The Pirate Slaver, a Story of the West African Coast, by Harry Collingwood.
This is a very well-written book, especially from the nautical point of view. It is written as by a midshipman in a British warship patrolling the west coast of Africa, especially the Congo area, to try to prevent the slave traders, especially the Portuguese, from succeeding in their efforts to get the poor captured Africans over the Atlantic to Cuba in the most miserable conditions.
But it doesn't work out as simply as that! For the hero, Harry Dugdale, is captured in an action, and would have been killed but for the interest taken in him by the slaver-captain's son. From this there sprang a deal with the slaver that Harry would assist with navigation and watch-keeping, but must go below decks when there is an action in progress.
We won't tell you much more than that but cannot refrain from commenting that the book is at least as good as the best by Kingston, though in this book the action is almost entirely at sea, or at least on board a sea-going vessel.
THE PIRATE SLAVER, A STORY OF THE WEST AFRICAN COAST, BY HARRY COLLINGWOOD.
THE CONGO RIVER.
"Land ho! broad on the port bow!"
The cry arose from the look-out on the forecastle of her Britannic Majesty's 18-gun brig Barracouta, on a certain morning near the middle of the month of November, 1840; the vessel then being situated in about latitude 6 degrees 5 minutes south and about 120 east longitude. She was heading to the eastward, close-hauled on the port tack, under every rag that her crew could spread to the light and almost imperceptible draught of warm, damp air that came creeping out from the northward. So light was the breeze that it scarcely wrinkled the glassy smoothness of the long undulations upon which the brig rocked and swayed heavily while her lofty trucks described wide arcs across the paling sky overhead, from which the stars were vanishing one after another before the advance of the pallid dawn. And at every lee roll her canvas flapped with a rattle as of a volley of musketry to the masts, sending down a smart shower from the dew-saturated cloths upon the deck, to fill again with the report of a nine-pounder and a great slatting of sheets and blocks as the ship recovered herself and rolled to windward.
The brig was just two months out from England, from whence she had been dispatched to the West African coast to form a portion of the slave-squadron and to relieve the old Garnet, which, from her phenomenal lack of speed, had proved utterly unsuitable for the service of chasing and capturing the nimble slavers who, despite all our precautions, were still pursuing their cruel and nefarious vocation with unparalleled audacity and success. We had relieved the Garnet, and had looked in at Sierra Leone for the latest news; the result of this visit being that we were now heading in for the mouth of the Congo, which river had been strongly commended to our especial attention by the Governor of the little British colony. Our captain, Commander Henry Stopford, was by no means a communicative man, it being a theory of his that it is a mistake on the part of a chief to confide more to his officers than is absolutely necessary for the efficient and intelligent performance of their duty; hence he had not seen fit to make public the exact particulars of the information thus received. But he had of course made an exception in favour of Mr Young, our popular first luff; and as I—Henry Dugdale, senior mid of the Barracouta—happened to be something of a favourite with the latter, I learned from him, in the course of conversation, some of the circumstances that were actuating our movements. The intelligence, however, was of a very meagre character, and simply amounted to this: That large numbers of African slaves were being continually landed on the Spanish West Indian islands; that two boats with their crews had mysteriously disappeared in the Congo while engaged upon a search of that river for slavers; and that a small felucca named the Wasp—a tender to the British ship-sloop Lapwing—had also disappeared with all hands, some three months previously, after having been seen in pursuit of a large brig that had come out of the river; these circumstances leading to the inference that the Congo was the haunt of a strong gang of daring slavers whose capture must be effected at any cost.
It was for this service that the Barracouta had been selected, she being a brand-new ship especially built for work on the West African coast, and modelled to sail at a high speed upon a light draught of water. She was immensely beamy for her length, and very shallow, drawing only ten feet of water with all her stores and ammunition on board, very heavily sparred—too heavily, some of us thought—and, as for canvas, her topsails had the hoist of those of a frigate of twice her tonnage. She was certainly a beautiful model of a ship—far and away the prettiest that I had ever seen when I first stepped on board her—while her speed, especially in light winds and tolerably smooth water, was such as to fill us all, fore and aft, with the most extravagant hopes of success against the light-heeled slave clippers whose business it was ours to suppress. She was a flush-decked vessel, with high, substantial bulwarks pierced for nine guns of a side, and she mounted fourteen 18-pounder carronades and four long nine-pounders, two forward and two aft, which could be used as bow and stern-chasers respectively, if need were, although we certainly did not anticipate the necessity to employ any of our guns in the latter capacity. Our crew, all told, numbered one hundred and sixty-five.
I was in the first lieutenant's watch, and happened to be on deck when the look-out reported land upon the morning upon which this story opens. I remember the circumstance as well as though it had occurred but yesterday, and I have only to close my eyes to bring the whole scene up before my mental vision as distinctly as a picture. The brig was, as I have already said, heading to the eastward, close-hauled, on the port tack, under everything that we could set, to her royals; but the wind was so scant that even the light upper sails flapped and rustled monotonously to the sleepy heave and roll of the ship, and it was only by glancing through a port at the small, iridescent air-bubbles that drifted astern at the rate of about a knot and a half in the hour that we were able to detect the fact of our own forward movement at all. We had been on deck just an hour—for two bells had barely been struck— when the first faint suggestion of dawn appeared ahead in the shape of a scarcely-perceptible lightening of the sky along a narrow strip of the eastern horizon, in the midst of which the morning star beamed resplendently, while the air, although still warm, assumed a freshness that, compared with the close, muggy heat of the past night, seemed almost cold, so that involuntarily I drew the lapels of my thin jacket together and buttoned the garment from throat to waist. Quickly, yet by imperceptible gradations, the lightening of the eastern sky spread and strengthened, the soft, velvety, star-lit, blue-black hue paling to an arch of cold, colourless pallor as the dawn asserted itself more emphatically, while the stars dwindled and vanished one by one in the rapidly-growing light. As the pallor of the sky extended itself insidiously north and south along the horizon, a low-lying bank of what at first presented the appearance of dense vapour became visible on the Barracouta's larboard bow; but presently, when the cold whiteness of the coming day became flushed with a delicate tint of purest, palest primrose, the supposed fog-bank assumed a depth of rich purple hue and a clear-cut sharpness of outline that proclaimed it what it was—land, most unmistakably. The look-out was a smart young fellow, who had already established a reputation for trustworthiness, and he more than half suspected the character of the cloud-like appearance when it first caught his attention; he therefore kept his eye upon it, and was no sooner assured of its nature than he raised the cry of—
"Land ho! broad on the port bow!"
The first luff, who had been for some time meditatively pacing the weather side of the deck from the binnacle to the gangway, with his hands clasped behind his back and his glance directed alternately to the deck at his feet and to the swaying main-royal-mast-head, quickly awoke from his abstraction at the cry from the forecastle, and, springing lightly upon a carronade slide, with one hand grasping the inner edge of the hammock-rail, looked long and steadily in the direction indicated.
"Ay, ay, I see it," he answered, when after a long, steady look he had satisfied himself of the character of what he gazed upon. "Wheel, there, how's her head?"
"East-south-east, sir!" answered the helmsman promptly.
The lieutenant shut one eye and, raising his right arm, with the hand held flat and vertically, pointed toward the southern extremity of the distant land, held it there for a moment, and murmured—
"A point and a half—east-half-south, distant—what shall we say—twenty miles? Ay, about that, as nearly as may be. Mr Dugdale, just slip below and let the master know that the land is in sight on the port bow, bearing east-half-south, distant twenty miles."
I touched my cap and trundled down to the master's cabin, the door of which was hooked back wide open, permitting the cool, refreshing morning air that came in through the open scuttle free play throughout the full length of the rather circumscribed apartment in which Mr Robert Bates lay snoring anything but melodiously. Entering the cabin, I grasped the worthy man by the shoulder and shook him gently, calling him by name at the same time in subdued tones in order that I might not awake the occupants of the contiguous berths.
"Ay, ay," was the answer, as the snoring abruptly terminated in a convulsive snort: "Ay, ay. What's the matter now, youngster? Has the ship tumbled overboard during the night, or has the skipper's cow gone aloft to roost in the main-top, that you come here disturbing me with your 'Mr Bates—Mr Bates'?"
"Neither, sir," answered I, with a low laugh at this specimen of our worthy master's quaint nautical humour; "but the first lieutenant directed me to let you know that the land is in sight on the port bow, bearing east-half-south, distant twenty miles."
"What, already?" exclaimed my companion, scrambling out of his cot, still more than half asleep, and landing against me with a force that sent me spinning out through the open doorway to bring up prostrate with a crash in the cabin of the doctor opposite, half stunned by the concussion of my skull against the bulkhead and by the avalanche of ponderous tomes that came crashing down upon me as the worthy medico's tier of hanging bookshelves yielded and came down by the run at my wild clutch as I stumbled over the ledge of the cabin-door.
