Africa Bound

New Calabar, West Africa, 1674

Zachary Rogers dabbed the perspiration from his brow with a stained, handkerchief of the finest English linen. The intense heat of equatorial Africa was something he had never become comfortable with. He moved his hand to his brow, shading his eyes from the burning sunlight so he could better see the native boat approaching his cutter. The Negro standing above, on the boat’s large after deck, attracted his attention. Zachary, at first, thought the man to be a cabashier, the agent for a local king, but the shining, gold breastplate the man wore caused him doubt. It consisted of four rows of hammered, gold disks, each approximately five inches in diameter and arranged in the shape of an inverted pyramid. It hung there on a gold chain of the finest craftsmanship, flashing in the sunlight and belying the otherwise subordinate appearance of the man who wore it.

Zachary soon learned that he was no cabashier, but king of the Dyula people, an active and powerful leader in the Yaruba tradition. He was not preceded by the pomp and ceremony Zachary had come to expect from the kings and cabashiers of the northern coast of Guinea. Yet this man could produce a thousand warriors out of the bush with a simple gesture. Zachary also learned this king was in command of over four hundred thousand warriors throughout the region. He had come out of the interior to take over the coastal slave trade from his former customers. Those who resisted him had already been dispatched, or sold into the trade with Europe. The first rule of business was in effect in Africa, as in Europe, the big fish inevitably swallow the small.

Before leaving Sherbro, Zachary had been pleasantly surprised to learn that The Royal African Company’s general court, the big fish in this case, had decided to honor the Gambia Adventurers lease, which would run for a number more years. He had been the company’s agent in Africa since 1668, long enough to understand the difficulties of trade in the region. The company in England, no matter whom it might be, always seemed to make the same fatal error in judgment. That is, to vastly underestimate the intelligence and bargaining power of the indigenous natives. He hoped, for that reason, when the Gambia Adventurer’s lease does expire, he would be asked to stay on as agent for The Royal African Company of England. That done, and providing he could open new areas of trade with the Dyula, the Negro wearing the golden breastplate, could make Zachary a wealthy man by the time his retirement came.

At the moment, however, he was held at a disadvantage by the latest talk of war. Such talk only added to the difficulties of trade he already faced. All along the coast of West Africa from Whydah to James Island, at the mouth of the Gambia, the kings and cabashiers of the powerful coastal tribes had heard rumors being spread by the French and Dutch. The Africans needed no further advantage. They could barter for price and goods with the best of European business men. They were adept at playing one side against the other and frequently used the European companies like pawns to improve their own bargaining position.

During his years in Africa Zachary had learned to fight fire with fire. A spear borrowed here and left in just the right place there could produce explosive results. Occasional wars between powerful tribes stimulated business. It didn’t matter who won either. In the end a great glut of goods would flood the market, driving prices down and increasing profits for the company in England. It was dangerous business, however. If one of the tribal kings should learn what he was doing, he would be hacked to pieces in the night. He was always careful about when and upon whom he used such tactics, but these risky intrigues were just one example of the local knowledge that would keep him employed for a very long time.

Zachary and his small crew remained in the mouth of the Cross River for four days, as guests of the Dyula King. On the second day a common dialect was found and negotiations began in earnest. Zachary learned that this gold enshrouded king also ruled over many allied nations deep in the interior. Through his rule, vast quantities of Negroes were easily captured and transported to the coast. A large compound erected on an island in the Sanaga Estuary made it clear that the Dyula intended to carry on a brisk trade with the European companies. Zachary tried to negotiate exclusive agreements for the English, but the king was wisely non-committal. He did agree, however, to provide a quantity of four hundred Negro captives each week for trade with the English company. As a show of good will, the king offered up a young, healthy female for the meager trinkets Zachary had brought with him. The king made it clear that he had no interest in such items for future trade.

~

As the Arthur makes its way to the African continent, Collin begins to learn the hard lessons of the trade his father has sent him to learn, not the least of which are the natural dangers that shadow the undertaking of a voyage at sea.

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Log of The Arthur:

28, December, 1700 Altered course to east by a quarter Southeast. We are becalmed in styfling heat. The crew has been tayking shifts at rowing the ship from a longboat. Stores are dwindling, but we expect to mayke Cape Coast by New Year’s Day. – C. A.

Collin’s Journal, Christmas, 1700:

We are finally clear of the violent storm that has driven us south and mayde our lyves miserable for the past two weeks. It was enough to keep the ships log, I had no opportunity to write in my journal, for all the days were rough seas and wet misery. By contrast, we are now becalmed in searing heat. There seems no balance in this mariner’s lyfe. Where are the gentle trayde winds that the experienced saylors promise are to come? As if the rough seas and foul weather were not enough misery, I am assigned to Midshipman, Arthur Hill, the most miserable person I think I have ever met.

I have learnt from Dr. Barren that he attended school at Aldenham in Elstree and was so troublesome in that playce that his mother had to send him to his father’s plantaytion in the colony of Jamayca. Within four months of his arrival there his father syned him over to the merchant marine and had him playced aboard this ship.

He is sullen and spyteful. Traits that only add to the lack of respect his obvious frailty has already earned him among the crew. His normal, sickly appearance has grown more ghastly with each passing day and today, the twentieth day of our voyage Mr. Hill’s ever present runny nose has advanced to a deep, hacking cough. I am concerned for his advancing illness and worry what might result from the long voyage still ahead.

For myself, I have found some friends aboard the Arthur, among both officers and crew. Beyond those who were already known to me, Captain Doegood and Dr. Barren, I have befriended the ship’s cook and smyth, a man named Clifford Richardson. Of them all, Richardson has been my greatest support and mentor. He has taught me many things about lyfe aboard ship, saved my lyfe in the depths of the storm when I was nearly washed overboard and it was Richardson who remynded me that today is Christmas day even here in the middle of a great ocean. Today he led the crew in prayers and the singing of carols to celebrate the holy day and Captain Doegood allowed us an extra portion of grog.

Richardson is the only one who has so far explained the extent of this voyage we have undertayken. He drew our course as a map, on the deck, using charcoal. A route that crosses the ocean following the winds and currents in the shape of a triangle. He explained, in some detayl, the trayde we will undertayke and called it, “The Devil’s Triangle”.

Collin Aldworth,

The Devil’s Triangle, December, 1700

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