July 19, year of our lord 1813, Ian scratches into what is left of his makeshift log. The eastern sun was already up at between forty and fifty degrees in the crystal clear blue sky of the Central Atlantic. It would be noon in less than three hours, their twenty-first day lost at sea. Glancing forward to the bow of the thirteen-foot skiff that had been their confinement. Ian only spoke English and had no idea how to communicate with the black slave – he simply referred to as John.
Ian, desperate to escape the poverty and destitution of early 19th century England, dreamed of starting a new life in the New World. America would be his dream destination, but with no money, he knew he would have to work his way across. Making his way to Holland and the city of Rotterdam, Ian walked the busy wharves looking for any way to earn passage across the Atlantic.
He didn’t speak a word of Dutch, but he knew ships were always looking for crew members, and the Sterrenlicht looked promising. Spotting a stocky gentleman sporting a full beard and what appeared to be a sea captain’s jacket and hat, Ian hoped this might be his ticket. He was sitting at a small wooden table adjacent to the ship’s gangplank, with an open ledger that looked like a ship’s log lying on the table.
“Crew?” Ian asked, pointing to the logbook and looking up to make eye contact with the bearded ship’s officer.
The Captain looking up and eyeing Ian’s lean frame, simply asked, “Naam?”
“Ian,” proudly stated, assuming the Captain was asking for his name. Then it occurred to him, “America?” Ian further inquired.
“Ja – America,” the portly gentleman replied, extending his weathered hand to shake Ian’s. Then tapping the logbook, indicating where Ian was to sign his name, introduced himself as “Kapitein van Dyke.”
Once he had scrawled his name to the ship’s log, Ian picked up his seabag, containing every worldly possession he owned, and slinging it over his shoulder, eagerly walked up the gangplank to board the ship. What Ian didn’t ask and had no way of knowing was the route the ship was taking to get to the New World. The Sterrenlicht was a brig of approximately one hundred-twenty feet in length and a rating of 200 tons. Slightly smaller than a typical cargo brig of the era. But what Ian was surprised about was that when the ship left port, there were no passengers on board. Just a relatively light load of cloth, beer, iron bars, and other manufactured goods, including guns.
Ian had never sailed out of European waters before, but after three weeks of sailing due south, Ian realized that the Sterrenlicht wasn’t heading for America; it was heading for Africa. And once underway, Ian realized he was the only Englishman on board. The crew of thirty-six able-bodied seaman, and three officers, were mainly of Dutch and Belgium nationality. However, there was a scattering of French, Prussian, and Polish sailors. One of the French sailors spoke a little English, but only a few words and phrases, certainly not enough to carry on a conversation.
Six weeks after leaving Rotterdam, the Sterrenlicht docked at Porto-Novo on the African Slave Coast. As the cargo from the ship hold was quickly unloaded by black African labors, Captain van Dyke would not let the ship’s crew go ashore, despite the six weeks they had just spent at sea. And as far as Ian was concerned, this was probably a good idea. For looking at the port city from the deck of the ship, it did not look inviting.
At least from the ship, there appeared to be three classes of inhabitants of Porto-Novo. The majority seemed to be black slaves. If they were wearing any clothing at all, it was little more than animal hides used as loincloths. This was true for both men and women. The children were all naked. The men were generally chained by their necks to heavy logs, and most showed signs of being whipped or otherwise beaten. The women were usually chained to each other by their ankles, and if they had children, those who weren’t babes in arms were connected to their mothers by ropes.
Then there were the black Africans that were not chained. They generally wore tattered European-style clothes. Either a filthy ripped and torn shirt. Or pants in a similar condition, but rarely both. If these un-chained blacks did not wear European pants, they simply wore animal loincloths like their enslaved brethren. These blacks, all men, carried sticks or whips and apparently served as guards to keep the enslaved blacks captive.
Finally, there were the white Europeans. These were also all men; at least to Ian, they appeared to be the dregs of society. Like the crew of the Sterrenlicht, they were of all nationalities, including several men that looked like Turks or maybe Muslins. However, all of them were filthy dirty, unshaven, and generally unkept.
As soon as the cargo was unloaded, Captain van Dyke had the crew lower the long boat, and twelve crew members towed the Sterrenlicht out into the center of the harbor. There we lay at anchor for the next eight days while we constructed slave quarters in the hull of the ship. The hull was divided into two distinct compartments. One for the men and one for the women and children. The women’s section was forward in the hull and consisted of three levels, each with low benches that could have been used as bunks. The men’s section toward the stern had four levels and no benches or births. However, iron rings were attached to the decks, presumably to chain the black slaves to during the passage.
