Authors: Caroline Vermalle,Ryan von Ruben
Masson had lost count of the people of different races that he passed and the languages that he heard spoken. Modestly decorated sedan chairs were carried by barefoot slaves, their powdered passengers fanning themselves or holding a handkerchief to their mouths and noses to defend against the foul odours of the street.
After finding the church whose steeple he had seen from the
earlier that morning, Masson turned the corner and walked uphill, passing the tall, windowless walls of the Slave Lodge before finally reaching the Company’s Gardens.
The Gardens were the Company’s own agricultural lands, situated closer to the port than any of the free burgher’s farms and intended for the propagation and cultivation of crops to supply passing ships. Its prime location, as well as the Company’s monopoly on trade, always ensured that there was a market for its produce.
The Governor’s official residence lay behind the walls of the fort on the foreshore, but it was seldom used. Its paths provided the townspeople with a space for quiet recreation, but the Gardens were also the most visible expression of the Company’s power in the colony. The gardens were zealously patrolled by caretakers who wielded small whips called
were made from hippopotamus hide and ensured that a painful fine was exacted from anyone caught stealing from the Gardens or cajoling illicitly in its hidden corners.
Like the town, the Gardens were laid out in a neat grid pattern. The areas between pathways were planted with an array of crop plants and trees as well as providing beds for the cultivation of indigenous flora. A wide, paved path ran down the long axis of the garden like a spine with the vast open waters of the bay at one end and the formidable bulk of the flat-topped mountain at the other.
Native chestnuts sat on either side of the spine, with bay and myrtle as well as immature oaks planted along the smaller cross paths, shaped to form protective hedges in order to shield the beds from the strong winds.
But unlike the town, where Masson had been amazed to find people of myriad races and colours, the people he now found walking the Garden’s neatly kept paths were mostly of a single hue.
Women who would not have been caught dead outside of their sedan chairs, let alone rubbing shoulders with the African, Malay or Indian slaves in the town’s streets, were now happily ambling amidst plants and flowers that, like the slaves, had been brought from all corners of the Company’s empire, before being set down with the firm intention of yielding greater profits.
Masson walked to the main gate and was granted entry when he presented Schelling’s card. As he passed under the giant chestnut trees and walked up the central boulevard towards the Governor’s house, the sounds of gentile chatter and the playing of a string quartet mixed with the otherworldly calls of native animals that had been collected then housed in a menagerie at the top end of the garden.
He couldn’t help but build up a catalogue of the plants that he saw, comparing them with the ones from home. Unlike Kew, this garden was as much a plantation as a pleasure garden or botanical repository, and decorative flowers such as gardenias, ericas and flowering aloes had been placed alongside crop plants such as cabbages, lettuces, figs and apples, all of them in straight lines without any thought given to art or artifice.
As Masson leaned down to inspect a brightly coloured flower set within a cluster of star-shaped, husk-like fruits, he heard the music stop and a polite applause break out from the porch of the Governor’s house. He turned and hurried towards the house just as the Governor, Baron Joachim van Plettenberg, began to address the small crowd. Beside him stood Captain Cook, who looked to Masson like a man who wanted the whole business over and done with so that he could get back to what he knew best. Masson was coming to know that particular feeling all too well.
“As Governor of the Cape Colony and on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, I welcome Captain Cook once again to our good Cape Town. In the past, England and the Dutch Republic have had their differences. It may be called a war in Europe, but here in Africa … we call it a bicker.”
After a stirring of polite laughter from the audience, the Governor continued. “But I am told by a reliable source that Captain Cook will again sail south, braving danger to put to rest once and for all the myth of a
. We wish him good luck, and in the meantime, I have assured him during his short sojourn here of our most generous hospitality.”
Masson was surprised to hear the purpose of Cook’s mission broadcast so openly. Even after three months at sea on Cook’s own ship, he had not known that this was their goal. Despite the praise and the cheers of “Bravo!” and “Hear, Hear!” that erupted from the audience, Cook’s face darkened considerably and he no longer looked like a man who wanted to be at sea, but like a man on the verge of murder. But the Governor seemed oblivious to his guest’s sudden change in temper and continued with his speech.
