Transcribed from The Works of Prosper Mérimée. Vol. 3. Trans Emily Mary Waller and Mary Helena Dey. New York: Frank S. Holby, 1906. For educational use only.
Captain Ledoux was a born sailor. He had started at the bottom and worked his way up to the rank of assistant quarter-master. At the battle of Trafalgar his left hand was so severely damaged by splinters of wood that he had to have it amputated, and, consequently, he received his discharge, together with first-rate testimonials. The quiet monotony of home life was distasteful to him, and, when he was offered the post of second lieutenant on board a corsair, he eagerly seized the opportunity of going to sea again. The money which came to him as his share of a few captures enabled him to buy books and to study the theory of navigation as a supplement to the practical knowledge he already possessed. In due time he became captain of a pirate lugger which could boast of three guns and a crew of sixty dauntless sailors: the longshoremen of Jersey still remember the exploits of this pirate lugger. Then came the peace, which was a great grief to him; he had amassed a considerable amount of money during the war and had looked forward to increase his little fortune at the expense of the English. But he was obliged to offer his services to peaceful merchants; and, as he was known to be a man of courage and experience, he had no difficulty in finding a ship. When slave trading was prohibited by law it could not be undertaken without running great risks, for it was necessary not only to evade the watchfulness of the French Customs officers (which was not so very difficult), but also to escape being captured by English cruisers. Captain Ledoux proved invaluable to these “ebony”* merchants.
Unlike the majority of sailors who spend many years in subordinate positions, Captain Ledoux had not that deep-rooted dread of innovation, nor that innate feeling of routine, which even their elevation to higher rank is seldom able to expunge. On the contrary, he was the first to suggest to his ship-builder the use of metal tanks for holding fresh water. He had the handcuffs, too, and the chains – indispensable articles on board such vessels – made in a particular fashion and carefully varnished to prevent their rusting. But that for which he was well known to all the slave traders was the brig he had had constructed under his own personal supervision and according to his own ideas. He had christened her Hope. Built for slave trading, she was a fast sailer, narrow and long like a war-ship, and yet able to hold a great number of blacks. He had had the ‘tween decks made narrower and less lofty; had reduced the height to forty inches, declaring that that left sufficient room for any negro of reasonable stature to sit at ease – why should they want to stand up? There would be more than enough standing for them when they reached the colonies, he explained.
The slaves would sit with their backs against the sides of the ship in two parallel lines, leaving a free space between their feet which, in all other slave ships, was only used as a gang-way. It was Ledoux’s idea to make use of this free space by putting more slaves there, forcing them to sit at right angles to the others. In this way his brig would hold at least ten slaves more than any other ship of the same size. In case of need, more still could have been put on board, but he was considerate enough to insist that each negro should have a space measuring about five foot by two in which to stretch his limbs during the six weeks’ journey. For, after all, negroes were human beings like the white men, he explained to the shipwright, as an excuse for his generous treatment.
The Hope weighed anchor in the port of Nantes on a Friday – a fact which superstitious people subsequently recalled. The Customs officers who visited the brig for the purpose of inspecting everything on board did not come across six large cases full of chains, handcuffs, and those irons which were for some unknown reason called “bonds of justice.” The very considerable supply of fresh water which had been stowed on board did not seem to astonish them, in spite of the fact that the Hope (according to her bills) was only going to Senegambia for the purpose of trading in wood and ivory. The journey was certainly not a long one, but perhaps they thought there was no harm in erring on the safe side – for the water would become invaluable if they happened to be becalmed.
So the good ship Hope set sail on a Friday, thoroughly well provisioned and equipped. Ledoux fancied at first that the masts seemed hardly stout enough; but in the course of time he found that the vessel fulfilled his expectations in every way. They had a first-rate journey, and the coast of Africa was soon sighted. The anchor was lowered at Joal (if I mistake not), that portion of the coast being at the time unguarded by English cruisers; and the native merchants immediately came on board.
The moment could not have been more favourable. Tamango, a well-known warrior and slave dealer, had just reached the coast with a convoy of slaves, which he was selling at cheap rates with the confidence of a man who feels that he has the power of meeting any demands as soon as the article of his trade becomes scarcer.
Captain Ledoux landed at the mouth of the river and called on Tamango. He found him sitting in a straw hut, which had been hastily erected for him, together with his two wives, a few petty traders, and the slave drivers. Tamango had felt bound to put some clothes on to receive the white captain. The old blue uniform which he wore could still be recognised as having been a corporal’s, but there were two gold epaulettes on each shoulder, both fastened to the same button and hanging down, one behind, the other in front. As he did not wear a shirt, and the tunic was too small for a man of his stature, a broad zone of black skin was visible between the white facings of the uniform and the canvas breeches. It looked like a belt. A heavy cavalry sword which hung at his side was fastened by a string, and a fine double-barrelled English rifle completed the outfit in which the African warrior doubtless considered himself more than a match for the most exquisite dandy from London or Paris.