Ian had no idea that he had signed on to crew an African slave ship. He knew that, at least in England, the slave trade had been outlawed in 1807. And that the British Navy patrolled the Atlantic searching for the illegal trafficking of enslaved Africans. Ian had no intention of participating in an illegal activity. If they were stopped by the British Navy, would he be considered a criminal? Would he be imprisoned, or worse? Was slave running a capital offense? Could he be hung, along with Captain van Dyke and the rest of the crew? Or just as bad, since he was English, would he be impressed into service with the British Navy? Better than hanging, but not by much. Being a sailor in the British Navy was generally considered an indefinite sentence of years at sea, horrid living conditions, and brutal discipline. And worse than that, he would never get to America and the fresh start he dreamed of.
After towing the Sterrenlicht back to the Porto-Novo wharf, two hundred and sixty black slaves were loaded aboard and down into the cargo hole. Ian was sickened by the sight and tried to look away. But afraid that he’d be ostracized by his fellow crew members, Ian held his breath to avoid the stench and locked his gaze on the open ocean that lay ahead – and hopefully, the freedom he so yearned for.
The following month at sea was boring as it was wretched. When the slaves were locked in the hole, there was little to do other than stare out at the endless desert of blue water in every direction. During the day, the equatorial sun was relentless, and on the deck of the Sterrenlicht, there was no hiding from it. Day after day, the only break from the monotony was allowing the slaves out of the hole twice a day for exercise. The crew were all issued whips and clubs to control and direct the wilden, as the Dutch sailors and officers called them. The African men would be allowed on deck first for thirty minutes, each man chained to one other in pairs. Then blacks that the Captain felt he could trust were unchained, given buckets of seawater and returned to the hole to swab out the filth. And any slaves that died would be carefully recorded by the Captain in the ship’s log before being thrown overboard for the sharks that seemed to follow the ship.
Once the men were driven back into the hole, the women and children would be allowed out. The females would then be allowed their thirty minutes on deck. The women were not chained, and one of the officers would select several larger and healthier ones to carry buckets of seawater back down into the hole to swab out their filth. And after the women were returned to the hole, crew members, including Ian, would be assigned to pump the bilge overboard. The hand-operated bilge pump was on the deck, but the wretched stench of the job was only compensated in that it only required six men to operate the pump, and the duty was rotated equably among the crew members.
On the evening of their fortieth day at sea, after the slaves had been returned to the hole, Captain von Dyke called the crew to the stern so that he could address them. He spoke only in Dutch, but after they were dismissed, Ian gathered that the Captain was anticipating a storm sometime during the night. The barometric pressure on the ship’s barometer had dropped dangerously low. And that could only mean one thing – batten the hatches and prepare for bad weather.
Ian had been in storms before, but all of his experience had been in coastal waters in and around England. He had never been at sea when the weather turned violent. But he nervously followed the instructions of the boatswain’s mate and did the best he could to prepare.
Ian was lying in his hammock as the ship’s bell tolled eight bells, the end of the Dog Watch. Ian was on the First Watch that night and rolled from his hammock to begin his four-hour rotation on watch. Still groggy from lack of solid sleep and the monotony of the daily routine of the long voyage. But awake enough to realize that there was about to be a sudden change in the weather. The air was dead calm, not unusual in the equatorial latitudes of the Middle Passage. But this was different. The sun had just set less than an hour before, but the cloudless sky was an eerie yellow. The air was absolutely dead calm, the ship’s sails luffing lazily in the still air, and the sea was smooth as a dark indigo mirror.
Ian took his watch as usual, but his heart was not still. The signs of impending danger were everywhere. At four bells and the end of Ian’s watch, the ship continued to lay in-irons with no forward motion and the sails luffing in the still air. Suddenly and from out of nowhere, the skies opened up. Rain plunged from the sky in near solid sheets of water, causing the Sterrenlicht to pitch and bob like a cork in a bucket of water that had been dropped at arm’s length. The Captain raced to the helm, as did the other two officers. And the entire crew dashed to their preassigned duty stations. But the deafening sound of the pouring rain upon the wood and canvas of the ship, combined with the screams of terror from the remaining two hundred and fifty souls locked in the hole, drowned out any order or instructions Captain von Dyke could shout.
