King's Shilling; a short story
A short story
It was not just another day for John Stone, not just any morning; it was his first full day of freedom from slavery for over fourteen years. He should have been jubilant but his emotions seemed a little bit mixed up. Sitting on a flat rock in the shade of a rather droopy looking palm he surveyed the world and his options. Looking down from his vantage point above the old harbour of Port Royal Jamaica he could see the usual hectic scene of ships unloaded and reloaded. He remembered how hard work it had been, how tired he had been at the end of every long arduous day. Not unusually it was stiflingly hot and John wiped away the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.
His belly rumbled and he realised that freedom was not as well fed as slavery had been, despite the poor rations he had received at times.
He tried to remember his real name, but he had been John Stone for so long that it was difficult to think of that other name from his past. He had been just ten years old when Arab slavers snatched him from his village. He could still remember the fear, the confusion and the awful smell of the slave ship. He tried to remember his Mother’s face but it was a blur. The only one he could remember was the thin face of the Arab slaver that had punched and kicked him into submission that first day.
Suddenly a tear ran down his face, it was the first time he had cried since his captivity. Even when John Stone his first slave master had beaten the skin on his back to a bloody pulp he had not spilt a single tear, but now they ran. He watched as they dropped to the dry dusty sand creating small craters.
He pulled a shilling from his pocket and toyed with it. The Royal navy had bought him from the Stone family in an auction and had been easier masters. They had used him every day as a pack animal, and when slavery was abolished they gave him the clothes he stood in, a shilling and his freedom. He toyed with it and wondered where a shilling would take him. He looked at the image of the man they called King George; he rubbed across the man’s nose with his thumb and wondered if this man was happy.
The navy had not been unkind in some ways; they were not as savage as the Stone family had been. They taught him to speak English; the Christian Church taught him that now he was a Christian he was also a sinner, which he had not realised he was until then.
There was another rumble from his stomach to remind him that he still had not eaten. He had been offered work, the navy had offered him the chance to stay on in the docks, but he wanted time to think. Now he had had time, his main thought was that he was hungry.
Pieces of paper he decided were what he needed to understand. One piece he was told had said he was a slave and belonged to the navy, another piece had said he was free. He had once studied a piece, but it had said nothing to him. It seemed just marks and squiggles the priest had pointed out that he had it upside down, but even the right way up it had been silent.
A figure appeared beside him, it was not an apparition he had just been so involved with his thoughts he had not heard him approach. He shielded his eyes against the sun to look at the face.
“So Mr Stone how is freedom?”
John recognised the young naval lieutenant who had once been very kind to him giving him a drink one particularly hot day. He was surprised that the other had remembered his name.
“I’m finding it hungry.” John said.
The officer smiled, “what will you do now?”
“I want to learn to write and read. The man with the paper yesterday said that the paper said that I was free. I want to be able to read that I am free.”
From his pocket the officer gave him an apple. “This is my favourite place whenever we are in Jamaica.” He said, “I always come here until we sail again.
There was a short silence the buzz of insects filled the air and both men retreated into their own thoughts. To their left was the busy town, to their right the mountains and forests of the island and in front of them was the wide open blue sea.
“Perhaps the answer is in front of you.” The officer said.
John looked a little puzzled.
“We are short of crewmen to fight the pirates and slavers who still sail these waters.”
“What would I do?”
“Become a sailor, it’s a good life.”
There was a pause; they were both feeling the heat. John ate the apple grateful for something to stop the rumbling.
“You would get a shilling for signing on, regular wages and your keep.”
“Another shilling; this King George must have many shillings to give them so freely.”
“Let us walk, I’m too hot.” The lieutenant said.
As they descended the dusty track a slight breeze met them and they both felt some a little cooler.
“I’ve been King George’s man since I was ten.” The lieutenant said.
“So when I was taken as a slave you also were becoming a slave.”
“Not really a slave, it was my choice.” The lieutenant was obviously taken aback by the suggestion.
“Can you just go home?”
“Not until my service has finished.”
It was just midday when they reached the dockside and John realised that now he had to make a decision, go with the Lieutenant or stay and be hungry, maybe get his old job back but this time with a little pay. He followed his new friend and without really thinking about what he was doing, he was stepping into the ship’s cutter to take him to the sloop warship anchored out in the bay.
“So Lieutenant Kent you bring me a recruit.”
“Aye Capt’n this is Mr John Stone, a newly freed man who would like to take the King’s Shilling and he would like to help us catch slavers and pirates.”
“Well Stone, keep yourself out of mischief obey your officers and you will enjoy the pleasures of His Majesty’s navy.” Captain Baines said.
Two hours later John swung in his hammock the memories of the last time he was on a ship filling his mind. He had been messed down with seven other men three of them also ex-slaves; they had made him feel welcome and most importantly fed him. For the first time for far too long he felt to belong somewhere rather than belonging to somewhere.
His swung his feet down and sat up to watch his mess mates play cards, their watch did not start for another hour and although it was stuffy and hot below deck it was out of the way of officers and orders.
