By Virginia Schroder
Four men from the parish of Harray became gold traders in West Africa in the mid-19th century. They sold goods imported from Britain to Africans on the Gold Coast, now part of Ghana. These imports included alcohol, guns and ammunition, tobacco, metal, so-called ‘trade goods’ produced specially for the African market such as beads, knives and pipes, and especially ‘Manchester goods,’that is, fabrics of many types. In exchange, they got that precious commodity of gold – as nuggets or as dust.
In the late summer of 1835, 19-year old Joseph Clouston, who had been born in Stromness but was then living at Nisthouse in Harray, arrived at the coastal town of Anamaboe. He was to be an assistant to an established trader there. Having learnt the trade as an employee, in 1838, Joseph set up his own business. Once he established himself on a firm footing, he invited his brother, Charles, to join him. This he did, in the summer of 1841. After amassing a tidy sum of money, Joseph left Africa in October 1846 and returned to Orkney, leaving Charles running the business. Joseph had accumulated £7,325.15.9, equivalent today to about £644,600.
In August 1852, the ss Thomas Snook arrived on the Gold Coast, one of the fleet of ships owned by Forster & Smith, a leading merchant house dealing with trade in West Africa. Their ships carried merchandise to their ‘correspondents’ – associated traders on the coast, and carried back for them the gold the traders had acquired and sold it, on their behalf, in London. The captain of the Thomas Snook was Robert Clouston, brother of Charles and Joseph. Among the cargo, was £400 worth of goods for Charles. Captain Clouston did not see Britain or his family again as, 3 months later, he died at sea.
Charles Clouston, in turn, employed James Hervey, of Winksetter, Harray, as his clerk. James too, became a trader in his own right, in both Accra and Cape Coast. Charles replaced him with William Sutherland, likely to have been another Orcadian. In March 1853, Charles died very suddenly. James died shortly after. James had employed another Orcadian, James Sinclair, of Brough, as his clerk. (This was possibly the same James Sinclair who had married a sister of the Cloustons.)
The following is the prologue to my, as yet, unpublished book about Joseph Clouston. It describes his voyage and arrival on the Gold Coast, and all the men mentioned above would have experienced something similar.
Sand carried by the wind all the way from the Sahara blew against the landward side of the canvas sails and trickled down onto the deck. Joseph felt the grains under his feet as he walked the deck of the brig and, when he ran his fingers along the wood, his fingertips were dusted with a fine red film, the earth of Africa. The old hands among the crew of the brig Governor Maclean had told him that this would be the first sign that they were off the African coast, though no land was in sight and they were still many miles off shore. The arrival of strange and unnaturally large insects on the deck was another.
Confined below deck during the days of bad weather and rough seas, the passengers took every chance they got to be out in fresh air and sunlight. Joseph’s travelling companions were three young men, all bound for the Gold Coast of West Africa, to the small area centred on Cape Coast. They were to work for the traders who formed a tiny British community, strung out along the Gold Coast in several settlements. These had been built as holding places in which slaves, brought from the interior, were kept pending shipment to the West Indies or the Americas. The traders had made their living by exchanging the goods they had shipped from Britain, such as gun and gunpowder, cloth and trade beads, for captured Africans who were exported to provide slave labour on plantations and mines. Since Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and of slavery itself in 1833, all such traffic was supposed to have ceased. The traders who operated along the coast from these same places were now to be involved only in legitimate trade, that is, with no connection to slavery.The exports of Africa were to be ivory, palm oil and especially gold. In exchange for these items, the Africans were offered the manufactures of Britain – all the items that Africans could not provide for themselves or as a Cape Coast old hand put it ‘all the superfluous luxuries that travel in the wake of the white man.’
To be bound for a place with such a murky past, only a year after the anti-slavery Act of Parliament had come into effect, would have been daunting for the most world-hardened individual. How much more daunting it must have been for Joseph. At the age of nineteen, he had left his home and family in Orkney to find work in Edinburgh. When this failed, he hoped for a Hudson’s Bay post but this too did not materialize. After a few weeks in London, he boarded a ship bound for a place about which he knew little, and the little he did know was bad. Notorious, both as the former heart of the slave trade and as a place so unhealthy that few white men returned from, Joseph had good reason to be apprehensive but was probably full of youthful optimism. Adventure lay before him and he would seize the opportunity he had. Joseph did not know the name of his destination, other than it was some way from the main town of Cape Coast. He knew that he was to work for a Mr Barr but had never met him, having been taken on by the merchant house with which Barr was associated.
Joseph was told to expect a voyage of about 42 days but such trips could take over twice as long, depending on sea state and winds. Storms were dreaded but the crew equally loathed a lack of wind. Then the ship was becalmed and they would lie helpless until the wind once more stirred and they could make sail. The ship had to follow a schedule and delay meant loss of money to the owners, Forster & Smith.
