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 Early youth—I run away to sea on a fishing-boat—Hardships of the life—Take service on a tugboat—Life on board a tramp—First view of tropical African coast—A collision at sea—Land at Durban, 1895
This book is simply an attempt to set down, in a plain and straightforward manner, some account of the various experiences and adventures of the author during a period of some fifteen years spent in hunting, trading, and exploring, principally on the eastern side of the African continent. The title has been suggested by some episodes in the narrative, the main facts of which are within the recollection of many of the white men now in British East Africa. These episodes caused somewhat of a stir at the time, and the author had to stand his trial before the local courts on a capital charge as a direct consequence of the facts here narrated.
I was born at Hull, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, on 11 May, 1874, so that at the time of writing this book I am still a comparatively young man. I lived there with my parents until I was six years of age, when I was sent to Germany to be educated at the little town of Engelfingen, where my parents had some relatives living, and it was here that I received all the schooling I have ever had. This early education has left its mark on me, and even at the present day I sometimes find it difficult to express myself correctly in English—a fact, I hope, an indulgent public will take into consideration.
At the age of thirteen my schooling in Germany ended, and I returned home to my parents, who wished me to continue my school-days in Hull, as I had received no English education whatever; but I strongly objected to going to school again, and, evading their efforts to control me, spent most of my time about the docks, watching the vessels in and out.
By this time my mind was bent on a seafaring life, and I lost no opportunity of scraping acquaintance with sailors from the different ships, whose tales of the various countries they had visited and the strange sights they had seen fired my imagination and made me more determined than ever to follow the sea.
I practically lived on the docks, and one of
my greatest delights was to pilot a boat round them, or to get some of my many friends among the sailors to allow me to help with odd jobs about a vessel, such as cleaning up the decks or polishing the brasswork; and I was fully determined to get away to sea at the first opportunity.
My keenest desire, at this time, was to enter the Navy, but my parents would not hear of my going to sea, and without their consent I could not be accepted, so that idea had to be abandoned. I was determined to be a sailor, however, and kept my eyes open for a chance of getting away on one of the fishing-vessels sailing out of Hull, among which were still many of the old sailing-boats, which have now been almost entirely displaced by the steam-trawlers. When I had been at home about six months the longed-for chance came. I got to know that one of the trawlers was to sail at a very early hour one morning, so, stealing out of the house before any of the other members of the family were about, I made my way down to the docks. This being before the days of the large tonnage steam-trawlers, the vessels carried only about five hands, and finding that the boat on which I had set my mind was in need of a cook and cabin-boy, I offered my services, and was duly signed on. My knowledge of the work was nil, but, to my surprise and delight, the captain asked no awkward questions, and I found myself
enrolled as a member of the crew of my first ship, which was bound for the North Sea fishing-grounds, and was expected to be away for about three months.
I was very seasick on this first voyage—the only time in my life that I have ever suffered from that complaint—and the life proved less attractive than I had expected. In those days the lads on the fishing-boats were very badly treated, and though I had not so much to complain of in this respect, I found it a very trying life at the best. The work itself was very hard, and I was liable to be called up at any hour of the day or night to prepare hot coffee or do anything that any member of the crew wanted me to do.
It was on this voyage that I had a very narrow escape of being drowned in a gale which we encountered. We had taken in the second reef of the mainsail, which hung over like a huge hammock, and I was ordered aloft to perform the operation known as reefing the lacing. As I was crawling along the sail a heavy sea struck the ship, carrying the boom over to the weather side, which caused the sail to flap over and pitch me head first into the sea. Fortunately for me, the accident was witnessed by the crew, one of whom seized a boathook, and, as I came within reach, managed to catch me by the belt, and so succeeded in hauling me on board again,
feeling very miserable and, of course, drenched to the skin, but otherwise none the worse for my adventure.
With this exception, there was little out of the ordinary in my life on the trawler, unless I mention an experience I had when we were lying off the then British island of Heligoland.
It was the custom for the captains of the various boats to go ashore all together, in one boat, on Sundays, and the crew also often took advantage of the opportunity of a run ashore. One Sunday they had all gone ashore, leaving me in sole charge of the ship, my principal duties being to prepare the dinner and stoke the boiler of the donkey-engine so as to keep steam up ready for hauling up the anchor at a moment’s notice. Soon after they had gone some lads came off in a shore-boat, and as I could speak German we were soon on the best of terms, and of course I had to give them biscuits and show them round the ship. So engrossed was I with my new-found friends that I forgot all about the boiler, until I noticed a strong smell of burning. We all raced to the engine-room, to find that the boiler was red hot and had set fire to the woodwork round it. Not knowing what else to do, we chopped away the woodwork and threw it overboard, and so prevented the fire spreading. Scenting trouble ahead, my friends took to their boat and cleared out, while
I decided that it would be wise to disappear for a time also, and so hid myself in a part of the ship where I thought I was least likely to be found. The captain made a big fuss when he discovered the damage, and I heard him calling loudly for me, but I thought it would be wise to remain out of sight until he had had time to cool down; so I stayed where I was, turning up again next morning. He did not say much when I appeared, probably because he thought awkward questions might be asked if any bother was made as to why a youngster like myself had been left in sole charge of the vessel.
