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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe African Trader - Chapter 3
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The African Trader - Chapter 3 Post by :Tom_Sheltraw Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :1067

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The African Trader - Chapter 3

CHAPTER THREE

WE ENTER A RIVER.--ITS SCENERY DESCRIBED.--RECEIVE A VISIT FROM THE KING, AND TRADE WITH THE NATIVES.--THE PRODUCTS OF AFRICA, FOR WHICH WE TRADE, MENTIONED, AND THE CURIOUS MODE IN WHICH TRADE IS CONDUCTED.-- FEVER BREAKS OUT ON BOARD, AND SEVERAL OF THE CREW DIE.--SAD END OF POOR BOB.--THE BOATSWAIN AND MATES ATTACKED WITH FEVER.--MORE DEATHS.--THE CAPTAIN'S UNWILLINGNESS, NOTWITHSTANDING THIS, TO LEAVE THE RIVER TILL HIS CARGO IS COMPLETED.

Standing in towards the coast with the sea breeze we saw before us an opening between two low mangrove covered points, which formed the mouth of the river we were about to ascend. The scarcely ever ceasing rollers, coming across the wide Atlantic, broke on the bar which ran across its entrance with somewhat less violence than on the coast itself. Still there was an ugly looking line of white foam which had to be crossed before we could gain the smooth water within. We hove-to, making the signal for a pilot. A canoe in a short time came off, having on board a burly negro, dressed in a broad brimmed hat, nankeen trousers, and white jacket, with a sash round his waist. He produced several documents to show that he was capable of taking a vessel over the bar.

"Wait bit captain," he said, "high water soon, and den ship go in smooth--batten down hatches though, case sea break aboard."

Captain Willis followed this advice; it was well that he did so. "Up helm now captain--bar berry good--plenty breeze." We stood on with all canvas set; the hands at their stations ready to shorten sail when necessary. Soon we found ourselves mounting to the top of a high roller, then on we glided, till in another instant down we came amid the hissing roaring breakers, their foam-topped summits dancing up on either side, and deluging our decks. I saw our black pilot holding on pretty tightly by the main shrouds--I followed his example, for I expected every moment to feel the vessel's keel touching the bar, when I knew that if she were to hang there even for the shortest possible time, the following sea might break over her stem, and make a clean sweep of her deck. On she sped though, lifted by another huge roller; downwards we then glided amid the eddying creamy waters on to the calm surface of the river, up which the next minute we were gliding rapidly.

The appearance of the banks on either side was not attractive. As far as the eye could reach was one dense jungle of mangrove bushes, and though we ran on for several miles it in no way improved. The wind died away as we advanced, and the atmosphere became hot and oppressive. I had expected to see pleasant openings, with neat cottages, plantations of maize, rice, and other grain, pepper, palms and palmetos; but instead, a uniform line of the sombre tinted mangrove alone presented itself, the trees just too high to prevent our having a view over them of any more attractive scenery which might have existed beyond.

I asked our black pilot when we should come to the town. "By by den you see," he answered with a look which denoted that we should in time witness something worth beholding.

The water was as smooth as glass. Here and there coveys of birds might be seen skimming along the surface, while overhead a flight of scarlet winged flamingos swept in wide circles, their plumage flashing in the sun as they prepared to descend on one of the many sandbanks in the stream, to carry on their fishing operations. As we advanced, now and then a canoe would shoot out from among the jungle; the black skinned paddlers coming quickly alongside, to ascertain our character and the objects for which we wished to trade. Sometimes too we could see troops of monkeys making their way among the branches, their small grinning faces peering out at us as we glided by through some channel near the shore. Hour after hour thus passed by, but at length, towards evening, the belt of mangrove bushes diminished in thickness, and other trees of more attractive appearance began to take their place, and openings appeared with a few huts scattered about on the slopes of gently rising ground.

