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       Coffins, p.21

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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  De Souza has a price for this “favor,” of course, which is five barrels of gunpowder. I agree without argument, and am to meet with his emissary on the morrow. He is called Monbasu.

  June 23

  Left Whippet in Sweeney’s charge, with orders to fire the ship rather than let it be seized, and departed this day for Gezo’s palace, in the company of de Souza’s emissary.

  I’m much surprised to find Monbasu most affable, and keenly intelligent, which is shocking in a nigger fellow. Must be because he’s very high born, of the same clan as the king, and very rich in his person. Young Monbasu arrives at de Souza’s gate in grand style, reclining in a slave-borne litter, accompanied by a retinue of armed warriors, which are slaves he owns himself. He wears brightly colored robes, a woven tunic of fine quality, and a peculiar little gold-braided hat upon his well-formed head. This hat, I am told, is a badge of his clan.

  Monbasu is very quick to smile, and speaks English better than Señor de Souza. “Oh, yes, I am a man of many tongues,” he says with a laugh. “In my mouth is a Portuguese tongue, a Spanish tongue, a French tongue, and a little Dutch tongue. And of course I have several tongues of the Dahomey tribes.”

  He has also a new gold tooth of which he’s very proud. “Slaves will be no problem,” he promises. “My cousin the king has many slaves, more than he can feed. Monbasu fix, you will see.”

  We travel in style and comfort, borne on litters, carried overland into the heart of Dahomey, greatest of the slave kingdoms. The curious bobbing rhythm of the litters is like a ship at sea, and some way comforting.

  As we bob along, whisking away the flies that penetrate our cozy little compartment, Monbasu regales me with wondrous tales of his wit and cunning. Some of them may even be true.

  June 25

  We arrive this day at the palace of Gezo, King of Dahomey. I am much surprised by the quality. The way niggers exaggerate, I’d been expecting a thing more crude, a kind of African log cabin with a thatched roof, maybe. Instead I’m amazed by the royal splendor. Gezo’s palace rivals that of some of the European kings. The walk are of various exotic woods rather than stone or marble, but inside each of the spacious chambers (there are more than one hundred) is encrusted with painted carvings, elaborate gold inlay, and woven mats and rugs of sublime distinction, from as far away as India. Indeed, the king has a great love of rugs, and collects them, as he collects human skulls.

  I hoped to meet with the king directly, but Monbasu says such things can’t be hurried at the palace. He counsels patience. First we must dine in the royal hall, then we must drink palm wine with the king’s council of advisers, and then, perhaps, we will meet with Gezo himself, provided the king is in an expansive mood.

  “While we wait you may avail yourself of the royal privilege,” Monbasu suggests with a sly wink. When I ask what he means by royal privilege, he says a guest of the king may select as concubine one of the many female palace slaves, provided she is not part of Gezo’s personal harem, which is, of course, forbidden.

  “The king owns everyone in the palace who is not related to him by blood,” he says, his gold tooth flashing. “Pick wisely and you will be a happy man.”

  Monbasu looks puzzled when I tell him his Yankee captain may be a sailor and a slaver, but he’s also a married man, and so must decline his kind offer.

  I’m in “Rome,” but the thought of doing as the “Romans” do is disgusting. Share a bed with a nigger concubine? Makes my skin crawl to think on it. They are comely but very black. God would not allow it, even if base instinct might be inclined so.

  There are no latches upon the door, but I’ve been left to my own privacy. If one of the comely royal maids should lean into my chamber and show me her black bosom, she will be admonished to leave! That I swear on this true log.

  June 28

  Three days and nights in the kingdom of Dahomey, and already I am beginning to feel that my world, the world I left behind, the world of Whippet and Becky and White Harbor, is but a pale dream.

  How is such a thing possible, for a man of phlegmatic humors? For the first time, I understand how a white man might be seduced by the intoxicating darkness of Africa. No, I have not taken me a maid. In that I remain firm. But I have supped of the vitality here, that seems to be in the very air, an intensity and tumult of the senses, like the smoky, fragrant incense they burn.

