Land of the Golden Trade - John Lang

Prisoners of the Portuguese

In the year prior to Hawkins' second voyage, there had befallen on this Guinea Coast to an English boat's crew an adventure, long drawn out, which might have supplied the late Mr. R.M. Ballantyne with many a thrilling incident. The John Baptist, the Rondel, and the Merlin  had arrived on the Coast from England, and had begun to trade. A boat containing nine men had left one of the ships for the shore, and the men, too intent on doing good trade to trouble about aught else, were engaged in bargaining with the negroes—not forgetting, in all probability, where possible to wet their bargains with draughts of native palm wine. A couple of miles out to sea the ships, under easy sail, were standing off and on, prepared, if trade were good, to send in more boats laden with merchandise. Of a sudden those on shore were startled by the sound of a gun from one of the ships, followed almost immediately by another gun.

"What's up aboard? The old man's in a plaguey taking," says one of the boat's crew.

"By the Mass! he has reason. Look there!" answers another. Away out to sea there is a black, threatening, ominous-like cloud, low down, but spreading rapidly, and shooting out in front of it towards the zenith ragged wisps and streamers; already the horizon is strangely blurred. Another gun from the ship, and as the boat shoves off, before almost the grating of keel on sand has ceased as she slides into the water, the three vessels have gone about and are heading for the open sea, crews swarming up the rigging and hurriedly shortening sail. Hopeless now the attempt to regain the ship; the boat puts back and is run by her crew high and dry up the sloping sandy shore out of harm's way. Through the thickening gloom they watch with straining eyes a white smother of flying foam race out of the murk to windward and drive down on the ships. Over they go, and over, till lee-rails are buried in the sea. Then the black cloud swallows them. And when, hours later, the weather clearing, a rain-drenched boat's crew looks wistfully seaward, never a rag of canvas breaks the line of empty horizon; white seas chase each other, and roar still angrily, but the offing shows no sign of man or of his works, it is solitary as when the Spirit of God first moved upon the face of the waters;—there is only "the burden of the desert of the sea."

Well, they were heading to the south and by east when last seen, and if all went well with them, somewhere along the coast to eastward the ships will be found. It will be safe for the boat to head in that direction; she will be picked up the sooner by the returning vessels. So reasoned the bedraggled and misguided boat's crew as they once more ran her into the water and stood along shore in confident hope of picking up their ship. And so it chanced that next evening when the ship, running in, hove to and fired a gun, expectant of finding her missing hands where they had been left, neither of boat nor of men could sign be gained. Just before the squall struck her the previous night, some one on the ship had observed the boat leave the shore, but no one saw her put back. The inference was obvious: she had been caught in the squall and swamped; no boat could live through such a turmoil. Thus it befell that the ship put out again to sea, bound west, and for home, leaving her nine men to fare as best they might at the hands of semi-hostile natives, or exposed to the still less tender mercies of the Portuguese.

Day after day, scorching in open boat under the pitiless rays of a West African sun, drenched of nights by rain or soddened by heavy dew, the unhappy men toiled on, ever hoping against hope, ever hoping in vain, that on rounding the next distant headland their eyes might be gladdened by sight of the welcome topsails of their ship. Three weeks such as this passed, three weeks of hardship and of hope miserably deferred; sometimes food was got by exchanging for it part of the merchandise they had brought away from the ship, sometimes for days they went without food when the shores showed nothing but "thick woods and deserts full of wild beasts." Scurvy seized them; their cramped knees swelled till it was scarce possible to stand up in the boat, their feeble hands were fast growing powerless to use the oars. One way or other the end must come! They would give themselves up to the Portugals; better existence as a galley-slave than this living death; at least on the galleys they would be fed. So with what remnant of strength remained to them, dejectedly they laboured toward the squat white buildings of a Portuguese settlement that far ahead on a palm-fringed sandy spit lay quivering and blinking in the roasting heat. And abreast of a little fort, where men, waving a white flag, came running down to the water's edge, they turned and with sinking hearts—yet glad that now the long agony was ended—rowed silently towards the land.

