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A story from Tom Slemen


Ship of shame


In the eighteenth century, the English city of Liverpool became prosperous through the so-called "ships of shame" which transported millions of black African slaves to America and the West Indies. The rapidly-growing colonies of the New World were in need of a massive labour force, and the vile businessmen of England thought that the black men, women and children of Africa could fulfil the demand for workers. Around 10 million African slaves were shipped across the Atlantic in appalling conditions. Each slave was confined to a space in the ship's hold which had less room than a coffin. They were shackled to one another, and therefore had to wallow in each other's dirt for months on end. Not surprisingly, fever, dysentery and a high mortality rate were commonplace on the slave ships during the hazardous voyage from Africa to the western side of the Atlantic. Sick and dying slaves were regarded as a dead loss to the slave-sellers, so many of the kidnapped Africans suspected of being ill were thrown overboard to be eaten by the sharks. In November 1781, a Captain Collingwood of the slave ship called the Zong ordered his men to take turns in throwing 133 slaves into the ocean. Just a few of the poor souls jettisoned into the shark-infested waters were ill, but Captain Collingwood thought the cruel measure would be an effective way to conserve the ship's fresh water reservoir.

Against this evil backdrop of cruelty and disregard for human life, the following strange tale unfolded. It began in the year 1783, when a Liverpool slave ship called the Amelia took its captured human cargo from the port of Old Calabar in Nigeria. Among the men, women and children who had been abducted and taken by force from their country, there was a young boy of 13 named Abu, and his uncle, Obah, a partially blind, grey-haired old man who curiously knew a little English. During the Amelia's voyage to the West Indies, the boy Abu suffered a fit, and his uncle Obah called out to the crew to give his nephew water. The old man's frantic request fell on deaf ears, and so he and a number of other slaves down in the hold started to rattle their chains in protest.

The master of the Amelia, Captain Mallard, was enraged, and he had the protesting slaves brought up on deck, where they were subjected to lengthy flogging sessions. The 13-year old boy Abu was also flogged, and fainted. His Uncle Obah threw himself over the boy and begged the captain to give the child water. Obah struggled to explain who the boy was, and through an interpreter, he stated that young Abu was prone to strange fits which gave him visions. The child was the only son of his tribe's witch-doctor, and that if he was not taken back to Nigeria, a terrible curse would fall upon the captain of the Amelia. When Captain mallard heard this, he grabbed the boy by his ankles and started to swing him around. The boy screamed, and his elderly uncle cried out and tried to attack the captain. Suddenly, Mallard let go of the child and he went headfirst over the ship's rail and plunged into the waves. There was an uproar of protest from the slaves below deck who had witnessed the captain's cowardly and callous act. The murmuring below continued for a while, and angry eyes full of hatred stared up through the slits in the deck's barricado. The old man Obah sobbed, and was promptly taken down into the hold and chained up again. As the shackles were put on him, the old man pointed an accusing finger at Captain Mallard and said, "Curse you! Curse you captain and family!"

Ten months later, all the slaves from the Amelia had been sold; all except the half-blind slave Obah. Old slaves were almost impossible to sell, and old slaves who could hardly see could not be given away. Obah, therefore, was taken to Liverpool and offered to anyone who would have him. He was put on exhibition on the steps of the Liverpool Custom House. Obah was adopted by a well-to-do couple from the Calderstones district of Liverpool, named George and Catherine Hughes. The couple looked after Obah until he died ten years later from a fever.

Not long after Captain Mallard's return to the port of Liverpool, bad luck and weird occurrences seemed to haunt him and his family. His eldest son Matthew, who had a cottage overlooking the shore at Formby, went insane after telling his wife that an enormous black dog with glowing red eyes had stalked him during his evening walk through the sand dunes. The hound was jet black and left no tracks in the sand as it chased after him. Matthew's wife watched him turn into a shambling nervous wreck over the next few days, and ended up deserting him. Matthew Mallard was later committed to a lunatic asylum.

