A Mainsail Haul/The Voyage of the Cygnet

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In the year 1683-4 some eminent London merchants, fired by the perusal of the buccaneer accounts of South America (the journals of Sharp, Ringrose, Cox, and others), conceived a scheme for opening up a trade with Peru and Chili. They subscribed among themselves a large sum for the equipment and lading of a ship. The Duke of York, then Lord Admiral, gave the project his princely patronage. A ship, the Cygnet, was chosen and fitted for the voyage, and a trusty master mariner, one esteemed by Henry Morgan, was appointed her captain. This was Charles Swan, or Swann, a man whose surname eminently fitted him for the command of a ship so christened. Following the custom of the time, two merchants, or supercargoes, took passage with Captain Swan to dispose of the lading, and to open up the trade. The Cygnet sailed from the Thames with a costly general cargo, which was designed not only to establish just relations with the Spanish-Americans, but to pay her owners from 50 to 75 per cent. As the voyage was not without interest we propose to consider some of its most striking events.

We are sorry to have to state that by October 1684, Captain Swan had become a buccaneer, and his ship, the Cygnet, the flagship of a small squadron cruising on the coast of Peru, against the subjects of the King of Spain, with whom we were then at peace. Swan had met with Captain Edward Davis, a buccaneer of fame, and the meeting had been too much for him. When the clay pot meets the iron pot there is usually a final ruin; and the meeting put an end to the dreams of a South American trade. "There was much joy on all sides," says the chronicler, writing of this meeting, but presumably the greater joy was Davis's, who gave Swan an immediate hint that the Cygnet was too deeply fraught to make a cruiser. "Therefore (Captain Swan) by the consent of the supercargoes, got up all his goods on Deck, and sold to any that would buy upon trust: the rest was thrown overboard into the sea, except fine goods, as Silks, Muslins, Stockings, &c., and except the Iron." The iron was saved for ballast. The other goods made very delicate wear for the fo'c's'le hands.

When all was ready, the allied forces sailed to take Guayaquil, but met with no luck there, through "one of Captain Davis's men, who showed himself very forward to go to the town, and upbraided others with faintheartedness: yet afterwards confessed (that he) privately cut the string that the Guide was made fast with, (and) when he thought the Guide was got far enough from us, he cried out that the Pilot was gone, and that somebody had cut the Cord that tied him ... and our consternation was great, being in the dark and among Woods"; so that "the design was wholly dashed." After this they sailed to the Bay of Panama, where they planned to lie at anchor to wait for the yearly treasure fleet from Lima. While they waited, Captain Swan sent a letter over the Isthmus, with a message to his employers.

March 4, 1685.

Panama Road.

Charles Swann to Capt. John Wise.

My voyage is at an end. In the Straits of Magellan I had nine men run from me in one night, after they saw that they could not prevail with me to play the rogue. But God's justice overtook them, for after weathering Cape Victory we met with an extreme storm of long continuance, which drove me down to lat 55° 30' S and in which the ship to which they deserted was lost. Then I came to Valdivia, when I had two men killed under a flag of truce, after three day's parley and all oaths human and divine. An ambuscade of between one and two hundred men came out, and fired upon a poor eight of us in the yawl. But God punished them likewise, as we hear, we killing three of their captains and some others. It is too long to give you an account of all my troubles, which were chiefly owing to the fact that the ship was meant to be run away with. In Nicoya the rest of my men left me, so that, having no one to sail the ship, I was forced to join them. So that now I am in hostility with the Spaniards, and have taken and burnt some towns, and have forced the President of Panama to send me two men he had taken from us. The same day 270 new men came to me, and we are going to take in 200 more that they left behind. We shall soon be 900 men in the South Seas. Assure my employers that I do all I can to preserve their interest, and that what I do now I could in no wise prevent. So desire them to do what they can with the King for me, for as soon as I can I shall deliver myself to the King's justice and I had rather die than live skulking like a vagabond for fear of death. The King might make this whole Kingdom of Peru tributary to him in two years' time. We now await the Spanish fleet that brings the money to Panama. We were resolved to fight them before we had reached this strength, and had lain in wait 6 months for them, but now we hear that they are at sea, and expect them every day. If we have success against them we shall make a desperate alarm all Europe over. I have some money which I wish were with you, for my wife. I shall, with God's help, do things which (were it with my Prince's leave) would make her a lady; but now I cannot tell but it may bring me to a halter. But if it doth my comfort is that I shall die for that I cannot help. Pray present my faithful love to my dear wife, and assure her she is never out of my mind.

