BY CHALAA DOKU
This is an excerpt from a novel in progress. Copyright is held by the author.
“DON XAVIER, you say you’re a Christian — a Catholic; so, you won’t own slaves.” The speaker smirked and rose to his feet.
“I made that clear, didn’t I?” Don Xavier looked askance at his company.
“A Catholic. So, what exactly do you want to use this estate for, Don Xavier?”
“Monsieur D’Avignon, that too I made abundantly clear; to grow tropical fruits and vegetables and tobacco for the European market.”
“And you’d do all that without holding slaves.” He again wore that smirk. “Do you know Bartolome de Las Casas? He was your compatriot and a Catholic too.”
“What has Las Casas got to do with our discussion here?”
“Everything, Don Xavier, everything. Known as the Apostle of the Indies, he was averse to the mistreatment of Indians. He became bishop of Chiapas in Mexico in the 1540s.”
“And all that history for what, D’Avignon?”
“He saw some Africans on display in your royal court in Spain and suggested that Africans, rather than the weaker Indians, be used for the hard labour on plantations in this part of the world. A Catholic bishop should be held responsible for this slavery.”
The Frenchman would not take the ugly smirk off his face; it annoyed the Spaniard.
“Don’t deride my faith, monsieur. Besides, I don’t appreciate your impertinent tone and that look on your face.”
“Don Xavier, I can’t disrespect you. It’s Catholics and other Christians who are the slave owners; they’re those, who go all the way to West Africa to bring in these Negroes. Some even hold church services on their slavers. We’re not Jews; it’s —”
“Respect my position on slavery, monsieur. You sold this plantation to me, and I’ll do what I like with it.”
“I only wonder how you’ll commercialize this vast estate like you’re saying, without keeping slaves here. It’s just impossible!”
“Like factory workers, they’ll be plantation workers, not slaves. You should rather worry about the great brutalities you people have committed here. Their souls will torture your souls. The Africans you brought here come from Whidah in West Africa; they practice a religion, whose deities wreak terrible curses. You should know that, D’Avignon.”
“Oh, that’s laughable.” He waved dismissively. “I’m a Frenchman; France controls that part of West Africa, so I know of that kingdom of Dahomey and their voodoo religion.”
“So, what of all that magic and witchcraft with this voodoo?”
“It doesn’t scare me. Why didn’t it save them in Africa when the slave masters went seizing them to transport them here? These Africans are toothless; they only have the brawn we need to make us rich and powerful.”
“Would you treat them the way you do if they were Christians?”
“I’m not a Christian, Don Xavier.”
“Oh, you’re not? Are you Jewish?”
“Do Jews hold slaves like Christians do? Remember Moses, the Israelites, and—”
“You’re not a Christian, not a Jew. What are you?”
“What?” Don Xavier de la Vega frowned staring at the Frenchman. “An atheist?”
“Apparently you’ve never met one.” He sniggered. “France is as Christian as Spain is; my hometown is also as Catholic as your Toledo is, but I don’t see any God and Christ in Europe. Not in this New World, maybe somewhere in Africa.”
Don Xavier de la Vega looked quietly at the Frenchman and rose to his feet.
“I think we’re done here. Bon voyage, as you say in your French.”
“You’re disgusted I’m an atheist, aren’t you? I meet people, they come to know what I am, and they feel the same. I’m not bothered.” His grin was even ugly. “At least I’m no hypocrite. All those slave holders—”
“I believe we shan’t be seeing each other ever again.”
“I don’t think so. Tomorrow I sail home.”
“Good or good riddance?”
“Take your pick.”
He laughed. “You’re a good Spanish aristocrat, Don—”
“Goodbye, Frenchman. I say for the last time, we’re done.”
That ugly grin, still lying on his lips, he bowed and stepped outside to his waiting coach. The year was 1792. Don Xavier de la Vega had already concluded the purchase of the plantation from the Frenchman, kicked out of Andros Island by the English, who controlled the Bahama Islands. The Governor of the Bahamas gave the option of sale to the Spanish aristocrat – a handsome, benign, fortyish man, who was his good friend. The Frenchman was older, mid-fifties. Don Xavier, however, did not like what he came to meet. He immediately abolished slavery on the plantation and replaced all the other Frenchmen with Spaniards from his Toledo hometown. Two other Englishmen from the nearby New Providence Island came to join his team. All the African slaves remained on the plantation and became hired labour. He christened the plantation Granja de la Vega.