In the panic that followed, Ian must have lost consciousness. For the next thing Ian was aware of, was that he was lying on his back, staring at a brilliant cloudless blue sky, in the back of the ship’s skiff. Realizing that he was no longer on board the Sterrenlicht, he rose his head to see that he was not alone. A lone black man huddled at the opposite end of the frail thirteen-foot boat. Quickly sitting up, Ian’s first impulse was to ask, “What happened?” But he caught himself. Ian recognized that he only spoke English, and he had no idea what language this black man spoke – if anything. Ian seeing that his companion was as scared and as helpless as he was, pulled himself upright on the skiff’s seat to assess the situation. Then surveying the ocean in every direction, there was nothing but open water. No sign of the Sterrenlicht. No sign of debris from a ship lost at sea and no sign of anything other than dark inky blue water in every direction.
Unable to think of anything else to do, Ian finally asked, “What happened?”
The black man just stared at him, unable to understand. And likely unable to answer the question even if he had understood. Ian was aware of that, and not offended by his fellow survivor’s silence. But fully aware of their perilous situation, Ian quickly realized that he needed to do an inventory of what supplies they had available to them.
Their greatest concern would be water. In an open boat, lost at sea, they would not survive more than three days without water. Lifting the seat at the stern of the skiff, Ian discovered a single cask of water, several cans of biscuits, and a small collection of tools. In the toolbox, there was a rusty knife, which Ian thought he might be able to use to defend himself from the black man – if it came to that. But glancing toward the front of the boat, he realized that probably wouldn’t be necessary.
Lashed to the inside of each gunwale was an oar, and there were usable oar locks on top of each gunwale. But where would they row to? Holding his hand to his brow, Ian scanned the horizon. But there was no sign of land. No sign of land birds, only gulls. No sign of twigs or leaves in the water, only an occasional sargasso weed. No sign of hope – only despair.
Using sign language, Ian laid out his strategy to his fellow survivor, whom he now called John. He found a small cup and shared the only water they had, one cup per day. Half a cup in the morning and half a cup in the evening. In counting the biscuits, there appeared to be about fifty of them. If they both ate one biscuit per day, that might last them twenty-five days. Surely they would be rescued by then.
But there were no fishhooks. No way to catch a fish, unless one just jumped into the boat. There was no canvas, so there was no way to fashion a sail or provide cover from the relentless sun.
After five days lost at sea, Ian tried to create a fishhook from what was available. He pried a loose nail from one of the seats. And using the hammer from the toolbox, Ian forged a hook the best he could. Then using strands of fiber from the bow line of the skiff, he pieced together a fishing line. Utilizing long strands of sargasso weed that hung like tattered drapes in the water surrounding their wooden jail and some additional strands of rope, John and Ian fashioned a net to catch bait fish. Then using crumbs from the biscuit tins, they lured small fish close enough to the boat to scoop them aboard with their homemade net.
With small bait fish now in the bilge of their floating prison, what they didn’t immediately eat, Ian carefully baited the only fishhook they had and hoped for the best. Six days later, John pulled a fish aboard the skiff, the size of Ian’s forearm. They had no way to cook it, but it was the first protein the two starving men had eaten in over fifteen days.
Bits of the fish’s gut were used to rebait the hook, as the head of the fish laid tethered to the skiff’s bow to attract seagulls. If the gulls became hungry enough, they might take the risk of being captured. Four days later, Ian was lucky enough to swat a lone gull to the water with an oar, temporally knocking it senseless. The stunned bird flopped long enough in the mirror calm sea for John to grab it and wring its neck. The two friends, one black and one white, drank the bird’s blood and shared the raw meat that evening just before sunset.
But now it was twenty-one days at sea. And as Ian uncorked the water cask to share what was left of their remaining water, the cask was dry. They would not last two days without water, and as the two men stared into each other’s eyes, though they shared no common spoken language, they did share that undeniable truth.
For twenty-one days, Ian had stared at the night sky every evening as he struggled to sleep. He could easily see both the North Star and the Southern Cross. He was not a trained navigator, but he knew that seeing both well-known constellations so low on opposite horizons, they were either on or near the equator. And that they were trapped in the Equatorial Doldrums. The latitudes where the winds can go dead calm for weeks at a time – sometimes longer.
However, tonight there were no stars. Had he gone blind? He didn’t remember any clouds before sunset. He blinked and looked again. There were no stars at all. Only the blackness of a moonless night. Sitting up, to confirm what he was seeing, Ian felt a breeze. A cool ocean breeze. The first one they had felt since becoming lost at sea.
Then a drop of rain hit him, and then another, and another. It was raining. Ian jumped to his feet, startling John from his restless sleep. “Rain,” Ian screamed. “Rain!”
As the two men danced back and forth aboard their thirteen-foot world, they rejoiced, believing that the rain was a sign from God and that they would be saved.