Wednesday, August 16, 2017

313A. Dark Knowledge excerpt: Chris Interviews a Slaver

                                             Chris Interviews a Slaver

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2

Reading at Jefferson Market Library, 425 Avenue of the Americas (near West 10th Street), on Sunday, October 8, 
2-4 p.m.  I will read excerpts from my novels and New York stories, sign books, and take questions.  Books will be available for purchase.  I'll be glad to see a friendly face or two there.

This post is an excerpt from my novel Dark Knowledge, set in late 1860s New York.  Young Chris Harmony suspects that some members of his seagoing family, including his deceased grandfather, Caleb Harmony, may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba.  Appalled, he is determined to learn the truth.  Helping him is his cousin Rick, who arranges for him to interview a Captain Matthews.

            “Did I know Caleb Harmony?  By God, what a question!  Of course I knew him!  Who on the waterfront didn’t?  A wide-awake type, if ever there was one.  All was fish as got in his net.”
            A sharp-featured man with iron-gray hair, Captain William Matthews, sipping the whiskey cobbler Rick and I had offered him, had a faraway look, seemed disposed to reminisce.  With Rick’s help I had found him at the elegant Astor House bar on Broadway, a prime meeting place for ship’s masters and shippers, contractors sniffing about for contracts, and Go Ahead types of every kind, who hobnobbed noisily by gaslight, smoking fat cigars.  This being my first experience of a bar, I tried not to gape at the ornate pillars, handsome tile flooring, and busts of chesty females.  Having introduced me, Rick had distanced himself discreetly, so the captain and I could talk one to one.  When barely sipped, the brandy cordial that Rick had ordered for me had flamed in my throat; it sat all but untouched on the counter.
            “You sailed his ships many a time, I gather?”
            “Indeed I did.  To Callao, the port of Lima, and to Guayaquil, which, God bless ’em, boasts the handsomest women on earth.  And to Buenos Aires and Rio and a hundred other ports.  Harmony & Biggs were constant and heavy shippers of goods.  Likewise Harmony & Sons.”
            “To Havana?”
            “Aye, to Havana, too, and often.”
            “Dealing with a Señor Martinez, I believe?”
            “Señor Martinez?”  He searched his memories a moment.  “Yes, possibly.”
            “While avoiding dealings with the American consul there?”
            “That depended on the consul and the cargo.  They could devil you up, for sure.” 
            He took another sip of his cobbler, savored it, seemingly unaware of the babble of talk all around us.  Farther down the bar Rick was watching discreetly.
            “What kind of cargo, captain?  To Havana, that is.”
            “Any blamed thing in demand down there.  Carriages, furniture, machinery, cordage, cotton, and crates of good hard liquor.”
            “But didn’t ships leaving New York also carry casks marked ‘rum’ and boxes marked ‘soap’?”
            “Rum and soap?”  His features tightened and he shot me a glance.  “Kid, what kind of a course are you charting?”
            “I just want to know about the trade of that time.”
            He lowered his voice, looked sly.  “You mean the slave trade, don’t you?”
            “Yes sir.  Attitudes here have changed since the war and emancipation.  I want to get back into the mood of that time and understand how things worked.”
            “They worked, all right, but with risk.  A slaver could be caught at this end by a U.S. revenue cutter, or off the African coast by a British or American man-o’-war.  If boarded while going over, the large quantities of water and food – far more than needed for the crew – gave ’em away.  Coming back, it was the niggers themselves.  Since slavers didn’t have the men and guns to fight off a boarding party, all they could do was make a run for it, and some pretty wild chases resulted.”
            “Then why take the risk?”
            “Greed, pure and simple.  On the eve of the war, a prime male slave costing forty dollars in Africa brought at least tenfold that in Havana.  How else could you haul in jack like that?”
            “What if you got caught?”
            “Damned inconvenient, with a loss of profits and maybe the ship, but nothing more.  Here in New York judges and marshals could be bribed – a few hundred for a marshal, a thousand or two for a judge.”
            “I see.  Sir, were respectable merchants involved in that trade?”
            “Some yes, some no.  It depended.”
            “Maybe some that you knew?”
            “Quite a few.”
            “I can see how that might have been – the money and all, and so many others doing it.”
            “Plenty of ’em.  And some big names, too.”
            “I see.  Captain, was Caleb Harmony in that trade?”
            A long silence, then a canny smile, a soft-voiced reply.  “Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t.”
            “Well, I guess it wasn’t for just anyone.  All those risks you mentioned.”
            “And yellow fever, and at this end of it, in the Caribbean in late summer, hurricanes.  Many a ship was lost, with not one survivor.”
            “So it must have taken courage, as well as plain old-fashioned Yankee know-how.”
            “You can say that again.”
            “A real adventure.  Sir, were you in the trade?”
            Another silence; the smile persisted.  “Maybe I was and maybe I wasn’t.”
            “I’m not out to judge anyone, Captain Matthews.  I just want some facts.”  (Rick had advised me to take this tack.)
            “Yes, you nosy little bastard, and I’ve given you facts aplenty.”
            “Yes sir, thank you, sir.  But you see, sir, your name appears in some of Caleb Harmony’s correspondence, with mention of a Señor Martinez in Havana, sums for gratuities, and two sets of papers.”
            “My name?  Captain William Matthews?  If you say that, I’ll have to break your jaw.”  He clenched his fists, glared.
            “Well, sir, the letters say ‘Captain Matthews.’ ”
            “It’s a common name, you green little lubber.  There’s dozens as bear it.”
            “I know, sir, I’ve interviewed six.  But frankly, sir, you seem to fit the bill best.”
            His eyes flashed.  “Are you trying to make me trouble?  If you are, hard work you’ll have of it.”
            “Sir, I don’t want to make you or anyone trouble.  I’m just trying to learn how things back then worked.”
            “You’ve put your oar in here enough.  I’ve said all I’m going to say, and maybe too much.  Clear out!”
            While the captain turned back to his cobbler and took a quick swig of it, I decided to haul anchor with my jaw intact. 
            “Thank you, sir.  Very helpful.  No offense intended.”
            I left.  Rick followed me out and caught up with me on the street.
            “It’s him!  He’s the one!”
            “He admitted it?”
            “No, he was cagey.”
            “Then how can you be sure?”
            “He knows a lot about the slave trade.”
            “So do you and I lately.  That doesn’t make us slavers.”
            “It’s him!  I’m sure of it!”
            “Why not any of the six others of that name you’ve talked to?”
            “They stayed cool as custard.  This one got worked up and threatened me.  He gave himself away.”
            “If you’re right, it doesn’t look good for Grandpa.”
            “It sure doesn’t.  But at last, after all these false starts, I’m beginning to learn something.”
            “So what now?  What do we do next?”

Dark Knowledge has a release date of January 5, 2018.  
It is available now from the author.  Contact him at or see him at the reading.

Coming soon:  Bond Street: Gentility, Murder, S&M and Art

©   2017   Clifford Browder

No comments:

Post a Comment