Lt. James Weaver, commander of the USS Allegiance, gazed rapturously across the majestically rolling waters off the West African coast, watching the sunrise in its scarlet, oranges and yellow hues. “I love this duty,” he said, quietly. The beauty of land, the breathtaking expanse of the sea, and the mission. It made the years of tedium and discomfort more than worth it.
“Didja say somethin’ to me, cap’n?” asked the skinny young man at the ship’s wheel. “I’m sorry, cap’n me hearing ain’t what it should be.”
“No, no, Barrow,” Weaver replied easily. “Just thinking out loud. Bad habit of mine. How are you doing?”
In the rising light, Weaver could see the blond, sun-burned helmsman’s grin. “Oh, Barrow is always OK, cap’n. Got away from the Queen’s fooking navy and landed me a place in Uncle Sam’s fleet, I’m pleased as can be. Good food, good mates, and Ð if I can say this, cap’n Ð a commander who likes to think, out loud or otherwise.”
Weaver laughed. The crew of the square-rigged bark Allegiance was polyglot bunch. In the American navy of 1820, a typical crew might be composed of free blacks, ex-British tars, mullatos, bored fishermen from New England looking for a more interesting life, and a good deal more. He liked the easy familiarity of a ship that was crewed by a mere 16 or so men; Weaver was not a formal man by temperament.
Barrow Ð Alexander Barrow, properly Ð was an example of the diverse nature of the ship’s complement. He had been press-ganged into duty into the Royal Navy at 15, but was captured when his ship was defeated by the USS President. Tired of the liberal use of lash and sodomy, he crossed over to the Stars and Stripes and now was one of the most trusted and level-headed men on board.
“You’re doing fine, Barrow. Just keep this course,” Weaver said. “I’m going forward for a look.”
“Aye-aye, cap’n. Steady as she goes,” replied the helmsman. One of the peculiarities of naval tradition is that any man commanding a ship Ð regardless of his rank Ð is called captain. Weaver was a lieutenant, but his equivalent rank in the army would have been captain. It was all very confusing to anyone not serving in the small but well-respected U.S. Navy.
And Weaver felt he had the best job in that seagoing force. He was on anti-slavery patrol, out to suppress the slave trade that Congress had outlawed since 1808. Together with some ships of the Royal Navy, the American Atlantic Squadron ranged up and down the west African coast, searching for the ships Ð most commonly Spanish, but also Portuguese, French and even Dutch Ð that plied their noxious commerce in human flesh.
Having grown up in Providence, Weaver had been repulsed by the slave markets in that Rhode Island capital and rejoiced when the state abolished such bondage in 1784, not long after American had won its independence. His whole family were ardent Patriots Ð and smugglers and privateers Ð during the Revolution, and felt keenly the conflict between American liberty and survival of slavery in the Southern States.
“We’re working on it,” Weaver told those who pointed out the contradiction. “Rome wasn’t built in a single day.”
For now, though, Weaver was content to battle the hateful institution by capturing slave ships and returning the prisoners to their homeland, which was much more complicated than it first looked. While some of those in bondage were indeed stolen by the Europeans, as many or more were sold to the white men by other black Africans, Typically, they were prisoners of war, converted from a liability to a cash “crop” to trade for guns and steel and other products of the West. It was not unheard of for an African to be sold into slavery, rescued and recaptured and placed onto a crowded, stinking ship a second time.
On this day off the Windward Coast, just before the land turns north toward Sierra Leone, a lookout on the Allegiance spotted a sail, then a ship wallowing low in the water. Weaver’s spyglass spotted a schooner flying the Union Jack of Great Britain. The swift Allegiance turned toward her, racing forward at 15 knots for a closer examination.
Weaver handed the glass to Eric Fulton, his half-black first mate. “What do you think, Mister Fulton?” he asked him. A long moment then the glass was handed back. “I think what you’re probably thinking,” the firstmate said. “Riding low in the water like that É that close to shore É I’m guessing she’s not carrying breadfruit.”
The lieutenant grunted. “I’m guessing she’s not British, either,” he said. Flying false flags was a common practice of slavers and smugglers. “Let’s pull along amidships.” The Allegiance put on full sail and in a matter of minutes came alongside the other craft.
In the spray of the heaving waves, it was not easy to identify the nationality of the few crew visible on deck, but it seemed É it seemed as if they were women. Weaver rebuked himself for thinking that he had been away from female companionship for so long, he was imagining things, but no, that É chest É was definitely feminine.