  I will make a list, and count the difference.

  1. Beautiful. Much of Dahomey is beautiful beyond description, a beauty never seen by the likes of me, being a very feast for the eyes and senses.

  2. Ugly. Much of Dahomey is as ugly as death itself. It is appalling, violent, and hideous beyond description.

  The Beautiful and the Ugly, dwelling in the same place. Somehow the contrast has brought me to full awareness at all times, and makes it impossible to sleep.

  The drums don’t help, as it comes to sleeping. They are most always drumming about something. Monbasu has tried to explain the complications of the drumming, and what it means, but a Christian can’t understand. The religion of Dahomey is some form of witchcraft, and each drum the voice of a different god. I seen what the drums do with my own eyes, which is drive the niggers into frenzy. Frenzy like an addle-brained man throwing a fit, except there are hundreds of ’em, dancing and worshipping. They kill chickens and smear the blood upon their persons, and blow powders in each other’s faces, and then speak in the languages of their gods, that no one can make out, not even themselves.

  Monbasu says the worshippers surrender their souls to the sorcerers who cast the spells and beat the drums and drink the blood of goats. I ask what is the attraction of such a religion, if it makes those who practice it give sorcerers the power of life and death over supplicants?

  Monbasu is much amused. He’s been drinking palm wine and though he don’t join in the wicked dancing, I can tell he would like to, but for my presence. “Is your own religion so different?” he asks.

  “Very different,” says I, quite hot to make him understand. “Couldn’t be more different. Christian priests don’t have that mortal power, only God himself does.”

  “Oh, very different,” Monbasu agrees. “Our sorcerers do not speak for god, they become gods. Much better, I think, to be a sorcerer than a priest, ha ha!”

  He’s too clever a cove by far to win me an argument on that or any subject. I find Monbasu much like the others of his clan, all very clever and cunning and friendly. We have met with Gezo’s council, all of ’em Monbasu’s blood relations, and dined with them most affably. After supping very well on roast goat and honey tubers, they ask if I want to see Gezo’s Amazons. They use a Dahomey word for Amazon, but they mean the battalion of ebony-black warriors, all of ’em women, that has been trained with spear, sword, and shield. These Amazons they got are fiercely loyal to the king, who owns them every one, and are renowned in battle, and much feared. They’re a strong bunch, some of ’em tall as men, and march around naked, but for their swords and shields. I am not too blushed to look upon them, because black nakedness is not the same as white nakedness. The color itself is a kind of clothing.

  The king’s Amazons have not a hair upon their private parts! I must ask Monbasu if they shave or pluck. He will know. But he’s vanished somewhere into the palace grounds, leaving back a note that begs for my patience. “All is well,” he writes, “all will be granted. Trust Monbasu.”

  The strange thing is, I do trust the fellow, as much as any of his race can be trusted. So I wait, and think pure thoughts of Becky and the boys.

  My door has no latch. If the comely maids apply, I must be vigilant.

  June 29

  Disaster!

  Monbasu has been arrested! Word comes that he violated the harem taboo, and his skull will soon decorate the royal dining hall. I’m fearful of being seized, too, for enjoying his company. The king’s counselors, who are cousin to Monbasu (and to the king), tell me to be calm, and that I’m in no danger, but who can be believed, for surely Monba
su was betrayed by these very cousins? I’m told the forbidden assignation has long been suspected, and that the royal spies finally assembled the necessary evidence. It’s no small thing, arresting a man of the king’s own clan, but they’ve managed to extract a confession from the concubine herself, and now the thing is done. The female’s name is Tambara, and I’m told she is a comely lass, but hardly worth it, as Gezo will no doubt have Monbasu’s head, his new gold tooth, his many slaves, and everything he owns.

  They have confined me to my chamber. It be a large room, lavishly decorated with rugs and billowing silk curtains, and a great feathered ceiling fan turned by unseen captives. And yet I take no comfort here. I’ve been betrayed, used by the wicked Monbasu as beard for his diddling intrigue! Surely the king will have me tortured for his pleasure and want my head, too, as warning for others of like inclination.

