Part 3 – Lieutenants
Chapter 9 – The Congo
Ephraim and the men from Freytus having had their baptism in Niger were ready for the Congo. The orders from Admiral Redford were for boat parties to bombard the northern bank of the Congo and burn and destroy the villages. The local chief Bana was ignoring British orders and Admiralty had decided to escalate punishment. There had been trouble when the master and crew of an American schooner tried to enter the mouth of the Congo at Banana creek where some factories were being established. There was a skirmish with some Dutch settlers and the Americans ran ashore at Sharp’s Point where they were attacked and plundered by natives. They had been left stranded until a British steamer arrived and picked them up. The natives were told to return the stolen goods. There being no sign of compliance, the Freytus was called up to sort out the trouble. Orders came from Admiralty for boat parties to bombard the northern bank of the Congo and burn and destroy the villages. Captain Harkness set about fulfilling, answering his orders. Two different landing parties would be sent out. They were to find the culprits who had attacked and robbed the Americans and bring them in. He decided on a small bombarding party with marines and bluejackets led by the new Lieutenant Polwhele with Lieutenant Browne bringing up the rear, and Sebold could lead another with Lieutenant Hocking and Sub Lieutenant Trimble. The Sub Lieutenant was proving a useful adjunct.
Polwhele was thrilled with his new assignment of a field gun. No more cutlass and musket or rifle and pistol, his hands ran over the muzzle of the Howitzer with something like affection. He supervised the loading for bombardment. He grinned at the bluejackets ready for action stations, and ‘time for a bit of fun’. His gun could operate freely as required in the time given, this was the life! No worries about the climate or the discomfort, no anxiety as to right or wrong. He would simply fire away as quickly as he could with his division of bluejackets. He was ready for what might come, if only this leg would behave itself, he rubbed his knee.
Mason did not share Polwhele’s enthusiasm. He was glad not to be involved in one of the firing parties. He stood and watched them with their armament and guns disappear into the jungle. Those left aboard listened to the sounds of bombardment and waited to see the smoke of burning villages appear in the sky. Mason was reflective. How right was it that death should be rewarded with death? Wherein lay the reward? To the killer, the reward of vengeance taken, but for the corpse, (remember, not just a corpse, a soul!) Heaven or Hell. And what reward of honour and glory for a black man’s corpse! He had never much liked gunnery and now he saw Christ at the wrong end of a gun. It wasn’t until he had found himself with these naval brigades after that business up the Niger that he really saw what death was. Was the new torpedo really any different? Either way, it was death but the trouble was that torpedo was death sent from the safety of a ship’s deck without any anguish to the perpetrator from the sight of broken human flesh and torn spirit. Thou shalt not kill but it was a basically clean and sensible way to wage war if war must be waged. It basically preserved civilian lives and allowed confrontation between the opposing powers to settle the matter in question. At the moment, he was more concerned with surviving the infernal heat. The neck cloth did nothing to prevent the sweat from constantly dripping down the back of his neck, and the chafing between his legs and around his crotch was beginning to get on his nerves.
Eventually time was called on the bombardment and the sounds of battle ceased to be heard on the Freytus. Without knowing the result, the men on the ship set up guard and looked forward to a decent night’s sleep. A little after dark Sebold and Trimble returned. They had seen few natives, fired off a couple of rockets and used the Howitzer to start a blaze. None of the party had sustained an injury although Trimble had provided a diversion by falling into the river and having to be dug out of the mud, while Sebold shot and killed the croc speeding towards him,
‘Might have been killed,’ laughed Trimble.
‘Worth a medal,’ yawned Sebold, as, tired and exhausted, they sat around gratefully imbibing the rationed water bottles. They did not know when the second boarding party would return or if another party would be be required. Nothing further could be heard from the shore and the men on Freytus settled down. Captain Harkness waited anxiously to hear from the Admiral. Despatches showed that it was not good news. Chief Bana, far from capitulation, was massing forces further up river and this time the natives were showing strategy. It was reported that Bana had men and armaments hidden in the huts of his main stronghold, muslin bags filled with iron scraps and bamboo sticks had been found stacked by guns, and the war drums had started up again.
Mason was anxious for the return of Browne and Polwhele. Harkness was anxious because the Bohemie creek was to be their next destination and he must go with reduced forces, if necessary. It was a difficult night. What should he do if Polwhele and Browne did not return. Were they lost?
