August 17th, 1569
Somewhere on the Ivory Coast
The chief’s Brezhoneg was bad, and Peder’s not much better. But the facts were clear enough: The chief would sell ivory, a tiny amount, streaked with yellow. He would sell elephant hide, indifferently tanned and already moth-eaten in spots. He would sell slaves, too young for serious work or else stinking of illness. And in each case, the reason the goods were bad was that another Norwegian ship had been here three days before and swept up the good stuff. Peder bit back curses; he had hoped that by leaping far east along the coast, to the point of real danger from naval patrols out of Fernando Po, he might have got ahead of his rival, whoever he was. But it was the same as it had been all along the coast: Only dregs, enough perhaps to return the shareholders a ten percent profit, but no more. And you could make that much on a legit voyage, paying the exorbitant Breton tolls; a smuggler captain who returned with ten percent would be laughed out of town, and never given another commission.
On the other hand, he was only three days behind his rival, now. At his last stop it had been three weeks; it followed that the other smuggler had been making the intermediate stops that Peder had skipped in hopes of getting ahead of him. And Peder had a good idea of what his rival’s next two stops would be; there were only so many slaving chiefs willing to risk smuggling, even on this malarial coast where the Breton writ ran only lightly. He took a curt leave of the chief; back on the Maria Galante he gave orders to sail east towards Bassam.
This far east, it would not be possible to fill up his hull with high-quality goods; the risk of running into a patrol increased for every day’s sail closer to the Breton naval base at Fernando Po. But on the far side of the law there were not many distinctions; if he got home with a full hold of cotton and tobacco from the colonies, there wouldn’t be any questions asked. After all, smuggling was a risky activity; fully one ship in ten didn’t make it back, and who was to say why? And at Bassam his rival would need to sail for some distance up a narrow river, overgrown by jungle.
August 25th, 1569
South of Bassam, on the Ivory Coast
The Marie Galante lay in a tributary, well hidden by the overgrowing greenery. Fighting from the ship was out of the question; she had guns, certainly, but his rival’s ship – whether it was Nordvesten, Håpets Gallei, or Jomfru Margrete – would have them too. There could be no surprise in a ship-to-ship action, and without surprise the chances were equal; besides, a cannonade would damage the valuable goods. That was why fights between slavers were rare. But Peder had an advantage: He knew that his rival would have to pass up this narrow river, where the tree branches overhung the deep channel. And with surprise and speed on his side, a boarding action from ambush would by no means be an equal fight.
His lookouts had alerted them half an hour before, and his crew were in the branches, armed to the teeth – another advantage. Slaving crews were armed to guard against their prisoners, but they would be carrying knives and marlin spikes, not braces of pistols – only officers were issued firearms except in preparation for battle.
Time dragged; it seemed an hour before the other ship came into sight, and another while it slowly made its way into the ambush zone, towed by its two ships’ boats. The figurehead was a dolphin, and Peder bared his teeth in a grin. It was Nordvesten, and Peder knew the captain: Steinar Torsteinsson, his distant cousin. The ambush was business, but now it was also a pleasure.
At last Nordvesten drew under the foliage where Peder’s men hid, and he gave the signal by the simple expedient of dropping down onto her deck. His men dropped down all around him; as planned, Peder went for the forecastle while David, his second, led men to the bridge.
That was when things went bad. An officer on the forecastle gave a shout of command, not in Norwegian but in Brezhoneg – and suddenly men began pouring out of the lower deck, not a lightly armed smuggling crew but men in the uniform of the Breton Coast Guard and armed with muskets. In a flash Peder understood what had to have happened: The Bretons had caught Nordvesten with a hold full of slaves and no customs receipts, and had decided to use it as a decoy for a raid on another smuggling village. A Norwegian ship would not spook the villagers into fleeing for the hills or taking up arms as a customs cutter would, and so they’d be able to get in among the natives and teach them proper respect for the decrees of the Breton Empire. The legendary bad luck of the Torsteinssons had caught up with Steinar at last, and Peder had jumped right into it with all his crew!
To be continued