June 16th, 1806 was our date with destiny.
After nearly six turbulent weeks at sea, we should have been grateful at the sight of terra firma. We had just survived a raging storm and, a few days earlier, bouts of the flux among crew members. This had generated much concern over the sanitary conditions on board our ship and the state of our water reserves. As a precautionary measure, we had burnt brimstone on deck regularly to fumigate the ship. With no alternative to water, we drank sparingly–hoping and praying for an end to our ordeal, wishing we were back in England drinking scotch by some fireplace and flirting with the ladies. Indeed we had every reason to celebrate–every reason to break into song–at the sight of dry land.
However, such sentiments faded as we approached.
Our destination was the Slave Coast of West Africa–specifically, a region far from the Badagry slave port and Posuko market–a place where we could conduct our business in peace without being accused of violating Dolben’s Laws on slave trade. This was necessary as our financier’s debts had become so overwhelming that a daring expedition such as this seemed his only chance of escaping bankruptcy. With finances just sufficient for one more trip to Africa, he had little patience for myopic laws restricting slave numbers on board vessels. He was willing to gamble with the lesser stakes of high slave mortality from overcrowding. On the other hand, as a man of standing and a Member of Parliament, connections to such civil violations had far–reaching implications. Risks needed to be well–calculated and measured. Hence rather than setting sail from Liverpool, we chose a less bustling port with a reputation for flimsy record–keeping. Six weeks later, we had sailed into the Gulf of Guinea and found the ideal place–though none was thrilled with its discovery.
The dense forest before us had a certain air of foreboding. I could not put my finger on it but there was something about the thick, impenetrable undergrowth and bulwark of weathered rocks along the shore that spoke harshly to me–admonishing us for our nerve. The forest’s upper canopy was interspersed with tall palm trees whose fronds spread out protectively over the lower storey. A thin mist hovered beneath the palms discreetly separating the green vegetation below from the dull twilight sky. Besides the evening tide whose waves crashed relentlessly against the rocky beach and sent fine white sprays into the air, there was dead silence. No birds, no crickets, no monkeys–just unnerving, uncomfortable silence. Had I known what lay ahead of me in the jungles of Africa, I would never have contemplated coming in the first place.
My name is Cromwell–Dr. Reginald Cromwell–a forty–year–old physician with a small family and an even smaller practice in London. When Dolben’s Law was passed in 1788 enforcing the presence of surgeons on board slave ships, the fortunes of medical practitioners took a turn for the better. Mine had remained stagnant until a close friend recommended me to our financier. In addition to a considerable annual remuneration of two hundred pounds, I expected a bonus of four hundred and fifty pounds if slave mortality across the Middle Passage was kept below two percent–a hundred pounds more than the usual stipend had I worked for the Admiralty. With support from Mr. Gareth and Mr. Smith, the assistant surgeons, and three loblolly boys, I found the offer far too attractive to decline. So I kissed my wife and two lovely children goodbye, mouthed a prayer, and boarded the Mater Lucia with a crew ninety–strong and set off for Africa.
Arrangements for our voyage had been hurriedly concluded as cries for abolition grew louder in government. Wilberforce and the Quakers were now getting more than a listening ear. After many unsuccessful attempts, Wilberforce’s bill for the abolition of slave trade had been passed by the House of Commons to our financier’s chagrin. Fortunately, it came too late in the parliamentary session to complete its passage and was defeated in the House of Lords the following year. Nevertheless, our financier had little faith in Thomas Clarkson and the Prime Minister to stop this onslaught on one of Britain’s largest industries.
The political climate was too fickle. The abolitionists’ resilience had shocked the entire civilized world in 1792 when some Negro slaves in Britain, Nova Scotia and Jamaica were granted freedom and settled in a free colony somewhere in West Africa. Two years later, France abolished slave trade following the St. Domingue slave revolt but it was restored by Napoleon eight years afterwards. A year later, Denmark undid herself and proscribed slave trade. Meanwhile in England, the Quakers were gaining ground in the corridors of power and causing much controversy. Indeed, the weather was fickle. As politicians vied for re–election and sycophants for political relevance, support for ludicrously radical philosophies was common. We therefore needed to be expedient in the discharge of our duties and make hay while the sun shines.
