Tales Of The Deep South : A Passage on "Wanderer"
“We lay back tuh back, or sometimes nose tuh neck ye might say. Fo mo dan six weeks we had tuh turn ober together cause dey warn’t nuff room fo us tuh lay on our backs. Dey knowed dat when dey loaded us up on dat ole ship, knowed some o’ us warn’t gone make it noways."
"I still cain’t 'bide sleeping on my side, cain’t sleep in dat position no mo’. Lots o' us got sick befo’ eber leaving the riber., befo’ we even got out in de ocean. I wuz 14 yare ole den. My brother wuz 12 and so small fo his age. He wuz too small I spose. He die after only two weeks at sea.”
“No, dats alright, I tole dis part afore. I be past it purty quick now……… I couldn’t see ’im from where dey had me chained. But I could hear ‘im callin’ out my name. Oh lawd…I still hear him sometimes late at night, hear him cryin’ so softly as he growed weaker and weaker. I call out to ‘im. Be strong I say, be brave. But he wuz jest too small.”
“Us wuz all weak from not havin’ nuff to eat after a week or so. Dey gave us water when dey thought us needed it. Not enuff though, not nearly enuff. Looky here, ye can still see de scars where dey chained us tuh de side o' de ship. Sometimes now when dey chainin’ up a dog or mule close by I gits de urge ta jest run off, fly away like. I spose I’ll die bein’ scared o' hearin' dem ole chains."
"Dey froed my lil' brother ober de side wit de mess dey cleaned offen de flo where us lay. Mess us all made cause we cain’t move but a few inches at de time. Dats all he wuz to ’em, jest more mess ta git rid of. He wuz de fust tuh go, but 50 mo o' dem cargo went 'hind ’im fore we landed right down yonder, jest roun' de bend. I walks down dere sometimes. Don’ t know why I does. Sumpthin’ jest makes me go an' look fo some reason.”
"Back tuh back, nose tuh neck.......
Privileges Of Birth
There is no certain age when a young man begins to understand the realities of being born into a privileged life. Certainly some never do. But my own such enlightenment became apparent in the early 1900’s as I was taking a break from my studies for my future career in the medical profession.
My father, William T. Gaines--a quite well known businessman in his own right-- had arranged for me--me being known as Bill Jr.-- to spend a few months on the wonderful isle of Jekyll, just off the coast of Georgia and adjacent to the city and port of Brunswick.
Having arrived at the private dock on Jaye P. Morgan’s private yacht, and firmly ensconced in a pleasant room at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, I felt the stress of my previous few years begin to fade from my mind and body as I watched America’s most affluent families frolicking in the warm waters and basking on the pure white sands of the exclusive sanctuary.
I marveled at the modern conveniences the wealthy members had adorned the spot with when, just across the river, ordinary folks lived much as they had for many decades. One might go bowling or gamble in the casino, play golf on the private 18 hole course, or as the club was intended, go hunting for all manner of wildlife on the surrounding islands and hammocks, as the thickly wooded cays are referred to.
A Break From Paradise
But even in such a paradise Mother Nature often makes her presence known, despite the power of those puny human beings she is offending in her manner. It is not out of the ordinary for rain and cold fog to shroud this minute isle, to hide it from view for a week or more in the late winter. And in fact, this is what made me walk down to the docks where those hired to cater to the very rich waited and performed their particular duties on such a cold dreary day.
The rain blew steadily, cold as can be imagined in this part of the world. The wind too tried in vain to tear the Spanish moss from the very limbs of the ancient live oaks shading the premises, whistling around the sashes of the windows of both owners fine cottages and helpers weathered shacks. One such unpainted building was particularly inviting as I braved the wet downpour on my hasty stroll between the hotel and the docks.
The salt rimed windows of this particular shack seemed to glow with the yellow light of welcome to such as I, seemed to say “come inside where it is dry, where companionship resides.” Or so my memory now tells me. This particular abode was where the members had their game mounted, whether it be a massive 12 point buck, a bobcat, fox, or even a sharp tusked wild boar the hammocks seemed home to.
The smell of preservatives and tanning chemicals used to treat the hides, fins and feathers of the game, though strong in odor, gave a rather pleasant scent to the air inside the cozy shack. A rusty, but yet efficient, pot bellied wood stove with a steaming coffee pot perched atop it, crackled and expanded as the wind cast huge raindrops against the two lone windows looking out over the fog shrouded white capped river. What little could be seen of it at this time that is.
