The Carsawene

(Chapter 7 of the Novel)

At morning tide on the second of December, 1897, Captain Louis Aurélien had the sails unfurled. The sun shone brightly and the sea was almost smooth. When the current entering the river began to slacken, he ordered the topsails and staysails raised. The crew weighed the anchor to its hawsehole and hoisted the jibs. The Némésis rotated in place, gathered speed as it ran downwind, and began to sail up the Carsawene.

Rapids of the Carsawene River
Rapids of the Carsawene River

On both sides of the bow, the two leadsmen continuously indicated reassuring depths. Using the rudder, the ship steered with ease through the channel for about an hour. While it moved toward a bend in the river, a small, seemingly harmless squall suddenly caused the wind to shift east to southwest. Ever since his arrival off the Counani coast, Louis had surveyed these squalls which caused the wind to strengthen but never change course. While he directed the sails, the current kept pushing him outside the channel where it would be impossible to drop anchor. As speed and room were insufficient to steer upwind, he tried to wheel around, run downwind again and put the bow downstream. Unfortunately, the tacking was too short: even as he hoped he had passed the critical point, he heard water lapping along the side facing the ocean. It was the tide sloshing against the hull. The Némésis had run aground by its stern.

For an instant, he blamed himself for this poor decision, but chose to postpone its assessment, for their present situation was precarious. He sent the dinghy to carry a kedge anchor towards the channel. He had part of the cargo transferred from the back of the hold to the front, where a bit of space would permit handling. Work on winching the hawse allowed for a few meters’ progress, but it became impossible to dislodge the ship: the back was too deep in the silt. On his own, the twenty-five-year old Captain had decided to venture into an unknown river where even a flat-bottomed steamer would have hesitated. In less than one day’s time, he found himself stranded.

At low tide, he came down to study the hull from the outside. The three-master lay straight up, over a bed of soft silt. He noticed with relief that the ship did not make water. This consolation turned out to be fleeting, for the high tide of the afternoon caused the sea to swell and the waves to strike the side of the ship. The Némésis began to pitch haphazardly, surging on its back and effecting jolts that shook the bottom and the masts. The repeated shocks weakened the hull such that its joints began to leak. It became necessary to activate the pump to dry out the hold. At the next low tide, marks on the sand showed the Némésis had inched even closer to the bank.

Louis knew that spring tide had occurred three days earlier; the next one would come only on the tenth of December, which meant the Némésis could remain more than a week atop this sand bed, exposed to the wind and the swelling sea. Would she hold if her anchors broke loose? Louis experienced his worst seafaring night since the shipwreck of the France.

To lighten the ship, he had the galley put to sea. Its flat bottom would allow the crew to load a portion of the iron sheets and ferry it ashore.

“Why give ourselves so much trouble with ferrying the sheets?” Morvan asked his uncle. “We could just leave them on the sand, and get them back at the next low tide.”

“Between the unstable riverbed and the currents, they might scatter. If that happens, we’ll have a hard time getting them back”.

“Then why don’t we lay the sheets on timbers? They wouldn’t sink during high tide, and to withstand the current, we could weigh them down.”

The ship's boy's suggestion was well received, and the Amazon natives were soon able to observe the strange sight of a three-master set straight up on a sand bank, surrounded by piles of corrugated iron neatly packed and topped by a bundle of anchor chains.

Every high tide saw a new attempt to bring the ship afloat, each attempt ending in disappointment. Then hope would return, augmented by the impending spring tide, only to be followed by anxiety. “We can’t stay stranded here until the spring equinox!” Finally came the night of the ninth of December. All the ship’s resources and manpower were summoned. Every crewman knew what he had to do: “All pull, push, or turn. As soon as she shifts, Yvon grabs the wheel and Efik the capstan; Yann hauls taut while the rest of you go aloft to set the sails.”

High tide came at five in the morning: it was now or never. A light wind blew parallel to the coast. The almost-full moon was reflected in the eddies of the river. The final attempt began. The two passengers did their part, sweating on the windlass. The captain, the Graduate himself, gave it his all. As during the previous tides, the front began to float, reviving hope. The crew’s efforts allowed the Némésis to move forward – or rather backwards, since they were backing out, and a few meters were better than nothing. They had to keep pushing, and without delay, to make the most of the best tide. Mutual encouragement came in hearty grunts of “heave-ho!” and “yo-ho!” Yet despite their early hopes, the Némésis stayed put. The back was desperately stuck to the riverbed silt. A few sailors let go of their hawser or capstan bar while the rest plowed on, just to prove they might defy fate. They finally had to admit they were stranded for good. This latest reversal was particularly significant, for the coming tides would gradually diminish. In frustration, Morvan furiously kicked the coffee pot he had prepared to rouse the men’s fervor. Cloître let himself fall over a pile of ropes. Louis withdrew to the solitude of failure.

