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Mysterious Vanishing Slave Ships (7)


The shipper wondered whether the sailors’ superstitions he had debunked held some truth. Perhaps the African Star had been sucked down into a mysterious whirlpool or attacked by a sinister sea monster. These were possibilities that crept up on MacKenzie late at night when he lay alone in bed, trying to puzzle out the disappearance of his ship.

 

CHAPTER 7


Many teeter on the verge of greatness, lacking the courage to act. They live full of rich expectancy that sours into despair. Mired in misery, they become unable to inspire themselves or anyone else into the higher realm of dreams. Adrian stood out from the rest: he swept his men with him into ascent.


When a ship’s mast appeared on the horizon, the Good Hope stood ready for the attack.


“Is it a slaver?” everyone thought and someone shouted.


“I’m not certain,” Adrian answered. “Let’s board.”


“Pull in the masts,” he bellowed. In a hushed conspiratorial tone, he said, “We’ll sail in quietly. By the time they catch wind of us, they won’t have as much time to prepare to defend themselves. When we’ve drawn nearer to them, we’ll drop the boats, row over and attack.”


At the captain’s command, the men fused into a moving tableau, working in the same tempo whose rapid rhythm had throbbed inside them many times before. The ship hummed in a fine-tuned vibration. Few words passed the sailors’ mouths, and those that did were purely utilitarian. Each man focused on the task at hand: preparation to attack and plunder a ship. The Good Hope, after all, was a buccaneers’ betrothed vessel. But this episode was different. It promised the chance of liberating with a strong sense of right on their side. The entire crew shined with spirits of steel.


Yusef and Adrian’s personal stake made them even more zealous than the rest. White light seemed to emanate from them. As he always did before going into battle, Adrian evoked Sarah’s name in prayer, but this time vowing to prove himself more than worthy of her. The merchant, on the other hand, sought redemption for playing God. Adrian and Yusef took one boat. Jealousy turned Edward ashen at the sight. Not even the damning last look of beautiful broken Claudine had softened his way of loving like a gaoler. The more he tried to imprison love, the more quickly it escaped.


On the enemy ship, the crew wonted not for love, but for money. The ten men who held the pistols also harbored visions of easy roads ahead paved with gold. Scorned by the Africans, scorned by the Americans, they had only money to which they could cling. The scapegoats of a sanctioned and legal tradition, they took the brunt for the moral suffering it wrought.


Most teased themselves with hazy plans of leaving slave trading with profit enough either to invest in other lucrative businesses or retire young in Jamaica, Cuba or Hispaniola. A few had attempted a respected way of life and found themselves at odds with respectability. The captain of the African Star, Master John Burrell, for one, had fled slaving for security in Virginia, but he had found none. He was made to feel coarse while others appeared to be silken. His neighbors would not allow him to wash the stink of human trading from his hands. They turned up their noses at him by shirking his company. Master John had garnered enough wealth to buy smiles to his face, but not behind his back. Five months after trying to settle into the life of a property owner, a taxpayer, a landsman, the pariah returned to his world at the helm of a slaver.


For five weeks, the African Star had been at sea. The captives, the men outside on the upper deck being forced to exercise and keep their value up and the women and babies down below chained in anguish, and their slavers wore detached looks. Buried in their faces of indifference was shock at the depravity of humanity. However, looks changed when the slaver espied the approach of the Good Hope and its flotilla of two-men boats; mouths dropped open. Half of Adrian’s men neared the enemy. The African Star spotted them far enough away to fire a cannonball which plunged into the armada’s midst, throwing up a towering wall of water that broke on the backs of the little boats, capsizing a few. No one was lost in the upset. All the rowing buccaneers reached the enemy ship and climbed aboard facing a volley of gun smoke. Sulfur-tinged air stung the combatants’ eyes, making them water. Charcoal clouds rose along nearly a dozen courses. These men would fight to the death, it was clear.


The men of the Good Hope pounced on the crew of the African Star. A whirl of colors splashed onto the deck, where many spat out guttural sounds of surprise. The thirty kidnapped men hesitated, but it was impossible to stay out of the fray. The Good Hope quickly gained staunch allies.


