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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXX, No. 6 (Dec 1869)
pp. 568-572

568 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



      In the summer of 185--, I found myself adrift in New York, without employment. Times were dull, and the ship in which I had arrived was to be laid up for a time. Having but few "shot in the locker," I was up for almost anything in the way of a voyage, and cared little towards which of the cardinal points I steered my next course, provided the business were legitimate and honest.

      In this frame of mind, I was strolling along the wharves on the East River side, having made inquiry at several shipping-offices without success, when my attention was caught by the neat appearance of a small barque, lying at the lower end of a pier. I took a turn down alongside of her, and stood looking idly at the stevedores taking in her lading, when a hand was clapped smartly on my shoulder, and another extended to meet my own.

      "Why, how are you, Gorham?" said a hearty voice. "Where have you been drifting these last fifteen years?"

      I had some little difficulty in making out, from under their hirsute covering, the features of Joe Calder, whom I had not met since we were both boys at school. I greeted him heartily, however, though I did not attempt to give a complete answer to his question. It would have taken some time to relate the story of my fifteen years' wanderings, or of his, either.

      "Out of employ, just now?" he asked.


      "Southerly wind in your pocket-book?"

      "Well, it's veering towards that quarter."

      "Come, what'll you take to go mate of this barque? She's my first command, and will be ready for sea in three days. I haven't shipped any officers yet"

      "Which way are you bound?" I asked.

      "Coast of Africa – Gambia River – and so on."

      "Palm oil?" said I.

      "Mostly palm oil – a picked-up voyage."

      "She's a fine-looking craft," I observed, quite willing to consider the offer favorably, but hesitating a little about closing with it.

      "Come, let's go aboard, and take a look at things inside," he urged.

      We did so; and, if I was pleased with her appearance from a distance, I quite fell in love with her when I inspected her internal arrangements. By the time I had made the round of her deck, and taken a look at her cosy little cabin, I had almost made up my mind to ship.

      "What cargo are you going to take out?" I inquired.

      "Yankee notions," said Calder, carelessly. "Tobacco and rum – lumber and slops – and so forth. Come, go up with me to the agent's office. Make up your mind what wages you will go for, and there'll be no difficulty about it. If I say I want you, you'll be shipped without many questions."

      I feared, when I named my terms, that they might be thought exorbitant, as seamen were plenty and ships scarce; but a word in an undertone from Calder to the agent made all satisfactory, and in a few minutes after entering the office, I had affixed my sign-manual to the papers of the barque Bloomer, for a voyage to the west coast of Africa, and had the advance money in my pocket

      I went on board the next day, and took charge of bending sails and getting the barque in readiness for sea. It was a new and strange voyage for me, for I had never visited the African coast. I knew it to be a sickly place, but Calder, who was an old stager there, assured me there was nothing to be uneasy about on that score. We would take good care of ourselves when we got there, and let the Kroomen do all the work.

      There were only six seamen before the mast, he said; and as six reported themselves the same day that I took charge, I thought our complement was full. But the evening we were going to sail, six more came on board with the captain; I asked him if all those men were members of our crew? "Yes," said he, "I represented to the agent that I thought the vessel very short-handed, considering her spread of canvas. And, finally, I brought him over to my way of thinking. We shall be able to handle her easily with twelve before the mast, eh, Mr. Gorham?"

      I thought so, too; and it occurred to me

A Timely Shot. 569

that he must have a very accommodating owner to deal with. It would not have been strange had one or two men been added to our force at the captain's solicitation; but that the number should be doubled struck me as being a little odd, to say the least

      I had little knowledge of Captain Calder's history since we were schoolmates. I knew that he had sought his fortune at sea, like myself, and he had told me when I shipped, that he was familiar with the African coast.

