“Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.”
Shakespeare, King Lear 4.6
He crosses the Atlantic on board a packet ship out of Plymouth. He has never been to sea before. Confined to a cabin with nary a window, yet still he finds the salt gets into everything. Each day he brushes it from his clothes like dust or ashes. Soft as snuff on his hands. In his teeth, a taste that he can’t get rid of. Why ought saltwater always taste so much like the past? Is there some power in water to retain its incarnations? Some flavor, some essence of everything it has touched? Perrault, in On the Origin of Springs, suggests that all water in the world is part of one body. Rain flows into the ground, into rivers, to the sea. Halley in St. Helena suspected that earthly waters become air, ascend to the clouds, return as rain. The ocean has been other creatures. Perhaps it remembers.
He had brought no books into the hospital— no Perrault. No Halley. No Herbert. No Spinoza. They had probably burned the Spinoza. They who? His father? Imagine his father sitting down to a nice spot of book-burning: A little glass of claret, a log on the fire, a leather-bound tome curling in the grate. Newton, Locke, and Pascal. Descartes, Malebranche. Say goodbye to Grace and Nature, to prisms, to Pensées. How friable paper proved, when it had seemed so permanent once. Words go up in smoke and don’t come back.
And books were not permitted him in Bethlem, or after. Books agitate the nerves. Madness is a state of nervous agitation. A demonstration: the doctor pricked his finger with a lancet. The breath; the inadvertent flinch. “Thus does the nervous system.” Has a book such sharpness? Does it draw blood?
Twelve months and more till he was allowed to read so much as a journal. He had whispered secret volumes to the walls by then: Hamlet’s speeches and the Holy Sonnets, all he knew of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. He has a prodigious memory, everybody used to say so. How educated grew his voluptuous cell— not Bethlem, by then, but the Leicestershire manor, a private madhouse for the rich. Velvet curtains and heavy wood panels, each night a keeper to lock him in. No candles were countenanced, no shoes, no quills. “We should not like you to do yourself a violence.” The ambits of light and darkness colonised the room. “But I have no violence in me.” “My lord, you must not become excited.”
The London Gazette. He slept with it pressed to his cheek. A Thursday: the first of May, 1707.
Peter brought him St. Augustine— O uninterpretable gesture! De Civitate Dei. But the madhouse-keepers took the book from him. “What, not even a saint?” “You are made sick with words, sir. You should not court a fever.” They prescribed a second daily ice bath. He slipped under the water, thought of Ultima Thule: a place where there were no Peters saying what Peter had come to say. In Ultima Thule, Pliny wrote, there was no darkness. There was neither land, nor sea, nor air, Pytheas said, but a compound of the three on which the sea and earth hung. This served to keep the parts of the universe together. Nor was it possible to go thither on foot or by ship.
In 1709, he was permitted to read from the Bible each morning. He had prised one of the buttons from off his coat and used a chair leg to break it in half. With its sharpened edge he scratched one word onto a floorboard, in a place where no one else could see. When they found this stylus, they forbade him reading. But they did not find the word, and he had cut deep. It would take tearing up the board, perhaps the whole floor, if ever someone meant for it to be erased.
And so; and so. And then one morning in 1712 came unsmiling men in expensive suits. “The Earl is dead,” they informed him. What, really? He wondered if he had perhaps caused it by sorcery. He had had a number of astonishingly violent dreams, some in which his father was dead. Sometimes the gravediggers buried him in his father’s coffin in these dreams, and he could not get out of it again, so he was trapped there with the corpse, under the earth, face-to-face. The cold eyes. “Dead? Dead? But then— Does that mean I am—“ “The boy, I think, agitates himself with grief. He must be given laudanum.” “No, I mustn’t! No— please, please, I won’t—!” But they had borne him down and forced his mouth open. The too-sweet taste. Oh-so-familiar. The dark dark darkness. He awoke on a ship.
He might have raged, but he did not. He likes to think he made a decision, that years ago he built a very small box and put all the angriest parts of himself in it. Not a prison; more for safekeeping. The way that leopards with jewelled collars were held in kings’ menageries. His were more feral. He had meant to free them, if only he had not lost the key. That is what he likes to think. In darker hours he wonders— is he engineered for meekness? He had not thought so. He would have called himself a daring man. Not this strange, docile, timid, weak, and often-mute creature. Lying limp in a swaying cot on a ship, thoughts empty and dispersed as the halloo-ing seabirds.
So he sleeps. So the ship sails. From one cell to another. And yet, and yet— then— to his cabin, unexpected, the captain comes one morning, a shy but rather fulsome man in a carefully brushed coat. Every inch a merchant. He understands that the gentleman is mad, but there is so little culture among seamen, and being such a fine educated gentleman— which the captain himself has some learning, certainly not at all like the gentleman, but he flatters himself that he has some learning— he would be most happy if they might dine together?
Of course, the gentleman says. And: You do not perchance have any books?
Which certainly the captain has books, being a learned fellow, though certainly not at so learned as the gentleman himself; he would be delighted to put his library at the gentleman’s disposal. Perhaps the gentleman will honour him by accepting a book as a gift? The gentleman will! The captain hurries to fetch such an item.
Bound in morocco leather, a sleek and pretty volume with gilt embossing along the spine. A Cruising Voyage Round the World. He dares not open it. He thinks he could not bear to find the pages blank, the whole book somehow emptied. It seems possible that such a thing could happen. All sorts of things are possible at sea. Only when the captain has gone does he give into temptation. How to resist? He is a febrile and desirous creature. Even a sailor’s memoir is full of such particles, such nouns, such pronomials, such words, words, words.
In the hushed not-quite-dark of the locked cabin, small moon of a lantern swinging over his head, he pushes his face into the thus-spread pages. Inhaling the scent of ink and new paper. He is there in the library again: rustling silk and rain at the window, the hoarse scrape of his quill, a chaise rattling noisily past. “Darling, have you seen the—?” “I had it a moment ago. Let me see—“ “Oh, don’t get up—“ Until the sea gives a raucous lurch. All the objects in this ship-world slide around him for a moment. He has to hold on very hard to the book. Then, with trembling fingers, he turns to the frontispiece— folding out a carefully drawn and lettered map— He stares for a while. When he has drunk his fill of the swimming lines he tears the whole page from its stitching and brings it to his mouth, reverently tasting it. A medicinal leaf from some tropic jungle. Oddly bitter, the ink against his tongue. Then tearing at it with his teeth: ravenous, starving. Texture like a Eucharistic host. Take this holy sacrament to your comfort. Swallowing down the finely chewed pap. The whole world in his belly: its destinations, the circumnavigated seas and the land.