As evening was closing in we caught sight, in the far distance, of a congregation of huts, and the pilot gave the captain the welcome information, that he might shorten sail, and prepare to come to an anchor. By the time we had made everything snug darkness closed down upon us. We could just see a few lights twinkling ahead, while on either side, across the stream, appeared the dark outline of the tall trees which clothed the river's banks. Silence reigned around us, with the exception of the ripple of the water against the vessel's bows; but from afar off came a confused mixture of sounds, which appeared like the croaking of frogs, the chirruping of crickets, and other creeping and flying things, the screeching and chattering of monkeys, mingled with the voices of human beings making merry round their huts. The air was damp and heavy and hot; at the same time I felt that I should like to be seated by a roaring drying fire.

We kept a watch on deck as if we were at sea, with arms ready for use, for though our pilot had assured us "that all good people here," Captain Willis was too well acquainted, both with the character of the natives, and the sort of gentry who might possibly be in the river waiting for a cargo of slaves, to put himself in their power.

I tumbled and tossed about during the night in my berth, unable to sleep, both on account of the heat, and, strange to say, of the perfect quiet which prevailed. Next morning a large canoe was seen coming off from the shore, in which was seated a white headed old negro in a glazed cocked hat, a red hunting coat on his shoulders, a flannel petticoat round his waist, and a pair of worsted slippers on his feet. The pilot, who had remained on board, notified to the captain, with great formality, that he was King Dingo, coming to receive his dash or payment for allowing us to trade with his people. His majesty was received with due ceremony, and conducted into the cabin, when, as soon as he was seated, notwithstanding the early hour of the day, he signified that it was his royal pleasure to be presented with a bottle of rum. Having taken two or three glasses, which seemed to have no other effect on him than sharpening his wits, he handed it to one of his attendants, and then applied himself to the breakfast, which had just been placed on the table, and I dare not say how many cups of coffee, sweetened to the brim with sugar, he swallowed in rapid succession. Having received half a dozen muskets, as many kegs of powder, brass pans, wash basins, plates, gunflints, and various cotton articles, as his accustomed dash, and requested a dozen bottles of rum in addition, he took his departure, promising to come again and do a little trade on his own account.

The subjects of the sable potentate were now allowed to come on board, and several canoes were seen approaching us from different parts of the shore. One brought a tusk of ivory, others jars of palm oil, several had baskets of India-rubber, or gum-elastic, as it is called. Besides these articles, they had ebony, bees'-wax, tortoise-shell, gold-dust, copper-ore, ground nuts, and others to dispose of.

We soon found that the business of trading with these black merchants was not carried on at the rate we should have desired.

The trader, having hoisted his goods out of his canoe, would place them on deck, and seat himself before them, looking as unconcerned as if he had not the slightest wish to part with them. Some would wait till the captain came forward and made an offer; others would ask a price ten times the known value of the article, extolling its excellence, hinting that very little more was likely to be brought down the river for a long time to come, and that several other traders were soon expected. The captain would then walk away, advising the owner to keep it till he could obtain the price he asked. The trader would sit still till the captain again came near him, then ask a somewhat lower price. On this being refused he would perhaps make a movement as if about to return to his canoe, without having the slightest intention of so doing; and so the game would go on till the captain would offer the former price for the article, when, perhaps, the trader would sit on, time being of no consequence to him, in the hopes that he might still receive a larger amount of goods. On other occasions the captain had to commence bargaining, when he invariably offered considerably below the true mark, when the trader as invariably asked something greatly above it. The captain would then walk aft, and, perhaps, come back and talk about the other ports he intended to visit, where the natives were more reasonable in their demands. Captain Willis was too cool a hand to show any impatience, and he thus generally made very fair bargains, always being ready to give a just value for the articles he wished to purchase. As each jar of oil, each tooth or box of gold-dust, or basket of India-rubber, could alone be procured by this process, some idea may be formed of the time occupied every day in trading.

Palm oil was, however, the chief article we were in search of; but two weeks passed by, and still a considerable number of our casks remained unfilled. Fever too had broken out on board. Three of our men were down with it, and day after day others were added to the number. The two first seized died, and we took them on shore to be buried. This had a depressing effect on the rest.

When we returned on board we found that a third was nearly at his last gasp. Poor fellow, the look of despair and horror on his countenance I can never forget. "Harry," he exclaimed, seizing my hand as I went to him with a cup of cooling drink, "I am not fit to die, can no one do any thing for me? I dare not die, can't some of those black fellows on shore try to bring me through--they ought to know how to man handle this fever."

