II: Big Sea
The poor missionaries on our boat, the passengers, were in a state of continual distress. They declared the ship unsafe, and they were glad, when they came to their respective ports, to get off. Later, we learned, they wrote irate letters back to the New York office, disclosing in full the gaily mutinous state of things aboard the S.S. Malone. They said they would never sail on that line again. Some even threatened to sue the company. Others wrote their congressmen.
On the surface, the missionaries seemed to be nice, stout, white folks from places like Iowa and Vermont, but, naturally, they didn’t like all the excitement of a drunken crew, oily decks, riotous nights, and a host of naked Africans—our extra helpers—bathing nude beneath a salt-water hose every evening on the afterdeck in plain sight of everybody. The Africans were very polite, however—more so than the Nordics—and, respecting the missionaries, they turned their backs and hid their sex between their legs, evidently not realizing it then stuck out behind.
They were of the Kru tribe, those Africans. And they proved very useful, working, loading, and cleaning all day long. They had one very dangerous job. They had to load the mahogany logs. These logs, some of them weighing tons, were dragged by human beings driven like mules, from the forests to the beaches. There they were floated out to our ship, at anchor offshore. Bouncing and bobbing in the waves, they had to be secured with great iron chains so that the cranes could lift them into the hold of the ship. To chain them was the job!
A dozen black Kru boys would dive into the water, swimming under and about the log until the chains were tight around the great bobbing hulk of wood. If a boy was caught between the floating black logs, or between a log and the ship, death would often result. Or if the sharks came, death would come, too. Watching them, I had somewhat the same feeling I had had in Mexico, watching Sanchez Mejias turning his red cape so gracefully before a bull’s horns. It was beautiful and dangerous work, those black boys swimming there in the tossing waves among the iron chains and the great rolling logs, that would perhaps someday be somebody’s grand piano or chest of drawers made of wood and life, energy and death out of Africa.
The colored tailor got off at Lagos, a largely Mohammedan city, peopled with Hausas in flowing robes and colored turbans, Lulani, and Yorubas. (Years later, by accident, ran into that same tailor in Washington and he said he had had no luck at all selling suits to Africans.)
When we got to Loanda, we began to pick up passengers for the return trip. All the way up and down the coast, we carried deck passengers from one port to another, natives. Once, on a windy day when the surf was high off some French African Village, whose name I have forgotten, a rowboat came out for the debarking passengers, but no one landed. The boat went back empty. Our whistle sounded and we continued our voyage.
Two days later, down the coast, when we came to our next port of call, a little family of Africans who had been travelling on deck came to the gangplank to go ashore. But the English inspector found that their papers called for a French colony, not a British one. They should have got off at the last stop. The father said they couldn’t have got off there because the surf was too high to go ashore, and he did not wish to risk his family in the rowboat that came out to get them. The African said they would get off here in the British colony and walk back.
The inspector would not let them off. He sent for the Captain, who came fuming down from the bridge, very wroth at all the trouble this barefooted little family of Africans was causing him. Angrily, he raised his cane to strike them, but they ran. The Captain, looking like the father of the Katzenjammer Kids, very fat and German in his white suit, chased them half-way around the deck. But the Africans were so fleet of foot that they did not feel a single blow of his cane, because they ran too fast, man, wife, and offspring, like deer.
It looked very funny—this chase—and I wanted to laugh, but somehow I couldn’t laugh, because it is too much like today’s Africa, real, beyond humor—the raised club, the commanding white man, and the frightened native.
Somehow, it was arranged with the officials for the little black family to get off in that strange English colony, where the surf was not so high, and to walk back the two or three hundred miles that they had come beyond their destination.
I never had a session with the Captain. In fact, he never said a word to me the whole trip except, when money was being issued, the customary: “How much?”
And all I ever said to him was: “A pound, sir,” each time.
I had had no reason to be called before the Captain, because I never acted any worse than the rest of the crew. And, although it was a pretty tough crew, I got along fine with everybody but the Third Engineer.
The Third Engineer was from Arkansas, the same State, strangely enough, as the lady who had taken my English classes in Mexico. He was tall, sallow of complexion, and very dour. Nobody liked him. The Filipinos hated him. He frequently made unkind remarks about spicks and niggers, but he ate in my mess room, so I had to look at him three times a day, sitting at the table.