He has eaten the title page as well before he doubles over, cramped with the violent urge to weep, clenching his hands in his hair— a stone struck with a staff by some implacable prophet, the water gutted forth from it. He can hear his own wet and animal noises. He wants to rip out the book’s remaining octavos and stuff them each by delicious each into his working jaw. How else might they not be lost to him forever? He cannot allow them to be lost. He would die, he thinks. He would die. He would be in Bedlam, holding his breath underwater, or his face shoved down to the strawy dirt as a hand forced his flailing wrists together. He would be testing the point of a broken half-button, watching blood form up at his fingertip. Has a book such sharpness? Had he ever doubted?
It is at this point that, for the first time, Thomas Hamilton begins to consider that he has gone mad.
It is no unhappy thing to be mad. So he had often thought in Bethlem, and after. Oh, speak the truth: he had longed to be mad. Lord, make me mad, so that in the future I may recall what transpired here only as a fever dream. I do not wish to be the man who scraped his fingers against the door until the nail fell out of one of them. I wish not to know what I would do for one newsprint journal. —That I would feel grateful to him, that I would love him a little for it. I wish I might someday forget that this is what the heart is. Perhaps this is wisdom, to know that within oneself, there is nothing that cannot be altered. If it is wisdom, make me mad.
The mad suffer themselves to scream. Even in the madhouse in Leicestershire they screamed. There was a girl there, the daughter of a baronet. He never saw her, but he heard her scream. He envied her. He rooted for her. Don’t let them shut you up. Scream. But he was too proud, and would not scream. Instead he bit his lower lip through. Still to this day he has the scar. Lord, if you are listening, make me mad so that I may touch this scar and not recall my sin of pride. The baronet’s daughter screaming. I never even knew her name.
But here, now, at last, his prayer is granted! Here, now, America, he is mad! He is mad in Boston Harbour, as he was mad in the North Atlantic, as he was mad in Massachusetts Bay! He is mad beside the docks to which he listens through the shipsides, their cacophony of sea-birds, their wrangling of bells and their sailor-shouts! He is mad as he chokes down the draught of laudanum that is forced upon him— “I will not make trouble; I will do exactly as you say; only I would prefer not to be drugged—“ “Sir, it is for your own peace of mind.” He is mad when he wakes again on board a new ship, and then he is mad in the coastal waters as they warm and bear new scents to him, strange new mad American scents. For, being the New World, must not America be somewhat mad? She is untamed, and raw, and dark, and savage. He had once thought to bridle her, and now he is ashamed. He recants himself to the American air. I will not chain you, he says silently, I will not strip you of clothes, I will not strike you, I will not purge you, I will not half-drown you in ice water, I will not hold you down and take my pleasure from you. Had I any left, I would bring you words, and joy, and laughter. As it stands I can offer only myself and one book.
If he is mad, then there is no reason not to say or think their names. But his silence has become a physical compunction. His body has forgotten how to summon the words.
He tips his head back to an evening sky like the slice of an agate. “Are we in Carolina?” No response. But surely they must be. They had drifted past a series of raw wooden fortifications, smoke rising from beyond the walls, British flags floating overhead. The ship has made anchor in a broad muddy river whose banks are heavily laden with trees. The air is warm and not at all like England.
He holds out his hands to receive the irons when they are produced, though he says, “I am not a violent man.” A ceremony, so familiar, an endless ongoing call and response. Where would he go if he ran, if he overpowered his captors? Here is non hom; here nis but wildernesse. Chaucer meant that the earth itself was only wilderness, a waiting-place for the heaven to come. He can almost believe it. There have been times when he crept up to the sill of that forbidden door and, feeling in the darkness to find the handle, saw the light that came spilling out from under. There was a life beyond that door. The key was in the lock; he had only to turn it. But a force seized his hand and said, Not yet.
The oars of the dinghy lap through the water. Frogs croak; birds rise from the trees in jets. He has read that among certain uninhabited islands, in the desolate wastes of the South Seas, there are beasts who have never met a man, and therefore do not know to fear him. They do not fear any creature: birds and lizards; seals, sea lions. They will go quite trustingly up to meet you. They cannot believe that anything would slaughter their kind. They cannot conceive of such reckless violence.
“Here you are. Put him ashore.” First foot on this new land. “Careful, there. Steady.” Walking in chains. He has never quite got the trick of it. “The place is not far.” But they put him in the back of a wagon for the trip. The rough colonial who drives the wagon says, “Have you other cargo?” A sailor chucks the mailbag in the wagon next to him. Because he is mad, he does not mind being cargo. The mad are always cargo and he has grown used to it. The absent stares of keepers, their casual touches, as though he were a docile bullock or an market crate. He has never formed part of a cargo of letters before; he finds, unexpectedly, that he rather likes it. He lies back against the floor of the wagon and watches a dusting of stars appear. As white as salt, replete as he has never seen them.
“What do they send you here for?” “I am mad.” “Mad? Have you killed a man?” “No. Or— they would not tell me if he was dead.” “You don’t look the sort.” “No. But then, I killed him with love.” “Did you.” “You do not believe me.” A laugh.
It is night when they arrive at the gates of the settlement. Settlement! It is a rough place, barely hewn out of darkness, whitewashed buildings amongst the seedling fields. The forest barely ceases so as to let them breathe. Here is non hom indeed. Torches run orange in the darkness He is lifted from the wagon, wobbly-legged. He stoops to hide forbidden treasure: he had tucked A Cruising Voyage Round the World into the waist of his breeches, thinking that it would be taken from him. He is become a smuggler of books; a pirate, he thinks.
Into a large white house, softly lit by candles. In the parlour a gentleman waits, casually dressed: a waistcoat, a banyan. The message: we are not formal here. Certainly not, if a madman is present, who a month past was not even permitted shoes. The gentleman smokes a clay pipe, perhaps a colonial fashion. The scent of it is rich and unsterile and warm. The walls of the room are full of books.
