REVIEW: Alex Wheatle – Cane Warriors

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12th October 2020

Review by Lily Tibbitts

“The blood remembers” – that’s what the characters of ‘Cane Warriors’ say in unity after every battle, after every revolt against the slave owners who control them and the British who have their forts all around the island of Jamaica.

Alex Wheatle, like his characters, believes in this. In the current climate of Black Lives Matter protests and the horrific murder of George Floyd and many others, he says that he is triggered by this police brutality, even though it might not have happened to him. His blood and his DNA remember.

‘Cane Warriors’ is about Moa, a 14 year-old slave working on a sugar cane plantation, who joins an uprising led by Tacky. It follows the true story of Tacky’s Rebellion in 1760s Jamaica where he captured a fort and defended it from the British by using the weapons inside. Wheatle researched this true story and felt it deserved a narrative, even if there weren’t many reliable sources that explained just what it must have been like.

This meant, as Wheatle explained in his interview with historian Jake Richards, that he had to use a lot of empathy and a lot of imagination. With very few historical documents from the point of view of slaves, he had to imagine what it would be like for him to be in this situation where children are separated from their parents and forced to work on the plantations, where characters like Moa had to choose between keeping their head down or rebelling against the slave owners, the latter often leading to death.

For Wheatle, conducting the research was often very upsetting and writing the scenes where these conflicts were most raw often brought tears to his eyes, especially because of his personal ties to the book’s themes. He’s been visiting Jamaica’s stunning landscapes since 1987 and he wanted to make this beautiful expanse of mountains and forests almost a character in itself.

Yet, that isn’t the only reason the book is so personal to Wheatle. His mother grew up in St Mary’s parish, the site of Tacky’s War and the setting of ‘Cane Warriors’, where Tacky’s name was often whispered among the older generations, inspiring Wheatle to research it further. Thanks to this inspiration, the book is dedicated to Wheatle’s mother, to honour her, as well as his ancestors, and to portray his sense of pride that, maybe, he himself is a descendant of these cane warriors who have the spirit of rebellion in their DNA.

“The blood remembers.” Wheatle’s blood definitely remembers, and with ‘Cane Warriors’ he’s going to help make sure that nobody forgets.

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This work was produced by participants in our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.