Approaching Senegal.—Sailor's yarns.—Dangerous navigation.—Shipwrecks of vessels.—Terrible suffering of the crew of the Margaret.—Our fears.—Taking soundings.
We were getting every day nearer our point of destination, and approaching the great desert of Sahara.
Our evenings were spent with the captain in relating our adventures. The captain had traveled all round the world, and spoke to me of strange countries where I had never been. Oh, I wished to go where he had been—to China, Japan, India, and the East Indian Archipelago. He had seen the orang-outang in its native wilds. He had been in Brazil, the West Indies, and many islands of the Pacific. But then he had not been in the equatorial regions of Africa. He had not seen the gorilla, the chimpanzee, the nshiego mbouvé, or the kooloo-kamba. Now and then I would have a talk with the sailors on the forecastle, for I love the sailors dearly. Yes, they are blunt, rough if you like, but they are natural. They always say right out what they mean, and are almost always kind-hearted. Those who are not are rare exceptions.
They would frequently tell me about their wild pranks, and what a laugh we would have over some of them! At other times they would almost start tears from my eyes by telling me some of their great trials, shipwrecks, and stories of starvation and thirst on desert islands. Especially was my heart full of sympathy for them when I heard their story of their lying in port surrounded by pestilence and death, the yellow fever, the black vomit—these terrible scourges carrying away sometimes almost every body on board, and often leaving but one or two as witnesses of the terrible plague, so that they might tell the story of their sufferings to their fellow-men. At other times they would tell of their hardships on the coast of Africa, and the terrible fever they had been subjected to in the Gulf of Guinea. It was by moonlight that we had our last talk. The evenings were cool and pleasant, and it was so nice on deck!
At last the voyage drew near its close. The captain expected soon to see land. We were not to see green fields, nor hills covered with trees, but the sandy and bleak shores of the great desert of Sahara, and feel its hot winds.
The face of the captain began to appear anxious as we approached the shore, for we were nearing the famous land of Arguin, where many and many a wreck had taken place. There the Medusa found her watery grave, and many of the brave hearts that were on board died on the raft they had made, after long days of agony from starvation and thirst.
And no wonder that the captain began to feel anxious, for the navigation became more dangerous as we approached nearer and nearer to the coast of Arguin. The natives were fierce, and the shipwrecked people were either murdered, or made to suffer the most abominable kind of slavery.
At last, one afternoon, we got sight of land north of Cape Blanco. The next day we rounded the cape, and came to the Bay of Arguin, which is most dangerous to navigators on account of its numerous banks and shoals.
I began to feel anxious too. I did not care to be made a slave. I did not care to travel as the slave of a wandering Arab or Moor in the great desert. The very thought made me shudder; and I am sure, my dear young folks, that you would have felt the same, for you know what the fate of many a shipwrecked sailor has been in that part of the world. The stories of their sufferings have been published far and wide.
The evening of the day when we reached such dangerous ground, the captain related to me stories of some of the wrecks that had taken place there. I well remember that of a friend of his, who was on board of the ill-fated "William Vaughan."
The "William Vaughan" left London on the 29th of April, 1844. On the 20th of May she rounded Cape Blanco, and entered the Bay of Arguin. Suddenly the ship found itself in shallow water; but, before she could be got round, she stuck fast in the sand. Large quantities of ballast were thrown overboard, the ship was lightened, and the next day she was afloat. In the mean time, the chief mate had been sent to take soundings ahead, for all the charts were incorrect, no doubt on account of the shifting of the sand-banks. The sea being very heavy, he was obliged to anchor his boat for the night under the island. Just as he was rounding the point again to return to the ship next morning, he saw two natives and a white man coming toward the boat.
Was it possible? It was so. The white man hailed the boat in English. He was a countryman—a poor unfortunate white man that had been wrecked. The kind-hearted mate again rounded the point, where the sea was not so heavy, to take in his countryman. But the moment he landed the two natives set upon him and beat him unmercifully with bludgeons. The poor mate had landed unarmed. Revolvers at that time were not in use, though pistols were known. They would not have caught me in such a scrape. I never leave my revolvers any where, especially when traveling in a wild and dangerous country. One of the sailors hastened back to the boat and fetched a gun, which he gave to the natives, who took it and ran away, leaving the poor white man in their hands.
How glad the poor fellow must have been when he saw his countryman! How his heart must have beat at the thought that his days of slavery were over, and how he must have thanked God for his safe delivery!
