In this chapter from Heathcliff: The Lost Years, Heathcliff’s ship is sailing the African coast when the ship is approached by African natives in canoes. After some sharp exchanges with the captain, Heathcliff is sent ashore with Mr. Coil, the first mate, look at some slaves the captain may wish to buy.
The sun rose like a disc of burning flame over the bow. The Guinea coast materialized into a long deep green ribbon along the port horizon. A sticky equatorial breeze shuddered out from the African shore, smelling of moist earth and vegetation. When the ship passed by the mouth of a wide brown river, the current lifted the Commerce like a stick of wood and gently shifted her farther away from the shore.
All morning, Heathcliff watched the Commerce skim past desolate rock-strewn beaches and walls of dark green vegetation. On his second watch, Heathcliff glimpsed the points of distant mountains protruding through a bank of low, grey clouds.
Heathcliff was not the first of the hands to hear African voices but he was the first to see the canoes, and hear their cries. Mr. Coil ordered the crew to ease off the sails and sent Heathcliff to fetch the captain.
Captain Collingwood stood on the upper deck as the ship glided abreast of three long thin dugout canoes, each rowed by several nearly naked Negro oarsmen. With tall knots of hair massed atop their heads and faces painted yellow, the canoe men were unlike any creatures Heathcliff had ever seen.
The ship’s officers gathered around the captain on the quarterdeck, examining their unexpected visitors through brass telescopes.
“Ahoy!” came a voice from the canoes. “Are you an English vessel?”
In the closest canoe, a pink-skinned oarsman stood up. He waved both arms and cupped his hands around his mouth. The man wore the loincloth of a savage, but he communicated in what sounded like the King’s English.
“Are you an English vessel?” the man shouted again.
“This is Charles Collingwood, captain of the Commerce,” said the captain, utilizing a speaking-trumpet. “My ship sails under the banner and blessing of King George III, the sovereign monarch of England and all the colonial lands.”
As the oarsmen kept pace alongside the ship, the half-naked man cupped both hands around his mouth.
“Be you then a slaver?” the man shouted. “We have flesh to trade.”
The captain spoke with Mr. Coil before responding.
“You have no harbor for our ship,” replied the captain. “This coast is treacherous.”
“Drop anchor, man! We will take you ashore. We have good black ivory to trade!”
The captain conferred with Mr. Coil. The surgeon stood at the weather rail with Heathcliff and several of the hands, gawking at the canoes which rather easily kept pace with the ship.
“For God’s sakes, Captain Collingwood,” shouted the pale-skinned man. “You can trust me. I am an Englishman, a bloody Englishman!”
“Mr. Coil, you may go ashore,” said the captain. “See what they have.”
“I will not venture ashore alone, captain.”
“Then take a man with you.”
“I would have our surgeon,” said Mr. Coil.
“Doctor Chum will remain with me,” the captain replied.
“Take Heathcliff there. He’s a good enough hand. You might show him what we’re about.”
The Commerce maneuvered closer to shore and dropped anchor at twenty fathoms. With some trepidation, Heathcliff followed Mr. Coil down the sea-ladder and squeezed into the first canoe between the pale-skinned man and Mr. Coil.
The man swiveled around and smiled wickedly, his face painted bright yellow. He had knotted his hair atop his head in the African manner but he had the bright blue eyes of an Englishman. The man turned away, shouted something in an African tongue, and all three canoes turned away from the ship.
Mr. Coil leaned forward to clutch Heathcliff’s shoulder.
“Our captain fears a trick. If anyone dies upon this God-forsaken shore, Captain Collingwood does not wish it to be him.”
Mr. Coil patted Heathcliff’s shoulder.
“Hold tight, lad,” he said.
The black-skinned oarsmen rowed toward the shore, their long dugout canoes skimming across the slowly shifting sea. As they drew closer, a haze of spindrift fizzled over the canoes. Heathcliff blinked, trying to see.
Directly ahead, the shoulders of long green waves rose from the sea like winged sea creatures, then broke savagely upon the shore. Large sharp boulders lay scattered across the narrow beach. Others protruded from the water, shattering apart the waves.
The Africans sang and chanted. As they approached the rising shoulders of the waves, the canoe men chanted louder.
“Hold on, laddie,” came the voice of Mr. Coil.
Heathcliff spread his arms and gripped both sides of the canoe. Large rocks rose from the sea directly ahead.
With a shout from their leader, all three canoes darted up onto the spine of a rising wave and a burst of speed lifted them onto the crest. Paddling furiously, they rode the ocean’s mad, thundering energy down between the rocks to a narrow fizzling rock-strewn beach.
Jumping into the ocean, the savages pulled their boats ashore. The yellow-faced man helped Heathcliff and Mr. Coil roll out of the canoe. He pulled them through the foaming surf onto dry land and led them sloshing up a trail to a cluster of huts not visible from the sea.
The pale-skinned man sat down on a rock before one of the huts, his skin reddened by the sun. He gestured for Heathcliff and Mr. Coil to sit; he clapped his hands. Two very old women hurried out of a hut and placed a basket of fruit before them.
“Eat, eat. We are guests here,” he said. “It’s rude to refuse a gift of food.”
Relieved to have survived his journey through the waves, Heathcliff savored the taste of fresh sweet fruit. Mr. Coil ate with one eye on the canoe-men. They all squatted on their haunches behind the pale-skinned man, swatting away sand flies and awaiting permission to eat.
At a signal from the Englishman, the canoe-men jumped on the food, and began raking it into their mouths with their fingers.
“You must show us your flesh,” said Mr. Coil.
The Englishman nodded and clapped his hands. Four canoe-men hurried into the woods. They returned with five big captives pinioned awkwardly together, their necks clamped between two notched and lashed-together logs.
“These are Mandinka warriors. They were captured in battle,” said the yellow-faced man. “The Mandinka live only to fight and fuck in the infernal heat. The Kumasi want them killed or sold away.”
“Our surgeon must inspect them,” said Mr. Coil. “We must take them back to the ship.”
The English-speaking man fingered his necklace and squinted at the sun. “Night is coming. The Kumasi cannot return to shore before dark. Kumasi believe evil spirits live in the evening sea.”
“Surely the Commerce would not leave us,” Heathcliff blurted to Mr. Coil.
“This captain will not lift anchor without me,” said the first mate. “The truth is, Captain Collingwood depends on me to teach him the fine points of this abysmal trade.”
After the sun went down, the yellow-faced man stirred a small fire in the center of the hut where they were to sleep. An old woman brought him a gourd filled with bitter drink, and he shared it with his guests.
“Africa may yet kill me, sir,” the pale-faced man told Mr. Coil, as a few sparks rose from the fire. “I have seen too much of its savagery and the terrible magic they call juju. And you will not believe me, sir, but these pitiful savages believe the worst treachery of all is to be found among civilized men.”
++End of this Chapter++
Heathcliff: The Lost Years is the untold adventure story at the heart of Wuthering Heights. The 111-chapter book is available in paperback, e-book, and as an audiobook from Amazon, Apple, Audible.com and may be special ordered from any bookstore.