Adrian jumped onto the back of the man nearest to him, knocking over the sailor. They wrestled on the ground, grunting and snorting. The captain dislodged his opponent’s pistol from a sash. The firearm dropped on the deck. Adrian ran to it, picked it up and hurled it overboard. The gun’s owner chased Adrian, and they reunited. Standing and pressed belly to belly, they stared into each other’s determined eyes. Then, they pulled away and rushed for each other again. In each other’s arms, the trader’s prickly cheeks of several days’ growth bristled against Adrian’s neck before he shoved the man off him and plunged his cutlass through his enemy’s throat. The slaver’s last gasp spurted out blood like a tiny gusher, splattering the captain’s white shirt red. A few drops squirted into Adrian’s open mouth. He gagged on the ghastly metallic taste. The victim fell to the ground with a harrumph. Adrian spat out the dead man’s blood and spun around to evaluate the attack. He drew in a breath of satisfaction. His men had taken full advantage of their dominance in numbers, more than two to one in the Good Hope’s favor.


Adrian charged down below with a mind to free the captives. He was not prepared for the stench in the cargo compartment. The odor of urine, feces and vomit anointed with tears of shame and suffering slapped him in the face in waves, buckling his knees. He pulled his handkerchief from his waist and shielded his nose with it. Only then was he able to tap his other senses. He opened his eyes to women whose necks were encircled with iron necklaces secured to a long link of chain. A few cradled babies were shackled close enough to mothers to be breast-fed. Mother and child represented a bonanza to the slaver: a woman who could produce more commodities and an infant who would know nothing but a slave culture and, therefore, accept it as normal. An eerie quiet consumed the lower deck. Even the babies barely sniveled as though all the life had been snuffed out of them.


Adrian cornered hardly a glance from the captives who had dulled their senses. After all, there was nothing to distinguish him from the slavers. The captives had no way of knowing that Adrian led a noble fight which had broken out above them. While Adrian stood paralyzed at the edge of the cavern, someone touched him on his shoulder. He wheeled around.


“It’s me,” Yusef said, with a puckish grin.


“Who’s this,” Adrian asked, gesturing with his head to the man Yusef covered with a sword.


The man’s pale blue eyes iced over at the sight of the captain.


In a mock tone of formality, Yusef said, “May I present John Burrell, captain of this slaver. Master Burrell has deemed it proper to use his keys to free these innocents.”


“Thank God you found the keys,” Adrian said. “This is damnable! How do we sin like this against others?”


Yusef pushed the slaver toward the chained captives. So wizened were their hopes that they did not wince at the dropping of their shackles. They assumed that they would be sent on deck to be further humiliated. Adrian approached one woman who stared at her sandaled, now unchained, feet. Her knees were still bent and her shoulders slumped under purple cloth befitting a monarch. She seemed to be crushed under the weight of her own body. Only through Adrian’s sharp instinct did she bespeak her royal legacy. Her onyx eyes reflected no life. But her elongated face with a wide nose, full lips and thinly arched dark eyebrows dazzled its beholder. Adrian grazed her soft, yet strong, chin. She flinched at his tenderness and then dived into the captain’s eyes as kind as they were green. He meant her no harm, she thought. She let him take her hand and lead her stiff body to the center of hell. All eyes hinged on the two interlopers, Adrian, a beautiful woman by his side, and Yusef, standing next to a beast. The two friends sealed a silent pact with one look. Yusef sank his sword into the back of the gaoler turned prisoner. The man clutched his chest where the cutlass protruded and fell down dead.


A current of joy gushed between Yusef and Adrian. Every other living soul gasped in shock. Then, they leapt to their feet, and a wondrous sound burst onto the ship as one woman ululated and another voice fluttered around hers and another and another until the belly of the ship resounded with high-pitched happiness at the human sacrifice. The women hugged each other as the queenly woman drew her body into a tall, stately stature.


With more cries of elation, the bottom deck tore out to meet the upper deck. Strangers these women and men had been, but close they had grown through their shared torment. Adrian and the royal personage led the others up toward the bright, late morning sun. Their eyes squinted at the sudden explosion of light. A faint rumble of confusion set in before Adrian jumped onto an upraised part of the deck.


“We are the men of the Good Hope,” he said. “We came to free you. Either you can continue to the New World or you can go back to Africa.”


