Nyala walked up the footpath leading away from his village, thinking of the meeting he had just had with the Ibo elders. He was the son of the Chief and destined to be a leader someday soon. There were many responsibilities for a chief. African tribes had been at war with each other for some time, but these wars were now being driven by a new greed. Europeans had begun buying the captured men and women as slaves and the wars had extended to village raids and kidnapping for the sole purpose of selling captives as slaves.
From the 1500’s Portugal and Spain had used African slaves in their sugar plantations in Brazil and the West Indies. The Netherlands, France, and England began doing the same in the early 1600.. To the Europeans, Africans were much prized, they had an innate understanding of nature and were knowledgeable agricultural workers… A good, strong mail slave would fetch up to 30 pounds in Barbados, about $1500US in today’s currency (i).
Nyala did not notice the men until it was to late. They were lying in wait and sprung from the bushes as he passed. He turned swiftly, just in time to see the heavy set African swing the club above him. Within moments he was unconscious, bound, gagged and on his way to a fort on the coast.
Far away in England, men talked in church halls and in private clubs of the slave trade, some with conscience, but to many it was simply a business:
Elias Penrose clutched the collar of his greatcoat tighter around his neck and cursed the biting cold of English winter. How tiresome it was to take time from his schedule to speak to members of the business community-a task made more detestable by the fact that these businessmen indulged some absurd notion of social conscience. To Elias one pursued either the aims of business or of morality, but not both, and those who attempted to do so were deluding themselves. Nevertheless, as a businessman himself, he knew the value of public relations; liberals or not, these men awarded large shipping contracts and had to be placated. So it was with his business interests in mind that he composed his face in a congenial smile and entered the church hall.
After the handshakes and small talk, they got down to business. A ruddy-faced and rotund man, who strongly resembled a walrus stuffed into a gray wool suit, stood and spoke.
‘Mr. Penrose, as you know, there is in our society a great deal of concern regarding the ethics and practice of the trade in African slaves. You have generously agreed to meet with us as a knowledgeable representative of a company that deals in slaves as well as other commodities and I trust we can count on you as a man of your word to answer all questions forthrightly. ‘ Elias Penrose held out his hands in a practiced gesture of openness. ‘of course.’ The walrus shuffled his papers and began: ‘Mr. Penrose, what period is usual for the crossing from Africa to the colonies in the West Indies?’
‘Six to eight weeks, sir.’ ‘And for that time, what space is allotted each slave?’ ‘For the men, each is given a space of six feet in length and of adequate width to allow him to recline comfortably. As for headroom, it varies according to ship. On some the space between decks is just over four feet and others nearly six
Nyala was bruised and exhausted after a week’s stay in the fort. Judged old enough to constitute a threat, he was fitted with heavy iron shackles before being jostled and shoved aboard the Parrey-a ship owned by Elias Penrose. The crew of the Parrey shouted and gestured for him to crawl through the grate below decks and press himself into the honeycomb of narrow wooden platforms where others were already lying prone. Some of them had been down here several months, waiting for the ship to finish collecting its human cargo. As the crew forced more and more people into the hold, there ceased to be enough room to lie flat and everyone had to lie on their sides. Unused to confined spaces, Nyala struggled and thrashed until he struck his head against the platform just inches above. There was no place to move, no way to sit up, and still the bodies kept coming.
* The man in gray wool continued: ‘Mr. Penrose, would you be so kind as to explain the measures taken to ensure the health of the slaves once aboard?’ ‘Naturally there is a physician aboard each ship. In the event of illness the half deck is appropriated for a sick berth.’ ‘And is there ample opportunity for the slaves to take exercise?’ ‘Of course, sir. They are brought above decks for a third of each day and encouraged to move about and stretch their limbs. I can say in all honesty that the slaves on the whole are humanely treated.’
Three weeks out from the Bight of Benin, the Parrey hit rough seas and those below decks were no longer allowed out. Nyala lost track of days and soon was aware of nothing other than the unbearable stench of excrement, the moans and wretching and the crush of humanity that shifted and slid in its own filth as the ship rolled on the waves.
A man with kind eyes carrying a medicine bag came down through the grate clutching a white cloth to his nose and mouth. Nyala watched as the man picked his way among the tangle of limbs, pausing here and there to apply ointment to sores caused by incessant rubbing of skin against iron and wood, or to offer a brown bottle to those afflicted with vomiting or diarrhea. With each successive patient the man appeared more distressed. He had nearly reached Nyala when a wave caused him to lose his footing and pitch headlong into the sloshing effluent. Overcome by a fit of heaving he went back above decks.
‘* What of our British sailors, Mr. Penrose. With the hold occupied by slaves, what accommodation is made for them?’ ‘They make use of hammocks and are quite comfortable on deck.’ ‘And in stormy conditions?’ ‘In a storm the crew shelter under tarps which they suspend from the rigging like a tent. I have sheltered under such a tarp myself, sir, and I can assure you it is commodious and effective.’
The weather worsened.. Through the grate in the deck Nyala saw a towering wall of gray water, then an iron-colored sky, then water again. With each roll he felt the ship would surely capsize. He found himself hoping that the ocean would pull them all under, washing him clean and drowning him so that his spirit could return home. Each time he thought: ‘This time it will go over,’ and each time the ship righted itself.
The sailors on deck were scurrying about like ants, securing the sails, closing portholes, stowing loose lines. To keep the waves and rain from filling the hold they fixed a tarp across the grate. Everything below was darkness now. Frightened cries rose to accompany the shrieking of wind and groaning of timbers.
The gale blew itself out after sixteen hours. By the time the tarp was removed and the portholes opened nearly a third of the people below had perished. But not Nyala. Against his own will he’d survived. He sat on deck with the other survivors, still shackled, staring out with unseeing eyes as the dead were flung unceremoniously over the side and the hold was flushed out with seawater. A bitter conviction formed inside him that wherever this ship was taking him and whatever waited for him, there was life inside him that could not be extinguished or broken. If the hell of this floating graveyard had not been able to do it, nothing could.
Two weeks later, the Parrey arrived in Bridgetown on the island of Barbados, where Nyala was sold to Colonel Berringer owner of a large sugar plantation in the parish of St. Andrew.
* ‘Mr. Penrose, we do sincerely thank you for your time. We’d be honored if you would remain a while and take some light refreshment. The Ladies’ Auxiliary have set out tea and cakes.’ The formal meeting dissolved into a tea party. Nearly every member of the committee approached Elias Penrose to thank him for ‘setting the matter straight’ and ‘addressing our concerns.’ In the effusive rush of relieved consciences Elias secured two new shipping contracts. Though he personally found it distasteful dealing with weak-livered men like this, business, he reminded himself, was business.
The historic Nicholas Abbey is the only operating Jacobean plantation in the world. It still operates using theam mils to crush the cane and it produces an award winning heritage rum. The old house is fascinating authentic Jacobean structure with three chimneys. Archeological digs reveled ancient Amerindian settlement. There is a museum of these cultural relicks and a old film of one of the maiden voyages by ship from England.
Originally on Barbados.org