The Log of a Privateersman/Chapter One
The French probably never did a more audacious thing than when, on the night of October 26th, 1804, a party of forty odd of them left the lugger Belle Marie hove-to in Weymouth Roads and pulled, with muffled oars, in three boats, into the harbour; from whence they succeeded in carrying out to sea the newly-arrived West Indian trader Weymouth, loaded with a full cargo of rum, sugar, and tobacco. The expedition was admirably planned, the night chosen being that upon which the new moon occurred; it was a dismal, rainy, and exceptionally dark night, with a strong breeze blowing from the south-west; the hour was about two o’clock a.m.; there was an ebb tide running; and the ship—which had only arrived late in the afternoon of the previous day—was the outside vessel in a tier of three; the Frenchman had, therefore, nothing whatever to do but to cut the craft adrift and allow her to glide, silent as a ghost, down the harbour with bare poles, under the combined influence of the strong wind and the ebb tide. There was not a soul stirring about the quays at that hour; nobody, therefore, saw the ship go out; and the two custom-house officers and the watchman—the only Englishmen aboard her—were fast asleep, and were secured before they had time or opportunity to raise an alarm. So neatly, indeed, was the trick done that the first intimation poor old Peter White—the owner of the ship and cargo—had of his loss was when, at the first streak of dawn, he slipped out of bed and went to the window to gloat over the sight of the safely-arrived ship, moored immediately opposite his house but on the other side of the harbour, where she had been berthed upon her arrival on the previous afternoon. The poor old gentleman could scarcely credit his eyes when those organs informed him that the berth, occupied but a few hours previously, was now vacant. He looked, and looked, and looked again; and finally he caught sight of the ropes by which the Weymouth had been moored, dangling in the water from the bows and quarters of the ships to which she had been made fast. Then an inkling of the truth burst upon him, and, hastily donning his clothes, he rushed downstairs, let himself out of the house, and sped like a madman down the High Street, across Hope Square, and so on to the Nothe, in the forlorn hope that the ship, which, with her cargo, represented the bulk of the savings of a lifetime, might still be in sight. And to his inexpressible joy she was; not only so, she was scarcely two miles off the port, under sail, and heading for the harbour in company with a British sloop-of-war. She had been recaptured, and ere the news of her audacious seizure had reached the ears of more than a few of the townspeople she was back again in her former berth, and safely moored by chains to the quay.
It was clear to me, and to the rest of the Weymouth’s crew, when we mustered that same morning to be paid off, that the incident had inflicted a terribly severe shock upon Mr White’s nerves. The poor old boy looked a good ten years older than when he had boarded us in the roads on the previous afternoon and had shaken hands with Captain Winter as he welcomed him home and congratulated him upon having successfully eluded the enemy’s cruisers and privateers; but there was a fierce glitter in his eyes and a firm, determined look about his mouth which I, for one, took as an indication that the fright, severe as it undoubtedly was, had not quelled the old man’s courage.
The capture of the ship by the Frenchmen occurred during the early hours of a Friday morning; and on the following Tuesday evening I received a message from Mr White, asking me to call upon him, at his office, next day at noon. Punctual to the moment, I presented myself, and was at once ushered into the old gentleman’s private sanctum, where I found my employer seated at his desk, with several bundles of papers lying before him. He shook hands with me very cordially, and signed to me to be seated.
“Let me see, George,” he commenced. “Your indentures will soon expire, will they not?”
“Yes, Mr White,” I answered. “I shall be out of my time on the sixteenth of next month.”