I returned to Hull after six months with the fishing fleet, fairly sick of life on a trawler, and with my mind made up to try for something better in the seafaring line.
My great idea was to get abroad and see something of the world, and I should, so I thought, stand a better chance of doing this if I went to Liverpool and tried to get a ship there. Having no money—my entire worldly possessions consisted, at this time, of a few spare clothes—I set out to walk the whole distance from Hull.
For a lad of fifteen this was no light undertaking, but, as in other instances in my career, the very difficulties only seemed to make the idea more attractive; so I started boldly off. Having no very clear idea of the route to be
followed, I made for York, and then continued my journey by way of Leeds and Manchester. I had no money, so, to procure the little food I could allow myself, I pawned my spare clothes at different places on my way, and helped out my scanty meals with an occasional raw turnip or carrot; and though I had to go on rather short commons towards the end of my journey, I managed to get through without being reduced to begging. Of course I had nothing to spare for lodgings, and used to sleep out during the day, continuing my journey at night, and as it was early in the year—about the beginning of May—I found the cold at times bitter, but this was my greatest hardship.
After a rather weary journey I eventually arrived in Liverpool, very footsore but in good spirits, and finding a lodging-house in the sea-men’s quarter of the town, kept by an old sailor who was willing to take me in on trust until I got a ship, I took up my quarters there, agreeing to repay him as soon as I got a berth.
I still had a strong inclination for the Navy, so I applied at the recruiting office, but, as I could not show my parents’ consent, they refused to accept me, and I had to look elsewhere. At last I got a berth on a tugboat, called the Knight of St. John, which was going out to Rotterdam to tow a barque, the Newman Hall, into Liverpool.
While at Rotterdam I managed to get into another scrape, but, fortunately, it was not a very serious one, though I suffered some discomfort. It was known on board that I could speak German well, so I was sent ashore to buy cigars and tobacco for the officers and crew. I must have been longer away than they expected, as when I got back to the quay the boat was gone. Having no money left, I was in a fix for a night’s lodging, until I noticed a small wooden hut on the beach, apparently unoccupied, so, taking shelter in this, I made myself as comfortable as possible and went to sleep. On waking the next morning I was astonished to find the shanty surrounded by water. It turned out to be a hut built for the use of bathers, and at high tide was always surrounded by the sea; consequently I had to stay where I was and wait more or less patiently until the tide went down far enough to enable me to wade ashore. While I was wondering what to do next I saw the tug coming along close inshore, and shouting until I attracted attention, I was soon aboard again.
Having got our tow-line aboard the barque, we started on our return journey to Liverpool, but had scarcely got clear of land before it commenced to blow heavily, and the sea became so rough that we had to part company with the barque, which, fortunately, drifted back to
Rotterdam, while we found ourselves with only sufficient coal to take us into Dover.
I did not stop long with the tug, as I came to the conclusion that there was little chance of getting on in my profession if I was content to simply knock about from ship to ship. If I was ever to get an officer’s certificate, I must start by getting a berth as A.B. (able seaman), in an ocean-going ship, so that I could put in the four years’ regular sea service which I should have to show before going up for my certificate, of which at least twelve months had to be on a sailing ship trading to foreign ports. I therefore looked out for a suitable berth, and at last shipped on a barque, the Lake Simcoe, trading to South America.
I had, as usual, my share of incident during the voyage.
Whilst trading in Brazil, we made a trip up the River Amazon, during which I got a touch of yellow fever, and on arriving at Laguna, where we had to take some logwood on board, I was put ashore to go into hospital. I do not know what alterations have been made since I was there, but at that time the hospital was a gloomy enough building, with heavily barred slits in the wall for windows, and used indifferently as hospital, lunatic asylum, and gaol, while the strong resemblance to a prison was heightened by the fact that the place was always guarded by a detachment of soldiers.
The hospital arrangements were disgusting and reckless, no regard being paid either to sanitation or the prevention of infection. All manner of diseases were mixed indiscriminately in the same ward, while the duties of orderlies and attendants on the patients were undertaken by some of the more harmless among the lunacy cases!
One gruesome discovery which I made soon after my entry was that the establishment possessed only one coffin, which had to do duty for each fatal case in turn, being made with a sliding bottom, which reduced the work of lowering the corpse into the grave to a minimum. When a case ended fatally, the corpse was placed in this coffin—which was always kept in the ward—and taken out for burial, the coffin being afterwards returned to its place in the hospital, in full view of the other patients! As there were generally three or four funerals every day, it may be easily imagined that the effect on those left behind was not the most cheering.
One other custom in the hospital struck me as very peculiar. When a patient became very bad the attendant generally gave him a spoonful of a substance which, from the smell, I have since thought must have been opium. Whether or not this was merely given to relieve pain I cannot say: I only know that the patient invariably died soon after taking it.
One day the spoon was brought to me, so I asked the attendant, one of the harmless lunatics, to place it on the table by my bedside. Occupying the adjoining pallet was a Brazilian soldier, who, waking up in the night, asked if he might have the stuff in the spoon, as he was in terrible pain. Thinking it might relieve him, I made no objection, and he eagerly swallowed the lot. The next morning he was dead!