Captain Ledoux stared at him for some time in silence, and Tamango, flattered by the belief that he was making a great impression on the white man, drew himself up like a grenadier being inspected by a strange general. Ledoux, after having critically examined him, turned to his chief officer and observed, “There’s a piece of brawn which would fetch a least a thousand crowns if we could only land him safe and sound in Martinique.”
As soon as they had sat down the customary greetings were exchanged, a sailor who had a smattering of the Yolof language acting as interpreter. A basket full of bottles of brandy was brought, drinking began at once, and the captain thought to propitiate Tamango by making him a present of a fine copper powder-flask with a portrait of Napoleon embossed on it. The gift was acknowledged with the conventional show of gratitude. Tamango then suggested that they should go and sit outside in the shade (not forgetting the brandy bottle) and inspect the slaves he had to sell. They came forward in a long file, worn out by fear and fatigue, all bearing on their shoulders a huge fork over two yards long, the two prongs of which were fastened at the back of the neck with a wooden bar. Whenever they set out on a march one of the slave drivers bears on his shoulder the handle of the yoke of the first slave, who carries that of the man behind him; the second slave carries the yoke-handle of the third slave, and so on with the others. When a halt is made, the leader of the file drives the pointed end of his yoke-handle into the ground and the whole column comes to a standstill. Of course, there can be no question of escape from the file with a heavy yoke two yards long fastened round one’s neck.
The captain shrugged his shoulders as each slave, male or female, passed before him, he called them puny creatures, said that the females were too old or too young, and complained of the degeneracy of the black race.
“The whole race is deteriorating,” he declared. “It used to be quite different in the olden days when every woman was five foot six, and four men could have worked a frigate’s capstan and raised the sheet anchor.”
However, he critically picked out a first assortment of blacks, choosing the strong and the good-looking, for which he was willing to pay the usual price; on the remainder he demanded a considerable reduction. But Tamango knew his own mind; he insisted that his wares were valuable, and spoke of the scarcity of men and the dangers of the traffic. He ended by quoting the very lowest price he could possibly accept for the slaves the white captain still had room for on board.
Ledoux stared at him in amazement and indignation when he heard Tamango’s proposal interpreted. The captain got up, swearing like a trooper, apparently with the intention of putting an end there and then to all bargaining with a man so unreasonable. But Tamango, after some difficulty, persuaded him to sit down. Another bottle was opened and the discussion renewed. Now it was the black man’s turn to call the white captain’s view outrageous and extravagant. They talked and haggled as bottle after bottle was emptied; but the liquor was having quite a different effect on the two contracting parties. The more the Frenchman drank the less became his offers, and the more Tamango drank the less he insisted on his demands. So, when the case of brandy was finished, it was found that they had come to terms. In exchange for the hundred and sixty slaves, Tamango accepted a quantity of worthless cotton, powder, gun-flints, three casks of brandy, and fifty rusty rifles. The captain, to ratify the compact, shook the half-tipsy negro by the hand, and immediately the slaves were handed over to the French sailors, who lost no time in putting on iron chains and handcuffs in place of the wooden yokes – a striking demonstration of the superiority of European civilisation.
There were still about thirty slaves – children, old men, or infirm women. But there was no more room on board. Tamango, not knowing what to do with this refuse, offered to sell them to the captain at the rate of a bottle of brandy a head. The offer was a tempting one. Ledoux remembered a performance of the Sicilian Vespers, at Nantes, at which he had noticed that a considerable number of sturdy and well-furnished people had managed to push their way into the pit which was already full, and ultimately find seats, thanks to the compressibility of human bodies. He agreed to take the twenty slimmest of the thirty slaves. Tamango then offered to dispose of the ten remaining for a glass of brandy a head. The fact that children go half-price and take up half-room in railway carriages crossed the captain’s mind. So he accepted three children, but said he would not take one more. Tamango, seeing himself left still with seven slaves on his hands, seized his rifle and took aim at the nearest woman. She was the mother of the three children.
“Buy her,” he said to the white man, “or I’ll fire. Half a glass of brandy, or she dies.”
“But what the deuce am I to do with her?” asked Ledoux.
Tamango fired, and the slave fell down dead.