He gathered himself and brought up his speaking trumpet. “This is Lieutenant Weaver of the United States Navy! Identify yourself!” he shouted. A long moment and no reply. Suddenly the schooner began to lurch seaward in an apparent attempt to flee. “Hard to port, helm!” Weaver shouted, “But keep a distance.” The nimble Allegiance turned as well and cut off the other ship. “Mister Fulton, a saluting cannon if you please. And prepare for action.”
“Already primed and ready, Captain!” the first mate shouted back.
Again, the speaking trumpet. “This is the United States Navy on anti-slavery patrol! Heave to or we will fire on you!” he commanded. He hoped he wouldn’t have to. Slavers tried to run, but never fight. There’s no way they could prevail in a battle with a naval vessel. Honor was usually satisfied when a saluting cannon fired a shot across the bow.
A profane response in a high-pitched voice came back. Weaver was further surprised, but ordered the shot fired. The schooner plowed ahead. The Allegiance kept pace, a mere 50 yards separating them. Her six port cannons were manned and run out. The first mate was always anticipating the next action.
“Aim for the rigging, Mr. Fulton,” Weaver shouted. “If she’s a slaver, we don’t want to kill the people belowdecks we came to rescue.”
A broadside swept the deck of the schooner, splintering the mainsail mast and causing it to sag dangerously against other tangled lines of hemp rope. The ship slowed.
“All right, all right, you bastards!” came the husky but undeniably female reply. “We strike. Damn you, we strike.” Down came the ship’s colors, and her sails too. The battle and chase were over.
When Lt. Weaver and his boarding party stepped onto the deck of the schooner, the revelations and surprises piled onto each other like an avalanche. Yes, the entire crew here appeared to be women. And no, it was not a British ship at all.
Standing boldly with her fists on her hips was the master of the captive ship. “Me name is Molly Eldridge and this ship is the Persephone. I’m Irish and she’s from Corsica and that lassie over there comes from Lisbon. We don’t belong to no man’s nation and surely not to no English bastards. It about broke me heart to run that Brit flag out but when we seen ya, we thought it might fool ya.”
The American officer was almost Ð but not quite Ð without words. “Well, Captain Eldridge, may I ask what’s your cargo?” He stamped a booted foot on the deck and heard the murmuring of voices, men’s voices. “Could you be a slaver? You know what’s illegal, don’t you Captain?”
The woman tossed her copper-colored hair. The movement caused her ample breasts to move in her low-cut striped blouse. The leather vest she wore around it pushed her bodice up. I have been away from women for too long, the American rebuked himself silently as he felt a stirring in his trousers.
“We’re not slavers,” she said. “We’re doing God’s work. An eye for an eye.” She walked over a few steps, leaned over and yanked up a hatch. Weaver looked down into it and saw a dozen or more miserable looking men with expressions of abject despair on their faces. All, or most of them, appeared white.
“Those bastards, every one of them, was trading in the slavery of women. Making whores out of decent women. Snatching them from the roadways or grabbing them in the market. Every woman here” Ð she gestured around her Ð “felt their filthy hands and worse. They was setting to make fuck slaves of us to the highest bidder all along the Mediterranean and the Africa coast. But they was stupid and careless and we rose up and put the knife to their throats one night, and that’s how I come to be the captain of the Persephone.”
Weaver blinked. This was, well, unheard of. “And when was this? Just recently?” She shook her head. “News travels slow, it does. We’ve been our own masters for going in two year now.”
“So what do you plan to do with these É miscreants?” he asked. “There are laws, you know É”
She snorted. “There’s no court out there for these scum. No judge would give them the justice they truly deserve. So we are the law here. Here and on Sister’s Island.” She gestured to the north up the coast to a spit of land they’d passed earlier.
“Isn’t that a lagoon?” he asked. “It looked uninhabited.”
“It is a lagoon, but at high tide it’s more of an island,” she replied. “Got some good tree cover and everyone thinks no one lives there. But there’s water and some fruit and not a bad place to stay away from man’s wicked world.”
Weaver thought for a moment. He turned to Fulton, his expression asking for advice. “She’s demasted,” said the first mate. “Can’t travel very far. I think maybe we take their ship with us to their island and É well É improvise.”
The American captain smiled. “Fulton, could not have said it better myself. You’d make a good ship’s captain.” A grin for a reply. “As soon as they make niggers captains, captain.”
“I don’t know,” replied Weaver. “I never thought I’d see a woman command a ship, but there she is. Your turn may be closer than you think.”
