II: Big Sea

Wreck of the Monkey Cage

In one of the Congo ports, I had acquired a monkey. I paid three shillings, an old shirt, and a pair of shoes for him. But every time I touched him, he would bite me. He was a large, red monkey, very wild, just out of the bush. It took me a long time to tame him, but finally, after weeks and weeks, he would no longer bite. Then he grew to love me, and wanted always to hang on my neck or sleep in my arms. But at that stage, out of love for me, he began to bite again, for, whereas formerly he would bite if I picked him up, now he bit if I put him down.

It made him furious to have to get back in his cage, when it was time for me to go to work. He would chatter and swear like mad. Then he would cry, as I disappeared from sight. I called him Jocko and I intended to take him home to my little brother, Kit. But I wish now I could have visualized his antics in America—for thereby hangs a tale.

Even on the boat, the monkeys created plenty of trouble. There were about twenty. Every sailor had either a parrot or a monkey, and one fireman would have purchased a baboon had not the Captain denied it passage.

We built a big cage on deck for the monkeys, and we fed them on the scraps from the sailors’ table. They got plenty to eat, for when the sailors did not like a dish, they’d dump it all in the monkeys’ cage instead of in the sea, and then send Ramon with a message to the Chinese cook, that threatened him with gruesome murder unless he sent them something else they could eat. They declared the ship’s food not fit even for the monkeys.

But monkeys will eat anything, from hash to custard pie, and thrive on it. Our monkeys grew fat and frisky. And all went well until one morning shortly after we’d left the coast of Africa a mild storm came up and the ship began to roll and toss and the waves washed over the deck. A huge wave hit the monkey cage and it broke loose from its moorings, overturning and letting all the monkeys out in a running, leaping, climbing mob, chattering in the spray until they spread all over the boat like a flying phalanx, from stem to prow.

Some of them went up the masts, thinking the masts, no doubt, were jungle trees. Some of the little ones negotiated the wireless cords, swinging by their tails high in the air on the thin wires. Others invaded the saloon and sent the missionaries screaming from their mid-morning prayers. Still other simians made so bold as to invade the Captain’s room while he was out inspecting the supercargo’s books. They made havoc of his desk, scattering valuable papers to the winds, stealing pencils, and taking a portion of the ship’s records aloft with them to the mastheads. They worked swiftly and were as volatile as the wind.

When the Captain saw them he grew too red in the face to speak. Had there not been passengers aboard, he said, he would shoot each monkey down like a dog from the mast or cable where it clung, frolicking in the wind. He threatened to dock everybody’s pay who owned a monkey. He gave the men one hour to get them all back into the cage—or into the sea.

But it took two days to get them back. Meanwhile, one or two of them were drowned, and one got in the steering gear and was ground to death. Another was found in a missionary’s bathtub. And another in a warm but empty pot in the galley. In the end, most of them were not actually captured. Instead, they frolicked and played in the windy gale from mast to mast until they had had their fill of freedom. Then hunger lured them back to the cage on deck again, where a fine meal of bananas and bread, meat scraps, and saucers of sticky condensed milk had been spread to tempt them home. Eventually, we had them all in. My own Jocko was among the last to give up. But finally he leaped chattering into my arms and devoured a prune.


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