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Susan’s Bookshelves: Black Ivory by Norman Collins

In 1968 I went to teach in a challenging inner London boys’ secondary school. The journey from my refined grammar school to dusty Deptford, via a college in leafy Sussex was something of a culture shock. It’s all detailed in my 2019 memoir, Please Miss We’re Boys.

Anyway, on arrival at South East London Secondary School for Boys I cautiously explored the English department stock cupboard. Therein I found a lot of “boy” literature and very little that I’d ever read before. Well, Treasure Island and its ilk never did much for me but I was intrigued by Norman Collins’s 1948 adventure story, Black Ivory. I knew Collins’s work because I’d read and enjoyed  a number of his adult novels such as London Belongs to Me and Penang Appointment. I didn’t learn, until recently, though, that he was a BBC man responsible for the genesis of Dick Barton Special Agent and Woman’s Hour. Later he defected to ITV and, as a major executive, was a key figure in its launch and development.

I pounced eagerly on Black Ivory. Here, maybe, was a novel I could make work with my hard-to-quell classes of teenage boys. Well some classes actually liked this 1820s adventure story and I got to know it pretty well. I’ve just reread it for the first time in half a century knowing that books often seem to have changed a lot when you return to them after a long absence.

It’s a first person narrative which tells the story of  Ralph Rudd, a lad obliged to go to sea because his farming family have lost everything. Naïve and easily duped, he finds himself on the Nero, crewed by well characterised ugly brutes.  Now, this is the 1820s and slave trading had been banned in the British Empire since 1807. Inevitably there must have been ongoing illegal trading for a while and that is what the Nero is involved in – to Ralph’s horror. He does his best to scupper it when he realises what’s happening but of course it isn’t simple.

So how do we feel about such a novel now? The story telling is strong and Collins’s pacy style keeps you turning the pages. From a literary point of view, it’s rooted in one of the world’s seven stories: voyage and return. It feels very odd now to read a novel in which there are no female characters apart from Ralph’s mother and sister who feature peripherally at the beginning and end.

Inevitably the unspeakable people who are running this trade (and all trying to double cross each other) use what is now taboo language when speaking of their “cargo”. Ralph himself neutrally uses the word “negro” and it is absolutely clear that the author and his narrator are appalled by what is going on and expect the reader to be too. Justice eventually prevails and all the men trying to traffic slaves get their comeuppance at the end.

I don’t think, when I was in my 20s that I had heard of the Zong massacre of 1781 in which 130 slaves were killed by being thrown overboard leading to an insurance claim by a Liverpool-based syndicate. It must, however, surely have been in Collins’s mind when he has the beleaguered Captain Swing giving the order to unshackle the slaves and drive them overboard in order to destroy the evidence of his trafficking crime? Even now, thinking about this is chilling, nauseating and profoundly shocking. Fortunately in the novel – eleventh hour and all that – it doesn’t actually happen.

It amazes me now that I used to teach this book quite cheerfully to the most diverse classes I have ever taught. Some of those boys would have known far more – from family history – about slavery and man’s inhumanity to man than I ever will but I don’t remember much in the way of in-depth discussion.  I doubt very much that any teacher would offer this novel to students now – it’s actually a pretty moral tale in a derring-do sort of way but could easily be misconstrued by anyone who didn’t read it thoughtfully.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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