Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about my take on Jane Austen’s beliefs and ideas, as based on her novels. I’ve also been blogging about now-obscure female authors of the long 18th century. For more, click "Authoresses" on the menu at right. Click here for the first in the series.
As explained in my previous post, Yamboo is released from slavery and becomes a loyal and affectionate servant to the Beresford family in New Brunswick. He is introduced to Christianity. He begs to be allowed to accompany Colonel Beresford on a military campaign to India.
Okay, to resume our story....
Colonel Beresford goes missing in battle at Seringapatam. While searching for him, Yamboo discovers a captain left for dead and brings rescuers to carry him off the battlefield. Colonel Beresford remains missing, but Captain Longford survives. Yamboo feels strongly drawn to serve and protect the captain, even though he has a reputation for being a quarrelsome and difficult man. “Is it,” he would sometimes mentally exclaim, “that Yamboo must love everybody who speak kind to him, or why him love Captain Longford so much? Him no like him good colonel, for he swear, scold, almost frighten every one; yet Yamboo feel he must love him, pray for him.”
Captain Longord, likewise, is surprised at the degree of gratitude and affection he feels for Yamboo. And yes, there is a reason for his affinity for the artless servant! When Yamboo tells his life story to the convalescing captain, Longford realizes that Yamboo is… is…
One recurring feature of this novel is that the writer likes teasing us when a plot revelation is on the way.
Anyway, yes, Yamboo is… Longford’s son! Longford is consumed by guilt for his past dissolute life when he learns how much Yamboo suffered when enslaved, but he can’t bring himself to confess this guilty secret.
Colonel Beresford is presumed dead, and the captain takes Yamboo back to England to live with his sister. Longford wants to tell everyone the truth, but “honour and justice were combated by pride and worldly prudence.” He already has one illegitimate (but acknowledged) son, Henry, who is his heir, by a different (white) mother. Asking everyone to acknowledge his mixed-race son is something he can’t bring himself to do.
I’ve referred to Yamboo as the titular character, rather than the main character, because from this point in the novel, the half-brother, Henry Longford, steps up as the villain and dominates the story. This author is not the first writer to create a villain who is more interesting than the hero, of course. Henry Longford is a lying, scheming, cad who breaks girl’s hearts when he isn’t running up huge gaming debts. Yes, the term “vortex of dissipation” Is used.
Henry greatly resents this new servant whom his father is so fond of. He invites Yamboo along on a trip to London, then arranges for him to be kidnapped and impressed into the Navy.
This doesn’t work out so well because, although Yamboo can’t use pronouns properly, he can speak well enough to explain the situation to the captain, who stops off in Portsmouth and gives Yamboo shore leave, while they try to sort out the truth of the matter. While walking along the beach, Yamboo sees a young lady being carried off on a runaway horse; he steps up and rescues her, and who should it be but… Emmeline Beresford, one of the two Beresford girls!
And Colonel Beresford isn't dead, he's been reunited with his family, because he’s been liberated from Tippoo Sultan’s prisons! Now Yamboo’s heart is torn between the two families he loves—who shall he live with and serve?
‘Yamboo but slave, then him know what to do, for him duty leave no choice; now him own heart deceive him; it say,’ looking anxious at Mrs. Beresford and her daughters as he spoke, ‘it say Yamboo must stay here, here only him happy; in a moment it travel far off, see Captain Longord, sick, lame, unhappy; no one do for him what Yamboo do, and then him think Yamboo not live for himself, and he must go to him poor captain: when Yamboo have one masser, him know but to be happy; now him two, love both, and him miserable.’
Colonel Beresford decides to take Yamboo to Captain Longford to discuss the dilemma. The prospect of losing Yamboo to the Beresfords compels the captain to confess his true relationship to the boy, plus, he credits Yamboo not only with saving his life, but redeeming his soul and making him an active Christian.
‘I was rescued from destruction, nay perdition, for why should I hesitate to own it, and by whom--the child who owed me life, but whom I refused to own, had never seen! Who, with its distressed and wretched mother, I basely neglected, only because they differed from me in complexion…to me he is indebted for the scars which tell the miseries of his infant years... Oh! I know all; I have heard his sad story, wept over his past agonies, would have clasped him to my penitent heart, and told him who he was; but the world triumphed over gratitude and nature’s claims…”
Henry, meanwhile, manages to convince his father that he had nothing to do with the whole kidnapping thing. The captain is deceived into thinking Henry is happy to have an older brother, which “proves how powerfully the ties of nature plead, and will doubtless soften the disappointment of [Henry] resigning to an elder brother privileges he has so long enjoyed; his fortune would have been a handsome one; neither will he have reason to complain of that portion which will still, as a younger brother, fall to his share.”