      But we had not been many days at sea before I had strong suspicions that the ostensible object of the voyage was far different from the real one. The large accession to our crew at the very hour of sailing gave the first impulse to my thoughts in this direction; and various circumstances occurring after we were in blue water tended to increase my surprise and uneasiness. The lumber which formed a part of the cargo appeared to have been cut or selected with a view to some special use. The six last-comers, I learned, were all old acquaintances of the captain, and had sailed with him before; which, to put it in a mild form, was a coincidence. And one day I detected the cook, who was one of the six, burning staves for firewood. On inquiry, I found that they were taken from a pack of shooks in the fore-hold. I remonstrated with him about this, telling him I supposed he knew the shooks were to be set up into casks for palm oil.

      "I tink we no want palm oil, sah," he answered, slyly.

      "What do you mean?" I demanded, fiercely.

      "O, it's all right, sah. Speak the ole man, sah. He tell you what I mean," was the good-humored reply.

      I was both disarmed and mystified. I went aft and reported the matter to the captain who was working up his longitude at the cabin-table. I asked him if he knew the meaning of the cook's reply to me.

      "Sit down, Mr. Gorham," he said, coolly, "and don't get in a stew about it. The old shooks are of no value. There isn't one of them that would hold sand, much less oil; and they were only sent on board as a blind. We've got more profitable business in hand than box-hauling the whole Guinea coast to pick up palm oil by the calabash-ful."

      "What is it, then?" I demanded.

      "I suppose we may as well understand each other, now, as at any time," said he. "We are going after niggers."

      Daylight had burst upon me with a vengeance! I could see the whole thing, now; and wondered at my own stupidity in not having seen it before. Here was I, who thought myself engaged in an honest trading voyage, just waking up to the fact that I was in the middle of the broad Atlantic, chief mate of a slaver!

      "Why wasn't I told this before?" I asked, with all the calmness I could assume.

      "Because I was afraid you wouldn't go with me. I wanted you to go, for I have heard that you were a good officer and navigator. And now, if you have scruples about engaging in the business, I think they can all be overcome when you know how profitable it is."

      "Profitable!" said I. 'What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?'"

      "O, don't begin to preach, here," he returned, impatiently. "Your wages are liberal, now; but they shall be raised higher if you demand it; and if we can run a cargo safely into a West Indian port, you are entitled to two niggers in every hundred, as your commissions. All you'll have to do is just to carry on the duty and serve your employers, just as you would oh any other voyage."

      "Have you been in this slave-trade before?" I asked.

      "Have I? Of course, or they wouldn't have been likely to give me the command of this vessel. We had a great streak of luck while I was mate of the Harlequin. We ran three cargoes across safe, and landed them in fair order. I made a fat thing of it, I assure you; and if I can run clear this time, with my pay and commissions, I shall have no need to try it again unless I choose."

      As I looked and listened, it was difficult to believe that my playmate, Joe Calder, was before me. But, whatever he might do, or however he might argue the matter, I had no idea of selling my integrity at the price of two per cent commission on a cargo of human flesh and blood. Though I had been a wandering seaman, rough, and in some respects reckless, and was as poor as on the day I first went to sea, I had always, hitherto, preserved my conscience clear. It was my best bower anchor, and so I told the captain.

      "Gorham," said he, "you'll find your conscience a bothersome shipmate in this business, and if you'll take my advice, you'll throw it overboard. I don't know, though, why you need let your conscience trouble

570 A Timely Shot.

you, since you shipped in ignorance of our real object; and of course you are in for it now, for it's too late to turn back. You can just go on with your duty, and leave the responsibility upon me and the owner, who seduced you into it. Our shoulders are broad enough to take the whole burden."

      "I can't quiet my conscience with any such logic as that. I am in for it, as you say, and It is too late to go back. I have no power, either, to alter the object of the voyage. But I tell you, now, that I will have nothing to do with kidnapping human beings, either black or white, if I can help it; and will leave the vessel at the first opportunity – with your consent, if I can get it – if not, without it. As for the commissions you speak of, I would not accept the whole cargo if offered me – unless it were to have the pleasure of setting them free."