“Just so; just so. I thought that they would have about a month to run; but have been too busy the last few days to ascertain the precise date. Well, George,” he continued, “I have come to the conclusion that the Weymouth must be laid up, for the present at all events. Her capture the other night has opened my eyes more completely than they have ever been opened before, to the risk of working an unarmed ship during war-time. Were I to continue to do so, and the ship should happen to be captured, it would go far toward ruining me; and I am too old to endure such a loss; so I have made up my mind to lay up the Weymouth while the war lasts. But there is good money to be made, even in war-time, if a man goes the right way to work. Privateering is a very profitable business when it can be carried on successfully; and success depends as much as anything upon the kind of men employed. I have been having a chat with Captain Winter upon the subject, with the result that I have purchased the schooner that they are now finishing off in Martin’s building-yard; and I intend to fit her out as a privateer; that being the kind of work, in fact, that she has been especially built for. Captain Winter will have the command of her, of course, with Mr Lovell as chief mate; and, George, upon the captain’s very strong recommendation, I have determined to offer you the berth of second mate. It will take more than a month to complete the schooner and fit her for sea; and by that time your indentures will have expired. Captain Winter gives you a most excellent character, and has recommended you for the berth; and from what I have seen of you, my lad, I have come to the conclusion that I shall not go very far wrong in giving it to you. Nay, you owe me no thanks, boy; you have earned the refusal of the offer by your steadiness and industry, so it is yours, freely, if you like to have it. I do not want you to make up your mind and answer me yea or nay upon the spur of the moment; take a little time to consider the matter if you like, and let me know by the end of the week.”
I needed no time for consideration, however; the offer was altogether too good and advantageous in every way to be left hanging in the balance, as it were. I therefore thankfully accepted it on the spot, and the question of pay and prize-money then being gone into and settled upon a very satisfactory basis, so far as I was concerned, I took my leave, and hurried off home to acquaint my relatives with my good fortune.
Now the reader will have gathered from the foregoing that at the period of the opening of my story I was a sailor, and quite a young man; and probably I need say but little more to complete the acquaintance thus begun.
My name is George Bowen, and I was the only son of my father, Captain Bowen, who was believed to have been drowned at sea—his ship never having been heard of after leaving England for the South Seas—when I was a little chap of only six years old. My sister Dora was born just about the time that it was supposed my father must have perished, and a year later my poor mother died, broken-hearted at the loss of a husband that she positively idolised. Thus, we two—Dora and I—were left orphans at a very early age, and were forthwith taken into the motherly care of Aunt Sophie, who had no children of her own. Poor Aunt Sophie! I am afraid I led her a terrible life; for I was, almost from my birth, a big, strong, high-spirited boy, impatient of control, and resolute to have my own way. But Dora—ah! Dora, with her sweet, docile disposition, made ample amends for all my shortcomings, and in the end, by her gentle persuasiveness, did much to subdue my rebellious spirit and render me amenable to domestic discipline.
We were both exceptionally well educated, as education went then; for Uncle Jack—Aunt Sophie’s husband—was a clever, long-headed fellow, who believed that it was not possible for a man to know too much; so Dora, in addition to receiving a sound English education, was taught French, music, and, in fact, the general run of what was then known as “accomplishments”, while I, in addition also to a good sound English education, was taught French, Latin, and mathematics, including geometry, algebra, and trigonometry. I was allowed to continue at school until my fourteenth birthday, when, in consequence of my strong predilection for the sea as a profession, I was apprenticed by Uncle Jack to Mr White for a period of seven years. The first year of my apprenticeship was spent aboard a collier, trading between the Tyne and Weymouth; then I was transferred for three years to a Levant trader; and finally I was promoted—as I considered it—into the Weymouth, West Indiaman, which brings me back to the point from whence this bit of explanation started.
The modest cottage which I called home was situated in the picturesque little village of Wyke; I had therefore a walk of some two miles before me when I left Mr White’s office; and as I sped along the road I beguiled the way by building the most magnificent of castles in the air. After the brief peace of Amiens, war had again broken out in May of the preceding year; and everybody was of opinion that the struggle which then commenced was destined to be of quite exceptional duration and severity. Then, again, it was well-known that Spain was only waiting for a sufficiently plausible pretext to declare war against us; and that pretext, it was believed, would be found in the capture by a British squadron of the three Spanish treasure-ships Medea, Clara, and Fama, news of which had just reached England. All this was of course simply disastrous from a commercial point of view; but for navy men and privateersmen it opened up a long vista of opportunities to win both distinction and fortune; for it gave us the marine commerce of three rich and powerful nations—France, Holland, and Spain—as a lawful prey. Fortunes of almost fabulous magnitude had been made by lucky privateersmen during the last war; and was there not even then living in Weymouth the heroic Captain Tizard, who had captured a Spanish Plate ship and sailed into Plymouth Sound with his prize in tow, and a massive gold candlestick glittering at each mast-head? And if others had done such things, why not we? I knew Captain Winter for a man who not only had every detail of his profession at his fingers’ ends, but who also combined the highest courage with the nicest discretion and a subtlety of resource that had already served us in good stead on more than one occasion. Then there was Robert Lovell, our chief mate, late of the Weymouth. He, like the captain, was a finished seaman; bold as a lion; and knew exactly how to deal with a crew, encouraging those who did their duty, while the idle skulkers found in him a terrible enemy.
