1. CAPTURED BUT NOT DEFEATED
Scene 1 – The Blessing of Rain
According to a sailor who speaks our Bantu language poorly, we sail on the treasure fleet called La Flota to a new world called La Nueva España. I am Prince Yanga, descendant of the Gibon tribe from Ghana and this is my story.
In my village of Brong Atabubu in West Africa, rain was a blessing. When it came, people rejoiced and ran out of their mud huts carrying clay vessels, laughing, gathering precious water. It was a time for celebration. Not on that humid mid-summer day of 1568 however, when Spanish sailors, wearing long shirts, harnesses and round, pointy helmets, ransacked our village.
Capitán Pedro González de Herrera and his oddly-dressed gang of sailors raped our women. Kicked our children like insignificant cockroaches. They dragged our wives and daughters into their galleons as trophies of conquest. The men pushed the weak ones aside, hauled, chained and forced us into the tall ships; their whips stinging our bare backs.
Flinty-eyed sailors with spiked moustaches examined us like cattle, from head to toe, nodding at the tallest and strongest like myself, shaking their head at others. Amongst the captives, I observed some who spat at the captain and others who bowed their heads low. I guessed who would resist and who would submit, who would see the end of the journey and who, in desperation, would jump overboard to face a liquid death.
Beaten and stripped naked, we were dumped below deck where conditions were appalling. Even the rats looked sick. Excrement and the smell of urine mixed with rotting matter to produce air so thick it was hard to breathe. In our souls, we knew the light-skinned devils would sell us like goats for slaughter.
The tall Spanish ship pitched at irregular intervals over the maddening ocean. Squeezed above the hold and below the ship’s deck like kernels inside a tightly wrapped cornhusk, tempers already were beginning to run short.
As ruler of my people, I was trained to look full beyond what met the eye, to know my people’s needs and this is how I kept my nation happy and healthy. Our community lived by my fair rule. We worked hard and the village prospered and people lived a long, content life but here, in the middle deck of the galleon, shackled to the foot irons with no more than five feet of headroom to move around, I knew many would not survive the journey ahead.
We lay chained on our backs on wooden planks most of the time but sometimes we crouched, waiting for time to pass; to meet an uncertain future. To my right was the short, round and noisy Bapoto, who continuously snorted at night waking the hundred or so men squeezed into this inferno. His soul was not at ease. Being from Senegal, 24 year-old Bapoto knew about not being free for his own people owned slaves. His physical appearance betrayed a life of sloth; his belly hung low over his loincloth and his long curly hair was unkempt. He would not accept our fate without a raucous fight. I counted him in my army of resistance.
To my left, Olamide lay rigid as a mighty Baobab tree. His hollow cheeks and big teeth giving him a ghostly appearance. He had said he struggled to understand his destiny, for he was not meant to be on this boat. “I am a Christian!” Olamide exclaimed, as if this meant something to us. “I speak Portuguese! I sailed from Africa as a free man…this is not destined to happen to me!”
Olamide told us that when he was a mere boy he sailed to Portugal with his family to work for an important family, the Garridos of Lisbon. Olamide and his family lived there for ten years until the patriarch of the family died. His family moved back to Africa, where they had lived a prosperous life, until now.
“We cannot allow these hard bitten, rugged men to take our freedom, Yanga.” Olamide barely moved a muscle when he talked. “In my village, my name means ‘Salvation has Arrived’ and I have conducted my life accordingly. We cannot let them make slaves of us.” From his closed eyes, tears blended into the sweat over his high cheekbones.
“The Gods dictate our destiny, Olamide, but we must seek our own salvation.” I beheld the hellish conditions around us--our body odour wrapped around the stench of feces made it hard to breathe. “We must remain quiet and keep our grumbling down.” We learned promptly that when our captors heard our commotion in the narrow space below their feet, we were cruelly lashed with leather and hemp whips.
Bapoto moaned, “Nothing is going to save us if we remain stiff as wood down here Yanga. We must fight back! I would rather throw myself into a raging ocean than bow my head before these men!” He yanked the chains around his arms making a terrible clang, threatening to wake the men above deck.
“Quiet!” I demanded. “I do not want a lashing tonight. We have to think seriously and start planning. Once on land, there will be opportunities for escape. I feel there are more of us on the galleon than what we see here.”
