A Man Among Men

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Reginald Shipman was a gentile nobleman of independent character, with a gravitational attraction to the Sea.  The son of an aristocratic Englishman and a noble Frenchwoman, Reginald grew up a privileged member of English society.  Cloaked and fitted in the most noble customs for a man of his time, he positioned himself for quick notice in his class of Maritime Merchants-to-be.  He followed all the rules of decorum and societal constructs, but he felt most loyal to the rules of the Sea.  In and on the Sea, things either floated or didn’t – the contrivances of men, irrelevant.  Reginald lived, not for the business side of Maritime Merchant life – accounting or striking import and export deals, but for the times when necessity dictated he take to the water.  There, he felt free and in harmony with everything.  There, he could be himself, and the Sea demanded nothing more.

On October 21, 1843, Reginald set sail on the White and Burroughs, Ltd. trade ship Alyssa – destination Bombay, to manage their flagship office for tea and spice exports.  On November 14, 1843, pirates boarded the vessel , took command of the ship and confiscated all goods.  Everyone was killed except Reginald Shipman.

How Reginald convinced the notorious Blackbeard that he was worth more alive than dead, was to speak quickly about the bounty that lie wait in a little known port at Goree Island.  As the crew laughed uproariously at this man’s attempt to spare his own life, Blackbeard silenced everyone on deck with a shout, then prayed Reginald continue.  Blackbeard knew of this story as myth, but the chance at new information was worth listening to.  If the story bored him, the man would die by dagger.  If Blackbeard was entranced by some kernel of substance, he would allow this man to live until the bounty was either found, or the search exhausted.  Reginald recounted a story he had heard from the mouth of his Father, about a cave whose shallow bay gleamed in gold coins.  The journey to the location was tricky, navigating treacherous reefs to Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal, West Africa.  The cave’s location was hidden – found only during very low tides.  If successful though, the championed effort would bring untold riches and glory.

With the Spanish and British fleets increasingly patrolling pirate waters, Blackbeard postponed his sail to the Carolinas, towed the Alyssa, took its bounty and one Reginald Shipman onboard his vessel.  For weeks, they set sail from the Caribbean towards West Africa.

One calm clear afternoon, the Lookout on deck signaled a vessel at starboard near the line of the horizon.  As the vessel grew closer, the flag of the Dutch could clearly be seen.  Blackbeard ordered that the vessel be boarded, and his crew readied for the fight.  Reginald sat in the kitchen, having been given the job of cooking for the crew.  He could not cook at all, but set upon learning quickly, so as to not displease the crew or Blackbeard.  He had seen Blackbeard take a simple vote as to whether a man would live or die, and he did not want to suffer that fate.  He had been able to cook decent tasting food so far – having spent time watching the cooks on his family’s estate, and the men seemed to satisfied with his meals.   With each meal he cooked, he consumed a bowl dished by Blackbeard himself, to insure that he had not poisoned the food.  Reginald was kept away from all sharp implements and spices that could allow him to hurt the crew, or gain the upper hand.  Reginald knew if he waited long enough, he would catch a break to escape.

~~

The Dutch vessel  brimmed with black Africans.  The ship, a second in a pair of slave ships that set sail from West Africa on its way to a Caribbean Port-of-Call, did not carry your average slave cargo.  It held the Prize of the Serer, First Daughter of the King, who had renounced a business deal with Frans Van der Heiden.  Ajah, seventeen, was taken in a night raid initiated for the purpose of capturing her,  just after an evening of her tribe’s high celebrations.  She was then delivered to Van der Heiden’s ship.  She would make her way not to the wooden planks of Caribbean slave markets, but to the Dutch home of Van der Heiden himself.  If her Father would not pay, she would be held as ransom until he did.  Or, if he refused, Ajah would pay with her labor.

Blackbeard’s crew ambushed the vessel quickly and mercilessly – all crew members and Van der Heiden were thrown overboard.  Blackbeard pounded on the kitchen door.  “Make your skills useful.  Get the maps and logs!  I want to learn more about this Ship.”

Reginald stepped across the plank, and walked to the Captain’s Quarters of the Dutch ship.  With one of Blackbeard’s crew at his back, he calmly walked into the room.  In a chair of leather, sat an unconscious young negro woman, tied to its arms and legs.  Dressed from head to toe in beads and weaved garments of grass and reed, Reginald could not stop staring at the oddity before him.  When Blackbeard’s crew member saw the young woman, he rushed out of the room to summon Blackbeard.  As Blackbeard entered, he said, “What have we here?  Royalty in our midst…That is the unmistakable headdress of the royal family of the Serer, a tribe of Senegal.  I bet she is worth a pretty penny.  Reginald, bring her to the ship!”    Just then, a ship gun was heard, not from Blackbeard’s vessel, but from another.  The Dutch ship rocked slightly from the impact to the pirate vessel.  Blackbeard flew out of the Captain’s Quarters, leaving Reginald alone.  Without thinking, Reginald untied the young woman and threw her over his shoulder.  He crept out of the Captain’s quarters, and found a life boat tied to the upper starboard.  The gunfight at the back of the ships and to the port side gave the necessary cover for remaining unseen.  He grabbed goatskin flasks of water off the deck, threw them in the life boat, and climbed down the rope-ladder to the boat.

The gunfight miraculously ceased at dusk.  The Dutch vessel was now fouled, and the attacking vessel had been chased off by Blackbeard.  He undid the ropes and began to row, the young woman still unconscious.

