Mitch stood at the port side looking at the calm ocean, land appeared on the horizon signalling the ships approach into the Gulf of Guinea. He enjoyed the past 22 days on the Dunbar, most of the weeks at sea Mitch entertained himself in the mid-level accommodations reserved for first class passengers, Michael on the other hand spent a majority of the time heaving the contents of his stomach over board or the waste room in their shared lodging. After only a few hours from departing Southampton Michael discovered he did not have the greatest sea legs and his stomach unfortunately absorbed most of the continuous discomfort.
There was a doctor on board who provided Micheal with a tonic concoction that helped him through the most trying moments but Mitch and the doctor shared a fearful concern that any prolonged delay in their voyage would put his friend’s health in serious jeopardy.
When the two men arrived at Castle Port in Southampton they stood in awe and marveled over the R.M.S. Dunbar. A little over 120 meters with 2 sail masts, double exhaust funnels,she was a newer model of twin screw propeller with a maximum speed advertised at 14 knots. The estimated arrival time into the Gulf of Guinea was 25 days but it appeared to Mitch as land became more visible they would be entering harbor almost 2 days ahead of schedule.
Lagos was originally a fishing community but grew into a larger commerce for British trade with a large portion of exports involving rare oils from various palms and plants found along the Niger river which ran to the west of the vastly growing community.
As they entered harbor making their way into the Lagoon of Lagos he was taken back at the size of the colony’s port, his sheer excitement to run off the ship and see every end of Lagos had Mitch anxiously pacing from bow to stern.
When they secured to port the crew of the ship aided by the men on the dock began to unload the ship, Mitch quickly ran down onto the pier looking out over the lagoon lined with the exotic trees with groups of buildings scattered behind them.
It sounded like a city, people coming and going with their daily routines oblivious to the fact they they were in a new world, but it wasn’t new to them. Mitch had to remind himself that he was new to here and not the other way around, he was the interloper.
“Sir, I think you forgot your companion.” called a voice from behind him.
Mitch turned to face a member of the ship’s crew aiding a visibly weak Michael edging their way down the gangplank.
Mitch ran up and helped the man get Michael down to the landing of the pier, he stood for a quick moment forcing an uncomfortable smile. Michael looked at Mitch preparing to say something then was quickly overcome with a fit of gagging, fell to his knees and threw up over the edge into the water. Mitch looked at Michael knowing he needed to help him but also understood that he should arrange for the expediting of their luggage at the same time locate their contact here in Lagos.
A man wearing tan khakis a white cotton shirt and flawlessly shined brown dress shoes walked directly up to him, he had a very well groomed mustache and an attractive face that seemed familiar.
“Mr. Alpert I presume?”
Mitch was stunned for a moment, but not by how nicely this African man was dressed but how proper his English accent was.
“Yes I am.” said Mitch.
“I am Monroe Kelly, your contact here. Welcome to Lagos.”
“Your accent?” stuttered Mitch.
“My birth parent’s were killed when I was born in the eastern region. I was brought here by my English parents who were missionaries. I spent a few years on The Queen’s soil before my parents decided to return to Africa for more of the good work.”
“How rude of me… I am apologize Mr. Kelly. Mitch Alpert, and this fellow at my feet is my friend and business partner Michael Allen.”
“The sea is not for everyone. I have a carriage ready, we will put your bags in the back and if you do not mind sitting in the front with me we could spread Mr. Allen down in the coach seats to get some rest.”
“That would be splendid. I would like to express my gratitude Mr. Kelly.” said Mitch.
“Please call me Monroe, and if you would like I have a nice stogie for the both of us as we make way to the building where you will be staying while in Lagos.”
The carriage took them through the center, he described the past history of the colony form the annexation 30 years prior to the creation of a liberated African yard which gave freed slaves employment opportunities and rights under the British rule.
“You are a British citizen?” asked Mitch.
“Not precisely. There are two types of African citizens in Lagos-those who are born here are considered protected by the British common law. Then there are those born outside of the city, they are under jurisdiction of their traditional rulers. My parent’s appropriation of me at infancy granted me rights of those born in Lagos but I am not considered an English citizen. Many Africans here do not care for my inherent rights.” he said taking a puff of his cigar with eyes straight on the flat dirt path ahead of them.
“I was to believe Lagos as a failed colony due to the outside forces that threatened it.” said Mitch.
“It was considered to be failed due to the war between the Abeokuta and the Ibadan. That aggression was calmed and our Governor Captain Maloney has assured Parliament that the Abeokuta pose no danger without any resources to attack our presence in the lagoon.”
“Is there fear from retaliation of freed Africans?”
“This is a haven Mr. Alpert. That type of aggression would not be beneficial to anyone and only lead to more blood. Africa has seen too much blood spilled over her already.” said Monroe.
“I hope you do not find my prying disagreeable.” Mitch said looking at all the buildings that passed and the people moving around making the flourishing colony operate.
“None the sort Mr. Alpert. If you do not object I hope to inquire into your forthcoming meeting with Jonkheer Gerlache.”
“Jonkheer?” repeated Mitch.
“Gerlache prefers to go by Jonkheer, a term honored to him by the King of Belgian.”
“Please Monroe call me Mitch. This is information most valuable to know, anything else you may have on hand that could be beneficial?”
“Mitch you and your friend are to meet with the most unsavory of characters. This meeting is under false pretense and absolutely dangerous if exposed. What have you decided upon as a cover story?”
“I have not thought about it yet. I am to understand there is an account here in Lagos under the name of our ringer company that would help with the front.” Mitch said nervously considering what he was going to say when introduced to Gerlache.
“The fund here in Lagos backs the financial cover, but if I may interject a recommendation?” said Monroe ashing his cigar.
