The sun was as bright and unforgiving as ever. The two cellists, Andon and Stasio, vainly hid from the ball of fire by hunching under their cello cases in the front of the sloop while also using their bodies to hide their prized instruments from its harsh rays.
Juan and Armand sat in the stern, with Lance at the tiller. All had their shirts pulled over their heads against the sun’s relentless attack.
Mei and Lia sat next to each other in the point of the bow, having fun, despite the heat, their cracked lips and headaches, and their hollow stomachs. Mei touched her head, which had definitely been hit with sunstroke despite the captain’s coat draped over the two women. “Head.”
“Ichie,” Lia replied in her first language. Lia pointed to her nose. “Nose.”
“Icherie,” Mei stated, giving the word in Lia’s language. “Ear.” This time she didn’t point.
“Aricae,” Lia answered, pointing to her ear and getting it correct. “Eye.”
“Acou.” Mei clapped her hands in delight. “This is so much fun.”
Lia looked at her own, mostly bare body for ideas. She seemed unconcerned about being topless, even around males. For modesty’s sake, they’d sacrificed Mei’s vest and cut it up to make bandeau tops for the two females, each a white band around the upper torso.
Mei giggled and waved her hands to signal a stop. “Ok, ok. No more body parts. Let’s try phrases again.” She raised her hand and waved. “Greetings!”
“Mabpwika!” Lia replied, smiling and waving back. She paused, then gestured at Mei. “Ita bia?”
“How are you?” Mei bowed her head. She rubbed her stomach. “Ni lamaha tina.”
“I’m hungry.” Lia struggled with the pronunciation but she was getting better. She pointed to herself. “I am good.”
Mei had to think about that one. “Mm…Irufu tina?” She wasn’t quite sure.
“Mm!” Lia nodded in confirmation. She clapped her hands.
A voice came from above. “She’s picking English up really fast. She must be smart.”
Mei squinted and covered her eyes with a hand as she gazed up at the top of the mast. “Are you going to stay up there all the way to St. Mary’s?”
Cheeto clung to the very top of the mast, behind the sail and with his arms around the upper crossbar. “Until you feed your pet cat, I’ll stay up here where it’s safe,” he defiantly retorted. He cast distrustful eyes at the jaguar curled up at the bottom of the mast.
They had all been going without food these past few days as they healed and slowly drifted towards their destination. Jie was growing even more irritable than the rest were. When she’d started growling at people, Cheeto had decided that it would be safer out of reach.
“You know cats can climb, right?” Juan mocked. He and Armand sat in the st
“Then I’ll jump into the ocean if she tries!”
“Um, Cheeto?” Mei pointed out. “Jaguars are excellent swimmers, remember?”
“Well, if I’m up here and you’re all down there, she’ll eat you first. Cuz you’re easier.” He nodded to himself. “I’m just fine up here.”
“You’re gonna get exhausted trying to hang up there,” Lance drawled. He sat at the tiller, directly them in the direction that Mei’s Skill indicated lay port. “Then you’re gonna fall and land on her and she’ll eat you first.”
Cheeto stubbornly glowered. “I’ll take my chances.”
Mei smiled. Then her stomach growled—again. She tried to take her mind off of it, as she had been for days. The super speed at which their wounds were healing had been very convenient, but nothing could be done about their hunger and thirst. With little wind, they’d made very little progress since leaving Barbados. Her Skill told her St. Mary’s was ahead of them. She hoped it was close.
In the early afternoon, Cheeto called out, “Ship!”
Juan rose, leery, and stared out over the water. “Navy?”
Armand, thinking more positively, rubbed his hands together and made a sly smile. “Or a fat merchantman?”
Andon groaned and refused to budge. “Whoever it is, I don’t care as long as they have water and food.”
“And umbrellas,” Stasio added.
Mei felt a worm of nausea in her gut. “I just hope it isn’t the English.” They would not fare well in that case. Not after everything she, and they, had done. She covered herself up by putting the blue captain’s jacket on and buttoning it up.
“Uh…” Cheeto squinted in the bright daylight as the ship slowly drew close enough to make out details. “I dunno. What flag is red, white, and blue?”
