Authors: Brenda Barrett
The Pull OF Freedom
Copyright © 2010 Brenda Barrett
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to an actual person or persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Jelani could barely see through the darkness before him. The pinprick of light that pierced the interior of the cave-like place hardly made any impact. He had cried earlier, big fat tears had rolled down his face as he was shackled to another man, his arms and legs linked by thick iron to another one and then the length of the iron linked to still another. He was herded into the ship as if he was little more than an animal.
He had tried to fight the white men—tried to grab hold of the leering face in front of him to smash it to smithereens as the hate in his gut was telling him to. But the crash of the whip on his back had rendered him motionless; the scent of his tearing flesh had brought tears to his eyes. The big white man had pulled him back roughly and his last glimpse of the shores of his homeland was while they were hoarding him, and countless others, to a dark hole in the big ship.
There were so many people packed in the bottom of the vessel, their bodies pressed together, flesh brushing flesh and intermingled with the heavy burden of iron.
The ship was swaying rhythmically for hours now. He wondered what the men above board were seeing.
How long had he been sitting in the dark?
The numbness in his legs where they were folded to his body was fast becoming a dull ache.
Where were they going to take them and what would happen to him and his siblings?
The moans and whimpering about him had risen to a deafening crescendo as people wailed in their own language, some louder than others. He could barely make out where his brothers and sister were.
His head ached and his eyes stung.
“Be strong,” his sister’s voice was determined in the darkness.
The stench of stale bodies and urine was threatening to overpower him. The girl shackled alongside him had spoken a different language, probably from the tribe of Swahili; their women were not as strong as the Ashanti’s.
The girl whimpered as if she could hear his thoughts and he could feel her tears in his back. He was little better than the girl he realised and probably smelt just as bad.
His body started shaking and he had to struggle with the chains on his hand and his limited wiggle room to stop the involuntary movement.
“Be strong,” his sister’s voice rose above the whimpering and cries from the crowd of men and women at the bottom of the ship, he could imagine that he saw her eyes in the dark flashing fire. There would be no weakness on her part, no obsequiousness.
“We are Ashanti, Ashanti strong,” she crooned, her voice sounded close to his ears.
How did she know that he was on the verge of screaming and wailing like the other people? How did she know that he needed her right now?
The wound on his back was making him weak and he could hardly think straight.
“We will survive wherever they are taking us,” her voice was laden with serenity, “we will not be subject to any man’s will. The great God above will see to that.” Her voice tightened in steely resolve, “every one of them on this ship will pay for trifling with us.”
He moaned in response, his head was fuzzy; the warmth of unconsciousness was beckoning him enticingly.
“Try to fight it,” the words in the dark were as clear to him as if she was talking right beside him, all the ship sounds faded into the background.
“Focus, Jelani. Do you see the pain?” He tried to put his mind at the exact spot of the white-hot pain that was working its way up his back. The blood soaked tatters of his clothes were digging into the crevices of his open flesh.
“Now move the pain, Jelani.”
“I am too tired.”
“Do it now,” she demanded, “if you don’t do it now you’ll be dead in the morning.”
“I want to die.”
“No you don’t want to die. When you die you will die how you were born, free, not holed up in the bowels of a stinking ship. Do you hear me?”
He mentally nodded.
“Now find the pain.”
He concentrated again, the pain was below his shoulder, the lash had cut its way almost to the tip of his buttocks. He mentally willed the pain to move slowly inch by inch from his buttocks to his shoulder, and then down his shackled arms. The pain crawled slowly past his fingers and out of his body. His back was no longer aching.
“Now concentrate on the flesh,” her voice sounded satisfied. “Stop it from bleeding.”
He squeezed his eyes shut once more and concentrated on his flesh. He felt the blood slowly stopping.
She sighed into the dark, “go to sleep little brother.”
Jelani felt the tears again; they were threatening to fall.
“We are fighters we don’t cry,” her voice was husky. “Everyone else is sleeping, Cudjoe, Quao, Accompong and Cuffy. I would have taken the lash for you when that pig of a man raised his hand but Cudjoe pushed me out of the way.”
“That’s the last time a white man will beat you,” she whispered, “that’s the last time, you have my word. Now sleep.”
He heard a shuffling in the far corner of the dark hole, in the darkness somebody was trying to be comfortable but failing. A baby cried, the girl behind him sobbed, her tears washed his wound stinging it with the salt.
