Sold for a few handkerchiefs

This is a fictional narrative based on a Prize Papers document

On 15 January 1744, the ship Abraham lies moored off Shama, a trading post on the West African coast.  A slight breeze troubles the surface of the water, causing the ship’s rigging to clank in the wind, while, just out to sea, a flock of seabirds noisily scrap over a fish. A group of men shout to one another, as they heave great casks and crates out of the ship’s wooden innards.

On the shore, another group remain silent and still. There are many men and a single woman, who holds a baby boy in her arms. Some stare at the ship, some at the horizon, while others simply gaze into space. The boy squirms a little in the heat of the sun, but he too is quiet.

This silence speaks to their captivity. The boy’s captors have taken away the name his mother gave him; the lives of his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles; the history of his people; their memories, beliefs and allegiances. All are submerged in silence, until the captives can find a moment when they can be shared again.

A few steps from where the little boy lies hot, thirsty and uncomfortable in his mother’s arms, men are haggling over his price. They argue about what he is worth now against what he will be worth once he grows up—and whether he will grow up at all. They agree that he is worth at least a couple of handkerchiefs, but the seller insists that some brandy be thrown in too. Eventually, they strike a deal, and casks of brandy are brought from the ship, along with the handkerchiefs and other textiles. These European goods buy the lives of 29 men, a woman and a baby boy.

By the time the Abraham leaves West Africa, the boy will be among 94 people, including eleven baby boys and two baby girls, locked up in the ship’s belly, with the men chained leg-to-leg. He cannot know the unimaginable horrors that await him aboard the ship. For weeks on end, the captives will be trapped in darkness, misery and squalor, thrown around by the ship’s movements, into each other’s faeces, blood and vomit. All will encounter sickness and sorrow, and many will face death.

If the boy survives this journey, he will be disgorged onto the soil of a market in the so-called New World. It certainly will be a new world for him. There, he will once again be made to wait in the sun, while strange people paw and probe him. When he is exchanged yet again, this time it will be for money. He will be taken away and given a new name. After that, who knows what will be demanded of him, and what he will do as he grows up.

For now, the baby boy waits in the sun, ignorant of his fate. Out to sea, the dispute of the seabirds has been settled by brute force, and the victor flies away with the spoils. The shore falls silent for a moment. The boy is thirsty. Finally, he starts to cry.


by Annika Raapke