Then the captain grunted and spat in disgust. He stood there, undaunted by his dismal surroundings.
Captain Enoch Abraham was a burly fellow–a hulk of a man, standing six foot–five inches tall and built like an ox. Seeing how he grappled with the sails during that terrible storm, it was hard to believe that this gentleman was in his mid–fifties. I later learnt from the crew that his strength and tenacity was legendary in the Royal Navy. Captain Abraham was a war veteran–his last battle being at Trafalgar a year ago when he was recalled by Lord Nelson to fight against the French. I was also intimated that this was not his first trip to Africa. He had been to the Gold Coast on three occasions and to Badagry once. Olu, his Negro slave and interpreter, was living proof.
Captain Abraham shifted his bulk to his left leg while his bristly hands clenched the ship’s railing. He wore a dark brown beard and a curved moustache. His grey eyes were calm as he surveyed the beach and surrounding rainforest with his thin lips chewing on an unlit pipe. I could not but feel a trifle secure in his presence. He was as cool as a cucumber. Surely, he would know what to do in the direst of moments?
I did not speak to him so as not to disturb his chain of thought. I just stood there watching the tide’s mesmeric ebb and flow–being the only sign of life in this gruesome coastland. Behind us, guineamen awaited their captain’s orders patiently.
A smartly dressed gentleman with a sneer on his face approached the Captain, his blond hair glistening in the setting tropical sun.
“Sir!” He saluted smartly. “The men would like to know our next line of action.”
The Captain lowered his pipe and gazed thoughtfully across the waves. Slowly, he lifted himself off the rail and faced his addresser.
“Get a boat ready. I’m taking four of your men, the midshipman, and the Negro ashore. I trust you know what to do if we are ambushed?”
My heart beat faster. The possibility of an ambush had never crossed my mind. Who knows what these savages were capable of?
I watched as the sailors prepared the deck for battle rolling cannons and barrels of gunpowder into position. The deck was strewn with sand to prevent men from slipping if much blood was spilled. Others were set, with Birmingham rifles in hand, staring grimly across the waters, watching out for any slight movement. Expecting hospitality from the natives was a costly presumption–one nobody was willing to make.
I heard splashing oars working against the ocean current and eventually, the Captain’s boat came into view. In it were six men and a Negro. We watched them closely as they drew away from the ship.
A man coughed behind me and I whirled round instinctively.
It was the smartly dressed soldier with an annoying sneer on his face–his name was Nigel Hookes, a discharged sergeant of the Royal Infantry. Although we had never been formally introduced, I had heard of him through the grapevine. He was an enigma of sorts to his peers with a reputed history of sadism. It was said that his dismissal was due to a blatant disregard of a direct order by a superior officer to cease fire. He had been so consumed with hatred that he only stopped when he ran out of ammunition. How authentic this tale was I know not but, as I stared at this soldier’s dislikeable visage, it seemed more and more probable. Indeed, I was glad this dark gentleman was on my side.
“You fancy us being attacked, Sergeant?” I asked, anxious to make conversation.
“Oh, I certainly hope not, Doctor.”
But a quick glance at those derisive hazel eyes of his suggested to me the contrary.
By now, the scout boat had reached the shore. My heart pounded louder as I watched the first man step cautiously onto African soil with gun in hand. Nothing happened. Warily, the second alighted. No noise. Nothing stirred. Then the third followed suit a little more confidently. Still, there was no sound save for the splashing waves and my throbbing heart.
Captain Abraham rose slowly but resolutely from the boat and surveyed his new surroundings. He showed no signs of fear neither did he express any undue caution. As he lifted his bulky mass off the boat, it bobbed away from shore, almost keeling over.
The Negro was then instructed to disembark. He complied timidly and waded to shore.