“Probably easier to find ones that aren’t,” Juan mocked.
“Horizontal or vertical lines?” Armand asked.
“Sideways,” Cheeto replied. His eyes dropped to the deck of the little sloop; he must have seen Jie stir at all the activity. This only made him cling all the tighter to his perch up on the mast.
“Dutch,” Armand reasoned. “I don’t see a lot of gun ports. Might not be navy.”
They all waited, tense. Out on the open ocean, there was nowhere to hide. And their little vessel would never outrun a proper ship.
The Dutch vessel angled towards them, evidently spotting the sloop and deciding to investigate.
That only made the worry worse.
Mei’s sour feelings worsened. “No hope they just pass us by, hmm?”
The ship was quite large. It sailed within shouting distance and several men in blue and white outfits with red accents lined the rails.
“Oi!” A man in a captain’s hat shouted. “Ben je in nood?” When all he got in return was shrugs of incomprehension, he switched to English, the international language. “Are you in distress?”
“No!” Mei shouted back, waving up to them. “We’re fine. Thanks.”
Unfortunately, the man would not give up so easily. He appeared puzzled by them. “Where are you bound?”
She glanced at the others. Any harm in telling the truth? Thanks to her skill, she only knew one port in this direction, so a lie might be obvious. She decided on the truth. “St. Mary’s!” she called.
The men on the Dutch ship looked confused; then bright laughter rolled through them.
The apparent captain leaned over the rail and inspected their ship. “You’ve got no water or food, I suspect. Unless you’re going to eat that cat.”
At the mention of the cat, the sailors and crew of the Dutch ship took renewed interest, and a few pointed at Jie in amazement.
Jie stared back, unphased by their curiosity, probably wondering what they tasted like. Had she ever eaten Dutch before?
Mei shrugged. “You’re right; we’re out of provisions. Why?”
A mischievous smile split the captain’s lips. “Well, I should think if you mean to cross the Atlantic and sail all the way around the horn to Madagascar, you might want a drink and a bite to eat along the way, eh?” He roared with humour.
Mei blushed. Apparently, her Skill gave her a notion of direction, but not distance.
“So, we were sailing out into the middle of the ocean?” Cheeto asked the group.
Mei cleared her throat and called back to the Dutch. “We’re looking for a free port.”
“Aye,” the captain agreed, “I can guess as much from the dress of your crew, ma’am. But unless I mistake my guess, you’re wearing an English uniform, no?”
She bit the inside of her lip. Could she pretend to be a prison guard? From the way the captain was acting, he might be a guard himself, or he might be an NPC. She couldn’t tell. “It’s an English uniform,” she agreed. “But I don’t aim to return to English colonies.”
He mused that over for a while. “We’re bound for Philipsburg, Sint Maarten. It be Dutch, but the freest, most open port you’ll find in the Lesser Antilles.” His fingers tapped the ship’s rail. “Without supplies, I doubt you’d make it on your own. Especially as you don’t seem to be practiced at navigation.”
His crew laughed.
But he good-naturedly beckoned them. “Come aboard. We’ll tow your boat. Give you a lift, if you like.”
Mei turned to the others. “What do you think?”
“We’ve little choice,” Armand counselled. “All of us are starved and dehydrated. We’ll be dead in a couple of days without help.” He ruefully shook his head. “I did not realize we were mistaken about St. Mary’s. I apologize.”
“None of us know what we’re doing,” Lance stated. “Don’t worry about it.” He looked at Mei. “Take the offer. At least if they slap us in chains, they’ll probably give us water at some point.”
With no objections from the others, Mei shouted her assent. “We’re very grateful, Captain. We accept your offer with gratitude!”
He waved in acknowledgement, then started barking orders at his men.
Mei felt her palms growing sweaty. She sincerely hoped this wasn’t the end of their adventure.
A rope ladder uncoiled along the outside of the hull. They were taken on board and the sloop roped to the stern, to be towed behind.