Weeks later, Captain Mallard was awakened in the middle of the night at his Duke Street home when he heard a strange drum beating in the distance. Even his neighbours heard the strange thumping sound, but no one could tell where the noise was coming from. Three nights later, the infuriating rhythm of the drum ceased abruptly at precisely 4.15 a.m., and Captain Mallard later learned that his elderly mother in Frederick Street had died at that exact time after screaming out once in her sleep.

A month later, the same eerie drumbeat disturbed the sleep of Captain Mallard once more. This time he awoke in his four-poster bed to find his wife lying in a pool of blood beside him. She had suffered a life-threatening miscarriage and almost died as a result.

Then something chilling took place one Sunday after Mallard had been entertaining a Captain Slater at his Duke Street home. Mrs Mallard found a strange object on the mantelpiece of the drawing room. She thought it was a doll's head, but when she picked it up and inspected it, she saw that it was too lifelike and had a hideous quality about it. She screamed and threw it in the fire. Captain Mallard retrieved the object from the glowing coals with a pair of tongs, and saw to his horror that it was the shrivelled head of a real human. It was one of the so-called shrunken heads, which are allegedly used by shamen and witch-doctors as a black magic talisman. Mallard thought Captain Slater had planted the head in his drawing room, but Slater swore that he had never set eyes on the shrunken head before.

Mrs Vaughan, the maid-of-all-work in the Mallard household, later reported hearing the sound of the strange drum again, and said that she had been having vivid nightmares about a black man's grinning face painted with white stripes.

Captain Mallard decided to go back to sea in an attempt to get away from the ghostly goings-on at his Duke Street home.

Mallard captained a vessel called the Moonrise which was bound for Littleton, New Zealand. Mallard was to bring back a consignment of wool and frozen mutton from New Zealand, but his ship later vanished without a trace. Twenty-six years later, a British ship called the Horizon caught sight of a large sailing vessel drifting off the coast of Chile. As the ship drew nearer, the crew of the Horizon could see that the vessel was apparently unmanned, but stranger still, the masts and ragged sails of the ship were covered with thick deposits of a green mold. On the prow, faded with the weather and the passage of time, the crew of the Horizon could see the name Moonrise. A boarding party from the Horizon investigated the apparently abandoned ship, and when one man jumped onto the deck, the timbers had decayed to such an extent, they crumbled beneath him. The other men hauled their colleague out of the hole and walked carefully around the deck. In the captain's cabin, a skeleton in ragged clothes was found, and the atmosphere had an intense putrid smell. Thirteen more skeletons were found elsewhere on the Moonrise; they had all presumably died from some sickness long ago. The captain of the Horizon inspected the damp, mouldy pages of the ship's log-book to examine the last entries but the ink had become too blurred by the moisture to be legible.

Suddenly, a loud groaning noise echoed down the length of the Moonrise, followed by a loud crack. The captain and his men hastened onto the deck and watched in horror as the main mast crashed down into the waters. In a state of panic, the men rushed back to the lifeboat and rowed like mad. As the boat moved away, the ship with the 'skeleton crew' started to break up. The remaining two masts toppled onto the Moonrise and within seconds, the rotting ship started to sink at the stern. The men of the Horizon rowed away just in time to avoid being sucked down with the rapidly sinking vessel.

When news of the strange discovery of the long-lost ship reached the ears of Captain Mallard's wife, who was now in her 60s, she took a turn and fainted. She told the doctor treating her that her husband had been cursed to death for killing a witchdoctor's son, then became incoherent. The doctor administered laudanum, but Mrs Mallard broke out in a sweat and her eyes rolled about. At the minute of her death, which came at 3 o'clock in the morning, seven people attending her sickbed heard the howl of a dog out in the street.

The strange tale was reported in the local newspaper, and when Mr and Mrs Hughes - the couple who had looked after the old slave Obah - read about the discovery of Captain Mallard's old ship and the ensuing sudden death of his wife, they knew that the witchdoctor's curse had done its work.





This story reproduced with permission from Tom Slemen

© Copyright 2004 by Tom Slemen. All Rights Reserved.

Last modification: November 9, 2007


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