How Beloved unearthed the ghosts of a brutal past

The second section includes the actual return of the murdered girl, now nearly 20, to the house, to Sethe and her surviving sister, and is the forward motion of the story. They do not suspect her identity at first. Paul D has seen plenty of “odd clusters and strays of Negroes wander[ing] the back roads and cowpaths from Schenectady to Jackson. Dazed but insistent, they search each other out for word of a cousin, an aunt, a friend who once said, ‘Call on me’.”  Beloved must surely be one of those “strays”. Soon, however, the inhabitants of 124 come to realise that Beloved knows too much, and her presence in their lives is far from random.  Beloved is home. What happens to this family in the last section of the novel as the result of Beloved’s return with all her pain and all her unresolved trauma and anger is the driver of the rest of this story, a trauma that stands in for the trauma of multitudes and generations. 

The story is told through flashbacks, with multiple points of view, and, when I read beloved the first time I was like a pre-language baby reading it. I was willing to follow Toni Morrison’s voice but only partly understanding the lyricism, the time shifts, the fractured language, and dream-like sequences. Morrison did not write fairy tales, but her characters believe in the magic of the other world that abuts our own, the permeable membrane of that world of spirit in constant contact and conversation with our usual plane of existence. Over years and many readings, I have acquired layers of her meaning and intention about family, slavery, memory, misogyny, and the persistence and insistence of the past. 

Tectonic shift

Beloved, a young woman, clingy and angry, reminded me of myself, both of us at the tail end of our adolescence, both needing something we couldn’t name from our people, both looking for some damn body to pay attention. Morrison’s stories of the honest struggle of living, of squalor and occasional abundance, of every kind of pain, did not centre on pathology or educating white readers, but on the characters’ ability or not to successfully navigate their circumstances.  For Morrison’s Beloved part of these circumstances are certainly structural racism and the legacy of slavery.  However, Beloved is the story of a family who negotiate their lives of accommodation and survival with pragmatism about what cannot be changed, with their great or limited resources as they are able, and as the situation demands. They get to be themselves carrying on like the individuals they are.  

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170yo graffiti with names, regiments, badges unearthed at army barracks

Bricklayers working at Hobart’s Anglesea Barracks have uncovered graffiti believed to be more than 170 years old.

It was left by soldiers serving time in the barrack’s military prison and provides an insight into military life in 19th-century Tasmania.

Colonial soldiers in Tasmania in the 19th century had plenty of opportunities to get in trouble.

There were pubs on every corner in old Hobart town, and whalers on the waterfront spoiling for a fight.

Soldiers who misbehaved would end up in the military prison at the Anglesea Barracks.

Some of the marks date back to the 1840s.(ABC News: Scott Ross)

Some of those serving time left graffiti on the walls of the prison yard.

Defence Force Environment and Sustainability manager Dr Kate Hibbert said discoveries at historic buildings like Anglesea Barracks added a human touch.

Two men and a woman stand in front of 1840s graffiti
Alex Swift, Kate Hibbert and Major Chris Talbot stand in front of some of the graffiti found on a prison yard wall.(ABC News: Scott Ross)

“It’s a really interesting personal touch of the people that were here, rather than just military records or buildings,” she said.

“There’s some that say 99, which is the 99th regiment and 14th, which is the 14th regiment, and we have a number of names and initials as well.

“It’s just a way of saying, ‘I was here and this is who I am,’ and leaving that mark of yourself on the fabric of the building.

“I think it shows that people 170 years ago weren’t that different to people today.

Letters etched on bricks
Dr Hibbert says some of the lettering is quite elaborate.(ABC News: Scott Ross)

“People still want to leave a mark on the world and they still need to fill their time with something.”

Some of the inscriptions are quite elaborate.

“Some have a specific font, they look like something quite special, they are not just scratchings in a wall,” Dr Hibbert said.

Barricade outside a former prison at Angelsea Army Barracks
The army barracks were built in 1814 and now house a museum.(ABC News: Scott Ross)

The regimental references help date the graffiti to between 1840 and 1870.

The markings were found by bricklayers doing conservation work.

“It’s one of the great things about working in a place like Hobart, is you do come across these things every now and then,” said Hansen Yunken project manager Alex Swift.

“We were quite excited, like everyone would be, I guess, to come across a piece of history like this.”

Hobart's Angelsea Barracks in 1888
The Angelsea Barracks are heritage-listed.(Supplied: Tasmanian Archives)

The graffiti is similar to markings previously found on cell doors inside the prison, which was used until the departure of the last British Regiment in late 1870.

Major Chris Talbot manages the museum at the barracks.

Many colonial soldiers were conscripts far from home and could be tempted to break the rules.

“He would have been a very normal British person who was sometimes pushed into the army and so there was some discipline problems, but they were working quite hard as well to police the colony, with lots of bushrangers in the state at the time,” Major Talbot said.

The graffitied wall will be treated to prevent damp and covered up again.

“We’re going to have a clear window through those walls so that the carvings and graffiti can be observed,” Dr Hibbert said.

It’s the second similar find in Tasmania in recent weeks, with renovators discovering Rococo wallpaper at an historic property at Broadmarsh.

The Steam Packet Tavern on the old Hobart Wharf
There were plenty of public houses near the old Hobart waterfront where soldiers could land in trouble.(Supplied: Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office)

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