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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe African Trader - Chapter 2
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The African Trader - Chapter 2 Post by :Tom_Sheltraw Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :2799

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The African Trader - Chapter 2

CHAPTER TWO

THE "CHIEFTAIN" ARRIVES OFF THE COAST OF AFRICA, AND WE CARRY ON A BRISK TRADE WITH THE NATIVES, WHO COME OFF TO US THROUGH THE SURF.--AT LENGTH CAPTAIN WILLIS PROPOSES TO RUN UP THE RIVER BONNY TO COMPLETE OUR CARGO. NOT FORGETFUL OF MY PROMISE TO MAMMY, I MAKE INQUIRIES FOR HER SON CHEEBO.

It was my morning watch. I was indulging in the pleasure particularly enjoyable after sweltering in the close hot atmosphere of the cabin, of paddling about with bare feet on the wet deck, over which I and some of the men were heaving buckets of water, while others were lustily using holy-stones and scrubbing brushes, under the superintendence of Mr Wesbey, the first mate. The black cook was lighting his fire in the caboose, from whence a wreath of smoke ascended almost perpendicularly in the clear atmosphere. The sea was smooth as glass, but every now and then a slowly heaving swell lifted the vessel, and caused her sails, which hung down against the masts, to give a loud flap, while here and there the surface was broken by the fin or snout of some monster of the deep swimming round us. Our monkey, Quako, who had been turned out of his usual resting-place, was exhibiting more than his ordinary agility-- springing about the rigging, and chattering loudly, now making his way aloft, whence he looked eastwards, and now returning to the caboose, as if to communicate his ideas to his sable friend.

"What makes Quako so frisky this morning?" I asked of Dick Radforth, the boatswain, a sturdy broad shouldered man of iron frame, who, with trousers tucked up, and bare arms brawny as those of Hercules, was standing, bucket in hand, near me, deluging the deck with water.

"He smells his native land, Harry," he answered, "and thinks he is going to pay a visit to his kith and kindred. We shall have to keep him moored pretty fast, or he will be off into the woods to find them. I have a notion you will get a sight of it before long, when the sea breeze sets in and sends the old barky through the water."

"What! the coast of Africa!" I exclaimed, and thoughts of that wonderful region, with its unexplored rivers, its gloomy forests, and its black skinned inhabitants, with their barbarous customs and superstitious rites, rose in my mind.

"Aye, sure and it will be a pleasant day when we take our departure from the land, and see the last of it," observed Dick. "If those niggers would trade like other people we might make quick work of it, and be away home again in a few weeks, but we may thank our stars if we get a full cargo by this time next year, without leaving some of our number behind."

"What? I should not fancy that any of our fellows were likely to desert," I observed.

"No; but they are likely to get pressed by a chap who won't let go his gripe of them again," answered Dick.

"Who is that?" I asked.

"Yellow-fingered Jack we call him sometimes, the coast fever," said Dick. "If they would but take better care of themselves and not drink those poisonous spirits and sleep on shore at night, they might keep out of his clutches. I give this as a hint to you, Harry. I have been there a score of times, and am pretty well seasoned, but I have felt his gripe, though I do not fear him now." I thanked the boatswain for his advice. It was given, I suspected, for others' benefit as well as mine.

As the bright hot red sun rose in the sky, casting his beams down on our heads, and making the pitch bubble up from the seams in the deck--as it had done not unfrequently during the voyage--a few cats' paws were seen playing over the mirror-like deep. The sails bulged out occasionally, again to hang down as before; then once more they swelled out with the gentle breeze, and the brigantine glided through the water, gradually increasing her speed. I was eagerly looking out for the coast; at length it came in sight--its distant outline rendered indistinct by the misty pall which hung over it. As we drew nearer, its forest covered heights had a particularly gloomy and sombre appearance, which made me think of the cruelties I had heard were practised on those shores, of the barbarous slave trade, of the fearful idolatries of its dark-skinned children, of its wild beasts, and of its deadly fevers. There was nothing exhilarating, nothing to give promise of pleasure or amusement. As our gallant brigantine glided gaily on, sending the sparkling foam from her bows through the tiny wavelets of the ocean, which glittered in the radiance of a blue and cloudless sky, and her sails filled with the fresh sea breeze, these feelings rapidly wore off. Now, on either side, appeared a fleet of fishing canoes, the wild songs of their naked crews coming across the water, as with rugged sails of matting lolling at their ease, they steered towards the shore. We overtook some of them, and such a loud jabber as they set up, talking to each other, or hailing us, I had never heard.

Being near enough to the dangerous coast, we hove-to, and watched them as they fearlessly made their way to shore on the summits of a succession of rollers which burst in fearful breakers on the beach. With our glasses we could see hundreds of dingy figures like black ants, hurrying down to meet them, and to assist in hauling up their canoes. As I cast my eye along the coast I could see many a bay and headland bordered with a rim of glittering white sand, fringed by an unbroken line of sparkling surf. Now we could make out the mud walls and thatched roofs of the native villages, scattered here and there along the shore, mostly nestling amid groves of graceful cocoa-nut trees, while further inland appeared, at distant intervals, that giant monarch of the tropical forest, the silk cotton tree, stretching its mighty limbs upwards towards the sky, and far and wide around. Such was my first view of the African coast.

