The Painterboy of Demerara
Me, Mungo, work for Massa Hogarth from the time he come to the colony, fleeing debts or mistresses or Papists, who knows? – I don’t care for the gossip, I just think what a foolish man to want come to this swamp and snake-place call Demerara. For twenty years or more I work in plantation, but too much trouble -- riots, hangings, oh you don’t want to hear -- and I was so glad when plantation ruin, and me put up for sale, and Massa Hogarth buy me. Oh he is mostly drunk, and he brood, and foul mood catch him, but he never beat, and he summon or send me away with sweet words – 'Come here my churl, my cur, my rapscallion,' he say, or 'Go hither, my beast of burden' – the words sound so England sweet, I learn them by heart but that’s not why I glad-bad to work for Massa Hogarth, not for the English words but because he is a painter. Yes, Massa Hogarth has big-big title, 'Official Artist of the Colony of Demerara and Contiguous Territories' it say on the scroll which hang in his studio. My ears tingle for days when he read it out for me. I wait till he is drunk-drunk and I beg him, and he feels sorry for his dim black boy so he read it out for me. 'Official Artist of the Colony of Demerara and Contiguous Territories' it say on the top, and at the bottom, 'By Order of His Majesty King George I, Protector Of the Realm, Defender of – ' I can’t remember it all, I stop hearing, too many honey-bees in my ears.
Massa job is to make record of the factories and the fields and the white people who run the colony. He paint them in the Assembly Hall when they meet for serious talk on how much sugar cane cut that season, how much slaves bite up too bad by mosquito and die from fever, how much tax raise, how much this and that and the other, things that only big white people have brains for. Massa has to paint them too looking jolly, like when they hold party for the King’s Birthday or drink to the latest beating of the Papists in battle.
Now I don’t know these high matters, only what I hear Massa talking to his friends, none of which makes sense to me, but I don’t care. All I wish for is to paint like him. He see the craving in my eyes and take pity, for less than two months in his service he buy another black, Martha , a tender young girl, to cook and clean, and he promote me with the title of ‘painterboy’. Oh happy day, how Mungo happy! Churl, cur, rapscallion, beast of burden, and now painterboy! All day and the next and for months upon months the bees sing in my ears. Massa show me how to stretch the canvas, how to frame it. I have my own slave which is my box of tools, if you put all their names together they sound like a Negro gospel choir – tenon saw, dovetail saw, bevel, spindle, chisel, dowel. As to the dyes, they are like the first hallelujahs God utter when He start to make the world: ochre, veridian, sienna, indigo, ultramarine. I watch my Massa prime the canvas, spread it with animal glue, scrape it with a broad knife, scumble it. He mix the dyes with linseed or poppy seed oil. He take a brush and he dot and dab, his face light up, he is in a dream, deaf to the sudden downpour , or the horses how they whinny in the stable , or the hissing as Martha press iron onto clothes. I watch Massa Hogarth before his canvas as if he is before altar, and I know that when he is painting he is worshipping, he is Pastor and I am his altar boy. When he is done and gone into his chamber, I wash the brushes and it is like washing the feet of our Lord. I am in truth a blessed black!
But why is it that at as soon as Massa Hogarth enter his chamber he reach for the rum and drink all afternoon and night time? Each Sunday we slaves gather in open field and the one or two who can read find passage from the Bible about folk drunk like swine who curse up Jehovah and do a thing call abomination, and we are so shocked that folk can behave so bad that some of us fall and twist on the ground and start to speak in tongues. I should speak strange to Massa when he is drunk, but I stay silent and judge not, for he has make me his painterboy.
I go to pick him up from the floor and put him to bed and I puzzle over his past. He is a short man, near bald, and his skin rough. He is not nice to look at through lady-eyes. Maybe he never snare a hummingbird, maybe he had to make do in England with plain sparrow, that’s why he fret away his sorrow in a rum bottle. And the whiteladies of Demerara are married or too young and pretty for one like him. And the scars on his body – what fights in England over woman or money or religion cause them? I wipe froth from the side of his mouth, I spread blanket over him, all the time worrying over his scars, and I want to sing a lullaby to ease his misery.
'Martha, what you think wrong with Massa Hogarth?' I ask her, work done for the day and the two of we in the kitchen eating eddo soup. The best meal of the day, air cool, work done, plenty leftovers. Martha don’t answer. Maybe she just want peace to enjoy the food. Maybe she service so many other Massas she don’t care no more for whitefolk. She too got scars. And me? Me, a grown man, but with no chance for wife and child, for why make family who you can’t feed and who can part from you anytime, sell off to another plantation? Me too got scars, but why brood on them, for as preacherman say, Christ had them most of all, in His hand, in His foot, where they lash Him on the back and where thorn bore His forehead. Mungo’s scars is small-small loveless story, it don’t bear telling.