"Murther! foire! thieves! it's sunk, burnt, desthroyed, and kilt intoirely that I am!" roared poor Blake, rudely awakened out of a sound sleep by the crashing fall of his pet volumes upon the deck and by a terrific thwack across the face that I had inadvertently dealt him as I fell. "Fwhat is it that's happenin' at all, thin? is it a collision? or is it a case of sthrandin'? or"—he looked over the edge of his cot and saw me sitting upon the deck, ruefully rubbing the back of my head while I vainly struggled to suppress my laughter at the ridiculous contretemps—"oh! so it's you, thin, is it, Misther Dugdale? Bedad, but you ought to be ashamed of yoursilf to be playin' these pranks—a lad of your age, that's hitherto been the patthern of good behaviour! But wait a little, my man—sthop till I tell the first liftinint of your outhrageous conduct—"
By this time I thought that the matter had gone far enough; more over, I had in a measure recovered my scattered senses, so I scrambled to my feet and, as I re-hung the book shelf and replaced the books, hurriedly explained to the good man the nature of the mishap, winding up with a humble apology for having so rudely broken in upon what he was pleased to call his "beauty shlape." Understanding at once that my involuntary incursion into the privacy of his cabin had been the result of pure accident, "Paddy," as we irreverently called him—his baptismal name was William—very good-naturedly accepted my explanation and apology, and composed himself to sleep again, whereupon I retreated in good order and re-entered the master's cabin. The old boy had by this time slipped on his breeches and coat, and was bending over the table with the chart of "Africa—West Coast" spread out thereon, and a pencil and parallel ruler in his hands. He indulged in one or two of the grimly humorous remarks that were characteristic of him in reference to my disturbance of the doctor's slumbers; and then, pointing to a dot that he had just made upon the chart, observed—
"If the first lieutenant's bearing and distance are right, that's where we are, about twelve miles off Shark Point, and therefore in soundings. Did you see the land, Mr Dugdale? What was it like?"
"It made as a long stretch of undulating hills sloping gently down to the horizon at its southernmost extremity, and extending beyond the horizon to the northward," I replied.
"Ay, ay, that's right; that's quite right," agreed the master. "It is that range of hills stretching along parallel with the coast on the north side of the river, and reaching as far as Kabenda Point," indicating the markings on the chart as he spoke. "Well, let us go on deck and get a cast of the lead; it is time that we ascertained the exact position of the ship, for the deep-water channel is none too wide, and although there seems to be plenty of water for us over the banks on either side, I have no fancy for trusting to the soundings laid down here on the chart. These African rivers are never to be depended upon, the shoals are constantly shifting, and where you may find water enough to float a line-of-battle ship to-day, you may ground in that same ship's launch a month hence."
He rolled up the chart, tucked it under his arm, gathered up his parallel ruler, pencil, and dividers, and together we left the cabin and made our way up the hatchway to the deck, where we found the first luff still perched upon the carronade slide, anxiously scanning the horizon on either bow under the sharp of his hand.
As we reached the deck a spark of golden fire flashed out upon the horizon on our lee bow, and the sun's disc soared slowly into view, warming the tints of a long, low-lying broken bank of grey cloud that stretched athwart his course into crimson, and fringing its skirts with gold as his first beams shot athwart the heaving water to the ship in a tremulous path of shimmering, dazzling radiance.
The lieutenant caught a glimpse of us out of the corner of his eye as we emerged from the hatchway, and at once stepped down off the slide on to the deck.
"Good-morning, Bates," said he. "Well, here we are, with the land plainly in view, you see; and I am glad that you have come on deck to tell us just where we are, for all this part of the world is quite new ground to me. We are closer in than I thought we were, for just before the sun rose the horizon ahead cleared, and I caught sight of what looked like the tops of trees, both on the port and on the starboard bow—you can't see them now for the dazzle, but you will presently, when the sun is a bit higher—and there seemed to be an opening or indentation of some sort between them, which I take to be the mouth of the river."
"Ay, ay," answered Bates, "that will be it, no doubt." He sprang on to the slide that Young had just vacated, took a long look at the land, and then, turning to the helmsman, demanded, "How's her head?"
"East-south-east, sir," answered the man for the second time.
With this information the master in his turn took an approximate bearing of the southernmost extremity of the range of hills, after which he stepped down on to the deck again and, going to the capstan, spread out his chart upon the head of it, calling me to help him keep the roll open. The lieutenant followed him, and stood watching as the master again manipulated his parallel ruler and dividers.
"Yes," remarked Bates, after a few moments' diligent study, "that's just about where we are," pointing to the mark that he had made upon the chart while in his own cabin. "And see," he continued, glancing out through the nearest lee port, "we have reached the river water; look how brown and thick it is, more like a cup of the captain's chocolate than good, wholesome salt water. We will try a cast of the lead, Mr Young, if you please, just to make sure; though if we are fair in the channel, as I think we are, we shall get no bottom as yet. Nor shall we make any headway until the wind freshens or the sea-breeze springs up, for we are already within the influence of the outflowing current, and at this season of the year—which is the rainy season—it runs very strongly a little further in."
The lead was hove, but, as Bates had anticipated, no bottom was found; whereupon the master rolled up his chart again, gave orders that the ship was to be kept going as she was, and returned to his cabin, while the watch mustered their buckets and scrubbing-brushes and proceeded to wash decks and generally make the brig's toilet for the day.
Our worthy master was right; we did not make a particle of headway until about nine o'clock, when the wind gradually hauled round aft and freshened to a piping breeze before which we boomed along in fine style until we came abreast of a low, narrow point on our port hand, protected from the destructive action of the Atlantic breakers by a shoal extending some three-quarters of a mile to seaward. Abreast of this point we hauled up to the northward and entered a sort of bay about half-a-mile wide, with the low point before-mentioned on our port hand, and a wide mud-bank to starboard, beyond which was an island of considerable extent, fringed with mangroves and covered with thick bush and lofty trees. On the low point on our port hand were two "factories," or trading establishments, abreast of which were lying two brigs and a barque, one of the brigs flying British and the other Spanish colours, while the barque sported the Dutch ensign at her mizen-peak. We rounded-to just far enough outside these craft to give them a clear berth, and let go our anchor in four fathoms of water.
It was a queer spot that we now found ourselves in; queer to me at least, who was now entering upon my first experience of West African service. We were riding with our head to the north-west under the combined influence of wind and tide together, with the low point—named Banana Peninsula, so the master informed me, though why it should be so named I never could understand, for there was not a single banana-tree upon the whole peninsula, as I subsequently ascertained. Let me see, where was I? I have gone adrift among those non-existent banana-trees. Oh yes, I was going to attempt to make a word-sketch of the scene which surrounded us after we had let go our anchor and furled our canvas. The sea-breeze was piping strong from the westward, while the tide was ebbing down the creek from the northward, and under these combined influences the Barracouta was riding with her head about north—west. Banana Peninsula lay ahead of us, trending away along our larboard beam and slightly away from us to the southward for about half-a-mile, where it terminated in a sandy beach bordered by a broad patch of smooth water, athwart which marched an endless line of mimic breakers from the wall of flashing white surf that thundered upon the outer edge of the protecting shoal three-quarters of a mile to seaward. The point was pretty thickly covered with bush and trees, chiefly cocoa-nut and other palms—except in the immediate vicinity and in front of the two factories, where the soil had been cleared and a sort of rough wharf constructed by driving piles formed of the trunks of trees into the ground and wedging a few slabs of sawn timber in behind them. The point, for a distance of perhaps a mile from its southern extremity, was very narrow—not more than from one hundred and fifty to two hundred yards wide—but beyond that it widened out considerably until it merged in the mainland. On the opposite side of the creek, on our starboard quarter and astern of us, was what I at first took to be a single island, but which I subsequently found to be a group of about a dozen islands, of which the smallest may have been half-a-mile long by about a third of a mile broad, while the largest was some nine or ten miles long by about three miles broad. These islands really constituted the northern bank of the river for a distance some twenty-four miles up the stream, being cut off from the mainland and from each other by narrow canal-like creeks running generally in a direction more or less east and west. The land all about here was low, and to a great extent swampy, the margin of the creeks being lined with mangroves that presented a very curious appearance as they stood up out of the dark, slimy-looking water, their trunks supported upon a network of naked, twisted roots that strongly suggested to me the idea of spiders' legs swollen and knotted with some hideous, deforming disease. The trees themselves, however, apart from their twisted, gnarled, and knotted roots, presented a very pleasing appearance, for they had just come into full leaf, and their fresh green foliage was deeply grateful to the eye satiated with a long and wearisome repetition of the panorama of unbroken sea and sky. Beyond the belt of mangroves the islands were overgrown with dense bush, interspersed with tall trees, some of which were rich with violet blossoms growing in great drooping clusters, like the flowers of the laburnum; while others were heavily draped with long, trailing sprays of magnificent jasmine, of which there were two kinds, one bearing a pinky flower, and the other a much larger star-like bloom of pure white. The euphorbia, acacia, and baobab or calabash-tree were all in bloom; and here and there, through openings between the trunks of the mangroves, glimpses were caught of rich splashes of deep orange-colour, standing out like flame against the dark background of shadowed foliage, that subsequent investigation proved to be clumps of elegant orchids. It appeared that we had entered the river at precisely the right time of the year to behold it at its brightest and best, for the spring rains had only recently set in, and all Nature was rioting in the refreshment of the welcome moisture and bursting forth into a joyous prodigality of leaf and blossom, of colour and perfume, of life and glad activity. The forest rang with the calls and cries of pairing birds; flocks of parrots, parrakeets, and love-birds were constantly wheeling and darting hither and thither; kingfishers flitted low across the placid water, or watched motionless from some overhanging branch for the passage of their unsuspecting prey; the wydah bird flaunted his gay plumage in the brilliant sunshine, where it could be seen to the fullest advantage; and butterflies, like living gems, flitted happily from flower to flower. Astern of us, some three miles away, lay Boolambemba Point, the southernmost extremity of the group of islands to which I have already alluded, where the embouchure of the river may be said to begin, the stream here being about three and a half miles across, while immediately below it abruptly widens to a breadth of about five and a half miles at the indentation leading to Banana Creek, in the narrow approach to which we were lying at anchor. Of course it was not possible for us to distinguish, from where we were lying, much of the character of the country on the southern or left bank of the river, but it appeared to be pretty much the same as what we saw around us; that is to say, low land densely covered with bush and trees along the river margin, with higher land beyond. About half-a-mile beyond us, broad on our starboard bow as we were then lying, the anchorage narrowed down to a width of less than half-a-mile, the western extremity of the group of islands already referred to there converging toward Banana Peninsula in a low, mangrove-wooded point. Beyond this, however, could be seen a stretch of water about a mile and a half wide, which I subsequently learned ran for several miles up at the back of the islands, between them and the mainland, in the form of a narrow, shallow, canal-like creek that Bates, the master, seemed to think might well repay the trouble of careful inspection, since the narrow maze of channels to which it gave access offered exceptional facilities for the embarkation of slaves, and a choice of routes for the light-draught slavers from their places of concealment into the main channel of the river.
