Coffins, p.20Rodman Philbrick
Editor’s note: it was common practice for captains engaged in the “enterprise” of slaving to keep two logs, one for themselves and their investors, another for the authorities, should the ship be boarded or seized. Whether the “false log” of the slave ship Whippet still exists is unknown. This was the only such log found with Dr. Bentwood’s notebooks, and has been inserted here to help clarify the narrative. All surviving entries are in the same hand, and the common (and very frequent) abbreviations have been rendered in full words, and with standard spelling, for ease of reading.
True log of the Whippet, 1837
C. Coffin, Master
April 3, Baltimore
Entered this day into an agreement with Mr. Birkead, of Birkead & Pierce, for purchase of a vessel appropriate to the enterprise. Birkead is a shifty sort of swell, even for a Baltimorean, but when I present my requirements as “speed, windliness, and beauty,” he takes my measure and sees me right, eventual. “Those are the qualities of a racehorse,” says he, and shoves a thimble of vile snuff up his poxy nose. When he’s done spewing, I tell him, “That’s correct, sir, and I need a horse that will win a race. She must drive to windward, as I’ll have great need for haste.”
Mr. Sly Boots gives me the wink, and then we’re off for a tour of his shipyard. There are nine vessels available for immediate sale, and it amuses d——d Birkead to show me every d——d tub, though he knows my requirements. I thought “go along to get along” and keep my peace, and finally we “get along” to the best of the fleet. Being a topsail clipper fresh off the ’ways, and built for the trade. “Tight as a tick,” says he, “tight as a Yankee captain, ha ha.”
She is called Whippet by the man that drew her, who fancies racing dogs, not horses! Keel & frame are sawed white oak, planked with Southern pine heavy in sap, all new and sound and remarkable dry. Seams will likely open some under sail, and the bilge make water, but nothing worrisome. Paced off 110 feet on deck, 28 abeam. Two stout masts, Baltimore raked, and well stepped. Birkead sees I’m smitten with the look of her, and he’s very droll for a Southerner. “I’ll wager you like your women raked, too, Captain. Raked and fast, with a fine point of entry and a slippery stern. Am I on the mark?” I feel called upon to remark that I’m a married man, and that if he give me one more of his d——d winks, I’d take out his eye, and that cooled him off some. Then it was all business and we went at it hammer and tongs until I finally sounded his bottom, that be $2250 in gold for hull, masts, and yards, and then another $400 for hemp, halyards, rigging & canvas, to be rigged hasty.
I am much satisfied to have Whippet for under $3000, that I was ready to pay was d——d Birkead not so free with his talk of raked women and such.
Tomorrow I shall pick out a crew and slip mooring on the soonest tide. The enterprise is begun. Grant us Godspeed and I’ll see Becky and the boys by September.
We are finally at sea. D—m all Maryland men for their lazy avarice! After much unnecessary delay, and having to cross many a filthy palm, Whippet is finally rigged, and the temporary rock ballast at last secured in the bilge. I’m well satisfied of my new crew. All six are lively, and able-bodied, and already grinning at the prospect of squandering their $10 in the claptraps and rumholes of Havana. Those that last will be welcome on the next leg, for considerable more than $10.
I suspect we are all in high spirits to have d——d Baltimore below the horizon at last, and to find Whippet sailing as pretty as she looks. How she leaps with the wind abeam! We buried ten knots in a breeze, and that bodes well. She steers a little fat with the wind behind, but that may be remedied some by trim and a shift of ballast.
I’m much relieved. As always, the first run to sea in a new ship puts me in mind of my dear Becky and our boys. No other cause but their welfare would persuade me to risk such an enterprise as this! I will not sleep this night—never the first night at sea!—but amuse myself by calculation of the alchemy. Alchemy is my word for the secretive means of turning a $5000 bank draft into $50,000 in gold, in four or five months time. Here is my formula that has proved true for twelve such enterprises:
$5000 + 7000 nm* = $50,000
If all goes well, this will be my last enterprise, as I will have accrued sufficient capital to build me a splendid coastal fleet. I would have my boys at sea, as my father had me, but not so far from home, or for so long, nor engaged in this wretched trade.
