BUNCE ISLAND, Sierra Leone—The island greeted me with its stillness, the tropical air so hot and thick it felt like a weight on my body. I waded ashore in water as warm as a bath, and looked up.
Behind the trees where the shoreline ends, I could see patches of a stone wall, mottled gray and looming. Nothing moved, and even the tall canopy palms were motionless in the dead air. Insects buzzed, breaking the silence, and green monkeys screamed in the treetops.
I knew without being told that no one lives on Bunce Island, that no one has lived here for centuries.
On the gravel jetty that curves down to the water, the jetty where, more than 200 years ago, slaves were forced down to the waiting ships, an ancient cannon still rests on the stones.
On the little rise above the jetty and only partially obscured by trees stand the ruins of a slave fortress, long walls of stone and broken mortar. Empty doorways open onto walled-in yards, and tall windows frame views of sky. In the remains of a room where African people were once traded for rum and muskets and beads of Venetian glass, a mantelpiece is mounted on a wall, exposed to sun and rain.
I thought the fortress would be hard to envision after two centuries of abandonment, but it wasn't. The walls still told the story, and even in bright equatorial sunlight, the ruins were thick with menace and sorrow. In the slave yard where hundreds of naked men were held, chained together, speech was impossible. The ground was rough and uneven, broken by roots and hard to walk on. I looked at the tall walls and felt them look back at me.
The 18-mile trip upriver from Freetown had felt like an outing, the wind cool on my face. I admired the deeply forested Sierra Leone coast, sloping hillsides that reminded the early Portuguese traders of lions at rest.
But I forgot that azure West African coast as I slipped down from the side of our speedboat and walked into the slave trade's Pompeii. The past surrounded me, echoing from the broken walls.
The people who live on neighboring islands will not stay here overnight, nor even as daylight fades. They believe this place is haunted by a devil, and that on a small cluster of rocks off the northeastern end of the island the devil sits, watching. Sometimes, they believe, he moves across the water and comes ashore.
The day before, on a hill high above Freetown, our guide reached over my shoulder and pointed to a group of islands in the distance. In the blue haze, one tiny island seemed to hide in the curve of a much bigger one. ``Bunce,'' he said.
I had traveled 9,000 miles to step into a ghost story.
A Journey Begins
On January 18, 1757, a two-masted ship caught a northwest wind and sailed out of New London Harbor into Long Island Sound. The day was clear and bitterly cold. So began a voyage whose details were recorded in a ship's log I found late last spring in the Connecticut State Library.
``Thought this might interest you,'' read a friend's Post-it note attached to a nearly 80-year-old news article from the Hartford Times. The story described the ship's log, which the library had acquired from a collector in 1920.
The well-preserved but brittle pages were slightly rough to the touch, and smelled like old books from an attic. Underneath that musty smell was a sharper one, like old cloth. The man who kept the log wrote in black ink that has faded to brown with age, and he often made a long dash, or flourish, after the last word in each entry, as if to clear his quill of ink.
Sitting in the stuffy basement library nearly 250 years later, I began to see the world he knew, the bad weather and evil food. I imagined eating mutton that had been salted and stored in a barrel for two months, and ``ship's bread,'' blue with mold and alive with weevils.
Suddenly, I saw the seamen clearing a space between decks for people who would be chained there, and heard the captain's anger when precious rum -- essential for slave trading -- leaked from some of the barrels.
I began to hear the writer's voice in my head, and to understand his shorthand. He kept track of the ship's provisions, repairs, and the men's daily tasks. He noted changing weather and wind conditions throughout each day, as well as latitude and -- using the primitive methods of the era -- longitude. In rough weather, his handwriting was choppy and I imagined a sloping deck and vertical seas. Much of the log would have been written by the light of a candle.