A babble of languages bubbled on shipboard, trying to make sense of what was happening. Yusef sprang to Adrian’s side and translated the captain’s message into Fula. Then, another man shouted out the words from where he stood in Arabic. A woman pealed out the offer in Ashanti. The spark of translations died out only after the link of understanding had been forged among all the former captives, the dealers having been killed. Faces brightened at first comprehension and then clouded over with doubt, mistrust and fear. Adrian seemed honest but, maybe, he meant to fool them as had the slavers.


The New World, to them, signified trickery. But sham or not, the place where dreams could harden into reality promised freedom. Here lay the two-faced nature of America. The cost of individual free choice was often the loss of group identity, chiseling out another form of enslavement. An ethnic heritage has to be known and internalized before its tentacles of prejudice can be unloosed.


All the African Star’s passengers chose to go back home. Several had knowledge of the sea and ships. They became the main crew. After consultation with the sailors of the Good Hope, they plotted out a new route for the liberated ship. Adrian invited the freed crowd to share in a feast with the Good Hope in celebration of the fortuitous turn of events. They refused. Nur al Rashid, the woman whose hand Adrian had held, daughter of a king, addressed the liberators:


“To set foot on our native soil – that will be our celebration. To look into the eyes of our family and reach out to them beside us – that will be our prize. Thank you for not turning away when you spotted this ship of distress. Thank you for heeding our call for help.


“What more can we say or do to show our appreciation? Your act of selflessness and goodness is overwhelming.”


Nur and Adrian wept. Those who had any propensity toward tears, which was everyone, Edward, Robert and Trevor included – shed them now. They parted with a good, long cry.


The owner of the African Star also might have cried if that were his way of expressing grief. Harold MacKenzie, a hard-nosed, successful businessman, waited for his ship with its perfect parts and its lucrative cargo to pull into Port Royal harbor during the appointed week. He waited in vain. Dour-faced MacKenzie asked about the weather conditions on the Atlantic.


“Clear skies. Smooth sailing,” he was told by sailors. MacKenzie reasoned that fault lay not with the vessel, which was in tip-top shape and seasoned with several crossings, nor with the experienced crew, who were veterans of the sea and slave commerce. When a slaver, which had left West Africa two days after the African Star arrived in Jamaica, the shipper, whose feet were planted firmly on the ground, wondered whether the sailors’ superstitions he had debunked held some truth. Perhaps the African Star had been sucked down into a mysterious whirlpool or attacked by a sinister sea monster. These were possibilities that crept up on MacKenzie late at night when he lay alone in bed, trying to puzzle out the disappearance of his ship. He confided them to no one. What did it matter? One of his ships had vanished from the face of the earth.


The sailors gossiped about the African Star, convinced that no earthly tragedy had befallen it. When no clues turned up, they lost interest and stopped speculating. The ship appeared to be forgotten. Then, a second slaver disappeared, and the first resurrected itself in the memory of the seafaring community. When a third followed suit, it was clear that there was a pattern. Still, no one could make sense of it.


Two months after the African Star incident, the Good Hope attempted to liberate two slavers, one tailing the other. The second ship escaped to its Jamaican destination and reported the attack by the Good Hope, which was recognized by a few of the crew.


“What was the motive?” wondered the all-embracing slaving circle. Morality was not a consideration. Drunk with greed, buccaneers sought only riches, or so went the conventional thinking. The cycle of acquisition and loss, the whirling dervish which drugged believers into a stupor, sanctioned the despicable.


However, some who did not endorse slavery, those who did not buy the argument that it was an effective way to reduce the number of beggars, tramps and thieves, thought differently. The weekly London Courier was among them and reported the story as such:


Hundreds more freed on Caribbean Sea

The Good Hope raids another slaver


The one-sheet newspaper, which was printed on one side, alleged correctly that the Good Hope was responsible for all the acts of liberation. It lauded the buccaneers for their courage and high-mindedness. The tiny moneyed class despised the Good Hope’s deeds; the majority praised the ship’s work. Even the rich, who scorned the crimes publicly, applauded them secretly. Twinges of doubt gnawed at the dullest of them during lulls in rare conversations about bondage. How could they, in their every waking moment, support a system that denied people the legal right to marry, own property, or testify in court? No, they could not.


By the start of the hurricane season in September four months in, Adrian and his men were heroes of the New World. How long could it last?








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