As if to taunt them, a squall rose, perhaps a sister of the one who had run them aground. Under the darkening moon, the wind once again changed course as it became stronger. A proper gale soon blew from offshore. Although high tide had already come to pass, the inrush of water pushed from the wind caused the water level to rise. Like a dog shaking itself dry, a sudden tremor jerked the Némésis. Not a voice met the hisses of the rigging; in an instant, all hands were on deck. To boost their cause, the captain attempted a move, which although unorthodox, saved the ship: he had the standing jib hoisted. As it rushed into the sail, the wind rotated the hull and swung it towards the river. Sea and brawn did the rest. The Némésis was afloat. Fifteen triumphant cheers escorted the ship to the channel.

At six o’clock, the wind had died down and the Némésis was anchored about forty meters from the bank and twelve deep. As an extra precaution, the cutter was sent ashore to secure a hawser around a tree. No one made a face when the captain offered a swig of rum with breakfast.

Two days later, the three-master resumed its course upstream. By dint of trimming the sails and using the currents and tides to squeeze through the sand beds, she sailed up the river past its bends. At night, they weighed anchor nearly a kilometer from the mouth of the river. The channel was deep, very narrow, and confined on the riverbank by an almost vertical mound of hard silt. At the high-water mark, the water was calm and the anchorage as safe as the river would allow. At ebb tide, however, the current violently pushed the front of the ship towards the bank. The crew hurried to put away the flying jib boom. The bowsprit and the forecastle forced their way deep into the trees, amidst the sound of splintering branches. The men tried to extricate themselves from the spot by heaving at the windlass, but fighting the tide was hopeless; they would have to wait for it to turn. The Némésis had to spend part of the night in this awkward position.

While Kerbrat the sailor monitored the moves of the ship, trying to minimize the damage, a howl pierced his ears. It was one of those wild cries that causes one to jump and freeze, after which the heart struggles to regain its regular beat; it was sure to be a sign of irreparable tragedy, such as death, or worse, the bottomless whirlpool at the threshold of seamen’s hell. Another howl followed from the throat of a second similarly desperate creature. In the moonlight, Kerbrat spotted two howler monkeys chase one another up the masts. They climbed on the foresail yard where they quietly settled to watch the anthropological display taking place below.

Despite valuable help from Félix who knew the river inside out, it took six days for the Némésis and its crew to sail up to the village eight kilometers away. Repeatedly they ran aground and set off again. They could see the ship capsizing, lying on its side from the current hitting them abeam. Yet they learned from each experience, and after a week, none feared running aground. Optimism resurfaced amongst the crew. Kerbrat voiced the general opinion when he stated that with the Némésis and the Graduate, they would pass through Cape Horn against the wind within a week. As they neared Amapá, the river narrowed to a width of fewer than two hundred meters. There, at the last riverbend, they saw the first of the rapids, the Daniel Falls, rising up several meters. It took a bit of imagination to picture a pirogue hurtling down that chute. One could barely discern the rocks behind the misty drizzle caused by the crashing of the waves. Obviously, no ship could sail further: they had reached their destination. Under Félix’s lead, they entered the deep and quiet cove, downstream from the cataracts, and moored alongside the sole jetty. The whole town had assembled to welcome the three-master, its crew, and its cargo. Despite the captain’s perfunctory attempts to restore order, the crew carried out its final maneuvers in a festive mood. From the shore, the villagers were throwing fruits to the sailors, provoking laughter whenever a mango or a green orange bounced off the hull and fell in the stream. To the glances of the girls who scrambled on the edge of the pier, the sailors replied with their best smiles. After five weeks at sea, comb and razor, even soap, would be brought out of the crates. Though the first one ashore, Morvan had to forfeit hugs and kisses in order to fulfill his mission, that of fastening a rope around a large mahogany cedar tree to immobilize the ship against the jetty.

The village of Amapá - capital of the Counani Republic - lay in the heart of a wide clearing. The red streets of laterite crossed each other at right angles and surrounded the town buildings. Most of the houses were built from mud-bricks and amounted to little more than cabins or huts roofed with leaves. The grander ones towered over the town from the height of their stilt houses, a likely precaution against wild animals. Many walls were blackened from the arson or bore the scars of the Amapá army’s offensive. Here and there, a few birds such as flamingos and parrots flew. Outside the palisade encircling the town stretched the dark and hostile forest.