Then came his sad story. He belonged to the bark Margaret, of London, which had been wrecked the preceding year, in the same month of May. Nearly all the hands had been murdered by the savages, and those who were not had been made slaves. Four more were upon the island. When they reached the vessel, and the captain was made acquainted with the facts, he immediately took means to ransom his countrymen. The natives agreed to receive a certain amount of goods, and then release the prisoners but after they had received the amount they asked for more; and, after this second demand was granted, they again asked for more, and finally fired at the men, and compelled them to flee for their lives and to take refuge in their boats, leaving their property behind.
The boat had gone ashore well prepared. They had a small brass gun on board, but it would seem that they did not know how to make effective use of it. It appears to have been too heavily loaded, for when it was fired it recoiled with such force that one of the gunners was killed, and, in falling overboard, by some unaccountable misfortune he upset the boat, and all the ten men were either drowned or killed. Not one of them came to tell the story of their fate. The natives got possession of the boat, righted and loaded her up with warriors, and came to attack the vessel. Only four men and the captain were left on board.
It must have been a terrible moment of suspense among these five men. They knew it was a question of life or death. Every thing was ready for a deadly fight. Hatchets, matches, sabres, guns, pistols were at hand, and every thing that was heavy and handy to throw into the boat. What a feeling of anguish there must have been in the hearts of these men! All their companions were dead, and they knew that the same fate awaited them if they were captured, for these cruel savages would show no mercy.
The boat came nearer and nearer. It was swarming with savage men; but fortunately, as it came broadside, the master, who was no doubt a good gunner, took careful aim, fired and sunk her, with all on board. Then he slipped his cable, and, with only four men for a crew, sailed off. How anxious the poor captain and crew must have felt, and how much they must have dreaded those treacherous sand-banks in the Bay of Arguin, for they knew what fate awaited them if they were wrecked. How much they must have felt the loss of their brave companions, whose kind hearts and courage led them to try to rescue their fellow-countrymen. How desolate and dreary the deck of that poor ship must have seemed. The merry songs of the sailors were heard no more as they furled and unfurled the sails.
No doubt the frenzy of the savages on shore was terrible when they saw that so many of their number had perished; they must have precipitated themselves like tigers on the poor white men ashore, and cut them to pieces.
See how rash it was for these men to fire the big gun from their boat. What good could they have done? If they had killed any of the natives on shore, the white men would have been murdered instantly; so it would have been far wiser for them to go on board without firing. It shows that, in a case like the one just related, it is very important for men to be cool and calculating to look ahead, and to let the head control the impulses of the heart.
Some of you may perhaps remember that in "Lost in the Jungle" I gave you an account of a trial for witchcraft, where a great friend of mine was accused of sorcery and killed. How I fought in my heart! I was on the point of rushing among the crowd and shooting down the natives that held her. Oh, I remember how near I was to doing it; but suddenly reason told me not to do it. It seemed to me very hard that reason should govern the kind impulse of my heart; but I let reason have the upper hand. I suppose, if I had fired and killed the nephews, and sons, and people of my friend King Quengueza, and fled, even if I had not been killed, the good chief would have said to me, "White man, whom I love, why have you killed my people? What have they done to you? To save one you have killed several."
So what a pity it was that the men in the boat were so rash. Of course, it was hard to be attacked for nothing, and if there had been no white man ashore they would have been right in firing at the natives for their treachery. But white men had to be saved, and prudence would have been the best policy. They might have told the story to some man-of-war on the coast, whose captain would have been able, no doubt, to ransom the men; if not, he would have been able to inflict on the natives such terrible punishment that they would not have been ready to fire again.
You will not be astonished to hear, after this, that there were men constantly on the watch. One sailor was always kept at the top of the mainmast, the time of his watch being two hours, when another would relieve him. Men were continually throwing out the lead to take soundings. It is not every sailor who knows how to throw the lead, and only three on board were skillful at it. I can assure you it is hard work—an elongated piece of lead, flat at one end, and smeared with tallow, so that when it touched the bottom they could ascertain the character of the bed of the sea where the lead was cast. If it was mud, of course mud would show on the tallow, and if it was sand, sand would show, etc., etc. This piece of lead appeared to weigh about from twelve to fifteen pounds. It was attached to a long line, which could go with the lead to a depth of about sixty fathoms. Sailors always measure by fathoms (six feet).
The sailor who was to throw the lead stood in the rigging of the foremast, just outside of the bulwark. He held the line, which was so coiled about his right arm that it would pay out easily, about six feet from the end to which the lead was fastened. Before throwing it, he would swing it a moment with great force, and then, letting go, send the heavy lead flying ahead beyond the bow of the ship before it struck the water.
Heaving the Lead.