Floating Museum

It was the last day of the exhibit.  Mustafa glanced at his watch.  He had been doing so every few minutes for the last quarter of an hour.  His long thin dark thumb depressed the button on the handheld microphone.  A low crackling hiss spread throughout the large ship. Mustafa’s accented voice slid underneath.

Curiosity Killed Him

“Ladies and gentlemen, the exhibit is now closed.  Thank you for your patronage. Please make your way to the nearest exit.” 

Mustafa, curator of the Clotilde Floating Museum, rotated the knob atop the microphone. 

“All hands!  Prepare for departure.” He paused and switched to his native dialect. “Keen eyes. Look sharp.” Thick African tones belied his gaunt thin reedy frame.  

Mustafa seated the microphone in its cradle. He pushed a long breath through the gap in his front teeth.  He watched stragglers meander out of the gift shop and drift toward the exit. 

This was the floating museum’s last port of call in North America before returning to its mooring in West Africa.  As in Europe, the American art critics gave stellar reviews and boatloads of praise for the floating museum.  Even the dissenting Daily Gazette conceded the Clotilde was unlike anything ever attempted to bridge history, art and social awareness. From the cramped quarters in which shackled Africans were held below deck to the whipping post above deck and the triple masts used for sailing, everything imaginable was reproduced.  Artifacts, paintings, sculptures, and other art work depicting African life before and after enslavement decorated the ship.  

A balding blonde man with a press pass approached him.  Mustafa groaned.

“Hello, Mustafa,” the man said. “You remember me?  I’m Peterson with the Daily Gazette.”

“Yes.” 

The monosyllable produced an invisible current. Peterson stepped back. The journalist looked like a small piece of bleached driftwood bouncing back from a mahogany broadside.

“The exhibit is now closed Mr. Peterson.  The exit is this way.” Mustafa gestured grandly.

“Yeah.  I can see that,” said Peterson. “What I can’t see is how the dimensions can be so off.  I mean so much care has been taken to replicate a slave ship, yet the hold is much too small.  It just doesn’t add up.”

The short and squat Charlie Peterson assigned to cover the floating museum was no art critic.  He was a boozehound crime reporter who had run afoul of the newspaper’s editor. Reassigned temporarily to the arts and entertainment desk, Peterson was determined to find something wrong with the exhibit.  

He didn’t like the idea of a slave ship museum. It was creepy.  That curator Mustafa and his crew were creepy too.   Always popping up behind him.  He never heard them coming.  They seemed to materialize out of thin air.   

“Mr. Peterson, this ship is not a replica of the infamous 19th century slave ship Clotilde.  We just used the name to pay homage. This ship is actually modeled after a 17th century vessel,” Mustafa said. “Indeed, you’re in front of the plaque that describes the horror of the historical Clotilde. Perhaps if you had taken the time to–”“Yeah, I read it. The ship was supposedly smuggling slaves more than 50 years after it was outlawed.  I read pretty good. Write even better. And my research is always spot on.”

 “I will not opine on your literacy. Your distorted depiction of both our floating museum and African history are offensive.”

 “It’s the truth.” 

“Perpetuating the myth that less than half a million African souls were brought to your country is dangerous.” 

“Even that Black Harvard professor says so,” Peterson shot back.

“Yes. That is unfortunate.”

“In fact, all the research from our Ivy League institutions agrees that only a small percentage of African slaves came to the U.S.  The Black population increased from births not from importing African captives.”

“I am familiar with the assertion, Mr. Peterson. It’s a dangerous lie and defies all logic.  With the high mortality of slaves, it’s an impossible actuarial metric.”

“I’ve done my research.”

“Your research is flawed,” Mustafa intoned. “It is difficult for beneficiaries of slavery to sift through historical evidence and arrive at the same truths as its victims.  Minimizing the number of Africans is a form of cognitive dissonance that psychologically releases feelings of guilt and obligation.  There’s a lot more at stake than numbers.”

“I know. I visited your exhibit on the contributions of Africans to the world’s economy.  You people think you built the world and are getting the short end of the stick. I’ve heard it all before. I don’t care about that. It’s this ship that bothers me. There’s something wrong with the dimensions of this ship!”

