Heavy, hard footsteps hit the ceiling as we lie in the insufferable heat.
My eyes snap open, looking for the source. After a few confusing moments, I realise that they come from above, rather than this part of the canoe house.
“Captain!” Comes a voice, high and shaking, from above. “If you don’t mind Captain, where are we going?”
“Well lad,” rolls a mature, deep voice. “We are taking the route known as the slave trade triangle. First, we start at home: England. We take on provisions, such as food and water, as well as cloth, beads and metals that the Africans want. Then we sail to Africa, to trade the cloth, beads and metal for slaves. We’ve managed to... convince some of the more powerful African natives to capture their enemies to trade with the goods we have.”
He pauses for a moment, but only to laugh darkly. “That is the first part of the journey. Once we have picked up enough slaves, we head out and away from Africa and start towards America, or more specifically – the West Indies.”
“If you don’t mind me asking Captain, why them?”
“When the first people started to realise about the business over in the West Indies and the market for slaves, we sent a lot of fit men from Cornwall to fill the jobs. Agreements were made that after 5 years of working for the richer men who owned plantations, they could go home to see their family and find other jobs in England again.”
With a chesty cough, he continued. “However, we realised that the first lot of men we sent hadn’t lasted long. The heat and diseases finished them off one by one. Their bodies weren’t adapted to that type of lifestyle. The work was easy for them – after all, we sent some of the fittest young men we had in Cornwall – but the conditions were just not right for them.”
A small noise of understanding came from the mokoyo with the higher pitched voice.
“Where was I before that?” Asks the mokoyo with the low, rolling voice. I could sense a small trickle of guilt in his tone. It is hidden well, but when I am concentrating on the sounds they make as carefully as I am, it becomes more obvious with each passing sentence. He knows what is going on, but his morals hold him back. Inside I hope he has found a reason that he thought might justify it in some sort of way.
“The part of the journey we are on now Captain. Heading towards the West Indies.” This mokoyo’s voice sent a shiver down my spine. He knows virtually nothing about what is going on, but he is perfectly happy to go along with it so long as he gets paid.
Unjustifiable! There is no way that being this inhumane is in any way justifiable. I have no pity for them. They are willing to put aside morals in order to earn a living. The thought sickens me to the core.
“Oh yes, my boy. I remember now. The part of the journey we are on now to the West Indies is sometimes called The Middle Passage. Once we have left Africa, we sail across the ocean and head for America. Before we leave Africa, we make sure we have enough food and water for most of the slaves on board to survive, plus ourselves.”
“Captain, why only most of the slaves?” A pause while he thinks about how to define his question slightly. “Why not all of them?”
“You see: it is inevitable that some of them will die. Some of them catch incurable diseases, others aren’t strong enough to endure a bit of toughening up.” His hearty laugh made my stomach churn. Whoever he is, he does not deserve to survive. What he gets is so much more than what his actions say he deserves.
“Oh.” All the sound that the mokoyo could muster is: ‘oh’? He is torturing and murdering us by locking us away on this canoe house without enough food, enough water or even enough space? When I next saw that mokoyo, he would regret these words. There is no way to justify anything behind that sigh of his. I am captured by the rage I felt. As angry as I am, I listen closely for more information.
“Anyway,” drones the mokoyo with the deep, rolling voice. “We sail for many months across the sea, in rough conditions sometimes. Sometimes on this journey, we see many other ships. Sometimes, we see not a single thing for the whole trip. So, when we complete the Middle Passage, we land in the West Indies. Before the slaves can be sold, they are thoroughly checked and treated for any… minor blemishes, shall we say? We have to got through a special list of checks to make sure that these slaves will sell.”
“What are those steps Captain?”
“First, we have to wash their body. This makes it a whole lot easier to check the body for anything we need to… fix. Then, we check for lacerations, cuts, bruises, anything that would make the price of the slave decrease. So that the price does not lessen from the potential selling value, we use tar to cover their wounds. Tar is the best way to cover up anything we need to hide.”
“How is that, Captain?”