"I am afraid that they are but bad doctors, Bob," I answered, "however, take this cooling stuff it may perhaps do you good."

"A river of it won't cool the burning within me," he gasped out. "Oh Harry, and if I die now, that burning will last for ever and ever. I would give all my wages, and ten times as much, for a few days of life. Harry, I once was taught to say my prayers, but I have not said them for long years, and curses, oaths, and foul language have come out of my lips instead. I want to have time to pray, and to recollect what I was taught as a boy." I tried to cheer him up, as I called it, but alas, I too had forgotten to say my prayers, and had been living without God in the world, and though I did not curse and swear, my heart was capable of doing that and many other things that were bad, and so I could offer the poor fellow no real consolation. I persuaded him to drink the contents of the cup; but I saw as I put it to his lips that he could with difficulty get the liquid down his throat.

"You have had a hard life of it, Bob, and perhaps God will take that into consideration," I said, making use of one of the false notions Satan suggests to the mind of seamen as well as to others. Bob knew it to be false.

"That won't undo all the bad things I have been guilty of; it won't unsay all the blasphemies and obscene words which have flowed from my lips," he gasped out.

"Then try to pray as you used to do," I said, "I will try and pray with you, but I am a bad hand at that I am afraid."

"Oh, I can't pray now, it's too late! too late!" he exclaimed in a low despairing voice, as he sank back on his pillow, turning his fast glazing eye away from me. He had been delirious for some time before then, but his senses had lately been restored. He seemed instinctively to feel that I could offer him none of the consolation he needed.

While I was still standing by the side of his bunk, one of the mates came forward to see how the sick were getting on. He spoke a few words to try and comfort the dying man. They had no more effect than mine, he only groaned out, "It's too late! too late! too late!" His voice rapidly grew weaker--there was a slight convulsive struggle; the mate lifted his hand, it fell down by his side.

"Poor Bob has gone," he said, "there will be more following before long, I fear. If I was the captain I would get out of this river without waiting for a full cargo, or we shall not have hands enough left to take the vessel home."

This scene made a deep impression on me; too late! too late! continued sounding in my ears. What if I were to be brought to utter the same expression? Where was poor Bob now? I tried not to think of the matter, but still those fearful words "too late" would come back to me; then I tried to persuade myself that I was young and strong, and as I had led a very different sort of life to most of the men, I was more likely than any one to escape the gripe of the fever.

We had another trip on shore to bury poor Bob. The captain seemed sorry for him. "He was a man of better education than his messmates, though, to be sure, he had been a wild chap," he observed to me. Bob's conscience had been awakened; that of the others remained hardened or fast asleep, and they died as they had lived, foul, unwashed, unfit to enter a pure and holy heaven.

I am drawing a sad and painful picture, but it is a true one. I did not then understand how full of horror it was, though I thought it very sad to lose so many of our crew.

We continued to carry on trade as before, and the captain sent messengers urging the natives to hasten in bringing palm oil on board, but they showed no inclination to hurry themselves; and as to quitting the river till he had a full cargo on board, he had no intention of doing that.

Hitherto the officers had escaped; but one morning the second mate reported that the first mate was unable to leave his berth, though he believed that it was nothing particular; but Dick Radforth, who was considered to be the strongest man on board, when he had tried to get up that morning, had been unable to rise. The captain sent me forward to see him.

Some hours must have passed since he was attacked. He was fearfully changed, but still conscious.

"Black Jack has got hold of me at last, Harry, but I'll grapple with him pretty tightly before I let him get the victory, do you see," he observed, when I told him that the captain had sent me to see him. "I'm obliged to him, but if he wishes to give me a longer spell of life, and to save the others on board, he will put to sea without loss of time, while the land breeze lasts. A few mouthfuls of sea air would set me up in a trice. If we don't get that there will be more of us down with fever before night."

