Silas Told and the Devil-Fish
The following ripping yarn was found in the autobiography of Silas Told [1711–1778] Methodist convert and prison visitor. Told was sent to sea at age 14, where he suffered much abuse under sadistic captains and saw at first-hand the horrors of the slave trade. Fortunately for us, he could read and write and kept a diary of his experiences. This excerpt tells an intriguing tale of nameless poisons, the Devil, and a strange horned creature following the ship as a kind of marine psychopomp, waiting to bear away the Captain’s soul.
After this I was shipped on board the Scipio, Capt. Roach, who was much of a seaman, a pleasant tempered gentleman, and exceedingly free and liberal with all his ship’s company; but he having purchased a fine black girl for his own use, she, in the end, proved the cause of his death. One evening, as we lay at anchor in New Callabar, one Tom Ancora came on board who talked very good English, and the facetious Capt. Roach having made a tub of punch on the quarter-deck, had the fiddler and the ship’s company dancing with him, but left me with Tom Ancora to purchase the slaves. When this was done, Tom desired me to give him a dram, which I did; he then desired me to let the bottle stand : I told him I must first obtain the captain’s leave for so doing. I then went to Capt. Roach, who gave me leave. Tom, at this indulgence, filled a rummer with brandy, and clasping the black girl in his arms (as their custom is) they put both their mouths to the glass, and jointly drank thereout; but unfortunately for Capt. Roach, he came into the cabin and detected them in that attitude while drinking, which so provoked him, that he ran the end of his cane into Tom’s mouth, broke the tumbler, and knocked out all his front teeth, although he had a fine set. The captain then ran to his state-room for one of his loaded pistols; but Tom, apprehensive of his danger, jumped overboard. It being dark, and the tide of ebb flowing strong, Tom’s canoe dropt a-stern, took him up, and carried him on shore. Our captain was resolved to go on shore to close the breach that was made; but the ship’s company all earnestly strove to convince him of the imprudence of going to Tom Ancora’s house, yet, if he was bent upon going, they intreated him not to eat or drink any thing. However, Capt. Roach was resolutely deaf to all their kind expostulations. He dressed himself in a scarlet plush suit, put his sword on, and went to Tom’s house; but he being too subtle for the captain, carried it fair and easy, and seemed to be very friendly, but took care to give the captain a strong dose of poison, which in three days’ time operated so effectually upon him, that the fingers on both his hands were drawn into the palms, and all his toes were drawn under his feet; hence it evidently appeared to all the traders that Tom Ancora had poisoned Capt. Roach. .. .
Next morning one Dick Ebrew and his son came on board, and desired to learn what kind of eatables he partook of, and whether it was hot or cold, while at Tom Ancora’s house; saying, if he would simply tell them, it was not impossible for them to expel the poison, and save his life; these two men I have often admired for their meek and loving spirit, exceedingly far beyond tens of thousands who call themselves Christians: However, all their reasoning with the captain, to convince him that he was poisoned, proved ineffectual, as he insisted upon it he was not; and again, the others as strenuously insisted upon it that he was. At length the benevolent father and his son parted with our captain in a plaintive condition (their eyes expressive of the same) as they had not the opportunity of preserving his life; he being a man greatly esteemed amongst the natives for his courteous behaviour.
Before I proceed any farther, I would relate the behaviour of our cooper and a black, whom we named Adam. When the ship was sailing over the bar, Adam had planned the cutting off the ship’s company, which, when perceived by the other slaves, they joined the mutiny, and on a sudden rose and seized the cook, and threw him into the furnace of boiling rice; they likewise attacked the boatswain, took from him his knife, and stabbed him in several parts of the body, and threw him overboard. Wells, the cooper, hearing the disturbance, came up out of the hold, upon which Adam also seized him; but the cooper said to him, “Adam, you no savee me, tofue you mini?” The English of” which is, “Don’t you know I often give you water?” Adam then said to him, “Tossue coopery,” which is, “Get out of the way.” The cooper then got over the quarter-deck bulk-head to the arms chest, took up a loaded pistol, and shot Adam through the head; the other slaves, at seeing their champion dead, ran all down between decks, were closely confined, and admirably well secured, to prevent a second massacre; and as the captain lay dangerously ill, and only five men able to work the ship, we, with the greatest and most elaborate toil, reached the West Indies in three weeks.—Upon the ship’s arrival there, the owner of her made the cooper a present of sixty pounds for his services on board her at the time of those assassinations.
I would again observe, before I return to Capt. Roach, while we lay at Callabar [Nigeria], and just previous to our sailing, the captain sent me on shore armed, with two men, to what is called, “Enforcement of trade.” Accordingly I went to shore, with a cutlass by my side, and in my hands two loaded pistols. When I arrived at the top of the hill, I heard an uncommon shrieking of women, and as I drew near a division of houses I saw what (through curiosity) I had long wished to see, namely, Egbo, a native, in a fine silk grass meshed net, so curiously made to fit him, that nothing but his hands and feet appeared; the net ended with a fringe, not unlike ruffles. This man is looked upon as both God and devil, and all stand in the most profound awe of him, from the highest to the lowest. [Is some variation of this secret society what is being described?]