“We were very sorry to hear that Sir Joseph Banks, England’s most esteemed botanist, was not able to join him on this journey as expected. But fortunately for us …”
Masson suddenly stood erect and his mouth grew dry as it occurred to him that the Governor was about to mention his name.
“… our colony’s crops, nurtured by our capable gardeners, have not waited for the arrival of English experts to thrive.”
Masson slumped, relieved and disappointed at the same time, as the crowd enjoyed the Governor’s gentle ribbing of the English.
“The abundance yielded year after year by the lands cultivated within our colony, in sharp contrast with the stubborn sterility of the immense country that surrounds it …”
Masson’s attention began to wander from the speech and as he gazed around him, he did a double take at the most incongruous of sights: about halfway to the menagerie, close to the main path, a man lay prone in a bed of plants with his legs sticking out so as to completely obstruct one of the cross-paths. He did not appear to be moving, and his head and shoulders were buried inside a bush of the same flowers that Masson had been looking at just before the Governor’s speech. One of the garden’s caretakers in the course of making his patrol with his
simply stepped over the man’s legs and continued on his rounds, ignoring him entirely. In the background, van Plettenberg continued. “Our gardens offer the greatest abundance of fruits of different species to the crews of the Dutch East India Company’s vessels …”
Masson grabbed the attention of the individual standing nearest him, a mountain of a man with a grey eyes and a full beard as black as the frock coat and tall, flat-topped hat he wore. He gestured towards the pair of legs lying prostrate in the gravel and asked in a hushed tone, “Excuse me, sir, but shouldn’t someone attend to this gentleman? He doesn’t seem to be well at all.”
The man first turned to Masson with a look of slight annoyance, looking in the direction he was pointing and snorted. “Don’t bother him,” he said with a Dutch accent, “If you do, it’ll only get worse. Trust me.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Masson asked.
“Who knows?” replied the Dutchman. “That’s
Carl Thunberg. Although,” he paused, having spat out the two syllables of the medical title as if they were poison sucked from a snakebite, “for a doctor, he sure doesn’t know what’s good for him.”
The Dutchman seemed to check himself before continuing. “He works for the Company — claims to be some kind of surgeon.” Despite himself, though, he seemed unable to restrain the ill feeling he obviously felt. The man threw in one final comment before turning back to the listen to the speech. “He’s not even Dutch — he’s a Swede.”
Masson turned his attention back to the porch, where van Plettenberg’s speech seemed finally to be coming to an end. “… living proof that the earth is only avaricious for tyrants and slaves and that it yields treasures beyond the imagination when it is cultivated by intelligent men who are governed by wise and invariable laws. Amen.”
To a chorus of “Amen”, the audience began to disperse before being hastily called back by the Governor. “And, ladies and gentlemen, I can tell you that this evening we are being treated with first grade Oolong tea from the Company’s factory in Canton, China, and sugar from Indonesia!”
The audience sighed in unison: “Aaah …”
As the music started up again, Cook shook hands with the governor and then walked off, gesturing wildly to his waiting lieutenants, who seemed as dismayed as Cook was furious.
Seemingly from nowhere, Schelling appeared at Masson’s side, greeting him with a familiar limp handshake and slippery smile. “Mr Masson, I am so glad that you could come. I see you have met Mr Willmer. Willmer,” Schelling said, addressing the large Dutchman, “I’d like to introduce Sir Joseph’s man, Mr Masson. The one sent to collect flowers for the Royal Gardens at Kew.”
“So you’re one of the English experts the Governor was talking about?” asked Willmer, a sly twinkle creasing the corners of his eyes. “Good business, that?”
“It depends on what you find, I guess.”
“Forgive Mr Willmer’s pragmatism, Mr Masson,” Schelling interjected. “He is not a man of science, not a collector so much as a trader.”
“Oh, I see. So what do you specialise in, Mr Willmer?” asked Masson.
“I also collect and sell God’s creatures, Mr Masson, not as pretty as flowers I will grant you, but much more profitable, I am sure.”
“So you are in livestock?” Masson offered when nothing more was forthcoming.
“Slaves, Mr Masson,” Schelling interjected on the Dutchman’s behalf. “You can find all the flowers you like, but they won’t pick themselves.”