Word reached the Spanish aristocrat the following day that the Frenchman never sailed home or wherever he was bound. Some Negroes attacked his coach around the site of the present-day hospital; they seized him and his two compatriots travelling with him, but the attackers did not touch the two coachmen. A half-hearted attempt to find the Frenchman was unsuccessful; even other plantation owners in the Bahamas disliked him for his extreme cruelty. They never identified the attackers, but they were Negroes all right, and they did not come from his former plantation. The coachmen attested to that. The news spread like wildfire on the islands; slaves on plantations with liberal owners, had bonfire celebrations deep into the night. People even speculated the English authorities were behind his abduction and certain murder. But who cared? D’Avignon was a beast, and he deserved to die like one.
One of the Englishmen from New Providence Island spoke patois, so Don Xavier got the two oldest among the former slaves, a man and a woman, to tell him things he needed to know about his new estate. The brutalities that happened here shocked him.
“Two pretty African girls, one, 15 and the other, 13, Monsieur D’Avignon brought them here from a slave market for their carnal desires,” said the old woman. “He kept the thirteen-year-old for himself and gave the older one to two of his men. These men repeatedly raped the girl over a certain period, until she fell sick, and they dumped her at our shacks. We cared for her and tried very hard to bring her back on her feet, but she died.”
“When was this?”
“I’m starting from the latest incidents, because the atrocities committed here are too many to recollect and recount in order. Some, too gruesome to recall, Don Xavier,” said the old woman. “This one was just about a month before you became the new master of this plantation.”
“Oh.” Don Xavier inhaled deeply. “That’s very recent.”
“Shortly after the death of the poor girl, that Frenchmen also dumped the thirteen-year-old he got pregnant on us. She’s lying there as we speak, pregnant and very sick.”
“And she’s only 13 you said?”
“She’ll be turning 14 soon, Don Xavier. She’s beautiful, tall, with big bone structure.”
“So, she must look older than her 13,” said the Englishman.
The woman nodded; Don Xavier shifted in his chair.
“That man did the same to his nineteen-year-old daughter, but she run away from the Frenchman and jumped to her death over that cliff. She preferred death to her situation.”
“His daughter you mean?” asked Don Xavier.
“Yes Don Xavier, his very own daughter,” said the woman.
The two men looked at the old Negro, who nodded quietly to confirm what the woman had said. Don Xavier realized the man had something on his mind; something he might not want share. He was too quiet.
“What’s your name, old man?” asked Don Xavier.
“Ruth, Don Xavier.”
“Papa Tobias, I assembled all of you and told you I’ve given you your freedom, even with slavery still out there. You’re paid your wages; you can visit anywhere outside this plantation, and no authority will harass you. You’re free; you believe that, don’t you?”
“Yes Don Xavier, we believe you. You’re a very good man, and we’re very lucky; even if you came in rather late to own us.”
“I don’t own you anymore, and any of you is free to leave this plantation if you can find a free place to go — even back to Africa; if that’s ever possible with you.”
“Um . . ., that’s right, Don Xavier. Sorry for my wrong utterance. Thank you.”
“So talk to me, Papa Tobias. If there’s anything I must know, tell me. I now own this place and I need to know everything that happened here. I’m here to clean up the gory mess that Frenchman left behind. The young pregnant girl, lying sick, I’ll help her get well.”
The two Negroes asked in unison; their eyes twinkled with pleasant surprise and gratification.
“Trust me. I’m nothing at all like that French werewolf; he totally deserved what happened to him. He wasn’t human. Negro, Indian, white, we were all created by our one God, who loves us all equally and has admonish us to treat each with love, kindness, and understanding. Huh? Christ told us this gospel.”
“Yes, Don Xavier. We’re very happy with the church you’ve built, and we very much enjoy the preaching of the priest, who’s here with us every Sunday.”
Ruth said and gave Papa Tobias a certain look. They realized she was urging him out of a shell into which he had coiled himself.
“I’m glad you like the church services. I’m also so heartened to see the chapel always full on Sundays it’s brought some new life to this plantation. Later, I’ll put up a better stone building that’ll stand for generations and centuries to come.”
The ex-slaves nodded with pleasure. This Spanish owner was godsend; already, among the slave population on the island, they were the envy everywhere — even beyond Andros to New Providence and the other islands.
“Um, Don Xavier . . .” Papa Tobias nervously crumpled the straw hat he held in his hand. “When my daughter jumped over the cliff, my wife was shattered. Already, she was crushed when Monsieur D’Avignon dragged our girl into his bed and locked her up in that house just to throw her on his bed whenever he wants a woman.”
He paused; he appeared to be in some contemplation of a sort. Ruth looked at him.
“He’s a good man, Papa Tobias,” she said. “And you know that.”
“Of course, I know. That’s why I’m sitting here so relaxed before a white man, rather than feeling agitated. You know how the mere smell of them . . .,” He swallowed his words.
“But who doesn’t feel that way?” Ruth urging him on.
