Sufferings In Africa

by James Riley

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Chapter XIX

The author writes a letter—Sidi Harriet sets out with it for Swearah—the arrival of Skeick Mi , an extraordinary character.

Early the next morning we were called up and directed to go within the gates. My master said to me—“come, Riley, write a letter,” giving me at the same time a scrap of paper, not so wide as my hand, and about eight inches long; he had also got a little black staining liquid and a reed to write with. I now begged hard to be taken along with him, but he would not consent, though I told him I would leave jny son, whom I loved more than myself, behind me as an hostage, and three men; but all would not do, the thing was determined on. He then told me, that what I had agreed to give him was not sufficient ; that I must tell my friend, in the letter, to pay two hundred dollars tu’ myself, two hundred for Horace, two hundred for Aaron, one hundred and sixty for Clark, and the same for Burns, adding that I had promised him a good double-barrelled gun, and I must give him that, and on© to Seid also. “ Seid is a bad man, (said he) but helped to save your life, and must have a gun.” So I took the reed ? and wrote on the slip of paper, as near as I can recollect, the following letter.

“ Sir,

“ The brig Commerce from Gibraltar for America, was wrecked on Cape Bajador, on the 20th August last; myself and four of m) crew are here nearly naked in Barbarian slavery: I conjure you by all the ties that bind man to man, by those of kindred blood, and every thing you hold most dear, and by as much as liberty is dearer than life, to advance the money required for our redemption, which is nine hundred and twenty dollars, and two double- barrelled guns: I can draw for any amount, the moment I am at liberty, on Batard, Sampson & Sharp, London—Cropper & Benson, Liverpool— Munroe & Burton, Lisbon, or on Horatio Sprague, Gibraltar. Should you not relieve me, my life must instantly pay the forfeit. I leave a wife and five help! ess children to deplore my death. My companions are Aaron B. Savage, Horace Savage, James Clark, and Thomas Burns. I left six more in slavery on the desart. My present master, Sidi Hamet, will hand you this, and tell you where we are—he is a worthy man. Worn down to the bones by the most dreadful of all sufferings—naked and a slave, I implore your pity, and trust that such distress will not be suffered to plead in vain. For God’s sake, send an interpreter and a guard for us, if that is possible. I speak French and Spanish. James Riley, late Master and Supercargo of the brig Commerce .

While I was writing the above, they procured an additional scrap of paper, being a part of a Spanish bill of lading, on which I wrote a part of my letter, that could not be written legibly on the first scrap. Having folded them up, I directed them to the ‘‘English, French, Spanish, or American consuls, or any Christian merchants in Mogadore or Swearah.” I purposely omitted mentioning that we were Americans, because I did not*know that there was an American agent there, and I had no doubt of "there being an English consul or agent in that place. My master was hurrying me while I was writing, and both he and my host, Seid, and the young man, and many others who stood by, were surprised to see me make the Arabic numerals; for the characters we use in arithmetic are no other than the real ancient Arabic figures, which have served them for thousands of years; they remarked to each other that I must have been a slave before, to some Arabian who had taught me the use 6f them, contrary to their law, because he had found me to be a smart active fellow. My master taking my letter, then mounted one mule, and Sidi Mohammed another, and rode off together very fast to the east.

We remained here seven days, during which time they kept us ehut up in the yard in the day time where the cows, sheep, and asses rested, and at night they locked us up in a dreary cellar. Seid and Bo Mohammed guarded us all the day, not because they feared we would attempt to escape, but because some of the neighbouring people might steal and run off with us, and in the night time they lay on their arms outside the door, to prevent a surprise. We had as much barley-bread twice a day as we wanted, l’hash once a day, and plenty of water. This food, though palatable, produced and kept up a continual dysentery; our bowels seemed to ferment like beer, and we were tortured with cholies. Our numerous sores had now time to heal, and our bodies became mostly skiffned over before our masters returned; but the hoemorroids distressed us extremely. All the inhabitants who lived near, and all those who heard that Christians were in the place, (for they call all Europeans Christians) came to see us. Some were very familiar, and all wished to know if we were mechanics: from that circumstance I concluded that mechanics were very much wanted, and of great importance among these people, and >that therta would be no possibility of getting clear of them, if once they should find out our usefulness in that way. I therefore told them that we were all brought up sailors from our childhood, and knew no other business. One tried to make me lay out and hew a pair of posts for a door to a house that was building within the walls of the 7 village, and gave me a line to measure the length of them, and tried to teach me to span it off; but I would not understand him. They next put a kind of adze into my hand, and bade me fit the posts in. I took the tool, and began to cut at random, gouging out a piece here, and splitting it there, doing more hurt than good; and, at the same time, by my awkward and clumsy manner, taking care to make them believe that I could do no better. Some were satisfied that I had done my very best, but by far the greater part of them were of opinion that a smart application of the whip would put my mechanical powers into complete operation, and I really expected they would apply this stimulus; for one of them ran and fetched a stout stick, and was about to lay it on, when Bo Mohammed, who represented Sidi Hamet, interfered and saved me from a cudgelling. Mr. Savage, Clark, Burns, and Horace, were each tried in their turns, who following my instructions, were soon relieved from all further requisition. From this circumstance it is evident, that the less useful a Christian makes himself when a slave to the Arabs, especially in a mechanical way, the less value they will set upon him, and he will not only have a chance of getting ransomed, but it may be effected on easier terms than otherwise; for I am fully convinced, that if we had shown ourselves capable in those arts, wliich the Arabs highly prize, such as carpenters, smiths, shoemakers, &c. &c. we should have been sold at high prices, and soon carried away beyond the possibility of redemption.

