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The Merchant and the Galley Slaves

There was once a small trader who peddled his meagre wares on a small wooden cart that he wheeled between the hustle and bustle of ships unloading their wares at port. In between selling and pushing his cart around he sat on the docks and watched the ships unloading merchandise and frequently overheard the deals being done as loads of merchandise were transferred from ships to awaiting wagons. He began to notice patterns; occasionally a new item brought in would command a huge premium and the merchant involved could almost set any price on the desired goods. However weeks later when additional shipments arrived the price would be lower. He noticed a period of time, between realising that the goods were sought after and the arrival of the next shipment en masse, where the price of the goods remained extremely high. Again and again he watched the same thing happen: a new product would land and sell well for a few weeks the price would remain high and any available stock would be sold immediately. This would continue until a bulk shipment arrived. The time it took the average cargo ship to make the trip across the sea and back would determine the time at which the higher price existed.

Logic told him that if he were able to bring in a small shipment of the desired goods before the market was flooded he would be able to sell quickly and make a high margin. Initially he reasoned that if it was that simple someone would have done it before; but the more he watched and saw the pattern repeated the more interested he became in testing his theory. He scraped together enough to buy a small, ancient longboat, big enough to squeeze in a strong rowing crew, himself and space for a crate or two of merchandise. He worked nights modifying the boat, stripping off excess weight and at once repairing and modifying the vessel. When he was nearing completion he went to the slave market and negotiated terms with one of the slave traders allowing him enough time to make one trip. He bought nine of the strongest slaves he could find and, having staked everything he had on this idea, promised the purchased slaves freedom and payment on successful completion as an incentive. That night he bought drinks at the local tavern plying sailors and captains with liberal amounts of alcohol and listening intently to their tales of adventure at the high seas. They responded willingly to his questions and filled in all the details he needed. The next morning he bought as many dates as he could fit into his vessel. Loaded the ship and taking his place at one of the oars set off across the sea. They rowed hard, eight at a time, the other two catching fits of restless sleep amongst the sacks of dates on board.

When they arrived they worked quickly; unloading, selling and purchasing a shipment of spun cotton for the return trip. They rested and slept for a few hours and set off early the next morning. The round trip was completed in the time it normally took for a one way crossing and the reward was ample. A sizeable profit for the merchant and more than adequate compensation for his, now free, slaves. He sat on the boat contemplating his next move, he obviously had to carry on trading in this way the rewards were good, better than anything he had hoped. He approached two of the harder working slaves that he had bought and subsequently freed, with a proposition; They would continue to work for him and be paid (even more handsomely than they had been on the previous trips) if, in addition to their previous work they helped him purchase slaves and keep them in line during subsequent trips (the possibility of mutiny and the dangers he might have faced being the sole free man on board during the previous trip now entering his mind for the first time).

For a time business was good and the merchant was able to build up a sizeable business (and healthy bank balance) but he was tired of spending his days cramped in the small boat travelling in all weather back and forth across the seas. He began work on a new bigger boat with enough galley space to make it as fast as his small sleek craft. The new boat was magnificent streamlined in design but far larger, with ample storage space in the centre for cargo and berths for his slave masters. His quarters above deck were well appointed and offered unencumbered views of the seascape. He had ingeniously installed communication tubes from his berth from where he could inform his slave masters of the small changes of course needed to keep them on course. The new boat was a success and once again business flourished, the bank balance increased, and he rewarded his loyal slave masters well, growing more confident in their abilities every day.

In time the merchant began to settle into society, his wealth providing status and standing in the community to which he gave of his money and wisdom freely. He also caught the eye of more than one of the towns’ young ladies of marriageable age, one of the more beautiful and daughter of a local magistrate captured his heart and they were married in a lavish ceremony. As a family man he began to resent his time travelling and in time this resentment grew as did his family. However he had the services of two loyal and capable slave masters who he believed more than capable of continuing his business even in his occasional absence. He was however reluctant to give up his well appointed berth aboard the ship, and as he did after all visit important dignitaries on other shores from time to time felt that the business could be run from below deck after all they had been doing this for years with very little guidance from him.

The first few trips under new management went well there were no unforeseen events and they kept well on course. But after awhile the ship began to take longer to make its trips, a change of wind would set them off course and it wouldn’t be noticed and the large vessel would take awhile to turn and set itself on the new course. The merchant noticed that his profits weren’t as large as they used to be but when his slave master advised building a more traditional vessel to add to their fleet since now they had capital and didn’t need to rely solely on speed to compete he agreed of course now his business had come of age and could join the ranks of other successful merchants plying there trade on the seas.

Somewhere on shore a small trader sat at his cart and wondered if there wasn’t a better way to transport merchandise form far off lands ….