Jie had, in no uncertain terms, not been welcome aboard, despite howling protests that had made everyone aboard shiver and come running. However, for the moment, she’d been tempted to remain on the sloop by giving her three blocks of hardtack to gnaw on and a keg of water to drink from. The ship cook had been tasked with boiling a large amount of salted beef to be split between the newcomers and the jaguar.
Mei and her crew stood with the captain around a cask of water secured to the mainmast, taking turns gratefully drinking from a shared cup as they conversed. It was the same cask that sailors were free to dip into as they worked. The rest of the Dutch crew were already back to business, scrambling up rigging or swabbing the deck and such.
It turned out that this was, fortuitously, a merchant ship, not a naval one. Even if it had been naval, the Captain, Enderman, assured them that they would have been treated no differently, as special circumstances currently applied.
“You aim to be pirates, I can tell,” he assured them with good humour, eying Lia, a Carib, with great interest, though he did not comment. “I have seen your kind before. There are many folk such as yourselves in Philipsburg.”
“You don’t hate pirates?” Cheeto asked.
“Ha! I do,” Captain Enderman admitted. “Curse of the seven seas they are. Rats and thieves. No offence. In normal times, I’d hang the lot of them if they came my way. But we received word on our journey north that war has just broken out between the Netherlands and France.”
“Why would that matter?” Juan asked.
“We Dutch are a small nation, a small power. But we excel at creating wealth. Which is why, I have no doubt, you and others like you will swiftly be pressed into work as privateers, to sail and pirate against the French under the Dutch flag. Beats being hanged, doesn’t it?” he joked with very dark humour.
Mei gave him an awkward smile. “Yes. It does.”
“Will Philipsburg be safe?” Lance inquired. “Isn’t Sint Maartens half French?”
The captain bowed his head. “The island is both the center of the war and the last place it is being fought. You see, the French, those slimy mongrels, own the north half of the island. We own the south. Both nations covet the other’s land and detest sharing a border. There is much competition for trade and human resources. I suppose the French finally decided they would take our side.”
Lance was confused. “But they aren’t fighting on the island?”
“No, no! No one wishes to disrupt business, if at all possible,” Enderman pointed out as if it were obvious. “So they will fight the war with ships first, in an attempt to make the other side weak enough to surrender. No need to destroy precious infrastructure and productive civilian lives when we have militaries for that, hmm? Let the lads with guns smash each other around and settle things. It’s what we spend so much of our hard-earned money on.”
Just how they, and this ship in particular, earned their money came as quite a shock to everyone. Everyone, that is, except Armand.
As they had no coin to pay for passage, Mei and her allies were asked to work instead. The musicians set up under the mainmast, to manage some merry tunes once they’d recovered. As for the rest, the captain gave them a brief tour and took them to where they would perform their duties over the next few days.
The third deck was entirely a cargo hold. It was dark, cramped, damp, and stunk like an outdoor toilet in high heat. That’s because the ship was transporting ‘slaves’, hundreds of them, and they urinated and voided their bowels where they sat.
Coming down the stairs, Mei’s hand flew to her mouth, and she quietly gasped at the sight of the rows and rows of naked black men and women in chains, crammed into shelves. Her stomach, with only a little water in it, tried to vomit. The smell of feces and death and the horror of the conditions the people here were in was appalling.
Juan, Cheeto, Lance, and Lia, were shocked as well. Lia whimpered and clung to Mei, perhaps afraid they were about to share the same fate.
Only Armand reacted with a resigned sigh. “Prisoner transport,” he guessed.
Captain Enderman nodded. “Yes. The African nations sell them and the European colonies snap them up. The more prisoners they have, the more profitable a colony is, after all. We make a very pretty penny hauling them across the ocean and up to the Caribbean.”
Mei swallowed hard. “I… I think that woman is dead.” She pointed a wavering hand at a bony body half hanging out of one of the shelves.
Captain Enderman’s brows rose and he took a closer look and nodded, seemingly unaffected. “Yes. It happens. We lose about twenty percent of our stock on any given voyage. The guard detail will help you unlock them. Just carry them up to the second deck and toss them through one of the portholes.” He caught the attention of a bored crew member already at work lazily mopping the smelly sludge on the floor and went to speak to them.