Our late second mate—a man named Penrose, who had only been one voyage with us—had not given the skipper satisfaction; he had proved to be untrustworthy, overbearing, obstinate, unscrupulous, and altogether objectionable, so I was not at all surprised to find that he had been passed over; but it was a surprise, and a most agreeable one, too, to learn that the captain had recommended me in place of him. It was a responsible post, more so even than that of second mate in an ordinary trader; but I had no fear of myself, and was quite determined to leave nothing undone to justify “the old man’s” recommendation.
Thus pondering, I soon found myself at home. Truth compels me to admit that I was greatly disappointed with the reception that my good news met with at the hands of Aunt Sophie and Dora. Instead of congratulating me they wept! wept because I was so soon to leave them again, and because of the dangerous character of my new berth! They declared their conviction that I should be killed by the first enemy that we might happen to fall in with; or, if I were fortunate enough to escape death, that I should be brought home to them a miserable, helpless cripple, minus a leg and arm or two, and all that Uncle Jack and I could say failed to shake that conviction. Dora even went so far as to endeavour to coax me to decline the berth; and only desisted upon my representation that, were I so foolish as to do so, I should inevitably be snapped up by the press-gang. That, and the indisputable fact—which they appeared to have forgotten—that there were at least a dozen men in Weymouth alone who had gone through the whole of the last war without receiving so much as a scratch, brought them to regard the matter somewhat more resignedly; and at length, when they had all but cried themselves blind, Uncle Jack’s cheery and sanguine arguments began to tell upon them so effectually, that they dried their tears and announced their determination to hope for the best.
Strange to say, although I had been at home six days, I had hitherto been so busy, running about with Dora and calling upon a rather numerous circle of friends that, up to the time of receiving Mr White’s offer, I had not found time to do more than just become aware of the fact that Mr Joe Martin, our local ship-builder, happened to have a very fine craft upon the stocks, well advanced toward completion. Now, however, that it had come about that I was to serve on board that same craft as “dickey”, I was all impatience to see what she was like; so, the next day happening to be fine, I set off, the first thing after breakfast, and, walking in to Weymouth, made my way straight to the shipyard. As I reached the gates I caught my first near view of her, and stood entranced. She was planked right up to her covering-board, and while one strong gang of workmen was busy fitting her bulwarks, another gang, upon stages, was hard at work caulking her, a third gang under her bottom, having apparently just commenced the operation of coppering. She was, consequently, not presented to my view in her most attractive guise; nevertheless, she being entirely out of the water, I was able to note all her beauties, and I fell in love with her on the spot. She was a much bigger craft than I had expected to see; measuring, as I was presently told, exactly two hundred and sixty-six tons. She was very shallow, her load-line being only seven feet above the lowest part of her unusually deep keel, but this was more than counterbalanced by her extraordinary breadth of beam. She had a very long, flat floor, and, despite her excessive beam, her lines were the finest that I had ever seen—and that is saying a great deal, for I had seen in the West Indies some of the most speedy slavers afloat. Altogether she impressed me as a vessel likely to prove not only phenomenally fast but also a perfect sea-boat. She was pierced for four guns of a side, with two stern-chasers; and there was a pivot on her forecastle for a long eighteen-pounder; she would therefore carry an armament formidable enough to enable us to go anywhere and do anything—in reason. Having thoroughly inspected her from outside, and gone down under her bottom, I next made my way on board, and went down below to have a look at her interior accommodation. This I found to be everything that could possibly be desired; the arrangements had evidently been carefully planned with a view to securing to the crew the maximum possible amount of comfort; the cabins were large, and as lofty as the shallow depth of the vessel would allow; there was every convenience in the state-rooms in the shape of drawers, lockers, sofas, folding tables, shelves, cupboards, and so on; and the living quarters were not only light, airy, and comfortable, but were being finished off with great taste and considerable pretensions to luxury. While I was prowling about below I encountered Harry Martin, the son of the builder, who told me that Mr White, when completing the purchase of the vessel, had given instructions that no reasonable expense was to be spared in making the craft as thoroughly suitable as possible for the service of a privateer. I spent fully two hours on board, prying into every nook and cranny of the vessel, and making myself thoroughly familiar with the whole of her interior arrangements, and then left, well satisfied with my prospects as second mate of so smart and comfortable a craft.