“May I be of service Mustafa?” asked Amadou.  The man’s voice was deep and throaty.Peterson jumped and turned around.  Where did he come from?

“Mr. Peterson has found fault with our ship,” said Mustafa.  “No matter, the exhibit is closed and he is leaving.”

Mustafa, who towered over the short man, placed his bony hand on Peterson’s meaty shoulder.

“This way Mr. Peterson.”

“Okay, okay,” Peterson sputtered as he was guided roughly towards the exit. “Just answer this one question, why have all of the designers, draftsmen and specialty craftsmen of the Clotilde disappeared?”

Amadou’s eyes flashed.  Mustafa gave no reaction.

“Don’t like that one?  Well how about this one,” Peterson’s voice was accusatory. “How come in every city you have visited agricultural scientist and technology engineers have gone missing? Hmmm? Answer me that!”

The lights blinked thrice and a voice was heard over the public address speakers.  “Everyone has disembarked the ship. Supplies are loaded and stowed.  Ready to get underway.”

“I shall be happy to answer you, Mr. Peterson,” Mustafa said. He bared his white, sharp teeth. “Amadou, please take Mr. Peterson to the Captain’s cabin.”

The deck vibrated and the air filled with the humming of the ship’s engines.  The Clotilde did not rely upon its sails. Rather it used state-of-the-art nautical technology.  Like many slave ships of the past, the Clotilde had been built in the Netherlands.  Some of the Dutch engineers were still on board.

“Wait a minute. Now you wait just one damn minute!  I’m getting off,” Peterson sounded like a seagull’s caw.  The top of his balding head had become quite red.Amadou held Peterson back.  Two tall, muscular crewmen took hold of the reporter. 

“It’s too late for that now Mr. Peterson,” Mustafa said.  To Amadou, he said, “What shall we do with Mr. Peterson?  He has no skills that we can use. He’s not even a good writer.”

Addressing the reporter for the first time Amadou said, “Mr. Peterson, are you familiar with the history of the slave ship called Zong?”  He paused perfunctorily, “No? Well, twelve weeks into the voyage the water ran out, disease spread. To cut his losses, the captain threw more than 130 overboard.  Back in England he filed an insurance claim for the value of each African he murdered. After all, they were just a means to a capitalist end.”

“What are you talking about? You’re crazy.  You’re all crazy!” Peterson said.

Amadou continued unperturbed, “Their value was what they were expected to contribute to the British economy once sold. Without water the captain couldn’t get them to market so he tried for the insurance.  He underestimated societal outrage and got neither. The moral of the story is do what you must but don’t file a claim and draw attention to yourself.”

“A grand idea Amadou!  Foolish American journalists are no use to us,” said Mustafa smiling. He checked his watch, “This is a very fast vessel.  We should be in international waters in about nine hours.”  

Shifting his piercing brown eyes back to Peterson he said, “You are clever enough to have discerned that we have a hull underneath the museum’s hull.  I’ll give you that.  It’s where we hold those scientists and engineers that you mentioned.  We are bringing them back to Africa with us.  There they will work.  Modern slaves, you see.  But you won’t see.  No one will.  They will be housed underground.”  Mustafa laughed.  Amadou and the two crewmen joined him.  Their teeth shimmered like the sun on white sand.

“African slave labor transformed the European economy. We will use the same model, the same morality, to transform our economy. It’s not labor intensive so we will not require as many people to do the work,” said Mustafa.

“You can’t do this!  It’s, it’s,” Peterson stammered feebly.  “You’ll get caught” 

“No. We won’t get caught.” Amadou shook his head.  

“Indeed, we won’t,” Mustafa agreed. “Let’s see how well our captives propagate.  After all, the conditions they will live under are much more humane… and modern.”

“You won’t get away with this.  People know I’m here.”

“Don’t worry Mr. Peterson. Amadou will go ashore and lose your cell phone in a cab, or a bus or a bar.  Does it really matter?  No insurance to claim and you have no further need for it.”

_______

The Floating Museum © 2014 J.C. Moore.  All Rights Reserved