“Well,” says the wagon-man, “which, I have brought him.” “We may have these chains off, I think.” “As you say, sir.” The chains leave his wrists and ankles. He does not regard this; he is looking at the books. There are so many that he feels quite queasy, rather as a man at the top of a mountain might feel. He wanders over to a shelf without asking permission— the mad do not ask permission, and no permission is asked of them. He runs his hand along one red calf spine, then another. Milton. Hobbes. Francis Bacon. He leans forward, nosing at them, inhaling their odor. He rubs his face against the whole line of books, cat-like— a displaced animal looking for comfort. His fingers clutch at the shelf as though he’s still at sea, as though one unkind heave might send him flying.
He does not expect the gentleman to address him. Men, for the most part, do not speak to him. He has said more on this voyage than perhaps in years. And so he does not recognise that he is being addressed until the gentleman takes him by the arm, and turns him gently, steering him towards the conversation.
“Mr. Hamilton,” says the gentleman. “You are welcome here.”
The gentleman is James Oglethorpe, and he calls this place Georgia. It has not been settled long; perhaps ten months. Oglethorpe set sail from London with a cargo of cotton seeds and convicts. To improve the convicts, he brought a doctor, a few silk workers, books. Other ships followed, bearing England’s unfortunates: Debtors, Dissenters, a colony of Jews. They have named their settlement Savannah, this being what the natives call the river. But not all of England’s unfortunates are suited to such a life. Some may not live in a civilised world. This plantation has been built for them. “For those whom we must make more secure, for the vulnerable.” “You mean, for the mad?” “For those whom the world would prefer not to exist.”
Oglethorpe is a nice man, a little on the dim side. He has vast ambitions, articulated in his colony, which forbids slavery, lawyers, and (horrors!) rum. He works for prison reform, and to improve the lot of sailors; he wants to end debt imprisonment, and elevate the poor. His opinion on pirates, Mr. Hamilton dares not ask. Mr. Hamilton! A novelty. “Ought I to call you Thomas?” “There was a time when I demanded it.” “We do not often use Christian names here; many of the men have had it from their betters. For them, it is a mark of disrespect.” “I do not mind it. I have never been Mr. Hamilton.” That is its virtue. No one has ever called him this.
“Here, Mr. Hamilton, each man builds his own house. When you have done with that, you will work in the fields. It is hard work, for this is an unforgiving country. But you shall have respect here, and your work will be honest. Together we shall transform the face of this wild new land. It is a place without sin, a veritable Eden, and it accepts what we bring to it; therefore we must take care not to come burdened by the evils of Europe. Here, each man is a new Adam.”
Oglethorpe speaks in these little speeches, pat and homiletic and, apparently, prepared in his head. Hamilton’s tendency is to lose interest partway through and wander whatever room they are in, touching the walls, leaning to look out of the windows, perching upon the chaise-longue with a book. For here he is permitted books, as many as he would like lay hands on. “Are you not concerned about nervous agitation?” “A man has only ever been improved by books.” A man, a man. Always talking about a man. As though there were, somewhere, one very special Man, the template for all those elsewhere on the earth. A Man is formed good and honest and healthy and upright; a Man desires sons and a faithful wife and honest work; a Man is ill-served by cities, with their corruption. When Hamilton thinks about this Man, he feels faintly derisive. He does not think he has much in common with him.
Still, he builds his house: a small side-gabled cabin. The other labourers help him to raise it. They are open, friendly men, hair bleached and strawy, skin darkened by the relentless sun, and he is afraid of them without knowing why. It is not on account of any crimes; they are not violent men, and indeed they are hardly criminals. Some are radicals, republicans, Levellers or fanatical Dissenters; some are inveterate debtors; some are sodomites. They speak like gentlemen, all of them, and dress in breeches, though their hands are coarse and their manners have grown rough. They do not ask him about his past; indeed they act as though the plantation birthed him fully-formed. But they address him constantly in the warmest and most informal fashion. “You will be happy here, my friend. It is scarcely a prison.” “You will find the work satisfies; it is good for the soul.” Some are intellectuals: “"O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint, agricolas, eh?” They touch him casually, as though this is the most ordinary action. They embrace him; they clap him companionably on the back; they take his arm and lead him towards the mess hall; they place their hands over his and demonstrate how to plane wood. He takes, with some effort, to woodworking. He makes a bedframe, two lopsided chairs, a table. He can spend hours lost in the planing and be startled, after, to see that any time has passed. Those are the pleasant hours, the emptinesses, when he is no one, from nowhere. He has no name and no body. He exists only as a function of work.
The houses on the plantation have no locks, and he finds it hard to sleep in a house with no locks. He keeps waiting to hear the key turn.
Instead he reads throughout the night’s long hours. Oglethorpe lends him books, one volume at a time, and Hamilton curls close to his sputtering candle, reverently turning the pages. Shakespeare. Paradise Lost. Sophocles. How had he forgotten the way the words form a heartbeat rhythm, as though the book itself is a living thing, a stuttering-paced creature whose chest he presses his head against? Listening as one might listen to a lover and marvel at his secret, energetic centre. The part one cannot see or touch but nonetheless loves.
He feels drunk after so long an abstinence and now such a surfeit of books. Hypersensitive, acutely open to strange emotions. One night he weeps for six hours over Antigone’s death. These emotions rush through him, and they are gone when they are gone. He is left raw, abstracted from his own body, confused by the tumult of being in his skin. The other men notice; of course, how not. They find him skittish; abstract, fey, and even remote. “Hamilton, you are an odd duck.” “Am I?” “I put my hand on your shoulder just now, and I swear you were about to bite it off.” “I am mad, you know.” “But you are not like other madmen. You are very quiet. You do not scream and rave like those wretches in Bedlam.” “I suppose I do not.” No. He does not scream. Quite mechanically, in the midst of this particular conversation, he sets the blade of the plane against his own arm. It manages to gouge out a chunk of flesh before the blood garners exclamation. The wound is bandaged very quickly. He is astonished by how little pain there is.
