A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti
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"This is all very well, Mr. Hill," the captain said, "but what are we to do with all these people? Of course we must move them down to the water, and burn these buildings, in the first place because the scoundrels who are at the bottom of all this villainy should be punished, and in the second place because in all probability they will collect a large number of negroes and mulattoes and make an attack. We cannot leave a force here that could defend itself; therefore, whatever we decide upon afterwards, it is clear that all the slaves must be taken down to the houses on the inlet. I should set the men to open all the stores, and load the negroes with everything that can be useful. I expect you will find a good deal of cotton cloth and so on, for no doubt the man here dealt in other articles besides slaves, and he would, moreover, keep cottons and that sort of thing for sending them up the country into market. However, take everything that is worth taking in the way of food or otherwise, and carry it down to the storehouses by the water, then set all the houses and sheds here on fire. When you see them well alight you can bring the men down to the shore; then we must settle as to our course. It is a most awkward thing our coming upon all these slaves. If there were only those who had been landed from the schooner there would be no difficulty about it, as we should only have to put them on board again, but with four hundred others on our hands I really don't know how to manage. We might stow a hundred in the frigate, though I own I should not like it."
"No, indeed," Mr. Hill murmured; "and four hundred would be out of the question."
The captain returned to the inlet and made an examination of the storehouses there. They were for the most part empty. They were six in number, roughly constructed of timber, and some forty feet long by twenty wide, and consisted only of the one floor. They stood ten feet apart. The barracoon was some twenty yards away. In a short time the slaves began to pour in, all – men, women, and children – carrying burdens proportionate to their strength. They had now come to the conclusion that their new captors were really friends, and with the light-heartedness of their race laughed and chattered as if their past sufferings were already forgotten. Mr. Playford saw to the storing of their burdens. These filled one of the storehouses to the roof. There was, as the captain had anticipated, a large quantity of cotton cloth among the spoil. Some of these bales were placed outside the store, twenty of the negroes were told off to cut the stuff up into lengths for clothing, and by mid-day the whole of the slaves were, to their delight, attired in their new wraps. Among the goods that had been brought down were a number of implements and tools – axes, hoes, shovels, and long knives. Captain Crosbie had, by this time, quite made up his mind as to the plan to be pursued.
"We must hold this place for a time, Mr. Hill," he said as the latter came down with the last body of sailors, after having seen that all the buildings in the valley were wrapped in flames."I have been thinking over the question of the slaves, and the only plan that I can see is to go for a two or three day's cruise in the frigate, in hopes of falling in with some native craft with which I can make an arrangement for them to return here with me, and aid in carrying off all these poor creatures. These five storehouses and the barracoon will hold them all pretty comfortably. Two of the storehouses had better be given up to the women and children. We will make a stockade round the buildings, with the ends resting in the water, and get the guns from those batteries and put them in position here. With the help of those on board the schooner, a stout defence can be made to an attack, however formidable. I shall leave Mr. Playford in command with forty men on shore; Mr. Glover will be in charge of the schooner with five-and-twenty more. The frigate will remain for a couple of days at her present anchorage, and I will send as many men as we can spare ashore to help in finishing the work before she sails.
"In the first place there must be a barrack run up for the men on shore between the barracoon and the storehouses. It must be made of stout beams. I don't mean squared, but young trees placed side by side so as to be perfectly musket-proof. The palisades should be made of strong saplings, wattled together, say, ten feet high. A hundred and fifty sailors, aided by three hundred and fifty able-bodied negroes, should make quick work of it. The schooner's crew can see to the removal of the guns from the batteries and their establishment upon platforms behind the palisade. I should divide the twelve guns into four batteries, three in each. The armourer shall come off in the morning to get out the spikes, and the carpenters shall come with their tools."
"There are a dozen cross-cut saws among the things that we have brought down, sir."
"That is good. How many axes are there?"
"Four dozen, sir."
"Good! I will send all the hatchets we have on board. I think, Mr. Hill, that you had better take up your position on board the schooner until we sail. How about water? That is a most important point."
"The slaves have brought down a large number of staves, sir. They are evidently intended for sugar hogsheads; they are done up in separate packets. I should say there were a hundred of them."
"That is satisfactory indeed. I will send the cooper ashore, and with a gang of the black fellows he will soon get them all into shape. I see that they have relied upon the stream that comes down from the hills for their supply. One of the first moves of anyone attacking the place would be to divert its course somewhere up in the hills. However, with such a supply as these hogsheads would hold, we could do without the stream for weeks. The twenty marines who came ashore with Lieutenant Boldero will remain as part of the garrison."