The boatswain had scarcely said this when he began to rave and tumble and toss about in his berth, and I had to call two of the men to assist me in keeping him quiet. When I got back to the cabin, I told the captain what Radforth had said. "Oh, that's only the poor fellow's raving. It will never do to leave the river without our cargo, for if we do some other trader will sure to be in directly afterwards and take advantage of what has been collected for us. However, I have had notice that lots of oil will be brought on board in a few days, and when we get that, we will put to sea even though we are not quite full."

The captain shortly afterwards paid Radforth a visit; but the boatswain was raving at the time, and never again spoke while in his senses. The following day we carried him to his grave on shore. The death of one who was looked upon as the most seasoned and strongest man, had, as may be supposed, a most depressing effect among the crew. It was soon also evident that the first mate was ill with the fever, and indeed more than half our number were now down with it.

Still the captain could not bring himself to quit the river. "In a few days very possibly we shall have a full cargo Harry," he said to me. "In the meantime, I daresay, the rest will hold out. Radforth overworked himself, or he would not have caught the fever. Take care Harry you don't expose yourself to the sun, and you will keep all to rights my boy,--I am very careful about that--though I am so well seasoned that nothing is likely to hurt me."

"I wish we were out of the river, Captain Willis," I could not help replying. "The mates and the men are always talking about it, and they say the season is unusually sickly or this would not have happened."

"They must mind their own business, and stay by the ship, wherever I choose to take her," he exclaimed, in an angry tone, and I saw that I should have acted more wisely in not making the observation I had just let fall. Still, to do him justice, Captain Willis was as kind and attentive as he possibly could be to the sick men; he constantly visited the first mate, and treated him as if he had been a brother.

All this time not a word about religion was spoken on board; I had, it is true, a Bible in my chest, put there by my sisters, but I had forgotten all about it, and there was not another in the ship.

Except in the instance I have mentioned, and in one or two others, not even the sick men seemed concerned about their souls. The only consolation which those in health could offer to them, was the hope that they might recover. "Cheer up Dick," or, "cheer up Tom, you'll struggle through it, never say die--you will be right again before long old boy," and such like expressions were uttered over and over again, often to those at their last gasp, and so the poor fellows went out of the world believing that they were going to recover and enjoy once more the base pursuits and unholy pleasures in which their souls' delighted. Alas, I have often though what a fearful waking up there must have been of those I had thus seen taking their departure from this world, yet the rest of us remained as hardened, and in most cases as fearless, of consequences as before.

The death of the first mate, which very soon occurred, made the second mate, I perceived, somewhat more anxious than before about himself. The first mate had been a strong healthy man, and had often before been out on the coast, while the second mate was always rather sickly, and this was his first visit to the shores of Africa. Whether or not his fears had an effect upon him, I cannot say, but he began to look very ill, and became every day more anxious about himself. The captain tried to arouse him, telling him that we should be at sea enjoying the fresh breeze in a few days, and that he must hold out till then. "Still it is of no use, Harry," he said to me, as I was walking the deck with him one evening, trying to get a few mouthfuls of air. "I know I shall never leave this horrible place alive unless the captain would give the order at once to trip the anchor, then perhaps the thought of being free of it would set me up again."

I told the captain when I went into the cabin what the poor mate had said, for I really thought our going away might be the means of saving his life, as well as that of others aboard. He took what I said in very good part, but was as obstinately bent in remaining as before. "Those are all fancies, Harry," he answered. "He has taken it into his head that he is to die, and that is as likely to kill him as the fever itself."

"But then he fancies that he would get well if we were at sea," I replied. "Perhaps that really would set him up again."

"Well, well, just tell him that you heard me ay I hoped to get away in two or three days, perhaps that will put him to rights," answered the captain, laughing. "Now, Harry, don't let me hear any more of this sort of thing; I have bother enough with these black traders without having to listen to the fancies of my own people."

I told the mate what the captain had said. "If the vessel does get away at the time he mentioned, I hope that I may be able to help in taking her to sea, if not, mark my words Harry, there will be a good many more of us down with the fever." He spoke too truly. The traders continued to arrive but slowly, as before, with their oil. The captain waited and waited like an angler anxious to catch more fish. Before the week was over the second mate was dead, and we had only two men fit for duty on board.

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