What is the plot of "The Slave-Breaker" (voyage 9) in Chesapeake by James Michener?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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James Michener's sweeping novel Chesapeake is a grand historical novel comprised of both fictional and historical figures who live through most of the major events in American history from Native American in-fighting before the arrival of the Colonists to the Watergate scandal nearly four hundred years later. 

Each chapter of the novel covers one kind of "voyage." Chapter nine of the novel begins in 1832 and is entitled "The Slave-Breaker." Cudjo's village is near the Congo River, and he seems to be the only one concerned about the Arab slave traders who have suddenly appeared in the area, eager to trade for whatever the natives have to sell them. Cudjo sees the traders placing members of the neighboring tribes in chains, but when he tries to warn the leaders of his own tribe about the potential dangers, he is ignored. 

Eventually the traders come to Cudjo's village and force the villagers to march to Luanda, the port in which the slave ship Ariel is waiting. The captain, John Turlock, is always glad for the money he earns by running slaves, but this kind of work is also quite risky and he feels conflicted about his role in this unsavory practice. The Ariel was fitted as a slaver eighteen years earlier for a one-time slaving voyage, but the temptation of the money was too strong and that is why Turlock and the Ariel are still running slaves. 

Not every one of the natives survives the march, but Cudjo is one of the fittest and strongest of the men and he survives only to be chained, spread-eagle, on the bottom level of the ship. Here he is close enough to communicate with three other important people. Luta is the significant female in his life, a member of his own tribe; Akko is the son of a village leader, and Rutak is a natural leader as well as an imposing physical presence. The four of them are able to talk, and the the three men conspire to do what should never be done without being willing to risk dying--they purpose to take over the ship and save their fellow countrymen.

Fate is on their side and great storm offers the men the opportunity they have been looking for, and the battle is ugly. Though the prisoners were able to break their chains from the ship, they were not able to free themselves from the chains which held them together. The result is a terrible battle in which their heavy chains were used as lethal weapons. When it was over, the dead members of the crew, including Turlock, as well as 

the forty-eight slaves who had given their lives for freedom

were thrown overboard. Sadly, two of those who lost their lives were Akko and Luta. 

Fortunately Cudjo had spent some time chained above-deck when the ship first set sail, so has some working knowledge of how to run a ship. He is now the captain of the Ariel and manages to steer the ship by the North Star. Things are fine for a time, but these are the days when mutineering and pirating vessels is common, and the Ariel is commandeered by a French ship.

Language is a barrier, of course, but everyone understands the French sailors' surprise when they discover that black men are running the ship and white men are prisoners below deck and trying to explain to their fellow Europeans what happened to them. A British ship arrives and takes the slaves; the Frenchmen get the ship.

While some of the slaves are killed for their mutinous acts, Cudjo was lauded for saving the ship and his life was spared. That is not enough to keep him from being taken to Cuba with the others and sold as slaves.

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