But even here the Gods forsook them; the white flag was but a ruse of the Portuguese to lure the hated Englishmen within range of the fort. The mouth of every gun belched flame, cannon-balls lashed the sea into foam around the boat, the blade of an oar flew into splinters as the rower was hurled groaning, a doubled-up heap, into the bottom of the boat.

"We surrender, we surrender!" shrieked the unhappy men, with all their strength still making for the shore.

Colonial Wars


"We surrender," yelled their steersman, wildly waving over his head a dirty white rag. But still the iron hail scourged on. Then came breathing-space; they had run inside the zone of fire, and the guns no longer thundered, for they could not now be sufficiently depressed to bear on the landing-party. So the men, still intent on giving themselves up, tumbled hastily ashore under the walls of the fort, thankful for the moment at least to have escaped death. But it is well to look before you leap. Scarcely had their feet touched the land when from the battlements overhead came hurtling an avalanche of boulders and stones that speedily drove surrender out of their minds and put again in its place the vengeful passion to slay. Once more they pushed off, and, lying just so far out that the guns of the fort could not be trained on them, they themselves from their harquebusses and long bows opened fire, with good effect, on the Portugals, and on the natives who had now come crowding down to join in the fray. Then, having killed and wounded many, and thus to some extent slaked their thirst for vengeance, the boat was headed again for the open sea, once more without serious mishap running the gauntlet of the fort's guns. Quivering with indignation, still drawing breath in hard, sobbing gasps, the luckless castaways toiled wearily onward. Better anything than dealings with those treacherous Portuguese devils; better the worst that the blacks might do to them,—better death. And death indeed ere long took heavy toll of that sore-harassed crew.

At the first native settlement that hove in sight they landed, and for a time—so long as their store of merchandise lasted—at least they could get food. But the last dregs of cargo too soon filtered from their hands into those of the negroes, and food supplies ended. What cared the natives how the white strangers fared! It was naught to them if the white men lived or if they died; there was nothing more to be got out of them.

The wounds of those who had been hit by native arrows during the fight at the fort had long been suppurating; now gangrene set in. Fever gripped others. They sank and died miserably. Soon but five were left; then four,—then three. But at last, when the life of those three also was all but at an end, when, indeed, they sat listless and unstrung, longing for death to release them, there came trading to that village a French vessel. Never paused the gallant Frenchmen to consider whether the sufferers were friend or foe; they gave of their best. So the Fates forbore to sport longer with the lives of brave men, and to their homes again at length came the wanderers! Yet not without fretting their hearts out for a time in French prison. One of these men, Robert Baker, is said to have occupied much of his time whilst a prisoner in writing a poetical account of their voyage and subsequent sufferings. A very minor poet is Mr. Baker, but it served to pass the time, no doubt, and some of the doggerel is interesting enough. Says he, in describing their first meeting with the negroes, prior to the casting away of the ship's boat:

"We see

A number of black soules,

Whose likelinesse seemed men to be,

But all as blacke as coles.

"Their captaine comes to me

As naked as my naile,

Not having witte or honesty

To cover once his taile."

It was, however, the subsequent behaviour of these gentlemen of colour that had caused the boat's crew to hesitate in their choice of surrender to the Portuguese or to the negroes. The latter were cannibals, for anything that the castaways knew to the contrary:

"If cannibals they be

In kind, we do not knowe;

But if they be, then welcome we,

To pot straightway we goe."

A British sense of decency also seems to have naturally inclined the balance in favour of surrender to a nation who, whatever their failings, at least wore clothes. As for the blacks,

"They naked goe likewise,

For shame we cannot so;

We cannot live after their guise,

Thus naked for to goe."

As the Portuguese dealt with those unhappy castaways, so they endeavoured to deal with all Englishmen and Frenchmen on the Gold Coast. The crews of vessels captured were inhumanly treated, some—as in the case of the French ship La Espérance, in 1582—being wantonly put to death, others retained as galley-slaves, a fate by some natures more dreaded than death.

