The African Promise

By Lynette Lee

The sun burst open across the savanna. Its golden rays blew life into a Benin village in West Africa. Even though the sun hadn’t reached its full height, the air was thick with heat and humidity. Sixteen-year-old Bolaji arose from his sleeping mat. Hoping to catch a breeze, he stood by the hut’s opening. The sky was full of huge puffy smoke like clouds, but he knew that they would disappear into the horizon.  It hadn’t rained in weeks, and the ground was just beginning to get dry and dusty. They had several more months to go before the rainy season. Sweat poured from Bolaji’s head, and he dreaded the afternoon. Going over all the things that he and his father had to do, he didn’t hear his mother at the fire.

The clatter of clay pots startled Bolaji. He quickly turned around to see his mother, Abebi, at the fire preparing the morning meal. He hoped she didn’t notice his fright. A warrior was supposed to be on guard at all times. It didn’t set well with him that he hadn’t heard her. This huge flaw could cost him his life and that of his family’s.  His mother’s chuckling burned his ears. She did her best to apologize, “Sorry, son, I thought you heard me get up.”

Oh, she knows she insulted me, a warrior deserves better respect.  He thought bitterly.

Noticing his reaction to her laughter, Abebi quickly changed the subject, “I meant to tell your father last night that we are getting low on meat. When he gets up, you will need to let him know.”

Bolaji nodded his head in response and continued to watch his mother’s graceful movements as she set about making the morning meal.

Bolaji heard whispered stories by the village elders. It was said that Abebi was born Swahili, by the name Layla. Her father sold her at the age of ten to a man from West Africa. When she was thirteen, she was sold again to the Asante tribe. During a dispute between the tribes of Benin and Asante, a war broke out, ending in a Benin victory.  Abebi was captured by the young warrior, Gowan.  After proving her loyalty, Gowan rewarded her freedom, married her, and gave the Benin name, Abebi.

Tensions still remained high between the two tribes. Competition in the slave trade caused many wars. The last one took place in 1794.  He lost many friends from battle wounds, death, and capture.  Not wanting to think about that year, he tried to focus on the morning meal.

Between bites of rice and chicken, the family conversation revolved around the day’s agenda and the upcoming hunt, “Father, mother requested that we should go hunting, for she is low on meat for the evening meal.”

“The hunting party won’t go out for a while, and it is unsafe for you to go alone.  We will gather our weapons and see if we can kill a monkey.

After breakfast the two men set out to hunt.  Bolaji and Gowan gathered their spears, leaving behind their rifles and gunpowder. They only used those for battle.  Gowan was a merchant of sorts, and he was constantly bartering and trading with different tribes and foreigners, such as white men. They were the wealthiest family in the village and many elders held deep respect for his father.

As they entered the jungle, Bolaji and his father treaded lightly through the thick jungle. They were at home here, so the long webbed – crisscrossed vines didn’t hinder their progress. Here the air was dense from the moisture of the fog above them. Crickets chirped, gorillas growled, and the tropical birds squawked as if to announce their presence to the two hunters. Bolaji took comfort in their sounds. Their melodious choir made the jungle more inviting. Danger was always lurking behind bushes, trees, and rocks. Warriors were trained at a very young age to know each jungle sound. When the sounds of creatures stopped, strangers were near, usually white men.

Within an hour, they came upon a stream, and the gorillas were getting louder. Bolaji and his father bent down to drink their fill from the cool clear fresh water. Scooping handfuls of water into their hands they began to splash their bodies. Bolaji closed his eyes, as to give thanks to the gods for giving him relief from the heat.

Instantly, the jungle became eerily quiet, making Bolaji’s body go rigid and stomach clinch in fear. Do I dare open my eyes? He thought to himself.  Deciding that a warrior never cowers down to any man or beast, he opened his eyes to whatever predator was challenging him. Expecting to see a crouching tiger, he came face to face with a barrel of a rifle. Ten or more white men surrounded them, from front and behind. Their pale skin shone brightly, contrasting to the darkness of the forest. They wore brown leg coverings with loose gray, white, pale – blue shirts, and straw hats.

Eyes wide with fear, Bolaji stood there looking down at the barrel of a gun.  All common sense fled, and he began to think about all the stories his father used to tell about white traders. For he traveled to the markets several times a year, but he never allowed Bolaji to go. Bolaji never dared question his father’s motives.  Slowly, Bolaji began to focus on his father’s words.

“Sirs,” his father began in perfect English, “I am–”

“I don’t give two shits who you are. You’re nobody, for I own your ass now,” a white man stated angrily, brandishing a club across the side of Gowan’s face. Shrinking in agony, Gowan rolled back and forth on the ground. His whole body shook in pain.

