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I of Ebony (First published 1997 and edited version published in 2022) by Nana Grey Johnson

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry

“I am a slave only when I accept it. How can you call me a slave, I of Ebony!

Excerpt

Chapter THIRTY-FIVE

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Suddenly, a loud explosion sounded out on the far beach, and it caught all the gentlemen’s attention so much that some who rose to their feet did not retake their seats until it was signalled to them that a little gunpowder leftover in a keg had incinerated by accident, careless handling by one of the sailors who was left writhing with a leg bone nearly sawn in half.

“Fort George is the least of our worries, right now, I can assure you,” the Lieutenant said, regaining composure and puffing up a big cloud of smoke which sailed up past his hat and swirled into the air above.

“We abide in your care,” Greystone said, leaning forward in an aristocratic full-bodied bow. “Our intelligence must have missed the existence of a military fort on this island.”

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“Not to worry,” cut in Lt. de Grace, smiling pleasantly and conspicuously fingering his missing ear lobe. “Gentlemen, maybe we should open a business and take advantage of all the

daylight we have.”

“Indeed,” Albert concurred, rubbing his hands ready. “It is a lovely day, and we should get away before the weather gets nasty.”

Gregory, Mason and Samm Smitt were soon off inspecting the cargo while Lt de Grache and Greystone were discussing the slave manifest and the price list of the various commodities. Hines and Albert were poring over papers while McNairy and Goddard were already making friends with each other with loud laughs as they supervised the arrangement of small boats which eagerly waited for the signal for loading to begin.

A long stream of ndool carried the elephant teeth on their heads from the store at the back of the Merchant House to the canoes at the water’s edge. On their return, they bore goods and casks back to the store where Hines was gone supervising the clerks and making note of every rifle, rum barrel, a bag of grain, or bale of cloth that arrived.

Goddard was smiling through teeth silted with yellow from tobacco. With a brawny arm but careful fingers, he was filling the pages of his ledger: 100 pieces of blue baft, 12 rolls of cotton, muslin and fine scarlet, 30 American rifles, 70 pounds of gunpowder, 1,000 musket balls, 100 flints, 16 wooden barrels of spirit liquor, nearly 200 bags of coarse grain, many rolls of silk cloth, and two boxes of blue and Champaign pearls among other sundries brought in.

Taaw Tioropan mu-Maam Kumba Joof was being pulled along by the iron collar around his neck towards the canoes. The sight of it broke Simanga’s heart. The slave minder was beating the boy over the head as he pulled him. A Mandingo woman watching in the queue couldn’t stand it either. She sprung at the slave minder scratching him badly in the scuffle.

“Go beat your own child; leave this boy alone,” she screamed breathless as she was with rage.

Other slave minders rushed in and beat her with their fists and pulled her away from their bleeding partner. Although the furious woman sat quite quietly in the canoe for the short crossing to the vessel, she resumed her brave resistance as soon as they landed her on the deck of the ship. She broke loose momentarily and rushed to throw herself over the side. But a slave minder desperately blocked her way. With a single blow of a wooden truncheon to her neck they ended her struggle. The woman slumped to her knees and she and the boy she was so gallantly defending disappeared soon down a staircase into the deep belly of the ship.

On shore, Albert was showing a keenness about accounting and arithmetic that impressed Hines. The paperwork seemed a laughing treat for both of them. Lt de Grache and Greystone

bargained over the cargo in a manner that seemed always to end in an agreement. At length, the Lieutenant anxiously searched the pockets of his great coat where it hung behind his chair and produced a wrapping containing his large misty rock.

“Is that what I think it is, a rough stone?” Greystone exclaimed, drawing closer with consuming interest.

They exchanged telling glances for a long while over the small package.

“You could be returning on board the ship with it, sir,” the Lieutenant said like the seasoned dealer that he was.

Hines kept hawk’s eyes over the table. That was how he knew when to send for more Spanish wine or to refill the plate with hot smoking croquette and ample slices of cold honey-cured ham with cubes of Dutch cheese. The Merchant House kitchen had come alive and was serving up from some of the fresh supplies just landed from The Royal Essex.

