Excerpt: Triangle: A Memoir of Black Caesar
La Creek, September, 1713
Odulette sat quietly beside the small cook fire, just outside the vertical-board shack Collin had been able to put together from scarce driftwood and other materials rarely available on the island. Its thatched roof and crude, open construction afforded them a modicum of shelter from sun and the daily rains that passed over the island in brief, heavy showers, but little from the incessant, chafing wind.
Her heart soared at Collin’s return from Africa. She attached herself to him like a barnacle and would not let go for many days following his arrival. Then, Mary-Kate, the home they shared with Esmeralda, began to take on water and had to be careened in the bay, forcing them ashore to live on Ile de Largo among the other Naufrages.
This morning, the baby born of their reunion, suckled her breast while the rising east wind began anew to chafe her fair skin. She often wished Collin had built on the leeward side of the island, but he explained that the incessant, onshore wind was their only protection from the torturous swarms of mosquitoes that infested the island’s interior jungles. She knew that it was true as she watched the sun slowly rising above the sea behind a distant bank of colorful, tropical clouds. She wished that she could enjoy the beauty of the sunrise, as she had at first, but the brightening sky had become a harbinger of the brutal assault of burning sunlight she would have to endure until the day cooled and the sun faded into evening.
Life on La Creek was more a story of survival than tropical beauty, she had learned. They were castaways and, though Odulette tried hard to make their lot as much a home as she could remember, the brutal conditions on this island forced life to a savage edge. Each day’s struggle began with the need for water, of which there was none drinkable on the island. They collected rain water at every opportunity, but it was never enough. At one time Collin spent many days scraping a cistern out of the soft rock that formed the island’s foundation, but the rock was so porous that sea water quickly percolated into whatever small amount of rain water they were able to collect there. Failing collection, they were forced to journey to the mainland each morning, no matter the weather, to fill their barrels at the sweet springs they shared with the Viscaynos.
In mind of that daily need, along with various other needs requiring trade with the Viscaynos, Odulette considered the tattered remains of the dress she was wearing, her last remaining memory of Chauntelle Arnaut. She didn’t like to think about her former charge, for the memory of Collin confessing that she had been brutally murdered. Odulette quickly pushed her thoughts ahead to the unpleasant fact that she would soon join with the other women of the Naufrage community in wearing the skimpiest of covering, sewn from tattered sail cloth, or animal skins, a couture of one item, completely inadequate to satisfy her need for modesty. She had asked Henri for proper, European clothing from the stores he kept on La Roche, but he had denied her request, saying, “These are kept for future trade. You have no need of them, you are not better than Maya, or the other women among us who are not ashamed of their breasts.”
She never felt that she was better than the other women of this small, desolate community, but she was more modest than they, and she aspired to better things than ragged skirts and bare breasts.
Food was also a constant challenge. Fish and other sea life were plentiful, but the island held little edible vegetation. The orchard of tortured lime trees she nurtured daily, on the higher ground, of the sandy ridge, at the center of the long Island, survived still, but the fruit was stunted, extreme in its bitterness and not much good for food. Every other crop they had attempted failed in the desolate soil of the island. Odulette felt as if her life had been diverted to the edge of the earth, as far away from her European roots as it could be, and now she longed for something better. Even the shabby, hovel of her childhood would be a vast improvement over this place.
She was not alone, among the Naufrages, in feeling it unfair that Henri and Maya lived in relative comfort, aboard Grande Maronage, keeping their well stocked camp separate from the rest, while she and Collin, along with their baby, lived lives more desperate than the paupers of Europe, slowly starving with the rest of the Naufrages, a community far too large to survive on the resources available from the camp on Ile de Long. Though Collin had tried again and again to reason with him, Henri refused to share out the spoils of the years of wrecking, the many prizes and the riches from Africa. He insisted, instead, on periodic allowances saying, “It is not time for us to rest as old men, Collin. There is much for us to accomplish, much more that we must do.”
He never explained what it was they needed to “accomplish”, but always insisted it was so. Odulette feared that, in truth, Henri never planned to share the spoils with them at all, in the same way that Hornigold had robbed Collin of his due.
Hearing Collin stir inside their crude shelter, Odulette hurried to wipe the angry tears from her eyes. He was mostly recovered from his wounds, and the memory of the massacre at Chateau Verettes was fading from him, though the experience left him brooding, quiet and withdrawn. As a result, he and Henri seldom spoke and they no longer sat together at the fire in the evenings the way they had in the past. The witch, Oguna, whom Henri had brought back with him from Africa, now sat in Collin’s place, she and her assistant, Abana, who flaunted her young beauty at Collin, smiling with desire for him. By evil magic, spells and prophesies, Oguna had taken over the camp on La Roche along with Henri’s life and purpose. She had become his conscience, his councilor and his spiritual guide. But, Odulette was deeply concerned that Collin had lost more than his place at the fire. He seemed to have lost his way in life altogether. Though she tried hard to get him to look to their future, he remained focused on the past.
He’d come back to her with a great new scar on his face that masked the deeper wound festering inside him. As in their days together in Nassau, at the news of his mothers death, Collin had once again taken to rum for his healing and solace. Nothing she could say or do would alter his desire to drink himself into oblivion at the earliest opportunity each day. She felt distant from him now and she was forced to think separately for her own needs and for the needs of their child; a baby girl they had named together, Hope.
Odulette watched the baby suckle, as she repositioned the bit of shredded cloth that served as a blanket, to provide shade for the baby’s head and her exposed breasts; a miserable protection from the burning sun and relentless chafing of the east wind.
Williamsberg, June, 1719
Daniel Carnes joined our band of maroons in the summer of 1714, bringing with him news of royal intrigue and treasures beyond the imagination. While we struggled to survive the hardships of our tiny, desolate world, across the sea, the latest, disputed king of Spain had troubles of his own, troubles beyond the war over his succession to the throne. His recent marriage to Isabella Farnese had not yet been consummated and there was a certain desperation for an heir, if not the pleasure of conceiving one.
In exchange for the queen’s favors, King Philip was being coerced for riches enough to bankrupt the kingdom, a treasure Daniel Carnes referred to as The Queen’s Dowry. It was treasure enough to tempt Henri to brave the substantial defenses at the Spanish bastion of St. Augustine, two day’s sail to the north, for a chance to gain such prize. For my part, I was more intrigued by the idea that a man could make his living transporting the raw materials for such treasures, gold, silver and jewels, from one place to another, as a courier, in the manner that Daniel Carnes had previously been employed. I was no less intrigued to learn that the queen of Spain was nothing more than a common whore, selling her favors for gold and jewels. I supposed that such was not new among the crowns of Europe.
By this year much was changed in my own life. I had become more than Odulette’s lover and common-law husband, I was father to our infant daughter, Hope. That responsibility brought with it the burden and desire to make changes to my associations and to my mode of living. New loyalties required that old loyalties must change and that our new life together, as a family, move on from the deprivations of La Creek to something more stable and more easily survived. With that in mind and the promise of vast riches I joined in a pact with Henri, and Daniel Carnes to sail to St. Augustine and, there, forge a plan to steal The Queen’s Dowry in spite of the obvious dangers inherent to such a quest, but I was determined by the birth of our daughter in the previous year, to make a better life for Odulette and our child so that they would not continue to suffer as they had to this point.