In his historical novel, The Longest Memory
(1994), Fred D'Aguiar tells the story of the Whitechapel slaves between 1790 and 1810. When obedient Whitechapel's son, Chapel, falls in love with his owner's daughter, he decides to attempt an escape which ultimately leads to his death.
Whitechapel, a well-respected slave on a Virginia plantation, feels that a slave must accept his captivity and work hard. The oldest slave on this particular plantation, his obedience has earned the trust of his owner, Mr. Whitechapel.
Whitechapel is widowed with twelve children and several grandchildren when the plantation gets a new cook. Simply called "Cook," Whitechapel asks his master if he might be allowed to marry the fellow slave. Mr. Whitechapel agrees. Before the union can take place, the cruel overseer Sanders Senior rapes Cook, impregnating her.
Cook and Whitechapel marry, and Whitechapel soon finds out about Sanders Senior's crime. He tells Mr. Whitechapel, who fines Mr. Sanders and asks him to apologize to the couple.
Whitechapel decides to stay married to Cook, and after she has Sanders Senior's son, Whitechapel raises him as his own. They call him "Chapel."
Chapel, unlike his adopted father, is interested in improving himself and exploring his identity beyond slavery. Reading, a favorite activity of his owner’s daughter, Lydia, intrigues him.
For the next two years, Lydia privately teaches Chapel to read in her father's study, even though it is illegal. They fall in love. When Mr. Whitechapel finds them alone together, he beats Chapel with a belt. He tells Lydia that by teaching Chapel to read, she has done him a grave injustice.
Lydia and Chapel find an unlikely ally in Cook. Proud of her son for learning to read, she acts as the go-between between Chapel and Lydia. The two continue to meet in secret, forgoing the house for outdoor, nighttime meetings. Lydia spends their time telling Chapel about all the things she's read, and Chapel recites his poems for her.
Meanwhile, Lydia's brother Thomas has told her about the North and about how couples of different races are allowed to marry there. They consider running away together.
When Cook falls ill and dies, Chapel decides there is nothing left for him at the plantation and decides to run away. Whitechapel is the first to discover his absence and confesses to his master so that Chapel's life might be spared. Mr. Whitechapel, who is heading out on a family trip, agrees to punish Chapel rather than take his life.
The search party finds Chapel and Sanders Junior, the new overseer, says that rather than showing Chapel mercy as his master had wished, he will give Chapel 200 lashes. Whitechapel tries to take the punishment instead and the other slaves beg for mercy, to no avail. After the brutal beating, Chapel dies; Sanders Junior has unwittingly killed his half-brother.
Whitechapel, disillusioned with the system that he has upheld and believed in, becomes apathetic. He turned in his son and, as the other slaves see it, is guilty of his death. He casts away his name and considers himself no longer a human, but just a tool. Whitechapel wonders whether his son wasn't suited for slavery because he was half white. He is consumed by guilt and grief until he dies.
The dehumanization of slavery is a major theme in the novel. As the story ends and Whitechapel reflects on how he had no control over his son's fate, he realizes that kowtowing to the system only served to make him less human. He gives up his name as a way of giving up his humanity in favor of becoming an object. As a slave, he is no more than cattle to his master, and he resigns himself to the role, at the end of the novel recognizing slavery for what it is. He says, "I woke up one day and decided that this day I had no name. I was just boy, mule, nigger, slave or whatever else anyone chose to call me."
Mr. Whitechapel, too, exhibits dehumanization in the novel. He says of his slaves, "Africans may be our inferiors, but they exhibit the same qualities we possess, even if they are merely imitating us. Their management is best exemplified by an approach that treats them first and foremost as subjects of God, though blessed with lesser faculties, and therefore suited to the slave trade."
Ruth Padel of The Independent
wrote of the novel, "Lyric
optimism from rottenness and violence: a brilliant—and beautiful—achievement." The Kirkus Review
summarized it as "a small book with the emotional impact of a wide-screen blockbuster, the reasoned progress of a play, and the painful beauty of poetry."
The novel won the David Highman Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1994.