Authors: Al Lacy
“You will be taken across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States of America. You will dock and leave the ship in the coastal city of Charleston, South Carolina, where some of you will be sold to plantation owners whom I choose. The rest of you will be auctioned off to whatever plantation owners are willing to pay the highest price for you.”
Green went on to explain that he had a crew of men who would be aboard ship to make sure they were fed well and obeyed all rules, which would be explained when they were on the ship. Then he nodded to the man with him and they moved outside together.
When the door closed behind them, Green said to Arthur Pendleton, “As usual, Arthur, you keep an eye on things here. I’ll be back in the morning when it’s time to move them to the ship.”
“Will do,” said the younger man.
Green started to walk away, then stopped. “Oh, Arthur. That slave with the broken leg.”
“See if you can get a couple of the soldiers to put some kind of a splint on it. If he’s mobile at all when we get to Charleston, he’ll still bring a few dollars.”
“I’ll see to it, sir.”
That evening, after the slaves had been fed, they were allowed to go to the second and third floors of the slave lodge. The rooms were
small, but there were enough of them to allow individual families to occupy a room privately if they chose to do so.
As soon as Robert, Nannie, and Benjamin were in a room on the second floor, Benjamin went to the window, which was nailed shut. He peered through dirty glass at the space between the slave lodge and the next building in the compound. There were kerosene lanterns at both ends of the building.
“Benjamin, what are you thinking?” Robert asked.
“I was thinking that it is not very far down to the ground from this window.”
Nannie glanced at her husband and sighed.
“But there will be soldiers guarding this building all night,” said Robert. “And haven’t you noticed the window is nailed shut?”
“Yes, Father, but the nails are driven in at an angle, and they are not driven deep. With a little work, I can loosen them and have the window open. We can drop down to the roof over the back door of the building, then drop to the ground.”
“But, son, what about the soldiers?” Nannie said.
“They are few in number, Mother. They will have to walk patrols. This will no doubt mean there are spaces of time when they are not on this side of the building. We will make our move when we can run into the shadows of the building behind this one. The fence around the compound is only chest high to Father and me. We can get over it easily and escape. We will go to Transvaal.”
“But Transvaal is so far away, son,” said Robert. “It will be a long journey, and we will have to avoid the soldiers who will be on our trail.”
“It is worth it to me to try,” said the nineteen-year-old. “Do you not feel the same way, Father?”
Robert looked at Nannie and sighed.
She smiled grimly. “We do, don’t we?”
“Yes,” said Robert. “We do.”
It was nearly three o’clock in the morning when Benjamin watched the guard make his round along the rear of the building, then turn the corner at the far end. He had counted the seconds before the guard would reappear on their side. It was a short space of time, but it was sufficient for someone who was desperate.
When Benjamin was on the ground, his father lifted his mother down and Benjamin assisted her to the ground. When Nannie’s feet touched earth, Robert scrambled down. The three of them made a dash into the deep shadows of the next building. When the guard vanished around the corner again, they darted to the other side of the compound and soon were over the fence and outside the compound.
They kept to the shadows and made their way along the streets that were dimly lit with kerosene lanterns. Finally, they reached the wall that surrounded the Castle of Good Hope, the city’s oldest monument. They huddled in the shadows to catch their breath, then hurried on.
Soon they were running along the shore of Table Bay in the pale light of a moon partially covered by clouds. When they reached a small hut along the shore, they paused for another breather, then dashed around the steep slopes of Table Mountain. After a few moments’ rest at the tip of Table Mountain, they pressed on toward Devil’s Peak, then headed northeast toward the rolling hill country.
At sunrise the next morning, Thomas Green was standing near the front door of the slave lodge, observing the armed guards ushering the slaves along the street toward the docks at Table Bay. He was in conversation with Captain John Orr, the officer in charge of the army guard, but kept his eyes on Arthur Pendleton as he checked off the slave families and individuals from his list when they passed by him and gave their names.
When the last of the slaves had left the building, Pendleton
turned to his employer and frowned. Green excused himself to Captain Orr and said, “What’s wrong?”
The younger man shook his head as he studied the list. “Sir, three slaves are missing. One named Robert, his wife, Nannie, and their son, Benjamin.”
“Are you sure?”
Green motioned to Captain Orr and told him of the three slaves who were unaccounted for. Two guards were sent to the room the trio had occupied. When they found that the window frame had been removed, they reported it to Green and their commander.
A short time later, Orr had dispatched a dozen mounted soldiers from army headquarters across town to search for the runaway slaves.
T WAS ALMOST NOON
when Benjamin and his parents stumbled down a grassy embankment toward a river near the town of Worcester.
The sky was clear, and the oppressive heat seemed to have weight and substance. Perspiration plastered their clothing to their bodies. The sight of cool water in the heat-blasted hills made them hasten to it.
“We cannot stay here very long,” Robert cautioned them. “Just enough time to cool us a bit. If the soldiers are close behind, they will find our tracks in the grass on the embankment. We must swim downstream and leave the river on the other bank.”
“I need to cool off here,” said Nannie. “The water will help my strength to return. You two go down where you want to cross the river. I will join you when it is time to climb out on the opposite bank.”
Benjamin followed his parents into the waist-deep water, looking back up the long embankment for any sign of pursuit. When he turned his head back again, he saw his father beneath the surface, paddling downstream. His mother was in the river up to her chin, which accentuated the fear in her dark eyes.
“We will call for you soon, Mother,” said Benjamin, and plunged in, swimming toward his father. The coolness of the water rejuvenated him.
