Authors: Al Lacy
“I will sleep on the floor, Father,” said Benjamin.
Robert did not comment as he laid Nannie on the nearest cot.
Soon the ship’s big steam engines were rumbling beneath the deck, the screw propeller at the stern began churning water, and the ship pulled out of the harbor under the direction of the ship’s captain, Spencer Kimball.
The sun bore down from a cloudless sky, reflecting its brilliant glare off the deep blue water.
On the second day out, the sky was still clear, and even though there was water in every direction, the sun’s heat punished the slaves who were swabbing the deck and the narrow walkways on the upper levels. They worked under the watchful eyes of the crewmen.
Nannie was allowed to sit and observe as her husband and son wielded mops and perspired heavily in the sultry air. There were water barrels positioned along both sides of the deck, each one well guarded by two of Green’s men. When the sweating slaves asked for water, they were given only minimal amounts and sent back to work.
Thomas Green and Spencer Kimball looked on from the shade of the ship’s bridge on the third level.
By midafternoon, some of the women and older Negro men were feeling ill from the combination of exertion, stifling heat, and
lack of water. An elderly woman passed out and fell to the deck. Seconds later, an old man who was working near Benjamin and his father collapsed.
Robert immediately knelt beside him and called for water.
A crewman named Gerald Rapp stepped close and said, “The water’s rationed. He had half a cup an hour ago. That’s all he gets for another hour.”
“That isn’t enough!” Benjamin cried. “You can’t expect any of us to—”
Rapp’s face contorted with rage. “You’re in no position to tell us what to do, boy! And if you want to address me, you call me
Robert laid a hand on his son’s arm. “Calm down, son.”
Hearing his father’s soft-spoken words, Benjamin said, “Mr. Rapp, sir, I don’t understand why the water is rationed to us. You can’t expect us to work like this without plenty of water to drink.”
Crewman Evan Cropper edged up beside Rapp and said, “Gerald, you don’t have to explain anything to this low-down slave.” He turned to Benjamin with a scowl and said, “Get back to work, boy!”
“It won’t hurt these slaves to know the situation, Evan,” said Rapp. Then he said to Benjamin, “We can only give you slaves a certain amount of water because we only carry a certain number of barrels aboard ship. We have to make sure we don’t run out before we reach South Carolina.”
Benjamin swallowed hard. “I don’t see any crewmen passing out. How much water do
Evan Cropper moved up to stand nose to nose with Benjamin. “I told you to get back to work. Do it or you’ll feel this whip.”
Benjamin met his gaze but said nothing.
“Come on, son,” said Robert. “Let us get back to work.”
Cropper moved back a couple of feet. “Good advice, Dad. Do it, boy!”
The old man on the deck was coming around. As Benjamin
started to bend over him again, Cropper laid a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll tend to him. You pick up your mop.”
As they moved side by side, Benjamin whispered to his father, “These crewmen are lying. They ration the water to us in such small amounts because they like to see us suffer.”
“You are probably right, son, but there is nothing we can do about it. We have a long journey ahead of us. We must make the best of it. Let us do what we are told.”
Benjamin glanced up at the bridge and saw Thomas Green and Captain Kimball watching him. Looking back at his father, he said, “I am going to talk to Mr. Green. They must give us more water. Especially the older people. If they do not, some are going to die. Mr. Green has paid money for them. Why would he want them to die?”
Robert bent down to pick up his mop and said, “Benjamin, it will do no good to talk to Mr. Green. He must do it this way on all of his voyages as he carries slaves to the United States.”
“But it isn’t always this hot, Father.”
“I know. But you will only make Mr. Green angry if you take it upon yourself to talk to him.”
“I must, Father. I have to do what I can to—”
His words were cut off by the sound of an elderly woman collapsing on the deck near the bow. Two crewmen harshly commanded the slave kneeling over her to get back to work. When the silver-haired old man looked up at them and said he was her husband, they threatened punishment if he disobeyed. There were tears in the old slave’s eyes as he backed away and picked up his mop.
“That is enough, Father,” said Benjamin. “I am going to talk to Mr. Green.”