WE RECEIVE SOME IMPORTANT INTELLIGENCE.
We had barely got our canvas furled and the decks cleared when we saw a fine, handsome whale-boat, painted white, with a canvas awning spread over her stern-sheets, and the Portuguese flag fluttering from a little staff at her stern, shove off from the wharf and pull toward us. She was manned by four Krumen, and in the stern-sheets sat a tall, swarthy man, whose white drill suit and white, broad-brimmed Panama hat, swathed with a white puggaree, caused his suntanned face and hands to appear almost as black as the skins of his negro crew. The boat swept up to our gangway in very dashing style, and her owner, ascending the accommodation ladder, stepped in on deck with a genial smile that disclosed a splendid set of brilliantly white teeth beneath his heavy, glossy black moustache.
"Good-morning, sar," said he to the first lieutenant, who met him at the gangway. "Velcome to Banana," with a flourish of his hat. "Vat chip dis is, eh?"
"Her Britannic Majesty's brig Barracouta," answered Young. "You are the Portuguese consul here, I suppose?"
"No—no; I not de consul," was the answer. "Dere is no consul at Banana. I am Senor Joaquin Miguel Lobo, Portuguese trader, at your savice, sar; and I have come off to say dat I shall be happie to supply your chip wid anyting dat you may require—vattare, fresh meat, vegetabl', feesh, no fruit—de fruit not ripe yet; plenty fruit by an' by, but not ripe yet—parrots, monkeys—all kind of bird and animal, yes; and curiositie—plenty curiositie, sar."
Here the skipper, who had been below for a few minutes, re-appeared on deck, and, seeing the stranger, advanced toward him, whereupon the first lieutenant introduced Senor Joaquin Miguel Lobo in proper form.
"Glad to see you, senor," remarked the skipper genially. "Will you step below and take a glass of wine with Lieutenant Young and myself?"
"Ver' happie, captain, I am sure," answered the senor with another sweeping bow and flourish of his Panama; and forthwith the trio disappeared down the hatchway, to my unbounded astonishment, for it was not quite like our extremely dignified skipper to be so wonderfully cordial as this to a mere trader.
"Ah, I'm afraid that won't wash," remarked Bates, catching the look of astonishment and perplexity on my face as I turned my regards away from the hatchway. "The captain means to pump the Portuguese, if he can, but from the cut of the senor's jib I fancy there is not much to be got out of him; he looks to be far too wide-awake to let us become as wise as himself. I'll be bound that he could put us up to many a good wrinkle if he would; but, bless you, youngster, he's not going to spoil his own trade. He professes to be an honest trader, of course—deals in palm-oil and ivory and what not, of course, and I've no doubt he does; but I wouldn't mind betting a farthing cake that he ships a precious sight more black ivory than white out of this same river. Look at that brig, for instance—the one flying Spanish colours, I mean. Just look at her! Did you ever set your eyes upon a more beautiful hull than that? Look at the sweep of her run; see how it comes curving round to her stern-post in a delivery so clean that it won't leave a single eddy behind it. No drag there, my boy! And look at her sides: round as an apple—not an inch of straight in them! And do you suppose that a brig with lines like that was built for the purpose of carrying palm-oil? Not she. I should like to have a look at her bows; I'll be bound they are as keen as a knife—we shall see them by and by, when she swings at the turn of the tide. Yet if that brig were overhauled—as she probably will be—nothing whatever of a suspicious character would be found aboard her, except maybe a whole lot of casks, which they would say was for stowing the palm-oil in. Well, here we are; but we shall have to keep our eyes open night and day to weather upon the rascally slavers; they are as sly as foxes, and always up to some new circumventing trick."
With which reflection, followed by a deep sigh at the wily genius of the slaving fraternity in general, the worthy master turned upon his heel and retired below.
The Portuguese remained in the cabin for over an hour; and when he came on deck again, accompanied by the captain and the first lieutenant, I thought that the two latter looked decidedly elated, as though, despite the master's foreboding, they had succeeded in obtaining some important information. The captain was particularly gracious to his visitor, going even to the length of shaking hands with him ere he passed out through the gangway, the first luff of course following suit, as in duty bound.
"Then we may rely upon you to send us off the fresh meat and vegetables early this afternoon?" remarked Young, as he stood at the gangway.
"Yais, yais; dey shall be alongside by t'ree o'clock at de lates'!" answered the Portuguese. "And as soon as you have receive dem you had better veigh and leave de creek. Give dat point"—indicating Boolambemba Point—"a bert' of a mile and you veel be all right."
"Yes, thanks, I will remember," returned the first lieutenant. "And where are we to pick you up?"
"Hus-s-sh! my dear sair; not so loud, if you please," answered Lobo, hastily leaving his boat and coming half-way up the gangway ladder again. "Dere is a leetl' creek about two mile pas' de point, on de nort' bank of de river. I vill be on de look-out for you dere in a small canoe vid two men dat I can trus'. And you mus' pick me up queevk, because if eet vas known dat I had consent to pilot you my t'roat would be cut before I vas a mont' oldaire."
"Never fear," answered Young. "We will keep a sharp look-out for you and get you on board without anybody being a penny the wiser. Good-bye."
The Portuguese bowed with another flourish of his hat, seated himself in the stern-sheets of his boat, gave the word to his Krumen, and a few minutes later was on the wharf, walking toward his factory, into the open door of which he disappeared.
"Come," thought I, "there is something afoot already. The captain and the first luff have, between them, evidently contrived to worm some intelligence out of the Portuguese. I must go and tell Bates the news."
Before I could do so, however, the captain, who had been standing near the gangway, listening to what was passing between Young and Lobo, caught sight of me and said—
"Mr Dugdale, be good enough to find Mr Bates, and tell him that I shall feel obliged if he will come to me for a few minutes in my cabin."
I touched my hat, dived down the hatchway, and gave the message, whereupon the master stepped out of his cabin and made his way aft. He was with the captain nearly half-an-hour; and when he re-appeared he looked as pleased as Punch.
"I'll never attempt to judge a man's character by his face again," he exclaimed, as he caught me by the arm, and walked me along the deck beside him. "Who would have thought that a piratical-looking rascal like that Portuguese would have been friendly disposed towards the representatives of law and order? Yet he has not only given the captain valuable information, but has actually consented to pilot the ship to the spot which is to serve as our base of operations, although, as he says, should the slavers get to know of his having done such a thing, they would cut his throat without hesitation."
"Yes," said I, "I heard him make that remark to Mr Young just before shoving off. And pray, Mr Bates—if the question be not indiscreet— what is the nature of the expedition upon which we are to engage this afternoon?"
"Well, I don't know why I shouldn't tell you," answered Bates, a little doubtfully. "Our movements are of course to be conducted with all possible secrecy, but if I tell you I don't suppose you'll go ashore and hire the town-crier to make public our intentions; and all hands will have to know—more or less—what we're after, very soon, so I suppose I shall not be infringing any of the Articles of War if I tell you now; but you needn't go and publish the news throughout the ship, d'ye see? Let the skipper do that when he thinks fit."
"Certainly," I assented. "You may rely implicitly upon my discretion."
"Oh yes, of course," retorted the master ironically. "A midshipman is a perfect marvel in the way of prudence and discretion; everybody knows that! However," he continued, in a much more genial tone, "I will do you the justice to say that you seem to have your ballast pretty well stowed, and that you stand up to your canvas as steadily as any youngster that I've ever fallen in with; so I don't suppose there'll be very much harm in trusting you. You must know, then, that there's a bit of a creek, called Chango Creek, some fourteen or fifteen miles up the river from here; and in that creek there is at this moment lying snugly at anchor, quite unconscious of our proximity, and leisurely filling up her complement of blacks, a large Spanish brig called the Mercedes hailing from Havana. She is a notorious slaver, and is strongly suspected of having played the part of pirate more than once, when circumstances were favourable. Moreover, from what our Portuguese friend Lobo says, she was in the river when the Sapphire's two boats with their crews disappeared; and according to the dates he gives, she must also have been the craft that the plucky little Wasp was in chase of when last seen. There is very little doubt, therefore, that the Mercedes is the craft—or, at all events, one of them—which it is our especial mission to capture at any cost; and we are therefore going to weigh this afternoon for the purpose of beating up her quarters. Lobo has undertaken to pilot us as far as the mouth of the creek; and as he tells us that the brig is fully a hundred tons bigger than ourselves, is armed to the teeth, and is manned by a big crowd of desperadoes, every man of whom has bound himself by a fearful oath never to lay down his arms while the breath remains in his body, I shouldn't wonder if we find out before all is done that we have undertaken a pretty tough job."
"It would seem like it, if Senor Lobo's information is to be relied upon," said I, an involuntary shudder and qualm thrilling me as my vivid imagination instantly conjured up a vision of the impending conflict. "But I suppose every precaution will be taken to catch the rascals unawares?"
"You may be sure of that," answered the master, peering curiously into my face as he spoke. "Captain Stopford is not the man to court a reverse, or a heavy loss of life, by unduly advertising his intentions. But you look pale, boy! You are surely not beginning to funk, are you?"
