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On a hot, humid day in February 1855, thirteen British soldiers rode northeastward through the rugged, mountainous area of Great Karroo in Cape Province, South Africa. Behind the mounted men were four military wagons that rattled along the rough and dusty road.
Captain Charles Jameson, who was every inch a soldier, led the party. On either side were Lieutenants Deighton Ross and Peter Waldman. They sat their saddles straight backed, military style, emulating their leader.
The setting sun was at their backs, heating them with its blazing rays and streaking the mountains and forests around them with a golden hue. The men were looking forward to the sun's disappearance, even though the night air would be extremely warm and humid. But at least they would get a reprieve from the fiery heat of the sun.
As they climbed a steep hill, Lieutenant Waldman said, "Captain, do you still plan to pick up the slaves from the Rhodes ranch tonight?"
"Yes," Captain Jameson said. "That way we can move back toward Cape Town and be there about midnight. I estimate our arrival at the ranch to be eight o'clock. It won't take long to load our cargo in the wagons, and we can start back by nine o'clock.
"When we stop, we'll have a good start on tomorrow's ride, and we'll have them housed with the rest of Thomas Green's slaves when the ship docks in Table Bay five days from now. It's supposed to be in about eight o'clock that night. With two hundred miles to go, I want to be sure we're back before that ship docks."
Atthat moment, the column reached the summit of the steep hill. A deep misty valley spread out below them and sloped up the other side in little ridges like waves of the sea. The ridges were dotted with clumps of brush and trees, and to the right and left rose tree-fringed, craggy mountain peaks.
Lieutenant Waldman had recently been assigned to the South African British army. He had never seen Africa before. He fixed his gaze on the peaks that were quickly losing their golden color and clicked his tongue. "Captain, those mountains sure are beautiful. Do they get snow caps in the winter?"
"Most certainly: The snow will start in late May. During June, July, and August it will blanket the high country and last until October."
Waldman chuckled. "It's still hard for me to get used to being below the equator, sir. It sure seems backwards to have summer in December, January, and February. Right now, the folks back home in good old England are wearing heavy coats, mufflers, and gloves."
"It took me about two years to get used to it, Lieutenant," Deighton Ross said.
The captain laughed. "Well, gentlemen, I've been here for almost four years, and I haven't even begun to get used to it!"
One of the men behind them called out, "I've been here for ten years, Captain, and I still think it should be snowing up there on those peaks right now."
A rumble of laughter moved through the ranks along the column.
There were a few moments of silence, then Lieutenant Waldman said, "As you know, sir, this is my first time to pick up slaves for shipment to America. Are there other wealthy men like this Thomas Green buying slaves?"
"Oh, yes. I know of eight men. And they're getting richer with each shipload of slaves they take to the United States. There's plenty of work on the rice and cotton plantations in what is known as the Deep South."
"So Thomas Green has already paid rancher Kent Rhodes for the sixty-two slaves we're picking up?"
"No. Mr. Green's Cape Town representative, Arthur Pendleton, gave me the money to pass on. Pendleton made the deal with Rhodes back in December, just after Green was here to take a shipload of slaves back with him. The ship holds six hundred slaves, and I'm sure it will be full again this time. At the rate Thomas Green and the other slave traders are taking Negroes out of South Africa, we'll soon see the fulfillment of the plan to rid this state of slavery."
As the last light faded, a full moon began lifting its round rim above the mountain peaks to the east.
Lieutenant Peter Waldman pondered the captain's words, then said, "Sir, refresh my memory, please. The newspapers have carried reports for some time that British high commissioner Harry Smith has been working hard to end slavery in South Africa, and that Queen Victoria backs him enthusiastically, as does Parliament. Was the idea of encouraging South African ranchers, farmers, and the like to sell their slaves to American slave traders the high commissioner's idea, or did it come from the queen herself?"
"As far as I know, the idea was totally Mr. Smith's, Lieutenant. However, it certainly sounds like our queen, doesn't it?"
"I agree," said Lieutenant Ross. "When I read about it, I thought her Majesty just might be behind it. The wording, `rid South Africa of slavery and give it a more respectable economy' sure sounds like her, doesn't it?"
"Aye, that it does," said the captain. "Either way, I'm glad to be doing my part to rid this state and its provinces of slavery. Of course, Transvaal Province hasn't had slavery in decades, so we haven't had to go there."
"Too bad the Americans are willing to purchase the slaves," said Waldman. "If there were no market for them, it seems to me the ranchers, farmers, and vineyard owners here would have to free their slaves, then hire them as workers and pay them wages."
Jameson sighed. "I think the Americans will have to learn the hard way, like pharaoh in the Bible days, that God doesn't look with favor on people who make chattel of other human being."