I will pray for fair wind and a swift passage, and for the good health of my sweet Becky.
We make Havana Harbor at last, after fighting squall and currents in the Florida Straits. Made port an hour before sunset, and will spend this night ashore at the Grandee, and have me a hot bath.
All is well!
Whippet has been granted prime anchorage, very near to the main wharves of Havana Harbor, and that will be convenient for refitting, which is already under way.
I heard intelligence from others at the hotel, regarding the current state of affairs, and was assured the cane and tobacco plantations remain profitable in the extreme. Demand for field hands has kept the price up, and last year’s high at auction is now average. This relieves any worry I might’ve had regarding the enterprise. It will not be unreasonable to expect $1000 per healthy buck.* No wonder that Havana Harbor stinks with ships built for the enterprise! Spit from the taffrail and you might hit a British frigate, a fat Dutch merchantman, and five cranky old Portagee tubs. Why, a dozen hulls lie rotting within sight of Whippet, run up on the beach & abandoned once they been emptied of their cargo.
Disgraceful waste. Still, better to abandon than have a vessel seized by the d——d British blockade, and fines imposed. They take as proof of the enterprise any modification that includes grates, manacle posts, extra decks, and so on. Even the stench is enough to warrant seizure, and everyone knows it is impossible to eradicate that smell. Cheaper to abandon a ship than to risk the fines.
Such is the profit!
The enterprise, the enterprise, we all sing of the enterprise! I am back aboard Whippet, having spent three days on shore. The various debaucheries observed among my colleagues can’t be fully confided, even here. They’re a rum lot, and would spend every spare dollar in the claptraps, and upon clothing that would put the blush of shame on a peacock. What mudsill fools they are, smoking Havana nine-inchers as they strut along the wharves! What lies they tell, and what infernal habits! But, I admit, very cheerful company.
Still, these peacocks would do well to remember that the enterprise is a calculation, not an excuse for fantods and whorepox. A man must keep his wits about him, else the sharpies and the harpies’ll strip him bare naked. Still, I do enjoy observing what my Becky calls “the human comedy,” although she would blush to see what these particular players get up to when they’re full of likker and free with money.
The only cash I care to spend is for the conversion of Whippet. Today the carpenters are tearing out bulkheads, and tomorrow will begin constructing an extra deck, with headroom sufficient for lying down. The smithy delivers two hundred iron manacles on the following day, or so he’s pledged! Manacles are dear this season, being one Spanish dollar each, installed, but the blacksmiths know we must have manacles, and so inflate their price.
I have also caused the forward hold to be converted for extra fresh water storage. Pumps to be rigged and the canvas hoses already purchased. This’ll be an added expense, but I’m of the firm belief that fresh water is our second-most precious commodity. I know this from hard experience, on a previous enterprise, when tainted water ruined the alchemy and resulted in a fifty percent reduction in profit.*
This dawn we departed wicked Havana with fifty tons of iron bar in ballast. Scuttlebutt among the peacocks is that iron bar now trades as good as gunpowder on the Slave Coast, for the making of Arab swords and muskets. Just to be sure, I put down a hundred and fifty barrels of powder. Gezo does love his gunp
Here’s my calculation thus far:
Whippet, converted for the enterprise —$3311.
Powder, Provisions & cash reserve —$1951.
A mere ten days at sea and we’ve logged near on two thousand miles! Never have I found winds so favorable on the eastward passage. This bodes well for the enterprise, and for the alchemy that makes it pay. Whippet performs as promised, and loves a headwind, though we’ve had precious few of those, but mostly sail abeam, well trimmed and “scooting.”
Lookouts have been posted at the mast head, with the promise of a five-dollar gold piece for whatever man first sights the blockade, be it a British warship or one of our own. Our tattered flag might be mistaken for Portagee—that is my intention—but will not fool them for long, as they’re well aware that any Baltimore clipper in these waters is engaged in the enterprise. Whippet cannot “outgun” so we must “outrun.”