      "I would, then," returned the captain, with a light laugh, "and touch the doubloons for them. I must confess I'm disappointed in you, Gorham, for I didn't expect to find any seaman with these soft feelings. You talk more like a parson than a mate of a ship. Still I don't mean to say that you are not a good officer, seaman and navigator. We understand each other, now, at any rate. If you leave the vessel before the voyage is up, you'll have to run from her; for I shall not make out your discharge. And I hope you'll think better of all this before we make the land, and see it in a different light"

      "Never!" said I, firmly, as I turned to go on deck.

      The subject was, by a kind of tacit understanding, dropped between us, and matters went on quietly, while the Bloomer sped on her course towards the Guinea Coast. I could well understand that Calder did not mean to have me leave the vessel, at least before his cargo was made up, for fear of my dropping some information that might lead to his capture; and that he would even, if necessary, restrain me on board by force. But he need not have feared me after I was clear of the barque, for, like the generality of seamen, I was strongly averse to playing the part of an informer, even In a case where I could feel morally justified in doing so.

      The same day that we made the land, an English man-of-war brig gave chase to us. As it soon became evident that she was more than our match in speed, we hove to, like an innocent trader, and a boat was sent to board and examine us. As she drew near, the captain called me below, for a confidential word. "Mr. Gorham," said he, "we understand each other, I believe, as to our opinions of the business we are in. There is nothing about the vessel or her fittings that will lay us liable to seizure; and I don't fear this British officer, unless some one turns informer by giving him some hints. If I thought you would do it," he continued, with a bitter oath, "I would shoot you with my own hand, in spite of old friendships and the real regard I have for you."

      "You needn't burden yourself with the cause," I answered, " for I am willing to make a fair agreement with you. If you will land me at any settlement of whites, where I can get away from this cursed coast, I promise to hold my peace and say nothing to bring you into trouble."

      "I will bind myself to discharge you as soon as I have made my voyage sure, and am ready to run westward again. And you shall be paid the full amount of your wages up to that time. But I can't, with safety to myself, let you go sooner."

      I was fain to content myself with these terms, and thus I became, to a certain extent, a party in a great wrong. It was, I know, a false sense of honor that restrained me, in thus declining to do what was right, because it would injure the interests of my captain and employers. But it was as good, perhaps, as the oft-quoted patriotic cry, "Our country, right or wrong."

      The examination of the vessel and her papers developed nothing to excite the suspicions of the boarding officer, but as I have since learned, one of the seamen, who, like myself, had been entrapped into what they believed was an honest palm-oil cruise, was not as scrupulous as myself. He found an opportunity to whisper his opinion of the real character of our enterprise to some of the boat's crew, and, as a consequence, we were never lost sight of from that day forward, while on the coast Many were the dodges we played upon the cruisers, and at last Calder thought he had shaken off pursuit and we ran into an anchorage at the mouth of a river, where the human cattle were herded in the barracoon, ready for shipment.

      A few hours, now, would decide the success or failure of the voyage, and test the captain's sincerity, as regarded his promise to discharge me before leaving the coast. But we had not received more than half the

A Timely Shot. 571

blacks on board, when, as if the avengers had been watching from an ambush until sure of the evidence of our guilt, three armed boats made their appearance rounding a bend within half a mile, and heading directly for us.

      The barque had been fitted to rely upon speed and stratagem for success in running the gauntlet of the cruisers, and possessed no adequate means of repelling force by force. But we had one little brass swivel which was capable of some execution, and small arms sufficient for the full number of men on board. And Joe Calder, in the fury of baffled rage consequent upon losing all his "property" at the eleventh hour, determined to show fight, and, if possible, beat off the boats.

      "Will you fight 'em, Mr. Gorham?" he demanded, savagely.

      "No sir; I am only filling my position, as it were, under protest, and I'm sure I will never shed blood unless in an honest cause."

      He had only his second mate and six seamen upon whom he could place any dependence to assist him in this strait. And even some of these remonstrated with him upon the folly of a course which could scarcely be successful, while it would call down vengeance upon us if it failed.

      "I'll fight 'em alone!" he roared, beside himself with fury. "If there's any man who will sneak out of the fight, let him go ashore, now, before the boats board us.

