Excerpt of Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
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One thing Zachary did know about the Ibis was that she had been built to serve as a 'blackbirder', for transporting slaves. This, indeed, was the reason why she had changed hands: in the years since the formal abolition of the slave trade, British and American naval vessels had taken to patrolling the West African coast in growing numbers, and the Ibis was not swift enough to be confident of outrunning them. As with many another slave-ship, the schooner's new owner had acquired her with an eye to fitting her for a different trade: the export of opium. In this instance the purchasers were a firm called Burnham Bros., a shipping company and trading house that had extensive interests in India and China.
The new owners' representatives had lost no time in calling for the schooner to be dispatched to Calcutta, which was where the head of the house, Benjamin Brightwell Burnham, had his principal residence: the Ibis was to be refitted upon reaching her destination, and it was for this purpose that Zachary had been taken on. Zachary had spent eight years working in the Gardiner shipyard, at Fell's Point in Baltimore, and he was eminently well-qualified to supervise the outfitting of the old slave-ship: but as for sailing, he had no more knowledge of ships than any other shore-bound carpenter, this being his first time at sea. But Zachary had signed on with a mind to learning the sailor's trade, and he stepped on board with great eagerness, carrying a canvas ditty-bag that held little more than a change of clothes and a penny-whistle that his father had given him as a boy. The Ibis provided him with a quick, if stern schooling, the log of her voyage being a litany of troubles almost from the start. Mr Burnham was in such a hurry to get his new schooner to India that she had sailed short-handed from Baltimore, shipping a crew of nineteen, of
whom nine were listed as 'Black', including Zachary. Despite being undermanned, her provisions were deficient, both in quality and quantity, and this had led to confrontations, between stewards and sailors, mates and fo'c'slemen. Then she hit heavy seas and her timbers were found to be weeping: it fell to Zachary to discover that the 'tween-deck, where the schooner's human cargo had been accommodated, was riddled with peepholes and air ducts, bored by generations of captive Africans. The Ibis was carrying a cargo of cotton, to defray the costs of the journey; after the inundation, the bales were drenched and had to be jettisoned.
Off the coast of Patagonia, foul weather forced a change in course, which had been plotted to take the Ibis across the Pacific and around Java Head. Instead, her sails were set for the Cape of Good Hope - with the result that she ran afoul of the weather again, and was becalmed a fortnight in the doldrums. With the crew on half-rations, eating maggoty hardtack and rotten beef, there was an outbreak of dysentery: before the wind picked up again, three men were dead and two of the black crewmen were in chains, for refusing the food that was put before them. With hands running short, Zachary had put aside his carpenter's tools and become a fully fledged foretopman, running up the ratlines to bend the topsail.
Then it happened that the second mate, who was a hard-horse, hated by every black man in the crew, fell overboard and drowned: everyone knew the fall to be no accident, but the tensions on the vessel had reached such a point that the ship's master, a sharp-tongued Boston Irishman, let the matter slip. Zachary was the only member of the crew to put in a bid when the dead man's effects were auctioned, thus coming into possession of a sextant and a trunkload of clothes.
Soon, being neither of the quarter-deck nor of the fo'c'sle, Zachary became the link between the two parts of the ship, and was shouldering the duties of the second mate. He was not quite the novice now that he had been at the start of the voyage, but nor was he equal to his new responsibilities. His faltering efforts did nothing to improve morale and when the schooner put in to Cape Town the crew melted away overnight, to spread word of a hell-afloat with pinch-gut pay. The reputation of the Ibis was so damaged that not a single American or European, not even the worst rufflers and rum-gaggers, could be induced to sign on: the only seamen who would venture on her decks were lascars.
Excerpted from Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Copyright © 2008 by Amitav Ghosh
Published in September 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.