It worries him that he does not always recall events in the correct order. Sometimes he thinks he was in Bethlem for years, though he knows it was months. The keeper who— was that before or after the street-ranter died, and flies gathered on the body all night? Hamilton— but he was not Hamilton then; he started out as Thomas, but then for a time he had no name. They shaved his hair because of lice, but he doesn’t know when. The surgeon was incautious and made him bleed. Later he touched his head and could feel the stubble. He thought, this is my fleshly mortification, I can survive this, I am like a Desert Father. What a very stupid thought. That must have been early. For a while— after the keeper, after he pinned his wrists and— he had no thoughts at all, or only about the oddest ordinary things: Will someone remember to prune the apple trees at Helensburgh House? I have put so much time into them, and Mrs. Collett is too elderly now, she cannot be out in the orchard.
Poor Tom had been scared out of his good wits.
His father had died, or had he imagined that?
The ice had been in both Bethlem and Leicestershire, but he is certain that only in the latter place had the attendant knelt beside him and put a too too warm hand against his cheek. “It is not good to be too cold,” the attendant had said— the man with the newspapers. He had worn spectacles. He had vanished when at last the doctor began to suspect. No more warm hands, no more newspapers. Poor Turlygod! Poor Tom! He must have made some remark about it; they dosed him with laudanum for days. Or was that later, after he broke the button?
He would not have called himself unhappy. Such a word had been outside his lexicon. He had been.
Oglethorpe is most concerned about Hamilton’s injury. “I am reluctant to put you in the fields— to hand you a tool such as a scythe, knowing you are so clumsy as all that.” “You need not worry.” “I do worry. You have been entrusted to my care. Perhaps, for the time being, we might confine you to some lighter work.” “I do not wish to be confined, sir.” “Even so.”
There is an elderly Indian gentleman who visits, Mr. To-mo-chi-chi of the Creek, Oglethorpe’s particular friend. He leads the Yamacraw tribe, whose village is a little upriver, perhaps three miles from where the plantation stands. Mr. To-mo-chi-chi is eager that the children of his tribe learn English. Perhaps, suggests Oglethorpe, the children might come to the plantation once a week in the afternoons, and Hamilton could teach them. After all, he is a very learned man. “I am not a teacher, sir.” “You are not a farmer, sir. The New World makes new demands of us.”
So the children come: a strange gaggle of brown-skinned, wary creatures, shirtless and wrapped in blankets and animal skins. Some have heads shaved at the sides; some wear beads in their hair, or feathers. They smell of campfire smoke and horses; they are shockingly un-English. They sit straight-backed and cross-legged on the library rug, very formal, and he is, at first, a little afraid of them. But they are children, he discovers, the same as any other children. They laugh in the chortling, unstifled manner of children when he cannot manage to pronounce their names— “Toonahawi.” “Hohuewahehle.” “Chitto.” “Opamico.” “Fuswa.” They demand that he say more words in Creek so that the hilarity may continue. He obliges them; he cannot help but be amused. He is reminded of Abigail Ashe and Anne Bertie, little serious-faced girls, so careful with their manners, and how they would laugh when he fooled at the harpsichord. “That’s not Purcell at all! You are dreadful!” “Lord Hamilton, let me show you how to play!” He had loved children, with their lack of prejudices. He’d thought that one day, maybe, perhaps—
As a boy, he had started Latin with very simple nouns. He assumes that this is the correct way to begin. He takes a book from the parlour shelf— “Book.” “Choga.” “Choga.” He says it again. “Choga. Book.” He points to his hand— “Hand.” “Enge.” “Enge. Hand.” Hand, foot, head, neck, eyes; he learns all the parts of the body. Enge, ele, ega, nogwa, tufwa. “This is a…” The children quickly understand the concept, This is a. The bolder ones, Toonahawi and Chitto, immediately scramble up and search the room for further objects that they can put names to. “Heya nage te?” “This is a leaf,” he tells them. “Heya edoesset omes. Heya nage te?” “This is a glass of water. “Ouwa,” Chitto says. “Heya ouwat omes.”
The children are easier to talk to than the men and women on the plantation. The vocabulary they share with him is limited. Nothing that they say requires an answer that is more complex than his expressive range. “Ma choga chate owa?” “No, that book is not red. Chate— omeks? That book is brown.” “Eh, heya choga lane omes.” “Brown. Like your clothes. Your clothes are brown, aren’t they? Ma— chem accage— lane omes?” At times, it is more like play than lessons: the children make noises and faces like different animals, and he has to guess at the animals that they intend: a horse, a dog, a mouse, a panther. One week, Toonahawi brings a grasshopper carefully cupped in his two hands. The grasshopper, of course, escapes at once— pinging off the walls and the wooden shutters before it is chased out into the fields. “That was a grasshopper,” Hamilton says. “And it doesn’t belong inside.”
Creek nouns sometimes change with their possessor, an idea he has not encountered before. My hand, change. Your hand, chenge. He does not quite understand why certain nouns change and others do not. He tries to guess at it with each new noun, and the children laugh, as though he is being quite foolish, as though it is obvious that some things by their very nature cannot be detached from the one who possesses them. A mother, a father, a heart, a voice. In his experience, there is nothing that cannot be detached from a person. He does not know how to say this in Creek.
He can remember sitting on a chaise-longue in the Leicestershire madhouse and thinking, with some puzzlement, This is not my mouth. He touched his lower lip with two fingers. It was warm and familiar, slightly chapped. His teeth and tongue, all accounted for, all the component parts of a mouth. It was a mouth, and it was a part of his body, but he had forgotten how to make sound come out of it. In some deeper sense, the flesh was alien to him. It did not seem to matter much what this mouth did.
Since coming to Georgia, he sometimes half-wakes in the morning with the sense that someone else’s body is beside him in the rough shuck bed. He can feel it shift, feel the warmth of its nearness. —It is awake, he thinks, and he is plunged into a terror with the texture of an ice bath. It is too close, and he does not want it to touch him, even as he knows with the strange perspicacity of dreams that it is his own body, that he is alone in the bed. If he could only speak, if he could only speak to it, if he could only make a sound, call it by name, then it would flee from him, as insubstantial as sunshine. But he is frozen, still immobile in sleep, and besides, he cannot recall the name.