“Have you been to sea before Stone?”
“Yes but only when I was brought here as a slave.” John replied.
“Stick with us lad we’ll set you right.” The man who spoke was a rough looking Irishman with a short beard that had two plaits sticking out like horns from his chin.
Suddenly the boson’s pipe was shrilly sending out orders and the crew jumped into action. “Come on Stone, that’s to tell us to man our stations it sounds as if we are to make ready to sail.”
On deck was a sort of organised chaos as the crew unfurled the sails and lifted the anchor. John was set to work on helping push the capstan around to raise the anchor, and as it cleared the water he realised that he was moving.
Sloops were fast agile ships, lightly armed but packing enough of a punch to do their job of catching pirates. With only a single mast the main propulsion came from one large sail and a number of triangular jib sails.
From the ship’s prow John felt to be flying, a stiff breeze was pushing them along and the sloop gracefully cut the water. He watched as a number of dolphins cut under the prow surfing on the ship’s bow wave. He smiled and decided freedom was good.
“So Mr Stone what do you think now?” It was Lieutenant Kent he had to shout to be heard above the sound of the waves.
John Stone decided that he had made the right choice, he had never felt so free and this was just the first day.
Later that afternoon a gun drill was ordered and everyman had to stand to battle stations. John was presented with a huge ramrod and shown his duty of making sure that both shot and powder were safely down the gun’s barrel. The command to fire launched a nightmare of sound and smells. Black acrid smoke formed a dense fog across the deck. John staggered backwards, he held his ringing ears. The officer pushed him back towards the front of the gun but john was too deaf to hear what was being shouted at him.
The order to fire again struck horror in John’s mind, his ramrod was still down the gun barrel, and it fired like a huge harpoon out across the waves much to the mirth of the other gun crews.
“Who do think you are, Robin Hood?” the Boson screamed into John’s smoke black face. “Get below and get another, it comes out of your wages mister.”
John was relieved to leave the gun deck he felt as if he had just been to hell. The ship’s magazine was more chaotic than the gun deck. The ship’s purser handed him another ramrod and made a note in his log book.
John wondered if he would be punished but nothing was said as he returned other some jibes from his mess mates. Stripped to the waist he worked his hardest and as his gun fired again he clung to the ship’s side. He was given an extra watch to stand but other than that he was amazed that he had not been flogged. When anything went wrong on the Stone’s plantation he had been flogged even if it was not his doing.
Around mid morning the following day there was a call from the ship’s lookout that he had spotted a sail. All eyes scanned the far horizon to try to catch a glimpse of the other ship. They were down wind of the other ship and very soon they had no need to see it, because the foulest of smells reached them.
John knew that smell, after so many years he still knew it. He felt sick and he trembled with a mixture of emotions. When the ship came into view he was angry, angrier than he had ever been in his life.
Most slavers were fast ships built to speed their precious cargos across the vastness of the Atlantic. Most were lightly armed but since the Royal Navy had started hunting them they had added extra cannons to their decks. As they neared Captain Baines realised that he could have a real fight on his hands.
The ship was called to the ready and all hands took their places. The slaver had the advantage of the wind, but Baines was an experienced Captain and knew just how to get the best from his vessel.
As the ships came nearer it was obvious that the slaver Captain was going to make a fight of it. To the watching crews stripped for action the ships seemed to be moving almost in slow motion. There was a sudden silence, and then Baines called to the other ship for them to surrender. There was some reply, but it was carried away with the breeze.
John peered over the ship’s side he was with his gun-crew huddled behind their cannon, suddenly the other ship was lost in a cloud of smoke. Everyone ducked for cover but even so as the first shots struck their ship, they were hit with flying debris which showered over them. John looked up attracted by a strange noise, such as he had never heard before. It sounded like wet blankets on a washing line flapping in the breeze, just over their heads, he soon realised it to be the wind of the enemy's shot. The whole scene grew indescribably confused; it was like some awful thunderstorm, whose deafening roar is attended by incessant streaks of lightning, carrying death in every flash and strewing the decks with the victims of its wrath. Only, in this case, the scene was rendered more horrible than that, by the presence of rivulets of blood, which began to run across the decks.
John felt to be drowning in a nightmare of explosions, smoke and heat, like the others he worked numbed by the cacophony around him. It seemed almost impossible to breath in the swirling fog of battle and he gasped for every breath.
There was an enormous shudder and the two ships rammed into each other and locked like fighting dogs. Grappling hooks and ropes tied them together. Now it was a matter of every man for himself.
Axe in hand John flung himself across the gap between the ships, fearlessly driven on by the moment. Possessed by the frustration and anger of fourteen years slavery he hacked and chopped his way through the foe.
Almost as quickly as it had begun it ended with the death of the slaver’s Captain. The British crew cheered and breathed a sigh of relief to be alive.
With his axe he smashed open one of the hatches and peered into the dimly lit hold. Rows of frightened faces, with blinking eyes caught by the sudden light peered back. Now his heart was filled with compassion and he really knew what it was like to be free.