"Well, what do you think of it?" asked Captain Willis.

"It looks better than I expected," I said. "But I don't see how we are ever to reach it, much less carry on any trade with the people. How can we possibly send any goods on shore?"

"You will see presently," he answered. "We have hoisted our trading signal, and before long we shall have plenty of dealers along side unless some other vessel has been before us; if so, we may have to wait some days till the black merchants can bring more goods down from the interior. The people about here are imbued with the very spirit of commerce. They understand too how to make a sharp bargain. We have to be wide awake, or, naked savages as they are, they will contrive to outwit us."

Our various assortments of cotton and other goods had been got up from the hold ready for the expected trade. The captain had also taken out from his strong box a supply of sovereigns and Spanish dollars, should coin be demanded, though he relied chiefly on the more advantageous proceeding of barter.

After standing off and on the coast for some hours, we perceived several large canoes about to be launched. On either side of each canoe stood a dozen or fifteen men, holding to the gunwale with one hand, and carrying a paddle in the other. At a signal from their head man the canoe was hurried into the foaming surf; but, instead of getting in, they swam by her side, guiding her course, until the first heavy swell was past, then they threw themselves simultaneously into her, and began to paddle with might and main till they got beyond the outer swell, and on they came, shouting with satisfaction at the success of their enterprise. Two got off without accident; but three others, when in the very midst of the breakers, were swamped, and I thought that their crews, and, at all events, their cargoes, would be lost. But no such thing. As I watched them through the glass I saw that they were all holding on to the gunwale, shoving her from side to side, until the water was thrown out, when in they got again, and began to gather up numerous articles floating around them. This accomplished, off they came as if nothing had happened. As they got alongside I discovered the reason why their effects did not sink--some were casks of palm oil, which naturally floated, while the elephants' tusks and other pieces of ivory, were fastened to large floats of cork-wood, and several of the men had small light wooden boxes, which contained gold-dust, secured to their waists. Though these were of a weight sufficient greatly to incumber, if not to sink, an ordinary swimmer, so expert were, they in the water that they appeared in no way to be inconvenienced. Several of them recognised Captain Willis, who had frequently before been off the coast, and having been fairly dealt with by him, and aware that he knew the price they would be ready to take, gave him very little trouble. Some, however, tried to outwit him, but he was very firm with them, and let them understand that he was indifferent to trading except on equitable terms. Altogether he was well satisfied with the result of his first day's business.

We stood off the coast before the sea breeze died away, and returned again on the following morning. This sort of work we continued for several days. It was, however, a very tedious mode of proceeding. At length we found that the amount of produce, brought off from day to day, rapidly diminishing, while the natives began to demand higher prices than at first. We accordingly stood down the coast towards another native town, with the inhabitants of which we began to trade in the same way as before.

From the time we first came into these latitudes we kept a bright look-out night and day. I asked old Radforth what was the use of doing this when we were engaged in a lawful commerce, which must of necessity prove an advantage to the negroes. "Why, you see, Harry, there are other gentry visit this coast with a very different object in view," he answered. "For the Spaniards and Portuguese, especially, come here to carry off the unfortunate inhabitants as slaves, and sometimes the villainous crews of their craft, if in want of provisions and water, will help themselves, without ceremony, from any merchantman they may fall in with. And should she have a rich cargo on board, they have been known, I have heard say, to make her people walk the plank, and sink or burn her, so that no one may know anything about the matter. Now our skipper has no fancy to be caught in that fashion, and if we were to sight a suspicious looking sail, as the 'Chieftain' has got a fast pair of heels of her own, we should do our best to keep out of her way. You see when once fellows take to slaving they go from bad to worse. I have known something of the trade in my time, and it made my heart turn sick to see the way in which they crowd hundreds of their fellow-creatures down on the slave decks of their vessels, packed as close together as herrings in a cask, for their run across the Atlantic to the Brazils or Cuba. It may be, before we leave this coast, you will have the opportunity of seeing for yourself, so I need not tell you more about it now."

After this I was as vigilant as anyone on board in looking out for suspicious craft,--for I had no fancy to be caught by a piratical slaver, and be made to walk the plank, and have our gallant little "Chieftain" sent to the bottom.

We continued cruising along the coast for some weeks, slowly exchanging our cargo for African products.

At length Captain Willis got tired of this style of doing business. "I am going to run up the river Bonny, Harry, where we are certain in time to get a full cargo of palm oil, though I would rather have filled up without going into harbour at all, for the climate, I own, is not the healthiest possible, and we may chance to have a touch of sickness on board."

He spoke, however, in so unconcerned a way that I had no serious apprehensions on that score.

I had not forgotten my promise to Mammy, and had asked all the blacks I could manage to speak to if they could tell me anything of Cheebo. I need scarcely say that my question was received with a broad grin by most of them. "Plenty Cheebos," was the general reply. "Dat black fellow Cheebo; and dat, and dat, and dat Quamino," was added, when I said that such was the name of the father of the Cheebo of whom I was in search, but none of them answered the description of poor Mammy's son. At length I felt very much inclined to give up my inquiries as hopeless.

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