The East Indian: A Novel
“The East Indian is a historical novel in the finest sense as it illuminates a time and place through the lives of fictional characters and imagined events with exceptional skill.”
The period in the history of the Jamestown colony from 1619 to 1660 is one of significant change in the development of slavery in Virginia. In 1619, the first Africans arrived in Jamestown aboard a Dutch slave ship. The institution of slavery did not exist in the colony, and these Africans became part of the indentured servant community. In 1660, slavery was firmly established in Virginia and was institutionalized in Slave Codes as part of the Virginia legal system.
Slavery developed slowly. Historian Winthrop Jordan calls this an “unthinking decision.” The year 1640 is the first year in which the legal existence of slavery can be documented. The core of this novel takes place between 1630 and 1640.
Tony, the East Indian and the protagonist in this novel, arrives in Jamestown in 1635 as this slow development of slavery is proceeding. The institutions of slavery and indentured servitude begin to separate, and where an East Indian fits into the racial pattern of the colony is ambiguous. Tony is not regarded as a white man, but he is regarded as different from the African population. He is indentured, but not a white nor African indentured person. He is often referred to as a Moor.
Tony was born and raised on the southeastern coast of the Indian subcontinent. His mother, whom he loved deeply, raised him. In his youth, he has considerable contact and some mentoring from a British entrepreneur, Sir Francis Day, who is his mother’s lover. Tony becomes fluent in English, and after the death of his mother, he is sent off to England by Master Day in service to another Englishman who was returning to London. During the voyage this man dies.
After ten months at sea, Tony arrives virtually alone. He lives with an East Indian family and works on the docks. At one point, he attends The Globe where he watches Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The appearance of an Indian boy in the play impresses Tony, and he refers to the play often. Also, in London he develops an interest in healing while visiting an apothecary shop and is intrigued by the wide variety of goods with healing powers.
One evening, when out walking, he is kidnapped and taken to a warehouse where other children were being held. Tony is taken to a ship headed to Virginia where he is sold as an indentured servant.
Over the next five years Tony will undergo hard labor, a brutal overseer, and a multitude of ordeals as he seeks to work out the parameters of his new life. His indenture is passed on to his nemesis, Ralph Ganter, the brutal overseer, who in turn loses Tony while gambling with a fur trader and adventurer. His new master takes Tony off to the west where he first comes into extended contact with the Indians of Virginia. While in the west, Tony’s master is killed. Tony then lives with the Indians in their village and settles into a pleasant life. There, among other things, he is educated in the arts of healing by the medicine women of the village.
Life takes another turn when Tony becomes part of a prisoner swap that returns him to Jamestown. There he converts to Christianity more out of a desire to fit into society than out of conviction. A major turning point comes when Tony is apprenticed to a physician, Dr. Herman, with whom he learns the skills of mixing compounds and the properties of healing roots, herbs, and extracts from animals.
However, he never really fits in the society, being neither a white indenture nor an African indenture or slave. He remains an outsider who will come to be respected as a healer and physician by many, but never really seen as an equal. Lydia, a beautiful woman of African origin who admires him from afar, is a midwife and shares his interest in the healing arts. Eventually Lydia becomes his “wife,” and the two of them escape to Maryland in the aftermath of a servant’s revolt in which they participated.
Over the course of Tony’s story, Brinda Charry is able to create a convincing picture of Virginia life in the 1630s and the struggles of its people to survive in a harsh environment. New challenges seem to arrive daily, and old ones never are totally vanquished. Many of those arriving in Virginia with little or nothing must live and navigate within it.
The challenges Tony faces are often overwhelming as he longs for his home in the East Indies while coming to realize he must develop his new home and identity in Virginia. What makes this all work as a novel is Charry’s ability to develop the nuances and complexities of life in Virginia, and people the colony with developed characters of a wide variety of backgrounds and personalities.
This is a triumph of the imagination framed clearly within the realities of colonial Virginia. The East Indian is a historical novel in the finest sense as it illuminates a time and place through the lives of fictional characters and imagined events with exceptional skill.