When a small oak sea chest arrived on the orders of the cheery and cherubic merchant, he ordered that it be placed under the table at the Lieutenant’s feet. Hines opened the chest; he was soon satisfied that the Lieutenant had cut a marvellous bargain for the precious stone—a good price enough for the slave yard to pull through these hard days.

“It’s all there,” Greystone said, receiving the stone “Do you wish to inspect the chest yourself, Lieutenant?”

“There will be plenty of time for that all right,” Lt de Grache answered, motioning to Hines to close the chest. He smiled warmly, exposing a missing front tooth, and fiddled unnecessarily with the missing ear lobe. Greystone smiled back as warmly.

Smitt was out in the yard bawling at the queue snaking its way from the cellar towards the inspection bay. As rough and as drunk as they were already, the scrubbers were excited. The slaves were crying; their joints ached after the dancing exercises and body stretching and now they were lining up to get into the belly of the white man’s canoe.

By midday, the watermark on the ship’s hull had risen remarkably where it waited patiently for the remainder of 80 Africans being inspected, checked, and verified by the merchants. Some from the cellar were yet to come for scrubbing.

At the far end of the slave yard, Simanga was in a queue shuffling towards the Doctor’s bench. It was the Scotsman business to ascertain a clean bill of health before any slave went in the boat.

His assistant was a senior rating from The Royal Essex, a dark-skinned mullato man with lips burnt by hard drinking; it was this man’s duty to confirm that the slave yard Doctor was passing only good, healthy cargo to his company.

Simanga’s eyes caught the tip of the flag waving in the wind far away among the trees. His heart pumped desperately. The sun was bright and hovering in the western sky. Nene kept her eyes on it from her secret hiding place between the high buttress roots of the banyan trees outside the infirmary. She knew by heart every detail in Bill’s instructions. That heart was pounding as she waited for the signal. Bill was nervous where he guarded the lane leading from the infirmary.

Simanga began to feign a heavy limp until he reached the Doctor’s table where the mullato assistant unlocked the irons around his ankles. A sudden cool breeze wafted across, gently shaking the leaves in the trees. The Doctor began to clean the eye of a wet bruise on Simanga’s foot. He massaged the ankle gently with tallow grease. He was dusting the edges of the wound with powder when with one accord all the slaves looked up at the sun. The light was dancing on the crown leaves of the duntumalang-manyo tree in the far distance and all shadows—of men, trees, animals, and buildings—were at the shortest they would ever be beneath them.

Simanga struck, taking the Doctor firmly by the throat. The white man’s hand struggled to reach for his side dagger but the bones in his neck were popping loudly. The mullato raised a nerve-shattering alarm in the Portuguese language but the women pounced on him, pinning him on the ground and stuffing a thick shawl in his mouth to muffle his piercing cries.

When Simanga released his grip, the Doctor’s head keeled quietly over the bowl of tallow. Simanga snatched the dagger and broke for the opening. Nene had gone through the gap in the fence by the servants’ barracks and was already turning the crest of a hillock at great speed. Simanga went flying over the hedges and was at her heels and urging her to run faster.

The two covered a good stretch before several guns began clapping far away at the riverbank. There was wild shooting and Smitt came charging ahead of a stampede of the Milton Gang, many of their fence guards too drunk to rouse sooner to duty. The slaves screamed in agony and scattered pulling their chains in different directions. When Smitt reached the breeched slave yard fence he tore down the timber and wires with his bare hands. He fired a volley and ran like a wild rhino.

Down the course, he fired one ferocious clatter and Nene’s arms flew up in the air before she fell to the ground. She was bleeding in her lower back. Simanga ran back and pulled her up. Guns stuttered and bullets whistled past on all sides as Smitt’s men came running.

Nene and Simanga were off running again. The stockade fence was racing closer with their every step. The flag was ever nearer. But Smitt was closing in too, and rapidly. He fired again. Nene’s arms flew up a second time and she crashed onto the hard ground again. Simanga turned back towards her.

“Go, run… go,” Nene whimpered, her white cotton cloth already covered in blood.

Simanga seemed a fool trying again but he ran to her anyway. The barrage was deafening; Smitt was too close now. Simanga gave up on the rescue of the bleeding girl and fled all the way and flew over fence into Fort George. As soon as he wrapped himself around the flagpole in the garrison yard, a dozen fort rifles crackled, and a deafening cannon fire went hissing through the air and ending with a loud explosion beyond the stockade fence.