I stood still to see the sequel of his caprice, and observed that in his hand he had a green bough, wherewith he was whipping the women’s posteriors, as they went naked, and chasing them out of one house into another; and as they were exceedingly terrified, and considered it a heavy curse when Egbo struck them, therefore they fled from him as we would flee from hell flames. However, when he had satisfied himself by lashing the poor women, he came out through the middle of the court, and through the meshes of his net, I was discovered by him. Presently he advanced towards me, with full purpose to let me also feel the weight of his green bough; upon which I instantly drew my hanger, with a resolution to cut off his head. He then ran away, and I saw him no more. Afterwards I was visited by some of the chief men in the town, saying, “Bacareau, you no fear Egbo.” I replied, “Not I, and that if he had offered to strike me I would have cut his head off.” At which answer they could not help laughing heartily, and then retired.
I now return to continue the thread of my account of Capt. Roach, and the further particulars of my voyage to Jamaica. My reader may observe, that I left the description of our proceedings upon Old Callabar, at our captain losing the use of his limbs; at length he found the poison to work fatally upon him, so that he was reduced to an inability of helping himself. The whole burthen then fell on my hands, nor would he suffer any other to approach him. I conducted myself in the disagreeable function tolerably well, till we anchored under St. Thomas’s fort, on a Portuguese island, lying about three hundred miles to the westward of the Coast of Africa, where Capt. Roach directed me to sell the surplus of cargo, after purchasing the Guinea slaves, &c…
By this time our captain grew worse, and one day with his stool came several large clots of blood from him, one of which resembled a fowl’s kidney, and the bulk was nearly equal to that of a pigeon’s egg. When I informed the captain thereof, he lifted up his eyes and hands (I hope his heart too) to heaven, repeating these words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” From this time he voided larger clots of blood, so that it was computed two or three and thirty pounds of blood had been discharged from him at various times. He strictly charged the surgeon to open him when dead, for the satisfaction of his wife. He soon after made his exit, and upon his body’s dissection, the surgeon pointed out to us the mystery of the poison, and its operation; likewise the cause of his voiding such quantities of blood, which was in consequence of the veins across his stomach being cut by the poison, into five hundred pieces. He was then sewed up in his hammock, with a bag of ballast fastened to his feet, and committed to the great deep; and I firmly believe he had all his sufferings here.
Various occurrences happened in the ship during the captain’s illness, but I shall particularly remark only the circumstance of one, which, I apprehend, was rather of an ominous nature. Every day, in the course of his weakness in body, he made repeated efforts to reach the cabin windows, in order to receive the cooling air, and at whatever time he looked in the water, a devil fish was regularly swimming at the stern of the ship; he did not appear to be a fish of prey, but his breadth from fin to fin was about twenty-eight feet, and in length about seven or eight, with a wide tail, and two ivory horns in front. He followed the ship, to our best calculation, near eighteen hundred miles; nor was it remembered by any of the ship’s crew that a fish of that nature had made its appearance in the course of any of their voyages. Perpetual attempts to destroy or catch this monster was made, by the fastening a thick rope round the body of a dead negro, and casting him overboard, but it was ineffectual; the fish swam close under our stern, got his horns entangled in the rope, under-run it to the end, and then tossed his refused prey several yards above the water. When the captain died he forsook the ship, and we saw him no more.
An account of the life, and dealings of God with Silas Told. Written by himself, Silas Told, 1805
I assume that the “Devil-fish” was some kind of giant manta ray [Manta birostris.] Mantas have thin tails rather than wide, but perhaps that refers to the tapering of the body down to the spiny tail. Would the sailors have known that a devil-fish did not eat human flesh? Are the “ivory horns,” a statement of color rather than material? A short, broad, double-horned narwhal would be an anomaly in these—or any other–waters. Or is the creature something else entirely?
On his return to England, Told drank and knocked about at odd jobs. Then he married and was converted to Methodism by John Wesley. He taught school for several years. On hearing the text: “I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” from Matthew 25: 36, Told had an epiphany and was moved to begin visiting prisoners at Newgate, where the Ordinaries, who performed their religious duties with minimal zeal, were hostile to him. He persisted and became a chaplain at Newgate, praying with the criminal in the cell and the condemned under the gallows. His vivid memoir of life and religion was published after his death and was helpful in exposing the horrors of slavery in aid of the abolitionist cause. It was also popular reading for children, particularly boys, because of its gripping seafaring tales paired with the religious element.
Can the ominous devil-fish be positively identified as a manta ray? Speculations as to the slow-acting poison given the captain? Sew in a hammock and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.