“Now for another!” cried Tamango, taking aim at a decrepit old man. “A glass of brandy, or – ”
The bullet went off at random for one of his wives had suddenly seized his arm. She had happened to recognise in the old man whom her husband was about to kill a guiriot, or magician, who had prophesied that she would be queen.
Tamango, excited by all the brandy he had consumed, lost control of himself when he found himself thus thwarted. He struck his wife roughly with the butt end of his gun, and turned toward the captain.
“Take her,” he said; “I’ll make you a present of this woman.”
“I shall be able to find room for you,” said Ledoux, as he took her by the hand, and he smiled when he saw how beautiful she was.
The interpreter – a charitable man – asked Tamango for the remaining six slaves in exchange for a cardboard snuff-box. He took off their yokes and told them to go whither they would. They hurried away in different directions, at a loss to know how to reach their homes, two hundred leagues from the coast.
In the meantime the captain had said good-bye to Tamango and was hard at work getting his cargo on board. He did not think it safe to remain longer in the river, for fear of the cruisers which might return at any moment. So he made up his mind to set sail on the morrow. Tamango could not do anything but lie down on the grass in the shade, and sleep away the effects of the brandy.
When he woke up the vessel was already under sail, and moving down the river. Tamango, still very dizzy from the effects of his recent debauch, called for his wife Ayché. He was reminded that she had been unfortunate enough to displease him, and that he had made a present of her to the white captain who had taken her away on board with him. Half stupefied at this news, Tamango clasped his head in his hands; then, seizing his gun, he rushed away by the most direct route toward a little creek about half a mile from the sea. He knew the river made several detours before it reached the sea, and, by means of a small boat which ought to be there, he hoped to over take the brig, delayed in her voyage, as she would be, by the winding river. He was not deceived; he leaped into the boat and just managed to reach the slave ship in time.
Ledoux was surprised to see him; still more so to learn that he wanted his wife back.
“You gave her to me,” he said, “and I have no intention of giving you back your present,” and he turned and left him.
But the black insisted, said he would give back some of the goods he had received in exchange for the slaves. The captain laughed, and told him that Ayché was a fine woman and that he intended to keep her. Poor Tamango burst into a torrent of tears, and groaned and cried like a man being tortured by a surgeon. He flung himself about the deck calling for his darling Ayché, and dashed his head against the planks as though he were trying to commit suicide. The captain, quite unmoved, pointed to the shore, and suggested that it was time for him to go. But Tamango held to his point. He went to the length of offering his gold epaulettes, his sword, his rifle. All in vain.
Meantime the lieutenant of the Hope suggested to the captain, “Why not take this lusty brute in place of the three slaves who died during the night; he is worth more than they.”
Ledoux looked at him. Yes. He was worth a least a thousand crowns. Besides, this journey, which promised to be exceptionally remunerative, would probably be his last; his fortune would be made, and he would give up the slave trade. If so, what did it matter what sort of a reputation he left behind on the coast of Guinea? There was not a soul in sight on the shore, and the black chieftain was entirely at his mercy. It would only be a matter of disarming him, for it would hardly be safe to lay hands on him while he still had arms in his possession. So Ledoux asked him for his gun, as if he wished to examine it to see whether it was really worth exchanging for the beautiful negress. Whilst he was scrutinising it, he took care to jerk the charge out. The lieutenant succeeded in obtaining his sword, and Tamango stood disarmed. Two sturdy sailors sprang on him, brought him to the ground, and tried to bind him. But the black man struggled heroically as soon as he recovered from the surprise, and he fought for long with the two sailors in spite of the disadvantage at which they had him. By sheer strength he sprang to his feet, and with one blow he felled the man who held him by the neck. Leaving half his coat in the hands of the other sailor, he dashed furiously toward the lieutenant to regain his sword, and received a cut on the head which, without going deep, made a large wound. He fell a second time, and the sailors soon bound him hand and foot. He yelled with rage and struggled and writhed like a wild boar caught in a net; after a while, seeing that all resistance was useless, he shut his eyes and remained absolutely motionless. Had it not been for his heavy and hurried breathing, one might have though him dead.
“Bless my soul!” exclaimed the captain, “won’t these slaves he sold to us chuckle heartily when they see him a slave like them! They will begin to think there must be such a thing as Providence.”
Meanwhile poor Tamango was bleeding fast. The charitable interpreter, who, the day before, had saved the lives of the six slaves, came to bind up his wound and speak a few words of sympathy with him. No record exists of what he said, and Tamango remained as motionless as a corpse. Two sailors carried him like a package down to his allotted place in the ‘tween decks. For two days he refused to touch anything to eat or drink, and he scarcely opened his eyes. His companions in captivity, once his prisoners, had watched him brought into their midst with terror-stricken amazement. So great was the awe with which his mere presence still inspired them that not one of them durst jeer at the misery of the man who was the cause of all their suffering.