Of the Englishmen captured and sent to the galleys by the Portuguese about this time, that one with whose adventures we are best acquainted is Andrew Battell, of Leigh in Essex, one of the crew of an English privateer, who was taken by Indians on the coast of Brazil about the year 1590, handed over to the Portuguese, and by them sent to serve his time in their West African Colonies, Kongo and Angola. Battell has left behind him an interesting account of his sufferings and of his travels there. "His narrative bears the stamp of truth, and has stood the test of time. It is unique, moreover, as being the earliest record of travels in the interior of this part of Africa; for, apart from a few letters of Jesuit missionaries, the references to Kongo and Angola printed up to Battell's time, were either confined to the coast or they were purely historical or descriptive."

There is not space here available to do more than touch the fringe of Battell's adventures during the eighteen long years of his captivity. Twice he attempted to escape, and twice was recaptured. On the first occasion, he succeeded in getting on board a Dutch vessel, and probably would have got clear away had not some Portuguese on board betrayed him. The result of this attempt was two months' imprisonment in heavy irons at Loando, followed by banishment to Massangano "to serve in the conquest of those parts. Here I lived a most miserable life for the space of six years without any hope to see the sea again."

From Massangano, with several fellow-prisoners, a second time Battell escaped, in a canoe down the river this time, foodless but for a little maize, and driven "to dig and scrape up roots of trees, and suck them to maintain life." The mere act of escaping to the bush was no doubt easy enough where prisoners were not kept in irons; but it was generally a case of jumping out of the frying-pan into the fire, and probably their Portuguese jailers relied more on the dangers of the bush and the certainty of starvation there, than on any strict supervision of prisoners as a means of preventing attempts at escape. Leaving the river after voyaging a considerable distance, Battell and his companions struck overland, stumbling onward in that extreme heat without water, till darkness made travelling hazardous or impossible. Several times they came across bands of negroes, who gave them "fair words" only that their betrayal to the Portuguese might be the more easy. Ever onward the fugitives pushed, goaded by the fear of re-capture; then over the river Mbengo, which they crossed "with great danger. For there are such abundance of crocodiles in this river that no man dare come near the riverside when it is deep." Then more difficulties with negroes, who followed the little party some miles, continually threatening them, and once making a fierce attack in which they wounded two of the men. In spite of difficulties, however, the runaways made progress, and hope grew, for "at night we heard the surge of the sea." Alas! that sound, sweet to the ears of Battell, this time was but the precursor of fresh trouble. In the morning they saw "the captain of the city come after us with horsemen and great store of negroes," and soon the little company of fugitives was scattered, some here, some there, some running to hide in the thickets, some—Battell and three others—making a more bold dash for liberty. Not this time, however, was freedom found; the horsemen headed them off, driving them into, and surrounding them in, "a little wood." The Portuguese troops, afraid to come to close quarters with men armed and desperate, who would be likely to sell their lives dear, contented themselves with firing volleys into the wood from all sides, whereupon the fugitives for their greater safety again separated. "Thus, being all alone," says Battell, "I bethought myself that if the Negroes did take me in the woods they would kill me: wherefore, thinking to make a better end among the Portugals and Mulattoes, I came presently out of the wood with my musket ready charged, making none account of my life."

The commander of the troops calling on him to yield, Battell, "having my musket ready, answered the captain that 'I was an Englishman, and had served six years at Massangano, in great misery; and . . . here am left all alone: and rather than I will be hanged, I will die amongst you.' Then the captain came near unto me and said 'Deliver your musket to one of the soldiers; and I protest, as I am a gentleman and a soldier, to save your life for your resolute mind.' Whereupon I yielded my musket and myself." Poor Battell! In the city of San Paulo after this he lay for three months, chained by the neck with a great iron collar, and with heavy irons on his legs,—a fate in any country, and especially for a white man, dreadful to contemplate, but doubly so in a climate such as that of West Africa. Thereafter, he was "banished for ever to the wars" in the interior. Here after some years of more or less continuous fighting and raiding, in company of the scum of Portuguese prisons—"banish't men,"—he was badly wounded in the leg and was sent down to the coast to be cured. A welcome change, for it led to his being once again employed at sea. True, it was as a soldier, not as a sailor, that he once more got afloat; but at least he had again that for which his soul yearned, the free breath of ocean, and if yet he was a bondsman, still the very heave and send of the ship under his feet, the old familiar smells, the creak and complaining of timbers, the patter of reef-points when wind fell light, brought with them consolation and the renewed hope of freedom. As when from dreams of home the exile wakes with undefined feeling of happiness to come, so to Andrew Battell the sea gave back something of the spring of life, raised in him anew after the long years of hopeless misery a resolution to win his way once more to his native land.