Before Robert could say another word, Benjamin was threading his way among the slaves swabbing the decks. He reached the metal stairs that went to the other two levels and soon was on the third level, approaching the bridge. Both Green and Kimball saw him coming.
Green scowled at Benjamin and said, “You’re supposed to be down there working.”
“I know, but I wish to talk to you, Mr. Green.”
“This water rationing. Our people need more water in order to work in this heat. Especially the older ones. They must have more. Why do the crew not give them enough?”
A wicked sneer twisted Green’s features. “They’re acting under my orders. There is a limited supply of water for everyone on board, boy. We must not run out before we reach America. The older slaves will just have to make do with the amount of water allowed.”
“Why, then, do you not carry more water on the ship? Starting out with a short supply does not make sense.”
“You get back to work!” Green snapped.
Benjamin’s muscular body seemed to swell as a hint of fire flashed in his dark eyes.
Green leaned over the railing and called for crewmen Lester Winters and Jack Henley to come up and escort Benjamin down to the deck.
As the two men raced up the stairs, Benjamin stared intently at Thomas Green and said, “Are my questions so difficult to answer, Mr. Green? I only want my people to be treated as human beings.”
Winters and Hensley reached the bridge. Benjamin noticed that Winters was very tall and quite slender. He towered over Benjamin by at least four inches.
Green looked past Benjamin at his two men. “See that he is back to work immediately.”
Benjamin gave the slavemaster a quizzical look, then turned and descended the stairs ahead of the two crewmen. When they reached the deck, one of the crewmen at the bow of the ship called out to Thomas Green that the old woman who had collapsed was dead. Benjamin’s eyes flicked that direction. He saw the body lying on the deck, next to the railing.
As a moan went up from the slaves, and some began to weep,
both Winters and Hensley hurried toward the bow to fortify the other two crewmen who stood over the body.
“Jack … Lester …” Green called out, “toss the body overboard!”
Winters and Hensley were about to pick up the dead woman when her bent and silver-haired husband began to wave his arms and wail.
“No-o-o!” he cried. “No-o-o! I want to have a service over her body!”
The two crewman paused and waited for their employer to instruct them.
“Please, Mr. Green,” pleaded the old man. “It is not right to just throw my wife’s body overboard! We must mourn her death in our way.”
“The body has to be buried,” said Green. “It will turn bad in a hurry in this heat. We have no choice but to drop it in the ocean. Throw it overboard, men.”
A hard, brittle anger flared up within Benjamin. He dashed toward the spot where Green stood and yelled, “No!”
Every eye swung to the broad-shouldered young slave.
Nannie rose from her chair, ignoring the pain in her injured hip, and stared in terrified silence as she saw the look on Thomas Green’s face. Her dark luminous eyes were huge in her face, and her lips made a perfect
while her mind tried to convey a message to her son.
She took two faltering steps toward the spot where Benjamin was about to confront Thomas Green, then stopped suddenly when she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. Tilting her head, she looked up to see Robert’s eyes on her. A frown creased his brow, and a slight shake of his head kept her from going to her son.
Robert and Nannie watched in dismay as the scene unfolded before them.
Green pointed a stiff finger at Benjamin and said, “Stop right where you are, boy!”
As Benjamin came to a halt, he opened his mouth to speak, but
Green was already looking at Winters and Hensley, telling them to throw the body into the sea. The two men obediently bent down to grasp the corpse.
“No!” cried Benjamin, and bolted toward them. The closest to him was Winters, who stood to his full height, bracing himself and doubling up his fists.
Thomas Green’s voice cut the air as he called for other crewmen to come and help take the slave below and lock him up.
Jack Hensley leaped in front of Winters and swung a fist at Benjamin’s jaw. Benjamin dodged it and shoved the crewman to one side. His strength was enough to send Hensley rolling across the deck.
Lester Winters yelled something at Benjamin and cocked his fists for combat.
“Please, Mr. Green,” Benjamin said, “let the old man have the service over his wife’s body.”
“Take him!” Green shouted at his crewmen. “Lock him up!”