“Nanny,” he said softly in the darkness.
His sister grunted.
“How are you so sure that we will be free when we get where we are going?”
“Jelani,” her voice was tired, “I am free. No one can take my freedom unless I let them.”
He closed his eyes smiling, despite his back and the putrid stench; he slept like a free man.
Simmonds Plantation, December 1721
“What is your name?” The red faced overseer strutted from one end of the line of black faces to the other. He peered into their vacant eyes and snorted. They were refusing to be called by their English names, but he knew very well that they had been assigned names. He could read the defiance in their stance and he hated them for it.
It was bad enough that they refused to be called by their English names but the stupid people were defying him subtly. Just last week, three horses went lame because the slaves, who were working on them, did not know how to properly care for the hooves. He hated them, these black people from across the sea.
His boss was moving into sugar cane cultivation and needed more of them. They were already making trouble, running off when they felt like it and robbing plantations of livestock and food. This new set would cause trouble; he could read it in the body language. They were fresh from the Black Continent. These ones always thought they were different but he relished the idea of keeping them in line—his fingers twitched around the whip he was carrying.
“What’s your name?” He paused beside a short youngster; the boy was thick of shoulder but looked to be about sixteen. He had the look of defiance about him, probably he would be the first example to the others.
“The name is Cudjoe, Sar.” The boy’s eyes were blazing with hatred and for the first time in his life, John Smith, felt a tingling of fear. He had to look around to see if there was anybody else within shouting distance in case the boy attempted to kill him. He felt ridiculous being afraid of the slave but felt safer when he saw the owner, Robert Simmonds, under a tree nearby haggling with the slave trader over prices.
His confidence was boosted and he felt free to continue, he put on his best world dominance leer and gazed at the defiant boy.
“Your name is not Cud … Joe … your name is Bill. That is your English name. Do you hear me, you young upstart?” He raised the whip and the boy’s spine got straighter, his chin tipped at a defiant angle, his brows drawing together.
There was no controlling this one yet, he lowered the whip and decided that he would beat him for something later in the day. Preferably, when the mistress of the house was not watching curiously from the veranda.
She was playing with her five year old son, Mark. She threw a ball and the little boy ran on the wide veranda to catch it, squealing. She would look over at the slaves gathered on the lawn interestedly; her face animated as if she wanted to participate in the orientation process.
Bad choice of partner for his boss, he thought, the girl would likely wilt under the Caribbean sun, she should have never left London. Her insistence to treat the slaves with kindness was indicative of her naiveté when it came to the plantocracy.
Too bad his master had married her before he came to the tropics and started the plantation. His boss liked black flesh and was having a hard time hiding his black offspring from his wife.
Just last week, one girl had a mulatto son. The child looked more like the boss than all the others. The little boy was born with grey eyes and brown hair. He looked more like the boss than his legitimate son, who had black hair and green eyes. The boss had to sell the slave girl and her beget, before the mistress found out.
John realised that he was smiling smugly to himself, contemplating his boss’ love life and love for the blackies.
He wasn’t partial to black flesh but in this scarcity of white women you couldn’t be too picky. He looked over at the Mistress on the veranda and licked his lips; if he had her he wouldn’t want any black flesh. Her head was bent over the little boy while she handed him the ball and laughed while ruffling his hair. He imagined her green eyes flashing with pleasure because he could not see her eyes clearly in the distance; he could almost see the little tendrils of her hair dancing around her face. She looked up and caught him staring and waved.
He cleared his throat and waved back. He felt the blush creeping up the side of his face. He was two and thirty and as mean as a boneless dog but he was blushing; in front of the slaves too.
The young slave in front of him smirked knowingly as if he was reading his thoughts.
“What are you looking at you indigent, I am going to beat you,” he rasped, “as soon as the boss buys you, I am going to beat you until you learn some respect.”
He walked down the line his ears slightly red; the slave had not even flinched. Instead, he had a scornful look at the back of his eyes.
“You, what is your name?” He pointed at a very young one who couldn’t be more than nine years of age; he had flat ears and big brown eyes. He had that innocent look; fear lurked at the back of his eyes as he swallowed. Just the thing he wanted to see. He snarled at the little slave and the boy flinched.
“Jelani Sar,” the little boy whimpered.
John raised the whip. Just to see the fear again and then snarled ferociously at the cowering boy.
“Your name is not Je.law.ni,” he mimicked the thick accent in which the boy pronounced his name. “Its Johnny, you are now under English rule boy. You have a new name.”