“Please I insist.”
“Mr. Allen……Michael is the business intellect when it comes to this fictitious arrangement, his can be accounted for by experience. You Mitch on the other hand do not possess the concepts that he does, so your participation could be dismantled if intensely scrutinized.” explained Monroe.
To Mitch the most troubling factor was this had not crossed his mind, that the idea of improvising the meeting had been is plan and was only now obviously conceptually flawed. Monroe was correct in his belief that if Mitch was pressed his guise would crack and he would be exposed and vulnerable.
“I take it Monroe you have considered what I have not. Any recommendations?” asked Mitch.
” That is brilliant, any rational business man would travel with their accountant to punch in the numbers.” Mitch asked himself out loud.
They sat in silence enjoying the cigars in hand, Mitch amazed by his surroundings. It was almost as Mitch imagined an African colony would be, similar to an English hamlet but with strange foliage and even stranger building structures, he couldn’t point out the style which had the remotest suggestion of England but there was some other influence dominating them.
“How many people live in Lagos?” asked Mitch.
“50,000, less than 400 derive from the Commonwealth.”
The carriage pulled in front of a beautiful two storied building with a wrap around terrace on both floors, all windows were open comforting Mitch in the thought that his room would not be as stifling hot as the outside.
Monroe spoke Afrikan to the porters out front who grabbed their bags bringing them inside. Both men lifted Michael out of the back of the carriage, they walked in the front entrance and carried him up the central stairs, Monroe directed Mitch down the short hall to their adjoining rooms.
“I will be leaving you to make some arrangements. I will also telegraph the home station of your timely arrival on your behalf. If it pleases you we could meet downstairs in a few hours for some spirits then discuss how the following days will play out.” said Monroe
“Sounds excellent Monroe.”
“Your room is next door, here are the keys.” he said placing two sets on the bed next to Michael. “There is stationary downstairs at the front desk if you would like to pen a letter. I would recommend doing so before we depart, the Royal Mail Service leaves back to Britain in a weeks time and you will not get another chance to send mail until we return from Gerlache’s compound.”
When Michael finally woke they decided to go down to the common area for drinks and food, they were seated instantly into their own area with a table surrounded by three chairs and a day sofa.
There was a bar opposite wall of where they were sitting and Michael said he was sure he heard the bartender speaking English, desiring some type of tonic to wash down the strange flavor from the food.
While he was gone Monroe entered the open doors and immediately saw Mitch. He was wearing a different set of khaki pants and opened white collard shirt, Mitch assumed by most of the men in Lagos this was the standard attire for the African weather and made a mental note when they went for supplies to add these to their list.
As he made his way across the room Mitch could hear snarky whispers accompanied with astounded glares that escaped the scattered patrons in the room, Monroe sat opposite Mitch on the day couch and removed his hat
“Is there something amiss I am not aware of?” asked Mitch.
“I am African.”
“These are free lands under Her Majesties Flag.” proclaimed Mitch.
“Free does not always mean free. There are always stipulations, this is considered a white man’s establishment.” said Monroe.
“Shall we continue our business else where?” asked Mitch.
“I am a naturalized citizen of Lagos and here on business regarding international affairs on behalf of Britain. If anyone is uncomfortable they can move, I will not.”
As he was saying this Michael approached the area placing two glasses on the table, he looked at Monroe and smiled accompanied with his usual energy of excitement.
“Mr. Kelly! I can not tell you how appreciative I am of your assistance while I was in my uncomfortable state.” Michael sat down extending his hand for Monroe to shake.
“Please…call me Monroe.” Monroe said grabbing Michael’s hand.
“I must apologize for not getting you a drink. What will you be having?”
“I am quite alright….Michael Allen correct?”
“Yes but of course but please we are to be spending some time together please call me Michael.”
Monroe took out a small cigar and lit it sitting back and crossing his legs, he looked relaxed despite the awkward feeling brought on by casual glances of disgust offered by random diners.
” Have you and Mitch discussed the meeting with Gerlache?” asked Monroe exhaling a cloud of smoke.
” We consider your idea the best course of action. He did however say that our front is to be the procurement of slaves though?”
“That is correct. You see the mission as I have been briefed is to gain knowledge about the slave trafficking in the region. Rubber trading would not suffice for us in gaining the information we need.”
“The men at the Colonial office felt that the rubber tree deal was a sufficient ruse.” Michael said more as a question than a statement.
“Gerlache has seen some trouble with many of his fields, my sources tell me his profits are not hurting.” Monroe took a puff of his small cigar “Slaves is the key to Jonkheer Gerlache’s appetite and a direct invitation to his table as well as a peek into his operations. The pact in Berlin and free areas has left supply of slave labor dwindling. If given an opportunity to gain a slave source from another region it would be too tempting for a man like Gerlache to refuse.”
Mitch and Michael sat in a silenced consent trusting the man for her expertise, Monroe could see that they were in acknowledgement nodded at their silence then continued.
‘”The true danger is not Jonkheer. The man is a spoiled Belgian dignitary, easily moved by compliments and expensive gifts. His man and confidant Captain Leon Roger is the predator, we will need to be on point around him. He will pry apart any weakness in our story, Jonkheer pays him well enough specifically to expose any potential enemies.”
Monroe explained that he would act as the principle for the group of 5 men they would be recruiting for the journey. He would change his accent to that of an Afrikan dialect speaking limited English the time they spent in the area. He told them he already had the men for the journey on retainer, one being a Spaniard escaped from an Arabic slave route liberated by the British Army years prior.
Michael went to get Mitch and himself another set of drinks, as he returned Monroe was almost finished with his cigar when a representative in a white jacket approached the table and asked Monroe to leave.