Above, the deck was a shamble of rigging and pieces of the masts that were still attached to the hull and each other. They swayed and skittered and slid back and forth across the deck as the ship tossed in the heavy sea. Adam could see instantly that the waves were smaller and felt the wind abating from the peak of its fury. The question was, Adam ruefully asked himself, would the crippled Anson stay afloat or would it take its unshackled prisoners with it in a final plunge to the depths of the Atlantic.
The Africans had all made their way across the pitching, rain-swept deck to the captain’s cabin. The door had smashed itself to pieces at some time while he had been working below deck. Peering at Adam as he emerged from the hold were at least a dozen eyes, plastered against the two small windows or staring out through the splintered door.
The last man, the singer, met Adam at the door. In the half minute it had taken to cross the deck, Adam had sketched out a simple, desperate, plan. As he reached the door the man reached out with his right hand and took Adam’s in a firm handshake. To Adam’s surprise he also grasped Adam’s right wrist with his left hand.
The man nodded and touched his chest, “Irungu,”
He gathered himself, pointed to a stay that flapped nearby but still was belayed tightly to the hull. Motioning for Irungu to follow he grasped the stay and made his way back across the deck to the amidships’ tools locker. “Come, Irungu, please!”
Relieved, Adam felt the man follow him. He said a silent prayer at the locker and pried the heavy lid open. Four axes greeted him, nestled in their cradles in one end of the box. He pantomimed for Irungu using the axes to cut away the debris on deck. The African vigorously nodded understanding and turned immediately away from Adam, hanging onto the stay as another wave dashed the ship, struggling to the cabin.
Adam watched him go, hoping against hope that Irungu had understood and not just given up. Irungu made it to the cabin door and spoke quickly, urgently above the howl of the wind. There was some jostling on the far side of the door and three men emerged, following Irungu back across the open space.
When they arrived at the locker it was Irungu who motioned and spoke. The three men each grabbed an axe. Adam took the fourth and showed them quickly the use of the tool and tried to explain, also quickly, as another wave drenched them all to the waist, not to cut their lifeline ropes. They fell to their task with a will.
Meanwhile Irungu had gone back to the cabin and brought 4 more men. Quickly, with Adam pointing, Irungu speaking, and the other seven swinging the axes and tossing overboard the massive remnants of the two masts, they cleared the decks. Once a man was hit by a wave and lost his grip on the safety line but Irungu managed to grab him before the water could sweep him away.
Next Adam showed Irungu the tiller wheel and the idea of keeping the ship pointed into the waves. A tall, muscular man who identified himself as Kijani volunteered to man the wheel. Next they rigged a pair of small staysails to try and held keep the ship pointed into the wind and waves. Finally, Adam showed Irungu the main pump.
In shifts, men and women energetically worked the pump from then through the long day and the following night. The storm weakened throughout the day, until only the overcast blotted the stars that night and finally Kijani relinquished the wheel. Adam and Irungu caught a few hours sleep after confirming the water in the hold was decreasing with the efforts of the entire crew.
Dawn sought Adam’s eyes with the promise of a child on Christmas morning. He stretched his muscles slowly, luxuriously, in the warming, drying first rays of sunlight and carefully picked his way around other sleeping forms. On deck he opened the hatch to the rear hold and lowered himself carefully down the ladder into the darkness below.
He was both reassured and grateful when only a small sloshing of water greeted him at the bottom of the hold. He felt along the racks where the barrels of biscuit and salt pork, pease and salt fish were stored. Intact. He carefully opened the nearest barrel of freshwater and tasted it. No worse than it had been before the storm. At least they would not immediately starve or die of thirst.
The meal was one of great celebration with singing and improvised drumming and a rhythmic call and response. Adam was amazed at the culture and resilience of the “heathens”; he even heaved his tired bones up off the deck to join in the dancing and chanting.
The next days were spent in a spurt of hard work and rudimentary training. Together they pumped the hold as dry as it ever had been since its maiden voyage. They rigged a sail on the stump of the foremast and another on the mizzen. They fashioned a kind of spritsail and, with practice, learned how to aid the steerage with deft changes to that sail. They also fashioned, as best they could, a course for return to Africa. Then they waited.
The long days of clear weather and light winds and excruciatingly slow progress granted time for Adam to learn of the culture of the Kikuyu, for indeed all the Africans had been captured in a single raid from that tribe deep in the heart of Africa and sold, by stages, from one trader to another until finally reaching the coast and the waiting ship. He learned of their struggle and the wrenching of family members and death at the hands of one trader after another. And he gained a fuller comprehension of the soul of these people.
Seventeen days after the storm they sighted a bird. The next day a matting of vines and branches that Irungu excitedly identified as land-based. Twenty days after the storm, as the sun began to set behind them, they sighted land.
The long walk back to the lands of the Kikuyu still stretched in front of them, and many perils, but they had survived and for that they gave each other both credit and thanks.
Me as a critic (be careful! the harshness will be well concealed!)