Paramaribo (Gustavus), SurinameShort Dry Season (February-March, 1635)
"My children. Help find?" The Dutch words were painfully enunciated, clearly learned by rote.
Maria Vorst put down the chalk with which she had been drawing, and studied the questioner. The tall black man, by his markings, was Coromantee. They were the people living in what the up-timers called Ghana. He was one of the two hundred or so slaves who the Gustavans had freed from the distressed slave ship Trit-n when it had come hunting for drinking water.
Perhaps half of the slaves knew some Portuguese, either because their tribes had traded with the Portuguese, or because they learned it after their capture. Only a few knew Dutch, the Dutch presence in Africa being more recent and more limited.
Unfortunately, the Gustavans were mostly Dutch and German, and hardly any of them knew Portuguese. Maria, despite being far better educated than the rest of the colonists, didn't know much herself, although she was trying to fit language lessons into her schedule.
Fortunately, her teacher was nearby. "Mauricio, come here please!" Mauricio, a freed mulatto, born in Portuguese Brazil, had been trained there as a scribe and interpreter. Because of the large slave population in Brazil, he knew African, as well as European, languages. Once, he and Henrique had lived in Recife, and Mauricio had gone time after time to the dock to meet and greet, in his capacity as interpreter, the "wild" slaves, just delivered there to work on the sugar plantations. Most came from Angola, but there were slaves from all over Africa.
Maria remembered that there had been a few children among the slaves they had freed. She explained the situation to Mauricio and had him translate. "What are your children's names? How old are they? What do they look like?"
Mauricio turned to the Coromantee. They spoke rapidly together, first in Portuguese, and then in the Twi dialect of Akan.
"I am Kojo of the Asante. My boy Manu has seen thirteen summers, and his sister Mansa, eleven." Kojo described them.
"Where did you see them last?"
The answer was not what Maria expected.
"Edina?" interjected her companion, Mauricio. "You mean São Jorge da Mina?" The man nodded.
Mauricio turned to Maria. "He was separated from his children back in Africa, in the Portuguese fortress you Dutch call Elmina."
"Elmina? My husband, may God rest his soul, spoke of it once, as a place of great trade. Somewhat enviously, I must say."
Mauricio nodded. "Enviously? That's for sure. The Dutch tried to take Elmina in 1625." He paused. "Where is this husband of yours, by the way?"
"He was lost at sea," Maria said.
"Thank you. It was years ago. And to be honest, I didn't know him all that well."
"Anyway," Mauricio continued, "Elmina was the first Portuguese base in Africa. On what we call the 'Gold Coast.' A century ago, it accounted for a tenth of the entire gold trade. There's still gold mined in that area, but nowadays Elmina is mostly a slave depot. Dozens of slave ships visit every year."
"Does he know which ship they were put on? Not the name, of course, but can he describe it? The number of masts? Or of its gunports? The figurehead?"
"I'll ask." He questioned Kojo further, then shook his head.
"Sorry, Maria. They don't give the captives the run of the fort you know. The children were taken first. He saw them at one point, in a different pen, so they were there when he arrived, but the guards didn't let him join them and they were sold off before he was. When he was put on the Trit-n, he hoped that it would take him to the same place."
"So, is it hopeless? What do we tell him, Mauricio?"
Mauricio suddenly looked much older than usual. "I don't know. It does seem hopeless. If I think of something, I will let you know. In the meantime, all I can do is say that we will pray that they are safe, and that if we learn anything about their whereabouts, we will tell him right away."
"That seems so . . . ineffectual."
"Wait," said Maria. "If he can provide a good enough description, I can draw them. Then you and he can show the drawings around, see if anyone knows more. And at worst, perhaps the drawings will give him some comfort."
Mauricio explained what Maria wanted to do. Maria didn't want to waste her precious paper, so she drew on a piece of slate. It was easier to erase that way, too. She decided to try to draw the boy first, guessing that his features would be similar to, but younger than, his father's. She erased a line here and added a curve there until the father seem satisfied.
Then she pulled out a second slate, duplicated the boy's picture, and then had Mauricio find out what needed to be changed for it to represent the girl. That took quite a bit more give and take, but at last it was done.
Then she made a copy to paper of the images of the boy and girl, for Mauricio, and gave the slates to the Coromantee. She had plenty of slate from one of her expeditions upriver.
"I hope this helps," said Maria.