The rising moon cast deep shadows over the hills and mountains. Lieutenant Waldman squinted as he ran his gaze over the moonlit hills ahead of them and said, "Captain, sir, what are those dark spots up the?"
"Small patches of forest."
"Indeed? They certainly are beautiful in the moonlight." He stared at the dark blots, which seemed almost to float in the atmosphere above the hills and mountainsides. They had no dearly defined margins, and the pale silver light gave them the sensation of wavering and shimmering. As the column moved along the winding road, some of the dark blots faded and vanished from view. "What a sight!" Waldman said. "This is wonderful country ... except for the humidity."
"Comes from being relatively close to the equator," Captain Jameson said. "Even on the mountaintops you can feel the oppressive dampness in the air. England has dampness, too, but it isn't suffocating like this."
"Not at all like this," Ross said. "What I'd give to feel some good, cool, wet British air right now?
Darkness had fallen over the Kent Rhodes ranch, and all of the slaves were in their cabins as the moon began its majestic climb into the night sky.
In one cabin, a nineteen-year-old slave stood at the window without glass and looked out at the moonlit hills. He could see the cattle milling about in the fields. Calves were bawling for their mothers, and the deeper bawl of the mothers rode the air.
He turned to look at his parents. A single candle burned on the small table.
"Father, shouldn't we make an attempt at getting away?"
Robert, who was barely forty years old, said, "No, Benjamin. Like Master Rhodes said when he told us of our bein' sold to the American slave trader, if we run, the soldiers will hunt us down. When they catch us, they will be angry and no doubt beat us severely for running away. It is best that we go to America with the other slaves."
Nannie looked at her tall, handsome, muscular son as he jutted his jaw. "Benjamin, you must not fight this. The British soldiers are told to deliver us to the ship in Cape Town, no matter what. Do you want to be crippled for the rest of your life? You remember what we heard about those slaves who tried to run away down by Laingsburg, don't you?"
"Yes, Mother. But"
"There is no need to argue, son," said Robert. "It is too dangerous to try to escape. We have no choice but to be transported with the other slaves who have been sold to the American slave traders. Better to do this than to end up crippled or dead because we resisted them."
Benjamin rubbed a hand across his forehead. "But, Father, we can escape them if we go now. We can go to Transvaal and obtain jobs from whites and live like them. They don't have slavery in Transvaal anymore."
Robert sighed. "Benjamin, Transvaal is seven hundred miles from here. We would never make it. We would be caught and punished severely, and still be put on a ship to America."
"But, Father, there are only so many British soldiers. South Africa is a huge state. We are natives here. We know the land. I know we can"
Benjamin's words were cut off by the sound of men's voices. They heard the rattle of harness, the creak of wheels, and the dull thump of hooves on the soft ground inside the circle of cabins.
Robert hurried to the window and peered out. "It is them," he said. "They are here to take us to Cape Town."
Nannie rushed up beside him and looked out. By the light of the several lanterns in the soldiers' hands, she saw Kent Rhodes and his foreman, Richard Lawford, walk toward the three British officers.
Benjamin moved up close to his parents. "It is too late now to escape from here. But it is a long way to Cape Town. We will be on the road for days. We will find a way to escape."
Robert laid a hand on his son's muscular shoulder. "Benjamin, we must not attempt an escape. As I have already said, we could never get away from the soldiers."
Benjamin started to argue once more but then held his words. When he had figured out a way to escape the soldiers on the journey, he would inform his parents.
The soldiers were already guiding slaves toward the wagons. A few small children were crying.
When they saw Richard Lawford coming toward their cabin, Nannie took hold of her husband's hand and said, "Let us go. It is best that he does not have to tell us to come out."
Soon Benjamin and his parents were climbing into one of the army wagons. Rancher Kent Rhodes stood close by, stuffing money into his shirt pocket. Suddenly Rhodes looked up and met Benjamin's eyes. Benjamin held his gaze a few seconds, then looked away.
When all the slaves were in the wagons, Rhodes stood beside the captain so that all could see him. He frowned at the sound of crying children and said, "Mothers, make your children stop crying now. This is Captain Charles Jameson of her Majesty's royal army. He has a few words for you before the journey begins."
As a couple of babies continued to wail, Jameson explained that they would travel until midnight, then make camp. There was enough food and water to take care of them on the journey to Cape Town. He spoke crisply, telling them there would be severe punishment for anyone who tried to get away. In fact, the hard labor required by their new owners in the United States would be pleasurable compared to the punishment they would take if they attempted an escape.
The army officers shook hands with Rhodes and his foreman, then mounted their horses and led the procession southwestward.
As the wagon Benjamin rode in rocked and bumped along the rough road, he sat on the floor in a corner, his knees pulled up close to his chest, and stared out into the hot, humid night. The moon was a brilliant silver disk, clear edged and beautiful. Beyond the moon, the night sky was a black velvet canopy with countless stars twinkling in their sphere.