And his chance came at last, though not as he might have expected it to come, nor in a way that he would have chosen. How seldom indeed does any long-desired end come as we would choose it to come, had we any say in the matter! As out of great tribulation at times comes joy, so it was in Battell's case; out of much hardship and apparent misfortune came freedom, though stony was the path and long.

With fifty of his comrades Battell was ordered on a two-day march inland, to the country of a great chief. White men, and guns, being both hitherto unknown here, this chief, having secured their services, in the end refused to let them go, visions of conquest and spoliation of his rivals by their aid running in his mind. Finally, by dint of much importunity the great man's consent to their departure was gained, providing always that they undertook to return within two months, and meantime that they left as hostage a white man with his musket. Readily enough the Portugals agreed to the chief's terms. And, provided that they themselves got away, what hostage so fitting to leave behind as this heaven-sent Englishman! What matter to them the fate of such an one,—a luckless foreigner, a convict, devoid of friends, moreover, a heretic! No need to cast lots here: the Englishman must stay. So Battell was left behind, and the Portuguese marched away, promising to return within two months with a force of at least one hundred men to help the chief in his wars. "But all," as Battell says, "was to shift themselves away, for they feared that he would have taken us all captives. Here I remained with this lord till the two months were expired, and was hardly used, because the Portugals came not according to promise. The chief men of this town would have put me to death, and stripped me naked, and were ready to cut off mine head. But the lord of the town commanded them to stay longer, thinking that the Portugals would come."

In dire peril, never knowing what hour might not be his last, Battell at length escaped to another tribe, and from them passed on to a cannibal people among whom he abode many months, seeing much "drinking, dancing, and banquetting, with man's flesh, which was a heavy spectacle to behold."Two years or more he remained amongst those savage peoples ere chance enabled him to rejoin the Portuguese at Massangano,—even their society was preferable to that of cannibals,—and with the Portuguese he saw more fighting, this time as sergeant of a company. Unfortunately the Governor to whom he owed this promotion and better treatment died, and the "new upstart Governor," who was "very cruel to his soldiers," adopted the old method with Battell.

"At this time there came news by the Jesuits that the Queen of England was dead, and that King James had made peace with Spain. Then I made petition to the Governor, who granted me licence to go into my country: and so I departed with the Governor and his train to the city of St. Paul . . . Then I purposed to have shipped myself for Spain, and thence homeward. But the Governor denied his word, and commanded me to provide myself within two days to go up to the Conquest again." Now, as the term of office of this Governor who respected not his promises was all but at an end, and as the arrival of a new Governor might reasonably be expected to take place within a few weeks, Battell determined that for these weeks, or for whatever time might be necessary, it were wise that he and the old Governor should not meet. So, with two negro boys to carry his musket, six pounds of powder, one hundred bullets, and some small stock of provisions, he took to the bush, there to wait till the new Governor should land, trusting confidently to the custom that "every Governor that cometh maketh proclamation for all men that be absent, to come with free pardon."