Without hesitation, the white men quickly bounded him and Gowan, who continued to screech in pain. They forced their heads into a forked like contraption, and secured it in place with a wooden peg. Using whips, they drove Bolaji and Gowan away from their village.  Keeping his eyes and ears alert, Bolaji observed each captor’s move.  They needed a way to escape, and Bolaji was determined that it would be successful.

The sun was setting when the white men stopped to rest. They traveled all morning without any food or drink. He feared that they would die from lack of water. He also feared for Gown’s wellbeing. He needed his father to get well, so they could plan an escape. But Gowan’s face was badly swollen. Bolaji worried that the further they traveled from their village, the harder it would be to get back. We must escape tonight.

As if sensing that Bolaji wanted to escape, the man with the club grabbed two pairs of long chains, some rope, and approached the two captives. Their hands already bound; he used the rope and tied up their feet, and wrapped the chain around their waist securing them to a tree. With one simple click of a lock, Bolaji’s hopes vanished.

Bolaji felt blood trickle down his arm from where several blisters had already burst open. He was weak and tired, and sleep couldn’t find him. He longed to escape and was frustrated. He kept going over today’s events. He regretted not attacking these men, but he realized his father needed him. Slowly, his eyes became heavy, and he slept.

Several days had past, when they finally reached a beach with a castle like structure.  Captives were separated and organized into groups. Men and the young boys were placed into one group, while the women and girls were placed in another.

“Father, what is this place?”

“I don’t know son. I never been here before.”

Sounds of screaming, moaning, and crying stabbed his ears and melted his resolve. Bolaji had never seen so many broken souls in all his life. The warrior in him refused to give up, and he did his best to stay positive. Maybe this was their chance to escape. As their line inched closer to the front of the castle, Bolaji could hear sizzling of burning meat and horrendous screaming. It set his whole body on edge. He frantically looked around for a chance to escape but there was nowhere to go. Everywhere he looked stood a white man with a whip.

He knew all too well what a whip felt like. When they slowed down during their march, the man with the club used a whip to make them walk faster. Their backs, backsides and thighs were intersected with bloody lines, which stung horribly due to salty sweat. Bolaji noticed that there was a fire with metal rods sticking out of it.  Each rod held a certain marking.  A white man grabbed one of the rods and placed the hot rod on the shoulder of a man a few steps ahead of Bolaji.  After they were done, they shoved the man into waiting arms of two other white men.  Quickly, without any haste, they dragged the injured man toward a small waiting boat.

In the distance, Bolaji noticed three huge ships were docked.  So this is what happens to the slaves that we capture for the white men.  He vowed to himself that if he ever got back to his village, he would never capture and sell salves again.  The shame he felt was rapidly replaced by repulsion.

When it came his turn, the white men hurriedly tossed him down on the ground. Bolaji closed his eyes and imagined that he was in his village inside his family’s hut. He imagined his beautiful mother in her clinging blue skirt with a matching top and head dress, feeding his baby sister.  He felt the heat from the metal rod. He tried to imagine his little brother milking the goats, but these images were not strong enough. Searing white pain, ran down his arm and through his whole body. His eyes burst open, and Bolaji’s body jerked uncontrollably. His screams and cries fell on the deaf ears of the white men who held him down, pushing him deeper into the gritty sand. A blinding white light flashed across Bolaji’s face which slowly turned into darkness that was full of green, red, blue, and gold stars.

The white men dragged unconscious Bolaji below the castle and into a solid brick room, carelessly they left him in the middle of the room. Upon slamming an iron door, Bolaji fluttered his eyes open.  The room was very dark and cool, but his head pounded causing him much pain.  Closing his eyes once more, he didn’t realize the blood pooling around him.

Hours later, the Magnolia set sail on the glassy blue-green waters of the Atlantic Ocean, heading toward America to drop off their freshly caught slaves. Down in the cargo hold, groaning, moaning, and weeping echoed from one person to the next. The rocking of the ship caused many to vomit. The putrid sticky substance spilled down and splattered the people below them. The plump, plump, plump of the dripping liquid caused Bolaji to stir.

Rain? How odd? We are in the middle of dry season. Why is it raining now? I need to get father up, so we can fix the thatched roof or the whole hut will flood. Immediately opening and adjusting his eyes, he leaped away from the vomit. The clanging of the chains and the shock of his surroundings caused his heart to pound. He didn’t notice the stinging pain from the lash, branding iron, or the blisters from the crude wood.

Where is my father? “Father, where are you? Are you here, what happened, and where are we?” His hoarse was faint and unclear.  He was forced to repeat himself several times.

“Bolaji, the whites are too organized and well supplied. Promise me you won’t do anything foolish to get yourself killed. I don’t want to see that.”

Bolaji thought hard of what his father was asking him. Is this the reason why we never tried to escape? Laying low and submitting to the white men was not a warrior thing to do. Deciding that it was best to obey his father, Bolaji stated grudgingly, “I promise, father.”