The Milton Gang stopped dead in their tracks. The bright blue comet trail of a second cannonball followed quickly, and there was yet another that flew all the way to the river.

The Regiment had already thrown a rigid cordon inside Fort George along the fence and at the gate towers. A stocky African, a sergeant in khaki uniform, stretched out a hand to Simanga,

proclaiming, “God save the King! Long live the King!”

Simanga got up on his own ignoring the sergeant’s outstretched hand. “Will you help us free ourselves,” Simanga asked him.

“Only the Major can answer that, and he is waiting for you,” the officer replied, his fat black toes digging into the sand like mangrove roots.

“Tell the Major to fight with me and we will take the slave yard,” Simanga said, brushing the officer aside and running back towards the fence.

“Come and talk to Major Grant,” the Sergeant shouted after him.

“Tell him I touched the flag, and I am a free man now,” Simanga shouted back as he ran. “The slaves will touch me, and they will be free too.”

A large report of the stockade gun scattered the Milton Gang outside the fence; they fled leaving Smitt to advance alone. Blind with rage and grunting like a boar, the fuming man marched on to Nene where she lay bleeding in the dust. Grabbing the girl by the wrist, he began dragging her away like a sack of wet corn.

Simanga watched from the distance and was sure that Nene was still alive. He tore through the fort gates to the outside, the Doctor’s dagger flashing in his grip. Before Smitt noticed, the wrester was leaping with a terrifying snarl and landing on his back. Simanga threw a tight foot lock around the giant’s body and began stabbing away with both hands.

Each flash of the dagger blade dug a fountainhead into Smitt’s screaming and bleeding body. In an instant, the giant was gushing from nearly a dozen spouts. He shook himself whisking Simanga off him like mud off the back of a rhino. Simanga fell to the ground as if he had rolled off the roof of a hut.

Too many of the Gang had fallen in their flight from the sharpshooters behind the fort stockade. They were far away to be of help to Smitt who staggered a few steps before crashing to the ground. They had stopped firing for a moment deterred by the restless cannon fire from the fort raining on them near the trees where they were hiding.

Simanga recovered from his fall and ran speedily to Nene where Smitt had flung her. But the giant was stirring and coming to his knees, groping for his rifle from in the dust. Simanga attacked him stabbing him again in the neck and digging the blade into his sides and taking his rifle. There was horror in Smitt’s eyes; the man was a staggering and bleeding baobab tree, still grunting dreadfully and looking to fight.

Simanga cocked Smitt’s rifle and fired a single blast and half of Smitt’s face blew away instantly.

With a rush of cursing and firing Lt de Grache arrived running up the path with a posse of armed men carrying burning torches.

Heavy firing from the stockade fence stopped the charge exactly where Smitt lay groaning. There was a mournful terror on the Lieutenant’s face when he saw his lifeless servant twitching on the ground. He was drunk as usual and probably hating himself for arriving so late.

Author

Nana Grey-Johnson has dedicated his life to writing and is both a journalist and a writer. After completing his secondary education in The Gambia, he went to the USA to do a BA (Honors) in Mass Communication at Lewis and Clarke College, and then an MA in Journalism at Stanford University. From then on, he devoted himself to journalism: he wrote articles and became editor of several newspapers and magazines. He is a former Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure and presently the Founding Dean of the School of Journalism of the University of The Gambia. In this professional capacity, he established his literary vein, writing short stories and short texts (he would later write novels). Among the books he published are: A Krio Engagement And Other Stories (1987; re-edited and reprinted 2008), Children of The Spyglass (1995), The Magic Calabash (1998; also published with MacMillan Publishers 2004, 2013), King Pass King (drama) (1988), Max the Cat (2015), The Story of the Newspaper in The Gambia (2004;2022), and Edward Francis Small: Watchdog of The Gambia (2002:2022), I of Ebony (1999; 2022), and many other works. He is the ghost-writer of the book Kairaba by the first President of the Republic of the Gambia. He continues to write and mentor young writers. He also co-authored Mandinka Proverbs & Sayings from the Gambia with Bala Saho and Ebou Sillah. Many of his works are not acknowledged here. He enjoys singing and listening to jazz.

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