In this chapter from Heathcliff: The Lost Years, the Commerce has finally arrived in Jamaica with all that’s left of its cargo of 200 African slaves.
Heathcliff has survived a mutiny, a storm at sea, and other adventures before his ship sails into Kingston Harbor. Kingston, Jamaica is the center of the British slave trade in the New World.
Heathcliff awoke to the sound of squawking. A pandemonium of parrots whirled low over the Commerce. As he made his way toward the head, he saw two small single-masted fishing boats making their way out to sea.
Dr. Chum put Heathcliff shaving the heads of the young black-skinned males, to make them appear stronger and older. Others of the crew rubbed black soot from the galley stove into the hair of the older men to disguise their grey. The surgeon personally worked warm black tar into the scars of the males who had been severely flogged while others rubbed the dark skin of every captive with a mixture of lemon juice, gunpowder, red pepper, and palm oil to give the quashees’ skin a deceptively healthy luster.
Captain Collingwood went ashore first. As he left, the captain bade Heathcliff come in with the first boat.
Around noon, Mr. Bolt and the bosun began loading the captives. When the first boat had its quota of males, Heathcliff took up oars and helped row toward the shore.
The city of Kingston seemed lazy and innocent in the afternoon light. Beyond the brick buildings that lined the waterfront, Heathcliff saw wisps of smoke rising between the tops of palm trees.
As their boat approached the pier, Heathcliff pitied the captives. It was difficult to look at the hope he saw on some of their faces.
Standing atop a section of the finger pier, Captain Collingwood waved in the launch. A group of grizzled white men helped tie up the boat. Several of the men held long, sharply-pointed sticks and some had pistols in their belts. The captain had a few of them pull Negroes onto the pier while the others warily held the males at bay.
“Heathcliff, you must be my eyes and ears to-day,” the captain said. “Go with these gentlemen. Make sure the quashees stay together. I need for you to assure me that all our black cattle are secure in their quarters.”
Heathcliff followed behind as the men prodded the group of males off the pier and herded them along Harbour Street, shouting and poking at them with sticks.
They herded the group along a sand-packed street for ten blocks, then turned them left down a narrow alley. They stopped the group at the rear of a windowless brick building where a man with a ragged black beard met them and unlocked a thick wooden door.
They prodded and whistled the males inside like so many cattle. The bearded man shut the door and locked them inside.
“Bring me all you have,” he told Heathcliff.
Horses and wagons scurried past on Harbour Street, kicking up clumps of manure and sand before a line of warehouses and shops. When more captives were brought onto the pier, the captain dispatched Heathcliff to look after them.
Late that afternoon, the last boatload of females arrived at the dock, with Kee-Sha among them. The men made lewd comments and poked at the females all the way to the brick building. When the bearded man unlocked the door, Heathcliff heard loud hoots and whistles as the women walked inside.
A young female darted away. Three men ran to chase her down and the bearded man drew a pistol. Heathcliff stepped past the bearded man and looked inside.
Hundreds of black-skinned men, women, and children huddled together in a dark, high-ceilinged room. It was a human stable. Beneath a hanging lantern was a trough of drinking water. The room smelled of feces, sweat, and straw. When the little female who tried to escape was pushed inside, someone yanked Heathcliff out and closed the door.
Captain Collingwood jauntily pulled him toward the front of the building. Most of the crew loitered before the trim, red brick façade of Negrille & Sloan, Merchants. Heathcliff noticed a placard in the front window announcing an auction of African slaves.
Captain Collingwood vaulted onto the low wooden porch, tricorne in one hand. He again congratulated the crew on a successful voyage.
“We nourish the lifeblood of this mercantile island — the island cannot survive without us. When our slaves are purchased, I promise every one of you a good bonus. The land-owners in Jamaica need our black cattle to harvest cane — ”
A carriage pulled up a short distance away. A well-dressed man in a cream-coloured suit got out and walked toward the group, leaving his Negro coachman to attend to the horses.
“My good friend Angelique Devine has joined us, I believe,” said the captain, gesturing at the man with a sweep of his hat. Angelique Devine lifted a wan hand, and waved.
“All hands are at liberty to enjoy this city. Dr. Chum will distribute an advance on your pay. Do enjoy yourselves!” cried the captain with a wave of his beaver hat and white cockade.
“Huzzah for our captain!”
Donning his tricorne with a flourish, Captain Collingwood stepped off the porch and linked arms with Angelique Devine. Arm in arm, the two gentlemen strutted to the waiting coach. They stepped inside and Devine’s Negro coachman obediently bowed and closed the door. Heathcliff thought both gentlemen looked quite impressive inside the carriage as it pulled away, drawn by six rather spirited grey horses.
A warm breeze blew toward the sea as Dr. Chum distributed brass coins to each of the crew.
“You give us peculiar coin, doctor!” said the Fiddler, who was first in line. “This is not English money.”
“These are Jamaican reales, minted in Cuba. You can very easily spend them here on the island,” Dr. Chum replied.
“These coins would not be accepted in England,” said the Fiddler, pocketing his coins and turning to the crew. “But gather around, boys. Let’s go try and spend the captain’s money.”
The Fiddler led the crew into Kingston, a city of black faces. Wagons containing downcast-looking Negroes rumbled by on the street. Black-skinned females swept porches; Negro men attended to horses. Heathcliff noticed a long line of barefoot Negro men traipse around a corner with wooden casks on their backs, followed by a bored-looking mulatto overseer on horseback.
At a bakery, the crew purchased the first fresh bread they’d seen in months. They tore at the loaves with their hands and ate chunks of it. The Irishman found a vendor of fried fish and hot cross buns, then led them all into a tavern, where he ordered a plate of sausages and helped them wash his sausages down with beer.
Fiddler led the crew out of the tavern at dusk. They city of Kingston became a city of shadows. The silhouettes of palm trees stood out in black against the lavender sky. Wrought iron balconies drooped down over narrow streets. Swallows soared and dipped overhead, feasting on mosquitos.
Heathcliff heard snatches of music, clapping, and a bit of distant singing as the Irishman flagged down a pair of mariners, plied them with questions, and returned with a smirk to the crew.
“Every man among us shall have a woman to-night,” the Irishman announced.
“I got to find me a church,” said young Tom. “During that big storm, I promised God if he saved me from drowning, I’d go to church the minute I stepped on land.”
Fiddler mussed the little cherub’s blonde hair with his hand.
“No churching to-night, young Tommy. A little pip like you will have ample time for churching to-morrow. To-night, you must enjoy yourself like a man.”
++ END OF CHAPTER ++
Heathcliff: The Lost Years is the untold story at the heart of Wuthering Heights. The 111-chapter historical novel is available in paperback, e-book, and as an audiobook from Amazon, Apple, Audible.com and may be special ordered from any bookstore.