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       Coffins, p.22

           Rodman Philbrick
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  Gezo seems pleased by the effect he’s had on the assembly, and on me, and calls for the prisoners to be brought closer to the Yankee captain for inspection. Guards grab them by the ears and hold their heads up. Even with his one good eye, Monbasu will not look at me, out of shame and what little remains of his pride. The woman, not surprisingly, is beyond fright, or pain, and something awful oozes from her vacant eye socket.

  “Would a male slave with one eye be employed as a house servant?” Gezo wants to know.

  “No, Your Highness, very unlikely. If he is young and strong he will certainly be used in the cane fields.”

  “Would a female with only one eye find a place in a fine house and live a long, comfortable life?”

  “No, Your Highness. Female house slaves are used as maids or concubines, and tend to be comely, so as not to offend the owner, his wife, or their many guests.”

  Gezo grins. “What would they do with a one-eyed wretch like this, Yankee captain? Would they send her to the cane fields and let the men use her?”

  “Yes, Your Highness, very likely.”

  This “Yankee captain” has only a little schooling, but I am no man’s fool, and pretty certain where the king has been leading this strange conversation. Indeed, I have helped him lead it there, for my own purposes, and so am not surprised when he pronounces his final judgment.

  “Gezo, King of Dahomey, Father of his People, has decided to let this worthless wretch and his worthless whore keep their heads, because losing one’s head is, after all, quite painless. Over in an instant, ha ha! Gezo’s revenge will be much sweeter and more satisfying if the offenders suffer most horrible for a year or two. Therefore, if the Yankee captain agrees, Gezo will sell him Monbasu and the woman for a trifle, a few cowrie shells, which is all they are worth. Will the Yankee captain do the Skull King this favor?”

  I glance at Monbasu, but he will not meet my eyes. “It would be my honor to serve Your Highness in this matter.”

  “They must suffer!” Gezo insists. “Make certain they suffer, and I will sell you all the slaves you desire.”

  “Oh, they will suffer, Your Highness. Be sure of that. All slaves suffer. It is their fate, in your religion as in mine.”

  *Francisco Feliz de Souza, the notorious and very wealthy Portuguese slave merchant. By royal decree of Gezo, King of Dahomey, de Souza controlled Whydah, and collected a tax on every slave dispatched from the port. [Editor]

  11. Madness

  July 4, 1837

  All is well. Whippet lies in port, loaded with cargo, ready to depart on a favorable tide. In the end King Gezo was in no mood to bargain, and sold me 180 of his best slaves, for a price lower than had I purchased from de Souza directly. As to the “Count,” he demanded three more barrels of gunpowder, and the remainder of the iron bar as compensation for his supposed efforts to keep the American patrol at bay. I suspect he lies, that the Stars & Bars has not been sighted, but I do not argue. My ledger is even, the tally matches, and I have my cargo for the price anticipated. With any luck I shall never see Señor de Souza, or Dahomey, again.

  As I write, Monbasu and his lady love are chained to the slave deck stanchions, along with the rest of the captives. Monbasu’s behavior has been somewhat strange. During the fifty-mile march to the coast, I attempted to engage the young man in conversation, but he refused to respond. At first I was puzzled, and then I understood. He fears that Gezo will change his mind if he thinks the Yankee captain had taken pity on him, and so would as soon be treated cruelly.

  He is much changed, and his spirit broken.

  July 5

  Got clear of Whydah without incident. No sign of d——d Beale. Once land is down and the ship trimmed, I have Monbasu brought up on deck. The iron collar remains about his neck. The chain fixed to the collar is held by Sweeney, who remarks that once he had a pet monkey that was better-looking, and didn’t need to be leashed. I order Sweeney to go about his business.

  For Monbasu I’ve a proposition. In exchange for his freedom he must act as factor of the slave deck, keeping calm among the captives. My plan is to have us a passage uninterrupted by outbreaks of panic, which can be time-consuming and expensive, due to loss of life.

