Adewale slumped against the side of the boat, the cold sea water soaking into his trousers. He was hungry; that much was certain. Yet the rumbling in his gut was tinged with nausea, a tightness in his stomach exacerbated by scare rations and the rocking of the boat. Lethargy had set in; the only thing that kept him from dozing was the frequent, sharp pains from his wrists.
He looked down and worried over the raw wounds that oozed blood. Adewale was no stranger to pain. He had earned his share of knocks this trip already. But the iron shackles that chained his hands and feet to the boat's hull were very old, and a life at sea had left them rough with rust. The deep orange flaked off at a touch, and Adewale was certain more than a few ended up in and around his wounds. He was no expert on disease, but you didn't have to be a doctor to know about infections and what filth did to open wounds.
It was surprising, really. When he and the other captives had been brought aboard, it was clear that the ship was very new. The sails were a brilliant, unblemished white, and all of the boards and planks were sturdy and gleaming. It made no sense that the such a new slave vessel would have such old implements. Still, the shackles worked plenty good, he thought, bitterly remembering his attempts to break loose. If some cheap slaver wanted to save a few shillings on his peculiar toolset, who was he to question it? The boat suddenly jolted, and one of the sleeping prisoners near Adewale knocked his head against the floor. As he sat up, rubbing his shaven head and cursing under his breath, Adewale realized in a vague way that the boat had stopped moving forward.
"Have we reached America?" he wondered aloud.
"Let's hope not," replied the man who had hit his head. He stood on tip-toe and squinted through a crack in the hull. "Well, we're nowhere near land. Maybe we've been stopped. You know, for carrying slaves?"
"What? You mean like pirates? Good, our conditions can't get much worse. Let's hope they have newer shackles than these." Adewale jingled the rusty chains and rolled his eyes. He soon regretted the movement because it rubbed open recent scabs on his wrists.
"No, like the British government. They have that task force that liberates Negroes for money. The Squadron, or something."
Adewale snorted in disbelief. "And why would the slavers pay to lose money? What would they have to gain by freeing slaves? Unless you mean those of other countries...?"
"I heard a rumour that the British don't want slaves anymore. Or at least they don't like the idea of trading them. Funny reasoning they have sometimes, don't you think?"
"I think you're crazy," said Adewale. "Besides, the captain of this boat is definitely British. You can tell by the sound of his words when he yells orders to the crew. No way they'd stop trading. Selling us brings in too much coin."
"Seriously, I know I'm right. Friend of mine heard a white man complaining about it while on a supply run near our village. Some big movement going on, brother. Finding slaves isn't as easy as it used to be."
"Shut up and listen." The man gestured upwards, his own chains scraping against the floor. They both stood silently, listening to the waves gently slapping against the boat and the collective snores of dozens of prisoners around them. Faintly overhead, they could hear raised voices and heavy boots thudding against the deck. A latch was opened overhead. The man quickly dropped to the ground and pretended to be asleep, while Adewale, slower to react, watched as one of the crew came down the stairs.
Adewale had seen him before, showing charts to the captain. He had a pale complexion, white blond hair, and a mustache. Now that pale face was flushed with rage, and he muttered an indistinct string of oaths on his way down. The pale man grabbed Adewale by the shoulder and threw him against the side of the hull, holding him there with his fist. He smelled of hard liquor.
When he began to speak, Adewale panicked, for he knew only a little English, and the man clearly wanted something from him. He must have seen that Adewale was not understanding, because his face grew redder and a vein pulsed in his temple. He also kept glancing over his shoulder, as if afraid someone would follow him down here. Suddenly, Adewale recognized the word for 'captain,' and he nodded vigorously. His assailant paused thoughtfully, and then started gesturing down and away from his face, tracing an exaggerated beard with his fingers while saying the word for 'captain' over and over. Adewale caught on quickly, but let him go on for a few minutes while he puzzled over what this man was telling him. The only person on board with a large beard was one of the sailors, a swarthy, barrel-chested man with a rough voice who spoke mainly in a language that was definitely not English. He wasn't the captain, so why...?
Tired of repeating himself, the man smacked Adewale hard across the face. Blinking rapidly, Adewale saw another man was descending the stairs. His assailant quickly dropped Adewale and began undoing his restraints. The newcomer stopped a few stairs from the bottom and scanned the room, a parchment in hand. He scribbled down something in a bored sort of way, said something to the blonde man, and then returned above deck. Adewale was yanked to his feet and pulled behind the blonde man. His legs were week from disuse, and he stumbled frequently. They climbed the stairs, ascending through the latch into brilliant sunshine. It burned Adewale's eyes; after so long below deck in the dark cold, the bright blue sky and wheeling gulls were painful to look at. The deck was crowded, with sailors rushing to and fro, commands barked over the cries of the gulls. The blonde man pulled Adewale to a small ring of men: the real captain, this bearded fellow, and two envoys from the ship anchored nearby. Adewale noticed that the bearded man was wearing the captain's coat and hat, and trying to look as important as possible. One of the envoys tapped Adewale on the shoulder, and then gestured toward the bearded man. He asked something, paused, then gestured again.
"Captain?" he asked. Adewale looked at the man, and then to the actual captain. He didn't move his head, but Adewale thought his eyebrows raised a fraction of an inch. The blonde man looked murderous. What could he do? Adewale nodded and tried to smile.
"Captain," he said, feeling foolish as he fumbled with the unfamiliar tongue. The envoys laughed, and the Captain looked relieved. Adewale was brought back down by the blond man, and shackled again. He decided that his earlier companion, now really asleep, had been wrong about the British liberating slaves. There was no way anyone who had enough of a problem with slavery to abolish it would have looked so bored by the conditions of those below deck.