Thoroughly married

Thoroughly married

There are many things about Port Naain which are not obvious to the outsider and which we perhaps don’t talk about. It wasn’t until a stranger to the city asked me about the large iron-hulled steamers that tie up at the deep water berths that it even occurred to me to mention them. It’s because they trade to the west.

Now west of Port Naain is an awful lot of ocean, with a few islands which are perfectly adequate for marooning political rivals on but have very little economic value. Then beyond them you hit large islands, some of them being of a fair size. Some are or were inhabited, some probably weren’t. But over some of them Port Naain exercises a degree of influence.

Don’t come to think this is the city building an empire. The city itself, as represented by the Council of Sinecurists exercises an entirely benign neglect of the topic. Individual merchants or associations of merchants have over the years settled the islands. To be fair, Port Naain is not short of potential settlers. Turn up at the Warrens or the Sump and offer people a chance to eat at least two meals a day and have a roof that doesn’t leak and they’ll be seriously interested in your proposition. Offer them a lifetime of backbreaking labour, but on their own small patch of land, and you can pick and choose amongst them. So whilst perhaps half the food eaten in Port Naain comes from Partann or our northern hinterland, as much again crosses the ocean in the iron hulls of these large steamers.

As a general rule, nobody ever goes there, except to settle. Similarly nobody ever comes back, except as a crewman aboard the ships. Go west and you abandon your past and enter a new world. But not everybody goes to be a farmer. There are islands inhabited by natives who range in temperament from placid and peaceful to fierce cannibals. Yet some of the islands have things to offer the enterprising trader. Even cannibals can be persuaded to pick the blossoms of various plants, drying them and trading them with passing merchants for metal-bladed machetes and axes. These dried blossoms will be sold for a high price to those who delight in drinking the delicately flavoured and scented infusions they produce.

Once you arrive in the uttermost west, the large ships can only dock at one or two ports. The islands are knitted together by scores of minor craft, schooners, brigs or even smaller, which move from island to island. These are licensed traders, most of whom arrived as farmworkers and realised there were other options open to them. Then on many islands, certainly those where the inhabitants are friendly, you will find a company agent. This individual, although paid by one company, is responsible to all for ensuring that the locals are not kidnapped and sold into slavery on one hand, and that they don’t start eating traders on the other. They also have some responsibility for encouraging the locals to produce goods suitable for trade, and for ensuring there is a regular market that traders can attend.

Sneed Waterloop was appointed by an avarice of usurers to be the company agent of the island of Watahoho. There is a school of thought that they picked him because it allowed somebody to make a convoluted joke involving his surname but I cannot vouch for this.

When Sneed arrived at Watahoho he settled in rapidly. He was a quiet, unassuming individual, and was rather overwhelmed by the respect the islanders, a happy laughing people. They were enthusiastic party-goers and would think nothing of spending the entire day just sitting on the beach, playing native instruments and singing plaintive native love songs. Whilst he would agree that this was all remarkably quaint, Sneed had quotas to meet. The locals were supposed to gather together, wash and dry, quantities of various seaweeds which are sold in Port Naain as expensive delicacies. To be fair to the usurers, they were willing to pay a fair price for the seaweed, but alas, the natives had no use for money. After all it doesn’t cost a lot to sit on a beach outside your rude hut and sing love songs.

Sneed struggled to get them to work at all. Food was plentiful, the fishing was good, and the island was covered with food producing plants. There were even small dart and coneys to trap for the adventurous. If they did any work at all, it was because they liked Sneed and hated to see him looking depressed.

Finally Sneed realised that something had to be done. If he had only a dozen settlers from Port Naain, he’d soon meet the quota. But of course he wasn’t allowed settlers. Then it occurred to him, whilst he could not import the inhabitants of Port Naain, he could perhaps breed them. After all, if he married a local girl, their children would be at least half the way to being the sturdy stock of Port Naain. Mathematically it was obvious that if they had twenty-four children, he’d have his dozen settlers. Not only that he’d be able to supervise their upbringing and ensure that they were ardent labourers.

Further consideration showed the problems of the scheme. It would take at least twenty-four years to assemble his labour force, and probably a further decade before they were swinging into full production. Somewhat despondent he slumped down by the fire on the beach and listened to the love songs. Two of the village maidens, realising he looked sad, snuggled up to him and plied him with palm wine. It was then he had his inspiration. Why not marry more than one wife? Two glasses of palm wine later saw a full flowering of his genius, why not marry them all?

Next day he gathered the entire community together and announced that the great masters whom he worked for had instructed him to take a wife. Not only that but they were so determined to honour the people of Watahoho that he was to marry every woman between the ages of eighteen and fifty, whether they were married or not. After some thought, one of the locals asked “Are you marrying them separately or all together?”

Sneed had thought about this one. “Definitely going to marry them all separately, perhaps at monthly intervals.”

Somebody else asked, “So you’ll have a separate marriage ceremony for each wife.”

“Absolutely,” said Sneed. “Then after the honeymoon she can go back to her husband if she wants.”

The details of the ceremony needed sorting out but Sneed was willing to negotiate. Thus the usual ceremony was where the bride and groom were feasted together with the rest of the community for two days. Then the happy couple would retire to the honeymoon cottage for the next week, where they would be supplied with food, including the fabulous honeymoon wine. Admittedly it was just palm wine spiced with various herbs, but on trying it Sneed found he rather liked it. During this week the rest of the community could sing love songs on the beach day and night if they wanted. But after the week was up, Sneed negotiated that everybody would collect and wash seaweeds for a week until Sneed married his next wife. With that the whole process would begin again.

Now the business went rather well. With reason to work, the community comfortably achieved its quota and Sneed received a number of flattering letters of commendation from his superiors.

If there was a fly in the ointment, it was that, as the years passed, these marriages didn’t seem to produce any little Sneeds. At the end of a decade he’d married every woman on the island, some several times. All of them had, at some point, produced children, but none of these children could be linked in any way to him. Still he was not a man to give up easily. He redoubled his efforts, married them all again, repeatedly, until finally his health gave out and he collapsed. He had to be carried onto a boat by his weeping brides. Eventually the usurers decided that the best thing they could do for such a loyal servant of the company, one who had sacrificed his health for the good running of the business, was to ship him back to Port Naain to recuperate.

You’d see him, wandering like a ghost around the wharfs, always looking westwards, talking to anybody who’d just arrived. What finished him was meeting on traveller who had news from Watahoho. Apparently his successor had been talking to the locals about their customs, and in the discussion, one of the locals told him about the spiced palm wine they served during honeymoons. Apparently it acted as a contraceptive.


The tour continues, to read more of this blog post go to Suzanne’s blog at

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