Suffocating in the putrid air of the middle deck, I secretly began to pick my soldiers from amongst the slaves: men who defied the pale sailors, men who refused to eat the tasteless watery grub we were served even after being beating, men who, despite their seasickness, stood proud when whipped. They will be my allies and together we will not be broken. We will never be slaves.
Two weeks into our journey, during the daily half an hour we were allowed on the upper deck for fresh air and exercise, I glimpsed a woman the sailors called Shanika. Judging by the two beautification marks on her arm, she appeared to be from the Yoruba tribe. Young, the colour of Acajou mahogany, she possessed a solid build. She wore richly decorated clothing with lace collars and millstone ruffs and uncomfortable looking shoes made out of cork. Shanika taunted the sailors by lifting her frilly long skirts to her knee and mimicking the sounds of the words the sailors pronounced. Yet, even as she pretended to speak Castilian she always kept an eye on the male slaves onboard. The crew looked at her with starving eyes, she gave them a coquettish smile and lowered her gaze, well aware of her powers.
After sailing for nearly eight weeks, our plans changed as quickly as the winds. At first we thought we would fight the Spanish sailors while they slept but then we realized someone stood guard all the time. Even if we were unshackled, it would be impossible to overpower their weapons. Later we schemed to run as soon as we touched land but not knowing what awaited us in New Spain made it hard to envision.
Scene 2 – The Storm Brewing
From our daily walks above deck I was able to observe that El Espíritu Santo was about 30 body-lengths long and 9 wide. It had three masts, two decks and I counted at least three dozen cannons. Deep in the galleon’s belly she carried large amounts of cargo and weapons. She did not look easy to manoeuvre.
Our fleet numbered sixty tall ships and was accompanied by other vessels the Spanish called naos which carried cargo and Spanish passengers. There were smaller craft, pataches, used to communicate between the ships of the fleet and to distribute food among the convoy. The Spanish soldiers ate well. Olamide, who understood the Spanish, explained he had overheard Capitán Pedro González de Herrera tell a soldier that if they did not eat Iberian food they would become just like the Indians. That was the reason the fleet carried so many heads of cattle for fresh meat, almonds, rice, olive oil and wine. I wondered who the Indians were and why the Spanish did not want to become like them.
One morning marching in circles on the upper deck during our daily exercise, a storm gained strength over our heads. With the crew busy keeping the ship afloat, I had the opportunity to break ranks to observe Shanika in action while slaves and sailors retched overboard. She had been talking with an elegant man who wore a large accordion-like lace ornament around his neck, similar to the one she wore. She called him Pedro de Moya.
I got closer to where they sat protected from the storm and heard the man say something to her as he pointed to his heart. “Mi amor” his thin lips drew a long smile and she repeated the word pointing to her heart. “Mo ni fe” she replied, and I recognised the words the Yoruba people use to indicate love. I watched the ease with which this African woman mingled with the Spanish and knew she was wise in the ways of our captors.
A burst of pain stung my back and then the wet leather whip lashed twice more before I was shoved with the other men and we were hustled to the middle deck. The humidity intensified the stench below as we were again fastened to the foot irons.
“Yanga, you are a fool for looking at that traitor!” Bapoto spat blood as he twisted next to me. “The Yoruban woman wants only to save herself. It is clear as air!” he shouted over the din of the growing storm.
Olamide ground his long teeth and sniggered. “Hush! Can’t you see Yanga is the one falling for her? I think she knows what we face and…if you had one, of all people you would be the first one to use your punani to get out of the fate that awaits us when we reach land.”
My instinct was to arbitrate between the arguing men but the rolling of the ocean and the crashing of wind silenced us. A sudden gust tilted the vessel and we heard a loud crash on the side of the galleon. A small hole splintered open where the ship was hit on her side. Cocking my head, I saw ships fighting the wind god. It was then I decided we were in the hands of madmen.
I saw Spanish sailors run hither and thither and in the tumult as the vessel lurched port and starboard. I swayed with the motion left and right. I bent the chain around my feet just enough to bang it against the floor. To my surprise, the lock broke open after only a few clangs. Upon further inspection, I saw the chain was made poorly with many gaps between the links. I tried to pry the other locks open to no avail. The sea raged and the rain lashed horizontally as the fury of the gods descended upon the Spanish colonist fleet.
Getting up from the plank and steadying myself, I lifted the trap door knowing the sailors were busy waging battle with the storm. I saw Shanika holding on to the mast, shouting Pedro de Moya’s name. She caught me looking at her from the deck below.