As I was crossing Hope Square, toward the foot of Scrambridge Hill, on my way home again, I met Captain Winter, who, after congratulating me upon my appointment, informed me that he had secured carte blanche from the owner as to the number of the crew, and that he was determined to have the vessel strongly manned enough to enable her to keep at sea even after sending away a prize crew or two. He was therefore anxious to secure as many good men as possible, and he suggested that I could not better employ my spare time than in looking about for such, and sending to him as many as I could find. This I did; and as the skipper and Mr Lovell, the chief mate, were both industriously engaged in the same manner, we contrived, by the time that the schooner was ready for sea, to scrape together a crew of ninety men, all told—a large proportion of whom were Portlanders,—as fine fellows, for the most part, as ever trod a plank.
The schooner was launched a fortnight from the day upon which I had first visited her, and as she slid off the ways Joe Martin’s youngest daughter christened her, giving her the name of the Dolphin. She was launched with her two lower-masts in, and was at once taken up the harbour and moored opposite Mr White’s warehouse, where the work of rigging her and getting her guns and stores on board was forthwith commenced. Thenceforward I was kept busy every day, assisting the skipper and Mr Lovell in the task of fitting-out; and so diligently did we work that by mid-day of the 26th of November the Dolphin was all ataunto and ready for sea. And a very handsome, rakish, and formidable craft she looked, as she lay alongside the quay, her enormously long and delicately-tapering masts towering high above the warehouse roof; her wide-spreading yards, extending far over the quay, accurately squared; her standing and running rigging as taut and straight as iron bars; her ten long nine-pounders grinning beneath her triced-up port-lids; her brightly-polished brass long eighteen-pounder mounted upon her forecastle; her spacious deck scraped and scoured until it was as white as snow; and her new copper and her black topsides gleaming and shimmering in the gently-rippling tide. Day after day, as the work of fitting-out progressed, the quay was crowded with people who came down to watch our operations and admire the schooner; and so favourable was the impression she created that, had we been in want of men, we could have secured volunteers in plenty from among the idlers who spent day after day alongside, watching us at work, and speculating among themselves—with their hands in their pockets—as to the measure of success that our bold venture was likely to meet with.
When we knocked off work at noon, to go to dinner, our work was completed; and as Mr White had taken care to secure our letters-of-marque in good time, it was determined that the Dolphin should proceed to sea that same evening, the crew having already signed articles, and been warned to hold themselves in readiness for a start at a moment’s notice. As for me, my traps were already on board, and nicely arranged in my cabin—my sister Dora having, with her usual tenderness of affection, insisted upon attending to this matter herself—there was therefore nothing for me to do but to go home, say good-bye, and rejoin the ship. This ceremony I had always found to be a most painful business; but it was especially so in the present case; for I was not only once more about to brave the ordinary perils incidental to a sailor’s life, but was, in addition, to be exposed to the still greater hazards involved in battle with the enemy. Poor Dora and my aunt were but too well aware, from the experience of others in the last war, what these hazards were; they knew how many men had gone out from their homes, hale, strong, and full of enthusiasm, either to find death in their first engagement, or to be brought back, sooner or later, maimed, helpless, and physically ruined for the remainder of their lives; and, as tender, loving women will, they anticipated one or another of these evils for me, and were therefore distressed beyond all hope of comfort. Nor could I shut my eyes to the possibility that their forebodings might come true, and that I might therefore be looking upon their dear faces for the last time. To bid them farewell, therefore, and tear myself from their clinging arms was a most painful business; and it was not until I had returned to the Dolphin, and was busying myself about the final preparations for our departure, that I was able in some degree to recover my equanimity and get rid of the troublesome lump that would keep rising in my throat.