For Captain Stedman
by Landeg White
Published by Peterloo Poets 1983
Captain John Stedman of the title poem served in the Scots Brigade under the Dutch in Surinam during the slave revolts of 1773-8. Joanna (cover picture) whom he married was a slave on the Fauconberg sugar estate. He could not afford to buy her freedom and suffered the agony of her public auction and of seeing their son born into slavery. His Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, with sketches by the author engraved by William Blake, is a neglected classic – neglected partly because Surinam is small and poor and unimportant but also because Stedman has been unfortunate in his editors who have viewed the affair with Joanna as an indiscretion rather than as the centre to which all his metaphors constantly return.
She has watched him rise and now he falls.
The radio denounces him. He returns
un-chauffeured, Benz-less, trudging the path
from the cotton depot where the lorry dropped him:
his paunch is heavy, his suit sweat-stained, he smells.
The children swagger in his wake. He mutters
at the anthills. It was tribalism, conspiracy,
his typists whoring. There was nothing else,
no reason. He was no different. The President
would learn things when he got his letter.
The path snakes through the village. What he didn’t
see on the ministerial visit, in his soft world
of secretaries, his bitterness sees now.
The place is full of beggars, primitive, the thatch
rotting, reeds uncut, thistles in the cotton gardens.
She watched him rise. Now he returns. What accident
permitted it and what appetites propelled,
she knows. There is nothing to come back to.
The girls have gone, the young men have gone.
At the black door of her hut where burning cowdung
stuns the mosquitoes, she awaits her son.
from For Captain Stedman by Landeg White
“White deploys his verse forms – terza rima, syllabics, stress-count lines, free verse – with a fine ear for ironic aptness: the approximate iambics of ‘Ministering’ are wryly appropriate in an Achebe-like piece describing conflict between tribal origins and ministerial splendour, while the lush texture of the opening of ‘After the Revolution’ recalls Matthew Arnold’s ‘a Dream’ and that poem’s ‘river of life’. For Captain Stedman is a sensitive, carefully crafted collection, which besides its alert colonial commentaries offers other pleasures – West Indian speech patterns zestfully recreated, or an evocative description of flamingos – that make highly enjoyable reading.”
Times Literary Supplement
“For what it’s worth, halfway through 1984, I rated Landeg White’s For Captain Stedman the best collection of poetry published in 1983. I’d not come across his poetry before but knew his name as the author of by far the best book yet published on V.S. Naipaul – precise, perceptive, sympathetic and beautifully written. And those are qualities characteristic of his poetry too, put to the service of a highly cultured, artistically disciplined imagination.”
“The fair-minded are not always blessed in this world, and this book must be welcomed. It is imaginatively as well as conscientiously fair, sensitive not only to the guardedness of garrison attitudes, but to the reality of that shifting petulant aftermath of the arrogance that’s almost unassuageable. The poems have lyrical strengths and the poet has beautifully celebrated a now not uncommon thing, the mobile small family, the little cots in new places.”