Four days after Sidi Hamet’s departure, some papers were shown to me by one of the men who lived in the neighbourhood, which I found, on examination, to be, first, the register of the Spanish -schooner Maria, issued by the custom-house at Cadiz in May 1P14; second—a bill of sale of the same schooner, made out at the island of Grand Canary in 1812, of the same date with the register. Many articles of clothing that had belonged to her crew were also shown me; and the topmast, jib-boom, and other small spars of a vessel, served to support the floor over our nightly prison. I made inquiries, as far as it was possible, in order to find out something respecting this vessel,, which I presumed must have been wrecked near this place; and was informed that the preceding year a 'schooner anchored on this part of the coast to catch fish, and to trade; that these people found means to get alongside of her in the night in boats, and after killing the captain and three men, got possession of her; when having taken out the money and other valuables, they cut her cables, and ran her on shore: that they then made the surviving part of the crew assist in tearing the wreck to pieces, and in carrying it up to build houses with. I asked how many people were on board her, and where the remainder of the crew were; and was informed, by a serious looking old man, that it consisted of seventeen souls at first; that four were slain in the conflict when she was captured; that five more had died since, and that the remaining eight were a great way off" to the southeast, where they were employed in working on the land and making houses. Others said, they had gone to Swearah, and from thence . to their own country; bqt I could easily perceive by their looks that those poor fellows had either been massacred, or were now held in slavery, where neither the voice of liberty, nor the hand of friendship, was ever likely to reach them. The people here, both old and young, could speak many words of Spanish, though they did not know their meaning, but made use of them at a venture at all times—these were a set of the very coarsest and most vulgar words the Spanish language affords, and had been uttered, no doubt, by poor unfortunate slaves, natives of Spain, when they were suffering the greatest misery, and when execrating these savages. One young fellow spoke several words of English, such as, “ good morning— good night,” &c. and was master of a considerable list of curses. He onfe day came up to Mr. Savage, and said—■“ button, cut it wit a nif,” and at the same time laid hold of a button on his pantaloons. Mr. Savage was very much surprised to hear a language he could understand, but these words and the oaths and curses constituted the whole of his English education. Every person here had either a long knife or a scimitar always slung by his side. Among the rest, several negroes came to look at us, some of whom were slaves and some free, and they were all Mohammedans—these were allowed to sit on a mat beside our masters, and make remarks on us as we were placed among the fresh manure at a short distance. Seid desired to know what we called black men; I told him negroes , at which name the negroes seemed very indignant, and much enraged.

On the sixth day of my master’s absence, a man arrived and took up his lodging with our guards— he was about six feet in height, and proportionably stout; his colour was something between that of a negro and an Arab; when he came in he was saluted by Seid and the others in company by the name of Sheick Ali , (or Ali the chief.) This man possessed talents of that superior cast which never fail to command the greatest respect, and at the same time to inspire dread, awe, and reverence. He appeared to be only a guest or visitor. In his deportment he was grave and dignified: he raised his voice on occasions terribly, and spoke in tones almost of thunder; yet when he wished to please by condescension and courtesy, it thrilled on the ear like sounds of softest music; his manner and air were very commanding, and his whole aspect and demeanour bore the stamp of the most daring courage and unflinching firmness. He was the most eloquent man I had ever heard speak; persuasion dwelt upon his tongue ; while he spoke, all the company observed the most profound silence, and with open mouths seemed to inhale his honied sentences. He pronounced with the most perfect emphasis; the elegant cadence so much admired in eastern oratory seemed to have acquired new beauties from his manner of delivery: his articulation was so clear and distinct, and his countenance and actions so intelligent and expressive, that I could understand him perfectly, though he spoke in the Arabic language. He would settle all controverted points among the disputants when applied to, in an instant, and yet with the utmost gracefulness and dignity. This extraordinary chief was often conversing in a low tone of voice with Seid respecting me and my men—he said he believed me to be a very artful fellow, and capable of any action, either good or bad; and said he did not doubt but my friends would raise any sum of money that might be demanded for my ransom. He regretted very much that he had not seen Sidi Hamet before he set out for Swearah, and concluded to remain with us until his return. He questioned me very particularly as to my country, my friends, family, property, &c.—he also wished to know all the story of my shipwreck, and was very curious to find out what quantity of money and what other property fell into the hands of those who first met with us after the vessel was wrecked, and what crime was committed to induce these Mosle- min to kill Antonio. He next examined our bodies all over, and on one of Clark’s arms his attention was arrested by a cross, and several other marks of Christian insignia that had been pricked in with Indian ink, in the manner of the Spanish and other sailors; the stain remained entire, though the skin had many times been changed, and now seemed drawn tight over the bone. This being a conclusive proof in the Sheick’s mind of Christianity , he pronounced him “ a Spaniard,” and said he should not be redeemed, but must go to the mountains, and work with him. Every thing that this man said, seemed to carry with it a weight that bore down all opposition.