Leaving the coast of England behind, the ship sailed across the channel, passed Cape Finistere and crossed the Bay of Biscay and onwards south, perhaps calling at Madeira. It would certainly have passed close enough for Joseph to see its peaks, rich vegetation and the white-washed buildings studding the steep hillsides. They sailed near Tenerife, a sugarloaf rising in the sea mist. The change in the climate was now much more marked. The heat became intense. Combined with blue skies and the dazzling light reflected off the sparkling sea, it made the travellers light-headed and they sought whatever shade they could find on the sun-bleached deck.
In the clear water off the African coast, they saw large numbers of Portuguese men-of-war jelly fish and enormous cuttlefish. Sperm whales came so close to the ship that their spayed ‘jet d’eau’ splashed the deck. Hammer-headed sharks, feared by the superstitious sailors as hideous monsters of the deep, followed alongside the ship. On days when they were becalmed some of the crew fished from the side of the ship for shark, with lines baited with pieces of pork. Once hooked, the shark was killed with a harpoon before being hauled on deck and cut up. The cook served up shark steaks, for as long as it lasted, and the sailors made the shark’s backbone into walking sticks by threading a metal rod through it.
The Governor Maclean called at Freetown, Sierra Leone, to deliver goods and mail for the British residents there and to pick up provisions. Local women came on board to provide a clothes-washing service and to trade fruit. The stopover was brief, for the brig had a tight schedule to keep and excursions on shore were not encouraged for fear of contracting the dreaded fevers.
One day’s sailing beyond Sierra Leone brought the brig to the treacherous shoals of Cap St Ann where many ships had wrecked on the sand banks. Safely past these, for four days the brig followed the coast of Liberia, sailing south-easterly until it rounded Cape Palmas. It passed the Swallow Rock, so called for the sound that it produced, likened to an underwater monster swallowing its victims. They travelled east, along the low-lying Ivory Coast, the swell of the ocean dashing upon the sandbank lined shore. Three days later the brig sailed into the waters off the Gold Coast. They sighted Apollonia, the first of the British settlements, and then the Dutch settlement of Axim, before rounding the sharp headlands of Cape Three Points. Approaching the coast, its outline was at first hazy and indistinct. At closer range, its unchanging landscape became monotonous and sombre and gloomily oppressive and provoked speculation as to what lurked in its depths.
Along this coast almost every point and headland seemed to be topped by a fort, built by Europeans to administer the slave trade. Since the abolition of this trade by Britain and its suppression of the trade continued by other countries, some forts had fallen into decay but, from the deck of a passing ship, they all looked intact. As the brig sailed along the Gold Coast, Joseph had several days to get used to the type of landscape in which he would be living. The shoreline was mostly rocky, indented with creeks and bays fringed with white sand. Densely covered hills rose to about 200 feet above sea level. The vegetation was particularly lush when Joseph arrived, as it was the start of the rainy season, which brought a sudden explosion of fresh greenery. The ship passed another eight forts before approaching the large Dutch fort of Elmina. Its destination, however, was the most imposing structure on the whole Gold Coast; that of Cape Coast Castle, the main British settlement. As the ship got closer to shore the passengers saw the mud walled huts of scattered native villages, set among stands of palm trees.
Cape Coast Castle was, at first, just a white speck on the horizon but, with the aid of a telescope, the British ensign could be seen flying from the battlements. Here, as at all the other Gold Coast settlements, except Dixcove, where small vessels could enter, there was no safe harbour or quay to moor alongside. The brig dropped anchor three-quarters of a mile off shore. Joseph was tantalisingly close to shore but still unable to reach it. He had to resign himself to another night on board ship. He looked at the castle lit up from inside, its white walls, turning rosy red in the sinking sun, reflected in the sea. A little inland and to the left of the castle, the light tower of Fort William burnt brilliantly. The lights on land and the multitude of stars in the sky made a picturesque sight.The air cooled and a thick mist rose, closely followed by the dark of the tropical night. The captain advised against lingering in such damp vapours and so Joseph returned to his cramped bunk.
Next morning, the sun rose as rapidly at it had set the previous evening and Joseph hurried on deck. The settlement lay before him, ringed in green against the blue, cloudless sky. The castle dominated the view. Its southern rampart wall extended for 180 yards facing the sea, built on a ledge of rocks projecting a little way into the sea and constantly pounded by waves. The white of the surf contrasted with the sparkling blue-green of the sea in the dazzling sunlight. Joseph could make out a smudge of buildings on either side of the castle, this being the town itself, behind which rose a range of low, conical hills separated by narrow valleys and covered in dense wood. There was ‘a lightness and elasticity in the clear transparent atmosphere’ and a sense of joy in the gentle lapping of the sea around the boat. Joseph was caught up with the romance of arriving at an unknown place, and its strange beauty. This, combined with relief at having survived the journey, likely filled him with a sense of exhilaration.