Armand looked over his shoulder and spoke to Mei, his voice soft. “Rather than house their own prisoners, which means hiring staff and training people and going to all that effort and expense, most African countries just sell their prisoners.”
“That’s horrible,” Mei muttered under her breath. She didn’t want to offend the captain, who was explaining to the others their duties. This would include cleaning up after the chained human cargo and feeding and watering them.
Armand did not seem to have much sympathy, which seemed odd because his skin colour matched that of the men and women being harshly transported. “It’s no different than slavery was back in the real world. Modern people assume that Europeans ransacked Africa and stole people from their homes before hauling them to the new world against their will, as if there were only two sides to the equation and that whites were the only villains. In truth, Europeans never had that kind of strength. They showed up on African shores and the kings and chieftains of the day were more than happy to wage war on their neighbours and sell the defeated as slaves to the Europeans.”
“W— Really?” She was stunned.
“Some nations eventually apologized for it.” He shrugged, with a hint of sadness in his eyes but more frustration in his tone. “Many people think that poverty is Africa’s greatest challenge. It is not. For tens of thousands of years, our biggest problem has always been tribalism. For some, genocide was practically a sport. It still is in some places. I would know.”
“But still,” Mei reasoned, “surely the Europeans pushed them into it. Enticed them.”
“Some,” he readily allowed. “Others were probably all too willing. In fact, I have heard that at least one country came to the Europeans on their own. The European slave traders and slave owners were villains, absolutely. But they were only half of the problem. A great many evil people in Africa profited off the slave trade, growing very rich and buying European alcohol, guns, and trinkets. What the Europeans had that we didn’t back then was ships capable of crossing the ocean. If we had had them, we probably would have transported the slaves to the new world ourselves.”
“Wow,” Mei breathed.
“There is evil and greed in the hearts of many, no matter their skin colour or where they come from.” He sighed. “If only the people of Africa would unite. It could be a beautiful place.”
The voyage to Philipsburg took three days and, in that time, they all worked hard to care for those in their charge, and were much kinder than the regular crew.
Mei, coming from Asia, did not have the cultural exposure to the issue of slavery that Americans did. In the US, racism and the history of slavery remained hot topics almost two hundred years after it had been abolished. So while she was sickened at the sight of this prisoner transport, Lance, a formerly rich American with bone-white skin, looked about as guilty, afraid, revolted, and generally conflicted as anyone probably could be. However, to his credit, he worked as hard as the others to be compassionate as they cared for those in chains. After all, he’d once worn them himself.
They all entertained secret thoughts of freeing the prisoners over the course of the voyage—a rebellion, perhaps. Overtake the ship. That would have been utterly foolhardy, though, and they knew it.
The merchantman had many armed mercenaries in addition to the crew. The African prisoners themselves were in no condition to do anything but survive after a long voyage had left them half-starved and weak; fighting was not an option for them.
Armand was the most practical and upfront about it as they whispered in an empty section of the top deck their first evening, where they would sleep out in the open. “We must be realistic. We would all be captured alongside them and be made prisoners ourselves once more. Right now, we are fortunate. We are free. Captain Enderman may recommend us for berths on a privateer when we arrive. I feel sorry for these people; this is a cruel punishment no matter what some of them have done. Though, for the killers and rapists among them, this may be fitting.”
The others accepted that with ill grace. After all, it was virtually impossible for anyone with a shred of decency to see fellow human beings in such a sorry state and not want to help. Lia, from her first sight of the prisoners below, had teared up and hardly stopped weeping since. It gave Mei heart to see the conflict on the faces of Juan, Cheeto, Lance, and Armand, whose character she’d once doubted.
It also brought into focus precisely what kind of people would willingly own such a ship and work on it and those who would buy and sell such cargo on either end of the trade route. Mei and her allies really were very lucky that the captain had been so generous as to treat them as passengers and not throw them in the hold for an additional profit.
So they bore their emotional discomfort and did what they could do to ease the pain of those in their care. And three days later, they sailed into Philipsburg.