Sailing rapidly on the wings of a strong land breeze, the vessel was soon out of sight of the coast of Africa. The captain’s mind, no longer haunted with visions of English cruisers, began to dwell on the prospective fortune he hoped to reap in the colonies toward which he was sailing. His cargo of “ebony” was in good health. There were no contagious diseases. Only twelve negroes had died of suffocation, and they were the weakest – a mere trifle. But in order to preserve his human cargo as much as possible from the effects of the passage he had them brought up on deck once a day. Three successive batches of these unhappy slaves came up to inhale, for one hour each batch, the stock of fresh air which was to last through the twenty-four hours. A portion of the crew mounted guard, armed to the teeth for fear of insurrection; but they took care that the slaves were never entirely freed from their shackles. Sometimes a sailor who could play the violin would treat them to some music, and it was curious to watch all those black faces gazing up at the fiddler, gradually losing their look of abject despair, and then breaking forth into loud laughter – clapping their hands too, as much as their chains would allow them. Exercise being essential to health, one of Captain Ledoux’s salutary regulations was that all the slaves should be made to dance, just as horses are made to prance when embarked on a long journey.
“Come along, my boys, dance and amuse yourselves!” the captain would shout in a voice of thunder, cracking his heavy slave-whip. In less than no time the poor blacks were leaping and dancing.
For some time Tamango’s wound kept him below the hatches. But at length he appeared on deck; at first he stood in the midst of the crowd of cringing slaves, holding his proud head very high, and his sad but untroubled eyes gazed over the wide expanse of ocean which surrounded the ship; then he lay down, or rather threw himself down on the deck, without even troubling to shift his chains into a less awkward position. Ledoux was sitting behind him on the quarter-deck, smoking his pipe at ease. Near him stood Ayché, holding in her hand a tray of liquors which she was ready to pour out for him. Instead of shackles she wore a pretty blue cotton dress and dainty morocco shoes, which clearly showed that she occupied a position of honour in the captain’s domestic circle. One of the black men who loathed Tamango pointed her out to him. As soon as he caught sight of her he cried out, and, springing up impetuously, reached the quarter-deck before the sailors on guard could prevent such a flagrant breach of naval discipline.
“Ayché!” he shouted at the top of his voice – and Ayché shrieked as he added, “do you imagine that there is no MAMA JUMBO in the land of the white man?”
The sailors rushed to his side with uplifted clubs, but he calmly folded his arms and walked slowly back to his place, whilst Ayché burst into a flood of tears, and seemed appalled at his mysterious question.
The interpreter explained what the awful Mama Jumbo was, the very mention of which had roused such terror.
“It is the bogey of the black men,” he said. “When a husband is afraid that his wife is going to behave as some wives do, as well in France as Africa, he threatens her with Mama Jumbo. I have seen Mama Jumbo with my own eyes, and I understand the trick; but the poor blacks… they are so unsophisticated they do not understand anything. Picture to yourself a group of women dancing in an evening – having a folgar, as they call it in their dialect – near a thick and sombre grove. Suddenly weird music is heard. Not a soul is to be seen, for all the musicians are hidden amongst the trees. The sounds of the reed flutes, wooden drums,balafos, and guitars made of the half of a gourd make a melody calculated to produce the devil himself. No sooner do the women hear the music than they begin to tremble and would run away if their husbands would let them; they know too well what is going to happen. Suddenly a huge white figure as tall as our top-gallant-mast comes stalking out of the wood, with a head as big as a pumpkin, eyes like hawse-holes, and a mouth like the devil’s, full of fire. It moves slowly, very slowly, and does not come more than a half a cable’s length away from the grove. The women shriek and yell like costermongers. It is ‘Mama Jumbo.’ And then their husbands tell them to confess their sins, for if they do not speak the Mama Jumbo is there to gobble them up alive. Some of the women are foolish enough to acknowledge everything, and their husbands proceed to give them a sound thrashing.”
“But what is the white figure, this Mama Jumbo?” asked the captain.
“Why, it’s only some Merry Andrew, muffled up in a white sheet, holding up on the end of a stick a hollow gourd, with a lighted candle inside that serves as a head. It is nothing worse than that, for it does not require much ingenuity to deceive these poor blacks. But, when all’s said and done, it’s not such a bad invention, this Mama Jumbo of theirs; I wish my wife believed in it.”