Once a week, a barber comes to the plantation from Savannah. All of the labourers are submitted to him: a luxurious moment, a little episode of civilization. “Well, after all,” Oglethorpe says, “aren’t we civilised men?” He has this affectation of saying we, as though they are all of them equals. Perhaps he would like to believe this; perhaps it is what allows him to sleep at night. Hamilton thinks that Oglethorpe lives partially in his own dream of the future, in which he has raised up all of these fallen men to the standard he expects of the English gentry. Presumably he sees himself surrounded by these future figures, by endless copies of his ideal Man. His benevolence thus always misses its mark slightly, being directed not towards you, but towards the man you are not yet.
Hamilton has managed to avoid the barber, growing a pale, sporadically trimmed, scruffy beard that the Yamacraw children find alarming. On account of its fairness, they have given him the name ‘Ste-Hatke-Hatke, “the very very white man.” One of the little girls, Fuswa, had tried to pull the beard off, amazed to find that it was not made of fur or dried grass. But at last Oglethorpe expresses his disapproval— “After all, you are not one of those Indian traders”— and so to the barber he heads.
In Leicestershire, he had been drugged when they shaved him, even though there was no need. He was a tame creature by then, listless, taciturn. The laudanum made him feel dim-witted and ill. He would often vomit afterwards. The taste of bile. Sweat standing out all over his skin. The man’s hands on his head, tipping it this way and that way. As though he were a child or a doll. “That’s right, there we go. You’ve no idea what I’m saying, have you, you fucking bedlamite? You’d cut my throat if you could, I’m sure.” A demonstration: the blade pausing in its work to lie flat and cool against his neck. He felt he inhabited only his toes and the tips of his fingers, his far far distant extremities. “But we’ll have you looking like a gentleman again in no time. Not that you appreciate it.” A skilled barber. There was never any blood. He did indeed look like a gentleman, he supposed. Though he did not see a mirror for six or seven years.
The barber from Savannah is a cheerful Birmingham fellow, a former debtor whom Oglethorpe freed. He tells Hamilton his life story, asks his opinion on styles, on the weather, on the Indians. Hamilton finds it increasingly difficult to answer. Scrape, scrape, scrape. “If I may— just adjust your head for a moment?” When the thing is finished, he leaves the building and vomits in the grass. His hair is damp and stuck to his forehead. The air is sticky. There are thunderclouds overhead. Soon the rain will come and release this tension. This country is prone to violent storms. He wants the tumult of the rolling thunder. He is experiencing a wild and inexplicable urge to run. To scale the fortifications that border the plantation; to steal a horse and charge the gates; to fight any man he might encounter. What he mostly wants is to be hit— or to hit something, which is much the same; to hurl himself against a physical obstacle until it hurts. He slams his fist against the side of the building, and that is better, and he does it again, and the rain comes, first in droplets and then in a flood. Mr. Squier (son of a wealthy Boston merchant, advocate of common ownership and free love) finds him there. “Hamilton, your hand is bleeding! Come now, you must come out of this weather.”
Oglethorpe says, “Perhaps so long as you keep yourself tidy,” and, “We must make allowances for your infirmity,” and, “After all, men in the New World may keep different standards.” He has taken to squinting at Hamilton slightly, as though he cannot quite focus the future image of the ideal him.
They take tea, he and Oglethorpe, once every fortnight. It is a privilege that none of the other men enjoy. One might think that this would spark resentment, but in fact Hamilton finds his compatriots rather protective towards him, as though they feel he is fragile in a way they are not. He very much doubts that this is the case. Some, it is true, have been in debtors’ prison, have been torn from their lovers and families; but for many, this is the harshest life they’ve known: this raw little colonial outpost, planting cotton, cutting cane and shucking corn. Because he is mad, does that make him in need of protection? He has survived his father, Bethlem, a madhouse, freezing, purging, isolation, violent keepers, attendants who bargained for his body, and transportation across the Atlantic. He does not know how not to survive, he thinks.
“Perhaps they like you. You are very gentle.” “That is not the word I would have chosen.” “They have not known much gentleness in their lives.” “Do you think gentleness compatible with civilization?” Silence. Oglethorpe says, “I must believe it can be. Or what is it that I accomplish here?” For the first time, a weariness in his face. How much effort it must take to maintain his optimism; how hard he must work to to keep his utopia in view. Hamilton knows; he remembers. He wants to say, You are going about it wrong. But he is not sure that this is the case. He is not sure of anything anymore. Once, he might have untangled the contradictions in his head. Then, he had felt he was nearing some complete understanding, a vanishing point at which all lines of logic would converge. When he reached this oh-so-imminent horizon, the question of how to govern men would prove to have a very simple answer. Problems would clarify. Principles would appear. But the closer he got, the further that point receded. The world asserted itself with catastrophic effects. A solution no longer seemed so near he could touch it. All the careful foundations had gone to chaos. Now he says to Oglethorpe, “Why did we never meet in London? Eight, oh, ten years ago. We ought to have met.” “I believe I was fighting a war on the Continent. It was foolish. I was a very dramatic young man.” “Strange how we become so many different people. You would have liked me. I believed everything you do.” “But you don’t any longer.” “Mm. Do not let it trouble you. After all, I am mad.”
“I worry about you, Hamilton,” Oglethorpe says on another occasion. “Yes. You have said so.” “You are a gifted teacher; the Creek children have a great affection for you. And I esteem your opinions. But you trouble me extremely.” “I am sorry for it.” “I can never decide if you are really mad, or—“ “Or?” “I do not know.” “No.” Hamilton half-expects the conversation to end. But Oglethorpe gazes at him and says— defiantly, as though he expects opposition— “You are a good man.” “Do you think so?” He himself has no feelings on the matter. He does not know if he is a good man or not. There was a time when he did not know if he were a man. For years he had reminded himself each morning upon waking: ἐπὶ ἀνθρώπου ἔργον ἐγείρομαι. I am rising to do the work of a man. He had stopped when the precept fell into question. “Only it occurs to me,” Oglethorpe says, “that perhaps no one has ever told you: whatever happened to you, I am most exceedingly sorry.”
Hamilton picks up his china cup, touches it to his lips. Drinks the fine weak tea they drink. “Are you,” he says.