No sooner had he done so than we heard cries from the undergrowth. Cries that must have implied ‘Judas!’ in the guttural tongue they were uttered. A horde of African warriors poured into the beach, screaming and aiming their spears at the scout team. Guns went off and Negroes fell. Many stumbled back in fright as they saw their comrades crumble to the ground without making contact with the enemy. Theirs was a mixed feeling of terror and indignation. What was this magic the white man possessed that could level their entire army? The multitude scattered in various directions though some foolhardy individuals still lunged at the scout team–a number strong enough to crush them despite their primitive weapons.
During this skirmish, I caught a glimpse of Hookes. He was barking orders at his men, instructing them to fire with caution. Under no circumstances were shots to be fired in the scout team’s direction, he told them. He barked with a sense of urgency but despite the grim expression on his face, I observed a faint trace of his contemptuous grin. This made an impression on me–one of doubt and unease. I was now convinced that Hookes’ inclusion in this mission was a grave mistake as his soundness of mind was in question. Being in a position of authority, this only complicates the situation.
Suddenly, the cannons jerked and fired, filling the deck with black smoke. On shore, there were loud explosions. Negroes sailed through the air in limp forms–some with parts of their body blown off. It was an appalling sight! One that I shudder to recount! Many tried to retreat into the shadows but were cut off by the flaming balls and mauled in the process.
In response, a stream of arrows sailed through the grey skies, cascading into our ship and surrounding waters with such velocity that the crew had little time to take cover. One sailor caught an arrow in the neck–another in the chest. Cries went out and guns were fired.
Hookes must have observed my horror for he approached me briskly through the cloud of smoke. “This is no place for anyone but a soldier, Dr. Cromwell. Perhaps you should retire to the cockpit at this point?”
I was grateful for this suggestion and took my cue gladly.
The cockpit was a small cabin below deck where surgeons could attend to the sick and wounded without fear of attack. It was now my haven of solace. I closed the hatch and lay down on the bed, allowing my mind to drift to more pleasant affairs–more humane environments. I tried hard to focus but nothing came. My head was filled with gunshots, defiant cries, and falling soldiers. There was no room for fresh thought.
Suddenly, I heard a heart–rending, discordant gurgle from behind me and sprang up in a flash. Summing up courage, I turned round slowly and, against my intuition, peered through the porthole from where the sound had come.
It was a most revolting sight! A bloody black hand dangled freely in front the window smearing the glass with bright red prints. Cautiously, I traced the hand upwards to discover a wounded African warrior suspended by his feet from the rail above. Blood trickled down his head and flailing arms from a deep gash in his chest–right of his sternum. He was bleeding profusely and his left arm was twisted in an awkward position. Ghastly white eyes shot out from his blood red face and rolled around in agony and desperation. The eyes roamed for awhile until they settled on me then, all of a sudden, they came alive with blazing fury. He clawed frantically at the ship’s side, trying to reach the porthole.
I stepped back warily, inching towards the bedside drawer where a pistol was always kept. Swiftly, I drew it open and fumbled for cold steel. I felt paper, cloth, a Bible…then something smooth and cold. I pulled it closer. However, there appeared little need for the firearm as the African warrior, in a desperate attempt to reach me, had lost pints of blood and, ultimately, consciousness. Slowly, he rolled his eyes back for the last time and released a disturbing death–rattle before plunging into Davy Jones’s locker.
I collapsed on the bed in relief, gradually realizing that my heart was pounding terribly and that my throat was bone dry. I watched the floorboards overhead as they creaked under people’s weight with the occasional thud suggesting a fall. Urgent commands were being made at every corner and there were gunshots all around me. The characteristic smell of gunpowder filled the air.
The battle was still raging. My heart was still pounding.
I lay there for awhile staring blindly at the ceiling. The freckled faces of my son and daughter smiled back at me, luring me home.
I winced. What had I gotten myself into? What in the world had I been thinking?
The defiant cries were slowly fading into the night and the cannons were silent once more. I could now hear waves crashing against the side of our ship and sending sprays into the sky. Normalcy had returned. But was this a good or bad omen?
A bugle sounded from above my cabin and was met with cheers from the crew. I heaved a sigh of relief.
The battle was over. We had cleared the first hurdle.