II: Big Sea

Sailor’s Holiday

African weather was no hotter than a Chicago summer. In fact not so hot, because, almost always, there was a sea breeze blowing. So along the West Coast, life was a picnic for the crew of the S.S. Malone. Our supplementary African crew did almost all the work aboard, and I had an African boy to wash my dishes, set the tables, and make up the rooms for me.

Along the West Coast we visited some thirty-two ports, from Dakar in Senegal to Loanda in the South. The Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, Lagos, the Niger, the Bight of Benin, and the Slave Coast, Calabar, the Kamerun, Boma up the Congo, where we were moored to a gigantic tree, and our last port, San Paolo de Loanda in Portuguese Angola. Singing boatmen on dark rivers, monkeys and bright birds, Capstan cigarettes in tins, hot beers, quarts of Johnny Walker and stone jugs of gin, barefooted black pilots guiding us into reed-hutted ports, ten-year-old wharf rats offering nightly to take the sailors to see “my sister, two shillings,” elephantiasis and swollen bodies under palm trees, white men with guns at their belts, inns and taverns with signs up, EUROPEANS ONLY, missionary churches with the Negroes in the back seats and the whites who teach Jesus in the front rows, soft winds, naming sunsets, the rattle of palm leaves, the distant beat of obea drums in the night, the surf booming restless on a sandy beach, and the ships from the white man’s land anchored with lights aglow offshore in the starry darkness. Africa!

One morning at Sekondi there was a heavy white fog, hiding the coast-line from our ship at anchor a mile offshore, where we were unloading cargo into enormous rowboats manned by a dozen men. As the boats came and went, the black boatmen at the oars sang and their song came from away off through the fog. About them I wrote this poem, called “African Fog”:

Singing black boatmen,
An August morning
In the thick white fog at Sekondi;
Coming out to take cargo

From anchored alien ships—
You do not know the fog
We strange so-civilized ones
Sail in always.

Africa! When the Captain let us draw money, we enjoyed ourselves in what is, I suppose, the fashion of sailors everywhere. We drank licker and went looking for girls. Some of the fellows complained because there were only African girls. But they slept with them just the same. Sometimes, however, there were French girls, who travelled a circuit like theatrical troupers, seventeen days in each port, but they were expensive and catered only to officers and traders.

The African girls were usually very young, small, with bushy hair, and often henna’d nails. Little boys, their couriers, would take you to them and wait for you outside their doors, or if you stayed all night, they would sleep on a mat beside you on the floor. The small black boys always said the girls were their sisters, but perhaps that was because they knew no other English word to describe them.

No women were permitted on the boat, and often we anchored two or three miles offshore, when the surf was high and the harbor shallow. In such cases, the Captain would issue no money. And even if he had issued money, there was no safe way of getting ashore, unless one paid a boatman extra to carry you on his shoulders through the rolling surf, which was deep and dangerous and often overturned the rowboats.

Once we were anchored for more than a week away out in the water, too far to see clearly the port from which our cargo came. We had no money, even to buy fruit from the bum-boats that occasionally drifted out. But one night, very late, two little African girls rowed through the surf in a boat to our vessel, all alone, and stole aboard past the night watchman, hoping to make some money. No doubt the seaman on watch helped them aboard, because someone brought them straight back to the sailors’ quarters. The sailors woke up excited and jubilant and went around knocking on everybody’s doors, calling: “Women aboard! Women aboard!”

Firemen, mess boys, cooks, the bo’sun, Chips, the oilers poured forth from their respective sleeping places. The bo’sun, boss-like, grabbed one of the girls and took her off privately to his cabin. Someone threw the other girl down on the floor on a blanket in the middle of the sailors’ quarters and stripped her of her flowered cloth.

She lay there naked and held up her hands. The girl said: “Mon-nee! Mon-nee!” But nobody had any money.

Thirty men crowded around, mostly in their underwear, sat up on bunks to watch, smoked, yelled, and joked, and waited for their turn. Each time a man would rise, the little African girl on the floor would say: “Mon-nee! Mon-nee!” But nobody had a cent, yet they wouldn’t let her get up. Finally, I couldn’t bear to hear her crying: “Mon-nee!” any more, so I went to bed. But the festival went on all night.

Once before, I had seen the men from our ship take advantage of the people ashore, although in a different way. We had drawn British money in a French colony. The natives would not take the British money. They didn’t know what it was. In fact, they thought it wasn’t money at all, so we couldn’t buy anything. But some bright boy in our crew had saved up a thousand or more United Cigar Store coupons. One day he took a package of them ashore and decided to try them out, since they looked like French francs. The natives thought they were French francs, and we bought up the town. (No doubt it was a good thing our ship pulled out that night, and went away down the coast to another colony before they discovered the deception.)

About this time, the young Irish lad from Brooklyn fell ill. His skin broke out all over, so we left him in a hospital in the Kamerun and went on toward the Congo.

At the equator, those of us who had never crossed it before were baptised in salt water and shaved with crude oil by Father Neptune, who was really Chips, the carpenter, in a wooden crown and a false beard. Then I received my credentials:

This is to certify that the bearer has been duly initiated into the mysteries of the amalgamated Society, “The Sons of Neptune,” and is hereafter entitled to officiate at any similar ceremonies on any other ship.

So now I can duck people in salt water at the equator, too.

From then on, in port, life began to be a riot. Our crew gradually became more unruly and drunken. The chief engineer was almost never sober, nor were many of the firemen. They let the oil lines clog up, and several times the oil ran over and flooded the deck with its black, sticky substance. The sailors were kept busy scrubbing it up. A feud developed between the sailors and the black-gang (the men who worked in the engine room), because the sailors did not like to be always scrubbing up the oil that the engineers allowed to flow over the deck, and that the wind blew in a black spray against the white paint of the bulkheads.

One day the Captain drew a gun on the Chief Engineer and they had a terrific brawl in the Captain’s cabin, until the Captain ran him out with his pistol. But it didn’t do any good. Shortly, the oil ran over again while we were in port. And to cap the climax, the Chief Engineer came aboard drunk that night in a white suit and fell sprawling in his own oil that had made the deck slippery.

The Chief Engineer was an amiable fellow, though. He was the only one of the officers who ever gave a mess boy a tip. When George came aboard in New York with nothing but a shirt and a pair of overalls, it was the Chief who gave George one of his own suits. But George later gave the suit to a woman in Lagos with whom he stayed the night, because, in the morning he had no money to pay her, so she raised hell. Therefore, he gave her the suit.

When the Captain would not let the men draw money, the men would steal loaves of bread from the mess table and take them ashore and trade them for whiskey or for love. Canned goods, also, one could trade at a good rate of exchange in Africa, particularly canned peaches. The Africans seemed to love canned peaches. The Filipino steward was forever kept busy watching the storeroom, to keep the crew from raiding it. Successfully, once or twice, they did raid it. Thus our supplies from New York dwindled considerably—in fact, tragically.

Sometimes the sailors would go ashore in the afternoon and start a baseball game on the bank near the ship. And if the game was a good one, the Captain could blow the ship’s whistle as much as he chose, but nobody would budge until the last inning was over. One day the Old Man threatened to declare the whole crew in a state of mutiny if the game was not called at once, because the cargo was all loaded, and he wanted to sail.

But nobody paid the Captain the least mind, not even George, who would often lie abed for days at sea, saying he had the backache, and could not work. One day, however, the Captain got tired of George having the backache, and came aft to our cabin with drawn pistol to make George get up and go to work. George said as soon as he saw the pistol, his back stopped aching at once. Certainly, that evening at dinner he was back at his post in the pantry.


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.