The Strange Twist of History
This was where the thread first came into view, an old stone palace miles up a rutted dirt track, alone in the gum resin trees and elephant grass. We parked next to the wives' quarters, a small village of soot-blackened walls and peaked zinc roofs. Young men in frayed clothes guided us through a twisting corridor to the king's court. My friend Walter and I waited on benches until the eighty-year-old king, the fon, beckoned us from his wood throne in the fading gray light. We crossed the courtyard in an extended bow. The fon, wearing a black skullcap and a light blue boubou robe, sat rigidly erect in his chair, sipping a local liqueur called Marula Fruit Cream from a Baltimore Orioles mug. His face was long and stolid, thin clenched lips and cold rheumy eyes. He spoke haltingly in his language, showing teeth like weathered pickets. Walter translated that the king was welcoming us, and I nodded and smiled as the palace guard hissed at me to take my hands out of my pockets. After further formalities, I was told to kneel before the king and cup my hands at my mouth, as he poured a blessing of the liqueur so copious it streamed down my right arm under my jacket. Walter whispered to me that this was the highest honor, to show effusive gratitude. I sighed, knowing my sleeve would be stuck to my skin until my next shower, whenever that might be. As evening came, the young men, whom I had taken to be street hustlers and now realized were princes, guided me to a perch in the canopy on the high ridge. I let them walk off so I could have a moment alone.
As I listened to the dry rasp of the elephant grass, I gazed out over the Kingdom of Kom. A narrow gorge threaded through the lush terrain below, opening into a smoky blue chasm in the distance, the Valley of Too Many Bends. A cluster of white streetlights hovered on a dark crest a few miles away — Njinikom, a town to which earlier kings once banished sorcerers and foreign missionaries. The crumpled topography of these mountains had long repelled invaders, colonists, and change. Many villagers still lived in red earthen huts with grass roofs, collected firewood before dusk, and poured libations of palm wine on the ground for their ancestors. The view from this spot had not changed much in centuries. Only that tremulous constellation of electric lights broke the deepening shades of blue.
The footpath wended down into the darkness, almost two thousand feet below, where I was told a momentous baobab tree stood near the river. The story is that it fell one day, years ago, cried and cried all night, and the following morning was standing again. Villagers call it "the talking tree."
Mythical stories abound up here, filling the void left by an unwritten history. It is said the Kom were led to this very spot by a python. But the story that no one talks about is the true story of the people removed from this land. This belt of fertile savannah in western Cameroon rested at a terrible crossroads, with no forest to hide in when the marauders arrived. The kings may have been safe in their fortified isolation, but their people were not. They were taken first by Arab invaders in the Sudan in the north, and then by the southern peoples who found that humans were the commodity Europeans most desired.
Captured and bound together, they were driven on long marches, some south across the sweltering lowlands to the mangrove estuaries of the coastal kings, some west through sheer mountain rain forest to the Cross River, where merchants loaded them onto canoes and rowed three hundred miles south to the port of Old Calabar. Those who survived had been handed from tribe to tribe, through too many hostile foreign territories to dream of escaping and returning home. And then off they went, into the sea.
High on a ridge, three hundred miles by road from the Atlantic, I sat at the headwaters of that outward movement, imagining the people flowing away like the rivers below. I pictured a boy, gazing down into that blue mountain cradle, the grass dry-swishing in the breeze, the drums coming up with the night. A boy suddenly pulled into the current and scrambling to reach the bank. A boy unable to imagine the ocean and sickly white men in big wooden ships and the swampy, malarial settlement called Jamestown where he would be sold to a planter in the year of their lord 1644.
This is the beginning, I said to myself. The beginning of my family's story, the point just after which my forebears obscured the truth — and nearly buried it forever.
A FEW DAYS later, on the coast, I caught a motorcycle taxi to a ferry terminal late at night. The air was fresh and fragrant as we sputtered along the edge of an old botanical garden where the German colonials tried to find tropical medicines. At the port, the driver dropped me at a hulking stone warehouse, where I had bought my ticket that afternoon. The boat was to leave at three-thirty in the morning. Passengers milled about or slept on straw mats under high ceiling fans. Bleary and dry-eyed, I handed my passport to an officer behind a desk. He inspected it briefly, then leaned back in his chair, arched his eyebrows, and opened his palms in mock challenge. "Mozingo. That is your name?"