“Why, my boy! Their skin is the same colour, of course!” Another hearty laugh comes from the mokoyo who seems to be called ‘Captain’.
“I see, Captain. So, after that, are they sold? Or are there other steps?”
“Once the tar has been applied to their bodies, oil is applied to their skin. We use oil because it makes the skin look a lot shinier and, therefore, healthier looking. If they look healthy, their price instantly goes up!”
The tone of his voice confuses me. Why is he talking about us like we are items? We are people, just like him! Although we are not exact copies of his people, they obviously do not live in a similar climate due to their skin colour. If they were dying out when they were sent over to a hotter country, why couldn’t they just stop looking for people to work over there? I am sure they would be able to find people who would go over once an agreement is made about wages and conditions. Why not at least find a humane way of transporting us?
“Are they then ready for sale Captain?”
“Not quite, my boy. Then they are given new basic clothes and made to look slightly respectable for their class. Any of the rowdy or over – excited ones are given a splash of brandy to calm them down. Those who are too quiet for our liking are given some smelling salts to perk them up a bit.”
“So, Captain, what happens after they have all been prepared? Where do we go once all the slaves have been sold?”
“Well, we go back home do we not? We go round on this triangle and gradually make more of a profit!”
“So, Captain, if a lot of the slaves die before we get to the Americas, will we end up with enough to sell as a profit? And, when they do die, what do we do with the bodies?”
“The way we look after our slaves is admirable. We have them in a position called ‘loose pack’. Loose pack is where we allow the slaves to lie on their backs for the journey. The main reason for doing this is the slaves will be kept in better condition than they are if they are kept in what is called ‘tight pack’. Tight pack is when the slaves lay on their sides. That way, they take up less room and more can be fit on to the ship. Although this is means that they take up less room, survival rates tend to be less than those who are set up in loose pack. It is all common sense, my boy!”
“And the problem with the dead bodies? What about those Captain?”
“We just throw them overboard! We have no use whatsoever for a dead slaves body, now, do we?”
A rattling noise reaches my strained ears. The sound is similar to someone who is having trouble breathing.
The deep voiced mokoyo continues carefully. “So, what brings you to work in this particular business lad? It is not a job for just anyone, is it now?”
“Well, Captain. I have a family at home. They need money to survive. My father is unable to work, my mother unable to bring in any income for as she is looking after my father. My brothers and sisters are all too young to get a job.” The high – pitched voice pauses. I can feel his grief in the silence. “I’m the only way they can survive.”
“I see.” The mokoyo with the deep voice seems to be empathizing with him. Why does he not empathize with us? Why can he not empathize with those he has directly hurt and locked away for no good reason? “I’m here because the people who own the ship wanted someone trustworthy. They don’t want someone who would run away with the money.”
“Yes boy?” He pauses and waits for a moment. “Well lad? Spit it out already!” A vigorous laugh follows.
“Well, Captain. Is it not wrong to capture the Africans?”
This time, when the mokoyo with the rolling, deep voice who is addressed as Captain speaks, he sounds thunderous. “What do you mean by this boy? Are you trying to test me? I have taught you a great deal you did not know about what you are doing and you are insulting me with a question like that? Explain yourself before I throw you in the hold with all the slaves!”
“Well Captain.” The mokoyo with the high – pitched voice stammers quickly. “What I meant is that I is wondering what a man of high standing, such as yourself, found is the best way to deal with justifying why the slaves should be slaves and not free people?”
“Hmm… I suppose I am a man of high standing.” With a small pause, he continues, “I will answer your question after all. There is no need to justify our actions. We are taking these people to a place where they will be fed, given jobs, given homes and taught enough English to be respectful. They will learn our religious ways and be saved.” Pausing for a moment, he changes his tone. “Is that a good enough reason for you then, lad?”
“Of course Captain. I don’t know why I didn’t realise that earlier.”
“Does that answer all your questions?” A small pause before, “Okay then. Run along lad. There’s a squall coming. Get the ship ready – it is going to be a rough one.”