"No," said I, a little dubiously, "I think not. But this will be my first experience of fighting, you know—I have never been face to face with an enemy thus far—and I must confess that the idea of a hand-to-hand fight—for I suppose it will come to that—a life-and-death struggle, wherein one has not only to incur the awful responsibility of hurling one's fellow-creatures into eternity, but also to take the fearful risk of being hurled thither one's self, perhaps without a moment of time in which to breathe a prayer for mercy, is something that I, for one, can hardly contemplate with absolute equanimity."
"Certainly not," assented Bates kindly, linking his arm in mine as he spoke; "certainly not; you would be something more or less—less, I should be inclined to say—than human if you could. But, as to the responsibility of hurling those villains into eternity, do not let that trouble you for a single moment, my lad; in endeavouring to put down this inhuman slave-trade we are engaged upon a righteous and lawful task—lawful and righteous in the eyes of God as well as of man, I humbly believe—and if the traffickers in human flesh and human freedom and human happiness choose to risk and lose their lives in the pursuit of their hellish trade, the responsibility must rest with themselves, and in my humble opinion the earth is well rid of such inhuman monsters. And as to the other matter—that of being yourself hurried into eternity unprepared—it need not occur, my boy; no one need die unprepared. What I mean is, of course, that all should take especial care to be prepared for death whenever it may meet us, for we know not what a day, or an hour, or even a moment may bring forth; the man who walks the streets of his native town in fancied security is actually just as liable to be cut off unawares as are we who follow the terrible but necessary profession of arms; the menaces to life ashore are as numerous as they are afloat, or more so; the forms of accident are innumerable. And therefore I say that all should be careful to so conduct themselves that they may be prepared to face death at any moment. And if they are not, they may easily become so; for God's ear is always open to the cry of His children, and I will take it upon myself to say that no earnest, heartfelt prayer is ever allowed to go unanswered. So, if you have any misgivings about to-night's work, go to God and ask for His mercy and protection and help; and then, whatever happens, you will be all right."
So saying, the good old fellow halted just abreast the hatchway, which we had reached at this point in our perambulation fore and aft the deck, and, gently urging me toward it suggestively, released my arm and turned away. I took the hint thus given me and, without a word—for indeed at that moment I was too deeply moved for speech—made my way below to the midshipmen's berth, which I found opportunely empty, and there cast myself upon my knees and prayed earnestly for some minutes. When I arose from this act of devotion I was once more calm and unperturbed; and from that moment I date a habit of prayer that has been an inexpressible comfort and support to me ever since.
Upon returning to the deck the first object that caught my eyes was our gig, with the first luff and little Pierrepoint—our junior mid but one—in the stern-sheets, pulling toward the very handsome Spanish brig—already spoken of as lying at anchor a short distance inside of us—upon a visit of inspection. That the inspection to which she was subjected was pretty thorough was sufficiently attested by the fact that the gig remained alongside her a full hour, the British brig and the Dutch barque being in their turn afterwards subjected to a similarly severe examination; but, as Bates had predicted, nothing came of it, all their papers being perfectly in order, while a rigorous search failed to discover anything of an incriminating character on board either of them.
"Of course not," commented the master, when he learned the substance of the first luff's report to the skipper; "of course not. Bless ye, the people that trade to this river aren't born fools, not they! Just consider the matter for a moment. Let's suppose, for argument's sake, that the Spaniard yonder is a slaver. Would she ship her cargo here in the very spot that would be first visited by every man-o'-war that enters the river? Of course she wouldn't; she'd go away up the river into one of the many creeks that branch into it on either side for the first twenty miles or so, and ship her blacks there, watching for the chance of a dark night to slip out and get well off the land before daylight. If she came in here at all, it would be to fill up her water and lay in a stock of meal upon which to feed her niggers when she'd got 'em; and you may depend on it that when a slaver comes in here upon any such errand as that, a very bright look-out is kept for cruisers, and that, upon the first sight of a suspicious-looking sail in the offing, her irons, her meal, and everything else that would incriminate her are bundled ashore and hidden away safely among the bushes, while her water would be started and pumped out of her long enough before a man-o'-war could get alongside of her. What is that Spanish brig taking in?" he continued, turning to little Pierrepoint, who, with the first lieutenant, had visited her.
"Nothing," answered the lad. "She only arrived yesterday; and her hold is half full of casks in which she is going to stow her palm-oil."
"Of course," remarked the master sarcastically, turning to me. "What did I say to you this morning? Whenever a ship is found in an African river with a lot of casks aboard, that ship is after palm-oil—at least, so her skipper will tell ye. And that's where they get to wind'ard of us; for unless they've something more incriminating—something pointing more directly to an intention to traffic in slaves—than mere casks, we daren't touch 'em. But, you mark me, that brig's here to take off a cargo of blacks; and unless I'm greatly mistaken she'll have vanished when we turn up here again to-morrow."
It was just six bells in the afternoon watch when two boats—one containing fresh water in casks, and the other loaded to her gunwale with fresh meat—mostly goat-mutton strongly impregnated with the powerful musky odour of the animal—appeared paddling leisurely off to the Barracouta under the guidance of four powerful but phenomenally lazy Krumen, who would probably have consumed the best part of half-an-hour in the short passage from the wharf to the brig had not our impatient first luff dispatched a boat to tow them alongside. The water was pumped into the tanks, the provisions were passed up the side and stowed away below in the coolest part of the ship; and no sooner were the boats clear of the ship's side than the boatswain's whistle shrilled along the deck, followed by the gruff bellow of "All hands unmoor ship!" the messenger was passed, the anchor roused up to the bows, and in a few minutes the Barracouta, under her two topsails, and wafted by a light westerly zephyr, was moving slowly down the narrow channel toward the estuary of the river.
So light was the draught of air that now impelled us, that, although every cloth was quickly spread to woo it, the ship was a full hour and a half reaching as far as Boolambemba Point, where we met the full strength of the river current; and when we bore away on our course up the river, our patience was severely taxed by the discovery that, even with studding-sails set on both sides from the royals down, we could scarcely do more than hold our own against the strong rush of the tide and current together. Slowly, however, and by imperceptible degrees, by hugging the northern shore as closely as we dared, with the lead constantly going, we managed to creep insidiously past the mangrove and densely bush-clad river bank until, just as the sun was dipping into the horizon astern in a brief but indescribably magnificent blaze of purple and scarlet and gold, we reached the place of our rendezvous with Senor Lobo. And soon afterwards we had the satisfaction of discovering that gentleman making his way toward us out of the narrow creek, his conveyance being a small native canoe about fifteen feet long, roughly hewn and hollowed out of a single log, and propelled by two natives, who apparently regarded clothes as an entirely unnecessary superfluity, for they were absolutely naked. They were fine, powerful specimens of negro manhood, however, and smart fellows withal, for they propelled their ungainly little craft along at a truly wonderful pace with scarcely any apparent effort, sheering her alongside the brig in quite respectable style without obliging us to start tack or sheet in order to pick them up, and shinning up the side with the agility of a couple of monkeys as soon as they had securely made fast the rope's-end that was hove to them.
Our impatience at the slow progress that we had thus far made was somewhat relieved by Lobo's assurance that we might confidently rely upon a brisk breeze speedily springing up that would carry us to our destination as soon as was at all desirable; his opinion being that our best chance of success lay in the postponement of our attack until about two o'clock in the morning, by which time the moon would have set, and the slaver's crew would probably be wrapped in their deepest slumber. So far as his prognostication relative to the wind was concerned, it was soon confirmed, a strong breeze from the southward springing up, under the impulsion of which, and with considerably reduced canvas, we reached our destination, so far as the brig was concerned, about five bells in the first watch.
This spot was situated on the northern bank of the river, at a distance, up-stream, of about thirteen miles from Boolambemba Point. It was at the mouth of a creek, named Chango Creek, and in a small bay or roadstead about a mile long by perhaps half that width formed by six islands, the largest of which was nearly two miles long by half-a-mile wide, while the smallest and most easterly of all was a very diminutive affair, of perhaps not more than an acre in area, densely overgrown, like the rest of them, with thick, impenetrable bush. In the very centre of this small roadstead, to which we had been piloted by the Portuguese trader, we anchored the brig in two and a half fathoms of water; when, the canvas having been furled, and all our preparations for the attack having been fully made before dark, a strong anchor-watch was set, and everybody else turned in to get an hour or two's sleep, strict injunctions being laid upon the master, who had charge of the watch, to keep a bright look-out, and to have all hands called at two bells precisely in the middle watch. As for Lobo, he took leave of us directly that our anchor was down, and, rousing out his sable crew, who were fast asleep and snoring melodiously underneath the long-boat, took to his canoe, once more and almost immediately vanished among the deep black shadows of the islets that hemmed us in.
I know not what were the feelings of others on board the brig on that eventful night, or how those two short hours of inaction were spent in other parts of the ship, but I am convinced that when we all went below to turn in, a very general conviction had spread among us that the enterprise upon which we were shortly to engage was one that would prove to be more than ordinarily difficult and dangerous, and while not one of us probably had a moment's doubt as to its ultimate result, I believe the feeling was pretty general that the struggle would be fierce and obstinate, and that our loss would probably be unusually heavy. I gathered this from the demeanour of the ship's crew generally, officers as well as men; the former revealing the feeling by the extreme care with which they scrutinised and personally superintended the several preparations for the expedition, and the latter by the grim and silent earnestness with which they performed their share of the work. True, there was some faint attempt at jocularity among a few of the occupants of the midshipmen's berth as we sought our hammocks, but it was manifestly braggadocio, utterly lacking the true ring of heartiness that usually characterised such attempts, and it was speedily nipped in the bud by Gowland, the master's mate, who gruffly recommended the offenders to "say their prayers and then go to sleep, instead of talking nonsense." Though I was not one of the offenders I took his advice, earnestly commending myself to the mercy and protection of the Almighty, both in the coming conflict and throughout the rest of my life, should it please Him to spare it, after which I sank quickly into a deep, untroubled sleep.