  Tried writing to de Souza, to implore that he put in a good word, but no one will take my letters, not for any bribe. My door is latched now, from the outside.

  How I hate the drums. The drums pound inside my head like the cannon of a pursuing frigate! Stupid man, they beat, stupid man, stupid man. I pray for Becky, that she shall never know how her husband came to his end, for the stupidity of trusting a laughing nigger.

  July 1

  Should be midway across the Atlantic on this day. Instead I languish within this luxurious prison! They bring me ample food and palm wine (called “gin” locally) and keep suggesting that the “white captain” sample other delicacies. D—m the conspirators! Temptations of the flesh are nothing but a trap. Had I taken a comely maid for comfort, the cabal of blood cousins would surely have denounced me to their king. My refusal to give into the dark temptations has saved me thus far.

  Last night I prayed (though I have no Bible), and in my prayers pledged that should I survive, the enterprise will be abandoned. Becky has long wanted me to give up the slave trade, and I’ve been partway inclined to please her, but now I am certain in my mind. Should I live, Whippet will be my last voyage as slaver.

  [later]

  Everything has changed!

  At noon I’m summoned into the presence of Gezo, Skull King of Dahomey. The amazement begins at once. I’d expected to meet me a dim-witted tyrant, a blackish monkey man with bloody fangs. Instead I’m presented to a large, imposing fellow with mild, aristocratic manners. Gezo is at least six feet tall and remarkably fat, with many jowls, and piercing, gold-flecked brown eyes sunk deep into his face. His small, round mouth purses like that of a fish. My first thought—somewhat crazed by my anxiety—is that the King of Skulls resembles a great black codfish grown fat on a diet of herring. But there’s nothing “fishy” about the king’s manners, which are like any other king.

  Gezo speaks many languages, none of ’em English, and he commands one of his advisers (a blood cousin) to act as translator, so that, as he soon says, “His Highness may address my guest and be understood.” In that manner, with a translator keening out the words, the Yankee captain is welcomed to the Land of the Dahomey, also knows as Land of the King’s Fathers. The Yankee captain has come with a favorable recommendation from Señor de Souza, and since Señor de Souza has helped make all of Dahomey rich, and all of Dahomey belongs to King Gezo, his recommendation counts for much. Lucky for me it counts for more than my association with the scoundrel Monbasu, since white men are assumed to be innocent of courtly intrigues.

  In truth, Gezo explains, many of his clan had an association with the wretched Monbasu, but they’ve been forgiven for their poor judgment because they had the good sense to show loyalty by denouncing the foul viper, who not only violated the royal taboo, but may have had eyes on the throne itself.

  The translator barely gets that out, about a conspiracy for the throne, when Gezo himself makes clear, by waving his hands, that the very idea is ridiculous. “Many scheme for my throne,” he tells me, “none so far have succeeded. Look upon them, Yankee captain! Observe how their skulls are empty. Because only empty-headed fools intrigue against the great Gezo! And when they are, inevitably, denounced, their small, stupid brains are fed to the wild dogs!”

  By some signal, the king has called for his skulls, and they are brought out in a great woven basket. Gezo paws through them, a thoughtful expression on his face, very like an old woman fingering apples, and culling the ones gone bad. He solemnly holds up skull after skull, poking his fat fingers in the eye sockets, and showing me where the brains have been taken out and the bone boiled clean. It’s a very impressive collection, and serves to make me even more desirous of hanging on to my own stupid skull.

  Gezo then commences to give out a lecture, all the while rubbing at certain skulls, as if for luck. “You have come here to treat with me for slaves,” says he, prompting the translator. “Only last month the new English queen, who has no slaves, begged me yet again to outlaw the trade. Gezo refused! Why should the Father of Dahomey trade in palm oil when the lives and fortunes of his people depend on the selling of captives. The slave trade has been the ruling principle of my people. It is the source of their glory and wealth. Their songs celebrate their victories and the mother lulls her child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery. Can I, by signing a treaty, change the sentiments of a whole people?”