Papa Tobias half-smiled his agreement and added some words to it. Whatever he said almost made Ruth grin. The tense atmosphere, however, was not conducive for that; her aspect looked it. The man now had painful memories.
“Then tell him everything; he said he needs to know about this place. He’s right; he’s the owner.”
This particular patois they spoke to each other had a lot of African dialect in it, so the Englishmen got lost here. Papa Tobias looked at the benign Spaniard.
“Don Xavier, his wife’s parents were great voodoo practitioners back in Africa.” Ruth spoke. “His mother-in-law was a voodoo priestess. Both of his in-laws died before his wife’s abduction and transportation here. His wife was very good in practising voodoo.”
The white folks instead looked at Papa Tobias, who appeared to be a man of few words.
“She came here, into this house, in the dead of the night, and laid a curse on that man and this house,” said Papa Tobias. “They caught her and hanged her, but she had already done what she came here to do, even if they didn’t believe in voodoo sorcery.”
“There’s a curse here? In this house where I live?”
“Yes, Don Xavier.” Papa Tobias nodded. “Because of that evil man, as I said.”
“Those who took those Frenchmen from the coach were not connected to us, but that was the deed of Papa Tobias’s wife,” said Ruth.
“You mean it was her curse — the effect of it?”
Ruth nodded. “Their death was very horrible; so horrible you wouldn’t want to know; but we know. They saw the spirits of all those they murdered here. Their attackers left them to those spirits who dealt with them. Those men are in hell.”
“We weren’t there, but we know. Please, believe it,” said Papa Tobias. “We know what we’re talking about.”
He looked at the Englishmen. One of them looked sceptical.
“Don’t be sceptical, gentlemen,” said Don Xavier. “I believe because I know.”
“I do too,” said the other who did not doubt. “I’ve been around longer than he has. I lived on a plantation by the Mississippi river, and I’ve seen this voodoo at work.”
Papa Tobias now opened up and took over from Ruth with more of the atrocities committed by their former French masters. One account was so grisly it made Don Xavier excuse them for a moment. It made him sick. Another shocking one was to follow.
“Um, Papa Tobias, I want to hear it all, my reaction notwithstanding,” he said after rejoining them. “So just go on and tell it as it happened.”
“Yes, Don Xavier. That D’Avignon man was married before. Perhaps because of that incident with his wife, he went on the rampage, raping and defiling our daughters; and in the processes, killing some of these young girls as if they were some fluffy little chicks.”
“You mean some revenge raping?” asked one Englishman.
“Papa Tobias, he was doing that already before he brought his wife from his country.”
“I know, Ruth; but it got extremely bad, as I said, after that incident.”
“Well.” She nodded her agreement.
“What incident?” The Englishman’s interest could burst.
“I was just coming to that, sir,” said Papa Tobias.
“Okay,” said the Englishman with the ballooning interest.
Horrid as the narration was, he was not alone in this; both Englishmen and their Spanish boss, who called for it, all had this swelling interest.
“A young Frenchwoman he went home and married, later joined him here. This man was too busy drinking with his colleagues and sleeping with our daughters to give his young wife the attention she needed. She later got pregnant and shocked the entire plantation when she had her baby. The baby was like one of those they’ve fathered — all over our shacks.”
“Oh!” exclaimed one Englishman.
“Madame D’Avignon slept with one of your men?” asked the other.
Ruth nodded. “D’Avignon tried hushing it up here in the house, but that could not be possible; there were domestic slaves, as it is now.”
“When her husband was busy with booze and the black girls, she turned to one of the male domestic slaves.” Papa Tobias added. “She made him her lover.”
Don Xavier said and grinned with pleasure. The Englishmen, on the other hand, were not so thrilled. They had their English wives with them on the plantation; besides, one of these two Englishmen was sleeping with a black woman on this very plantation; even though on the quiet, and it was consensual. They would have been called lovers if the woman was not black or ex-slave. The master did not know this; Papa Tobias and Ruth knew. It was okay with their fellow black woman involved, so they had no problem with it
“It served him right,” said Don Xavier.
“Yes sir, it did,” said Ruth. “That man has a lot of yellow kids in the shacks.”
“He despises them.” Ruth added. “His own flesh and blood! He’d never have had any hesitation to shoot any of them in the head, had any one of them offended him in any way.”
“French vampire.” One of the Englishmen muttered. “You said it, Don Xavier.”
“Yeah. He wasn’t human. Really.” Don Xavier sniggered.
“And I thought I’d seen all the evil from our lot.” The other Englishman sighed.
“Meanwhile, while those children are running around today alive and kicking; the same, however, could not be said for his wife’s yellow baby.” Papa Tobias paused.
“What happened to the baby?”
Everyone could easily guess what happened to the baby, so Don Xavier should have asked, ‘How did the baby die — or was killed?’