The Coromantee reverently set down the slates. He had been pleasantly surprised to discover that one of the whites was a tindana, a priestess of the Earth Goddess. Who else would place a magical incantation on a rock?
Now she had blessed him with a talisman by which he could speak to his children. Perhaps even call them back to him.
He had almost lost hope, had contemplated walking into the Great Sea.
He wondered how he could possibly repay her.
"Blue or red?" said Johann Mueller, spreading his hands, each pointing at a different pile of beads.
The young Eboe woman reached slowly toward a blue bead, then jerked her hand back. Two Eboe matrons, baskets on top of their heads, watched the interplay. Johann had no idea what they were saying, but he fancied they were placing bets on which color his customer would settle on.
Business had been good. The Eboe were very fond of beads. Both men and women were accustomed to wearing beaded necklaces. Since they had come to the New World as slaves, they had only whatever they had been wearing when they were sold to European slavers. And once they were freed, they wanted to adorn themselves, to distinguish themselves from their companions.
To buy beads, or anything else, they needed something to trade. And that meant that they needed to fish, hunt, grow crops, mine, or craft artifacts. Either on their own account, or as contract labor. Samuel Johnson's epigram—about liberty being the choice of working or starving—was known only in countries exposed to up-time literature, but the Africans were quick to appreciate the limits of the liberty the Gustavans had conferred upon them.
Of course, thought Johann, they were no worse off than the Gustavans in that regard. It was fortunate that the slave ship still had several months supply of food. Better yet, they had seeds to plant. Mauricio had told Johann that there was an Eboe insult, " I bet you even eat your yam seeds." The colonists had supplied water, and they had made and sold farm implements to the Africans, but they were expecting a return.
"Hello, Johann, how's business?" asked Mauricio.
Johann jumped. If Johann were a superstitious man, he might worry that his thoughts had summoned Mauricio.
"Fine, fine. Would you ask this young lady whether she has made up her mind?" Mauricio did so. She ended up trading for an equal number of both colors.
Mauricio walked over to the watching women. He held up the drawings Maria had made. "Did you see these Coromantee children before you boarded the giant canoe with the white wings?" That was, more or less, the proper way to describe a European sailing ship.
They shook their heads.
He heard a cough behind him. He turned, and saw Heinrich Bender. "Teach me some Portuguese, Mauricio. I need to be able to bargain with the blacks."
"What do you want to know?"
Heinrich smiled. "You can start with 'How much?' and 'Too much.'"
Mauricio laughed. "I should start a school."
"You should, Mauricio. You've been teaching Portuguese to Maria, I know, so why not teach a bunch of people at once?"
"I could, I suppose. Although Maria knows Latin, which makes it much easier for her than it would be for you German peasants." Mauricio smiled to show he was joking.
"I mean it, Mauricio. Teach Portuguese to us, and English or German to Africans. Earn some money."
"Perhaps I will. I can teach the Mandinka trade talk, too. The problem isn't just us talking to the Africans, it's getting them talking to each other."
The Eboe stood up, shading his eyes with one hand and hefting his fishing spear in the other. He kept his balance in the canoe with the ease of long practice. He had often gone fishing on the Niger and its tributaries. The dugout canoe, made by one of the local Surinamese Indians, was made from a strange tree, but he had learned to handle it quickly enough.
It was a good time to fish; early on a Sunday morning, when the colonists of Gustavus, across the river, were at prayer, or enjoying their day of rest.
There. A dark shape in the water. He threw.
Missed. The float bobbed in the water, as if it were laughing at him. He shrugged philosophically, and pulled on the retrieval line. He took in a few feet and then it resisted. Clearly, the spear was caught in something.
Back home, he might have chosen to abandon the spear. Here, he couldn't afford to do so. The Gustavans had freed the blacks, but that didn't mean that they felt obliged to give them much in the way of goods. For anything more than water, and a bit of food, they expected the blacks to work. The hospitality of the Indian tribes also had its limits.
He didn't care about the spear shaft—there was plenty of wood around—but a metal spear point, made by the Gustavan smith . . . that was another matter.
He tied the near end of the rope about the canoe, as best he could, and then dived into the water.
When, he emerged, his teeth were chattering. Not with cold, but with fright. There was a boat, with dead men, resting on the shallow river bottom. And not just any men, but the terrible white men who had taken them across the Great Sea. Had they turned into river demons?
