31 December 2013

Captain Williams

Captain Williams, my brother Peter (age 6) and me (nearly 12) in King Tom,
Freetown, Sierra Leone (between White Man's Bay and Kroo Bay), April 1955.

I want to pay tribute to Captain Williams, one of the most beloved and loving people in my life.

We sailed from New York in late March on the Sulima of the Elder Dempster Line, one of those wonderful 12-passenger freighters. The ship was immediately in bad weather: my parents were laid-out flat in their cabin, unable to care for my brother and me who were laid-out flat in ours. At some time on that first miserable day, a small bright-eyed man appeared at our cabin door and took over as our nurse. That was Captain Williams who had asked one of the stewards why we were not at the table.

Two or three days later, he bundled me up in blankets and had me outside in a deckchair with a cup of tea. Then he pulled another deckchair alongside and began to read to me. As he told me, in bits and pieces, he had grown up in the London slums -- just look at his height -- and had run away to sea on a whaling ship when he was 15. He did well with ships, came to work for Elder Dempster Lines, and was eventually one of their captains, having captained the Sulima a few years earlier. He married, and had two sons, Reginald and Robert. He gave them an African Grey parrot that scolded them when they made too much noise.  At the time he rescued us, he was retired, living in Sierra Leone, and collecting animals for American zoos. (In the picture above, my brother is holding a brochure for the NY company.)

Bundled up in blankets in a deckchair, I listened to Captain Williams (who had run away to sea on a whaling ship) read Moby Dick. I loved it, loved his parallel stories and explanations, and have no idea now what he told me and what Melville wrote. For years I had the sense of having lived Moby Dick, and in college was furious at my literature professor from Harvard who so freely pronounced theory about Moby Dick and knew nothing of the sea.  Once Captain Williams woke me up early to see two whales spouting on the horizon.

The Sulima stopped at Dakar with its incomparably beautiful people, then at little Bathurst (Banjul) on the Gambia with its rose arbors, and then at Freetown, Sierra Leone, where Captain Williams left us. But first he invited us to his home in King Tom where he lived in a bungalow surrounded by flame trees that crowded the slope down to the sea.  Looking at GoogleMaps I almost feel I can identify that place.

We were not there long: the Sulima needed to sail, and the captain was giving Captain Williams this time as a courtesy.  We watched as he made acquaintance with a family of chimpanzees his employees had just acquired. 

He walked into the cage, and squatted down, facing the largest male.  He held out his hand and said, "Hello, old chap!"  Presently the male came over, took his hand, and examined it carefully for a long time.  Then Captain Williams examined his hand carefully.  That was all, but before he came out of the cage each of the chimpanzees had willingly allowed him to stroke them.

There was another incident, when a boxed python was brought out.  The chimpanzees went into a great state of alarm, even though they -- and we -- couldn't see it yet.

We had tea, then went back to the Sulima which sailed just at sunset.  Flame trees covered the Freetown peninsulas, and the setting sun set them afire. We were sure we saw a small figure in white waving through the flames as we moved out into the golden sea.


  1. Nice story...thanks for sharing it. I chanced upon your blog while rereading Graham Greene's essay "Africa Revisited" (1968) and Googling one of his Freetown references.

  2. Thank you for writing -- a Williams!


I will not publish Anonymous comments.