Before Masson could respond, Reinhold Forster sauntered up to the trio, his head held further back than seemed physically possible as he struggled in vain to look down on the towering Dutchman.
“Well, well, well. It seems you do have a talent for finding a way into places above your station, Mr Masson. Did you know, gentlemen,’ he asked Schelling and Willmer, his teeth shaded a deep purple by the red wine which now slurred his words, “that whilst we have been tasked by the King with expanding the very horizons of our world and furthering man’s understanding of the natural sciences, Mr Masson here has been sent on a very secret mission to dig around in the Cape’s flower beds.”
Schelling turned to Masson with a quizzical look. “A secret mission? You should be careful, Mr Masson. Secrets are frowned upon in this part of the world — they almost always will get you into trouble.”
Masson felt himself being pushed into a corner and was unnerved by the interest that Schelling was showing. “I assure you, Mr Schelling, there is nothing at all secret about my mission here. It might seem trivial to some,” Masson said, casting a bitter look at Forster, “but Sir Joseph has tasked me with finding a certain flower that the King wishes to have named after the Queen.”
“Well, we are blessed to have such esteemed company this evening, wouldn’t you agree, Mr Willmer?” Schelling said expansively. “Mr Forster here is on a quest to expand the King’s domain whilst Mr Masson has been tasked with finding the key to the Queen’s affections.” Masson felt the weight of the same appraising look that Schelling had laid on him in Cook’s quarters aboard the
, only this time it was followed by something more calculating. “If I were a betting man, I know which horse I would be backing.”
Before Masson could savour the moment, he saw Captain Cook storming towards the group with one of his lieutenants following close behind. He wondered if he had yet again done something to incur the Captain’s wrath, but it was not Masson that Cook was after. “Mr Forster,” Cook hissed. “If I may have a word with you, sir.”
Forster swivelled his head round to look at the captain. Even in his inebriated state, it must have been clear that there was trouble — and yet, here on dry land in gentler company, he was even more reluctant than usual to be ordered around. “I don’t know, Captain, I’m having such a good time as it is. It seems that our Mr Masson here been guarding quite a secret.”
“If only the same could be said of you, sir,” Cook said through clenched teeth. “Now, Mr Forster, I really must insist.” Masson saw Forster’s eyes move from Cook’s furious visage to his lieutenant’s eager hand, planted firmly on the hilt of his sabre.
“Well, I suppose I could spare a moment. Please excuse me, gentlemen.” Cook’s lieutenant took Forster by the elbow and marched him out of earshot in the direction of the menagerie as Schelling and Willmer looked on with interest.
“Mr Masson,” said Cook, suppressed rage radiating from him like a furnace, “I wonder if you would be kind enough to join us for another little talk with Mr Forster, only this time I would prefer if it were done without an audience.”
Masson excused himself and followed Cook in the direction of the menagerie as the cries of the caged beasts resounded across the gardens beneath the settling twilight.
“Am I correct, Mr Forster, in understanding that it was you who discussed the objective of our expedition with the Governor, even though it was made abundantly clear that it was of the upmost importance that it remain secret until after we had left the Cape?” Cook’s face was masked by the failing light, but the menace in his voice was unmistakeable.
“I … I may have mentioned something in passing, but only that it was a possibility. When he asked me outright, I couldn’t very well lie, could I? It would have been most improper!”
“Improper?” Cook’s tone went from menacing to murderous. “Let me tell you about ‘improper’! You have betrayed the confidence of his Majesty’s Admiralty, by whose favour you are here in the first place. What is also improper is that once news of this reaches the crew, they will almost certainly desert
, heading for the nearest ship that will take them home!”
“Surely, you can’t hold me responsible for the cowardice of your crew, Captain?”
Cook grabbed Forster by his lapels and pushed him so that he fell backwards into the dirt onto his rump, an indignant shriek escaping his lips as Cook pounced forward and held him by the throat. “Do not make matters worse, Forster. I and my crew have borne more than our fair share of you and your pompous strutting. You should count yourself lucky that I am only disembarking you and not leaving you to swim back to England from the farthest reaches of the Southern Ocean.”