“Get down you fool! Can’t you see our ship is in a hurricane?” Vertical walls of salt water whipped around her sturdy figure.
Mustering all my bravery, I climbed the stairs to the top deck. “You must help me unchain the men below!” I pled. “I can’t let them drown without a fight!”
She turned to me with desperate eyes. “Those men are better off dead, Yanga. You don’t know what awaits them in Vera Cruz! Let them drown quietly with their gods.”
Wind roared above our heads and I was certain it sounded like a mighty lion flying through the blackened skies. Shanika shrieked when she saw her gallant Spanish friend board a small patache in an attempt to salvage the ship that carried the treasured provisions.
She cursed the man who placed higher value on wine and olive oil than life itself. She made a quick jerky movement with her hand from one side of her chest to the other which ended at her lips in a kiss. In a split second, the ship was in the tight squeeze of a gigantic wave. Without thought for safety, or my intense distrust of the ocean, I scooped Shanika off the wooden deck to prevent her from being swept in the surge.
Moments later, we saw Pedro de Moya scramble on to the galleon closest to us. Shanika shouted, “al diablo Pedro!” and stumbled, banging into objects on her way to his quarters. She secured the foot irons’ keys. “Let us do it Yanga! Let us free the men from these savages!”
A great ball of iron hit the galleon’s side. “What was that?” I shouted.
“It is the English! We are doomed!” Shanika shouted back. “No matter! Let us go down and free the men. This madness must stop!”
Shanika and I descended to the middle deck where the men were shackled. Light and water entered from a second, larger hole on the vessel’s side.
“Get us out!” Bapoto cried, “Get me out!” He squirmed wildly but the chains held him in place. “Help!” he yelled into the air. His eyes stung shut in the briny water. “Help! I should die fighting a mighty lion, not shackled and pickled in sea water. Get me out of here!” he wailed and clanged the chains.
Praying to himself, Olamide turned to the noisy Bapoto. “Hush, you fool! If you opened your damn eyes, you would know Yanga is free. He can help us.”
“Indeed…” I clanked the keys Shanika handed me. Plunging my hands into the rising sea water, I managed to open the cheap locks to set the men free. We had to act with caution. “Stay where you are. Don’t move!” I ordered.
The wind spirits continued lashing the fleet. No man would survive the ocean’s surge if we did not have a plan. Devoted to our desire to live, we had to pretend to be enslaved in order to survive.
The world around us became quiet. The winds subsided, the ocean was calm and from the hole on the galleon’s side, I saw we were in the middle of a tower of clouds; the sky above was angry and dark. The captain came to the middle deck to inspect us. He yelled something in Castilian and threw vinegar in our eyes. He laughed so loudly I was certain evil resided in him.
“He is the damn pig!” Olamide cried but the man continued to laugh. “That brute said if we tried to escape during the storm he would add fire to the vinegar! I don’t understand everything he said but the words are similar to Portuguese which I learned as a young boy. We cannot allow him to do that!”
Shanika crawled from the corner where she had hidden and talked to the man in his language. “González de Herrera….the men are all secured to their shackles. You need not worry. Go! Protect the fleet from the hurricane and capitanes Hawkins and Drake!”
She made sure the captain had left the middle deck before she admonished, “Yanga!” Are you crazy? What are your plans?”
“We cannot do anything trapped in this ship. What do you know about the new terrain? Is it anything like Africa?”
Shanika smiled. “This is my fourth trip. Pedro de Moya brings slaves and provisions to Vera Cruz and on our way back, we carry sugar, gold and silver to King Phillip II in Spain. It is dirty business because many suffer but it is lucrative beyond belief.
In Vera Cruz, the land is different than from where we come. Plants are different. Birds, animals, and fruits are different, but the land provides same as she does back home…you just need to understand her personality. I can see you have the spirit of a runaway slave, a cimarrón. I wish you luck but I must go now. If I am found down here, they will make my life more miserable than a slave’s.”
In the calm of the storm, she went to the upper deck, ducking from the occasional lashing wave, to find refuge in Pedro de Moya’s sleeping quarters.
“Listen everyone,” I announced. “Until we are close to land, we pretend to be strapped. I saw mountains in the distance; we are not far. With all the commotion of the weather, nobody is thinking of giving us exercise today. Remain quiet and listen for my command.”