Louis expected to find a village devoid of everything. Since the death of Jules Gros, the first and only president of Counani, the republic’s status was still uncertain. Brazil and France maintained their claims over a territory aptly characterized as “disputed.” Fortunately, the conflict was restricted to the chanceries and had not affected the wealth of the capital, where the river still carried glitter and the gold diggers unearthed nuggets, enabling the town to exhibit relative affluence. On the shelves of the wide-open boutiques could be found champagne, bolts of silk fabric imported from France, and hats which would not have been out of place on promenades in the Bois de Boulogne. In front of the pier, a painted wooden post displayed “Au boulevard de Paris.” This was Madame Guiguite’s house, a respectable establishment where the ladies accepted only Guianese francs. At the other end of the village stood the church, which the arsonists had consented to spare at the request of its Brazilian priest, Jesu. Like the adjacent presbytery, it rang with the calls issued by a flock of mixed-race altar boys.

Even so, such opulence could not hide Amapá’s weakness. Lack of essentials meant its defense and survival were at stake, as Cabralzinho’s expedition had shown. The capital was wanting in the building materials the Némésis transported in its hold; the welcome awarded to the crew matched the Counanis’ relief.

“Welcome to Green Paradise!” exclaimed Félix, before adding, “Here, the fiercest creatures fly – and they sting!” Indeed, Louis’ first night ashore was a sequence of struggles. He had checked for holes in the mosquito net protecting his hammock. He bitterly observed that the Carsawene’s mosquitos must be from a specific family – one that can fold its wings tightly enough to creep through the narrow meshes of a gauze net. As if his sleep were not sufficiently disturbed, he had barely shut his eyes when the sound of gunshot made him jump.

“It’s just the Brazilians firing on the French flag,” Félix reassured him. “I had hoisted it on top of the factory, in your honor. Nothing to worry about. The bullets bounce off the metal.”

Louis obviously had much to learn about equatorial customs.

As in Bordeaux, handling of merchandise fell to the second-in-command. During the day, the crew would work on unloading under Gaborit’s supervision.

In the evening, Louis could leave the ship under a sailor’s watch and unwind in the streets of Amapá. A couple of days of peace and quiet would allow him to recover from the strain of the previous days.

He knew from experience how frustrating it is for a second-in-command to endure the scrutiny of the captain. To relax and get away from his ship, he endeavored to explore this obscure region which, much like Guiana, seemed destined to become part of the French Republic. On horseback, in a pirogue, on foot, Félix led him and Joaquín on a number of long walks. They returned each time, their notebooks filled with descriptions and sketches of animals, plants, and landscapes. Their excursions also provided game for the crew, which Mathieu the cook would prepare.

One night, the three men were on their way back from hunting, followed by two porters carrying a peccary. They heard gunshots coming from the village.

“It sounds like we won’t be the only ones bringing home the bacon,” Louis observed.

“Those are combat weapons. Mausers, perhaps.”

This lone statement from Joaquín filled them with worry.

They pushed on. Félix convinced them to make a detour by the river: a boulder hanging from the top of the waterfall, overlooking the village and its surroundings, could provide them with more information.

Running towards the bank, Louis wondered how he would interpret what they would find. A crowd would probably mean a miners’ brawl. On the other hand, people scrambling pell-mell would mean an assault from Cabralzinho. One thing was difficult to imagine, even more difficult to explain; from the promontory, they clearly recognized the town and out front, its jetty – which was bare. The Némésis had disappeared.

Mortified, Gaborit felt responsible for a disaster he did not comprehend. He explained that he had let the crew off duty, as he did every night after a day of unloading. They had all gone ashore, with the exception of the mariner Kersaouen who remained behind to keep watch. Having heard the gunshots, the sailors had rushed towards the ship, but it was too late: the Némésis had already reached the riverbend and vanished behind the trees.

“This has to be Cabral,” Félix stated.

Louis was astounded. His childhood had been rife with seafaring novels and tales of pirates, but he could not have imagined that bandits would commandeer his own ship, and in a place as pedestrian as a body of freshwater, while he was off hunting!

He asked Félix, “Do you believe him capable of reaching the sea?”

“He must have men with him who are familiar with the river, but no real sailors. He’s interested only in the cargo. As for the ship, he doesn’t have anyone to steer it.”

“What can he do with it?”

“Most probably, take it a bit further downstream. He’ll unload whatever he deems useful. The rest he’ll destroy to keep us from retrieving it.”


(Translated from the French by Jane Singleton Paul and John Xavier Paul)


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