Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Gives Graphic Details About Slavery’s Last Victims

Zora Neale Hurston’s “Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo” provides eye opening detail about the last years of Africans captured into slavery. Many books have been written about slave ships, plantations, and sale of human lives in exchange for money and goods, but Hurston manages to give more description to an already disturbing story of the dehumanization of African people.

Hurston, known for classic bestseller “Their Eyes were Watching God”, writes graphic tales of African village wars, torture and beheadings are tough to read but provides a fundamental truth that many history books fail to unveil. Some historians are kind in descriptions of slave capture, but Hurston’s storytelling about the last slaves captured and delivered to America is far from a small struggle with weapons. Her descriptive writing through the stories of a former slave, paints the picture of Africans hunted and publicly punished to make an example to those who dare to resist.

Like Hurston, author Alex Haley broke the rules of watering down the details of slavery for American audiences with descriptive detail in series of books turned TV series named “Roots”. Hurston started her storytelling and research of uncovering the truth about how the slave trade happened decades before Haley. His story came from research of his family tree traced back to Africa, while Hurston’s writing would come directly from the mouth of a former slave stolen from Africa and forced to live in North America.

Barracoon starts with the introduction of Hurston’s research that started in 1926 and went on for years. She traveled from New York City to a small town near Mobile, Alabama to interview Oluale Kossola, an African remaned by his captors to Cudjo Lewis, one of the last surviving African slaves taken by ship to America.

Kossola’s accounts and Hurston’s research slowly unveil African kingdoms who betrayed its people in exchange for wealth and American slave owners who wanted to keep an already abolished Trans-Atlantic traffic, an international form of slave trading, alive.

The greed of Americans and Africans is exposed in the numbers of slaves captured and sold during the time frame outlined including the stories in “Barracoon”. From 1801 to 1866 there was an estimated 3.8 million Africans viciously captured and sold or exchanged for gold, goods and merchandise. The last recorded slave ship left Africa in 1860, which included Kossola and a group of about 110 Africans.

Hurston took pride in her interviews and research. She verified the information given to her in interviews with as much documentation as possible by news and historical societies. Her love for the stories and account of the events by Kossola led to the manuscript sitting for decades after her death in 1960.

In addition to her research, Hurston developed a friendship with Kossola during his interviews.

She bought him fruit including Georgia peaches, ham, food gifts and had a patience with his stories and days that he didn’t want to talk.

The stories of Kossola’s African life and transfer to America are great but require patience. Hurston used Kossola’s voice who referred to himself as Cudjo (His name from slavery) in the third person. He had very broken english. His dialect reads as a combination of a southern accent mixed with his African accent. I found myself reading over those sections twice so I could understand the detail within stories told in Kossola’s voice.

One of the most profound statements that Kossola told Hurston was about the intense labor of being a slave. He told her that it was the hardest work that he and the others in captivity had ever done, but they didn’t grieve over the work. At night they cried because they were raised free and now they were slaves.

Kossola’s memories of freedom, slavery, reconstruction including the tragedies of the Jim Crow southern laws and injustices make “Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo”, a worthy read. The story provokes anger, sadness and a profound disappointment in the deep rooted racism and violation of human rights of African people.

As you read through the stories it will make you glad that Kossola had his fond and not-so-fond memories of Africa prior to being taken into captivity. He had a life full of pain, tragedy and trauma, enough to send modern day Americans to a good therapist. In spite of the things he experienced in life Kossola managed to find peace, spend time in his garden and speak of the love he had with his wife.

When reading the book it brings up the question, “What would Africa have been like if there had been no collusion between American slave owners and African kingdoms looking for ways to expand its wealth?”

The slave trade and the millions of African citizens stolen and made slaves over hundreds of years changed Africa and it changed the world. Kossola’s stories give the sense that the African Kings and leaders involved had no idea the impact of their decisions at that time.

Overall “Barracoon” is worth the time and effort and even worth sharing with younger generations to know the history of America, those of African heritage and how America arrived to its current status of free citizens with much controversy surrounding racism.