A Bear’s Diary – Part 26

February 22nd, 1811.

Late last night, as we were heading north-west in a moderate wind, a tremendous grinding crash threw the whole ship askew, and we found ourselves drifting with the sails flapping dangerously, threatening to take us aback.

The wheel spun useless, with no effect on the rudder. We were all on deck in a moment and Master Ulyanov, capably surveying our plight, ordered all the sails on the mizen mast to be taken in, so that without steering at least we were heading steadily downwind.

This done, we peered over the stern to see what had happened to the rudder. It was completely gone, and when we lowered a boat to inspect the damage we found that the lower pintle – that is, the hinge of the rudder – had been ripped from the sternpost, taking a large piece of timber with it.

The impact had also started at least one plank, and the ship was leaking rapidly. We bound a sail over the hole – what a comfort it is to have such strong swimmers as our polar bears Boris and Beaivi at these times! – and pumped the bilges dry, a task that took us some hours. Finally we were safe enough; but as Anacharsis wisely observed, Τέτταρας δακτύλους θάνατου οἱ πλέοντες ἀπέχουσιν, Those who go to sea are four inches from death.

The immediate danger averted, we had time to think of what had happened, and what we should do. Almost certainly a whale had surfaced under the stern; I hope it was less injured by the collision than our vessel.

There was no possibility of replacing the rudder at sea. We had enough spare timber to cobble up a jury rudder, but the damage to the sternpost would have made it impossible to attach it. Therefore we had to adopt an ancient recourse, a steering oar. The carpenter made us one from the largest spare spar and some planks bound on with iron hoops, and fixed a tiller to the upper end. We lowered him over the starboard side of the stern in a sling, and he attached fixings to the hull and bound the oar to them securely. (I should mention that the oar must go on the starboard side – that is, the ‘steerboard’ side – because it is easier for a right-handed steersman to work it there.)

The oar proved effective and surprisingly easy to turn because, unlike a rudder, it was balanced fore and aft on its shaft and had no drag forcing it to the centre. On the other hand it could never be let go, because it had to be held straight to keep the ship on a straight course, so it required constant vigilance on the part of the helmsman.

We could not complete our planned course to Recife in this condition, so we headed for the nearest port, Rio de Janeiro, where we could have the ship properly repaired.

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February 28th, 1811.

We reached Rio without further incident and anchored in the harbour. Fred, Jem and myself took a boat ashore to find a shipyard. Of course after our experiences in the war they both have fluent Portuguese, and I can understand and write it with the slate that I always carry on a cord around my neck. It is wonderful how having a bear as a party to the negotiations assures us a reasonable estimate for the work.

Having found what seemed a satisfactory arrangement, we returned to the waterfront. As we arrived a melancholy sight met our eyes: a slave ship had arrived, and the unfortunate Africans were being taken ashore in boats, each one with an overseer brandishing a whip and a pistol. The slaves, who had been packed together like skeletons in a charnel house, were emaciated and stinking, and the blank despair in their eyes told of their treatment.

Their initial abduction from their homeland is often carried out by their own people for a trifling financial inducement, though usually Arab slave traders have a hand in the business. But the ships that carry them over, killing many on the way through disease, are manned by Europeans – in this case Portuguese, though under Napoleon the French have regained an important role in the trade.

Angelina, a bear who knows what it is like to be chained and whipped, was so incensed by the spectacle that we had to hold her back from running at an overseer and ripping him to shreds – as he doubtless deserved, though in the long run it would have achieved little.

Now, before I make myself look high-minded in condemning the behaviour of foreigners, let us remember that, while slavery was never tolerated in Britain and there is a longstanding tradition under common law of freeing any slaves found in our islands, the trading of slaves in the colonies has been outlawed only since 1807, and even now those found guilty of it are fined only a sum that they can well afford. When we were in Cape Town, Captain Whimbrel told us that Mr Henry Brougham was attempting to bring a bill through parliament that would greatly increase the penalties, but the fact remains that British sugar plantations in the West Indies are still using – if no longer trading – slaves, or sometimes indentured labourers who are no more than slaves under another name.

Brazil too has an important sugar trade, and for this slaves are brought in and sold openly and legally, and the miserable Africans we saw were destined for profitable sale to plantation owners, and profitable labour till they died. The region also produces coffee, and gold and diamonds have been found; the labour for all these industries is conducted by slaves. We cannot alter this, but it cast a sad shadow over our visit to this handsome city, where we are destined to pass some time while our ship is set to rights.