Browne and Polwhele had fallen in with a group of Marines on the river bank, a tired naval brigade now resting before their next deployment. Several of the stockades along the river had already been the subject of attack; easily disposed of and the attached village huts burned as the natives ran away. But there was more to do, they had yet to drag the new Maxim and two other old guns back to the ship ready for the next work of destruction. The war drums were beating ever louder. They set up encampment for the night and the men sat and waited for the officers to give them news of what was next, they did not hear the Lieuts. Polwhele and Browne arguing:
‘Pol we have to wait for orders!’ Ephraim was sipping from his rationed water bottle, ‘We haven’t heard anything yet! I know you and Seb are always keen to get on and strike at any lumps of wood that look like a stockade or a village, but I reckon we wait here. We don’t know where Seb is, and if no orders are forthcoming, I reckon we should make our way back to the shore and find our boats and get ourselves back to Freytus and hope some other brigade finishes off this business! Harkness will be waiting for us.’
‘I know that’s what you think – that is just like you – but look, we could do ourselves a bit of good here. We still have our ammunition for the howitzer and if we took just that, and left the marines here to hold the fort we could make a surprise raid and get ourselves another stockaded village and perhaps some prisoners to boot. That would make old Redford sit up!’
‘And how are we going to handle prisoners when we’re running out of food and water to keep them and would have to take them back to the Freytus?’
‘Well, I don’t care what you say, I’ve been talking to the marine Captain, Barnard, he says he will go back to the Freytus if he doesn’t get other orders. Reckons his men have had enough.’
Bit lily-livered for a marine, if you ask me! If there are no further orders, we should go up river with the men we have and do what damage we can when we get there – or when we see something. I bet Bana has got munitions stacked away in any number of old mud huts along the way – and men, probably. We could get a medal!’
‘Honestly, Pol, it’s like talking to Gail when he was a cadet – when he wanted to kill Stollman with his penknife!’
‘And you brought him down with your fists. Come on! We can do ourselves some good here, something to get ourselves in despatches.’
‘Shut up Pol. I’m tired and so are the men, we’ll get some sleep and return tomorrow if we don’t get any other news.’
‘How are we going to get news, here?’
‘Exactly, we must obey orders and get back. We’ve done whatever we can.’
There was a sudden commotion on the edge of the encampment, a native fell out of the bush streaming with blood from his neck, his slave chains still upon him, he could barely speak,
‘Slave master dead,’ he said. ‘I kill him with my own hands. Slaves kept in huts in Ephil, some escape, some shot.’ He pointed upstream and then fell at their feet.
‘OK, I give in,’ said Ephraim, ‘Take care of this one.’ He deployed a couple of bluejackets to pick the man up. ‘And we’ll set off at once with Barnard and the men we have to sort this out.’
Polwhele grinned, ‘Well, you are a bit older than me so I suppose you have jurisdiction. Good job we didn’t have to fight it out.’
The heat of the day rose early. The men set off. The sight of the bleeding black man with the slave chains around his neck gave them renewed courage. One of the marines tried to file the chains off, another tried to hack them off, but it seemed less of a hazard to keep them on. The men hacked away at the path before them with enthusiasm and vengeance. There was a cry as one of the marines thought he was going to be bitten by a great tarantula but Lieut Hocking, speedy as well as big, stamped a heavy foot on just in time. Confidence was further restored by the fact that the sound of native drums arrested them by their silence.
‘Amazing how you get used to the things,’ declared Ephraim.
‘Yes, it’s the way that they suddenly change their beat and the tone seems to be sending you another message – so sinister, so frightening.’
‘Just don’t listen,’ said Polwhele bringing a huge tree fern down with the swipe of his sword blade, ‘But listen to that!’ he stopped. Behind the sound of calling birds and buzzing insects, there was a quiet hum of human voices coming from the bank. These were not the walking, hunting voices of natives. These were voices of men talking in a circle – men planning things – men not intending to be heard, planning strategy. ‘A colloquy of natives’, Ephraim thought, ‘behind the bushes’. The marine Captain at the back lifted his hand to halt the company. They all listened. How far away, even in the heavy air, the voices carried. But how far, quarter of a mile?
‘Let’s get these damn guns going,’ said Barnard, ‘Don’t care how much noise we make – frighten them off! Grey and Thomas, Cross and Trigg, you get on to the Maxim, we need all the weight we can get now. This path is winding up. We’ll get up to the top of the hill and rush down, take them at the back of the clearing. Rush them onto the beach. They won’t be expecting us. Thank God it’s not too muddy.’
The bluejackets pulled to with a will. The marine cook had produced something like pancakes and handed them round for breakfast, Barnard had dealt out a little rum with the water. It was fun to be young and vigorous and wearing blue. They crested the hill and at the signal, started to run down, the guns almost ran away with them, and they burst into the clearing whooping and cheering. Ready for bullets and gun shots! But there was a shocked silence as they realised there was no one there. Not a native to be seen, only remnants of fire, native headgear, pipes, bowls on the ground. Nothing to be heard, nothing to be done. The natives had gone. A breath of relief as men relaxed and guns were set down. A moment to sit on the grass and take a swig.