The work was at once begun. The sailors looked upon it as a pleasant change from the ordinary routine of life on board ship, and threw themselves into it vigorously, while the blacks, as soon as they understood what was wanted, proved themselves most useful assistants. Accustomed in their African homes to palisade their villages, they knew exactly what was required. Some, with their hoes, dug a trench four feet deep; others dragged down the poles as the sailors cut them, erected them in their places, and trod the earth firmly round them. Others cut creepers, or split up suitable wood, and wove them in and out between the poles; and, by the time darkness fell, a surprising amount of work had been accomplished.
One of the storehouses was turned over to those who could not be berthed on board the schooner, most of the slaves preferring to sleep in the open air, which to them was a delightful change after being cooped up for weeks in the crowded hold of a ship, or in the no less crowded barracoons. Sentries were posted as soon as it became dark, but the night passed off without an alarm, and at daybreak all were at work again. The launch returned to the frigate when work was knocked off, and came back with a fresh body of men in the morning, and with the carpenters, coopers, and all the available tools on board. By the evening of the third day the work was completed. Four banks of earth had been thrown up by the negroes against the palisade, and on each of these three guns were mounted. The hut for the garrison had been completed. The hogsheads were put together and filled with water, and a couple of hundred boarding-pikes were put ashore for the use of the negroes.
Nat had been fully employed, with the schooner's crew, in removing the guns from the batteries, and placing them on the platforms constructed by the carpenters on the top of the earthworks.
"It is quite possible," the captain said to Mr. Playford, "that this creek is used by pirates as well as slavers. They may come in here to sell goods they have captured suitable for use in the islands, such as cotton cloths and tools, and which it would not pay them to carry to their regular rendezvous. It will be great luck if one or two of them should put in here while I am away. It would greatly diminish the difficulty we have of getting the slaves away."
"That would be fortunate indeed, sir. Even if two came in together we could give a good account of them, for as the palisade is mostly on higher ground than the huts, we should only have to slue the guns round and give them such a warm welcome that they would probably haul down their flags at once."
"Yes. You had better tell Mr. Glover to run up the Spanish flag if any doubtful-looking craft is seen to be making for the entrance, and I should always keep a couple of signallers up on the cliff, so as to let you know beforehand what you might have to expect, and to see that there is nothing showing that could excite their suspicions, until it is too late for them to turn back."
Doubtless what was going on in the inlet had been closely watched from the woods, for in the evening of the day on which the frigate sailed away scattered shots were fired from the forest, and the sound of the beating of tom-toms and the blowing of horns could be heard in the direction of the plantation whose buildings they had destroyed.
The lieutenant had gone off to dine with Nat, and they were sitting on deck smoking their cigars when the firing began.
"I almost expected it," he said. "No doubt they have been waiting for the frigate to leave before they did anything, as they would know that at least half of those who have been ashore would re-embark when she left. I have no doubt the scoundrels whose place we burnt have sent to all the planters in this part of the islands to assemble in force to attack us. If they have seen us making the palisade and mounting the guns, as no doubt they have done, they certainly will not venture to assault the place unless they are in very strong force, but they can make it very unpleasant for us. It is not more than eighty yards to the other side of the creek, and from that hill they would completely command us. You will scarcely be able to keep a man on deck, and we shall have to stay in the shelter of the huts. Of course on this side they would scarcely be able to annoy us, for they would have to come down to the edge of the trees to fire, and as we could fire through the palisade upon them they would get the worst of it."
"We might row across in the boats, sir, and clear the wood of them if they became too troublesome."
"We should run the risk of losing a good many men in doing so, and a good many more as we made our way up through the trees and drove them out, and should gain nothing by it, for as soon as we retired they would reoccupy the position. No; if they get very troublesome I will slue a couple of guns round and occasionally send a round or two of grape among the trees. That will be better than your doing so, because your men at the guns would make an easy mark for them, while we are farther off, and indeed almost out of range of their muskets."
The firing soon died away, but in the morning it was reopened, and it was evident that the number in the wood had largely increased. Bullet after bullet struck the deck of the schooner, and Nat was obliged to order the greater part of the crew to remain below, and to see that those who remained on deck kept under the shelter of the bulwark. Presently a sharp fire broke out from the trees facing the palisade, and this was almost immediately replied to by the blue-jackets and marines. The fire of the assailants soon slackened, and Nat thought that it had only been begun with the object of finding out how strong a force had been left behind. Presently two of the guns on shore spoke out, and sent a volley of grape into the wood in which his own assailants were lurking. It had the effect of temporarily silencing the fire from that quarter. This, however, was but for a short time. When it began again it was taken up on the other side also, the party which had made the demonstration against the palisade evidently considering that the schooner, which lay midway between the two shores, was a safer object of attack than the stockade. As the bulwark now offered no shelter, all went below. Two of the men were about to pull up the boat which was lying at the stern, and Nat went to the ladder to take his place in it, when he was hailed from shore.
"You had better stay where you are, Mr. Glover, until it gets dusk. You would only be a mark for every man with a musket, up in the trees above us, and, so far as I can see, there is nothing we can do until they begin work in earnest."