THE NIGHT ATTACK.
From this sleep I was aroused—in a few minutes, it seemed to me, although really it was nearly two hours later—by a boisterous banging upon the mess-table, followed by the voice of the marine who executed the functions of steward to the mess, exclaiming—
"'All hands,' gentlemen, please! The captain and the first liftenant is already on deck."
This was followed by the rasping scrape of a lucifer match, by the feeble light of which the man's face was seen bending over the lantern which he was endeavouring to light.
"Ay, ay, Jerry, look alive with the lantern, man!" responded the master's mate. "What is the night like?" he continued, as he swung himself out of his hammock and hastily proceeded to thrust his long legs into his breeches.
"Dark as pitch, sir; blowing more than half a gale of wind, and threatening rain," was the cheering answer.
"A pleasant prospect, truly," muttered Good, my especial chum, as we jostled each other in the confined space wherein we were struggling into our clothing.
"It might be worse, however," responded Gowland, as he knotted a black silk handkerchief tightly about his loins. "The darkness and the roar of the wind among the trees will help capitally to mask our approach, while I dare say that the craft which we are going to attack will be in such a snug berth that nobody will think it worth while to keep a look-out, blow high or blow low. I say, Pierrepoint, are you told off for the boats?"
Pierrepoint intimated that he was.
"Then put that rubbishy toasting-fork away and get a cutlass, boy, as Dugdale has. Of what use do you suppose a dirk would be in a hand-to-hand fight with a great burly Spaniard? Why, none at all. I can't understand, for my part, why such useless tools are supplied for active service! Get a good honest cutlass, boy; something that you can trust your life to. And look sharp about it! Hurry up there, you loafers! Come, Burdett, my boy, stir your stumps if you don't want a wigging from the first luff! Hillo, Jerry! what's that, hot coffee? Well done, my man, I'll owe you a glass of grog for that! Pour it out quickly, and rouse out the bread barge."
Jerry was a smart fellow and looked after us well, I will say that for him. In less than a minute a cup or pannikin of steaming coffee stood ready for each of us, with the bread barge, well supplied, in the centre of the table.
"There's no time for eating now, but take my advice and slip a biscuit into your pocket, each of you, to eat as soon as the boats shove off," advised Gowland. "There is nothing worse for a man, in this climate—or any climate, for the matter of that—than to turn out and go into the open air in the middle of the night upon an empty stomach." And, suiting the action to the word, he thrust a biscuit into each of his side-pockets, placed a morsel in his mouth, and, with the exclamation, "Well, I'm off!" darted up the ladder and disappeared.
I followed, and, upon reaching the deck, found that all hands were mustered and waiting for inspection previous to being told off to the boats. The skipper was in his cabin, but a few minutes later—by which time all the laggards had put in an appearance—he emerged from the companion-way and the inspection at once began, great attention being given, I noticed, to those who were to go in the boats, to insure that their weapons were in serviceable order, their pistols loaded, and that each man had his due supply of cartridges. The inspection was conducted by the first lieutenant, accompanied by the captain and a sergeant of marines, the latter carrying a lantern, by the rather dim and uncertain light of which the inspection was made. The moment that this was over the men who were to participate in the expedition were told off, each to his proper boat, the boats were lowered and brought to the gangway, and in less than a quarter of an hour from the moment of our being called we were off.
The expedition consisted of four boats; namely, the gig, the pinnace, and the first and second cutters. The gig was a very fine, handsome boat, beautifully modelled, and exceedingly fast; she was commanded by the captain himself, who led the expedition—a sure indication of the important character, in his opinion, of the impending encounter. She pulled six oars, and in addition to the skipper, my chum, Good, and her crew of seamen, carried half-a-dozen marines, four in the stern-sheets, and two forward. The pinnace was a big, roomy, and rather heavy boat, pulling ten oars, double banked, and mounting a nine-pounder gun in her bows. She was commanded by Mr Michael Ryan, the second lieutenant, a rollicking, high-spirited Irishman, whose only fault was that he lacked discretion and was utterly reckless; albeit this fault was to a great extent condoned by the effect of his influence upon the men, who would follow him anywhere. His crew, in addition to the ten oarsmen and a coxswain, consisted of little Pierrepoint and ten marines, six aft and four forward. The first and second cutters were sister boats, precisely alike in every respect, each pulling eight oars, double banked. They were rather smarter boats than the pinnace, being nearly as long but with less beam and freeboard, and finer lines. The first cutter was commanded by Gowland, the master's mate, and carried, in addition to her crew of ten men and a coxswain, eight marines. The second cutter was entrusted to me, and carried the same complement as her consort, the first cutter. It will thus be seen that the expedition numbered seventy-seven souls in all—nearly the half of our ship's company, in fact—the brig being left in charge of the first luff, with the master, the purser, the surgeon, young Burdett of the midshipmen's mess, the cook and his mate, captain's, gun-room, and wardroom stewards, and seventy-eight seamen.
The weather, although favourable enough for such an expedition as that upon which we were engaged—and which, if our anticipations should prove correct, would depend largely for its success upon our ability to take the enemy completely by surprise—was decidedly disagreeable; for, as Jerry had reported, it was dark as pitch, the wind was sweeping athwart the river in savage gusts that roared among the trees with a volume of sound that rendered it necessary to raise the voice to a loud shout in order to make an order heard from one end of the boat to the other, and we had scarcely left the ship when it came on to rain with a fury that rendered the preservation of our ammunition from damage a serious difficulty and a source of keen anxiety. Fortunately for us, we reached the mouth of the creek a few minutes before the rain began to fall, but for which circumstance we should, have met with the utmost difficulty in discovering the entrance, and might possibly have lost a considerable amount of valuable time in the search for it. Even as it was, so intense was the darkness that, although the creek was only some two hundred yards wide, we found it impossible to keep the boats in the centre of the channel, and for a little while were constantly running foul of each other or the banks. Luckily for us, we were no sooner in the creek than its eastern bank afforded us a shelter from the direct violence of the wind, the bush and trees growing so thickly right down to the water's edge that close inshore we were completely becalmed; and, thus sheltered, our sense of hearing helped us somewhat despite the deep roar of the gale overhead, while we quickly caught the knack of steering along the outer edge of the narrow belt of calm, in this way avoiding to a great extent the difficulties and petty mishaps that had at first so seriously hampered our movements.
In this way, and exposed all the while to the pelting of the heavy tropical downpour, which quickly drenched us to the skin in spite of the protection of our oil-skins, we slowly groped our way along the creek with muffled oars for rather more than an hour, when we unexpectedly found ourselves at the entrance of a fairly spacious lagoon, in the centre of which we speedily made out not one, but four craft moored right athwart the channel, completely barring our further passage. From their disposition it looked very much as though they had been moored with springs upon their cables—for their broadsides were presented fair at us—and, if so, it argued at least a suspicion on their part of a possible visit from an enemy, with doubtless a corresponding amount of precaution against the chance of being surprised.
Scarcely had we made this discovery when the gig, which was leading, found her further progress unexpectedly interrupted by a boom composed of tree-trunks, secured together with chains, stretching right across the water-way. As she struck it a loud cry was heard proceeding from the river bank on our starboard hand, immediately followed by a musket-shot. The next moment a spark of light appeared in the same quarter, quickly increasing in size and intensity until in less than a minute a large fire, evidently caused by the ignition of a very considerable quantity of highly combustible material, was blazing fiercely in the shelter of a thick clump of overhanging bush, that seemed to almost completely shield it from the rain, which, however, had considerably moderated by this time. The dense mass of bush behind and on either side of the blazing mass acted in some sort as a reflector, concentrating the light of the fire upon the boom and our four boats clustered closely together about it, and defining them with very unpleasant distinctness against the background of impenetrable darkness.
That this was so, and that our projected surprise had proved a lamentable failure, was made clear by the sounds of commotion and the sharp cries of command that at once arose on board the slavers, almost instantly followed by a smart and well-directed musketry fire, the bullets from which came dropping about us in very unpleasant proximity, although, fortunately, nobody was actually hit.
"Separate at once!" cried the skipper, rising in the stern-sheets of the gig as he realised that the time for silence and secrecy was past; "separate at once; spread yourselves along the boom, and let each boat's crew do its best to make a passage through it. Try the effect of a shot from your gun upon it, Mr Ryan. Marines, return the fire of those craft, aiming at the flashes from their pieces. The first boat to force the boom will report the fact to me before passing through."
We spread well along the boom, maintaining open order, so that we might afford as small a target as possible, and devoted our energies to breaking through the obstruction at points where the trunks were united by chains; but we found this by no means an easy matter, staples being driven home through the links into the tenacious wood so closely together that it was impossible to find a space wide enough to take the loom of an oar—the only lever at hand, as we had not anticipated or provided for such a contingency. Meanwhile, our adversaries proved themselves fully alive to the advantage which our situation afforded them, and fully prepared to make the most of it, for they kept up a brisk though irregular fire of musketry upon us from which we soon began to suffer rather severely, two of my men being hit within the space of as many minutes, while sharp cries of pain to our right and left told us that the occupants of the other boats were receiving their full share of the slavers' attentions. This was only the beginning of the conflict, however, for before our marines had had time to fire more than thrice in reply to the slavers' musketry fire, five fierce flashes of flame burst simultaneously from the side of the largest of the four craft, accompanied by the sharp, ringing roar of brass nine-pounder guns, and instantly a perfect storm of grape tore and whistled about our ears, splintering the planking of the boats and bowling over our people right and left. Three more of my men went down before that discharge, and the cries of anguish from the other boats told that they too had suffered nearly or quite as severely. The gig fared worst of all, however, for an entire charge, apparently, plumped right into her bows, where the men were clustered pretty thickly, helping two of their comrades who were kneeling upon the boom endeavouring to tear asunder its fastenings, and no less than six of her crew fell before that withering discharge, including the two men upon the boom, who both fell into the water, and were never seen again.
