A Grandfather's Tale, Chapter 2, MERCHANT APPRENTICE
A GRANDFATHER'S TALE: Liverpool Slave Merchant, William Bolden 1730-1800
Chapter Two: MERCHANT APPRENTICE
Malemba Bay, Angola Coast
My bowels are an old man's, rank and unsettled. The ship's water is bad. The Bosun is false, his command of the men uncertain. He does not insist the boat's crew row farther up the river, beyond the mangroves. A better officer would make sure the barrels are filled with fresh.
We make a small society on this Snow. The officers of the ship are in too-snug quarters beneath the poop-deck. The crew sleep where they find themselves on the main-deck. They may have the best of it. A league offshore the night air is not plagued with mosquitoes. But their sleeping bodies make it a perilous journey to the Heads in the dark.
The need to ease myself happens too often. Still, I refuse to foul the muck-bucket in the company of others. A loose, unpleasant motion is my own cross to bear. I must hold on to what little dignity I have left. Landsmen are held in low esteem on the Black Prince. By all ranks. I am loathe to cause further offence.
My Pizzle-whip lies within hand's reach. Always. I confess it is now dearer to me than when I first received it. ("From William Bolden, Master Tanner and Freeman of Lancaster; To My Son, William Bolden, Apprenticed Merchant to the Africa Trade." So read the tag affixed to its hessian wrapping, bound with twine.)
On this slaver, and on the Beach, it denotes my position. It is a gentleman's persuader, fitting for a Ship's-writer. Without the brutish bluntness of a Mate's double-headed knout; without the loutish show of a bullwhip coiled around the shoulder. From its leather knotted terminal, down its 34 inches of single sinew, twisted and stretched to a perfect tension of suppleness and strength, it is a beautiful, cruel thing -- a Subtle weapon.
A Pizzle-whip has no need to prove its power. In presence alone it brings sufficient threat. It musters Respect without moving from my side.
The Boy sleeps,
The cargo moans,
The timbers creak,
The Boy sleeps.
When I rise from my seat and draw my Pizzle-whip from the sand and walk into the bartering-circle and prod the purchase, to turn, to bend, to stretch, to jump, it is for the Captain's sake. At the point of bargain the Captain too easily forgets his Sliding-scales.
In this place, where they trade with copper from their own mines, and have a preference for finer Indies cloth, the Mafouk wants more of our manufactured goods than it is profitable to supply. The answer, in the Owner's interest, is not to raise the number of Manillas, nor increase the bolts of English-cottons, but to offer less, leavened with guns and grog (which the Mafouk most certainly does want).
Thus the Description of manufactures may alter, but the Rate of Exchange, the true Sterling cost of a slave, must stay the same. The ship's Inventory must, in total, pay its due return on the, in total, cost of fitting up the Snow in Merchandise. This is the basic rule of commerce everywhere, but it is sometimes forgotten by the master of the Black Prince.
My purpose in intervening at such times has been noted by the watching black faces. My position, in the estimation of the Mafouk, has been re-calculated. Guinea traders are quick to sense any shift of influence, any change in Politick. And quick to make Dash to those with whom they may wish to seek future favour.
The Boy sleeps,
At the foot of my bunk,
Curled up on the floor,
The Boy sleeps.
The Carpenter's hammer keeps me awake. He has nearly finished the Barricade. It crosses amid-ship, forward of the main mast, a wooden wall 10 feet high that splits the upper decks in two and overhangs each side of the Snow by 2 feet more. It is an ungainly construction and will no doubt impair our sailing on the Middle Passage. The wall has ports for the ship's guns and a small barred door. It will force the male Negroes to stay in one part when they are brought up for feeding. They are to be kept separate from the females and juveniles to prevent conspiracy. Female slaves are known to incite the males to rebellion.
Superstitious beliefs and magical tricks are at the heart of these revolts. Sorcery and the Black Arts. "For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft".
The Carpenter is a Chester man. He has two sons with him, the elder as carpenter's mate, the younger as carpenter's boy. He is a steady man. I can talk to him. He is one of the three men only who stand between the ship's good order and having our throats cut by the crew. Captain Creevey of course. And the First Mate, who has a firm way of commanding obedience from the scurvy villains on board. They know from sore experience that he is not a man to be crossed.
The Third Mate is a brute, shiny sculled, built like a bulldog, with thick neck, powerful arms, and a big chest. The crew are leery of him because he is the ship's flogger. I do not worry about him so much because he is also stupid. He cannot think for himself, but needs the Captain's orders to know what he needs to do next. The Beast in him is chained to the ship's routine of Watches and punishment. This is fortunate for me, although I am not sure which way he would swing if there was a mutiny by all the crew.
I do not trust the Second Mate. He is a surly seaman, and sly. To my face he says "Aye Sorr", but as soon as my back is turned I hear him mutter "Ga' fook yissen", or worse.
It is the unending sameness of days. The Sun beats down on our heads, the sea-glare strikes back up at our eyes, and the Black Prince slowly sways.