So Yamboo ceases being a servant and becomes the acknowledged oldest son of the family, sitting down at the breakfast table with the rest of them, dressing like a gentleman, and receiving a generous allowance, which he expends on charity in the village. He starts to receive the rudiments of an education. We get no details of this, but we are told he enjoys reading. At one point, he actually says: “Are you ill, Mrs. Forrester, you look faint; let me help you,” Instead of “Yamboo help Mrs. Forrester.” I don’t know if this was a slip-up on the author’s part, or if Yamboo briefly figured out how to use pronouns.
Anyway, the jealous Henry, who has lots of sketchy acquaintances, arranges for a hired assassin to move to the village, posing as an itinerant labourer fallen on hard times. He’s under orders to murder Yamboo at the first opportunity. Yamboo greets the newcomer and his wife and child with his usual generous thoughtful charity. From here, we see Yamboo, due to his good nature, being unaware of the duplicity going on around him. The author does not match the brilliance of the way Austen showed Emma deluding herself about Harriet and Mr. Elton, but we are made aware that something sinister is afoot.
Henry is killed instead of Yamboo. In the conservatory with a gun, like a game of Clue. The circumstantial evidence strongly implicates Yamboo and he's arrested for the murder. He is exonerated when the real killer confesses. Yamboo's innocence is proven, thanks to a string of amazing coincidences including an attempted highway robbery which brings about another unexpected reunion.
By now I was really wondering—if the author is presenting Yamboo as deserving of legal and social equality with English people, does this mean he will fall in love and get married?
No, that’s a bridge too far, isn’t it? We are told that Yamboo adores Emmeline, (the girl he rescued from the runaway horse), but “while her image engrossed his whole heart, he would have deemed it profanation to have breathed her name—of so pure, so exalted a nature was his sentiments towards her.”
And anyway, Emmeline’s engaged to somebody else. Yamboo never marries. He lives out his life as a propertied English gentleman, dedicated to performing kind actions for his fellow man: "and men of worth proudly boasted that he was once their friend."
In addition to the slavery theme, the novel handles the issue of female virtue. There is a subplot where Henry trifles with the affections of a sweet young girl, who is drawn to him but virtuously fights her feelings when she understands how bad his character is. The pure and chaste Louisa, as well as Mrs. Beresford and her daughters, serve as a contrast to the two mothers of Captain Longford's sons, fallen women who are described as "wretched."
As mentioned in the previous post, the author of Yamboo is unknown, but she described herself as a wife and mother and she lived at least part of her life in New Brunswick.
Yamboo is dedicated to Major-General Martin Hunter, then the military and civil leader of New Brunswick, and the author cannily weaves some of Hunter’s extensive military service into her story. When he was a colonel returning to England from the West Indies, Hunter's ship encountered a hurricane, just as the Beresfords did in Yamboo. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography says: “In 1783 Hunter left Britain for ten years’ service in India. He participated in a number of engagements in the Mysore War, including the decisive night attack in February 1792 on Tipu Sahib’s entrenched camp under the walls of Seringapatam, when he commanded the 52nd and was credited with keeping the commander-in-chief, Lord Cornwallis, from being taken prisoner. In one of the charges of the 52nd, he was severely wounded.”
In an attempt to discover the author's name, I checked the General’s journal and his wife’s letters, available online, to see if either of them mentioned having a book dedicated to him. I could find no leads. Lady Hunter reproduces some poetry dedicated to them by one John Odell but there is no mention of a book. I will add that Lady Hunter’s letters and descriptions of life in New Brunswick are livelier and more humorous than our author’s, whose style tends toward the trite and the ornamental. Ahem: “But even their [felicity] was not always to be uninterrupted; few indeed had been the thorns mingled with those roses which had hitherto strewed their path through life..."
So yes, this anonymous author is not a writer on a par with Edgeworth or Austen. However, modern academia is taken up with contextualizing literature as history, as opposed to focusing on literary merit. Given the current preoccupation with race, this fictionalized portrayal of a black man in Georgian England is deserving of scholarly attention.