After failing in his attempt upon the treasure fleet, Captain Davis, the Buccaneer Commodore, took his squadron towards Rio Lejo, on the western coast of Mexico, where, "about 8 leagues from the shore," at eight in the forenoon, 520 buccaneers, mostly English, went down the sides of their ships into their boats. There were thirty-one canoas for their accommodation, some of them of nearly forty feet in length, and five or six feet broad. They were "dug-outs" of the most primitive type, but the buccaneers were not particular as to the build of their crafts. They settled upon their thwarts; one of them piped a song, "and the rowers, sitting well in order," began to plough the wine-dark sea.

At two in the afternoon, a squall beat down upon them. The sea rose with tropical swiftness, so that, in half an hour "some of our Canoas were half full of water, yet kept two men constantly heaving it out." They could do nothing but put right before the wind; yet with craft so crank as the canoas this expedient was highly dangerous. "The small Canoas," it is true, "being most light and buoyant, mounted nimbly over the surges, but the great heavy Canoas lay like Logs in the Sea, ready to be swallowed by every foaming Billow." However, the danger did not last very long. The squall blew past, and, when the wind abated, the sea went down; so that by "7 a clock in the Evening, it was quite calm and the Sea as smooth as a Mill-pond." They passed that night in the canoas five leagues from the shore, huddled anyhow, with cramped limbs. In the morning they stretched themselves, and lay by, till another squall set them pulling for the land, like the seamen in the temperance hymn. In the night of August 10 they entered Rio Lejo harbour, and slept peacefully in the shelter of the great red mangrove trees, which rose up "plentiful and thick" from the very lip of the sea.

When day dawned they rowed up the Lejo river. A Spanish breastwork stood upon the river bank to guard the passage; but its garrison was composed of Nicaraguan Indians, a race "very Melancholy and Thoughtful, and presently they ran away to give notice of our Approach." The buccaneers were a little vexed at this example of the effect of melancholy, but did not allow it to depress them. They landed from their canoas, selected a boat-guard of fifty of their most intelligent hands and drew up the remainder into battalia, according to the Art of War. "Captain Townley, with eighty of the briskest Men marched before, Captain Swan with 100 Men marched next, Captain Davis with 170 Men marched next, and Captain Knight brought up the Rear." Then, with many joyful anticipations, they took to the road, across "a Champion Country, of long grassy Savannah, and spots of high Woods," meaning to surprise the City of Leon.

The City of Leon had a great reputation among them; for, although it was of no great size, and "of no great Trade, and therefore not rich in Money," it had been praised in print, some thirty years before, by "the English Mexican" Mr. Thomas Gage. We read that it was "very curiously built" on "a sandy Soil, which soon drinks up all the Rain that falls." It had a famous rope-walk, and a number of sugar-works, besides cattle farms and tallow boileries. The houses were of white stone roofed with a vivid red pantile, "for the chief delight of the inhabitants consisteth in their houses, and in the pleasure of the Country adjoyning, and in the abundance of all things for the life of man, more than in any extraordinary riches, which there are not so much enjoyed as in other parts of America. They are contented with fine gardens, with variety of singing birds and parrets, with plenty of fish and flesh, which is cheap, and with gay houses, and so lead a delicious lasie and idle life. … And especially from the pleasure of this City is all that Province of Nicaragua, called by the Spaniards Mahomet's Paradise, the Paradise of America."

At about 3 o'clock that afternoon, Captain Townley, "only with his eighty Men," marched into the square to taste "the pleasure of this City." There were 200 Spanish horse, and five companies of infantry drawn up to oppose him; but, as nearly always happened in these tussles, "two or three of their Leaders being knock'd down, the rest fled." Captain Townley marched in, and piled arms in the Plaza. At decent intervals the other companies joined him; "and Captain Knight with as many Men as he could incourage to march, came in about 6, but he left many Men tired on the road; these, as is usual, came dropping in one or two at a time, as they were able." Among the tired men, "was a stout old Grey-headed Man, aged about eighty-four, who had served under Oliver in the time of the Irish Rebellion … and had followed Privateering ever since." He was "a very merry hearty old Man, and always used to declare he would never take quarter"; so that, when the Spaniards surrounded him, as he sat resting by the roadside, he gaily "discharged his Gun amongst them" keeping "a Pistol still charged." The Spaniards drew back and "shot him dead at a distance." His name was Swan.

