Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

Sambo’s Strategy

Not long since a black boy, for whom Sambo may pass as a name, found himself stranded at Cooktown. He had finished a long engagement on board a bêche-de-mer schooner, had been duly paid off, had spent his earnings in the off-handed and open-handed fashion of his race, had loafed until weary of the town camp, and then suddenly became sick — violently sick. It was only an attack of home-sickness, but it took complete possession of him.

His country was separated from the port by some sixty miles, and though it was conterminous with the beach, to reach it Sambo would have to pass through the territory of three or four tribes which, if not actually on unfriendly terms with his own people, certainly offered no guarantee for the safety of lone strangers within their gates. Strangers who came to them were absorbed, and no subsequent questions revealed trace of them. So Sambo did not care to face the perils of the journey by land, and of course, no means of reaching home by sea were within his personal grasp.

To the police authorities he made moan, claiming the right, most unjustifiably, of being transported thither at the country’s expense. Being scoffed at, he went away, sorrowful, and because of his sorrow and sickness, his memory became bright.

The day following his unsuccessful appeal for a cheap passage to his native shore, he mentioned casually to the chief of the police that during his recent bêche-de-mer engagement a wreck had been discovered. With due formality his statements were taken down in writing, and in effect were:— While in the neighbourhood of No. 1 Howick Group a lugger in distress had been seen; the weather was very stormy, and after vainly endeavouring to battle through into shelter, the vessel fell over on one side, and came up again and again and fell over on the other, and then sank. At low water the top of the main mast was visible, but high tide covered it up completely. None of the wreckage had been seen to float; all hands had been drowned. The lugger was a stranger, white, painted with a red mark, “very flash.”

Sambo mentioned casually that anybody might go to the wreck, for the top-mast at low water indicated it. An expert in the ways of the blacks was called in to discuss the matter, which was causing a sensation in police circles. Cross-examined by the expert, Sambo elaborated a still more realistic description of the wreck, minutely locating it in relation to landmarks familiar to the expert, and intimating his readiness to pilot a boat to the very spot. In reply to further questioning, Sambo frankly admitted that he was sick of the joys of town life, that he longed for home, and that his country was at Red Point, off which was No. 1 Howick Island. Thereupon the expert came to the conclusion that Sambo had invented the “wreck” for a sufficiently obvious purpose.

But the statements to the police were so explicit and circumstantial, and were so consistently supported by cross-examination, that the expert’s opinion was scouted. It was well known, remarked the chief of police, that Sambo’s country was opposite the scene of the “wreck,” and it was notorious that Sambo wanted to get home. Everybody knew that. The police were not such simpletons as to be taken in by a black boy, and one, moreover, who had nothing to gain by telling an ingenious and elaborate lie. An appeal for instructions from headquarters resulted in an order for the despatch of a vessel to search the scene of the wreck and the neighbouring islands. An officer of the police and Sambo took passage, the latter repeating his statements with a precision which convinced everyone save the expert, who in fact, was captain of the vessel.

Arrived at No. 1 Howick, Sambo was asked, “Where wreck sit down?”

He replied, “‘Nother side. Little bit outside, alonga point.”

The little ship sailed jauntily past the point, Sambo being at the captain’s elbow.

“Little bit more keep away,” said Sambo, and in a few minutes, looking over the side, exclaimed, “Wreck he sit down here!”

At the spot the depth of water was 14 fathoms, and Sambo excused the non-appearance of the top-mast by saying that it was then high water. The captain, who happened to be a more trustworthy authority on the constancy of the tides than Sambo, knew that the hour was that of low water, and moreover, that a lugger which would show her top-mast from a depth of eighty-four feet was quite out of place in Barrier Reef waters.

Sambo looked as wise as ever, extremely confident, and taking his bearing from close-at-hand points, persisted that the wreck was down below. His bargain thus having been fulfilled to the letter, he suggested that further search was not needed.

In the presence of the police officer, the captain then took the boy in hand.

“That your country, Sambo, over there, Red Point?”

“Yes,” said Sambo.

“You want to go your own country?” asked the captain.

“Yes,” replied Sambo. “more better you land me my country. You close up now!”

“Now,” said the captain. “Suppose you tell me true, I land you your own country. Suppose you humbug me, I take you back alonga Cooktown.”

“No,” said Sambo, “I no humbug you. I wan’ get alonga my country.”

“Well, what about this yarn you bin tell Sergeant, and tell ’em all the time?”

Sambo: “I bin humbug that fella proper!”

“What, you no bin see ’em wreck?”

“No, me no bin see ’em. All humbug. I wan’ get back my own country. You close up now. You put ’em boat alonga water, me go shore!”

“Yes,” said the cheerful captain. “You deserve to get home.”

And before dark Sambo, no doubt, chuckled over the success of his strategy among his comrades and friends.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32