The passengers and ship’s crew had a quick breakfast, as they waited for canoes to be sent from the castle to fetch them. They were spotted making their way through the surf from just below the castle. Eventually, they came alongside. As someone brought up in a port, Joseph was familiar with many types of boats but these were unlike any he had seen before. Made from one huge hollowed-out tree trunk, each flat-bottomed canoe was about forty feet long with weather boards attached at the bow to keep out the water. Sixteen Africans manned the long, oval-shaped paddles while another steered. Joseph and his companions were eager to get ashore but they could see that this last leg of the journey was not without its own dangers. The heavy canoes bobbed like corks on the rough sea. One by one, the passengers climbed over the side of the brig and down the ship’s rope ladder. Two canoe men, seizing the right moment, snatched each passenger off the ladder and put him onto the seats lashed to poles across the canoes. Trunks and bags followed and then they were off. The canoe men sang loudly, daring the waves to do their worst and encouraging the canoe to do its best, sometimes patting the canoes sides, as a rider might a horse. Canoe men were notorious for trying to scare new arrivals, but drowning, though rare, did happen and sharks were an ever-present danger. The prevailing south westerly sea breeze at this time of year made the breakers even more mountainous. Just outside the breaking surf, the head of the canoe was turned to the sea, held stationary by the paddles and the paddles were changed for trefoil shaped ones. The man steering looked at each swell rolling towards the beach. When he noticed some favourable change, he turned the head of the canoe to the shore and the canoe surged forwards and was carried high upon the beach.
The canoe men sprang out. Some hung onto the canoe’s sides to stop it from being dragged back to sea. Others grabbed a passenger, lifted them out of the canoe and carried them through the surf. The passengers had to cling to the bare, palm-oil lubricated torso of his carrier with the result that their clothes were soon also smeared with oil. Setting down their passengers at the foot of the castle rock, the canoe men returned to their boats to fetch the luggage. The bedraggled travellers had no time to recover from their undignified and alarming arrival, as a deputation of traders was waiting to greet them, eager to meet newcomers and for any excuse to break their daily routine. Also gathered around to look at the arrivals were the local fisherman, taking a break from mending their nets, the castle servants sent down to carry the baggage and the swarm of excited children desperate to see what the big ship had brought in this time. Joseph was surrounded by noise and colour.
The arrivals were led up a short, steep slope and through its main gate, into the castle itself, and up to their temporary lodging. The castle’s ‘governor’ prided himself on extending generous hospitality to visitors. The castle servants brought each man’s trunk and bags to their rooms. Joseph had a large, airy room with wooden Venetian shutters at the window. The most welcomed element was a freshwater bath, with a bottle of Eau de Cologne thrown into the water, and a glass of hock and soda water. After washing in buckets of seawater for weeks this was indeed luxury.
At around one o’clock they were summoned to ‘relish,’ the main meal of the day, during which the residents pumped the newcomers for the latest news and gossip from Britain. Shrewd appraisals,as to the likelihood of the newcomers to succeed and bets as to their life expectancy, would be made by the established community. After a very substantial meal and much drinking and conversation, Joseph and his companions were free to look around the castle. In the tropical climate, it was a constant battle to keep it looking spruce. Walls were whitewashed every three months but mould soon got a hold and the render flaked off continuously. From the wooden galleries, projecting from the stone walls, Joseph saw fishing boats lined up along the sea’s edge, the roofs of the native town and the clumps of palm trees dotted along the shoreline, stretching far into the distance.
The company reconvened for another meal after sunset. Joseph soon realized how important meals were to the social life of the British community. This evening meal, though lighter than relish, was of several courses and the wine and beer flowed freely. Eventually, the exhausted new arrivals were allowed to go to their bedrooms. The castle servants had lit a fire in each for, though the day had been very hot, once the sun set, the temperature dropped rapidly. Fires were thought essential to stave off the fever-bearing chills borne on the humid night air. That night Joseph savoured the experience of spending his first night in over two months in a bed that did not rock and lurch beneath him. Perhaps he slept soundly or perhaps he lay awake for a long time listening to the roar of the breakers pounding on the rocks below the castle. Perhaps, in that dark, tropical night, Joseph thought of another little sea town, his birthplace, Stromness, the huge gulf that now separated him from his family and home, and the circumstances that led him from all that was familiar into a place that was so very alien.