Inspired by a real-life story, Simon Mayo’s novel Mad Blood Stirring, which happens to begin on New Year’s Eve, centers on a Shakespeare performance by African American prisoners of war—in Dartmoor prison in England in 1815. Although the treaty which ended the War of 1812 has been signed, American sailors of both races who are imprisoned there have not yet been freed.
The black sailors, segregated by race into their own section, are led by a man known as “King Dick.” In addition to gambling and listening to sermons, they perform plays, including works by Shakespeare. In the following excerpt, a white American sailor, Joe Hill, visits his African American friend Habakkuk “Habs” Snow, and learns about a possible part for him in a forthcoming play.
At the front of the cockloft, the hymn died away and Pastor Simon climbed on to a makeshift pulpit made of two card tables. Every man present immediately seemed to realize they had something else to do; conversations sprang up, packs of cards appeared, and dice rolled. The pastor tried to speak above the hubbub.
‘The preacher is popular, then,’ said Joe.
‘He has only a few things to say,’ said Habs. ‘We’re in prison with him—we heard ’em before.’
‘Church and gambling at the same time? The folks at the Baptist Union back home would rather be struck down by Satan Himself,’ said Joe.
‘Well, Pastor Simon runs the church and King Dick runs the gamblin’,’ said Habs. ‘Though, if he wanted, I think the King could have the church, too.’
As if he’d heard their talk, King Dick had climbed on to the pulpit. His head now nearly touching the ceiling, he stood with his eyes and arms wide. He was clearly waiting for silence, and he had it within seconds. The talking died down, the cards and the dice were pocketed. All eyes were on stage.
The King held out his club then swept it in an arc. ‘How poor are they that have not patience!’ he called, staring around his audience.
Joe’s eyes narrowed. ‘What wound did ever heal but by degrees?’ he whispered.
Then, as if an echo from the stage, the King thundered, ‘What wound did ever heal but by degrees?’
Joe dropped his head, sliding down the wall. Habs followed him to the floor.
‘But this is Shakespeare,’ Joe said.
‘The Dartmoor Amateur Dramatic Society,’ said Habs. ‘They’re the King’s shows. He runs everything anyways, but the theatre? That’s what he really loves.’
‘That line,’ said Joe. ‘That line was Iago’s. From Othello.’
‘It was,’ said Habs, ‘and it was my line.’
‘You put on a production of Othello here?’ Joe failed to keep the disbelief out of his voice. ‘You played Iago?’
Habs looked intently at his new friend, then jumped up, offering Joe his hand, the one with H.O.L.D. tattooed on the fingers.
‘Come,’ said Habs. ‘Close haul.’
Joe followed Habs as he fought his way through the crowd. Finding gaps to get through took time but, when they saw who was doing the pushing, most made way.
‘In a hurry, Habs?’ asked one voice.
‘Look alive there!’ hissed Habs, turning sideways to squeeze between two scrawny sailors who were sharing a large bottle.
‘Habs, what are we doing?’
Joe received no reply.
As they reached the front, the King appeared as if a giant, his club still swaying dangerously close to the heads of the sailors. As it passed, many ducked or leaned out of its path. He flourished it again then brought it to rest on his shoulder. The King was wrapping up.
‘Do we have Pitch and Toss? Yes, gentlemen, we do.’ Cheers from many in the crowd. ‘Do we have Twenty-one? O’ course.’ The cheers were louder now and came with applause. The King nodded, acknowledging the approval. ‘And we have Rat Race—o’ course—but . . . in time. Keep your coins for the moment. Patience, m’boys.’
Habs, still with Joe in his wake, stuck up his hand. ‘My noble Lord . . .’
King Dick saw Habs and laughed, his temporary pulpit rocking. He stuck his hands on his hips, his cloak parting to expose the large buckled belt around his waist. He edged his feet apart, his stance strong.
‘What does thou say, Iago?’ said the King, and applause rolled around the room.
Habs called back, ‘Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady, know of your love?’
From somewhere behind them a voice shouted, ‘Do the play! Do the whole play!’