Fixing his gaze on the stars, Benjamin moved his lips silently and said, It must be wonderful to be free to ride your chosen trails through the endless sky. Never to be locked up. Only to have your freedom forever. I wish I could be free like you.
As the wagon rolled on, dipping into valleys and rising to the next crest, Robert and Nannie held hands. They rode silently, looking at their son from time to time.
At midnight, Captain Jameson called for the wagons to halt and make a circle in a shallow valley. Since the wagons were well loaded, he suggested that some of the slaves sleep on the ground, and he warned them once more of the penalty for trying to escape. His men built a fee in the center of the circle.
As everyone else was settling down to sleep, the soldiers assigned to the first shift began to pace the perimeter of the circle, their eyes alert and muskets ready.
Benjamin lay next to his parents on the soft grass.
The flickering firelight allowed Nannie to see her son's wakefulness. "Son, you must not lie awake all night. Please go to sleep."
"I will try, Mother. Good night ... I love you."
Nannie smiled. "I love you, too."
Sleep, however, eluded the young slave. He watched the flames of the fire dance in the light wind. From time to time he saw the soldiers move into his line of sight as they patrolled the circle.
Benjamin pondered what it would be like to be free to choose his own destiny. He had been well educated by British teachers who had been hired by rancher Kent Rhodes. He knew English better than he knew the language of his tribe. If he could have the chance to make it on his own in Transvaal, he knew he would make his mark in the world. He would give his parents reason to be proud of him.
But what could he ever become as a slave? He would spend his life using the strength in his body to make some American plantation owner rich. Then he would die and be forgotten as soon as they placed his body in the ground. Wasn't there more to life than this? Had he only been born to be a slave for some white man, then die and pass out of existence?
He had heard white folks talk about a place above the sky called heaven. It was supposed to be much better than earth with all of its sickness, pain, and sorrow. He had heard one white man say there weren't any graveyards in heaven. And nobody ever got sick.
Do rich people have slaves in heaven? Benjamin wondered. This God they talk about ... if He really exists, does He want people to be slaves? Or does He want everybody to be free?
Everyone else seemed to be sleeping around him, but the night passed slowly for Benjamin. It wasn't yet dawn, but it had been some time since the soldiers had added any logs to the fire. Now there was only a great heap of red coals with small flames flickering around the edges. The wind picked up and fanned the embers, whipping flakes of white ashes upward.
Soon there was gray light over the mountain peaks to the east. Benjamin's eyes finally closed in sleep. He was just drifting off when a soldier moved about the circle and shouted for everyone to get up.
It was another hot, humid day in Cape Town when the column of mounted soldiers and creaking wagons pulled into the compound of the Old Supreme Court buildings. The slaves were ushered into a log structure where hundreds of other Negro men, women, and children were crammed.
When Benjamin saw the other slaves, he felt his stomach tighten.
Captain Charles Jameson collected his group of slaves just inside the door of the large building and said, "You will all stay here until the ship comes in tonight. Mr. Green, your new owner, will come and talk to you. There are two floors of rooms in this building, so there will be enough space to sleep. But until Mr. Green has come, you will remain here with the other slaves."
Inside the temporary prison, the incessant wailing of babies and the crying of children filled the air. Their cries were mixed with the laughter of older children who had found space to play.
Benjamin and his parents sat on the floor and talked to a slave family from a sheep ranch near Port Elizabeth. Benjamin found them as resigned to becoming slaves in America as were his parents.
The man seemed to read Benjamin's mind as he said, "It's no use to even think of trying to escape anywhere on this journey to Cape Town. I know two slaves who tried it on the way here. Don't you know, they were caught by the British soldiers and punished severely. One of them died a few hours later, and the other one suffered a broken leg. The soldiers did nothing to relieve his pain."
When the man and his wife left to wander about the building under the watchful eyes of the dozen or so British military guards, Benjamin said, "Father ... Mother ... there has to be a way out of this. Perhaps after we are in our room overhead?"
Robert shook his head. "Benjamin, did you not listen to what we were just told about one slave being killed and the other one maimed? Is this what you want for us?"
"No, Father. I want us to escape, to go to Transvaal and live as free people. If we do not do something, we will be slaves for the rest of our lives."
"But if we make this attempt, son," said Nannie, "and we fail, we could end up dead like the one slave ... or even with broken limbs. We must not try it."
Benjamin fought the volcano-like emotion rising within him. He quietly nodded and told himself he would have to wait until he had a workable plana plan that his parents could see would work.