In my mess room, I had also to feed the customs inspectors, the cargo clerks, and whatever local harbor officials came aboard in the various ports. These persons were almost always Negroes, often Africans who had been to England or France to school. They were usually very quiet, educated, and decent black fellows. When all my petty officers were fed, they would come in and eat at the second sitting. I enjoyed waiting on them, and talking to them, if they spoke English.
Deliberately, I think, the Third Engineer would often be late to meals when we were in port, since he knew I had to feed the clerks and port officials. One day, everyone had eaten on my mess list but the Third Engineer. I waited nearly an hour for him to come to luncheon. Then I asked the steward what to do. The steward said: “Call in the customs men and the clerks.”
They were entirely Negroes that day, Africans in European clothes, four or five of them, very clean and courteous in their white duck suits. They were in the midst of their meal at the single long table, when the Third Engineer came in.
He ordered: “Get these niggers out of here. I haven’t eaten yet.”
I said: “You can eat with them if you like. Or I’ll serve you afterwards.”
“I don’t eat with niggers,” he said. “And you know damn well an officer don’t have to wait for no coons to be fed.” He turned on the startled Africans. “Get out of here!” he shouted.
“You get out of here yourself,” I said, reaching for the big metal soup tureen on the steam table.
The Third Engineer was a big fellow, and I couldn’t fight him barehanded, so I raised the tureen, ready to bring it down on his head.
“I’ll report you to the Captain, you black—!”
“Go ahead, you —— and double—!” I said, raising the soup tureen. He went. The Africans finished their meal in peace.
That afternoon I visited the Chief Steward, a grave little Filipino, and told him I would not wait on the Third Engineer any more. No, sir, under no circumstances! But the steward, who had plenty of troubles on his mind, such as an impending meat shortage and sailors who threw whole containers of food into the sea when they didn’t like it, and missionaries who complained that the cooking wasn’t what they had been used to at home in Iowa, and a German Captain who wanted nothing but sauerkraut—the steward said, forlornly: “Mess boy, in this my life things is not always easible. Sometimes hard like hell! I wish you please help me out and feed the Third.”
So, because I liked the steward, I continued to serve the Third Engineer for the rest of the trip, and he continued to come as late as he could for meals when we were in port and he knew that there were Negroes to follow him in the mess hall. But he kept quiet and never referred to the day of the soup tureen.
It was in Lagos, one afternoon, that there was a pitched battle between the crew of our ship and the crew of a British freighter tied up opposite us. It began with one of our sailors, Chicago Slim, who was drunk, being pushed off the dock into the river by a limey, as the British seamen are called.
“Let’s go get those limeys,” somebody yelled, as Slim was fished out of the inlet, smelling of whiskey and of mud. So we went after the limeys.
The main thing I remember is that crew-solidarity outweighed race that day, because there were on the British ship quite a few Negroes—West Indian Negroes, and on our ship, George and I and the two Puerto Ricans were definitely colored. But when the white boys on our boat yelled: “Get them limeys! Get them niggers!” and we met the British crew on the dock head on, George and the Puerto Ricans and I yelled, too: “Get them niggers! Get them limeys!” And after them we went.
In the heat of the fight, we forgot we didn’t like the word nigger applied to ourselves.
“Get them Yankees! Get them bloody bastards!” yelled the Britishers. And everybody had a grand time, until somebody opened up a salt-water hose on the fray with such force that the stream knocked us all sprawling, scattering Yankees of every color, West Indians and Britishers right and left, drenched to the skin, some with the breath knocked out of them.
A couple of weeks later, I got soaking-wet again, when I fell in the Congo, trying to climb down a mooring rope at Boma. Since I couldn’t swim, I got out, without being drowned, by paddling dog-fashion.
Late in August, from the blue harbor of Loanda, we turned our prow north and started up the coast again. Somewhere we picked up a stowaway, a Panamanian Indian who had lost his ship and couldn’t prove his nationality. At another port we took on a sick seaman, an American Portuguese from Cape Cod, whom the Consul was sending home. Various missionaries came aboard, too, Massachusetts bound. And when we got to the town where we had left the Brooklyn kid, they brought him aboard from the hospital, looking very sick, with his skin all yellow and dry.