Sunday, December 16, 2012

Two Boys selling their irritating little Sister....

I've got a little book with short stories about a rather unusual Copenhagen family in the Victorian Age in 1890-1900s.  The author, Benjamin Jacobsen, wrote the stories as fictional memoirs. The episodes are told with a vigorous imagination and a good sense of the comical effect. His Victorian home is inhabited with some very striking personalities. The father, a botany-professor Edvard Jacobsen, the mother Wilhelmine, six children, Benjamin the oldest, Oscar, Emil and baby Victor and two girls, Magda and Anna, plus the grandmother, a very tough old lady and two housemaids. All living in a large apartment opposite the King's Garden in Copenhagen around 1900s. I'll do my best to translate one of the short stories for you, where two brothers, Benjamin and Oscar make an attempt to sell their sister Anna to a sailor in Nyhavn, a quarter near the Royal theater and at the old wharf, today it's a popular place with some fine old houses and cafés and restaurants along the kanal. At that time around the 1900s it was mostly a place where the sailors were staying. Benjamin is telling the story. ( the maid mentioned is the kitchen maid, Marie)

"White Slavetrade."

I was never a reflecting nature, my actions were all my life   mostly dictated by temper and intuition. When I was a child I never thought about the consequences of my behaviour, but I have tried to fight this bad habit through my long life. I often wondered how we children almost always got away with our misdeeds with the skin on our nose - we really did not deserve that. We were not worthy of such luck. The story about Oscar and I selling our sister Anna to the white slavetrade proves this perfectly.

It happened in September 1888. Oscar and I were really annoyed with Anna. She was actually a sweet little girl, although a little prickly by nature. She used every opportunity to correct her brothers and sisters. I was irritated on their behalf  - I don't quite remember, but I probably thought that something effective had to be done to achieve some peace in the house.

The idea came as lightning from a clear sky one day, where she had been teasing and harrassing Oscar. He stood blubbering in our room, his round machine-cut head was swollen with crying.
" Oscar," I said quietly. " Oscar, don't be sorry. We'll sell her."
" What? " Oscar said, tears running.
" We'll sell her to the white slavetrade."
" What's that?"
" I'm not quite sure, but is is said to be terrible for a woman to be sold as a slave -  Marie says so."
" No one will buy Anna," said Oscar disheartened, but with a flame of hope in his wet eyes.
" You'll never know," I said encouraging. "We might find someone who's drunk."
" We'll have to talk more about this," said Oscar and blew his nose.

We made strange and hatefull plans for several days, but none seemed to be realistic. It was obvious that Anna would smell the rat at once, if we asked her to crawl inside a bag - just for fun of course. And although she was not fat like sister Magda, we would really be in trouble, if we had to carry her, gagged and tied behind her back, downstairs and over into the King's Garden, where we wanted to meet a buyer. But mr.  Nicolajsen was the guard in the King's Garden, and he would simply not be the silent bystander of a slavemarket. He was confided to the maintenance of peace and order. We had to find another place. A place where the slavetrade was a common phenomenon.

Nyhavn! Why didn't we consider Nyhavn before? Here were sailors in numbers. They went to faraway and strange foreign countries where the black chiefs lived, who for some reason were particular appreciative of white slaves. If we sold Anna cheaply, a sailor might earn a good portion of money on her.
" Don't you think she's too dark?" said Oscar. "She's got brown hair. Inger was better, but she hasn't been teasing us."
Inger was our blonde cousin.
" We'll sell her very cheaply if she's too dark," I said. " And Inger is difficult to get hold of."
I was right in the last mentioned. Inger lived in Jutland.
So we stuck to Anna, prepared that the market was a little slack of slave girls with brown hair.

We made a really dirty approach. Low and evil. We lured her with licorice, which she loved. We bought each a bag of licorice figures and told our siblings that we went out for a walk -  we wanted to eat licorice. We were rustling with the bags and eating licorice figures with big gestures.
Everything went as calculated. Our siblings flocked around us, asking if they might join us, they claimed that they had actually thought of going out for a walk now and so on. Everyone came, except Emil. He didn't like licorice.

We graciously chose Anna as our companion and went down the street together. When we came to the King's square, we first took a walk around the horse figure, then we walked across the square to the Academy and came slowly closer to the forbidden place, while we were filling licorice on Anna in an increasing speed. She was chewing and chewing, and her only thought was to finish the mouthful and get some more. She had no idea that she would soon be translated into hard cash.