      But he had miscalculated the effect of this taunt upon me and others. I saw no harm nor disgrace in taking him at his word, and at once called for volunteers to man the small boat which lay alongside. One followed another, until it was plain that the whole crew would, if left to themselves, abandon the vessel; but with four men in the boat, I pushed her clear of the side. The man-of-war's boats were drawing near.

      "Captain Calder," said I, "the wisest thing you can do is to save yourself and your crew. You can gain nothing by fighting against odds, and the vessel is lost, if taken, as she must be, with slaves on board."

      "She never shall be taken! I'll blow her up first!" roared the infuriated captain. "Save yourselves, all of ye, if you want to! I'll be the last man out of her!"

      In a moment, all hands were crowding into the large boat, which had been veered astern, anxious only to escape the approaching enemy. The captain stooped, sighted the brass swivel, which he had previously loaded with his own hands, and fired! A good line shot, but not sufficiently depressed in range. It whistled, harmless, over the heads of the English seamen, who, bursting into wild hurrahs, advanced steadily, now returning the fire from a similar gun mounted on their leading boat.

      My attention was for a few seconds occupied in observing this; and when I again looked for the captain, he was not in sight

      "Pull ahead!" I heard the second mate exclaim in the other boat "Pull ahead and get clear of the ship! He's gone below to fire the powder and blow her up!"

      I involuntarily repeated the order to my own crew, shuddering at the thought that what I heard was really true. I knew where the powder was stored, and that there was enough of it to destroy the vessel if ignited. It was true he might lay a train, and have time to save himself by jumping overboard. But what was to become of the hundred and fifty blacks in the hold? And the crews of the attacking boat, if the explosion occurred after they got on board?

      I gave the word to pull, placing the boat's head directly towards the approaching enemy. I made the most frantic signals to attract the attention of the British officer in command. I succeeded in making him sensible of the danger, and he ordered his men to rest on their oars.

      I had, of course, placed myself and boat's crew in his power as prisoners, when I might have had time to escape to the shore. But, in obeying the impulse of humanity, I had hardly thought of this.

      As I was explaining the matter to the officer, the crack of a rifle was heard, and a ball passed near my head, breaking the arm of one of the seamen, in the English barge. It had been fired from the stern window of the barque, and was, doubtless, intended for me. The barge again fired her swivel in return, and the officer gave the order to advance with a rush, seeming to care little about securing me or my men, if there was a chance of saving the vessel.

      The large boat of the barque, in charge of the second mate, had, meanwhile made good her escape, and was nearly ashore. But, trusting to my own honest intentions, and those of the four men who were with me, I preferred being a prisoner to taking our chances in the pestilential jungles of the riverbank, or placing ourselves in the power of the

572 The First Crime.

slave-dealers at the barracoon, whose enmity we had incurred by thus warning the English officer. As a choice of evils, we followed the men-of-war's-men, who dashed without further hesitation alongside the Bloomer, and swarmed upon her deck.

      "Come here!" said the English officer, beckoning to me, as I stood waiting his orders. "Wasn't that a timely shot?"

      On the floor, at the foot of the cabin stairs, lay the body of the captain, his skull crushed by the last shot fired from the barge's swivel, which had entered at the stern window. In his hand he still grasped a match, which had been lighted and burned out. He must have rushed to light the fuse connected with his train of powder, as soon as he had fired the rifle, as I suppose, at me. Had he fallen forward upon his face, instead of backward, the train would actually have been fired by the match in the hand of a dead man! It was, indeed, a timely shot which had arrested his desperate career; and the match was harmless in his grasp, not a foot distant from the end of the train.

      I thought of the narrow escape of the British party; of the poor blacks huddled in the hold; and, looking at the distorted features of the corpse, I wondered, could this be my old schoolmate Joe Calder?

      I was carried, with my shipmates, to St. Helena in the Bloomer, and after a short detention we were released, and found our way home to seek more honorable employment. The vessel, was, of course, condemned, and the blacks liberated. And this, my first, was also my last voyage to the African coast.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: A Timely Shot.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 30, No. 6 (Dec 1869)
Pages: 568-572