‘What a sell!’ Barnard laughed and stretched out.
Ephraim was relieved, the wounded were comfortable and it wasn’t that far back to the ship. Then an arrow grazed Barnard’s ear. The air was rent by drum beats, and drum bearers danced down the hill. Natives appeared on all sides and attacked with musket fire and bullets as well as poisoned spear and arrows. It was a short, sharp attack with the use of the Maxim. Almost as soon as it started the natives disappeared, but it had taken its toll. Two bluejackets and a marine were killed by gunshot and Hocking had been speared through the chest.
‘Into the village now, Barnard! Quickly, before news gets around!’ Polwhele urged.
‘What about the wounded, we can’t leave them!’ said Ephraim.
‘Don’t worry, the bluejackets are used to this sort of thing. They know what to do.’
‘So do I,’ said Ephraim. He went over and checked on the men. They should be taken back to the ship but now they would have to go on with the main party. He was horrified to find Hocking injured. He took a deep breath and decided the arrow must be pulled out or Hocking might die. He was used to boxing injuries. This was different. He did not know whether to pull gently or firmly. He opted for firmly. Fortunately, it was not too deep, there was not too much blood and it came out easily. He called CPO Trigg over, ‘Do what you can here Trigg, not as much blood as I expected. You have the equipment?’ Trigg nodded and Ephraim returned to the front of the party.
‘I will lead into the village, Pol. You bring up the rear! There may be some hidden enemy. Be prepared for another sharp occasion.’
After the Maxim had done its work and the bluejackets had seen off the last of the natives left in the village, they approached the chief’s large hut and it’s circle of small mud dwellings.
‘Must get on and burn this lot,’ said Polwhele.
‘Make sure all the women and children are out first,’ said Ephraim as Barnard ordered the bluejackets to get going. ‘I’ll just check the inside of his hut.’
‘Mind how you go, Browne!’
The makeshift wooden door was ajar. The interior amazed them. Stacked around the walls were piles of cotton bags filled with nails, bolts, pieces of metal, sharpened sticks of various woods and nails. How were the natives going to use these things? Slingshots and arrows? Could do a lot of damage. But not as much as with the two breech loading machine guns and the old rifles that were also stacked away.
With rockets and howitzers, they set fire to the empty huts, a pastime enjoyed by some of the younger bluejackets, and the native village was destroyed as per Admiralty orders. With a satisfactory sense of job done they made their way back along the path they had hacked out to see the Freytus just as the sun was setting.
Harkness was relieved to see them. It looked as if one of the bluejackets might not make it through the night but Barnard still had most of his ear. The Captain was impressed by the report the Marine captain gave of him of young Browne’s handling of the expedition. Sebold thought it a bit over-rated. All very well to worry about the wounded but the wounded weren’t the winners!
‘Shame you couldn’t bring back any prisoners, Browne – so good for information.’
‘And promotion,’ said Polwhele, slapping him on the back.
Polwhele was right, the Admiralty had taken an interest in what was going on in West Africa and were on the look out for promising Lieutenants in an up and coming area of world interest. Ephraim was lounging on the deck of Freytus trying to work up enough enthusiasm for the next trek up the Congo, when Sebold came up and told him Harkness wanted to see him.
‘Hello Browne, that was fine, good work with Bana, Admiralty was impressed by the way you got rid of that armament the chief was holding in his hut.’
‘Just a matter of getting the marines on to it and removing it. Managed to burn most of it.’
‘Well, it seems you are in favour, Browne. Captain Turner has asked me to sound you out for Peerless. It is a corvette commissioned for the Australia Station. How would that strike you?’
‘Perhaps an improvement on the Congo, sir?’
‘He is proposing to offer you First Lieutenant?’
Ephraim could not hide a rising tide of enthusiasm, First Lieutenant already? Well, that was a bit of luck. And after all that business with Emily on Greatheart! Perhaps Turner wasn’t such a bad chap after all.
‘Be very happy to accept sir.’
‘Well, I’ll pass that on. Good luck, fortune with it.’
Ephraim did not like to pass that on immediately to Sebold. He felt Seb might not be totally pleased. However, he knew that if there was any feeling that Ephraim had kept it to himself it would be worse.
He went to find Sebold,
‘Slug of coffee here for you Seb. Just spoken to Harkness. Says Turner wants me for First Lieutenant on Peerless on the Australia station. Any idea what’s up for you?’
‘It’s only a small, screw sloop.’
‘Well, I suppose I didn’t get so involved in the Bana business. These things make a difference. Good luck to you, old chap. I will miss you.’
‘Come off it. We’re sure to meet again soon. Not enough of us young lieutenants around. And there’s plenty going on at the moment. Lots of bright ideas. You’ll be a Captain in the new navy, next time I see you.’