"By Jove! this will never do," cried the captain. "Out oars, men, and pull alongside the pinnace!"
This was done; and as the two boats touched, our gallant leader sprang on board the larger of the two, crying to the second lieutenant—
"Here, Mr Ryan, I will change places with you. Take the gig, if you please, and see if you can cast the boom adrift at its shore end; I will look after matters here meanwhile. Mr Gowland, go you to the other end of the boom, and see what you can do there. Now then, lads, what is the best news there with that gun?"
"Just ready, sir," came the answer. "Poor Jim Baker was struck, and fell athwart the breech, wettin' the primin' with his blood just as we was about to fire, so we've had to renew it; but we're ready now, sir."
"Very well," cried the skipper. "Bear the boat off from the boom, and fire at the chain-coupling; that ought to do the business for us."
The order was promptly obeyed, and a few seconds later the gun spoke out, the shot hitting fair and square, and dividing the two parts of the chain that formed the coupling between two contiguous tree-trunks. A loud hurrah proclaimed this result, yet when the pinnace pulled up to the boom again, and tried to force her way through, it was found that the logs could not be forced apart; evidently they were still united under water.
"Load the gun again, lads, as smartly as you can," exclaimed the skipper; "and then we must try to roll the logs over, and get the chains above water. Well, what news, Mr Gowland?" as the first cutter was seen approaching us.
"It's no good, sir," answered Gowland. "We can't get within twenty yards of dry ground for the mud, which is too stiff to permit of our forcing the boat through it, but not stiff enough to support a man. I made the attempt, and went in up to my arm-pits before they could get hold of me to pull me out."
Meanwhile, a hot fire of grape and musketry—the latter from all four of the craft—was being maintained upon us; our men were falling fast; and the matter to my mind began to look very serious. Still, those who were not hurt, or whose hurts were not very severe, worked away manfully in an endeavour to break the boom; but it was clear—to me at least—that our only hope lay in the pinnace's gun. If that failed, it seemed probable that every man of us would be placed hors de combat before we could force a passage through.
Our nine-pounder was soon ready again; and then—Gowland and I having meanwhile stationed our respective boats one on each side of the pinnace, and by the united efforts of our crews succeeded in rolling the logs so far over as to bring the remaining pair of coupling chains out of the water—a second effort was made to divide the boom. The shot was a successful one, both chains being completely cut through. Another ringing cheer proclaimed the good news just as the gig rejoined us with a similar piece of intelligence to that already brought by Gowland, as to the impossibility of landing and getting at the shore-fasts of the boom. That obstacle was now, however, happily severed, and drawing his sword, the skipper waved it over his head as he shouted—
"Out oars, men, and give way for your lives! Follow me, the rest of the boats. We will tackle the big fellow first, and bring the other three to their senses afterwards with the aid of her guns."
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when another broadside of grape hurtled in among us, now once more huddled closely together about the breach in that deadly boom, and from the dreadful outcry that immediately arose, the tossing of arms aloft, and the dropping of oars, it was evident that fearful havoc had been wrought by it among our already seriously diminished company. And, to make matters worse, it was instantly followed by a louder, deeper report, and a crash on board the pinnace as an eighteen-pound shot struck her gun fair upon its starboard trunnion, dismounting the piece and sending it overboard, while a shower of splinters of wood and metal flew from the slide, wounding and maiming at least four more men. And then, as though that were not enough, the shot glanced and swept the boat fore and aft, crushing in the side of one poor fellow's head like an egg-shell, smashing in the ribs of another, and whipping the captain's sword out of his hand, with all four of his fingers, as it flew over his head into the darkness beyond.
In the teeth of this new disaster the pinnace forced her way through the now divided boom, closely followed by Ryan in the gig, then myself, with Gowland bringing up the rear. "Give way for your lives!" was now the word; and at racing pace—or as near it as we could get with our sadly diminished crews—we headed for the biggest craft of the four, which we now made out to be a large brig, very heavily rigged and with immensely square yards. We opened out a little to port and starboard as we went, in order that we might show as small a mark as possible for our antagonists to fire at, and, having already passed the heavy pinnace, I was fast creeping up into the leading position, when Ryan, who saw what I was after, sheered alongside and in sharp, terse language ordered me to change places with him. Of course I could but obey, and the fiery Irishman, finding himself in the best-manned boat of the lot, speedily passed ahead, despite the utmost efforts of the rest of us to keep pace with him. One more broadside of grape greeted us as we pushed somewhat heavily across the lagoon, and that put the poor unfortunate gig practically out of the combat, for it reduced her oarsmen to two, while she had already been so badly knocked about that it needed the utmost efforts of the least severely wounded of her crew to keep her afloat by baling. We kept on, however, in the wake of the other boats, and had at least a good view of the short, sharp fight that followed. The brig was lying with her starboard broadside presented to us, and as the boats advanced toward her they gradually passed out of the broad line of light cast by the still fiercely blazing fire that had been kindled on the shore. No sooner did this happen, however, than half-a-dozen men provided with port-fires sprang, three into her main and three into her fore port rigging, illumining the brig herself brilliantly, it is true, but at the same time revealing the whereabouts of our boats distinctly enough to enable her people to keep up a most galling pistol and musketry fire upon us, besides giving them the advantage that the light was at their backs, while it shone in the faces of our marines with such dazzling effect that they were able to reply but ineffectively to the fire with their own muskets.
The second lieutenant was first alongside, closely followed by Gowland, the pinnace making a bad third and ranging up under the bows of the brig, while the other boats attempted to board her in the waist. But the brig—and the three schooners as well for that matter—was well protected by boarding nettings triced up fore and aft, and as our men made a dash at her they were met by pikes thrust at them out through the ports, by the snapping of pistols in their faces, and the fierce lunge of cutlasses through the meshes of the netting. Nevertheless they persevered gallantly, hacking away at the netting with their cutlasses, and occasionally delivering a thrust through it at any one who happened to come within arm's-length of them. But it was clearly a losing game; our losses had been so heavy during our attack upon the boom that we were already far out-numbered by the crew of the brig alone, and they possessed a further important advantage over us in that they fought upon a spacious level deck, while our lads were obliged to cling to the bulwarks as best they could with one hand while they wielded their weapons with the other; moreover, the slavers were able to make a tolerably effective use of their pikes and still keep beyond the reach of our cutlasses.
"If it were not for that diabolical netting," thought I, "there would be some chance for us still." And as we ranged laboriously up alongside, my eye travelled up the face of the obstruction to its upper edge, and I saw that it was suspended at four points only, two on the port and two on the starboard side, in the wake of the main and foremasts.
"A sharp knife," thought I, "ought to divide each of those tricing-lines at a single stroke, when down would go the net upon the defenders' heads and hamper their movements long enough to give our people a chance." And then I remembered that only a day or two before I had sharpened my own stout clasp-knife—at that moment hung about my neck on a lanyard— to almost a razor edge, and that consequently I had in my possession just the weapon for the purpose.
As my meditations reached this point the gig touched the brig's side, and whipping out my knife and opening it, I made one spring from the boat's gunwale into the netting, up which I at once swarmed with all the agility I could muster—and I was fairly active in those days, let me tell you—a musket-shot knocking my cap off as my head rose above the level of the bulwarks, while a moment later a fellow made a lunge at me with his pike as I skipped up the meshes, and drove its head half through the calf of my left leg. I felt the wound, of course, but was at the moment much too excited and intent upon the task which I had set myself to give it a second thought, and in another instant, so it seemed to me, I had reached the tricing line, which I grasped tightly with one hand while I hacked away vigorously with the other. The rope parted at the third stroke of the knife, and down dropped the net, sagging so much in the wake of the main-rigging that our lads were easily able to surmount the obstacle, and I saw Ryan, with a wild, exultant "Hurroo!" half fall, half leap down to the brig's deck, where he laid about him so ferociously with fist and cutlass that he at once cleared a space around himself for his followers.
As for me, I was left dangling by one hand at the bare end of the severed tricing line, but within easy reach of the starboard main-topsail sheet, which I promptly grasped and began to lower myself hand over hand down to the deck. Even as I glided down the sheet, I saw that one of our lads had followed my example, and, cutting the fore tricing line, had let the whole of the starboard netting down on deck, while his comrades were pouring in over the bulwarks like an avalanche. The brig's crew still offered a gallant resistance, but the British blood was by this time fairly at boiling point, and, grimly silent, the blue-jackets laid about them in such terrible earnest with fist and cutlass, belaying-pin, clubbed musket, sponge, rammer, or any other effective weapon that they could lay hands upon, that their rush became irresistible, and their antagonists gave way before them in terror.
At this juncture, and while I was still some twelve or fourteen feet above the deck, I noticed a man, whose dress and appearance suggested to me the idea that he might possibly be the leader of this band of outlaws, quietly separate himself from the combatants, and with a certain sly, secretive manner, as though he were desirous of avoiding observation, slink along the deck to the companion, down which he suddenly vanished. There was an indescribable something about the air and movements of this fellow that powerfully aroused my curiosity and excited an irresistible impulse within me to follow him; and accordingly, swinging myself to the deck abaft the main-mast, which was deserted, the fight still being confined to the waist and forecastle of the brig, I made a dart for the companion, kicked off my shoes before entering, animated by some instinct or idea which I did not stop to analyse at the moment, and drawing my cutlass from its sheath, crept cautiously and noiselessly down the companion-ladder. The moment that I entered the companion-way I was saluted by a whiff of moist, hot air loaded with a powerful, foetid, musky odour, of which I had already become vaguely conscious, accompanied by a deep, murmuring sound that seemed to proceed from the vessel's hold; and although this was my first experience with slavers, I knew in an instant that the brig had her human cargo on board, and that the sound and the odour proceeded from it.
