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Why King Congo Was Late


Source: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate

As in all the Spanish Americas, there were churchly feasts and
celebrations in Cuba whose origin has been forgot. Why did the
slaves serenade their masters on New Year morning, jingling huge
tambourines, and in the villages how came it to be thought that the
cause of righteousness was advanced by parades and music on saints'
days? Hatred of the Jews was an inheritance rather than an experience,
and for lack of Jews to prove it upon there was an annual display
of wrath at Judas, who was represented by a grotesque effigy made
up of straw, old clothes, and a mask. In the cities this figure was
merely called The Jew, and after being carried through the streets
with revilings, on the day after Good Friday, it was hanged in some
conspicuous place and there stoned and shot by the crowd.

In Santiago there used to be a queer celebration on the 6th of
January, "the day of the kings," or "All Kings' day," meaning the
kings who journeyed to Bethlehem to worship the new-born Christ. In
time this function lost its dignity and became a sport, a gasconade,
in which the slaves attired themselves extravagantly and paraded about,
begging, blowing horns, beating drums, and bandying jokes with the
spectators. In the days of King Congo the procession had some claim
to show and importance, if only because he was at the head of it,
for he had, in ways known only to himself, come into possession of
the chapeau of a captain-general, a lieutenant's coat, one epaulette,
a pair of blue breeches, and a belt; hence, attired in all these
grandeurs at once, and mounted on a mule, he looked every inch the king
he said he was. For, albeit, he had been a slave, he claimed an African
king as his father, and as that parent was dead, for aught he could
certify to the contrary, the title, if not the crown and emoluments,
descended to him; leastwise, nobody on this side of the sea could
dispute it; and he bore it with conscious dignity. His family name,
if he had one, has been lost, and it is as King Congo that he was
known. That his royalty was genuine the other negroes never doubted,
and to parade on the day of the kings without a real king of their
own color to marshal the procession was not to be thought of.

El Rey Congo was aware of his power and of the impression he made on
the humbler residents of Santiago. Every now and then he heightened his
superiority to common clay by appearing in public in a starched collar,
looking over the top of it with an assumption of pride and ease, as
of one born to such luxury, but in reality chafing his neck against
its ragged edges and longing to be in the fields, where he would not
need to be spectacular. One year the day of the kings dawned without a
cloud, and Santiago was in a holiday humor. Everybody who had work to
do postponed it till to-morrow, as if All Kings' Day were like every
other day; for the procession that year was to be extra large and
fine. King Congo was to ride with spurs, though barefooted, and was
to have a military guard of four men. The band had been increased,
especially in the drum department, and the ladies, who would have
figured in the king's court if he had had a court, were turbaned
in new bandanas of red and yellow. The clergy and officers of the
garrison had promised to review the parade, and the cooper, down by
the custom-house, suggested that he'd better put a few hoops around
King Congo to keep his swelling heart from cracking his ribs.

A long trumpet-call from the square announced the hour for assembly,
and all eyes turned toward the street through which the king had been
used to make his entry. He did not come. Tardiness is a privilege
of kings. It proves them superior to the obligations laid upon the
vulgar herd. Beside, what is an hour in a manana country? But as
the hour went by and the king kept refraining from his arrival, some
presuming subjects went to look him up, and after much inquiry and
pedestrian exercise they found the sovereign in jail. His Majesty
explained that he had been arrested for debt a few days before,
and that because of a shortage in the paltry coin of a white man's
state--a wretched matter of $4.15--he was doomed to remain behind
the bars, perhaps forever. The messengers ran back to the square,
made an excited appeal to the populace, scratched the required sum
together in penny subscriptions, paid the innkeeper every centavo
that the king owed him, woke up the sheriff and the magistrate,
and before noon King Congo was a free man, in the same old uniform,
riding the same old mule, and stiffly bowing to the admiring populace
as he passed. The parade was a great success. So was the scheme
conceived that morning by el Rey Congo; for, every year thereafter,
three or four days before the festival of the adoration, he laid in
supplies of rum and cigars, with even a new hat or a second-hand
medal, and after getting the goods safely bestowed in his cabin,
defied his creditors to collect their pay. The shopkeepers winked at
this device, and regularly sent him to jail, for they knew that on the
6th of January their royal customer would pay, though by proxy. And
that is more than you can say of some kings. Isn't it?

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