By light of the full moon, Reginald carefully guided the small boat to land and into a cove.  He pulled the boat up on the sand.  Though uninhabited, Reginald found a small brick building on a ridge that would suffice ’til morning.  When the sun rose, the young woman awoke, intent upon learning if this man planned to keep her captive, or return her to her family.  Ajah, schooled in the ways of her Father in business, knew that His network extended far and wide.  She would not rule out that this man intended to help her.

Reginald opened his eyes to find Ajah standing nearby, with a leaf in her hand.  She handed it to him with a smile, ready to run if he came at her.  Instead, he took the leaf.  She motioned for him to eat it, and he did so tentatively, then with enthusiasm – it tasted like bananas.  Ajah then drew him a to-scale map of her home in relation to the continent of Africa.  She described with gestures, how she was taken to wrong her Father.  Reginald shook his head over and over, indicating that he understood.  Reginald thought for a moment about where they were.  With a stick, he drew a map in the damp ground.  He conveyed that by wind and calm seas, he could transport her home.  She happily agreed.

~~

Reginald had long since believed that the slave trade was on its way out.  The French had outlawed its practice a few years before, and even the black-market traders were finding it harder and harder to unload their chattel north of the Caribbean.  He heard stories that slaves were still imported to the Americas.  But, he felt confident that the practice of importing Africans as slaves would begin to wane as the Americas continued to receive pressure from Europe to cease the practice.  Commodities prices would fluctuate for a time, then stabilize, as the price of labor went up, and supply decreased for a time.  But, then ample supplies of commodities like tobacco, cotton, sugar cane and the like would again flow with ease from continent to continent.

The type of slavery he loathed most, however was slavery to ideas and to institutions.  He had experienced his first sense of imprisonment at a young age, when his father explained that he was superior to those of inferior breeding.  As he grew older, he found this concept completely opposed to the premise of Christianity.  He knew that the time would come when he would be faced with a choice to surrender to the slave-trader of societal constructs, or become his own Man – reborn in the sight and image of only Himself, denying the superiority in his veins that came from centuries of calculated marriages.

The next morning before dawn, Reginald fashioned a mast and sail out of clothing and a felled palm trunk.  They set sail for Senegal.  Seas and wind were agreeable, and at last they came to the Port of Dakar.  With a torn mast, they paddled over to the jetty that guided boats into the harbor, and walked from there.  Ajah made haste to obtain transport to her home, and Reginald insisted on accompanying her.  When at last they arrived at the palace, they were greeted by overjoyed family.

That night and the days that followed were days of transformation for Reginald.  First, he shed his customary clothing, in favor of simple clothing that better suited the weather.  He found that the remedies he took for intestinal trouble worked quickly, and that the paste on his exposed skin kept the mosquitoes at bay.  One clear and breezy morning, Reginald found his eyes upon Ajah’s, not as a man of European aristocracy, but as a Man individually defined.  Without hesitation, he sought advice from Ajah’s Aunt.  He conveyed the desire to court her, and inquired about the process.  Omuh explained that since he was speaking with Ajah’s father about assisting in the King’s cocoa operations, he would pass the test of economic suitability.  The issue that he was not a member of their tribe however, was prohibitive.  Reginald asked through the interpreter if he could become one of them.  Omuh’s eyes widened; then she smiled.  She shook her head back and forth, then tapped the back of his hand with hers.  She stood up, and motioned for her to come with her.  He found himself before the King.

That night, Ajah’s father offered Reginald initiation into their tribe.    “You will be one of us forever, even it you set sail tomorrow and should never again set foot on our homeland.”

~~

The next day, Reginald noticed the tide continued to creep until the exposed mud flats extended farther than the eye could see.  Excited, Reginald quickly found Ajah lounging under a shade tree.  He took her hand, ran to the boat, and rowed the two kilometers off shore to Coree Island.  The legendary cave was rumored to sit under the kelp bed at the mouth of the easterly cove.  With Ajah leisurely laid out along the short bow, Reginald anchored.  But, the anchor would not hold.  When he pulled it up to clean it, the unmistakable gleam of gold shone brightly like a sunlit mirror.  Reginald dropped the anchor again, lowered himself into the water, and followed the anchor’s rope down to the shallow sea floor.  There he found a cache of gold coins sitting near a small opening, largely filled with rocks and debris.  He gathered a few of the coins and placed them in his pocket, then swam up to the surface.  He handed them to Ajah, and motioned for the bucket.

With the last bucket load placed in the bottom of the boat, Reginald set sail for shore.  Once there, he pulled the boat up on the beach.  Near the tree line, he found a loading container on wheels.  He dumped the gold coins in it, then walked the container to Ajah’s father.  Without speaking, he simply placed the coins before him and said, “I wish to marry Ajah.”  The King stood, laughed and embraced Reginald.  The wedding took place the next day, with gold coins adorning Ajah’s headdress.

Reginald would grow gray among the Seres, and would make a name for himself in exports of cocoa and African foodstuffs.  He would take to the Sea for short and long hauls, never missing the bitter cold of the English wind, nor the biting frost of English social society.  His family disowned him early on.  But, unbeknownst to them, he had more money now than they ever would.  Although he had many names among the Seres, in the export business, and in England, nothing would compare to the name he made for himself in the mirror – a man self-defined by his own truths – about life, equality among men, and love.

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