The Annotated "Privateersman"/Chapter VI

I am given as a Slave to the old King’s Favourite, Whyna—Assist my young Mistress to make her Toilet—Hold frequent Conversations with her, and become strongly attached to her—My Hatred and Dread of the old King increase—He shoots a Man with Bird-arrows.

One morning, after we had been about three weeks in these comfortable quarters, I was summoned away from my companions into the presence of the king. When I came before him a small manacle was fixed round my left ankle, and another round my left wrist, with a light chain connecting the two. A circle of feathers was put round my head, and a loose cloth wrapped round my loins. I was then led forward to him with my arms crossed over my breast, and my head bowed. By his orders I was then placed behind the youngest of the four women, the one who had chafed my wrists, and I was given to understand that I was her slave, and was to attend upon her, to which, I must say, I gave a joyful assent in my heart, although I did not at that time show any signs of gladness. There I remained, with my arms folded, and bowed as before, until dinner was brought in, and a calabash full of cush-cush was put into my hands to place before the king and his wives. My first attempt at service was not very adroit, for, in my eagerness to do my duty, I tripped over the corner of the mat which served them for a table, and tumbling headlong forward, emptied the calabash of cush-cush which I held in my hand upon the legs of the old king, who sat opposite to where I was advancing. He jumped up roaring out with anger, while I in my fear sprung on my legs, and rushed to the side of the apartment, expecting immediate death. Fortunately the victuals in this country are always served up cool, and my new mistress easily obtained my pardon, laughing heartily at the scene, and at my apprehension.

The repast being over, I was ordered to follow my mistress, who retired to another hut, according to their custom, to sleep during the heat of the day. I was placed before the door to prevent her being disturbed. My only duty now was to attend upon my young mistress. She was the king’s favourite wife, and as she was uniformly kind and gentle, I should have almost ceased to lament my loss of liberty had it not been from the fear I had of the old monarch. I knew that my preservation depended entirely upon my mistress’s favour, and I endeavoured all I could to conciliate her by the most sedulous attentions to please. Young and generous in disposition, she was easily satisfied by my ready obedience and careful service. I do not think that she was more than seventeen years of age; but they are women at fourteen in that country, and even earlier. She was a Negress as to colour, but not a real Negress; for her hair, although short and very wavy, was not woolly, and her nose was straight. Her mouth was small, and her teeth beautiful. Her figure was perfect, her limbs being very elegantly formed. When she first rose in the morning, I attended her to the brow of a hill just without the palisades, where with devout but mistaken piety she adored the rising sun—at least it appeared to me that she did so. She then went down to the river to bathe, and as soon as her hair was dry she had it dressed. This office, after a short time, devolved upon me, and I became very expert, having to rub her hair with a sweet oil, and then roll it up in its natural curls with a quill, so as to dispose them to the most fanciful advantage as to form.