At nightfall, after dinner, the soldiers lit lanterns in the slave lodge, and the British officer in charge of the guards called for all of the slaves to gather in one place near the main door and sit on the floor. When they were seated, he went to the door and said something to someone outside. In a few moments, two men appeared. The larger man stood at the front of the crowd and said, "I know that most of you understand English, but if you have some friends who speak only your native language, make sure they understand what I say. My name is Thomas Green. I am your temporary owner. Tomorrow morning at dawn, you will be put aboard the American slave ship Berkeley, which is docked in Table Bay.
"You will be taken across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States of America. You will dock and leave the ship in the coastal city of Charleston, South Carolina, where some of you will be sold to plantation owners whom I choose. The rest of you will be auctioned off to whatever plantation owners are willing to pay the highest price for you."
Green went on to explain that he had a crew of men who would be aboard ship to make sure they were fed well and obeyed all rules, which would be explained when they were on the ship. Then he nodded to the man with him and they moved outside together.
When the door closed behind them, Green said to Arthur Pendleton, "As usual, Arthur, you keep an eye on things here. I'll be back in the morning when it's time to move them to the ship."
"Will do," said the younger man.
Green started to walk away, then stopped. "Oh, Arthur. That slave with the broken leg ..."
"See if you can get a couple of the soldiers to put some kind of a splint on it. If he's mobile at all when we get to Charleston, he'll still bring a few dollars."
"I'll see to it sir."
That evening, after the slaves had been fed, they were allowed to go to the second and third floors of the slave lodge. The rooms were small, but there were enough of them to allow individual families to occupy a room privately if they chose to do so.
As soon as Robert, Nannie, and Benjamin were in a room on the second floor, Benjamin went to the window, which was nailed shut. He peered through dirty at the space between the slave lodge and the next building in the compound. There were kerosene lanterns at both ends of the building.
"Benjamin, what are you drinking?" Robert asked.
"I was thinking that it is not very far down to the ground from this window."
Nannie glanced at her husband and sighed.
"But there will be soldiers guarding this building all night," said Robert. "And haven't you noticed the window is nailed shut?"
"Yes, Father, but the nails are driven in at an angle, and they are not driven deep. With a little work, I can loosen them and have the window open. We can drop down to the roof over the back door of the building, then drop to the ground."
"But, son, what about the soldiers?" Nannie said.
"They are few in number, Mother. They will have to walk patrols. This will no doubt mean there are spaces of time when they are not on this side of the building. We will make our move when we can run into the shadows of the building behind this one. The fence around the compound is only chest high to Father and me. We can get over it easily and escape. We will go to Transvaal."
"But Transvaal is so far away, son," said Robert. "It will be a long journey, and we will have to avoid the soldiers who will be on our trail."
"It is worth it to me to try," said the nineteen-year-old. "Do you not feel the same way, Father?"
Robert looked at Nannie and sighed.
She smiled grimly. "We do, don't we?"
"Yes," said Robert. "We do."
It was nearly three o'clock in the morning when Benjamin watched the guard make his round along the rear of the building, then turn the corner at the far end. He had counted the seconds before the guard would reappear on their side. It was a short space of time, but it was sufficient for someone who was desperate.
When Benjamin was on the ground, his father lifted his mother down and Benjamin assisted her to the ground. When Nannie's feet touched earth, Robert scrambled down. The three of them made a dash into the deep shadows of the next building. When the guard vanished around the corner again, they darted to the other side of the compound and soon were over the fence and outside the compound.
They kept to the shadows and made their way along the streets that were dimly lit with kerosene lanterns. Finally, they reached the wall that surrounded the Castle of Good Hope, the city's oldest monument. They huddled in the shadows to catch their breath, then hurried on.
Soon they were running along the shore of Table Bay in the pale light of a moon partially covered by clouds. When they reached a small hut along the shore, they paused for another breather, then dashed around the steep slopes of Table Mountain. After a few moments' rest at the tip of Table Mountain, they pressed on toward Devil's Peak, then headed northeast toward the rolling hill country.
At sunrise the next morning, Thomas Green was standing near the front door of the slave lodge, observing the armed guards ushering the slaves along the street toward the docks at Table Bay. He was in conversation with Captain John Orr, the officer in charge of the army guard, but kept his eyes on Arthur Pendleton as he checked off the slave families and individuals from his list when they passed by him and gave their names.
When the last of the slaves had left the building, Pendleton turned to his employer and frowned. Green excused himself to Captain Orr and said, "What's wrong?."
The younger man shook his head as he studied the list. "Sir, three slaves are missing. One named Robert, his wife, Nannie, and their son, Benjamin."
"Are you sure?"
Green motioned to Captain Orr and told him of the three slaves who were unaccounted for. Two guards were sent to the room the trio had occupied. When they found that the window frame had been removed, they reported it to Green and their commander.
A short time later, Orr had dispatched a dozen mounted soldiers from army headquarters across town to search for the runaway slaves.