  At first he assumes the Yankee captain is playing a cruel trick. Why would a man free a valuable slave, legally obtained? Monbasu owned many slaves, and never freed any of them, says he. But he’s soon persuaded of my sincerity in this matter, and by the time the iron collar is struck from his neck, Monbasu has miraculously recovered his poise, and his previous confident bearing. He even has the gall to ask if I’ll give him a legal manumission. “With papers, a man of experience can find a position as an overseer. Monbasu can’t go back to Dahomey, so he must make a new life for himself. A legal manumission will make all things possible.”

  The man has nerve! Blinded and beaten and robbed of all he owns, and yet still he dreams! And he talks like a Philadelphia lawyer.

  I agree to give him such a letter upon safe arrival in Havana.

  July 29

  We are becalmed, and worse, set back by contrary currents! Delay is to be expected on the western passage but still it makes me rage against the air and sea, for every extra hour at sea is an hour away from White Harbor, and Becky and my boys.

  The one bright spot is my bargain with Monbasu. With him in charge there’s been not a peep from the slave deck. The captives are terrified of Monbasu and believe that he, like his cousin the king, is a great sorcerer, a god of the drums and a drinker of blood. That he managed to free himself from captivity they take as proof of his great power. Such a man is to be dreaded and obeyed.

  Strange though it may seem, Monbasu shuns his former lady love, and does her no special favors. After a few pathetic attempts, Tambara has ceased trying to reach the man who brought her to such misery. She knows she is a slave like the others, a commodity to be sold, nothing more. There she lies in her chains. But for the missing eye, she’s still strikingly beautiful. But what has her beauty brought her, but misery, and a short future?

  Will this shunning continue once we have reached Cuba? He’s a cunning one, and it’s possible Monbasu may eventually purchase her, and make her his wife. With the damage done, she’ll fetch no more than $300 at the Havana market, and he is clever enough to accumulate such a sum, if he so desires.

  August 2

  Disaster! We are no longer becalmed, but worse has happened. The extra water hold is contaminated. My hygienic efforts have backfired. Each day I had the slave deck hosed clean of filth, and flushed into the bilge, where it was then pumped out. But somehow the tainted bilge water has leaked into the water hold, and many of the captives have contracted an intestinal illness. The stench is overpowering. Something must be done or the cargo will be lost, and with it the profit of the enterprise!

  I have ordered that the water hold be sealed. Consumption of foul water will only make it worse. Fortunately there’s a reserve of fresh water, sealed casks I put aside for just such a contingency. By my reckoning, a prudent rationing will keep crew and cargo alive until we reach Havana.

  I have set out in my ledger an exacting reckoning of how the water will be apportioned. Crew to get sufficient water to keep up their strength and keep the ship sailing proper. The slaves will get them a single pint a day, which is just enough to keep them alive.

  Rations to be strictly monitored and enforced, making no exceptions for the infirm!

  In the ledger I’ve listed Monbasu as a member of the crew, and eligible for the larger portion, as his power on the slave deck must not be diminished.

  August 7

  The weather is “cruelsome hot.” Many of the captives still suffer from cruel dyspepsia and cramping of the bowels, but by and large they been improved somewhat. None complain of thirst, out of fear they’ll have no ration at all. I credit Monbasu for keeping order, and myself for having the foresight to free the man, in exchange for his cooperation.

  Tambara, his former lady love, is among those wh
o have recovered. Indeed, she looks healthier than the rest.

  August 8

  Something has gone wrong with Monbasu! The cook reported that the African was seen down on his knees, licking salt from the deck. When asked to explain himself, he began raving in a foreign tongue, and the cook retreated, afraid for his life.

  I seek out Monbasu and find him on the slave deck. It is instantly apparent that he has been preaching to the captives, who are becoming more and more agitated! The stronger ones shake their chains and beat on the deck in rhythm, like drums.

  When I demand to know what he’s saying to the captives, Monbasu refuses to translate. “Go away, white man,” he tells me. His eye glitters strangely and spittle flies from his mouth. “The black gods are busy,” he says, and rudely turns his back on me.

