Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 23, 2020

Master of My Fate (2019), by Sienna Brown

It’s not so long ago that we were cringing with embarrassment when That Fool in Canberra declared that there was no slavery in Australia, but most keyboard warriors were thinking of the unpaid labour of Indigenous people when they went into action to set him straight.  Sienna Brown’s debut novel, shortlisted for the 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize, tells the story of a different kind of involuntary unpaid labour in Australia.

Based on historical research into the lives of West Indian convicts in the Hyde Park Barracks database, Brown’s novel tells the story of William Buchanan, born into slavery in Jamaica in the pivotal period when abolitionists in Britain were beginning to agitate for an end to the slave trade.  William narrates the story in his own patois, tracing his childhood as the less-preferred son of the plantation owner Massa Cargill and the house-slave Bessie.  The narrative continues into his adulthood and participation in the rebellion led by Samuel Sharpe and the aftermath of that.

Wisely, Brown does not portray the very worst examples of slavery in Jamaica.  If anyone wanted to defend slavery by claiming that atrocities were in the minority, this novel shows that even in a comparatively benign regime, slavery was still intolerable, immoral, wicked and cruel.  Gone With the Wind may be a well-loved American classic for some readers, but its hero fights for the Confederate cause, i.e. to retain slavery in the south, to protect a lifestyle portrayed with contented field slaves and ‘Mammy’ as a member of the family.  This nostalgic glorification of plantation life dependent on dutiful slavery is deeply dishonest, but in Master of My Fate the beatings, whippings, and routine rape of women shows that dutiful slavery was always underpinned by violence.

William has cause, from time to time, to be grateful that he has a reasonable master who allows some independence and that he, like his male siblings, has been able to develop a skill that brings some satisfaction to his daily life.  This comparative privilege, juxtaposed with what he sees of slaves wrenched from their lives in Africa as adults and ‘seasoned’ into submission, maintains the focus firmly on the desire for freedom, the unfairness of legislative measures for control, and the fundamental immorality of owning human brings as if they were beasts of burden.  He is also only too well aware that it is only his biological connection to Massa that privileges him, by comparison with the other slaves on the plantation.

Crucially, William does not realise that his sister Eliza is not protected by that biological connection, and the moral outrage felt by him and his mother Bessie leads to changes in what had been a comparatively secure existence.  The end of his delusions propels him into Sharpe’s rebellion, and into Britain’s favourite method of disposing of political prisoners, transportation to Australia.

The author portrays in chilling court scenes how a desire for power, even among the powerless, leads to betrayal even amongst those who should be loyal to one another.

Master of My Fate is a good example of historical fiction used to reveal hidden history.

You can find out more about Sienna Brown at the HNSA website.

Author: Sienna Brown
Title: Master of My Fate
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House) 2019
ISBN:9780143787532, pbk., 310 pages
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books $32.99

Available from Fishpond: Master Of My Fate


  1. And, I have a copy to read …


    • Ha, it wasn’t me this time!


  2. […] Prize which is a good example of historical fiction used to reveal hidden history. (See my review here).  I missed some of this session due to a domestic crisis involving black coffee and curtains, a […]


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