“If my wife knows nothing of Mistress Jumbo,” said Ledoux, “she has met with Master Stick, and she knows well enough what the result would be if she played any pranks with me. We are not a long-suffering family, we Ledoux, and though I have only one fist left it can still use a rope’s-end to some purpose. As to that joker who started the subject of Mama Jumbo, tell him to keep still, and that if he frightens this little woman again I’ll have him flogged til his skin changes from black to the colour of an underdone beefsteak.”
The captain led Ayché down to his room and tried to comfort her, but neither his caresses nor his blows (there was a limit even to the captain’s patience) succeeded in pacifying the beautiful negress; her tears flowed in torrents. Ledoux went up on deck in a bad humour and vented his feelings on the officer on duty concerning the first thing that came uppermost.
During the night, when nearly everyone on board was sound asleep and the men on watch were listening to a low, sad, monotonous chant, which seemed to come from the ‘tween decks, they heard the shrill, piercing shriek of a woman. Then they heard Ledoux’s fierce voice swearing and threatening, and the sound of his heavy whip echoed through the whole vessel. Then the noise ceased, and all was silent. On the morrow Tamango came on deck, his face disfigured, but still as proud and undaunted as ever.
As soon as Ayché caught sight of him she rushed from the quarter-deck, where she had been sitting by the side of the captain, and fell on her knees before Tamango, exclaiming in a frenzy of despair –
“Forgive me, Tamango, forgive me!”
Tamango looked steadily into her eyes for a minute, and then, seeing that the interpreter was not within earshot, he blurted “A file!” and, turning his back upon her, lay down on the deck. The captain chid her savagely, even struck her once or twice, and enjoined her never again to speak to her ex-husband. But he had not the least inkling of the meaning of the few words they had exchanged, and he did not ask any questions about them.
Tamango meanwhile, locked up with the other slaves, continually exhorted them to make one great effort to regain their liberty. He spoke to them of the small number of the white men, and called their attention to the increasing carelessness of their guards; and, without going into details, he promised them that he would find some way of leading them back to their country. He boasted of his knowledge of the occult sciences, for which the black races have great veneration, and declared that any who refused to assist in the attempt would incur the wrath of the devil. All these harangues were delivered in the dialect of the Peules, which was known to most of the slaves, but which the interpreter did not understand. Such was the credit of the dreaded orator, and so inveterate was their habit of obeying him, that his eloquence worked wonders, and he was begged to fix a day for their emancipation long before he had even had time to work out all his plans. So he told the conspirators vaguely that the time was not yet come, and that the devil, who appeared to him at night, had not yet given the word; but he bade them hold themselves in readiness for the first signal. In the meantime he did not lose any opportunity of testing the vigilance of the crew. One day he saw a sailor leaning over the side of the vessel watching a shoal of flying-fish which were following the ship. Tamango took the rifle which had been left standing against the gunwale, and began to handle it, mimicking grotesquely the exercises he had seen the sailors do. The rifle was immediately taken from him, but he had learnt that it was possible to touch a weapon without at once arousing suspicion. When the time came for him to use one in earnest, woe betide the man who tried then to wrest it from him!
One morning Ayché threw him a biscuit, making at the same time a sign which he alone understood. The biscuit contained a small file, and on that tool hung the success of the plot. Tamango took good care not to let his companions see the file; but, when the night had fallen, he began to utter unintelligible sounds, accompanied by weird gestures. Gradually he became more and more excited, and the mutterings increased to loud groans. As they listened to the varied intonations of his voice, the slaves felt convinced that he was engaged in an animated conversation with an unseen person. They were all terrified, not doubting that the devil was at that moment in their midst. Tamango put the finishing touch to the scene by exclaiming joyfully –
“Comrades! the spirit which I have conjured at length fulfilled his promises, and I hold in my hand the talisman which is to save us. Now you only need to summon up a little courage, and you are free men.”
Those near him were allowed to feel the file, and not one of them was sharp enough to suspect that the whole thing was a gross imposture.
At length, after many days of expectation, the great day of liberty and vengeance dawned. The conspirators had been sworn to secrecy by a solemn oath, and the arrangements had been settled after much deliberation. The strongest amongst those who happened to go on deck at the same time as Tamango were to seize the arms of their guards, some of the others were to go to the captain’s room to fetch the arms which were kept there. Those who had succeeded in filing through their handcuffs were to lead the way; but in spite of several nights’ persistent toil, the majority of the slaves were still unable to take any active part in the attack. So three lusty negroes were singled out to slay the man who kept in his pocket the keys of the manacles, and to return at once and unfetter their companions.
