A snippet of the book to whet your tongue and shiver your timbers !
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Tobago Cays 1792.
They glimpse land at sunset, the small uninhabited islands with their scraggy undergrowth and few palm trees dotting the white sand beaches; the first inkling they have had that there is an actual destination in the Captains head. They are so used to the sickening stench of the boat, the endless horizon of rolling waves and the grotesque conditions on board that only the very strong have not given up hope of survival. They all secretly gave thanks that his charting across the vast expanse of blue nothingness has had a definitive conclusion, landfall.
They’d left the shining port in Africa 80 days ago, bundled out of the prison of the holding cells, from the darkness of the damp dungeons into the strong sunlight of the quay, bewildered and weak from hunger. Some of them were already weak with dysentery and dehydration. A smell of the salt wind and the freedom of the endless blue horizon hit their startled eyes. Some of them have never seen the sea before; they’d been brought in long chains of shackled misery from the landlocked interior where they had either been captured from raids on isolated villages or sold by their African captors.
For a poignant moment they had stood together as Africans, in this last moment on their shining continent, feeling the African sun burn their skin for the final time. The boat stood just offshore waiting for them, like an exotic bird; little did they know that for most of them it is the boat of death. Long low canoes with hefty dark oarsmen rowed them out to the vessel and as they got nearer they could smell the terrible stench of human waste and death. A few tried to throw themselves overboard into the breakers but they were quickly pulled back.
Out of the darkness into the sun only to be taken down into the darkness again: and darkness that none of them could have ever imagined. Some of them had been held in the holding cells, deep beneath the fort in dungeons with no windows and only small gratings letting in a glimmer of light for up to a month waiting for the weather and the cargo to expand to its due limits. Separated from family and friend, tribe is jumbled in with tribe, all this done purposefully so that no common link or language can bond them together, nothing that could harbour dissent or insurrection, and no one has any idea just what is in store for them.
A few have managed to exchange words with each other, names, the villages they have come from, but the men are segregated from the women and children and each day someone dies of fever and dysentery. The slavers don’t like to leave the port to go looking for their cargo, they are too frightened to wander any deeper into the territory that they plunder for their human gold, and they wait like fat predatory birds for their prey to be delivered to them. Once a week long caravans of Arab traders arrive with their shackled human cargo. Examined like horses or cattle, teeth testicles, anus and vagina prodded and poked and anyone sick or disfigured discarded. Only the strongest and most attractive will bring the money rolling in, only the fit will survive the journey to the colonies Of 300 slaves that shuffle aboard shackled in pairs to be delivered below to the purgatory of the hold how many will survive?
Lying side by side and one above the other chained hand and foot , of these souls that nightly screamed their torment to the unhearing ears above, Afua has lost count of the bodies they have heaved over the side. They don’t only dispose of the dead in this way but anyone who looks too sick to recover or small children who are deemed to be cumbersome are thrown to the deep while they are still alive. For the men the space allotted is 6’ long by 1’4’’ wide, for the few women 5’ by 1’6’’ The sailors make their round of below decks every two days, handkerchiefs tied over their faces to stop them vomiting from the smell. It’s then that they throw the buckets of sea water on them to clear the night soil away and pump it out through the bilges. So for a day at least the stench of the decomposing flesh is kept at bay. Every day the men are brought on deck in small groups to eat and exercise, for exercise they are forced to dance, the cat o nine tails flicking at their feet until they lift them in a desultory fashion.,
She has been allowed below twice to see her beloved Adedayo, take him a fresh lime and some bread she has saved from the Captains table. Each time she has to steel herself for the torment of not being able to free him, of being able to touch him for only a few short minutes, bathe his sores, put liniment on them to ease the pain. If she can she brings him a good shot of rum mixed with some narcotic herbs to stave off his gnawing hunger. She throws off the hands that grab at her, hardens her heart at the few women down there that have been allowed to bring their children with them thrusting the small emaciated bodies towards her to take back with her into the light. All who see her recognise the breeding in her veins crave a moment of her gentle voice and healers hands. Yet she has few herbs to heal with, and only alcohol to sterilize wounds
Once she had managed to persuade the Captain to keep one small boy with him, to clean the slops and the officers’ boots, to wash the decks and do the worst jobs in the galley for the fat grumpy cook. But another time he had roared at her, oaths in his language which she is only beginning to understand in small phrases, and thrown the screaming infant overboard. Death is with them every second of every day and she supposes that her beauty and youth and the fact that she is still a virgin, or at least they think her so, have meant that her preferential treatment of serving at the Captains table and sleeping above decks on his study floor, is a mercy. Some nights he brings one of the women into his cabin to sleep with him and from her sleeping mat spread out on the floor she has to shut her ears to the grinding animal noises that issue from his bed.
Yet without Adedayo she doesn’t really want to live, when they use the allotted time they are allowed to talk in their language he whispers to her to call up the old ways, to use the secrets of her mother and grandmother. He tells her over and over that she is an Ashanti Princess and Priestess, that the Gods will listen, that the Gods will punish these skinless ones for the shame that they have brought on them. He urges her to call on Asase Yowe Goddess of fertility to protect the child they both know is growing within her. Yet the further that she has gone from her homeland the more she has felt her power diminish.