He smiled and shook his head. "That is not an American name."
He turned to two women behind him and showed them my passport. They joked in the local pidgin language, and he turned back to me. "That is a Cameroonian name. How do you have it?"
"I might have had an ancestor from here."
"So your father came from Cameroon?" he asked, rightfully dubious. I am white, with straight, light brown hair and blue eyes. No one has ever mistaken me for anything else.
"Not my father, an ancestor. Way, way back," I said.
"No, long before him." I had already come to realize that the past here, unrecorded almost until the twentieth century, was somehow compressed. When events beyond memory were not fixed in writing, they swirled about, unmoored from linearity, and 358 years didn't mean too much more than "a long, long time."
"But who gave you the name?" he asked.
"Well, it's different in America," I said. "We just get whatever name our father has. It just goes down the line. Automatic."
He still seemed unconvinced. Our accents muddled our points to each other, and I didn't think explaining further was going to clear things up. But I took it as a good sign that I had come to the right region of Africa, that he, of all people, had that spark of recognition; every day he took several hundred passports, stamped them for the trip to neighboring Nigeria, then called out for the owners to take them back. He must have known the names of this region like few others.
"Let me ask you, which part of Cameroon does this name come from?" I asked.
"That is Kribi, east province," he said definitively.
I thanked him and wrote it down. I'd have to look that up on my map.
We boarded a modern, air-conditioned ferry and took off in the dark along a desolate coast for Old Calabar, about a hundred miles west in Nigeria. As we left the port, we passed under the bulk of Mt. Cameroon, hidden in the night, rising thirteen thousand feet straight from the sea. Long before any Europeans saw the great volcanic massif, one of earth's great migrations set off from the other side of it, peopling most of southern Africa. The Bantu Expansion.
The captain read a bit of scripture as we set off, Psalm 91:9–16, something about "crushing fee-yerce lions and sare-punts under your feet." I fell asleep and came to after dawn to see a distant gray sliver of treetops between gray water and gray sky. This was the view that the slave captains and crews would have seen, an endless knotted line of coast where a good portion of them would meet their death.
The shore slipped in and out of view for an hour or so. At one point, an armada of fishermen in canoes sailed past for deep waters, rising and falling on loping swells. With tattered plastic tarps strung between bamboo poles, they caught a light offshore wind from the lowlands. Some were father-and-son teams, the boys mending the nets as they traveled. Other canoes had five or six people. Ahead of them lay no horizon, only a gloom of ocean vanishing into a gloom of air, with the vague outline of a thunderhead to the west. Far out in the gray murk, orange flares burned in the oil fields of the Niger Delta. The fire flickering in the vaporous abyss was dreamlike, and somehow disturbing in my sleep-deprived state, as if the fishermen were ferrying souls to Hades. I'd never had such an unsettling reaction to a seascape.
We came into the wide mouth of the Cross River, rocking sideways on a beaming sea. The engines wound down sharply as we approached a reef or shoal, and the captain turned hard left and then right to maneuver. Two sticks with red rags hanging from them apparently marked a channel. The move felt panicked, and I braced for impact, thinking of all the African ferry disasters I'd read about. The exit door was right behind me, and I thought, At least the water's warm. But the captain threaded through the sticks and throttled the engines back up. The outgoing current was running fast, breaking white off the channel markers and crab trap buoys. This must have been a nerve-racking entry for the slavers. The Dutch sailors largely avoided Old Calabar for this very reason, but the English learned its ways, and in the mid-1600s developed a brisk trade of slaves between the Efik chiefs and the planters in Barbados.
An English captain, William Snelgrave, traded regularly in Old Calabar and left a rare account of his transactions:
As soon as the natives perceive a ship on their coast, they make a smoke on the seashore as a signal for the ship to come to an anchor, that they may come and trade with the people aboard. As soon as we are at an anchor, they come to us in small boats, called Cannoes, being made of a single tree, and bring their commodities with them.