  Such insolence cannot be tolerated on board ship. I’ve ordered the slave deck sealed, and Monbasu with it, d—m him. He has gone quite mad, and soon enough I discover the cause of his madness. He has secretly been giving his entire ration of water to Tambara, and has been driven insane by thirst!

  August 9

  The madness does not end. Monbasu has been agitating the captives for many hours. The beat of chains does not abate, but thunders from the slave deck, a wild thrashing of the chains, terrifying the crew. They know of a ship overrun by slaves, and all the whites hacked to death, and they want their captain to make it stop.

  I know what must be done, and it must be done quickly, before the captives rip their chains from the stanchions. I order that Monbasu be taken from the slave deck, and then bound and gagged.

  Sweeney makes the suggestion that it would be easier and safer if the mad nigger be shot where he stands, but I cannot answer for how the captives might react, if Monbasu is suddenly killed in their presence. No, the thing to do is throw a net over him. And finally, at the end of the day, the deed is done. With great difficulty, the madman is netted, seized, and removed.

  At first the captives are very agitated, moaning and so on, but with their black god defeated the drumming of the chains gradually lessens, and there is silence, blessed silence, from the slave deck.

  The worst may be over.

  August 10

  I am wrong, and it may yet cost me the ship! Just before dawn Sweeney wakes me and reports that in the night the prisoner broke his restraints, violently overpowered his captors, and is assumed to be at large somewhere on the ship.

  I have unlocked the munitions and armed myself, and will go out looking for trouble and expecting to find it.


  Much has happened, and little of it good. Seeking Monbasu, I go first to the slave deck. He is not there, but Tambara is, draped in her chains. Despite the extra ration of water she’s been getting, she now looks close to dying, as if her lover’s madness has burned away her desire to live. Still, she may be of use, and so I remove her chain from the stanchion and try to coax her from the slave deck.

  Fearful of my intentions, she fights like a rabid dog, biting me upon the leg most fiercely. I finally drag her up to the main deck. There I call for Monbasu, and make it clear that the wretch must show himself, or the girl will be cast over the rail, into the sea, and eaten by the sharks that trail every slave ship.

  One hand wrapped in her chains, the other clutching my flintlock pistol, I wait upon the madman. I’m alone on deck because my d——d superstitious crew have barricaded themselves in their wardroom, convinced that Monbasu has the magic to overpower them all. How else could the African live without water, if he does not have magic? Such tripe fevers my brain into the worst of tempers and makes me rage against the cowardly crew, and against Monbasu. Again and again I threaten to throw Tambara over the side, shouting, “Show yourself! Show yourself or she dies! I swear it!”

  Monbasu does show himself, eventual. His appearance is shocking in the extreme. He’s smeared with blood and his nappy, unkempt hair is matted with filth. He seems outward calm, except for his eyes, where the madness dwells. “You must turn the ship around,” he tells me, as if ordering a subordinate. “The black gods have spoken. You will take us to Senegal. In Senegal I will be made king, and Tambara will be my queen.”


  The madman strolls closer, careless of my pistol, or maybe he thinks bullets can’t touch him. He carries no obvious weapon, although I can’t guess what he might conceal under his blood-spattered tunic. Oddly, Monbasu pays no heed to Tambara in her chains. How can a man bring himself to this, maddened with thirst so that his lady love might live, how can a man do such things and then refuse to look upon her? There is something cunning in it, I suspect. A kind of feint to draw my attention elsewhere, as a mother bird will feign a broken wing to distract a predator from the nest.

  Yes, that must be it! Monbasu knows exactly what he’s doing, he’s been feigning indifference from the beginning, from the moment he was dragged before Gezo, and all the while he’s been using subterfuge and diversion to make sure that his precious Tambara survives.

  The cunning madman strolls within an arm’s length, and when a smile transforms his face from madness to cunning, I drop Tambara’s chains and shove the pistol under his chin, shouting, “Gotcha! You scheming black bastard!” and prepare myself for a struggle.