The Allegiance took the battered Persephone under tow and the two co-joined ships crept toward Sisters’ Island. While that was going on, a prize crew of six armed sailors boarded the latter ship. They opened the hatch and watched as a dozen men, blinking and squinting in the bright sunlight, climbed out of the ship’s hold. All of them were in chains. All of them were near naked, their modesty preserved only but a small wound strip of clothing that resembled, in practice, a diaper.
Dirty, grumbling, the men stared at the American sailors, unsure of what this new development would bring. “You men,” said Fulton. “These ladies say you are slavers, taking them against their will, making hoors out of them. What say you?”
There was a resentful silence, and then one man, a big buff man of indeterminate color and creed spoke up. “I don’t say nothin’ to no black Yankee bastard,” he rumbled and spat on the deck. There was a murmur of assent.
Fulton’s expression changed from professional concern to irritation to amusement. “Well, boys, I guess this concludes this interview. Yeoman,” he said to one of the American prize crew. “Let’s leave this men up on deck for another five minutes, then take them down below to reflect on their wicked ways. I’m going to make my report to the captain.”
Back on the Allegiance, Weaver and Fulton consulted with Eldridge. “This is a situation without much precedent, miss,” the captain told the female leader. “We’re on anti-slavery patrol É but our charge is black African slavery. Are these men your slaves?”
Mollie patted the side of her face in the lantern light of the captain’s cabin, something she did while thinking. “No, no É this is É what is the word? A penile colony, I think.”
Weaver smiled, as did Fulton. ““Like a prison for miscreants É chastisement and then release after paying their debt to society?” he offered. “At this penal colony.”
She smiled, a little uncertainly. “Yes, if that’s the way you Yankees want to look at it, if that be pleasing you. But you and your men been at sea for a spell, maybe you will be wintering for a fortnight or so at Sisters Island, be certain that it’s justice we be bringing down on these scum.”
A pale finger twirled her fiery red hair. “And maybe you be enjoying keeping company with the ladies what live here.”
“Sounds like an excellent plan,” said Fulton, a big white grin coming onto his khaki face. “Doesn’t it, captain?”
Weaver shook his head in amusement, but then nodded. “Let’s put in at this island and settle in for a bit,” he said. “Ought to be revealing no matter what.”
The lore of the sea is full of tales of uncharted islands, hidden paradises, even disappearing or moving chunks of land. The recounting of these legends occupies many a starry evening. To add to the allure, the story-teller adds accounts of beautiful, even desperately needy women, an enhancement which further fevers the dreams of lonely sailors, thousands of miles and hundreds of days away from a soft hand or a fragrant bosom.
“If you sail long enough,” Weaver mused on the long, slow journey to this possibly real Shangri-la, “You figure you’ve seen it all. But this could be a first.”
Sure enough, after three hours of tedious sailing, the brig hauling the schooner bumpily over the coastal tides, both ships came into a cozy little harbor on the leeward side of the lagoon. A small village of huts and cabins, most of them raised up on sturdy timbers as proof against the unruly tides, looked over the cove. Anchors splashed into the shallows and a small surf boat carrying Weaver, Eldridge, Fulton and two sailors rowed up to a rude wharf. A green expanse of trees framed the scene, tall trees marching up modest hills.
Boots clattered on the weathered wood, leading the party to a dusty path of a street. A half-dozen women in long skirts and what another generation would call “peasant blouses” stopped and stared at the unfamiliar scene. They looked apprehensively at the uniformed, armed men until Eldridge waved a freckled hand airily at them.
“Don’t look so hang-dog, you scamps!” she cried to them. “These American sailors aren’t here to shoot you, although I might be reckon they might be willing to stab you with their swords É and by that I mean the ones in their trousers.”
A mix of skepticism and delight crossed the faces of the women. The sailors grinned as their party was guided to a larger hut, where they were bid to sit at a plank table. Bread and cups of rum were put out for them. “You’ll be wanting an explanation about how Sisters’ Island come to be,” said Molly, pouring a generous drink for herself. “Three year ago, I think, a ship out of Belfast heads for Gibraltar, a dozen women on board to serve as nurses, housemaids, teachers and such for the English naval base there. But we was set upon by Arab pirates, who took control of our ship. We were terrified, as you might well believe, but we were bought at auction by a good Christian man who promised us freedom in exchange for some small work to pay off the price of our salvation.” She took a long draught from the wooden cup and continued. “You sailors are men of the world. How honest do you suppose this saintly man was? And what sort of Ôsmall work’ do you suppose he set us at?”