Let them try and catch us!
Contrary winds. Many squalls. By my calculation we lie no more than 100 nm sou’west of Whydah. I pray that all is in readiness in Whydah, and the barracoons stocked full, so we can make a quick departure. How I pine for dearest Becky!
No sooner has the foul weather lifted than we’re detected by the d—m blockade! Whippet was but thirty miles from the port of Whydah when ambushed by the light frigate Stars & Bars, under the command of a pup called Phineus Beale.
Lieutenant Beale is a clever d—I and saw us first, using the late hour and cover of darkness to his best advantage. He must’ve positioned his frigate in a bank of fog, furled sails, doused all lights, and waited upon us. Whippet ghosting prettily in light air, and myself on deck, standing by the helmsman. It was the creak of oars gave the sneaky d—Is away. I sounded the alarm by firing my flintlocks, but their launch was already alongside, and the U.S. Navy attempting to board. They had blacked their fizz with charcoal! I knew what they were, of course, but the blackened faces made it easy to treat ’em like African pirates, and rouse my own crew to villainy.
How the Whippet put the fear of G-d into the Stars & Bars! My best mate, Mr. Sweeney, leaped into the fray with a machete he’d got in Havana. Others beat chains, and we forced the d—Is back into their d——d launch in full retreat. Two of their number dropped into the water and swum to the launch, and I ceased firing the flintlocks, having hit no one. As Whippet swept along, they demanded we hove to and surrender for inspection, but I affected not to understand.
Our troubles were not done. While we were engaged repelling the boarders, Beale towed his frigate within range. Hailed us with his megaphone, the insolent pup! Thank G-d for the “rules of engagement.” By law he couldn’t fire into our hull, for fear of sinking us, and he dare not unload shrapnel to shred our sails, which is allowed, because his men were in the way. The winds were light but my crew was game, and got Whippet around right smart.
The race is on. Our ship is much the faster, but I dare not head directly into Whydah, as the frigate would surely summon reinforcements and blockade the port. And so we set westerly, away from Africa. I have ordered the men to crack on and run like we’d given up the enterprise.
This mayn’t fool a clever d—I like Lieutenant Beale. Let him think what he likes. Once we’ve lost the b——ds I’ll tack south for a hundred or so and come around to Whydah from there. With any luck, the blockade’ll be engaged elsewhere by then.
Let Beale go north, where the wind takes him, or to h—I for all I care!
We have escaped their clutches and learned a hard lesson. A clever captain must never let down his guard, or trust to the lookouts, but at all times be vigilant. I must call upon experience & fortitude and see I’m never again at a disadvantage. But for the creak of their oar, they’d have seized us, and the enterprise ruined!
*Editor’s note: nm apparently refers to “nautical miles.” Captain Coffin would anticipate covering approximately that distance for his “enterprise.” His calculation of a five-thousand-dollar investment yielding fifty thousand dollars in profit is about average for a successful voyage at the height of the Caribbean slave trade in the 1830s, when the price-per-slave was driven higher by the risk of being seized by the West African Naval Squadron, which had been charged by Parliament with enforcing an embargo against the slave trade. The American government, which outlawed the importing of slaves in 1807, also stationed a small but feisty squadron off the Slave Coast to assist the British. The international embargo was enthusiastically enforced by the U.S. Navy, despite the fact that slavery was legal in the Southern states, an irony often noted in the abolitionist press.
*A male slave employed as a field hand on a typical sugar cane plantation in Cuba or Brazil would be expected to “earn out” within six months. Survival rate in the field, where slaves were prey to rampant disease, averaged two years, by which time the exhausted slave had tripled his investment for the owner. Slaves employed as household servants typically survived much longer, but on average the population of field hands in Central and South America had to be replaced every two years, necessitating the smuggling of an estimated eleven million Africans to ports in the Western Hemisphere between 1498-1870. [Editor]
*By this calculation it can be assumed that half of Captain Coffin’s human cargo perished from dehydration. [Editor]
10. The King of Skulls
June 21, 1836
Made Whydah this night, undetected. No moon, and the sky as black as Africa. I’ve ordered the rig altered, and the masts unraked, so if that d—l Beale shows his wet nose, he’ll not recognize Whippet. Our new name is Lorca. Painted in gold upon the stern board, and the Spanish flag flying high and proud.