“The man . . .” Papa Tobias paused. “That D’Avignon . . . he smashed the little one’s head against a wall, and then he threw —”
The Englishmen winced. One felt an unpleasant sensation in his tummy. Even some tears swelled in his eyes. And they thought they had seen it all! The Spaniard murmured his ‘Mi Dios!’ Their reaction got Papa Tobias to pause. He and Ruth audibly drew in their breaths and looked at the white men. Papa Tobias wondered if he should go on. Even the master, who called for it, was not so sure he wanted to hear anymore.
“Just tell me what happened next and then enough of those infernal cruelties committed here,” he said. “I mean, we’ve heard enough.”
“More than enough,” said one of the supervisors.
“He threw the lifeless body outside and ordered his burial in our cemetery.” Papa Tobias continued. “He didn’t bother to find out which of the four male domestic slaves his wife was taking into her bed; he just didn’t want to know him. That evening, he assembled all of us over there, by those breadfruit trees. He had all four men unclad stark naked. His men fired rifles repeatedly into their abdomen, shattering their manhood. After that, he hanged the men half-dead. A couple of them actually, were already dead before the hanging.”
“Gathering all of us, he did not bother to excluded the children,” said Ruth; face, wet with tears. “Our little ones witnessed the most gruesome murder of three innocent men. Of the four men, only one could be said to have provoked for that extreme cruelty.”
“That poor man had stood between the devil and the deep blue sea,” said Papa Tobias. “He might have relished the act, sleeping with a woman; but honestly, sir, he never wanted it. Each time the wife called him to her bedroom, he pleaded with her; but she insisted, and threatened to accuse him of wanting to rape her. He thought of running away. He should have taken that option, then she might not have got pregnant, D’Avignon wouldn’t know anything, and the rest would have been alive today. I know all this because he often came to me for advice. I didn’t know what to do; I couldn’t help him.”
“I think we end here,” said Don Xavier. “But what happened to the wife?”
“He sent her back to France,” said Papa Tobias. “We understand with some other reason; he felt too ashamed to put out the actual story. He tried hushing it here, I said.”
“I can’t take any more of it, so as I said, we close that chapter here. I’m going to pull down this building immediately and build a bigger and better one. This place is tainted with so much innocent blood.”
So that was what happened. Don Xavier de la Vega pulled down the building and left for Toledo. He had a doctor brought to his plantation and put the sick pregnant girl in his care; he came back in four months, and he was told the pregnant girl had died. The master wept, not before his workers anyway. The present mansion on the Granja de la Vega and the original house were not at all comparable. The one that stood today was magnificent; the previous one was unimposing — and it really smelt evil!
Throughout her narration, Maria Immaculata had wanted to spare her angelic daughter-in-law the gruesome details, but it was because of her she was telling it all, in the first place, and Makeda wanted to hear everything. She did wince and drew in her breath here and there to their discomfort, but she must hear it all, she implored. It was about the property they had agreed to give her as her wedding present. Dr O’Reilly had come back to see her favourite patient on something she forgot to do earlier. She ran into the historical narrative of the Granja de la Vega. She was a denizen of North Andros, and she knew that history.
“If the Family de la Vega would take my advice, I’d give one on this,” she said.
“Barbara, we’ve always taken your advice,” said Maria Immaculata.
“I know. Just a preamble to what I want to say.”
“So please shoot.” Omani grinned.
“There’s someone you de la Vegas ought to go and see concerning this history.”
“Yes, Maria Immaculata, you need to see her. She’s a psychic; she deals with the paranormal. Nothing sorcery whatsoever about her activities. Beulah isn’t on the other side, as it were; she’s a Christian, but her gift makes her look very different — really odd. You just refreshed my memory of the history of your estate, which also reminds me of Beulah. She’d have something on it to your benefit, I believe. Trust me on this.”
“What haven’t we trust you on, Barbara?”
Dr O’Reilly smiled. Maria Immaculata looked convinced already.
“Like Shimellea, I suppose.”
Omani uttered. He addressed Makeda in Amharic, who responded affirmatively. They had momentarily forgotten the presence of the doctor and their aunt, both of whom looked at them, lost. Omani realized his error, apologized, and corrected it, telling them of Shimellea, who their aunt already knew of. They readily heeded to Dr O’Reilly’s advice.
Chalaa Doku ran a playhouse, wrote, and produced a play (his first literary work) to an enthusiastic reception. That cut him a niche in the theatre and he has produced more plays and sketches for African dance drama. He finally settled on writing fiction. His other literary works include literary nonfiction, poetry, and screenplay. He has a great love for knowledge; he reads widely. He takes keen interest in Mother Nature and human character, and he writes about them. He has gained recognition from friends, family, and his community; he is working hard towards publishing