The stench was unbearable and Bolaji longed for a bath. But since he didn’t know the English language there was no way to communicate his needs. Watching out of the corner of his eye, the white men separated individuals into groups of ten to fifteen men, women, and children. Forcing them into a circle with their whips, the sailors placed one bowl in the middle of each group.  They then handed out one spoon to each individual.

Once they were done eating, they were taken above decks, while the sailors below scrubbed down the empty shelves. The soapy water dripped down onto the eyes and wounds of the ones below, causing many to scream in agony. Bolaji tried to wipe his eyes, but the grime from his fingers only made them sting more. Why are the gods punishing me like this? I can’t take much more, he cried to himself.

Soon they led the first group back down and secured them to the top shelf again. When it came Bolaji’s turn, he did not hesitate. He slid his body down and stood by waiting for them to separate him and his bunk mates. As they got situated, they ate a tasteless watery matter, which reminded Bolaji of soggy bread with bits of corn. Just like the others, they went above deck. The bright sunlight forced him to squint his eyes, so that they could adjust to the sunlight. Oh, the sun feels so good on my skin, he thought.

A bucket of cold ocean water was dumped on him and his bunk mates. The suddenness of the burning liquid on their wounded flesh, made everyone screech and holler in extreme pain.   Their screams and cries didn’t shake the souls of the white men. When all the filth was washed away, they went back down into the cargo hold. How can a race be so cruel? Bolaji thought to himself. He wondered if these people were monsters or demons. Yes, they had to be demons, he figured.

After two months at sea, they docked in America. Bolaji never seen so many ships and thousands of people, both black and white, mingled and worked hauling and pulling different kinds of crates into wagons. As they were led off the plank and onto the docks, a man with a black handbag grabbed Bolaji’s face and placed a metal device inside his mouth. He proceeded to check his gums, teeth, tongue, and throat. Bolaji’s eyes gleamed of hatred and revenge. Reaching over the man, he wrapped his chains around his neck. Bolaji watched in pleasure as the man’s face turned bright red to purple.  It felt good to take all his frustrations out on this one man.

Bolaji! Behind you!” Gowan yelled in warning, but before Bolaji could react, a white man came from behind and laid a whip to his bare back. The whip lashed Bolaji’s flesh cutting into his skin. His body jerked back, as the whip bearer pulled against the whip to release the hold, exposing tissue and muscle. Bolaji fell over in pain, dragging the strangled doctor with him but the lash continued to cut his body.

Gowan used his body and pushed the whip bearer into the water. There was a scream and a grunting sound, as the bearer’s body hit the water. Grabbing the chains that were wrapped around the doctor’s neck, Gowan quickly untangled the mass of metal. As the doctor gasped and coughed, trying to suck in air, sailors were dragging the body from the water.

“Sir, Travis is dead! That Negro killed him!” A sailor said, lightly placing the dead body on the ground. The sailor’s neck was laid at an odd angle, and his face was bluish looking.

“What the , Jed, there are a thousand of them here.” Responded, a captain.

“Sir, it was that one.” Jeb venomously stated, pointing to Gowan.

“Take care of it.” The captain said in a steely voice.

Jed marched over to Gowan, pulled out his pistol and as much hatred he could muster said, “Eye for an eye.”  The cock of the pistol reminded Bolaji of tribal drumbeats warning villagers of war. It brought on the same fears and trepidation. Before he could rescue his father, the fire rang out.  All Bolaji saw was his father’s body slipping from the wooded deck into the gray muddy water.

Bolaji stood in shock. He never expected to see his father die by a white man. As he starred at the blood and his father’s lifeless body, the sky, ships, and buildings started to dance in a circle, faster and faster they went, until all their colors smeared together.

The next morning, the sun burst open across the holding pen. Even though the sun hadn’t reached its full height, the air was thick with heat and humidity. The moisture clung to in the air. In the far distance, a whispered voice came through, “Son, remember your promise, listen to the white man, and live.” Tears ran down Bolaji’s checks, “I promise, father,” he whispered in return.  But deep down Bolaji knew he would never keep it.  He wanted to be free, and he would do anything to go back to Africa.  Again, he started to plan an escape. One day, he told himself, he will see Africa and his mother again.

____________________________________________________________

Lynette Lee is a senior at Southern New Hampshire University; she is pursuing a Bachelors’ in history.  She also studies fiction, historical fiction, creative writing, literature, and English. She is a historical fiction writer and is working on a collection of short stories and poems. Currently, Lee is trying to complete her first novel, The Betrayal.  She resides in the Ozark Mountains with her three-year-old daughter, where during her free time, travels to historical sites, hikes and canoes the Buffalo River, and shops in Branson, Missouri.

Thanks for sharing!
75

About Copperfield

Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been known as a leading market for historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish historical fiction as well as nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.
This entry was posted in Fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.