Peace hath her victories, no less renowned than war. "Mr. Smith was tired also," and Mr. Smith was neatly lazoed, and dragged before the Spanish Governor before he was well awake. "He being examined how many Men we were, said 1000 at the City, and 500 at the Canoas, which made well for us at the Canoas, who straggling about every day might easily have been destroyed." Mr. Smith dipped his pen in earthquake and eclipse till the Spanish Governor "sent in a Flag of Truce," in the hope of coming to a composition, and getting rid of such an army. The buccaneers received the Flag with all due ceremony, and demanded some ₤70,000 as a ransom for the town, with a further douceur of "as much Provision as would victual 1000 Men four Months, and Mr. Smith to be ransomed." However, a ransom of such proportions was not readily forthcoming. The pirates waited patiently for a few days, pillaging "all they could rob," and then set fire to the place:

And when the town burned all in flame
With tara tantara away we all came.

The Spaniards "sent in Mr. Smith," the next morning, "and had a gentlewoman in exchange." An impartial judge must admit that they had the better of the bargain.

Having destroyed the town of Leon, the buccaneers marched upon Rio Lejo, "a pretty large town with three Churches" some two leagues from the harbour. It was a very sickly place, never free from a noisome smell, and had therefore "an Hospital" with "a fine Garden belonging to it." The way thither was defended by a very strong redoubt, yet their labour was but lost that built it, for "we fired but two guns, and they all ran away." Rio Lejo was rich in flour, "Pitch, Tar and Cordage; These things we wanted, and therefore we sent them all aboard." The pirates obtained also a "purchase" of "150 Beefs," and "visited the Beef-Farm every day, and the Sugar Works, and brought away every Man his Load." In spite of the noisome smell, they passed a pleasant week at Rio Lejo, "and then some of our destructive Crew set fire to the Houses," and "we marched away and left them burning." The army then returned to the ships. The next day the fleet divided, and Davis and Swan parted company. William Dampier, who tells us most of these things, left the service of Davis here, and joined his fortunes with Swan's. He had been Davis's navigator for some time and he filled some similar post under Swan, who had perhaps attracted him as a weak but cultivated man will attract the cultivated strong man who has no one else to talk with. Captain Swan lingered for some days more at the anchorage, and then cruised slowly to the north, along the surf-beaten Western Coast. Captain Townley, the leader of the eighty brisk Men, remained as his vice-admiral.

The history of their cruise is a history of bold incompetence. They landed, and fought, and fell ill, and sailed, and again landed; but they got very little save a knowledge of geography. When they came as far to the north as Acapulco, it occurred to them that they were in season to take the annual galleon from Manila, a prize worth some half a million of our money, and the constant dream of every pirate in the Pacific. Cavendish had taken one such galleon a century before; and Rogers was to take another some thirty years later. When the Cygnet arrived near Acapulco the citizens were expecting her arrival. Had the buccaneers but filled their provision casks at once, and proceeded to a cruising station off Cape Corrientes, they could not have failed of meeting with her. Had they met her, they would probably have taken her. Had they taken her, they would have shared some £2000 apiece, in addition to the merchandise. It was not to be. The brisk Captain Townley wasted some precious time trying to cut out a ship from Acapulco. Then some more precious time was wasted in collecting provisions at places where there was little to collect. By the time the Cygnet was ready to cruise for the galleon, that golden ark was safe in harbour, under the guns of a fort.