He clambered into the canoe and just lay there, trying to calm down. The pleasant warmth of the sun had a lulling effect. He drew a knife, and was about to cut the rope away and head back to shore, when he had a change of heart.
If the bad men turned into river demons, surely they would have drowned someone weeks ago. And there would have been talk.
So these were just dead men. Dead men still holding their weapons, and with other valuable goods on their persons.
Who needs a spear shaft, if one has a sword? he thought. And with that, he paddled the boat closer to the sunken longboat, and then jumped back into the water.
Some time later, he beached the canoe, and gazed with satisfaction at the pile of goods heaped beside him. A half dozen cutlasses, a gold bracelet, and other odds and ends. He was rich now, by the standards of the ex-slaves. Rich beyond his wildest dreams.
With this, he would be an ozo, a big man. A giver of great gifts. And when he ran out, he could slip back here, and collect more goods. He would have a round stool, with three legs, and a stool carrier. He would have the town smith make him an iron staff, with bells attached. He would wear a red hat.
As he mused over these attractive possibilities, he was grabbed from behind. He tried to reach for one of the weapons so close to his feet, but the attackers pulled him back, away from the canoe, and tapped the side of his head with a war club.
When he came to, he was hanging, head down. One of his fellow ex-slaves, from an unfamiliar tribe, was studying him. Three others, who seemed from their markings to be of the same tribe, lounged nearby.
"Ah," the warrior said to his fellows, "our fish is squirming. Should we toss him back into the water, or throw him into the pot?" His filed teeth suggested that this was not a metaphor.
The Eboe had no idea what they were saying, but was pretty sure it didn't bode well for him. He began pleading for his life, first in his native tongue, then in Mandinka trade talk.
The warrior held up one of the weapons. "Where did you get these?"
"Spare me, and I will show where to find more."
Near modern Paranam, Suriname
Heinrich Bender held up the chunk of rock. "This is what we are looking for." Kojo had asked Mauricio whether the Gustavans had any mines, and one thing had led to another.
Kojo, and the two Coromantee he had brought with him, studied the specimen. Kojo took it in his hand, then returned it with a moue of distaste.
"Worthless clay. We gold miners, not dirt farmers."
"This is bauxite," said Henrich. "Very useful. Back home they can make it into a metal which looks like silver but is as almost as light as wood. The Americans call it 'aluminum.'"
"You smelt it?" The Coromantees had been smithing for centuries.
"Not exactly. Uh—Maria, could you explain?"
Maria had researched the possible products of Suriname before the expedition was launched. She knew more about aluminum than anyone else west of the Line of Tordesillas.
"We wash the bauxite with hot lye to make alumina, and then we run electricity through a mixture of alumina and cryolite to melt it down and transform it."
"What is cryolite?"
"It is a stone that it is found in Greenland—that is a land far to the north, where it is so cold that the water is hard like rock. "
The Coromantees digested this information. Magic stone, they thought.
"That is like lightning."
Any doubts which Kojo's fellow Coromantees had, as to whether Maria was as powerful a priestess as Kojo had told them, were now dispelled.
"Anyway," said Heinrich, "don't worry too much about the color—it can be white, yellow, red or brown. It is soft, so soft I can scratch like this, see? " He scratched with his fingernail. "But the real proof is that it has this funny 'raisin pie' texture." He pointed at one of the little pea-sized concretions.
"And where do we find it?"
"It is usually easiest to dig it up from the sides of stream banks."
Kojo flashed his teeth. "Fine. Now let's talk price."
The Gustavans didn't care for digging in the constant heat and humidity; it was worse than farming. So they were happy to give the Coromantee the opportunity to mine the bauxite.
Of course, that meant that the Coromantee had to be allowed to shift their village to the west side of the river, the Gustavus side, since that's where the known deposits were. The colonists debated this a bit, but Carsten Claus, the acting governor of the colony, pointed out that the deposits were still more than a day's march south of Gustavus, and so the Gustavans didn't have to worry about casual thievery on the part of their new neighbors.
What really clinched the deal was when Heyndrick de Liefde, who was the cousin of the colony's founder, David de Vries, suggested that the Coromantee would act as a buffer if the English colony further south, at Marshall's Creek, got restive. There were many Dutch among the colonists, and given the treacherous attack by the English on the Dutch fleet at the Battle of Ostend, they weren't happy about the proximity of the English, who had come before them to Suriname.