That day Captain Ledoux seemed in the best of tempers. Contrary to his usual habits, he pardoned a cabin boy who had incurred a flogging. He congratulated the officer of the watch on his seamanship, told the crew he was pleased with their work and promised to give them all a gratuity at Martinique, which they would reach very soon. All the sailors at once began to amuse themselves by making plans as to how they would use the gratuity. Their thoughts were of brandy and of the swart of women of Martinique, when Tamango and his fellow-conspirators were brought up on deck.
They had been careful to file their handcuffs in such a way that nothing was noticeable, but at the same time so that they could break them open easily. Furthermore, they rattled their chains so much that morning, that they seemed to be twice as heavily laden as usual. When they had had time to drink in the air, they all joined hands and began to dance, whilst Tamango intoned his tribal war song** which he always used before going to battle. After they had danced for some time, Tamango, as if tired out, stretched himself at full length near a sailor who was leaning back at his ease against the ship’s bulwarks; all the others followed his example, so that every one of the guards was singled out by the several negroes.
As soon as he had managed to remove his handcuffs quietly, Tamango gave a tremendous shout, which was the signal, seized the sailor near him violently by the legs, threw him head over heels, and, planting his foot on his stomach, wrenched the gun away from him and shot the officer of the watch. Simultaneously every other sailor on deck was seized, disarmed, and forthwith strangled. From all sides came sounds of the struggle. The boatswain’s mate, who had the keys of the handcuffs, was one of the first victims. In a moment the deck was swarming with a crowd of negroes. Those who could not find arms seized the bars of the capstan or the oars of the gig. The fate of the white men was already sealed; a few sailors made a show of resistance on the quarter-deck, but they lacked weapons and resolution. Ledoux, however, was still alive, and had not lost any of his courage.
Seeing that Tamango was the soul of the revolt, he hoped that if he could kill him short work might be made of his accomplices. So he sprang forward, sword in hand, calling to him at the top of his voice. Tamango lost no time in rushing to the encounter. The two commanders met in one of the gangways – one of those narrow passages leading aft from the quarter-deck. Tamango, holding his gun by the barrel, and using it as a club, was the first to strike. The white man dexterously avoided the blow: the butt end of the musket, falling violently on the planks, was smashed, and the weapon was dashed out of Tamango’s hand. He stood defenceless, and Ledoux advanced with a diabolical grin. But before he had time to make use of his sword, Tamango, as agile as the panthers of his native country, sprang into his adversary’s arms and seized the hand which held the sword. The one strained to hold the sword, the other to wrench it from him. During this desperate struggle both stumbled, but the black man fell undermost. Without a moment’s hesitation Tamango hugged his adversary with all his strength, and bit his neck with such vehemence that the blood spurted out as it does under the teeth of a lion. The sword slipped from the weakened hand of the captain. Tamango seized it, sprang up, and, his mouth streaming with blood, yelled his triumph as he stabbed his dying enemy through and through.
The victory was complete. The few remaining sailors entreated the negroes to have pity on them, but all, even the interpreter who had never done them any harm, were mercilessly massacred. The lieutenant fell fighting heroically. He had withdrawn aft, behind one of those small cannons which turn on a pivot, and are loaded with grape-shot. With his left hand he worked the gun and with his right he used the sword so dexterously that he attracted a crowd of negroes round him. Then he fired the gun into their midst and paved a way with dead and dying. The next moment he was torn to pieces.
When the body of the last white man had been hacked to pieces and thrown overboard the negroes began to feel that their thirst for vengeance was satiated, and they gazed up at the ship’s sails which were swollen by the fresh breeze, and seemed still to obey their oppressors and to carry the conquerors in spite of their triumph to the land of slavery.
“All our labour is lost!” they murmured in their despair. “Will the great fetish of the white men lead us back to our homes now that we have shed the blood of so many of his worshippers?”
Someone suggested that Tamango might be able to make the fetish obey. So they all began to shout for Tamango.
He was in no hurry to hear them. They found him standing in the fore cabin, one hand resting on the captain’s bloody sword, the other stretched out to his wife Ayché, who was on her knees kissing it. But the joy of victory could not obliterate a strange look of anxiety which was visible in every line of his face. Less fatuous than the rest, he was better able to understand the difficulties of the situation.
At last he came up on deck, affecting a serenity which he did not feel. Urged by a hundred confused voices to change the course of the vessel, he stalked slowly toward the helm as if to postpone for a while the moment which would determine both for himself and for the others the extent of his power.