  Before either of us can make a move, there comes a wild cry and a splash. Tambara has gathered up her chains, scampered up the bulwarks, and thrown herself into the sea!

  Monbasu cries out and flies to the rail, calling her name most piteously as he searches the oily seas. But the chains are like an anchor, dragging her down quick, and there is no hope. While he’s wailing and rending his own clothes, begging for Tambara, I take my chance and smash his head with the pistol butt, and knock him senseless.

  Presently we get him chained to the deck. I know what must be done.

  August 11

  There are only two possible outcomes when a man foments rebellion aboard a ship, any ship. Either he succeeds, and takes command, or he is hung. There are no exceptions for love or madness, how can there be? Order must be maintained. The law of the sea demands it, and the crew demands it. These matters are best handled as they happened, with a man strung up as soon as he’s in custody.

  So why have I delayed these last twelve hours? It is as if I don’t know my own mind. While the crew frets and complains, I make me up two lists.

  Why he must be hung:

  1. For preaching rebellion.

  2. For mutiny.

  3. For assaulting a white man.

  4. To prevent further bloodshed.

  5. To please the crew, who demand it.

  Why he should not be hung:

  1. He was not right in his mind.

  Try as I might, there is only the one reason not to hang, and it don’t balance. Meantime the prisoner does nothing to help his case, and never once pleads for pity or begs for his life. Instead, Monbasu, bound to the foredeck by shackles attached to each of his limbs, flat on his back and forced to look up into the masts and shrouds where his life will end, instead of begging for his own life he begs for the lives of his people on the slave deck. “You are thinking, Yankee captain, that these poor peasants cannot be my people. How is that possible, when they are not of the same clan, not even of the same tribe? I will tell you how it is possible. Because the black gods have spoken to me, they have spoken through me, and I am their instrument.”

  To appease the black gods he confesses that his people would not have been taken from the land of their fathers had it not been for him, for Monbasu, whose entire life and fortune had been devoted to the taking of captives and the buying and selling of slaves, and he asks the Yankee captain, his good friend, his boon companion, surely I will find it in my heart to set his people free.

  “Hang me, but set my people free. I know I must die, and I go willingly, to the place at the river where Tambara waits. She has found her eye in the shallow waters and she waits for me. Hurry. Kill me, please, so that I may go to her. But give me your word as a man that
you will set my people free.”

  I know what I must do, but can’t find the will, and beg the crew indulge their captain.

  Ship becalmed, and her captain, also.

  August 12

  The wind decides. Not long after dawn a fair wind rises strong from the east and it must be done; it must be done and the sails set, to take advantage of the fair wind.

  Monbasu is unshackled from the foredeck. His hands are bound behind his back. A halyard is noosed around his neck. The crew waits, mighty anxious, smelling the wind, eager to haul away and be done with this troublesome, dangerous man. Let him go to his damned black heaven, why does their captain hesitate?

  Before the clever slipknot on the noose tightens, Monbasu looks me in the eyes and says, “Speak to me as a man. Will you swear to set my people free?”

  “No,” I tell him. I can’t lie to a man about to die.

  Monbasu lowers his head for a moment, and when he looks up he seems to be wearing the face of another man, which gives me a chill. Then he curses me.

  “You will be cursed,” he growls, in a voice unlike his own. “You will be cursed and your sons will be cursed and the womb of your wife will be cursed, until there are sons no more, and everything and everyone you ever loved will perish from the earth!”

  I will hear no more of this blasphemy. At my command the mad nigger is hauled up and hung by his neck. After a few minutes his struggles cease, but even before he has been cut down and his body thrown to the trailing sharks, the topsails are set, and Whippet tightens her shrouds, bound for the Havana.

  The enterprise is saved.

  Editor’s note: This concludes the daily entries in “The true log of the Whippet. The remainder of the voyage, which must have taken at least ten days, is not remarked upon. In an appendix, damaged by stains that appear to be blood, Coffin tallies his expenses against the price his captives fetched at auction, and indicates that Whippet has been sold to an unnamed Dutchman. By his tallies, Cash Coffin has his profit.

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