When the sun rises I shall don my best blue frock coat, the one with the polished buttons, and call upon de Souza.*
Found Señor de Souza in fine fettle. And why would he not be, considering his vast estate, and all that he owns and commands? He has him a magnificent house, very like a Spanish castle in miniature, (though built of wood) with more than thirty rooms, and several lesser buildings, all surrounded by a formidable wall fixed with iron spikes. My host likes to joke that he should be called “Count de Souza” because he can count so many things he owns. By way of demonstrating, he ticks off five hundred bottles of prime French wine, three hundred slaves, and his own personal harem of ninety women. By them and others he brags he has fathered a hundred sons, and doesn’t bother to number the girls. As well as the “Count,” he fancies himself the “African Casanova.” You wouldn’t know it to look on him, as he’s a small and wizened man, with wrinkled skin the color of pale ash, and half his teeth gone.
Still, those teeth he’s got bite sharp enough! In his official capacity de Souza makes to remind me that by setting foot upon the soil of his port, I am placed under the protection of Gezo, King of Dahomey, and that no American or British authority may touch my person or my ship so long as I remain. By the grin of his few yellow fangs he makes clear that he has the power of life and death in Whydah and is not hesitant to use it, though his pikes are headless at the moment.
We have us a splendid breakfast in his best room, presented on silver plate and chased goblets, served by his liveried slaves, who effect to speak the French language, and might, for all I know. They bring us quail eggs in casserole, thick slabs of Italian bacon, salt beef in sauce, some form of raisin pudding, and a light pastry the “Count” calls “Spanish bisket”, dripping in dark honey. Wine, of course, and pitchers of native beer. The cunning fellow inquires of my family and seemed to remember me well enough, though our dealings have been modest, compared to some who trade here.
I assume that all is well, and the enterprise will soon advance into the bargaining stage. It isn’t until the last crumb vanishes into his wet little mouth that de Souza confesses a “slight problem.”
All six of his barracoons are empty! There’s not a captiv
“My dear captain,” says he, having lighted his cheroot. “I have my usual sources in Aros, but Aros is presently at war, and all is turmoil. The war will produce more captives no doubt, so you must have patience.”
Patience! If I wait for his little wars to end, it may be months, and this, as well he knows, is impossible. Yet I hold my tongue, knowing his mortal temper—de Souza has killed five unarmed men in “duels,” some struck down in the back. He smiles sweet as a water snake, the old fraud, and says I’m free to try another port, one farther along the coast—he has heard there are slaves to be had in Sierra Leone. I make clear that Sierra Leone won’t do. I been cheated there, once upon a time, and swore never to return, and might be hanged if I did.
“There is one other possibility,” says he, “and I freely give you my permission to pursue it, if you so desire.”
“And what does the Count suggest?” asks I.
“You might journey inland and treat with the king directly. I will collect my tax in any case, for each captive that leaves this port.”
This I never tried, having always dealt with de Souza. King Gezo has a fearsome reputation for fits of pique and temper. It is well known that only three years back he had a hundred slaves beheaded because one of them stole a single cowrie shell. It is said that his palace is decorated with human skulls, as proof of his absolute power, and his willingness to use it. Few white men trade with him directly.
“My dear fellow, you’ve gone quite pale,” says de Souza. “Have no fear of Gezo. He may be the King of Skulls, but they are all black skulls, and he always buys a man before he cuts off his head. I will tell you what I will do. I will lend you the use of my emissary. He will treat with Gezo, and if a head gets misplaced, it will be his head, not yours, ha! ha!”
Coffins by Rodman Philbrick / Horror have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes