The Possible Lives of W. H., Sailor
The Possible Lives of W. H., Sailor
I don’t know your rightful name,
And I don’t know from whence you came—
All I know is it’s a shame
That there’s no one to claim
Despite looking and feeling like a nonfiction juvenile picture book, this volume is extraordinary on several fronts: it is 60 pages in length (double the length of a normal picture book), the narrative is told in a varied poetic style with frequent use of rhyme, and it includes invaluable end material that makes the book suitable for older elementary readers beyond the primary-aged audience of most picture books. Parents and teachers will be able to exploit this extra information. Bushra Junaid, an artist and curator born in Montreal to Jamaican and Nigerian parents, was raised in St. John’s, NL, and now lives in Toronto. She was the guest curator for an exhibit called “What Carries Us: Newfoundland and Labrador in the Black Atlantic” held for most of the year 2020 at The Rooms, the premier provincial cultural institution in the province. One exhibit featured items from the grave of the mysterious sailor identified as WH that inspired this imaginative investigation.
By way of background, Junaid notes that, in 1987, erosion near the Labrador village L’Anse au Loup revealed the remains of a burial site. Archaeologists and other experts determined that a coffin contained the remains of a young African descended man, about 22 years of age and missing a forearm, the latter fact leading to the supposition that the catastrophic injury led to his death. The grave included a knife handle bearing the carved initials WH and W was carved into one of the soles of his shoes. He also had a leather pouch, a jacket and trousers. The unknown sailor’s death dated to the early 1800s, a time when about one-fifth of British and American sailors and seamen were Black people. Marine enterprises in that era including fishing, whaling, privateering, military and all sorts of maritime trade, including the trans Atlantic slave trade. While the clothing suggested the man was a sailor, little else can be known for certain.
Junaid’s verses include details that are known from his gravesite and the dream of erecting a marker near his burial site that will “stand for all the Black fathers and brothers who plied these waters.” Then she speculates about the sights he may have seen on the water, from rocky shores to all manner of life and human activity.
Did the depth and darkness of the oceans and the ever-changing sky mesmerize you,
As dugout canoes, punts, schooners, fishing boats, whaling ships, sail boats, steamboats,
Conveyors of people and goods, charted their way through
The waters blue?
Junaid speculates about his land of birth, imagining life in an African village or on an American or Caribbean plantation and possible escape from slavery to naval vessels in the British or American navies. Junaid’s questions inform the reader about the long history of Black people in the Atlantic colonies where Loyalists were granted substandard land grants for support during the American War for Independence, and Junaid raises the possibility that he had heard of the successful rebellion by Haitian slaves against their European captors. More personally, did he learn to read and write, to read maps and use navigational equipment? How was he treated by other sailors? Did he sire children before his life expired?
Junaid’s final verse:
Respect is due. It’s time that you
Were laid to rest anew.
appears as a plea to a reburial of the remains that are held in The Rooms’ collection.
The end material provides background material to the discovery of WH’s grave and a timeline of colonial activity in the Americas with a special emphasis on the history of Black people in what today is Canada and the United States, including key dates in the abolition of slavery and ending with the finding of seaman WH’s remains. The book includes a good list of resources and references, including websites, books and articles, many of which are starred as appropriate for young readers. Photographs of the actual artifacts described in the book occupy one page, and Junaid includes a Teacher’s Guide consisting of two pages of questions linked to the text for further research and discussion.
Junaid’s art work is appropriate for the text and makes use of a wide palette of colours. She does not describe her process, but the images appear to rely upon black line drawings overlaid with washes and more concentrated water colours. Images evoke the sea and its wildlife and human activity. Vessels of various sorts and time periods are depicted. Masted vessels may be schooners or early 19th century warships. Other images dramatically depict harvests of cotton on a plantation and women toiling in an African village. Landscape images from Labrador and Newfoundland emphasize the historic importance of the sea to peoples of the region.
Some two hundred years after his death, WH’s story allows modern readers to learn about little known aspects of Black people’s lives and heritage in the Atlantic provinces of Canada.
Val Ken Lem is a bibliographer and the history liaison librarian at Toronto Metropolitan University.