The companion-way was in complete darkness, but at the foot of the ladder, and to starboard of it, there was a thin, horizontal line of dim light marking the presence of a door that I had heard slam-to as I kicked off my shoes previous to descending. Making for this, I groped for the door-handle, found it, and, grasping it firmly, suddenly turned it and flung the door open. As I did so I found myself standing at the entrance to a fine, roomy cabin, which seemed to be handsomely, nay, luxuriously furnished. It was but dimly illuminated, however, the only light proceeding from an ordinary horn lantern, which, kneeling upon the deck, the man I had followed was holding open with one hand, while with the other he was applying the end of a slender black cord to the flame of the enclosed candle. The other end of the cord referred to led down an open hatchway close to the fore-bulkhead of the cabin; and as I took in the whole scene in a single comprehensive glance—the open hatchway, the black cord, and the dimly-burning lantern—I realised with lightning intuitiveness that every soul on board the brig was tottering upon the very brink of eternity; the reckless villain before me was in the very act of exploding the powder magazine, and blowing the ship and all she contained into the air.
This surmise was confirmed as, turning his head at the sound of the opening door, the fellow withdrew from the lantern the end of the black cord—which was of course a length of fuse composed of spun-yarn well coated with damp powder, now fizzing and spluttering and smoking as the fire swiftly travelled along it. So rapidly did the fire travel indeed, that during the second or so that the desperado paused in surprise at my unexpected appearance, it reached his fingers, causing him to drop it to the deck with a muttered curse. I knew that in twenty or thirty seconds at most that hissing train of fire would run along the guiding line of the fuse down the hatchway to the powder in which the other end of it was certain to be buried; and bounding forward I placed one foot upon the blazing fuse as I dealt a heavy downward stroke with the hilt of my cutlass upon the upturned temple of the man who, crouching before me, was clearly on the point of springing to his feet. Then, dashing down my cutlass as the fellow sank back with a groan upon the deck, I wrenched my still open knife from my neck, and, while the struggling flame scorched and seared the sole of my naked foot, slashed the blade quickly through the fuse, and with the same movement whirled the severed and unlighted part as far away from me as possible. This done, I knew that the danger was past; and, drawing the short burning fragment of fuse from beneath my foot, I carefully deposited it in the lantern, where it instantly flamed itself harmlessly away. My next act was to secure the remainder of the fuse and cautiously withdraw it from the dark hatchway down which it led; and, this safely accomplished, I closed the aperture by drawing over the hatch, and then sat down to nurse my seared and blistered foot and to await the progress of events; my companion or adversary, or whatever he should be rightly called, still lying motionless where he had fallen, with a large blue lump on his white temple from which a thin stream of blood slowly oozed.
During the few brief seconds that had elapsed between my entrance into the cabin and the flinging of myself upon one of its sofas, I had lost all cognisance of what was happening elsewhere; but as I took my scorched foot upon my knee and ruefully contemplated its injuries, I once more became aware of the sounds of conflict on deck; the fierce, confused stamping of many feet; the cries and ejaculations of encouragement or dismay; the quick jar and clash of blade upon blade; the occasional explosion of a pistol; the dull, crushing sound of unwarded blows; the sharp scream of agony as some poor wretch felt the stroke of the merciless steel; the cries and groans of those who had been smitten down, and, still conscious, were being trampled underfoot by the combatants; the deep muttered curse; the sharp word of command; and the occasional cheer that broke from the lips of our own gallant lads. Suddenly there was a louder hurrah, a quick scurrying rush, a loud shout of command in Spanish for every man to save himself, an outcry of terrified ejaculations in the same tongue, a quick succession of splashes in the water alongside, and a sudden silence, broken the next instant by a gasping but triumphant shout from Ryan of—
"Hurroo, bhoys! By the blessed—Saint—Pathrick—but—that's nately done! Ugh!—pouff!—we've—drove them—clane overboard! Murther! but it's meltin' I am—and as dhry—as a limekiln!"
Then I heard the skipper hailing, apparently from the forecastle—
"Is that Mr Ryan's voice that I hear, aft there?"
"Ay, ay, sorr," answered the second luff; "it's myself, bedad, all that's left ov me!"
A sound of footsteps followed, suggesting that he had walked away forward to join his superior; but as the man at my feet just then stirred uneasily, as though his senses were returning to him, I made a quick grab at my cutlass, and drawing from my belt a loaded pistol, the existence of which I had until then forgotten, I pulled myself together and made ready for the next emergency.
Presently, my prisoner, for such he now was, stirred again, sighed deeply, and opened his eyes, his glance immediately falling upon me. For a few seconds he seemed not to know where he was, or what had happened; then, as we gazed into each other's eyes, I saw that his memory had returned to him, and as he made a motion to rise to his feet, I sprang to mine, and pointing my pistol straight at his head, said in the best Spanish that I could muster—
"Stay where you are! If you make the slightest attempt to move I will blow your brains out, you villain!"
He continued to gaze steadfastly at me for some moments; and then seeing, I suppose, that I fully meant what I said, he smiled bitterly and muttered—
"So it has come to this, has it, that I must lie here in my own cabin, helpless, at the mercy of a mere boy? Car-r-am-ba!"
He still kept his regards steadfastly fixed upon me; and as I seemed to read in the expression of his eyes a dawning determination to make at least one more effort for freedom, I was not sorry to hear footsteps coming along the deck, and the voices of the skipper and Ryan in earnest conversation.
"We must get a light from somewhere at once, and look to the wounded without a moment's delay," said the former. "I fear that our loss has been very serious in this affair. Ah! there is a faint glimmer of light from the skylight yonder; I will go below and see what it is. Meanwhile, Mr Ryan, muster your men, and load the guns, if you can lay your hand upon any ammunition. Those schooners will try to slip away if they can, now that we have got the brig; but I shall not be satisfied unless I can secure the whole of them; we must have something more than we have got already to account satisfactorily for our loss!"
"Niver fear, sorr," answered the second luff; "they'll not get away from—By all the powers though, there goes one of thim now!"
And away he dashed forward again, shouting out certain orders to the men, while the skipper, after hesitating for a few seconds, entered the companion and began to descend.
My attention had been somewhat distracted from my prisoner by this brief conversation, a fact which had evidently not passed unnoticed by him, for before I fully realised what was happening, he had in some inexplicable manner sprung to his feet with a single, lightning-like movement, and his hand was already upon my left wrist, when with a quick twist of the arm I managed to get my pistol-barrel pointed at him as I pressed the trigger. There was a bright flash, lighting up the whole cabin as though by a gleam of lightning, and glancing vividly from the rolling eyeballs of my antagonist, a sharp explosion, and the Spaniard went reeling backward with a crash upon one of the sofas as the captain entered the cabin at a bound.
"Hillo!" he exclaimed, as he peered at me in the faint light of the lantern, "who are you, and what is the matter here? Why—bless me!—it is Mr Dugdale, isn't it? And pray who is that man on the sofa?"
In a few brief words I narrated my adventure, to which he listened quietly, holding his wounded hand, bound up in a handkerchief, in the other meanwhile; and when I had finished, he glanced at the prostrate figure on the sofa and said, noticing the ghastly paleness of the upturned face, and the lifelessness of the outstretched limbs—
"Well, he looks as though there was not much mischief left in him now, at all events. But it will not do to take any risks; he is evidently a desperate character, or was before you pinked him, so slip up on deck and get a length of line—a bit off one of the topgallant-braces will do if you can't find anything better—to make him fast with. And call a couple of hands to come below and carry him on deck; it is scarcely safe to leave such a fellow alone in the cabin, even when securely bound."
I hobbled on deck as well as my burnt foot—which by this time was excruciatingly painful—would permit, and finding a suitable bit of line, and securing the assistance of two of our lads, the slave-captain, as he eventually proved to be, was speedily bound hand and foot, conveyed on deck, and propped up in a reclining position against the bulwarks, well aft out of the way, in such a position as seemed least likely to encourage the bleeding of his wound.
Meanwhile, Ryan, upon leaving the skipper, had rushed forward and hailed the fugitive schooner, in his richest Dublin accent, to heave-to, or he would sink her. To this command, however, whether understood or not, no attention was paid; and before our people, groping about in the thick darkness among the dead and wounded, could lay their hands upon a single cartridge, they had the mortification of seeing her vanish round a bend of the creek on her way seaward, the lieutenant consoling himself with the assurance that she would infallibly be snapped up by the Barracouta, whose slender crew would be certain to be on the alert all through the night. When the skipper and I arrived on deck, after securing our prisoner, Ryan and a few of our lads were busily employed ramming home a charge in the long eighteen mounted upon the brig's forecastle, a cartridge and shot for which they had stumbled across in their search. The second luff at once began to relate, with many comical expressions of righteous indignation, the particulars of the schooner's escape; but he had scarcely got well into his narrative when the faint screep of a block-sheave from to windward warned us that another of our slippery neighbours was about to hazard a like experiment. Without waiting for orders, or thinking of what I was doing, forgetting even my injured foot in the excitement of the moment, I sprang upon the rail and hailed in Spanish—
"Hola there, keep all fast on board those schooners, or we will riddle you with grape! And light a lantern each of you and hoist it to your main-mast-head. I warn you that we will stand no nonsense, so if you value your lives you will attempt to play no tricks!"
To this no reply whatever was vouchsafed; and I was about to hail again, when the captain remarked, very quietly—
"May I inquire, Mr Dugdale, what is the nature of the communication— the unauthorised communication—that you have just made to those schooners?"