After this experience, I was anxious to get out of my present quarters as rapidly as possible, and a chance came a day or two afterwards of which I at once took advantage. It happened to be Sunday, and my bed being close to one of the slits which served for windows, I heard the voices of some of the crew of the Lake Simcoe outside. I at once shouted to attract their attention, and begged them to get me out of this awful hole. Recognising my voice, they threw themselves on the soldiers guarding the place, and, after a struggle, managed to get in, and carried me off. I was fearfully weak, and scarcely able to stand, but they managed to get me aboard ship at last, where, with proper attention, I soon recovered.
On the homeward voyage we had terribly rough weather in the Atlantic, and the ship became top-heavy, listing to such an extent that the fore-yard-arms were practically in the water the whole time. For days we were drenched to
the skin with the big seas which broke over the vessel continually, and the hull being practically under water, I wrapped myself in a blanket—having no dry clothing left—and kept my watch seated on the mast, which dipped in and out of the water with every roll of the ship.
To add to our misfortune, scurvy broke out very badly among the crew, owing to the wretched quality of the food, and, altogether, we were very thankful when we at last made Falmouth harbour.
Shortly after my return I joined the Royal Naval Reserve, in which I had to put in a month’s drill every year, as I was still bent on getting into the Navy, if possible, and I thought that, if I could work my way up to a Lieutenancy in the Reserve, I might manage it that way.
By this time I had done my twelve months in a sailing ship; so, by shipping on steamers trading to different parts, I was able to visit many interesting places. For twelve months I was on a boat trading between the various ports on the coast of India, and on another voyage was in a ship taking pilgrims from Port Said to Jedda. Our passengers on this voyage were chiefly Arabs and Turks on their way to Mecca. For another trip I shipped in one of the Royal Niger Company’s boats, and we went up the West Coast of Africa with trading goods, chiefly old flint-lock
rifles and gunpowder. We also had on board two or three white men, who were going on an exploring trip into the interior.
I was very much impressed with this part of the world, the tropical scenery was so magnificent on either side of the rivers, while I was intensely interested in the natives who came down to trade with the ship. I made up my mind that I would go into the interior myself some day, and get to know more about the country and its people. As it turned out, a good many things were to happen before this intention was carried out.
During this trip I contracted malarial fever, and not being able to shake it off, had to go into hospital at Rotterdam on our return. On my recovery I spent some time on coasting vessels trading out to Guernsey, and one night, when we had put into Dungeness, through stress of weather, I had another startling experience.
Roused out of my sleep—it was my watch below—by a shout of “All hands on deck!” I rushed up, just in time to see another ship coming directly towards us. We shouted, but she kept on her course, and in a few seconds crashed into us. Apparently everybody lost their heads at once, and a scene of utter confusion followed, nobody appearing to know what to do. I saw that the yards of the two vessels had become
entangled, and expected every minute to see them fall, and crush the boat, which was stowed away on deck; so I made my way to the poop, and shouted to the crew to get the boat out at once. So great was the confusion that it is almost impossible to say what really happened. I only know that I eventually found myself in a boat with only one other man, and as we pulled off we saw the ship which had done the mischief apparently drifting away. Pulling to her, we managed to scramble aboard, and, to our great surprise, found that there was not a single soul on board, and we then remembered seeing her crew jumping on board our vessel at the time of the collision. Everything was in apple-pie order, and the lamp lit, and we could not find anything the matter with the ship, so that her crew must have been seized with a sudden fit of panic, and abandoned her in their fright. We were on board just in time to steer her clear of a steamer, and then we dropped anchor. The following morning her crew returned on board, looking rather foolish, and we were transferred to our own vessel, which was then towed to London.
I put in a claim on account of salvage, and after a good deal of delay, found that the owners had settled for salvage, demurrage, and loss with the captain of the barque, who was also the owner. I had left the ship when we reached
London, but happened to meet the captain later on in Hull, when he invited me to accompany him to Guernsey, to see about my share of the salvage money. At the last minute I found that I could not go, so he promised to write me on the matter, but on the homeward voyage his boat was lost, and he went down with it, so the letter never arrived. Although very disappointed at the loss of my expected windfall, I was very glad I had not been able to go with the captain, or I should have lost my life as well.
Since my last voyage I had been working up for my certificate, attending a Navigation School on Prince’s Dock Side, in Hull: but I was doomed to disappointment, as, when I came to be medically examined, the doctor found that my eyesight was affected, and could not pass me. This was the result of the yellow fever from which I had suffered in Brazil.
After this I had to give up all hopes of the sea as a career, unless I was willing to remain before the mast all my life, and that was by no means my idea; so my thoughts turned to Africa, and I remembered the impression made on my mind by the little I had already seen of it, and the attraction which the idea of its huge unexplored districts had always had for me since my school-days, and I decided to see what I could do out there.
Being again at the end of my money, the only
way I could get there was by working my passage, and as I could not get a berth in any boat going from Hull, I went to London, and being successful, landed at Durban, in Natal, just after the Jameson Raid.

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