Not even the dullest negro on board had failed to notice the influence exercised on the movements of the ship by a certain wheel and the box fixed in front of it; but the whole mechanism was a profound mystery to them. Tamango examined the compass for some time, moving his lips as if he were reading the characters which were printed on it; then he put his hand to his head and assumed the pensive look of a man doing mental arithmetic. All the negroes stood round him, their mouths wide open, their eyes one stare, anxiously taking note of his slightest movement. At length, with that mixture of fear and confidence which ignorance inspires, he gave the guiding wheel a tremendous turn.
Like a noble steed which rears when some imprudent rider drives in his spurs, the good shipHope plunged into the waves at this unwonted handling, as if she felt insulted and wished to sink together with her stupid pilot. The sails being now entirely at cross purposes with the helm, the ship heeled over so suddenly that it looked as if she were bound to founder. Her long yards soused into the sea; many of the negroes stumbled and some fell overboard. However, the ship righted herself and stood proudly against the swell, as if to make one last effort to avoid destruction. But there came a sudden gust of wind, and, with a deafening crash, the two masts fell, snapped a few feet above the deck, which was strewn with wreckage and covered with a tangled network of ropes. The terrified negroes fled below the hatchway howling with fear, but as there was nothing left to catch the breeze, the vessel remained steady and merely rocked to and fro on the billows.
Presently the more daring amongst them came up again and began clearing away the wreckage which encumbered the deck. Tamango remained motionless, leaning on the binnacle, his face buried in his folded arms. Ayché, who was beside him, did not dare to speak. One by one the negroes approached him; they began to murmur, and soon a torrent of insults and abuse was let loose upon him.
“Traitor! impostor!” they cried, “you are the cause of all our ills: you sold us to the white men, you persuaded us to rebel, you boasted your wisdom, you promised to take us back to our homes. We trusted you, fools that we were! And now we have narrowly escaped destruction because you have offended the white man’s fetish.”
Tamango raised his head proudly, and the negroes who stood round him slunk back. He picked up two guns, beckoned to his wife to follow him, and strode through the group of men, who made way for him. He went to the bow of the vessel, where he constructed a kind of barricade of planks and barrels; behind this intrenchment he fixed the two muskets in such a way that the bayonets were menacingly prominent. There he sat down and they left him alone.
Some of the negroes were in tears; other raised their hands to the sky, and called on their own and the white man’s fetishes; others knelt down by the compass and wondered at its ceaseless movements, entreating it to take them to their homes again; the remainder lay on the deck in a state of abject despair. Amongst these wretches were women and children shrieking from sheer terror, and a score of wounded men imploring the relief which no one dreamt of bringing them.
All of a sudden a negro appeared on deck, his face beaming with joy. He came to tell them that he had discovered where the white men stored their brandy; and his excitement and general demeanour clearly showed that he had already helped himself to some. This piece of news silenced for a while the cries of the distracted slaves. They rushed down to the steward’s room and gorged the liquor. In about an hour’s time they were all dancing and roaring on deck, giving vent to the excesses of brutish drunkenness. The noise of their singing and dancing mingled with the groans and sobs of the wounded. Night fell, and still the orgy continued.
Next morning, when they woke, despair again possessed them. During the night a great number of the wounded had died. The vessel was surrounded by floating corpses, and clouds were lowering over the heavy sea. They held a conference. Several experts in the art of magic, who had not dared speak of their knowledge before for fear of Tamango, now offered their services, and several potent incantations were tried. The failure of each attempt increased their despondency till at length they appealed to Tamango, who was still behind his barricade. After all, he was the wisest of them, and he alone could extricate them from the desperate condition into which he had brought them. An old man approached him with overtures of peace, and begged him to give them his advice. But Tamango, as inexorable as Coriolanus, turned a deaf ear to his entreaties. During the night, in the midst of the tumult, he had fetched a supply of biscuits and salt meat. To all appearance he had no intention of leaving the solitude of his retreat.
There was still plenty of brandy left. That, at all events, helped them to forget the sea, slavery, and the approach of death. They went to sleep, and in their dreams saw Africa with its forests of gum trees, its thatched huts, and its baobabs, whose foliage shaded whole villages. The orgy of the day before was renewed and continued for some time. They did nothing but howl and weep and tear their hair, or drink and sleep. Several died of drinking, others jumped into the sea or stabbed themselves.
One morning Tamango left his fort and advanced to the stump of the mainmast.
“Slaves!” he shouted, “the Spirit has appeared to me in a dream and revealed to me the means of helping you to return to your homes. You deserve to be abandoned to your fates, but I pity the women and children who are crying. I pardon you. Listen!”