After her toilet was complete, she went to feed her poultry, and some antelopes and other beasts, and then she practised at a mark with her bow and arrows and javelin till about ten o’clock, when she went to the king’s hut, and they all sat down to eat together. After the repast, which lasted some time, if she did not repose with the king, she retired to her own hut, where she usually refreshed herself till about four o’clock, when she returned to the king, or ranged the woods, or otherwise amused herself during the rest of the evening. I will say for the old savage that he did not confine his wives. Such was our general course of life, and wherever she went I attended her. The attachment I showed and really felt for her secured her confidence, and she always treated me in a kind and familiar manner. Their language consists of few words compared to our own, and in a short time, by help of signs, we understood each other tolerably well. She appeared to have a most ardent curiosity to know who we were, and from whence we came, and all the time that we passed alone was employed in putting questions, and my endeavouring to find out her meaning and answer them. This, although very difficult at first, I was eventually enabled to accomplish indifferently well. She was most zealous in her mistaken religion, and one morning when I was following her to her devotions on the hill, she asked me where my God was? I pointed upwards, upon which she told me with great joy and innocency, that hers was there too, and that, therefore, they must be the same God, or if not they must be friends. Convinced that she was right, she made me worship with her, bowing my head down to the sand, and going through the same forms, which of course I did not understand the meaning of; but I prayed to my God, and therefore made no objection, as it was pleasing to her. This apparent conformity in religion recommended me more strongly to her, and we became more intimate, and I was certainly attached to her by every tie of gratitude. I was quite happy in the friendship and kindness she showed towards me; the only drawback was my fear of the proud old king, and the recollection of him often made me cheek myself, and suddenly assume a more distant and respectful demeanour towards her. I soon found out that she dreaded the old savage as much as I did, and hated him even more. In his presence she treated me very sternly, and ordered me about in a very dictatorial manner; but when we were alone, and had no fear of being seen, she would then be very familiar, sometimes even locking her arm into mine, and laughing as she pointed out the contrast of the colours, and in the full gaiety of her young heart rejoicing that we were alone, and could converse freely together. As she was very intelligent, she soon perceived that I possessed much knowledge that she did not, and that she could not comprehend what I wanted to teach her. This induced her to look upon me with respect as well as kindness.

One day I purposely left her bow behind in the hut where my companions resided; and on her asking me for it, I told her that I had done so, but that I would make my companions send it without my going back. I tore off a piece of the bark of a tree, and with the point of an arrow I wrote to one of them, desiring him to send it by bearer; and calling a young Negro boy, told him in her presence to give that piece of bark to the white man, and come back again to the queen. Whyna, for such was the name of my mistress queen, stood in suspense, waiting the result; in a few minutes the boy returned, bringing the bow. Astonished at this, she made me write again and again for her arrows, her lance, and many other things. Finding by these being immediately sent that we had a method of communicating with each other at a distance, she earnestly insisted upon being taught so surprising an art. Going at a distance from me, she ordered me to talk to her when out of hearing, and finding that I could not, or, as she seemed to suppose, that I would not, she became discontented and out of humour. I could by no means make her comprehend how it was performed, but I made her understand that as soon as I was fully acquainted with her language, I should be able to teach her. She was satisfied with this, but made me promise that I would teach nobody else.

By the canoes in the river, I easily made her comprehend that I came in a vast boat from a distant land, over a great expanse of water, and also how it was that we fell into the Negroes’ power. I then found out from her that the Negroes had pretended that we had invaded their land to procure slaves, and that they had vanquished us in battle; hence their songs of triumph on bringing us to the king. I pointed out the heavenly bodies to her in the evenings, trying to make her comprehend something of their nature and motions, but in vain. This had, however, one good effect; she looked up to me with more respect, hoping that some day, when I could fully explain myself, she might be herself taught all these wonders. With these feelings towards me, added to my sedulous endeavours to please her, and obey her slightest wishes, it is not surprising that she treated me as a companion, and not as a slave, and gave me every innocent proof of her attachment. More I never wished, and almost dreaded that our intimacy would be too great. Happy when alone with her, I ever returned with reluctance to the presence of the old king, whose sight and company I dreaded.

The boundless cruelty of this monster was a continual check to all my happiness. Accustomed to blood from his childhood, he appeared wholly insensible to human feelings, and derided the agonies of the wretches who daily fell by his hands. One day he amused himself by shooting small bird-arrows at a man who was bound to a post before the tent, which was placed there for the punishment of those who were his victims. He continued for hours fixing the arrows in different parts of his body, mimicking and deriding his cries. At last, contrary to his intentions, one of the arrows hit the man in the throat, and his head drooped. As the old savage saw that the poor man was dying, he drew another arrow and sent it through his heart, very much annoyed at his disappointment in not prolonging the poor creature’s sufferings. I was witness to this scene with silent horror, and many more of a similar nature. I hardly need say, that I felt what my punishment would be if I had by any means roused the jealousy of this monster; and I knew that, without giving him real cause, a moment of bare suspicion would be sufficient to sacrifice my mistress as well as me.