Early every morning at dawn, when the ship is quiet and the red blaze of the sun hovers over the horizon she makes her offering to the Supreme one Nyome, the few cowry shells that she has managed to keep hidden in her bundle go into the ocean to appease Mami Wati, and sometimes she thinks she can hear a reply. It comes in the caress of the breeze and lately watching the sea birds hover around the mast, it seems the occasional one has a story for her if she listens closely. She is too young to have learnt all she needed to know, of the ways of communing with the spirits of the birds and animals as she is only just through the first priestess initiation.
For this, the elder women had taken her alone out into the bush and left her without food for a week, except berries and the odd snake that she had been able to catch. On a full moon night her grandmother had come and buried her up to her neck in the earth till she could feel the weight of death come upon her. That night the Goddess had come, shining through the halo of the moon and given her her power. She had collected the medicine bag and sat with the ‘old one’ to learn about the spirits of the healing herbs, for everything in life is in spirit and the ancestors are always there watching over. This world that she breathes in every day is simply an echo of the world of spirit. Except she is beginning to doubt everything, she’s not sure if they’ve come with her on this voyage of death, unless they are taking them all to the kingdom of the dead.
It has crossed her mind when she has felt most helpless, that she has been chosen as the Priestess to carry souls to the far world on this stench ridden boat of filth that dips and sways across an expanse of undulating water that looks so innocent, but hides the dead in its light filled expanse of forever.
It all seems very far away and long ago now, her family, her kingdom, before she was brought on this great bird of a boat with its flapping sails and the way it rides the waves, in the same way that the birds fly between the trees in her land. In the beginning she had been sick with the motion, but then fear and the need to survive had brought her strength back. She has to live and find a way through this for both of them. Betrothed since small children and growing up together she has never known a world without Adedayo, nor will she even begin to think about such a thing. It has taken her the time at sea to learn the rudiments of the white faced language, and some of her wishes she never had. For they think of her people as less than human and it seems that they are for sale and going to be treated more or less like dogs.
She has endured the kicks and slaps and even the drunken groping but she will not forget a thing that has been done to her, and they will all be made to pay in one way or another .Yes they have slaves in her country but not in this way. The slaves that her father has are captured warriors of war who are treated well and can earn their freedom again. Just recently they have bought the slaves from the Europeans who throng the shores hoping for gold, and they use these men in the mines, their renowned gold mines and such gold as has made the Ashanti rich. Other slaves have been used to clear the forest regions so that rich and fertile farms can grow up. Yes its true even her nursemaid was bought from another tribe and Afua would hear her crying at night for her family, but when the little girl grew up she had set her free to go back to her village, no human was ever treated in the way of things on this boat.
She and Adedayo had been captured by the tribe that wants to take over the throne, use the golden stool of the Ashanti for their own ends. It was while they were out on a ceremonial hunting trip that it had happened, but she doesn’t want to think about that now. At first she had hoped that her father would come and rescue them or that her mother would find a way, bargain with the spirits to find them, but she has long given up that hope now. It must be four full turns of the moon since she was taken, and now her real life, her ‘before’ world seems like another land and another time.
The wind is up and the swell becomes a ten foot throb and ebb that sends the ship pitching at an alarming angle, groaning up out of the troughs of the waves, her timbers shouting in rancour. The Captain is clearly worried as the barometer has fallen fast and it feels like they are in for a cracking storm. They are too exposed out here on the edge of the Cays to weather a high sea safely They tack up and around the reef and he decides to anchor in deep water, sending out a longer chain and two extra anchors to hold them . Men weary after the long voyage clamber up the masts to bring down any extra canvas and tighten all the ropes .Yet the water is already too cloudy to see if the anchor has gripped the sand bottom as it should and as the timbers heave and the ship appears to take flight he calls for the longboat to be ready to go ashore. He needs to get his most valuable cargo to some kind of safety, if the storm is as he thinks it is, the ship will be dragged onto the reef and nothing but the will of God can save her then.
For a good half hour he watches the swells break on the reef with curling greybeard tops. They are taking on green water, it pummels the decks and rips rigging and sail alike and the crew close the hatches on the screaming slaves below who are being flung from side to side beneath deck. The way they are packed together there is nothing that they can hang onto and bones break and flesh is ripped as the manacles cut into ankle and wrist, the only thing that holds them, to each other, to the boat to life. Afua watches as some sailors lash themselves to the rigging to bring down the remainder of the sheeting, rubble is flying across the deck and the wind is screaming with the intensity of Heviosso the God of storms.
The Captain makes his decision as the light is failing and the wind is blowing with a ferocity that rips words from mouths and threatens to fling her overboard. She is lifted from behind by one of the crew and together with 20 of the most valued slaves thrown down into the longboat without any ceremony. They head without further argument for the nearest shore, leaving the Captain aboard battling to keep the boat steady on her anchor, trying to head her into the lee of the wind and achieving nothing as the jib mast cracks and the sails from the main mast fly out of their covers and are torn off to disappear in the frothing cauldron of a deadly sea.
As she is thrown into the boat screaming abuse and flailing with her small fists at her assailant she hits her head and lies dazed not really understanding what is going on. Dragged soaking wet through the surf and deposited on the flailing sand which stings her eyes and gets between her teeth it is all she can do to crawl to the shelter of some bushes and hang on grimly to the tough roots appearing out of the sand. Dimly she registers what is happening, but its dark and suddenly cold, with a ferocity she has never known before, she can’t even see the fingers of her hand in front of her face. The storm intensifies around her, she is face down on the sand clinging to the bush, it’s difficult to breathe and she has to resist the urge to panic. She falls into a transitional place between sleep and waking, between life and death, something that hypothermia can produce, hallucinations on the borders of time; and there she seems to see her mother and other elders of the tribe walking towards her, lit from behind as if they have the African sun over their shoulders. The women circle her with love and light and she is held fast in the eye of the storm.
At first she is lulled into a sense of peace by their chanting and then she realizes that a ceremony is taking place. Out of the smoke of the fire comes the figure of her lover, shadowy, insubstantial, but then growing increasingly corporeal. His braids are hung with seaweed and water droplets drip from his body to be evaporated by the heat of the fire. He seems to shed his outer imperfect skin with the scars of the slave fetters, and the marks of the terrible journey and become as she has always known him to be, young and virile and perfect in his beauty. Her Adedayo, the cream of the crop of young men of the tribe, the boy who had always been destined to be her life partner. What is happening in front of her is both their original betrothal ceremony all over again and something new and unexpected. She has to concentrate, she needs to remember this when it goes away, as she is sure that it will, she has been in this sacred space once before at the time of her initiation, and now at this time of danger she understands that the elders are with her and showing her more of her power.
Her mother the High priestess, is weaving a web around then using the precious gold thread that she keeps for just such a purpose. As it touches and tangles between them it becomes invisible and yet she can feel it pulling them together, she feels his breath on her and places her hand on his chest to feel his heartbeat, yet somewhere she knows that this is the threshold of the spirit world that is being offered to them. The dangerous place where the dead linger when they are not ready to go up the mountain of the ancestors. She cannot remain here in this interim space and live, she will have to let him go.
The beat of the talking drums in the background is rising, and as one voice the women sway in a dance of love around the couple. As she sways with Adedayo she listens to the words, the song tells of their story, the loss of their dream and the way she can recapture a glimpse of it every year, down through the ages until all the lives that have been lost in the shipwreck are paid for by the souls of the living. She shuts her eyes, holding her lover, holding his warmth to sustain her through the year to come. As she sways the voices recede, the warmth gives way to the howling of the wind and the lashing of the waves on the small rocky island.
She opens her eyes nothing remains but the grey dawn of the next day, the flotsam of wrecked ship scattering the beach and out in the bay carried on the green crests of the high waves the bloated bodies of the dead still manacled to each other and to the bits and pieces of the boat that float on the scummy sea. There on the edge of the small beach piled amongst the weed, his hand reaching out as if to grab a handful of life, is Adedayo, his long locks gritty with sand and seashells, his eye sockets empty of life and his face nibbled by the fish.
Yet she can still hear the drums, the talking drums, they are telling her to believe in the spirit not what is in front of her eyes. They are telling her to believe in the magic of the tribe and remember that one day each year she can walk the shoreline with her lover, their hands warm and entwined, their breaths mingling as they were meant to do. All this for one life, one life until the price is exacted and Ashanti will is done. Until then they can never be free to travel to the other shore together.
The wind falls and the sailors come to take her away and yet using the small amount of the talk of the skinless ones that she has learnt she gains leave to wash the body of her lover, to bury him in the hot sun in the midst of a circle of green rock at the top of the island. Here only the large lizard watches, his eye unblinking, his tongue flicking in the silence as the sweat trickles down her back and she makes a small pile of the smaller green rocks flecked with what she imagines to be gold on top of the shallow solitary grave to mark the spot.
‘’This is a work of fiction but some of it is true ’
Kidnap on the high seas and searing insight into money laundering and the drug trade in the Caribbean where the plantation owners of the past still run the show and the ghosts of the dispossessed slaves refuse to sleep in their watery graves.
In 1793 the slave ship Lady Rosa founders on the reef at Tobago Cays killing all but a few of her living cargo. Afua an Ashanti priestess is one of those saved and vows to avenge the death of her betrothed Adedeyo.
Fast forward to present day Caribbean and Sara is sailing with her old friend Matt, but the two share a past rooted in 1979 Chelsea and the highs and lows of the cocaine trade. Lucas Tyler -White business man and plantation ‘’Royalty’’ uses their connection to further his own business; but little does he know that more awaits him on the full moon night at Tobago Cays than even he has bargained for.
This is a courageous novel which tells an eerie story that most of us prefer to ignore: a perfect blend of the murky past and the undercurrents that remain beneath the glittering tourist trade in the Caribbean