King Dick called to Habs, ‘He did, from first to last. Why dost thou ask?’
Habs leaned close to Joe.
‘So here’s your answer. Yes, we put on Othello.’
Habs leapt on to the stage, followed by Ned Penny and two others. Joe saw Pastor Simon shrug and usher the choir away. Dick jumped from the pulpit and, to a backdrop of cheers and clapping, they performed lines and scenes from Othello, seemingly at random. Joe looked on in wonder as a stooped, grey-haired man miraculously became Desdemona, one of the drunks he’d squeezed past became Michael Cassio, and Ned recited the lines of Roderigo.
When the players were spent, the applause and stomping went on, Joe clapping long and hard, too.
When Habs finally jumped from the stage, King Dick wasn’t far behind. ‘So, Mr Hill from Boston,’ said the King, sweat running from under his hat, ‘what say you?’
‘I know the play, King Dick,’ said Joe, smiling, ‘and . . . I am speechless.’
King Dick nodded appreciatively.
‘How many players do you have?’ asked Joe.
‘We manage with eleven,’ said the King. ‘We lost our clown to the pox and Montano to jail fever, but everyone came to see it anyway.’
‘And did you have white men play any parts, King Dick?’ asked Joe.
The King’s eyes narrowed slightly and he adjusted his hat. ‘Do we need white men, Mr Hill?’
Joe realized that many of the nearby conversations had quietened or stopped altogether. ‘Well, no, I suppose—’ began Joe.
‘Shakespeare was black, Mr Hill, we all know that,’ interrupted the King, ‘So why would we need any white men?’ It was a question, but it sounded like a threat.
To Joe’s puzzled expression, Habs slowly, subtly, shook his head.
Joe swallowed his question and pointed instead at the stage and the scenery. ‘Oh, you don’t . . . I was just hoping,’ he said, ‘to maybe offer my services . . .’
‘That so?’ said the King, his face solemn again. ‘And what would we do with a young sailor fair of face?’
Joe stood rooted to the spot, unsure of his reply. ‘I . . . I don’t know, sir.’
‘Ha!’ King Dick shouted, and everyone jumped. ‘Mr Snow here does. Tell ‘im, Mr Snow, and be done with it.’ The King gathered his cape around himself and walked off, young Alex and Jonathan running to catch up.
‘Shakespeare was black?’
Habs waited for the crowd to drift away to the gambling tables. ‘You wanna argue with him?’
‘Not really,’ said Joe. ‘And what is it you know? What was he talking about?’
Habs placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder. ‘Before the French left, the King was thinkin’ of puttin’ on a play with ’em. They had their own theatre company, made some fine scenery. Then Napoleon went an’ lost and they all went home. We took some of their flats, and the rest made that boxing ring you were leanin’ on last night.’
Joe nodded. ‘Neat painting, too. But they were white French?’
‘White French,’ confirmed Habs. ‘They were in Seven, too. They never knew about the King’s idea. Coulda refused. But it would’ve been perfect. A play with two families living in a lawless town. It was a good fit.’
It was then that Joe got it. ‘Romeo and Juliet,‘ he said. ‘Of course. So, when the King says you have plans for me . . . ‘ Joe raised an eyebrow. ‘Let me guess. You will play Romeo?’
Habs nodded solemnly.
‘And . . . you want me for Juliet?’ Joe asked. ‘Have you lost your sense in here?’ His head was spinning—he needed some air. ‘Maybe you have that jail fever that took your Montano,’ he said. ‘I need to see my crew. We need to find our berths in Seven. We need food and money. And then? Well, then, God willing, we’ll be sailing home.’
Excerpted from Mad Blood Stirring. Copyright © 2019 by Simon Mayo. Published by Pegasus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Learn more about the events on which this novel is based:
“The Paradox of Dartmoor Prison,” American Heritage
“Prisoners of War in 1812,” WETA public television and classical music station, Washington, DC
“Richard Crafus, Black Captive King of the War of 1812,” New England Historical Society