We had, during Sidi Hamet’s absence, (after the fifth day) been in constant expectation of receiving news from him, or that he himself would return, and from the astward, if they had seen him, but obtained no news until the seventh day, when one of the most fierce and ill-looking men I had ever beheld, approached the wall, and hailed Seid by name, ordering him in an imperious tone to open the gate directly. Seid demanded to know who he was—he replied, Ullah Omar; that he came from Swearah, and had met Sidi Hamet near that place, who requested him to call and tell Seid where he was, and that God had prospered his journey so far. The gate was now opened, and the stranger entered: he was of a dark complexion, nearly six feet in height, and extremely muscular; had a long musket in his hand, a pair of horse pistols hanging in his belt, and a scimitar and two long knives slung by his sides, with the haick or blanket for a dress, and a large white turban on his head; he had a pair of long iron spurs, which were fastened to his slippers of yellow Morocco leather; he rode a beautiful horse, which seemed fleet and vigorous, and he appeared to be about forty years of age. This was the first man I had seen harnessed in this way. Sheick Ali knew him, and shook him most cordially by the hand, and after exchanging salutations all round, hearing I was the captain, he addressed me, and told me he had seen my friend, Sidi Hamet; that he met him within one day’s ride of Swearah; that he would no doubt be here on the morrow, for that God had prospered his journey on account of me, and added, that he hoped my friend in Swearah or Mogdola would be as true to me as Sidi Hamet was: he then spoke to all my men, who, though they did not understand him, yet were rejoiced to hear, through me, that there was a prospect of my master’s returning soon. This man had two powder horns slung from his neck, and a pouch, in which hd carried a wooden pipe and some tobacco, besides a plenty of leaden balls and slugs. My shipmates wanted some tobacco very much, and I asked him for a little, upon which he gave me a handful of very good tobacco, and seemed exceedingly pleased to have it in his power to administer comfort to such miserable beings. I imagined from his whole deportment that he resembled one of those high-spirited, heroic, and generous robbers, that are so admirably described in ancient history. Seid furnished him with some food, which I now learned they called com-koo-soo, with some slices of pumpiop or squash spread over it in the bowl, and well peppered. This dish, which is rtiade of small balls of flour, boiled with a fowl and vegetables* looked (for I had not the pleasure of tasting it) like a very nice dish. After they had washed, drank water, eaten, washed again, and prayed together, Ullah Omar took his leave. During the whole of the time we remained here, our keepers washed themselves all over with water twice a day, before mid-day and evening prayers, and always washed their hands before and after eating.

The state of my mind, in the meantime, can be more easily conceived than described: during this day and the next, which was the eighth. I longed to know my fate; and yet I must own, I trembled at the thoughts of what it might be, and at the conditions I had myself proposed at my last purchase, and had so often since confirmed. If my master should find no one who should be willing to pay the money for my redemption, my fate was sealed. I had already agreed to have my throat cut! this could not be prevented; yet when I made this agreement I was naked and on a vast and dreary desart, literally without a skin; my remaining flesh was roasted on my body; not a drop of fresh water to quench my burning thirst, nor even an herb or any other thing to satisfy the cravings of hunger: my life was fast wasting away, and vthere was not even a hope, remaining, or a possibility of existing long in my then forlorn condition: both myself and my companions would have sold our lives for a drink of fresh water or a morsel of bread. In that most dismal and desperate situation, I imagined that if I could once get to the cultivated country beyond the desart, I should find, some food to support nature, and fresh water to allay our thirst. My remarkable dream had also given me courage to hope for redemption ; hut if I was not redeemed myself, I felt it my duty to exert myself to the utmost to preserve the lives of my shipmates; they might, some of them, I fancied, possibly survive, even though I should not, and be at length restored to their country and friends, in consequence of my exertions, and convey to my distressed family the sad tidings of my wretched fate. Circumstances were now changed; I had passed the dangers of the desart, and arrived in the cultivated country; we had now plenty of good water, and some food and shelter; and though my flesh was nearly all wasted away, yet a new skin had succeeded, and nearly covered my bones. My desire to live, kept pace with the increase of my comforts; I longed for the return of my master, and yet I anticipated it with the most fearful and dreadful apprehensions. I could not sleep: alternate hope and fear kept me in a state of continual agitation. I calculated on the moment of his arrival as decisive of my fate. It would either restore me to liberty, or doom me to instant death; I trembled at every noise occasioned by the opening of the gate, on any new arrival.

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