"I beg your pardon, sir," answered I, considerably abashed; "I thought I heard a sound just now as though another of the schooners were on the point of attempting to slip away; so I hailed them that if they attempted any such trick we would treat them to a dose of grape. I also ordered them to each hoist a lantern to the mast-head, so that we may see where they are."
"Very good," remarked the skipper suavely; "it was quite the proper thing to do. But I do not altogether approve of my young gentlemen taking the initiative in any matter unless they happen to be for the time being in supreme command. When that is not the case I expect them to wait for instructions. And now, be so good as to hail them again, and say that unless those lanterns are displayed within three minutes I will fire into them."
My second hail proved effective, the two lanterns being in position well within the time specified. Our skipper was, however, very uneasy; and after retiring aft and consulting with Ryan for a few minutes, the second luff and Gowland went away in the first and second cutters with two good strong crews, and boarded the schooners, the slavers—who were evidently on the look-out—shoving off in their own boats and escaping to the shore the moment that they detected what we were after. Both schooners had a cargo of slaves on board, and were of course at once taken possession of, an instant search—prompted by our experience on board the brig—revealing the fact that one of them had been set fire to so effectually that it took the prize-crew fully an hour to extinguish it.
Meanwhile, lamps and lanterns were found on board the brig and lighted, when those of us whose hurts were the least serious set to work to attend to our more unfortunate comrades. Closer investigation now revealed the welcome fact that we had suffered less severely than had been at first anticipated, our killed amounting to five only—although two more died before they could receive proper surgical attention— while, of the wounded, seven had received injuries serious enough to completely disable them, the rest, amounting to no less than twenty-three, suffering from hurts ranging from such an insignificant prod as I had received in the leg, up to a cutlass-stroke that had all but scalped one poor fellow.
At length, just as we had completed the task of getting our worst cases below out of the persistent rain, and making them in a measure comfortable, the wind shifted and subsided to a gentle breeze from the north-eastward, the weather cleared, the rain ceased, and about half-an-hour later the day broke gloriously, and we were able to get a view of our surroundings.
We found ourselves in a nearly circular lagoon or basin, about half-a-mile in diameter, across the centre of which lay moored the brig and the two schooners, with a gap in the line to mark the berth that had been occupied by the third schooner—the craft that had succeeded in effecting her escape. We were completely land-locked, the shores of the creek being low, and for the most part closely fringed with mangroves, behind which rose dense and apparently impenetrable masses of bush, now in full leaf, and thickly overgrown with flowering parasites, the bush being interspersed with trees of several kinds, some of which were very lofty and handsome. At a short distance above where we were lying, there appeared to be another creek—a small affair, not more than a hundred feet wide—branching off from the main channel; and, upon its being pointed out to him, the captain at once hailed the schooner of which the second lieutenant was in possession, directing that the latter should take his boat, with the crew well armed, and make an exploration of the subsidiary and main creeks for a short distance, for the purpose of ascertaining whether, as was exceedingly probable, there was a slave depot in the neighbourhood. I should greatly have liked to have made one of the party, and indeed asked permission to join it, but my burnt foot was by this time so inflamed and painful that I could not put it to the deck, and Captain Stopford, while expressing his gratification at the zeal manifested by the request, refused, pointing out that, lame as I was, I should not only be useless but an actual encumbrance and embarrassment to the party in the event of resistance being offered to any attempt on their part to land.
In a few minutes Ryan was ready, and the boat shoved off from the schooner, leaving just enough hands to take care of her during the absence of the others. She made straight for the small subsidiary creek, in the first instance, but re-appeared in about a quarter of an hour, when the second luff hailed to say that it was a mere cul de sac, only some half-a-mile long, and with very little water in it, the banks being of soft, black, foetid mud, of a consistency which rendered landing an impossibility. Having communicated this intelligence, the cutter next proceeded up stream and quickly vanished round a bend. She had been out of sight fully half-an-hour, and the captain was just beginning to manifest some anxiety, neither sight nor sound having reached us to indicate her whereabouts, when thin wreaths of light brown smoke appeared rising above the bush and trees about a mile away, the smoke rapidly increasing in density and volume, and darkening in colour, until it became quite apparent that a serious conflagration was raging at no great distance. When the smoke at first appeared, there was some question in the mind of the captain whether it might not be the work of the people who had effected their escape from the craft during the darkness, they having perhaps set fire to the bush in the hope of involving the prizes and ourselves in the ensuing destruction; but a little reflection revealed the unlikelihood of this, the vegetation not only being saturated with the rain that had fallen during the night, but also being so green and full of sap that it would probably prove impossible to fire it. We had just reached this conclusion when Ryan and his party appeared returning, and in a few minutes the cutter ranged up alongside us to enable the second luff to make his report. He stated that he had proceeded about a mile and a half up the creek, the course of which he had found to be very sinuous, when he reached a spot at which the bank on his port hand was clear of bush and trees, with the soil firm enough to admit of a landing being conveniently effected, and as there were signs indicating that the place had been very freely used quite recently, he shoved alongside the bank and stepped ashore. A single glance about him now sufficed to convince him that he had made an important discovery; the grass was much worn, as with the trampling of many feet, and from this well-trodden spot a broad path led into the bush. Leaving two men in the boat; to take care of her, with orders how to proceed in the event of an enemy heaving in sight, Ryan at once led his party along this path, and after traversing it for less than a hundred yards, came upon a large barracoon, very solidly and substantially built, and of dimensions sufficient to accommodate fully a thousand slaves; there were also kitchens for the preparation of the slaves' food, tanks for the collection of fresh water, several large thatched huts that looked as if they were for the accommodation of the traders, a large store building, and, in short, everything necessary to complete an important slave-trading establishment. It was evident that it had been very hurriedly abandoned only a few hours previously; but a strict and prolonged search failed to reveal the whereabouts of any of its late occupants; Ryan had therefore first emptied the water-tanks, and had then set fire to the whole establishment, remaining until the flames had taken a strong hold upon the several buildings, when he had retired without molestation.
Meanwhile, by the captain's orders, the hatches had been removed on board the three prizes, and the condition of the unfortunate prisoners looked to. I shall never forget the moment when the first hatch was taken off on board the brig; a thick cloud of steam slowly rose up through the opening, and the foetid, musky odour, of which I have already spoken, at once became so pungent and overpowering that the men who were engaged upon the operation of opening the hatchways were fairly driven away from their work for the moment, and until the strength of the stench had been to some extent ameliorated by the fresh air that immediately poured down into the densely-packed hold. What the relief of that whiff of fresh air must have been to the unhappy blacks can only be faintly imagined; but that it was ineffably grateful to them was evidenced by the deep murmur of delight, and the loud, long-drawn inspiration of the breath that swept from end to end of the hold the moment that the hatch was withdrawn, as well as by the upward glance of gratitude that instantly greeted us from the upturned eyes of those who were placed nearest the hatchway! But what a sight that hold presented when in the course of a few minutes the hatches were all removed, and the blessed light of heaven and the sweet, pure air of the early morning had gained free access to its sweltering occupants, dispersing the poisonous fumes which they had been condemned to breathe from the moment when the approach of our boats had been first notified! I had more than once had the hold of a slaver and the mode of stowing her human cargo described to me, but it was necessary to actually see it before the full horror and misery of the thing could be completely realised. The space between the planking of the slave-deck and the underside of the beams was just three feet, or barely sufficient to allow the unfortunate wretches to sit upright; and in this confined space they were stowed as tightly as herrings in a barrel, seated on their hams, with the feet drawn close up to the body, and the knees clasped by the arms close to the chest. Let anyone try the fatiguing effect of sitting in this constrained attitude for only a single half-hour, and some idea may then be formed of the horrible suffering and misery that the unhappy slaves had to endure cooped up in this fashion for weeks at a stretch, not on a steady, motionless platform, but on the heaving, plunging deck of a ship driven at her utmost speed over a sea that was seldom smooth enough to render the motion imperceptible, and often rough enough to sweep her from stem to stern, and to render the closing of the hatches imperatively necessary to save her from foundering. Add to this the fact that the slaves were packed so tightly together that it was impossible to move, and thus obtain the relief of even a slight change of position; bear in mind that it was equally impossible to cleanse the slave-deck during the entire period of the passage of the ship from port to port; think of the indescribable foulness of the place, the dreadful atmosphere generated by the ever-accumulating filth, and the exhalations from the bodies of four or five hundred human beings wedged together in this confined space; and add to all this the horrors of sea-sickness, and it at once becomes a perfect marvel that a sufficient number remained alive at the end of the passage to render the slave-traffic a remunerative business. It is true that, solely in their own interests, and not in the least from motives of humanity, the slavers exercised a certain amount of care and watchfulness over the health of their captives; that is to say, they allowed one-half to go on deck during meal-times (twice a day), for the double purpose of affording an opportunity for the inspiration of a little fresh air, and at the same time of providing space for the poor wretches below to feed themselves. This, however, was only when the weather and other circumstances were favourable; if the weather was bad, the hatches were put on and kept on until a favourable change occurred; and in the case of a gale, of wind the unhappy slaves have been known to have been kept without food or water for forty-eight hours, or even longer, simply because it was impossible to give them either. Of course in such a case the mortality was simply frightful, it being no uncommon occurrence for a slaver to lose more than half her cargo in a single gale; this loss, be it understood, arising not so much from the want of food as from simple suffocation through long confinement in the dreadful atmosphere of the unventilated hold. And when a slaver happened to be pursued by a man-o'-war, the sufferings of the slaves were almost as bad, for in such a case the crew seldom troubled themselves to attend to the wants of their helpless prisoners, devoting all their thoughts and energies to the task of effecting their own escape. But as I shall have more to say upon this subject further on, I will not enlarge upon it here.