"Very well, sir," Nat shouted back, "I will come off after it gets dusk."
Firing continued all day, but died away at sunset, and soon afterwards Nat went ashore.
"This is very awkward," the lieutenant said. "It is most unpleasant being potted at all day by fellows who won't show themselves, but I can't see that we can help it. By the noise and jabbering that breaks out at times, I should think that there must be some hundreds of them on this side alone, and we shall have to wait till they begin in earnest. Their leaders must know that they can be doing us no harm by their distant fire, and they must sooner or later make an attack on us. You see they have a strong temptation. They must have seen that none of the slaves have been taken away, and as there are five hundred of them, and I suppose they are worth from twenty to forty pounds a head, it is a big thing, to say nothing of the stores. Then I have no doubt they are thirsting for revenge, and although they must see that they will have to fight very hard to take the place, they must try without delay, for they will know that the frigate will be back again before very long, and will probably bring some craft with her to carry away the slaves. So I think we must put up with their fire till they harden their hearts and attack us in earnest. They will make the attack, I expect, about the centre of the palisade, for your guns would cover both our flanks. If we are hard pressed I will light a port fire, and you had better land with twenty of your men, leaving five to take care of the ship and work a gun or two should they try to take us in flank."
"I should not be surprised if they tried to-night. Shall I bring ten of the men on shore at once, sir?"
"Well, perhaps it would be as well. Forty men are not a very large force for this length of palisade and to work some of the guns at the point where they may attack us, and I expect their first rush will be a serious one, and we shall have all our work cut out for us. There is one thing; we can rely, in case of their making a way in, on the slaves. By this time they quite understand that we are friends and that the people who had been firing on us are their enemies, and I believe they would fight like demons rather than fall into their hands again. I have torn up a bale of white calico and have given a strip of it to each man to tie round his head, so that we can tell friend from foe and they can recognize each other in the dark. The enemy won't reckon on that, and will think that they have only a small body of whites to deal with. Do you notice how silent the woods are now? I think we may take that as a sign that they are preparing for mischief."
"The sooner it comes the better. Have you plenty of port fires, Mr. Playford?"
"Yes, a large boxful came on shore with the last boat yesterday."
Nat went off again, and picked out ten men to land with him.
"Get the other boat down," he said to the petty officer. "You will understand that if any attack is made on the flanks of the work you are to open fire at once upon them with grape. If a blue light is burned at the edge of the water ten men are to land instantly. You will remain in charge of the other five. So far as we know they have no boats, but they may have made a raft, and may intend to try and take the schooner, thinking that the crew will probably be on shore. So you must keep a sharp look-out on the other side as well as this. Light a blue light if you see a strong party coming off, and we will rejoin you at once."
He again landed with the ten men he had chosen.
"I have six men on watch," the lieutenant said, "and have put one of the blacks with each. I fancy their ears are sharper than ours are, and they will hear them coming before our men do."
Having nothing to do, Nat went into the barracoon and the other houses in which the slaves were placed. The contrast between their condition now and when he had seen them four days before, when they had first been found, was striking indeed. Now they were clean, and looked picturesque in their bright calico clothes. The look of dull and hopeless misery had passed away, and it seemed to him that with the good and plentiful food they had received they were already perceptibly plumper. They would have risen as he entered, but he signed to them to keep their places. They now had room to lie down in comfort, and while some sat chatting in groups others moved about. They were evidently proud of their arms, and some of them, seizing their pikes or hatchets, made signs how they would fight their enemies. A ship's lantern was burning in each hut.
In the women's huts the scene was still more interesting. The little children ran up to Nat with a new-born confidence in white men. Some of the women brought up babies to show him, and endeavoured to make him understand that these would soon have died had it not been for the sailors. The windows and doors stood open, and the evening breeze cleared the huts of the effluvium always present where a number of negroes congregate together. The sight of the poor creatures enraged Nat still more against the slavers, and made him long for them to begin their attack.
"It is quite pleasant to see them," he said as he joined Mr. Playford. "They are wonderfully changed in this short time. One would hardly have thought it possible. What will become of them?"
"I expect we shall take them to Jamaica, and that there they will be let out as free labourers to the planters. You see there is no law against the slave-trade, though public opinion is so strong on the subject at home that I have no doubt such a law will be passed before long. So, of course, we have not captured the slaves because of their being slaves, but simply as we should capture or destroy other property belonging to an enemy. Then, too, many of the slavers act as pirates if they get the chance, and there can be little doubt that a considerable quantity of the goods we found are the proceeds of piracy. Besides, you must remember that they fired at us before we fired at them. So we have plenty of good reasons for releasing these poor beggars. You see these seas swarm with scoundrels of all kinds, and it is quite safe to assume that all ships that cannot show that they are peaceful traders are engaged in nefarious business of some kind or other."