All the negroes bowed their heads submissively, and gathered round him.
“Only the white men,” continued Tamango, “know the mystic formulas which guide these massive wooden houses; but we can steer without difficulty those small boats, which are like our own” (he pointed to the sloop and the other ship’s boats). “Let us fill them with provisions, set out in them, and row in the direction of the wind. My Master and yours will make it blow in the direction of our homes.”
They took his word for it. No plan could have been more reckless. Without any knowledge of the compass, ignorant as to their whereabouts, they could not do anything but row at random. His belief was that by rowing straight ahead they were certain to come, sooner or later, to a land inhabited by black men; for he had heard his mother say that white men lived in their ships, and that black men possessed the earth.
Soon afterward everything was ready to be embarked, but only the sloop and one small boat were found to be serviceable. It was impossible to find room for the eighty negroes who were still alive, so the sick and wounded had to be abandoned. The majority of them begged to be slain rather than be left.
After endless difficulties the two boats were got under way, so heavily laden that they might at any moment be swamped in such a choppy sea. Tamango and Ayché were in the sloop, which was soon left behind by the other boat – a mere cock-boat, and far less overcharged. The wailing of the poor wretches who had been left behind on board the brig was still audible when a big wave suddenly caught the sloop athwart and swamped her. In less than a minute she had disappeared. The smaller boat saw the catastrophe, and immediately the oars were plied with redoubled energy, for fear of having to pick up those who were shipwrecked. Nearly all who were in the sloop were drowned. Only a dozen or so managed to reach the vessel again; amongst whom were Tamango and Ayché. When the sun set they could see the other boat far away on the horizon; no one knows what became of it.
Why should I weary the reader with a revolting description of the tortures of famine? About a score of human beings, crowded together, now tossed about on a stormy sea, now scorched by the fierce heat of the sun, fought daily for what scanty remains of food there were – every scrap of biscuit entailing a fight… The weaker died, not because the stronger killed him, but because he chose to let him expire. After a few days only two were still alive on board the good brig Hope – Ayché and Tamango.
One night the sea was rough, the wind blew high, and the darkness was so intense that one end of the ship could not be seen from the other. Ayché lay on a mattress in the captain’s room and Tamango sat at her feet. They had not spoken a word for many hours.
“Tamango,” murmured Ayché at length, “it is I who have brought all this suffering upon you.”
“I do not suffer,” he answered quickly, and threw the half-biscuit, which he still had left, on the mattress beside her.
“Keep it yourself,” she said gently, returning the biscuit. “I am no longer hungry. Besides, why eat? Is not mine hour come?”
Tamango got up without answering and staggered to the deck, where he sat down against the stump of the mast. His head lolled on his breast, and he began to whistle his tribal war song. Suddenly a loud cry reached his ear in spite of the noise of the tempest; a light flashed; other shouts followed, and a huge black ship glided swiftly past the brig – so close that Tamango could see her yards pass over his head. He only saw two faces in the light of a lantern which hung from a mast. They shouted again; then their vessel, swept along by the storm, disappeared into the darkness. Doubtless the men on watch had caught sight of the disabled hulk, but the violence of the tempest had prevented their tacking. The next moment Tamango saw the flash of a cannon and heard the report; then another flash, but no report; then he saw nothing more. On the morrow not a sail was visible on the horizon. Tamango threw himself down on his mattress and closed his eyes. His wife Ayché had died that night.
I do not know how long it was before an English frigate, the Bellona, sighted a dismasted vessel, to all appearances abandoned by her crew. They sent a sloop alongside and found a negress dead and a negro by her side, so haggard and thin that he looked like a skeleton. He was unconscious, but there was still a breath left in him. The doctor took charge of him and did all he could for him, so that when they reached Kingston, Tamango had regained his health. He was asked to give an account of his adventures, and he told them all he could remember. The Jamaica planters suggested that he should be hung as a rebel, but the governor was a kind-hearted man and took an interest in the negro, who crime was, after all, justifiable, since he had but acted in self-defence. And, besides, the men he had murdered were only Frenchmen. He was treated in the same way as the slaves who are found on board a captured slave trader. They set him at liberty – that is to say they made him work for the Government. And he earned threepence a day besides his keep. One day the colonel of the 75th caught sight of this splendid specimen of a man, and made him a drummer in his regimental band. Tamanago learnt a little English, but hardly ever spoke. To make up for that he was always drinking rum or tafia. He died in the hospital of congestion of the lungs.
* Slave dealers used to style themselves ebony merchants.
**Each negro chief has his own.