The praying nun: an interview with Michael Smorenburg

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The praying nun: a slave shipwreck saga
Michael Smorenburg
Publisher: Qunard
ISBN: 9780620722629

Authors on their new books: Michael Smorenburg answers Naomi Meyer's questions on The praying nun (a true story of a slave shipwreck saga).

Hi Michael, why did you write The praying nun?

The discovery and excavation of the uncharted shipwreck was a true story, but, fun as it was to tell and no doubt intriguing to hear, it remained irrelevant. It was irrelevant because it yielded no artefacts of intrinsic value (gold, etc). We couldn’t identify its origins and only had the scant bones of the wreck cemented into the bedrock to enthuse over.

But ... the relevance of it all changed dramatically in 2015 when the Iziko Museum and the Smithsonian Museum of Washington announced that it was the first and only slave ship in history (anywhere) carrying slaves to be found. Suddenly, the intrinsic value of any salvaged cargo meant nothing compared to the historical significance – and that significance in terms of misery, juxtaposed against the backdrop of beautiful Clifton Bay and all its freedom and wealth, made it that much more poignant.

What kind of book is this? Crime, discovery, history, mystery, etc?

It’s part adventure, part romance, part drama – just like real life.

There is a modern story in this book and this runs alongside an older one. Please elaborate.

Part 1 is a 1st person, present tense adventure as the reader goes underwater with us and follows our rather youthful and amateurish attempts to understand what it is that we have found. Might I add that our excavations were entirely legal in that we did so under an issued salvage licence – albeit that the authorities who granted the licence believed that what we had found was a coal barge; yet we were lifting 18th century cannons, cannon balls and other artefacts, so we knew they were wrong.

Are both stories true (enough)? How much research did you do and where did you do it?

Part 1 is 100% true in all facets. Part 2 is a dramatisation of life aboard, based on the best and most accurate information available.

Before the story kicks off, we read a dedication: “We are not born equal. We are born only with potential, but into circumstance.” Are these your words? What made you think of this?

They are my words, yes. The narrative develops certain characters who, like Wilbur Smith’s Sunbird (which also has a modern and ancient component), echo across time in terms of their innate character. But the prism of circumstance allows or forces those characters to express themselves in quite contrary ways.

You grew up in South Africa and now live in the USA. Please discuss briefly the differences you’ve picked up regarding both countries’ slave histories?

Quick correction: I returned to South Africa after an 8 year stint in the USA (’95 through to ’03). The ownership of human beings is horrifying, regardless of where and when it occurs. By its very definition, those who would participate in such a trade and practice would have to dehumanise a slave, or they would recoil from the practice and immediately set that person free. It comes down to doctrine. When doctrines allow the ownership of humans ... when a father owns his children and his wife in a very legal sense, it is not a very big leap to allow him – and, alas, it is always a “him” – to own strangers. And, as we know, every psychological device then comes into play to convince oneself that he is the protector and doing it for their own good. It is hideous.

I don’t think I’m sufficiently well qualified to draw a strong distinction between the USA and local slave trades, other than to say that the USA does tend to do things bigger and better. It seems to me that, in this regard, the USA slave trade was more “industrial” in its scope and process. Not that it would matter to the person under the lash, I’m sure.

The famous and brilliant documentary writer of last century, Lawrence Green, who covered lesser known aspects of particularly Cape history, writes quite widely about slave issues in the Cape. Reading those, I found myself drawn by his eloquence into the shoes of a slave, imagining from my privileged position as an entrepreneur who can travel at will and has every comfort imaginable on tap, what it would be like to become the prisoner of another. It is depressing to imagine that this could ever have happened.

Why do you think slave histories should be told, and who should tell these stories?

To eradicate human suffering, we need to understand it, as uncomfortable as that process may be. I go back again to dehumanising doctrines that justify cruelties, and in this I do not exonerate concepts that see humans as having spirits that inhabit bodies. When one sees a human as some kind of soul inhabiting a body, it is not a hopeful outlook. It means that you can torture that body, milk it for its industry and even put it to death with the “clear conscience” that the soul is liberated to go forward and reinhabit a new body. That is a hell of a gamble to take with another person’s life, and it is the cornerstone of most systems of punishment and enslavement.

The true story of life and humanity’s agonising path through, as Darwin put it, “nature, bloody in tooth and claw”, is a much more intricate and profound one than a magical moment of some ethereal light bouncing in and out of various bodies on its way to “something better”. “Now” is all that any of us certainly have, and to waste a moment of it, either enslaving someone else or being held in bondage for someone else’s benefit, is a crime against humanity.

I guess it comes back to doctrine, and always will. It is no accident that the safest, most prosperous and exemplary nations and peoples on earth today are driven by secular humanist aspirations. It is also important to note that the bigger a population is that has a say in its own self-determination, the safer and more stable it becomes for all of its citizens and those they interact with.

What kind of discoveries did you make during your research for this book?

The “research” for Part 1 is a bit of a misnomer in that it is a biographical account of how it all happened for a pair of young guys on an adventure. The research in the second part is really the culmination of a decade of intensive learning about widely disparate aspects of modern and social science: grasping where we are in the cosmos, how improbable life is, the compelling and alluring realisation that we are just matter contemplating its own existence – right on through to my studies of anthropology, sociology, psychology and neurology. All of these understandings slowly emerge as parts of the puzzle of putting myself, as a writer, into the shoes of each character, and allowing them to act according to their innate selves.

You have an interest in the ocean and in deep sea diving. Did this come in handy during the writing of the story? Were you one of the characters in the 1980s story line?

Indeed, yes. Written in 1st person, that is my biographical account; and my friend is a real person, though he goes by another name. Alas, I have lost touch with him, and so thought it prudent not to name him without permission. We grew up in an age before electronics, so that my prized possession was my scuba gear. From the time I was age 12, my folks gave me no pocket money; if I was looking for cash, they’d remind me that I had diving gear … So, off I’d traipse to make a withdrawal from the bank that was the sea. To give a sense of the spirit of adventure: back then, we didn’t do courses to learn to dive; my brother taught me a few rules, and off we went.

What is your day job (also previously in the USA), and are you busy writing any other stories?

I’m a serial entrepreneur, so I started in the clothing trade in Cape Town, wrote some how-to books and consulted on business in the States, and ultimately patented an online marketing system and raised money in Venture Capital in Southern California – but got caught in the downdraught of the dot-com bust of the early 2000s … came home, owned a security company for a decade, sold it and now operate Airbnb properties.

Indeed, I’ve just finished my 4th novel, called Ragnarok. “Ragnarok” is the Viking word for Armageddon – and, a quick note on that ... I hate clichés: I loathe the way Vikings have been pigeonholed as marauders, brave beyond measure, muscular beyond belief and brutal to boot. Yes, they were these things, but everyone back then was fairly unrestrained and physical. Yes, they were fine examples of our more base nature, but they were so much more; and I wanted to capture the essence of that truth in a new story, which I think has worked out better than my expectations for it.

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