Like most Europeans, Snelgrave figured he would be killed if he ventured inland and set foot ashore only on a few occasions. He knew nothing of the continent — three times the size of Europe — beyond the impervious thicket of foliage backing the beach.
In those few places where I have been on shore myself, I could never obtain a satisfactory account from the natives of the inland parts. Nor did I ever meet with a white man that had been ... up in the country; and believe, if any had attempted it, the natives would have destroyed them ... However the trade on this part of the coast has been exceedingly improved within these 20 years past. It consists in negroes, elephants teeth, and other commodities; which the natives freely bring on board our ships, except when any affront has been offered them.
The affronts, he explained, had occurred when the ships took away not just the goods and people being sold, but the sellers too.
He called the natives here "barbarous and uncivilized" mainly because they had had such limited interaction with the Europeans, compared to those at points west and south, who had dealings with forts and trading depots.
I have, in my younger years, traded to many places in this tract, especially at Old Calabar, where, in the year 1704, I saw a sad instance of barbarity. The king of the place, called Jabrue, being fallen sick, he caused, by the advice of his priests, a young child about ten months old to be sacrificed to his god, for his recovery. I saw the child after it was killed, hung up on the bough of a tree, with a live cock tied near it, as an addition to the ceremony.
The odd thing about Captain Snelgrave was that he conveyed deep objections to such scenes, even as he took a leading role in a wider atrocity. On his thirteen trips between Africa and America, including three to Virginia, he carried nearly five thousand slaves away, and over nine hundred of them died during the crossing. The paradox was particularly vexing when he sailed the Anne from London to Old Calabar in 1713. A new king, Acqua, sat on a stool under some shade trees, and the captain took the stool beside him. Ten armed sailors accompanied him, standing off to one side, while fifty of the king's guards stood across from them with swords, bows and arrows, and barbed lances.
The captain noticed a baby boy tied by one leg to a stake in the ground, with "flies and other vermin crawling on him, and two priests standing by." He asked the king why the child was bound there. The king said "it was to be sacrificed to his God Igbo for his prosperity."
Appalled, Snelgrave ordered his men to remove the child. A ruckus ensued, with weapons drawn all around. The captain told the king he meant no harm, to relax, and they sat back down. The king averred that the child was his property. "This I acknowledged," Snelgrave wrote, excusing his actions "on account of my religion, which, though it does not allow of forcibly taking away what belongs to another, yet expressly forbids so horrid a thing as the putting a poor innocent child to death. I also observed to him, that the grand law of nature was to do to others as we desired to be done unto."
Snelgrave offered to buy the boy, and much to his delight, the king agreed to sell him for a mere bunch of sky-colored beads, worth half a crown sterling, bringing us to one of the most profoundly deranged happy endings ever written:
The day before I went on shore to see the king, I had purchased the mother of the child (though I knew it not then) from one of his people; and at that time my surgeon observing to me that she had much milk in her breasts, I inquired of the person that brought her on board, whether she had a child when he bought her from the inland trader. To which he answered negative. But now on my coming on board, no sooner was the child handed into the ship, but this poor woman espying it, run with great eagerness and snatched him out of the white man's arms that held him. I think there never was a more moving sight than on this occasion between the mother and her little son (who was a fine boy about 18 months old) especially when the linguist told her I had saved her child from being sacrificed. Having at that time above 300 negroes on board my ship, no sooner was the story known amongst them, but they expressed their thankfulness to me, by clapping their hands, and singing a song in my praise. This affair proved of great service to us, for it gave them a good notion of white men, for that we had no mutiny in our ship during the whole voyage.
Snelgrave leaves his account of the trip at that, with the slaves singing happily across the sea.
The mercantile records of the voyage cast a pall on this party: he picked up more slaves before he left Africa, ultimately setting off for Antigua with 395. The chorus lost plenty of voices. Ninety-five Africans died during the crossing — one out of four. Two corpses a day on average were thrown overboard. There is no record of whether the mother or her child survived the passage.
From The Fiddler On Pantico Run by Joe Mozingo. Copyright 2012 by Joe Mozingo. Excerpted by permission of Free Press.