Prisoner Or Privilege: Stations Of Life
“How do,” came a voice from behind a huge deer head being mounted for some lucky member. As I peered around the stags antlers the head of an ancient black man became apparent as he too strived to see who had entered his lair on such a day. “Good day,” I said before actually thinking how my remark might seem a bit ironic.
“Didn’t mean to disturb you and really, I’m merely attempting to cure a bit of boredom on this dreary day. I couldn’t help but notice how cozy your place looked compared to its surroundings. I won’t stay long, just till this squall eases up somewhat. Go right ahead with your work and pay me no mind. I’ll simply stay out of your way,” I almost pleaded.
“Dat’s jest fine” the gray head shook in affirmation “I’se jest ’bout ready tuh take a break anyways. How ’bout a cup o’ coffee while you waitin’ on de rain to let up some?” I smiled at the question as the hot liquid sounded very inviting to me at the time. Sure, I only had to run a few hundred feet to gain access to the hotel’s environs and order a special blend of imported java, but somehow the old man’s offer seemed irresistible at the time.
Coffee and Memories
“Sounds great,” I replied, which caused him to remove himself from behind his work counter and reached into a cupboard for a couple of heavy chipped cups and a bowl of white sugar. “I ain’t got no cream for ye sir, have ta drink it black if ye don’t mind, de milkman aint been here dis mawnin’ cause o' de rain. Cain’t say as I blame him tho, not at all.” I told him I didn’t normally require milk for my coffee and this seemed to please him to no end.
“How long have you worked here on the island,?” I asked him when we were sipping the delicious brew. “Over 50 years now, suh. I landed on dis very island when only 14 year old, landed as a slave from de las’ slave ship ever tuh brang cargo from Africa.” After having said this he looked out over the rain fogged river as if he could remember the day of his arrival, could see it in his minds eye, as he certainly did that day.
“You were aboard the Wanderer,?” I gasped? During the previous days of the deluge I had borrowed a few books to entertain me as I sat alone in my hotel room watching the sky shed its gloomy tears. One of the tomes was a history of the tiny islet and it told of the Wanderer and those who made a fortune from its illicit cargo.
And now right in front of me was a passenger on the vessel, an eyewitness to the whole thing. I could only sit there astonished for a few moments, could only imagine what the old man had been through in his long life.
Curiosity Wins Out
About then the rain suddenly slacked off and the old man said “Now’s yore chanct, young man. I gotta git back ta work fer awhile.” I realized he didn’t much want to discuss his experience on the Wanderer right now, but somehow I got the idea he would eventually open up to me a bit more about his life. I bid him adieu and thanked him for the coffee and conversation. “Come agin” he said. But southerners always say that, no matter how they feel about you.
The next morning it was still raining, still gray, wet and cold. I hadn’t slept much thinking about the old man and how he had been brought here so long ago. Sure, I had read about the slave ships and how the people had been treated on their long voyage to the land of the free. Somehow saying this leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, makes me wonder how it sounds to men such as old Nicholas.
I had asked around and found out more about the one-time slave. He had rarely left Jekyll during his long life, and never before he was freed at the end of the Civil War. He preferred to work on the same isle he was first landed on as if it was a replacement for the home he would never see again. Even a beaten dog will lick his masters hand if there is no one else to notice his life. We all need to be acknowledged by someone I suppose.
Another Gray Day On Jekyll
Of course I would visit Nicholas again today. Perhaps if I became friends with him he would deign to honor me with his story. I went into the hotel dining area and begged some cream from the kitchen. I also ordered a couple of sandwiches and made a run for the docks between squalls. Just like the day before, the orange glow of the lantern through the window beckoned me inside the old shack. Nicholas looked up from his work and smiled as if we were old friends instead of new acquaintances.
“Good mawnin tuh ye master Bill” he said. Jest a bit wet but still, a good mawnin tuh be out o’ de weather.” I placed the food and cream I’d scrounged on the counter hoping he would offer me another cup of coffee as I did not ask for any at the hotel dining room. “Brought you some food and some cream for your coffee, Nicholas. I figured the milkman probably wouldn’t make the sail over today either.”