Benjamin felt Lester Winters move up behind him and start to wrap his arms around him. Benjamin’s natural reaction was to send an elbow into the man’s stomach. The impact sent Winters backpedaling, the breath whooshing out of him. His momentum sent him hard into the railing and over it.
“Lester can’t swim!” Henley cried. “He can’t swim!”
Ryan Cropper gripped the rail and looked over, shouting, “Mr. Green, Lester’s too close to the ship! The propeller will suck him into its blades!”
While Thomas Green stood frozen to the spot, Benjamin took off his shoes and dived over the side.
Nannie gripped Robert’s arm and let out a high-pitched squeal. He quickly hugged her close to his pounding heart.
When Benjamin plunged into the water, Lester Winters was bobbing up and down, gasping and choking. When he saw Benjamin, he let out a wordless wail, waving his arms helplessly.
Benjamin swam toward him with powerful strokes. “Let me get hold of you!” he yelled.
Winters wailed again in abject terror and lunged for Benjamin, wrapping his arms around his neck in a death grip. At the same time, Benjamin saw that the ship was moving past them and the stern was coming up. With it would be the pull of the propeller.
Benjamin rolled over in the water and used all of his strength to swim away from the powerful vortex threatening to pull them toward certain death.
Captain Spencer Kimball pushed and shoved his way through the crowd of slaves to the bridge and shouted through his communication pipe to the engine room, commanding the men down there to cut the steam engines.
Robert and Nannie watched their son swim with all his might and remove Lester Winters and himself from the pull of the propeller, even before the engines were cut. A loud cheer went up from crewmen and slaves alike as they saw Winters and his rescuer bobbing up and down in the water behind the ship.
The ship’s crew lowered a lifeboat into the water, and four of Kimball’s men rode the boat down. When the lifeboat was back at deck level and the slave and slave crewman stepped from it, the crowd pressed close around them.
Robert and Nannie pushed their way forward until they could throw their arms around Benjamin’s soaking wet body. As Robert hugged his son’s neck, he whispered, “Son, if Mr. Green shows anger toward you for sending his man over the rail, please do nothing to anger him more.”
A young male slave about Benjamin’s age said, “You are a brave one, my friend. I do not think I could have brought myself to dive in and save the man.”
Gerald Rapp’s eyes flashed fire as he said to the young slave, “Why shouldn’t he go in after him? It was Benjamin who knocked Lester overboard!”
One of Captain Kimball’s crew frowned at Rapp. “Hey, pal, it wouldn’t have happened if your boss would have granted the old
man the privilege of having a service over his wife’s body. It would have been the decent thing to do.”
Green heard his words and said, “What’s your name, fella?”
The sailor’s face lost color. “Mack Langford, sir.”
“Well, Mack, you’re right. It
the decent thing to do. I was wrong. I should have allowed the old slave to have his service. He can go ahead with the service right now. We’ll bury the body at sea when they are finished.”
The steam engines were started up again, and the ship went on its way across the vast expanse of blue water. Green said nothing to Benjamin.
The body of the dead slave woman was carried to the wide space on the deck near the stern. While all the slaves partook in the wailing and chanting, Captain Kimball and Thomas Green returned to the bridge.
When they were out of earshot from all others, Kimball said, “Mr. Green, I’m a little puzzled.”
“Well … why do you purchase elderly slaves and take them to the States? Wouldn’t you be better off to leave them in Africa?”
Green smiled. “I don’t purchase the old ones, Captain. You see, since the slave owners in South Africa are converting their system to paid help, they don’t want the responsibility of the old slaves, so they give them to me free of charge, just to take them off their hands.”
Kimball grinned. “So you’re able to sell them to the plantation owners?”
“Sure. And I make 100 percent profit off them. Their price to the plantation owners is, of course, lower than the younger ones. But as long as they can do any work at all, the plantation owners will buy them. So … if an old slave dies while crossing the Atlantic, I don’t lose much.”
Kimball grinned again. “I see your point. That’s good thinking.”
The chanting sounds and the heartrending wails went on for over an hour while the slaves mourned the loss of one of their own.
When it was over, Green’s crewmen gently lifted the body over the railing and dropped it into the sea.