Thus it came about that an elderly, sligthly drunk man of the sea suddenly stood face to face with three children, of whom one was occupied by eating licorice from two bags, obviously completely at her disposal. The sailor tried to take evasion on starboard. Well, well. A new attempt, this time on portside. With no result. He realized that the boys intentionally were blocking his way, trying to avoke his attention - in all reverence and hat in hand. They were decent boys!
" What's wrong, boys?" he said with a growl.
" Excuse me, sir," I said. " Do you buy slaves?"
I can still see his face in front of me. His jaw lowered slowly, while the eyebrows went up. He did a swallowing and said.
" Ask me again , boy. And in the same words."
I repeated. " Excuse me sir, do you buy slaves?" and I added as an explanation:  "White slaves, sir."
Oscar interrupted me.
" Well, it is a slave girl we've got for sale, and she's not quite white, she's got brown hair."
The sailor composed himself.
" Are you slavemongers, children ?"
" Not exactly. We've only got one for sale, " I said.
" It's that one over there," Oscar said and pointed at Anna, who stood outside hearing range with her bags. And we both began to explain how strong and healthy she was. Oscar was the best. Definitely. But he had his reasons. He depicted imaginatively how she, although she was a Scandinavian, was able to endure the sunshine all day, especially if she was allowed to go bathing twice a day.
" And she's cheap," I said.
" Yes, because she's got brown hair," Oscar added. "But we've got a real white slave we might offer you another time. She lives in Jutland."
" How much is this licorice-eating kid?"  the sailor finally asked.
I pushed Oscar forward. His commercial talents were already famous in the family. Oscar took a deep breath, then he said:
" Two crowns."
" You are two devils. Do you sell your sister for two crowns?"
" She is an evil woman," Oscar said gloomily.
The sailor stood swaying for a moment. Then he pulled two crowns from his pocket, gave them to Oscar and said:
" Get lost, you slavemongers."

And as quick as lightning we run up to the King's square with the terrible sound of Anna's screams in our ears. A calloused hand had caught her arm, preventing her from following her fraudulent brothers.
When we came to our street, we went very slowly down the street and up to the front door, and we dared not look at each other in fear of starting to burst into tears. A moment after we had joined the dinner table, mother asked Magda to fetch Anna, and I felt so miserable that I was on the edge of vomitting.
Magda came back, announcing that Anna wasn't at home.
" Didn't Anna come back with you?" mother asked Oscar and I.
She got no reply. We raised a howl from the second world. We cried and cried without being able to speak a word. This was of course most alarming to our parents, who stood there shooking us to get an answer on their question.
" Where is Anna ?"
Emil had been watching this upsetting scene with no sign of compassion. He had just eaten his portion of porridge, and with a sigh he put down his spoon and said: " She is dead, I suppose."  I regained my voice. I felt I had to contradict this horrible presumption. After some vain attempts of speaking I managed to get some words up.
" We - we sold her in  Nyhavn. "
" For how much?" asked Emil.
" Two crowns, " Oscar said to himself.
" Wilhelmine, be strong, " father said to mother, who was white in her face and wringing her hands. Then he addressed us again in a much too mild tone:
" And you, my dear sons, would kindly tell me to whom you have sold your sister in Nyhavn for two crowns."
" To a drunken sailor," I said.
" Well. And you do not know this gentleman's ship or address?"
" No."
" Wilhelmine, I'm going down to the police station. Continue your dinner. Everything will probably be okay." And father rushed out of the door.

He didn't come far. On the stairs he met the sailor and Anna.
The honest man told father that he had bought his daughter in Nyhavn for two crowns from some of the worst brood of the devil,  the girl's own brothers, and the honoured gentleman's own sons.  He had paid two crowns to prevent the girl from suffering any harm in the claws of those two bandits, and now he would allow himself to go out and get so drunk that he would have to guess what was up and what was down.
For this pretty purpose father gave him plentiful pecuniary assistance.

And now Anna.! Yes, I know her tricks. She was always like that. In the beginning she was completely indifferent to it all. The scream she uttered was just nonsense. She even had the nerve - one week after Oscar and I could sit on a chair again without difficulties -  to suggest without  further ado that Oscar, she and I went for a walk in Nyhavn "like we did last week."
We had been forced to give her two crowns.
 But Oscar and I had given up the white slavetrade for good.

Source: Benjamin Jacobsen: Midt i en Klunketid", first published in 1955.  

copy of drawing from the book by Des Asmussen.


Gerry Snape said...

I have a grandchild who would love the thought that these boys nearly got away with it!! My brother and boy cousin tied me to the garden apple that they could play without me in peace!!

Thyra said...

Gerry, that's also a good story. I can see the image of you screaming by the tree. Were you gagged so they could not be disturbed by your howling I wonder!

Have a nice day. We've got rain this morning. I like when the mild weather comes back. These icy roads are not healthy! But the children like the snow and the ice on the lakes. What a lovely time it was once! Oh Nostalgia!!

Grethe `)