“Why bless yore heart Bill, I can drink coffee widout cream but it somehow seems more cibilized wid it,” he grinned, revealing a few missing teeth with the rest being filed to a point, just as I had heard others say. I was taken aback by this in the beginning, but soon it seemed natural somehow, like it fit the old man and his life. And it did…..fit his life I mean.
Jettisoning "Dead" Weight
So we sat down and had some coffee, ate the food, and began our friendship properly. “I know ye wants ta hear my story, doncha young Bill? No….dat’s okay…I usually don’t talk ‘bout it much, but I can tell ye are a young man with feelins'. How does I know? Yore eyes tell me, an' your voice tells me, an' yore hands tells me too.”
He began his tale with him and his brother’s capture by the slave catchers. He wondered about his parents, figured they knew what had happened to them. After all, so many of his friends and family had been sold into slavery and perhaps his parents were over here too. But of course, he’d never seen them again.
This was when he told me about the voyage, about his brother’s horrible end. And yes, my eyes told him much about me, much about my feelings and thoughts. I cried with him with no regrets. We mourned the death as though it had just happened yesterday. And truly, for me it did.
After his brother died, Nicholas himself had almost given up. “Nuthin’ much ta lib fo,” was the way he put it. But he decided he couldn’t let them kill him like they did his brother, decided to live and maybe get some revenge somehow, someway.
He told me about the storms the little ship ran through. How they were shaken violently, almost drowned by the water flooding in through the hatches, how the filth sloshed back and forth over them, how their skin was so wrinkled and soft it came off in strips where the manacles encircled their wrists.
He told me of misery so deep I felt ashamed of my good fortune in life. Nicholas saw this after a bit and gently laid his hands upon my shoulders, making me raise my head and look at him through my tears. He was smiling now. "Don't tek it so hard, honey," he said "dis happen a long time gone now, too long tuh be sorry for like you feel. I'se grieved 'nuff fer de bof o' us."
Scars and Memories, Never Forgotten.
“See here,” he said. “Dese scars growed right long wit me. I was smaller den too, didn’t weigh a hunnert pound den.” Nicholas would occasionally look out the window over the foggy gray river. Gazed upon it allmost as if he was seeing everything again, feeling the chains around his wrists, smelling the odors now burned into his memories, hearing the sounds of misery.
“Six weeks be a long time tuh lie down,” he finally said. “Dey say I wuz lucky. I say, depend on whut folks thank lucky be. But still, some o' my people wuz ober two months acrossin’ de ocean. So, I ’spose bein’ on a fast ship is sumpthin tuh be thankful fo’. I ain’t thanked nobody fer it yet, tho.”
Nicholas told of them being unloaded during the night, right down the road a piece towards the north end of the island. Most of the slaves were sent further upstate around Augusta, to a plantation owned by one of the men responsible for financing the illicit voyage.
Some were given away in payment for silence, a few others--including Nicholas--were hidden here on Jekyll. The DuBignon family--whose ancestor was part of the smuggling operation--still owns a house right behind the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. "I ain't holdin' no grudge," Nicholas said "de law tried dem in cote, but dey had too many friends tuh evah haveta pay fo dere crimes. My little brother still daid, no matter whut."
The Real Story of Slave Ships Wanderer and Clotilda
Return of the "Wanderer"
The “Wanderer” eventually fell into the hands of the US Navy and was used to blockade the eastern and gulf coasts during the Civil War. “I seed dat ole ship a few yars later,” Nicholas said. "Mebbe it was my ‘magination, but it still smelt tuh high heaven, still carried de stink o' pure evil an' death. It ‘minded me o’ such bad thangs. I broke down when I seed it come afloatin’ down de riber.”
A few days later--when the sun finally decided it had hidden long enough--I found myself walking with Nicholas, meandering along the river to the spot where the infamous ship had disembarked its human cargo. It was a lonely spot, certainly dismal looking to those who tried to walk for the first time in over a month and a half.
I cannot imagine how frightened those poor souls were, but now I know at least one of them and his story. But Nicholas had said to me, “I was one o’de lucky ones.” I will not ask him to tell me more. I can already smell the misery. As I said, some recognize privilege at an early age....
Although the historical events and places in this story are true, all of the main characters are merely fictional.