Constant heat is oppressive to our spirits. The same drawn-out Play is acted out on the Beach each day. We depart the Snow and row in through the surf. We walk up the sand and halt before the Pavilion of commerce, a conical roofed hut of palm branches, open at the sides. We wait. In the Sun.
First of the grand procession that wends its stately way down the dunes toward us is the Mafouk's chair, a box made from the darkest wood with monstrous carvings on each face. We wait. Next, the Mafouk himself, and numerous attendants, mostly cousins who claim a similar line of royal blood to the always absent king. The Mafouk is swathed in layers of coloured cloth, which all must be puffed up and pulled about and patted into place, before he takes his seat. We wait. Still in the Sun.
Finally comes the Nkisi and its assortment of magical charms. This sacred mat is laid out before the Mafouk and its bits and pieces carefully placed in the same Pattern as yesterday, and the day before. Baskets of smooth stones, shells, bones and feathers, animal horn and shrivelled seeds, fetishes of sticks and dried grass tied in knots, and a carved staff of polished wood. When these trinkets are at last laid out to the Mafouk's satisfaction, a filthy madman approaches to offer his shrieks and leaps. Only when this Fiend is stilled, and not before, does the Mafouk acknowledge our presence and motion us forward. At last. Into the shade.
Unfortunately the tedium of this Ceremony is not yet exhausted. Brandy must be taken. Not only at this point, but at frequent intervals throughout the afternoon. As Captain Creevey is fond of saying, "The African trader never cares to treat with dry lips".
What with waiting in the Sun, and wetting the Mafouk's lips, we have been three months standing off Malemba Bay. 91 days to buy 304 slaves.
There has been too much that is new and unseasoned about this Guinea venture. Captain William Creevey is a competent mariner but this is his first command of a slaver. Mister John Bagnall is a respectable merchant in Chester, but the Black Prince is his first vessel fitted out for trade on the Coast.
The selection of Inventory requires a close study of African traders' tastes. The variety of goods must be better suited to the fashions and fancies of that part of the Coast from which it is intended to purchase the most slaves. This voyage would have been quicker, the Expense of wages and provisions much reduced, if attention had first been given to procuring seasoned advice. Interviewing a Guineaman of recent experience supplies the Owner with practical knowledge, leading him to gather the most desirable Merchandise.
The present Manifest is not best suited to the Mafouk's desires. Hence the bargaining is slow and piecemeal. The Negroes already bought and loaded on board become useless mouths, eating into valuable provisions which were meant to be consumed at sea. And they sicken and die. "Long purchases make sickly ships". Unless one would expect slaves to spring and grow like mushrooms in the dark, it is not to be expected from the greater number of ships employed in the Africa trade that it should be otherwise.
At anchorage, in sight and smell of land, the ship is at its most vulnerable. The Master says that when we sail, we sail at night, endeavoring to get as far out to sea as we are able before daylight. The daily chore of unshackling the Negroes and bringing them up from below, their sluicing with seawater and feeding from the cauldrons, cannot begin until all trace of the Coast has disappeared from the horizon. Until then they must bear their hot confinement. To do differently would endanger the entire ship's company.
The great quantity of chain, manacles, collars and anklets, that was passed down into the ship's locker at Liverpool docks seemed then almost profligate. Now it seems barely enough to constrain the number of captives we have on board. Laid out in lengths along the lower deck, it is a poor, thin, line that guarantees our safety, a puny enough defense to prevent their rising.
As they say in the north, "Evening's live stock be morning's dead stock". It is no joke to see the condition fall off them, and after only a few days of being loaded. They refuse to thrive, but waste away before our eyes. Despite the best diet of cornmeal, such as was recommended to us by the Company factor at Castle Cape, and for which we paid a pretty premium.
Captain Creevey says that, with luck, the Black Prince will make Kingston Town in ten weeks sailing and we will lose less than fifty slaves. If this speed can be achieved, the middle passage will remain profitable for the Owner. Creevey has confidence in the fast clip of his Snow. It would suit me more if he had as much confidence in the stoutness of our purchases.
The sooner we are to sea the better. In the right winds the Snow is a "pretty mickle sailor". Plantation-built, with squared-off stern and raked bow in the American style, and the added canvas by stepping-back the quadroon sheet from the main-mast is thought to make her "summat quick". But surely her 58 feet length and 110 tons burthen will be tested by the cargo of 300 Negroes, not to forget the bagged meal and pease to feed them, and full water barrels to keep them alive.
The vessel is already low-lying in the waters and sluggish. Add to this the overhanging of the wooden barricade, the side-nets put out to stop slaves leaping into the sea, and the awkwardness to trim. In my mind, this will make the Black Prince unresponsive to the light breezes and dead calms that we can expect when crossing the Line. But I keep this opinion to myself.
Nothing from Africa is as it seems. The Mafouk has given me a broken gift. The Boy is lame. An angry red swelling sits on the crown of his foot.
A few days after we brought him on board the head of the Worm pierced through the skin. The pain made the Boy scream. The shock of its appearance, half an inch of vile white slug waving in the light from its bed of flesh. Very much alive and with no intention of leaving its nest.