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Strange as it may seem, Rio is now the capital city of Portugal and the seat of the Portuguese king John (or João in Portuguese) the Sixth, who fled with all his court when the Corsican tyrant’s army marched into his country. He and his entourage are now guests here, to the satisfaction neither of the Cariocas – a native name for the settlers in Rio – nor of the luckless Portuguese, as we know from our own experience of fighting beside them.

To further scale the heights of absurdity, the government in exile has set up a military academy in the city, which gives a futile semblance of warlike intention – as Phaedrus put it, trepide concursans, occupta in otio, a people rushing hastily to and fro, busy with idleness – while the battle against the invaders of their country is conducted by Lord Wellington’s forces and the motley bands of peasants with both of whom we had the honour to serve.

March 2nd, 1811.

Our battered vessel is now careened in the shipyard while her stern is repaired. It is remarkable how much damage she sustained from this chance encounter, and most fortunate for us that her heavy construction held her together while we limped ashore. The sternpost is split for most of its length, and the foreman told us that it will need to be entirely replaced. Even the Count baulked at the cost of this operation; but after considering the value of the cargo we carry – to which he proposes to add a quantity of Brazilian coffee – he decided that this was no time to abandon our gallant old tub. Nevertheless, with the artisans working at all the speed that his wealth can procure, it will be at least a fortnight before she is seaworthy again and we can be on our way.

Meanwhile, the crew are sampling all the delights that a prosperous port can afford them. I am glad that we had the foresight to purchase some of the Chinese remedies for venereal diseases that we found in Canton. But these will not guard them from broken heads suffered in brawls in the many places of entertainment that are to be found here.

March 4th, 1811.

Leaving the sailors to their diversions, the Count, Fred, Jem and all the bears have been exploring the countryside around the city. Much of it is now given to agriculture for the support of the city, but there are still broad tracts of undisturbed forest inhabited by the local tribes. The most numerous of these are the Aimoré or Botocudos, the latter name being a Portuguese one referring to their strange practice of distending their lower lips by the insertion of wooden discs, giving them a hideous duck-billed appearance which they deem attractive. They enlarge the lobes of their ears in a similar manner. The encroachment of Europeans on their lands is much reducing their numbers, a process speeded, sad to say, by the deliberate spreading of smallpox among them, a disease to which the natives have no resistance whatever.

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We made small presents of knives, mirrors and beads to them, and were permitted to wander their lands unmolested, though they can have no fondness for white men. They showed no amazement at the presence of bears in our party; probably they thought that we were just another European tribe. We danced for them, and they for us, establishing a bond between nations deeper than the petty politicking of rulers.

We have recruited a guide named Moema, of the Tabajara people, to show us the wonders of the untamed woods that still lie within a few hours’ walk of the capital, despite the efforts of farmers to subdue this fertile land.

The country teems with strange birds. Even when we were in the harbour at Rio we could see black fork-tailed frigatebirds circling on huge pointed wings, seeking whatever food they could find – though strangely these coastal birds never come down on water, unlike our familiar gulls. The city is populated by black vultures on the lookout for the dead creatures that always lie around the roads, and they perform the task of cleaners in a place where no man will raise a hand to clear his street of corpses.

In the forest we saw parrots of all kinds, from small but loud-voiced green parakeets to huge dark blue macaws. In the more open areas there are small owls, akin to the little owls that live around the Mediterranean Sea but with the peculiar habit of nesting in underground burrows made by other animals. They hunt small prey by running rapidly over the ground on their long strong legs.

The most remarkable bird we saw was the toucan, whose huge curved bill is almost as large as its body. This cumbersome-looking organ assists them in reaping the abundant fruit that hangs on the trees of this so far unravaged paradise. In the words of Euripides, Μεταβολὴ παντῶν γλυκεῖα, The variety of all things is a pleasure.

There are also beasts aplenty, including the capybara, which is said to be of the rat kind but is the size of a small pig. They roam the forest in herds. We caught and consumed some of them, and they were capital eating. Once we had a distant sight of a jaguar, a great spotted cat resembling a leopard. They are considered sacred by the natives – but, as we bears know only too well, sacredness does not save one from being hunted.

March 21st, 1811.

The Dronning Bengjerd is afloat again, as good as ever she was – she may not be swift, but she has the strength of a true bear – and we are heading up the coast at a safe distance from land since the prevailing wind is from the south-east. The hold is full of sacks of coffee beans, we have fresh provisions, and our hearts are high as we head for home. There are still two thousand miles to sail before our final northward crossing of the Equator, but we have already done that so many times that it is no more significant to us than sauntering across the street to buy a cabbage. Once we are back in our own hemisphere, not all the fabled storms of the North Atlantic shall keep us from or beloved shore.

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