Even though Walter Tull’s body (and his diary) was never recovered, a fascinating document has recently come to public notice that sheds light on Walter’s life and ancestry.
It was found in the journal of Captain Cobham-Smith of Little Withens, Hampshire. This journal had lain in a cabinet drawer until house clearance on the death of his daughter, and only child, Lucia Cobham-Smith.
Last night, I had the great honour to share an hour with Lieutenant Walter Tull – an extraordinary fellow – who showed me a deeply personal manuscript that he keeps folded in his diary. This note reveals that Walter is an even more remarkable fellow than I had first surmised.
I penned this record of events straight after Walter left me. I have tried to be as faithful as humanly possible to the words I saw and heard.
To Whom It May Concern
In the event of my death, I hope this account of my ancestry will let Posterity know of my Past, and inform the Present of how we may build a new Future.
When I was a boy, my father told me of his mother’s life, together with her memories of her – and my – lineage. My grandmother had told my father that her mother would sit her on her aged knee and sometimes whisper and sometimes sing and sometimes cry this tale:
‘Child, we came here to Barbados more than a hundred years ago. From a land called Africa, far away to the East across this shining sea. Our people, my child, your ancestors and mine, were taken from the secure and happy compound of family. A happy land of plenty and comfort: sheep and goats and the cow, and the yams and the corn and bananas and palm wine.
We lived the gladsome life of the free and easy; this was the way of life of our people, the Isha Yoruba near Bante; a peaceful, peace-loving people. No war. No killing. No slaves. The old gods. Even though I revere the past, my child, heed this:
I no longer trust the old gods and neither must you, child.
Once I learned the English language, and alphabet, and learned how to understand the Bible, I learned that the old gods were the wrong gods, child. I know the true God now, the Christian God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
And the Bible emancipated me in other ways, too.
I used to think the letter B was juju, with a malediction from Hell, my innocent one. To me, it signified the Bight of Benin, where we were chained in the Baracoon before the manacles and chains on the ocean voyage to Barbados.
Bight, Benin, Barracoon, and the slave ship from Bristol with its guns and kettles and pans from Birmingham, and its scarlet Stroud cloth.
I now know that the letter B in fact leads to freedom. The Bible!
When the Halleluja Day comes with its Jubilee, we shall all be free from bondage. No more Bondage! No more Barracoons! No more Barricades! No more Barriers!’
“Remember this, Walter, as you pass through your life. Your grand-mother was once owned by another human being – she was the property of a certain Reverend Joseph Duncan Ostrehan of Sheepscombe, near Stroud. But she helped me gain a trade and become a master carpenter, a master of the grain and of the plane: the calling of The Lord Jesus Christ. Remember my mother’s words: A Jubilee! No Barriers!”
Walter turned to me as he left: ‘I know that the letter B curse superstition is balderdash … But I sometimes wonder about the letter S: Shackles, Stroud, Scarlet, Sheepscombe … and now we’re at the Somme …’
March 13th 1917
After the war, I became something of an anthropologist and was fortunate enough to be invited to the United States, where I had the even greater good fortune, there, to meet Zora Neale Hurston. She spoke of her conversations with the former slave, Cudjo Lewis, and her proposed book Barracoon. Her conversations with Cudjo and his acute memory of life confirm as true the recollections of Walter’s great grandmother.
The word Barracoon is derived from the Spanish language and denotes a building to hold those awaiting the middle passage from Africa to the West Indies and the Americas as slaves.
(Barraca meaning hut; or a barracks.)
Walter was killed at the Somme on March 25th 1918. RIP, Walter.