The Carpenter had warned me that this would happen. He is the ship's surgeon and has seen this sort of thing before. I called out for his assistance. He and his sons came. Together we held the Boy still. He stared fixedly at his wound while the Carpenter began the long process of winding the exposed end of the Worm around a thin splinter of wood. Extracting it quarter inch by painful quarter inch. Each turn of the stick causes a sudden intake of breath, silent tears, a rigid tensing of the Boy's leg. After each turn the Carpenter pauses, waiting for the Boy's muscles to relax, the Worm's fierce resistance to ease, the resumes his grim task. Slowly the splinter becomes a bundle of slimy string. Like a builder's plumb-line that breathes and writhes.
When the intervals between each turn grew longer, the Boy less able to relax, the Worm not releasing its infernal grip, the Carpenter ceased his efforts, wrapping the oozing sore and its foul parcel in a strip of sailcloth, soaked in turpentine. The Boy squealed his protest at the application of the surgeon's stinging poultice, but he knows what he must do now, and how to do it. Every day, slowly, gradually, lest the Worm break off and retreats back beneath his skin.
I watch the Boy each morning as he renews his struggle with the Worm. Crouched on his haunches, head bent to his grisly task, carefully winding until he can no longer bear it, or he senses that more pulling will tear the squirming string apart, and defeat his weeks of patient toil.
A broken gift brings no credit to the giver
But the Boy's courage brings honour to me.
The ship's crew reconsider the crippled slave.
The Boy is mine and I grow in their estimation too.
Pork fat melts in the heat. Pieces of gristle float in its slurry. I cannot eat it. I pass my pannikin to the Boy and he drains it in one gulp.
Ship's boys fare worst on Guinea voyages. The seamen bully them into the mucky jobs and call them "grommits", which is sailors' slang for "arse-holes".
Ship's boys are Cheap. Monthly wages of 10 to 15 shillings for apprentices or servants. Half that of an able seaman's one pound ten shillings, or an ordinary seaman's one pound five. This is an important part of an Owner's sums. At least a year away from Liverpool is normal for the Africa trade. Wages are a major Expense, and higher on a slaver.
Ship's boys are Short. Mostly parish poor and street sweepings, half-grown and ill-fed. They rarely exceed four and a half feet in height even though their ages are from 12 to 16 years. This is also an important fact for the Owner. Below deck on the Black Prince the headroom is four and three quarter feet at best. With the Carpenter's added slave-shelves this is reduced to two and a quarter feet around the bulwarks. His work means we can pack in more Negroes, but it makes below-decks hard to clean when fully loaded.
Ship's boys are the scraper gang. Their job to go down and scrape the rows free of filth, to haul out the muck buckets and empty them over the side, to mop the bottom deck dry. They do not like being forced below to perform their Noisome task, but they are more frightened of the mate's knout and the seamen's fists than they are of what awaits them in the hot, close dark. Curses and blows rain down on their heads if they dare to show defiance, and so, each day they fight one another for the best places in the line. None want to be first down the hatch, but none want to be last either.
Shipboard life is governed by Violence. Authority must impose its own violence to prevent disobedient outbreaks of violence. Those commanded must fear the superior violence of those who command, lest all descend into uncontrolled violence and anarchy. Lawful violence must be the more awful violence if it is to be feared.
We are a long way from His Majesty's Law here, and must enforce our own. I have read Malachy Postlethwaite's claim that the British Empire is a "magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power on an African foundation". I have seen Africa and I will soon see the Americas. What I have not yet seen is much evidence of Britain's naval power. The Angola Coast is further south and east than many Englishmen go in the Guinea trade.
Malemba Bay is part of the Kakongo kingdom. Like the Loango kingdom to the north, past Black Point, it is a free-trading country. The Villi people sell to all customers, restricting their commerce only according to who brings the best goods and will give the biggest bundles of them for each slave. French and Dutch ships stop here, but no Europeans are allowed to establish their own Factory on shore. All barter and exchange must be negotiated through the king's chancellor, the Mafouk, and slaving ships must be moored at least one league or more off the Beach.
To our south is Cabinda Bay, where the Portuguese have long had a crumbling fort, but the mulatto traders there are not to be trusted.
They smile. They bow.
They say, "Your ship will be slaved within the week".
They lie. No coffles come.
A ship's timbers could rot in the waiting.
Here is much better. The supply is slow and steady, though the trading is drawn out. Each of the Mafouk's relations seem to have one or two miserable Negroes they want to sell. Still, the ship fills.
Malemba is an open bay, surrounded by red hills that are even and moderately high, but fall very steep down to the sand. The Black Prince is anchored in five or six fathoms, with an oaze bottom. A league from the Beach to our east, a league from Malemba Point to our south,and a league and a bit from the spit of sand that hides the mouth of the River Kakongo and its mangroves to our northeast. The unchanging view of palm trees and white sand has become tiresome to my sight.
I would gladly hear Captain Creevey's order to set sail tonight. It cannot be long now. Not even he could cram another body in.