The little boy swallowed and nodded at the overseer.
“Stop bullying the child John,” Robert Simmonds called out from under the cotton tree where he was haggling with Peter Green who had just delivered the twenty slaves he had ordered from a plantation in Spanish Town. Their good-hearted haggling was interspersed with plantation gossip and neither was in any hurry to leave the coolness of the shade.
“Some of them are little more than children,” Robert said to Peter, “and two of them are female. I will give you thirty pounds for the whole dirty lot.”
“Strong looking females,” Peter said lazily, he looked at his friend slyly. “I hear you like it rough, they look like they will give you a good fight.” He guffawed and leaned on the tree heavily wiping his eyes.
“Mind the missus overhears you,” Robert said gruffly, “she came to Jamaica three weeks ago with lofty ideas about having the best looking slave population on the island and treating them like humans.”
Peter quirked his eyebrows at his friend, “did you tell her that you lost five slaves to the rebellious ones in the hills last week, and that these slaves are dangerous and can negatively impact the wealth that she enjoys so much?”
Robert sighed, “she fails to listen to me and insists that a happy workforce will be more productive.”
The two men considered the statement and then laughed together.
“That idea is so funny,” Peter wiped his eyes, “these slaves don’t want happiness, they want to run away—and we paid so much for them to get here. I still say forty pounds though, the women are hard workers, that one is especially strong.” He pointed to a wiry looking girl, the overseer was snarling at her and she still managed to look unconcerned.
“I asked what your name was you filthy swine.” They could hear John’s voice bellow.
The female refused to respond and Robert imagined he could see the hatred she felt for the overseer from where he stood.
“She is about fifteen, very close to childbearing age,” Peter goaded. “I heard you lost a good breeder and a young ‘un last week.”
“There are no secrets in this society,” Robert grimaced, “the child looked too much like me to blame another white man.”
“The wife was asking questions, so I had to get rid of the slave girl. Got three pounds for her. I asked Williams if he could set the boy free when he came of age.”
“Might not be good,” Peter snorted, “he could pass for white. These mulattoes will be trouble soon, probably as bad as the runaway slaves.”
Robert shrugged; he glanced back at the house and saw his wife. She was rocking tranquilly in a chair and looking at the new batch of slaves, her young features alive with curiosity.
He had become attracted to Lady Elizabeth Howard and her father’s money and had married her before he came to the tropics where he tried to escape the rigidity of London’s society and carve out a fortune for himself. He chose Jamaica because it seemed to be doing well in the production of good horseflesh and agricultural products.
He had not banked on the fact that after five years, his wife, whom he saw only once per year on his trip to England would decide to join him with his son. All his activities with the slave girls had to now be conducted away from the house. The elaborate games he used to enjoy with them were now severely curtailed.
He looked up as his angry overseer joined them under the tree.
“Peter,” John growled at the slave trader who was lazily chewing on a blade of grass.
Peter nodded and smirked, “having some trouble?”
“They are defiant, too sure of themselves. I have never seen a bunch of slaves like that before.”
“Well it could be that they are from a certain tribe. The slave traders get them from different areas. The fiercer the tribe, the stronger the worker.” Peter jiggled his empty money pouch.
“Should I take the lot over to Williams?”
“No, I’ll pay you the forty pounds.” Robert looked at his overseer. “Show them where they are to work. Explain things to them.”
“They are a bad lot, send them over to Williams,” John looked at his boss, “Have you forgotten that we are practically fighting off the runaway slaves every day? These ones are not humble enough.”
“Then keep them in check,” Robert growled, “its your job. Just don’t kill anyone. I am paying dearly for the lot of them.”
John nodded and walked away.
“Mamee,” Robert shouted for his housekeeper.
She came at the doorway of the house, “yes Mr. Simmonds sir.” Her face was unlined and she held herself straight, her toffee coloured skin and curly hair suggested that she was mixed with another race.
“She, I could get for a good price.” Peter grinned, “perfect English too.”
Robert gave him an evil look, “she is invaluable.”
“Good in bed.” Peter snorted, “I thought you liked young flesh.”
“Could you get forty pounds for this old codger,” he pointed to his friend, ignoring his statement.
“Yes Sir,” Mamee nodded. “I will send Martha with it.”
Robert turned back to his friend, “what say you, we go inside for a drink and you act civilised around the wife?”
Peter laughed, “okay.”