Nannie watched her two men for a few moments, then dipped herself all the way down, holding her breath and enjoying the cool river. She let the air out of her lungs slowly, sending tiny bubbles
upward. When her lungs were almost empty, she stood up, raising her head out of the water and drew in a fresh breath of air.
She repeated the dipping several times, staying down as long as she could. When she had expelled nearly all the air in her lungs once more, she raised up and broke the surface, enjoying the refreshingly cool water while drawing in the hot, humid air into her lungs.
Some fifty yards downstream she saw her two men going under the surface again. She decided to go beneath the surface one last time. When she came up seconds later, she shook her head, throwing water from her long, black hair. Little beads glistened in her hair and on her bronze face. Her eyes were closed as she sought to absorb the last vestige of the fortifying coolness that clung to her skin.
A sudden strange sound brought her eyes open, and a gasp escaped her lips when she saw British soldiers standing on the bank. Her chest felt like it was being crushed in a vise as the fact that she was caught penetrated her mind.
“Where are the men?” demanded the lieutenant in charge.
Nannie could see downstream from the corner of her eye. Robert and Benjamin evidently were still submerged. Without replying, she looked up at the lieutenant, fearfully meeting his gaze.
“Come up here, woman!” he commanded, motioning to her.
When she didn’t move, he shouted to his soldiers, “Two of you get her out of the river! The rest of you find the men. They’re somewhere close by.”
Nannie backtracked, shaking her head, as the two soldiers came after her. She felt a scream tear upward in her throat as they seized her arms and dragged her toward the bank. She screamed again and one of them backhanded her across the mouth.
“Shut up, woman! Scream again and I’ll break your jaw!”
When they neared the bank, the soldiers lifted Nannie out of the water none too gently and tossed her through the air. She let out a short, piercing cry of pain when her hip struck a rock and she rolled on the rough, hard surface of the bank. Her momentum caused the sharp rocks to scrape her bare arms and face.
As soon as Robert and Benjamin heard her cry they turned their heads and found themselves facing a half dozen black muzzles.
They were forced up the bank at gunpoint, but when they saw Nannie sitting on the ground with blood on her arms and face, they ran to her. Robert knelt down beside her and mutely looked into her eyes, then folded her in his arms.
When the lieutenant came toward them, Benjamin stood up to meet him.
“She didn’t obey me when I told her to come out of the river,” the lieutenant said.
“Let my mother tell us about it,” said Benjamin.
“She’s not to speak to you, and neither you nor your father are to talk to her or to each other until you are aboard the ship. Mr. Green is holding the ship because of you, and he’s very angry.”
Benjamin stiffened. “My mother is bleeding. We need to wash her wounds.”
“Not now. The three of you will ride aboard the horses of my men. Let’s go.”
When the soldiers and the runaway slaves arrived at the dock, Thomas Green met them at the gangplank.
The cuts on Nannie’s face and arms had stopped bleeding and were beginning to scab. But Robert and Benjamin held her up between them because of the injury to her hip.
Green’s words were almost a roar. “How dare you try to escape! I paid good money to Kent Rhodes for you, and you had no right to run away!”
The soldiers stood around Green and the slaves in a tight circle.
The slavemaster stepped closer. “I should have all three of you whipped for this! But I won’t. Consider yourselves very fortunate. I need all three of you in good condition when we arrive in South Carolina, or I can’t get top dollar for you.”
Green ran his gaze over the physique of young Benjamin and
grinned stonily. “You will bring a very good price, boy. I’ll put you on the auction block for sure.”
Benjamin frowned. “Mr. Green,” he said, attempting to hold his voice low and level, “will whoever buys me allow me to bring my parents along? They will buy them, too, will they not?’
Green laughed hollowly. “I doubt that, boy.”
“But I do not want to be separated from my parents.”
“What you want and what you’ll get will be two different things.”
Green turned to the soldiers and barked out the words, “Take them aboard.”
“I will have to carry my wife,” said Robert.
Green nodded curtly. “All right, all right. Hurry up. I need to get this ship on the ocean.”
Robert lifted Nannie into his arms and said to his son in a hushed voice, “Please, Benjamin, do not rebel against Mr. Green. It will only cause you pain. If he chooses to separate us in America, there is nothing we can do about it. Your mother and I do not want that to happen, but we have discussed it between us. If you fight Mr. Green on it, you will be beaten and still he will have his way. Please do not resist him.”
Benjamin hesitated for a few seconds, then nodded.
As Robert held Nannie in his arms and walked up the gangplank, his head was bent low. The run for freedom had failed. They were doomed to a life of slavery in a strange land and probably would be separated from their son forever.
Benjamin, however, followed his parents up the gangplank with his proud, handsome head held high, realizing that for a few hours he had been a free man. He promised himself that someday … somehow … he would again be free.
A crewman with a whip in his hand stepped up to Robert and said, “Follow me.” Glancing at Benjamin, he tossed his head in the direction of the ship’s bow. “You, too, boy.”
Benjamin did not like the term “boy,” but he held his peace and
followed. Slaves all along the deck watched as the small family walked past. Benjamin nodded when he saw two families from the Rhodes ranch. They afforded him grim smiles.
As they neared the bow, the crewman led them through a metal door at deck level and along a narrow passageway that led to a series of smaller metal doors. When they came to a room where the door stood open, the crewman stopped and gestured into its cramped interior.
“This is your room for the trip,” he said. “There are two cots. One of you will have to sleep on the floor.”