Time goes by like this. The seasons change. Hamilton works at sowing cotton seed in the fields— apparently this is a task with which he can be trusted. Overseers pace the rows on horseback, occasionally calling out men’s names. “Mr. Smythe! Mind to your duty, sir!” ( —Though punishment, in this place, tends towards nothing so coarse as a whipping, but rather an “improving” lecture of some sort.) From time to time he is conscious that he is, in fact, in a prison. The Yamacraw children have asked him to visit their camp; they wish to show him to their parents, to introduce him to their dogs (“Cha-efa hatke echoghesse oches,” says Opamico proudly— “My dog has a white beard, just like you!”), for him to witness a type of dance or song to celebrate “Little Green Corn.” But Oglethorpe says, “It is, of course, out of the question. No; it is a general policy. Men may not leave here. You might well think as though the world beyond these walls does not exist.” So: a prison. The thought does not upset him much. A prison is an honest thing, unlike a madhouse, where they will say, It is all for your health. A man (Oglethorpe’s Man, in his Edenic setting) is sent to prison because he has committed a crime. Hamilton committed a crime, and he does not regret it. He committed the same crime more than once; he would, if he were able, commit it again. He is incorrigible, the worst sort of recidivist. All of this is to say, He understands his situation. He tilts his head up to the nascent sun and thinks that if England cannot bear to allow him in it, here is as good as any other Tomis. Ergo erat in fatis Scythiam quoque visere nostris. He scatters the seed upon the American earth and covers it with thick black soil. His body aches, and for the first time in years he is conscious of hunger. The heat grows as summer comes on; he sweats through his shirt. He sleeps through each night without any dreams.
In the late summer he strips leaves from the cane stalks that other men have cut, and bundles them up to heave over his shoulder and carry to the waiting cart. The chopped cane has a strange and musty odor, grass mixed with caramel and sweat, and its sap clings to his palms and clothing. All the labourers grow sticky and fragrant with it. The hours are long, and McClintock (who hails from the coast of Massachusetts) teaches the men a number of sea shanties to sing while they work. The sound of their singing is startling, almost violent, even when laughter breaks into it— a great defiant shout of pleasure. It is not what Hamilton has known music to be (a rare performance of L’Orfeo— “Isn’t Monteverdi divine? The current crop of Italians simply can’t measure up, they haven’t half his strangeness, and, you know, I think music must be strange—” “Why must it be strange? Surely the very nature of music is an orderly progression—“ “Oh, but darling, the heart is strange—“ and the heart was strange, but he was thinking of music, music, ch'ai dolci accenti so far tranquillo ogni turbato core) but it is music, and for a long time he forgets his labour and simply stands in the midst of the field, amazed.
He does not sing, cannot bring himself to loose that kind of voice, but he teaches the Yamacraw children songs he knows: a song that Abigail Ashe and Anne Bertie used to sing about the cuckoo bird—
“The cuckoo is a lovely bird
She sings as she flies
She brings us glad tidings
And tells us no lies
She flies the hills over
She flies the vale down
She flies to the sea
And she mourns for her love.”
— and one of McClintock’s sea songs, “The Golden Vanity,” since the children are well acquainted with the threat of the Spanish. Another, a bit of foolish doggerel that mocks the fishermen of Cape Cod. He is surprised by how eagerly the children take to the music. They want to know what a cuckoo is (“Fuswat lanet omes, I think— I don’t suppose you have them here”), and what a cod is (“Hlahlo? Is that the word? It swims, omiyes.”), and are there any cod in Georgia (“I very much doubt it”), and they insist on singing the same songs over and over, despite not understanding the lyrics, long past the point when any sensible person would have grown tired of them. For weeks he works to explain the words in the songs: what a tiding is, what it has to do with a tide, what vanity is— a word for which they have no exact cognate, though they seem to have two that overlap with the general idea— and, predictably difficult, the concept of love. One cannot play-act love, and anyway, the customs are different. He suggests that mothers and fathers love, and that mothers and fathers love their children, but he knows very well this is not always true. At any rate, that is not the love the cuckoo mourns. It isn’t even the same noun. He thinks the children leave confused, and more interested in codfish. He had used the term e-anokechka to translate the words of the song, anokechka being the word they offered for love, e- the prefix of possession. Surely love was so intimate a possession, so vital to the body, as to require a prefix. Chanokechka, my love; chenokechka, your love. The children could not tell him if this was grammatical. But surely, he thinks, surely, nothing is more difficult to part with than love.
The last time he thought so very intensely about language, he was at Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek. Those days are coloured with other discoveries in his memory. First fumblings after midnight in someone else’s bedroom, while wax made warm Pennines of the candlesticks. “The Greeks, you know—“ “Yes, but the mechanics of such an act—“ “Φέβει?” "No, of course not.” Reading Pindar amongst the tangled linens. The Pythian Odes, it was. The Py— the Py— the puh— the puh— the— say it with a rising exhalation— the please, please, the oh, the oh, God, so this is what men write odes for, oh his face hot on the fisted-up bolster, a hand cramped hard at his iliac crest. He had not known before how much lay outside his understanding. That there were ways to touch someone else’s body for which no words existed in English. That he might need so many new words just for want.
(Why does thinking of this cause him such pain? Ναυσιφορήτοις δ᾽ ἀνδράσι, he thinks, πρώτα χάρις ἐς πλόον ἀρχομένοις πομπαῖον ἐλθεῖν οὖρον: ἐοικότα γὰρ καὶ τελευτᾷ φερτέρου νόστου τυχεῖν. Oh, God, unbearable fragment that he must banish from his mind. His memory is not his friend; it is a poison flask.)
The process of learning seemed an upwards expansion. An endless exhilaration. He came to associate learning with love. So much of what he learned was how to love other people. What love he was capable of giving a woman; the different love he was capable of giving a man. The love he steadfastly presented to his father, despite its ongoing refusal; the love he poured and poured into England, like a farmer watering withered fields and waiting for fruit. All men, he had thought, ought to be loved. It was not an abstract ideal. England had fathered its people, and owed them love. Surely it was a natural right. Once such a duty was performed, the rest would follow. Love would in turn become learning: how to govern, how to live.