Howsoever drunk the night before Massa still get up first light and I am beside him with clean brushes, dyes ground fresh, tools sharp and shine and ready for the act. I like it most when the picture is set in canefield, the factory at the back with chimney smoke, in front the chop-chop-chop of cutlasses, Negroes weeding and manuring the cane, loading punts, whipping the sleepy mules. Oh so more pretty to see your life in paint, because Massa don’t bother to put in the Negro sweat and the hate. Canvas is a special cloth, you can’t spoil it with too much life. Canvas is Christ’s miracle. On canvas the lame walk, the hungry get fish loaves, water turn into wine, work make a man free.
I don’t want to talk bad about Massa Hogarth, but a time did come, a year or so on, when he can’t bother to wake up early. He sink so deep in the rum bottle that his hand can’t reach to push open the cork to greet the sun. He turn into dregs at the bottom of the bottle. Howsoever I shake the bottle the dregs don’t stir. He rise when he want to, spend an hour at the painting, give up, call for the rum. His face is so foul I shout at Martha to stop whatever slave-job she doing and bring to the chamber one, no two abominations of rum.
What to do? The painting not finish and the client making demands. If the drinking go on Massa will ruin, then he will have to sell me back to some plantation where I have to mind pig, not pigment, and Martha will lie on her back all her nights till she grow too old for bed-work. What to do? Up and down I pace the studio, worry for the future, then bam! The answer thunderclap in my head, lightening blaze my eyes, I am like Saint Paul when God rollocks him on the road to Damascus. I bind my loins, I still my beating heart, I take up brush. I do the small things, I paint the Assembly Room table, I paint the high chairs, I finish off the walls. Now to the whitefolk . . . Oh God, I fear to brush their faces, surely they will come to life, dash away my Negro hand and order my whipping. So I start humble, I attend to a foot and give it shoes. I give them all nice legs and shoes. Above the table is chest and arm and face which I can touch up , but a sudden fright catch me, I drop my brush and scoot.
Massa Hogarth, when at last he get up, go to the canvas and complete the work, not sighting my part in it. Maybe his pride stop him giving praise, but he please with me, so I suspect, for the next painting and the next he only do the main parts, then plunge into his rum bottle, hit his head at the bottom and daze. I finish off the small parts of whatever scene it be: cows in the pasture, more shoes, and so on. I come to specialize in animals and whitefolk foot as well as what Massa call still- life, that is table and chair and fruit bowl and hurricane lamp. I pine to do what Massa call portraiture – oh how the work tantalise – but no, whitefolk face is forbidden to me, like a sin is forbidden, like a wifeand child is forbidden. I long for family, I long for portraiture and would damn my soul with sinning. I start to rage against Massa, I dream that the paintbrush in my hand is a torch that will burn down canefield and factory. I paint the cows red, I put a streak of crimson in the sky, I bloody the rocks along the backdam.
God chastise me for my rebellion, God make Massa collapse and catch stroke. I lay him out on his bed, I fan him, I spoon soup in his mouth. My heart soften to his sickness. He is too weak to ship back home, so he nail to his Demerara bed waiting the end. Martha and me done for! I distress and distress till a cunning plan enter my head. Let me paint him England, let me do green hills far away, oak trees, ducks in pond, drizzle, pale suns, and all the scenes I hear him talk about when he and other white folk used to meet up, drink and long for home. My art will open his eyes, wake his spirit, make him want to live. I cut a piece of canvas, in size bigger than any painting Massa ever do. I make pigments of every colour you can dream. Don’t ask how many hours or days I spend, for when the paint lap and flow time don’t be. Paint stop time, paint stop fear of time, for when my hand twirl and dance on the canvas , and rainbows tangle like hoops in my thoughts, and I have to study hard to separate them out, the last thing in my mind become the first, and the first thing become the future thing. Time spin and muddle up and then stop altogether. Then there is only beauty left, beauty which is in the colours of the canvas, and is forever – mind you, only when you make sure the paint reach the right point of dryness and you apply the proper glaze, for beauty is also technique.
Mungo is master of technique, so I tell myself when I hoist the canvas onto an easel at Massa’s bedside. The commotion wake him, his eyes open, his brows crease like his mind confuse. Then he close his eyes again but there is a curl in his lips as if he is showing me scorn. I try my best to make England shine but my painting not good enough to revive Massa. Is it the trees? I only hear the word beech and oak, I never see, so perhaps all my trees wrongheaded. Or is it the stream, a different kind of water? Or the crysanthemums a different colour? I hurt inside because I fail in paint and will go back to being a field-hand. “Forgive me Massa , I know not what I do, I know not flower and tree and English scene,” I whisper to him and leave.
But let me have one last try and thanksgiving for his life, let me show him heaven. I take up brush but this time I will use the colour I know. I will daub the canvas black, then again, then deepen the blackness with a final coat. Whilst it is still wet I will sprinkle charcoal powder over it. There is no technique, but I will say to Massa, it is still beautiful. I will hold it up to him and say, 'Behold the colour of heaven, fear not your death for heaven is full of honey bees to sweeten your ears and mouth, and a thousand Marthas to do you virgin service, and a million Mungos to ease you through eternity, for heaven is like Demerara, but more.' I can’t go wrong this time, for I know black, that is all I know and will ever know, but I don’t care, for my work will set him free, make him die in peace, and his last loving word to me before he depart will be ‘Painterman.’