Friday, 3 February 2012

The African Prince


 "Sail off the starboard, bowmaster Jackson," snapped at Captain Peppard. Midshipman Jackson trained his glass along the steadily rising and falling horizon. The Portuguese barcantine appeared to be making directly towards H.M.S. Vigilante.
"Looks like slaver, sir."
"Trifle worse for wear."
"Order number two to fire."
"Fire number two!"
The order shouted from the quarterdeck was immediately carried out by a grinning sailor whiteout a tooth to his name. Boom! an indeterminate period, and a splash, well to the port of the Portuguese.
"Take her about, Mister Jackson, and see to the main gallants. Fasten the mizzen halyard, no luff today, Mr. Jackson!"
"Ay ay, sir!"
Captain Peppard moved to the rail.
"Stand by to board the Portuguese. Look lively at the divots!"
"Ay ay, sir!"
"Helm's alee, Captain, sir!"
"Fire number four."
"Fire number four!"
Several seconds - Boom! - huge splash just off the barcantine's starboard gunnel.
"He's put her into irons, sir. Not a breath to her canvas, she's dead in the water."
"Sergeant, board her."
"Ay ay, sir!"
The Portuguese out of Goa bound for Recife, her bow now in the wind, heaved and wallowed in the startlingly brilliant mid-Atlantic green. The sky above, true blue. From 30 yards, the Royal Marines in the Vigilante's longboat could smell the cargo: human beings, chained together in despair.
Britain's blockade of the Portuguese slave trade in the mid 19th century, the 1850s, created a different class of African people in Trinidad and Tobago. Freed from slave trading ships, they arrived on these islands 20-odd years after the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire. They knew nothing of plantation life and its attendant depredations, nor were they caught up in the variegated cross-currents and miasma of coloured creole society that confused the free blacks and people of colour with the slaves, both before and after abolition.
They were distinguished by this lack of experience. All the same, they were thrown into the crucible of colonial prejudice and racial discrimination.
The number of freed Africans was quite substantial in the British West Indies: some eight or ten thousand were dispersed in the Caribbean. Among them, one day, was a prince.
The Royal House of Oyo was descendant of the Gods. At a time now so distant that it could be grasped only in metaphor and expressed purely in ritual, the great old ones had come and had allowed themselves to stay. He had been entrusted to their care of young Olumide so as to benefit from his knowledge of the earth and of what walked upon it. Because he was his father's eldest son, he was a prince, and as such was one of the sons of the Gods.
The tall, ascetic youth and the boy were walking swiftly along the path that made its way through the tall grass. The sun was huge and red and out of shape as a result of the heat of the day. It was close to setting, causing the village huts to stand out sharply in classic silhouette like black, hooded shapes.
This was where tragedy struck. Suddenly, strange men were upon them; hard blows were delivered, a net thrown upon them, and they were hoisted upon long poles and borne away. They had been stolen, and were soon to be sold to the Muslim trader who in turn sold them along with a party of Ibo from the north to the man who owned the wharves where the ships came.
Put aboard the Portuguese barcantine, they were herded below decks. They now possessed nothing, but they had a secret. No one knew who or what the boy was, and for many years after, he kept his secret of being a prince.
Arriving in Trinidad, he took the name Charles Robinson; maybe it was given to him. He and his tutor fell into Trinidad's life of the 1850s, and witnessed many wondrous sights. 1851 was the year of jubilee for the Roman Catholics, and he saw a grand procession make its way from the city's Romanesque cathedral to the hill of Calvary, just off Piccadilly Street in Port of Spain. Twenty days later, the cross was struck by lightning.
The first horse races were held that year at the Queen's Park Savannah. He had never seen a horse or a horse race before he came to Trinidad. His tutor continued his education, worked and looked after the boy. He took the name of Charles Robertson. They both became Catholics. Charles grew into a hard-working, thrifty young man and traveled down the main to Venezuela, where he bought a parcel of land and went into farming.
Five or six years later, gold was found on the land, and his parcel, along with others, became the famous El Callao mine from which Charles made a fortune. Returning to Trinidad, he married a member of the Blandin family and had three sons and a daughter. He did not live to enjoy either his wealth or his family, but passed away early. Today, his dozens of descendants live around us, among them the McShine, the Davis and the Carters. His old tutor became brother Vincent of Mt. St. Benedict.

No comments: