engineering work as acquisitive and invasive. Washington Black presents Titch’s enthusiasm and ingenuity, his faith in progress and techno-optimism (“What is progress, sir, without error?”). Edugyan also gives us a man who studies human flesh and its decay, performing macabre experiments in order to understand bodily function, but who is stubbornly committed to survival. Titch’s famous father’s fieldwork, trapping and caging animal “specimens,” relies on assistants from a variety of cultures, including Dutch and “Esquimaux”—irking Titch: “It seems a waste, does it not, to be unable to communicate with all these men, to learn their stories, their histories?” Wilde senior’s view of the world centers on the human, and more specifically the male English landowner: “He had instructed his three-year-old son to scoop when his hand held a knife and to cut when it held a spoon, for no person ought to assume a tool’s use is determined by the tool.”

Through his travels, Wash meets another English scientist, a marine zoologist whose experiences in the “exotic” Solomon Islands have given him a rather progressive perspective: “I recognized that my own values—the tenets I hold dear as an Englishman—they are not the only, nor the best, values in existence. … Everything is bizarre, and everything has value. Or if not value, at least merits investigation.” Their chance encounter strains the reader’s credulity, but this way of thinking is welcome enough to overcome any resistance. Wash already understands that science is inherently political, because science is performed by scientists, and it matters who those scientists are.3


Free Is and Free Ain’t

By Salamishah Tillet

Wash’s final project represents an exciting technological advance as well as a progressive cultural transformation in the way the natural world is studied. It’s also yet another subtle inversion of Verne: the ferocious, mysterious creatures of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are awarded respect, care and feeding, and an audience. They are no longer mere “specimens” acquired and exhibited, but living ecosystems: communities. Some may find it a little on-the-nose that an octopus, Verne’s symbol of the industrial revolution, inspires Wash’s project; this reader was charmed.

This project also presents an opportunity for Washington Black to take credit for his contributions, rather than being consigned to the role of “manservant” or “hidden figure” behind the scenes. Wash is what the cultural theorist Stuart Hall called “the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea.” The invisible but integral contributions of the colonies are “the outside history that is inside the history of the English. There is no English history without that other history.”4

The novel gives few details of Wash’s scientific thinking or the technical refinements of his project designs. Instead, Edugyan’s previous attention to descriptive precision becomes fuzzy and vague. Perhaps that fuzziness is a cost of Washington Black’s adventure story genre—the details of Wash’s masterpiece, just like the brutality of life on Faith, are clear but not richly embroidered. Elsewhere you’ll find more fully realized depictions of the lives of enslaved people, harrowing escapes from plantations, sea voyages, quiet Nova Scotia towns, deep-sea diving, and Victorian London’s muck and steampunk enchantments. But rarely will you find such a readable tale that encompasses all of these and more.

Like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Washington Black infuses modern energy and a sense of magical adventure into the hard truths of slavery and systemic racism in order to cast an inventive narrative spell. Wash’s journey is an adventure, a series of discoveries and “exotic” locations that may feel picaresque or haphazard. But Wash is also on a quest to understand who he is, to interrogate the people, forces, and systems that formed him. Esi Edugyan has turned history inside out. icon

  1. Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days, translated from the French by William Butcher (1873; Bantam Classics, 2006), p. 171.
  2. Jules Verne, Five Weeks in a Balloon; or, Journeys and Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmen, translated from the French by William Lackland (1863; Routledge, 1876), p. 8.
  3. While Jules Verne predicted technological advances such as the submarine and rocket ship, he did not always make the case that technologies were social constructs: “Science is eminently perfectible, and … each theory has constantly to give way to a fresh one,” he wrote in A Journey to the Center of the Earth, in a passive voice that offers no agency to the human scientists who propose and test those theories.
  4. Stuart Hall, “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities,” in Culture, Globalization, and the World-System, ed. Anthony D. King (University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
Featured image: First attempt in a dirigible balloon, aerostat of the academy of Dijon (1784), early flight collecting card, ca. 1895 (detail). Photograph by trialsanderrors / Flickr