But the months rolled on, and still came no word of a new Governor; still the old official blocked the way. Food was plentiful—"the greatest store of wild beasts that is in any place of Angola"—yet Battell's condition was pitiable, his misery acute. Six months of dried flesh and fish, and his powder nearing an end! Death from starvation, or return to the Portuguese settlement, there to be hanged as a deserter by his enemy the Governor,—these seemed his alternatives. Yet hope did not altogether perish. On the islands of the lake on whose shores he had been lurking, grew trees "light as cork and as soft." Of these, with the aid of a native knife that he possessed, Battell constructed a canoe "in the fashion of a box nailed with wooden pegs, and railed round about, because the sea should not wash me out; and with a blanket that I had I made a sail, and prepared three oars to row withall." A craft more frail, one less well adapted to go to sea in (except as regards buoyancy; and her very buoyancy might chance to be a snare), it would be hard to imagine. Yet Battell's purpose was not only to sail in her down the Mbengo, but to cross the dangerous bar at that river's mouth, and to take his chance of making some port whence he might reach England. And this "box" was to hold not himself alone, but also his two negro boys (who had faithfully stuck to him), and sufficient food to keep the three in life. Surely Robinson Crusoe himself was never more put to it. At least Friday had the means, as well as the skill, to make a seaworthy canoe. However, Battell and his two boys pushed boldly out, rowed some miles across the lake, entered the river, and with the current floated down to its mouth. To go farther in that crank craft must have meant taking his courage in both hands, for, crossing the bar "I was in great danger, because the sea was great: and being over the bar I rode into the sea, and then sailed afore the wind along the coast, which I knew well, minding to go to the kingdom of Longo, which is towards the north."

Escape of an Englishman


With his blanket set and the breeze astern, Battell headed up the coast through the long hours of darkness, steering by the stars, or possibly by the sound of the surf on the shore. He must have been a man not greatly vexed by any vivid imagination, otherwise, as that wretched "box" wallowed through the heaving water, leaking no doubt like a sieve, visions of huge twenty-foot sharks might have turned his hair gray. But he was a sailor by profession, and to a sailor much is possible that is beyond the ken of landsmen. His faith was justified by results. In the morning came bowling along a white-sailed pinnace, which hailed him. Fortune no longer frowned, for it chanced that her master and Battell were old shipmates, "and for pity's sake he took me in, and set me on shore in the port of Longo." Here he passed three more years, a free man, yet unable to find a ship homeward bound, but "well beloved of the king, because I killed him deer and fowls with my musket."

How Battell eventually reached England one does not know, but about the year 1610, accompanied by a negro boy he turned up in his native place, Leigh, then a town of some importance. This boy claimed to have been held captive by gorillas, amongst which animals he said that he had passed a month. Battell told the story to his friend the Reverend Samuel Purchas. "He told me in conference with him," says Mr. Purchas, "that one of these Pongos (gorillas) took a negro boy of his, which lived a month with them, for they hurt not those which they surprise at unawares, except they look on them, which he (the boy) avoided." Purchas gives no hint as to whether or not he believed the story, but he says—possibly with sarcasm, possibly with simplicity—"I saw the negro boy."

Battell gives much quaint information as to the natural history of the Gorilla; of their manner of walking with hands clasped behind the neck, he speaks; of the houses or shelters built by them in trees; of the attacks made by them on elephants, which they "beat with their clubbed fists and pieces of wood that they will run roaring away from them." Du Chaillu, the celebrated traveller and gorilla hunter, in his book, Adventures in Equatorial Africa, scoffs at these "traveller's tales," and throws doubt on Battell's good faith. But Battell did not himself profess to have seen gorillas; he merely repeated, with the credulity of his day, what the natives believed regarding them. It was a credulous age; but credulity is not a peculiarity of Andrew Battell's day. Not many years have passed since statements as marvellous as anything he related were eagerly swallowed by a wonder-loving public. In one respect, though he throws doubt on the idea that in Hanno's expedition to West Africa gorillas were ever met with, du Chaillu bears out the Carthaginian estimate of the enormous strength of these animals, for he mentions that a gorilla which he encountered flattened with his teeth the barrel of the musket of one of his men.

Like Jobson at a later date, Battell related some marvellous tales of crocodiles. "Andrew Battell told me," says Purchas, "of a huge crocodile which was reported to have eaten a whole Alibamba, that is, a company of eight or nine slaves chained together, and at last paid for his greediness: the chain holding him slave, as before it had the negroes, and by his indigestible nature devouring the devourer, remaining in the belly of him after he was found, in testimony of this victory." Truly a marvellous mouthful! Barbot also, writing in 1682, mentions crocodiles of thirty feet in length, and says that "whole bullocks have been found in their bellies." A considerable gulp!