  I beg to remind him that I’m no Englishman, and pay no allegiance to English queens, new or otherwise, and he takes that as affirmation of his sovereignty, as I intended, and looks on me with approval.

  Already, though, I’ve begun to have some pity for poor Monbasu, whose skull may soon join the others in that woven basket. To be the object of Gezo’s wrath is surely the most horrible of fates, and all because the handsome young fool fancied a woman whose name the fat king can’t seem to remember. How could he, as she’s but one of three hundred wives?

  At a sign from Gezo the offending pair are dragged before the throne. Monbasu and his lady love have been stripped naked and manacled about the neck and ankles, and linked by heavy iron chain. Monbasu’s gold tooth has been extracted and presented to the king, who wears it on a fine golden thread around his plump neck. Both prisoners have been severely lashed, but that is not the worst. Each has had one eye put out, and the wound crudely cauterized. They must be in great pain, but betray no hint of it.

  I’m put in mind of my mate, Black Jack Sweeney, whose eye was extracted for cheating a Senegalese slave merchant at cards. But at least Sweeney kept his head, and the two young lovers are about to lose theirs. They know it, too. It shows in their faces, which already seem to be calmly looking at the other side of death.

  The executioner, a powerful eunuch equipped with a ceremonial sword, waddles forward and looks to the king for a sign.

  I am determined not to flinch when the sword falls, as I must not betray sympathy for the sinners, but Gezo surprises me yet again. He surprises everyone in attendance, when, with a wave of his fat hand, he stays the executioner and turns to me.

  “Yankee captain,” says he, “what exactly is the fate of the captives you carry away? Are they treated like animals? Are they starved and beaten?”

  I know better than to lie, and determine to speak the truth. “Oh, yes,” I tell him. “A slave is treated like an animal because he is, for all purposes, an animal. Starvation and beating are, of course, useful methods to obtain obedience.”

  Gezo’s little mouth makes a smile. “Are they whipped regularly?” he wants to know.

  “Certain they are whipped. Regular whipping is common practice, particularly on the field hands.”

  “Are the women raped?” say he.

  “If the female is attractive, or even if she is not, she will be made use of by factors, enforcers, and owners.”

  Gezo nods, very pleased with my answer. “Are the men emasculated?”

  “Any male slave who shows the least sign of spirit is first beaten, and if that doesn’t suffice, he is cut, the same as is done with horses and cattle, Your Highness.”

  “Ah, very good. And h
ow long might a slave live?”

  “In Cuba, where my cargo is destined, a slave who works the cane fields may live a year or two, or even three. Much depends on weather and pestilence.”

  “And such a field hand suffers until he dies?”

  “Oh, yes, Your Highness, he suffers most horrible.”

  Gezo rattles a few of his empty skulls, and thinks over what I’ve told him. “Can a slave take a wife?” he asks slyly.

  “No. Marriage between slaves is forbidden. The Cuban grandees discourage any lingering association between males and female slaves, believing it can only lead to trouble, and because a slave with wife and child will fight for them.”

  “Ah, very wise. And may a slave keep his own name?”

  “No, Your Highness. It’s easier for a slave owner to name them himself, as he would a dog or a horse.”

  Gezo nods, and I must suppose that nothing I said was unknown to him, as he is well acquainted with slavers and slavery. What he says next surprises me yet again. “Does the Yankee captain know that Gezo is himself the son of a slave?”

  This unexpected confession makes me fearful. Have I offended the Skull King somehow? But no, he merely wants to relate the peculiar circumstances of his ancestry. It seems his mother was sold into the harem of the previous king, and through her beauty and intelligence impressed that king, who made her his queen. Then, alas, she fell out of favor and was sold and transported to Brazil.

  “When Gezo became king,” he says, “he put out a search for his mother, offering a great reward, but nothing was found. If a famous queen can vanish so absolutely, imagine the fate of a mere concubine, ha ha!”

  That “ha ha” put a chill down my spine, and not because I think the fellow is actually amused by his mother’s disappearance. It is the laugh of a man capable of anything, the laugh of a man who smiles gently while he fingers the skulls of those who have offended him.

 
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