For so long he has learned nothing except to suffer. Not how to suffer, for it never grew easier, nor he more graceful at it; any skill he’d once imagined himself to possess had, in fact, diminished. Could such a thing be called learning? It was an atrophy. Now increasingly he feels the muscle flex, and is aware of its weakness. I cannot. I cannot. I am not capable. I am a poor bare forked animal. I cannot bear to learn, to stir, to rise, to stretch, to move, to carry that burden again.
“I am…” “Omis.” “You are…” “Ometskes.” “I am hungry.” “Chawanketos.” “I am tired.” “Noskeletos.” “What am I?” Hamilton asks, and waits for an answer.
Midway through his third year in Georgia, the plantation is struck by an epidemic. Everyone fears that it is yellow fever, which killed twenty of Oglethorpe’s original colonists in their first year. Fever, aches, and chills, a sweating sickness. The first of the plantation’s labourers dies of it three days after falling ill. Two children in Savannah the next week. Four more labourers take to their beds. Meanwhile, the sun overhead rakes them with its beams; the air is a swamp; the moss-lined trees don’t stir. Out in the fields, pulling weeds, Hamilton feels the heat like a hammer on his head. His shirt is heavy, drenched against his skin. When he reaches his home in the evening, he has to strip down to sleep.
When he wakes, he is cold and his teeth are clenched. Groping in the thin dawn light for a shirt, for breeches. It takes him three tries to pull them on. Confused by the chill in the grey air. For a while, he thinks it is winter. He leaves his house barefoot, and is surprised there is no snow on the ground. No. Snow was in England. It rarely snows in Georgia. The Yamacraw boy Chitto has not seen such a thing. He is the youngest. He thinks it is a fiction. Lakes freezing; ice-skating on the pond at Helensburgh House. Mrs. Collett: “In my day, we’d never dreamt of such a thing!” Wrapping him in a woollen blanket. “At last, tha’s got some colour in your cheeks.” The pleasant fire in the nursery grate. That is what is called for, fire. But he has no tinder. And the cane fields when he squints already seem to be burning, with their long waving leaves that turn and glint. He cannot tell for certain. He walks towards them. He likes to be warm. “You are exceedingly spoilt.” “There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable.” “You’d not survive a day at sea.” “I know, you are always telling me so. I do not plan to go to sea, so I fail to see why it is an issue.” “One of these days, I shall manoeuvre you into a ship.” “Oh you shall, shall you? You’ll execute one of your naval manoeuvres.” “My naval manoeuvres are very highly regarded, I’ll have you know.” “Mm. I should like you to manoeuvre yourself over here; my God, you’re a furnace.” “Any way I can serve you, my lord.”
He halts, confused, clutching at his damp hair with jittery fingers. Aware that something is terribly wrong. His head aches; where is the straw hat he wears for weeding? Where is the madhouse attendant who will take him to the bath? Is it still Fletcher? He does not want to be touched. Or he does. He cannot differentiate the feelings. Like being cold and hot at the same time. A hand on his elbow; he thinks about breaking the fingers. He has this thought rather a lot. But there is no violence in him. No real violence. “Mr. Hamilton, I fear you are ill.” But no. That isn’t the problem. “It’s only a symptom.” “Even so, sir.” His own house again. The stale air. The book he keeps hidden under his mattress. “Perhaps he would have liked it.” “Who, sir?” “James.” He is weeping, and he doesn’t know why. His head is agony. “Forgive me,” he says. “Forgive me. Forgive me.” “We have sent a man for the doctor. You must rest.”
But he does not rest. For a time he thinks he is back in Bethlem, and that men are putting chains on him. Thrashing against their hands, because he did not have the chance before. He was kind and peaceable to those who after all knew no better. Lack of reason is the only real enemy. God, oh, God, he will not make the same mistake. “I know you; I know what you want; I know you will hurt me.” “Shh. Shh.” Hands at his ankles and wrists. Not chains, but something more unbearable. Noise of someone crying. They keep trying to lay cold cloths on him. Is this some new treatment? His bones feel hollow at their centres, as though the core of him has been taken out and replaced with pain. He brought cold cloths to her sometimes. She had headaches. “Darling, thank you. Would you sit and read to me for a while? Only very quietly.” “Do you fancy Shakespeare? The Tempest?” He did all the voices. His favourite was Ariel.
When he is not in Bethlem, he is nowhere, exactly. He is at the bottom of the ocean. Shivering and wet. He is being hanged for sodomy and he cannot breathe. He chokes on liquid that tastes of the inside of wells. Sleeps. Sleeps. At odd intervals, he is sure that someone keeps watch by his bed. A warm presence, smelling of old wood and salt water. He used to wake in the morning and know, without opening his eyes— hooking a lazy foot round an adjacent ankle, trailing a line up a shin with his big toe. “It’s too early.” “Hmm?” “You are insatiable, Thomas.” “It’s only that I couldn’t touch you for so long. Imagine owning a beautiful instrument, and not being allowed to play it.” “I am not your goddamned harpsichord.” “Several witty remarks about organs suggest themselves… Are you going to hit me?” Laughter. “No. I’m going to go back to sleep.” The bass hum of his breathing, like a gentle beehive. Even in the New World— “I would know you anywhere.” “Shh. Don’t try to speak.” “I did not want to forget. I wrote your name.”
Waking— night, orchestra’d with insects in the outside grasses. A lone candle in the cabin guttering low. An older, olive-skinned man is reading at his table. A respectable-looking man, wearing a waistcoat and spectacles. “Who… ?” “Ah. You are awake at last.” An Iberian accent, Portuguese or Spanish. The man closes his book. “I am Samuel Nunez, the doctor in Savannah. You, my friend, have been struck down by the malaria, the marsh fever. You have been very very ill.”
Ill. He is too weak to lift his head. His body a cloth wrung out for drying. “I thought— I dreamt—“ “You were delirious with fever.” He can feel his lip tremble, as though he is a little child. The tears come, as though something inside him has cracked open and he is helpless to hold in the leaking contents. Nunez sits beside him, resting a kind hand on his forehead. “Many men weep. It common after such fevers. Let yourself weep. There is time to regain your strength.” “I fear, sir,” Hamilton chokes at last. “—I may have been indiscreet in my fever.” “Psh. You were a very dull patient. You discoursed at length upon natural law.” “Ah. My sin is found out. I was once a politician.” “You must certainly thank me, then, for had you died: straight to Hell!” “…Thank you,” Hamilton says.
Nunez fetches fresh water from the pump outside, and pours him a little in a tin cup, mixed with vinegary wine and a powder of Jesuit’s bark. At Hamilton’s skeptical face on hearing the name of the powder— “Ah, but, you see, I endorse it, and I am a Jew. Besides, I think you have a little of the Jesuit in you, no? Already I see this.” A weak smile; a wracking cough. “Some would say I am a sophist, sir.” Nunez pats him on the shoulder and takes his leave to look to other patients— four more on the plantation, he says. He returns towards dawn to check for spiking fever. His assessment: “You have some politicking left in you.” He stays longer than strictly necessary, fixing the blankets on the bed and shooing sleepy moths away from the candle.
“… It was like being mad,” Hamilton says reflectively. “The fever… I have been mad. Perhaps I am still mad. I am not sure I know anymore.” Nunez’s regards him kindly. “As for that,” he says, “who can say what it is to be mad? Too much sanity may be madness, and the maddest of all…” His voice trails off. He does not finish the quote. Perhaps he can see that it is not necessary to do so. Hamilton closes his eyes. He feels immensely tired.
Two more men at the plantation die of marsh fever. Mr. Cochrane (an admiral’s son turned preacher), and Mr. McLellan (a Scottish paederast). They are buried in the small plot at the southeast edge of the plantation, each grave marked by a wooden cross. Hamilton cannot attend the service; he can hardly leave his bed. Had he been able, would he have wanted to? He believes in God, but God the Father? Father, he thinks, you have neglected your children. Perhaps the Christian faith is an attempt to make sense of it. We cannot believe in a God who would pardon Isaac, but a God who would murder his own son—?
He is ill for a long time. Nunez returns twice a week from Savannah, dispensing his foul decoctions of barks. He seems to have some special feeling for Hamilton— what had he let slip in his delirium?— and brings him, in addition to the medicine, ink, and pens, and a sheaf of paper. “Thank you. But it’s expensive. I cannot repay you.” “You repay me in conversation. You know what this is in Savannah, the conversation? My God! A roomful of men discussing their cows. In Portugal, I once met the king himself. Now I am English, and what does it get me? Nothing but cows, cows, cows.”
Nunez is a highly educated man; in addition to English and Portuguese, he reads Spanish, Greek Hebrew, and Latin. He is familiar with natural philosophy, with Descartes, Pascal, and Spinoza, although— “Spinoza! That abominable man.” “Why do you think so?” “He takes God out of God, and puts him here in the world! He tells men that there is no life beyond this life!” “And you disagree.” “I think that there are things men must believe in order to stay being men.” “So we should simply not question them? I find that offensive.” “Well— but you are a madman, so you tell me.” Many of their conversations go like this, more a kind of fencing match than a discussion. It is much like being back in a London salon. They take to playing chess. Hamilton tires easily, and his mind has a tendency to wander; he finds he gets lost inside his own head. But he has missed having a worthwhile opponent, in chess and in discourse. He is— glad, that is the word.
He spends the hours of his recovery looking out of his window, making observations of insects and birds. He is, he supposes, perhaps the first Englishman to do so. He draws them in ink in their characteristic poses— the chattering bird that bullies the others, the dove that coos on his rooftop at evening and dawn, the fireflies that float over the fields at twilight. The Yamacraw have words for all of these animals, though he cannot pronounce most of them. When the children learn about his interest in wildlife, they start bringing him all sorts of specimens. Mostly flowers: a pinkish sort of berry, and a white plant that they call “snake root,” wild strawberries, and large brown polished nuts. “We fear you die,” Fuswa says, handing him an enormous bunch of prickly yellow blossoms. “Like the boy in the golden ship. Because the white men are die so much. Do not die. It is not good.”
“No,” Hamilton says. “It is not good to die.”
At Christmas, there is a fine dinner for all the labourers, with venison, wild duck, and cranberry cake. The men dine with the women, whom normally they rarely see. There is a general air of boisterous celebration. They are quite profligate with the candles; the merriment goes well into the night. Hamilton accepts the embraces of his fellows till he cannot accept them and steals out into the dark. Frost on the fields. Glittering stars. He thinks of Halley, Synopsis on the Astronomy of Comets. He had left the book unfinished, on a library table. He has not thought of it in so long. Halley speculated on the recurrence of comets, suggesting that the same celestial objects returned and returned, their visits sometimes separated by more than men’s lifetimes. A miraculous idea, that the heavens could be so vast and men’s lives could be so small. So small, and yet so full of— of men being profligate with candles, in a prison, in the midst of the wilderness.
Behind him, a voice rises, and others join. A carol, as roughly sung as one of McClintock’s sea shanties, yet recognizable nonetheless: Then why should men on earth be sad, since our dear Saviour makes us glad? Oh… he could offer reasons. But in this moment, he is unexpectedly stirred, moved as Christ has not moved him for a long time. There is something in the men’s voices that he had not looked for, had not been prepared for, had not defense against. Joy. It is joy, he thinks.
When he arrived in the colonies, he had made a promise. But he thinks he has not loved America well. He had not been capable of love, and perhaps he still is not. Perhaps he never will be again. The very word had been stripped from his body during that long absence of words. So when he pledged himself to the New World, it had seemed a poor sort of offer. But in spite of himself he is more now than he was then. Mad, yes, skittish, at times oddly feral. Parts of a man, though not a whole one. He pictures himself as a Roman mosaic, made of the fractured pieces of the Thomas Hamiltons that he was before. He had thought he was nothing, but he is something. —What? He does not know.
That night he sits at his little table and takes out a sheet of paper. He dips his quill into the ink and writes, Dec. 25. 1715. He pauses; he does not know how to continue. Even after all this time, the act feel interdicted. His heart beats fast; his body tenses against some outcry. He has to set his teeth and grip his hand hard round the pen. The nib scratches. His handwriting is small and quick and furtive. It is I, Thos. Hamilton, who write these words…
In the summer, James McGraw comes to Georgia.