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Josiah Erasmus was a member of the Lunda people who had been taken from Africa at six years old. He bore scars on his face and elsewhere from being whipped. He was brought to Jamaica, where he was eventually freed and became a preacher. A friend of William Wilberforce, he aided Wilberforce in speaking out against slavery and hoped to one day to return to Africa as a missionary.
Erasmus was among guests who attended the party thrown in William Laurence's honor to help combat the slave trade and raise money for the dragons sick with the Dragon Plague. When Mr. Bathurst, a Member of Parliament from Bristol, argued in favour of the slave trade, Erasmus gently rebutted his arguments. This led to Wilberforce introducing Erasmus to Laurence and Temeraire. Temeraire's own experience of being required to wear storm chains during his voyage to China made him sympathetic to Erasmus' history.
Wilberforce's introduction allowed Erasmus to ask Laurence if he, his wife Hannah and their two daughters might travel aboard the HMS Allegiance as Laurence's guests in order to reach Cape Town and take over an abandoned mission there. Laurence agreed, at the cost of creating friction between himself and Captain Tom Riley, whose family owned plantations in the West Indies worked by slaves. Erasmus might have been one of these slaves himself.
After establishing his mission in Cape Town, Erasmus agreed to act as a translator for Captain Laurence in his efforts to secure a supply of an African fungus believed to cure the Dragon Plague. Erasmus hoped that in doing so he might be able to make progress in spreading the gospel among the Xhosa people. Unfortunately, his participation in the fungus-gathering efforts led to his death. A group of Tswana dragons and men captured a British party which had unknowingly trespassed on a cavern of mushrooms being cultivated by the Tswana. The Lunda were rivals of the Tswana, and although Hannah herself was Tswana, Erasmus was killed immediately when he identified himself as Lunda. His captors may have been under the impression that Erasmus had taken Hannah captive.