After a few more profitless adventures, Captain Townley parted company. Swan then proposed that the Cygnet should proceed to the East Indies to cruise "off the Manila's." He had no intention of "cruising" there; but without a lure of the kind his men would never have consented; for "some thought, such was their ignorance, that he would carry them out of the World; for about 2 thirds of our Men did not think there was any such Way to be found," as the Way across the Pacific to Guahan and the Philippines, and even if there were a way, they did not know how long a passage they might have. Cavendish had made it in forty-four, and Drake in sixty-eight days, but the English books reckoned the distance to be but 6,000 miles, whereas all the Spanish "waggoners" made it 7,000, or more. Even if it were but 6,000 miles they had scarcely enough food to carry them so far. "We had not 60 days' provision, at a little more than half a pint of Maiz a day for each Man, and no other Provision, except three meals of salted Jew-fish; and we had a great many Rats aboard, which we could not hinder from eating part of our Maiz." However, "the hope of gain" worked "its Way through all Difficulties." The men tightened their belts and promised themselves a good dinner when they got ashore. The maize was divided between the Cygnet and a little bark, which was still cruising with her. At the end of March 1686, they took their departure from Cape Corrientes, and stood out into the unknown, towards dinnerless days, and what might come.

"In all this Voyage," says Dampier, "we did not see one Fish."

Following Dampier's example, we shall not trouble the reader "with an account of each day's run," but hasten "to the less known parts of the world." The hungry buccaneers made Guahan on the 20th May. "It was well for Captain Swan that we got sight of it before our Provisions was spent, of which we had but enough for three days more, for, as I was afterwards informed, the Men had contrived, first to kill Captain Swan and eat him when the Victuals was gone, and after him all of us who were accessary in promoting the undertaking this Voyage." Captain Swan made a seasonable jape on the occasion of his hearing this. "Ah, Dampier," he said, "you would have made them but a poor Meal," for "I" (explains Dampier) "was as lean as the Captain was lusty and fleshy."

At Guahan the pirates received a present of six Hogs, "most excellent Meat," the best that Dampier "ever eat." Having eaten them, they salted some fifty more, and "steered away" for Mindanao, where they anchored on 18th July 1686.

When they arrived at Mindanao, most of the seamen had had enough of roving. They "were almost tired, and began to desire a quietus est, for they had had a long cruise, and Captain Swan by one means or another (possibly through Dampier), had given them a severe disciplining on the way. "Indeed Captain Swan had his Men as much under Command as if he had been in a King's Ship." It was now open to him to retrieve his credit by establishing a trade at Mindanao. He could easily have obtained cloves and nutmegs there in any quantity; for the Mindanayans were eager to make an alliance with the English, and would have given him "good Pennyworths" for the £5,000 in gold which he had brought with him. He seems to have had some intention of establishing such a spice trade; but it came to nothing. His men made merry ashore "with their Comrades and Pagallies," and Captain Swan made bargains with the Raja, who fooled him to the top of his bent, and sponged upon him. By-and-by the crew became mutinous, "all for want of action." They took to selling the iron ballast for honey and arrack "to make punch"; so that the ship was soon "by the ears," with all hands "drunk and quarrelsome." Then a young man came upon the Captain's private journal "in which Captain Swan had inveighed bitterly against most of his Men." This was enough to draw the mutiny to a head. The sailors were ready for anything. "Most of them despaired of ever getting home and therefore did not care what they did, or whither they went." It struck them that they would have less worry if they sailed elsewhere, leaving Captain Swan with his Raja. They got some of their drunken mates aboard, and so set sail, leaving Captain Swan, with thirty-six others, ashore at Mindanao. The Raja kept Captain Swan for a little while, and then caused him to be upset from a canoe into the river, and stabbed as he strove to swim ashore. That was the end of Captain Charles Swan.

As for the Cygnet with the "mad Crew," she sailed from island to island at the sweet will of the thirsty souls aboard her. She made a prolonged stay at one of the Batan group, "which we called Bashee Island, from a Liquor which we drank there plentifully every day." "Indeed," says Dampier, "from the plenty of this Liquor, and their plentiful use of it, our Men called all these Islands the Bashee Islands."

But even of Bashee there came satiety. After some weeks they determined that "Bashee drink" was vanity; so they "weigh'd from there," and wandered as far as Australia, and then stood west for Sumatra. Presently they reached the Nicobar Islands, where Dampier and two others went ashore, having had enough of such shipmates. The Cygnet's men made some demur at their landing; but at last agreed to let them go; so that on "a fine clear Moon-light Night," as the newly landed men were walking on the sands, they "saw her under Sail," going out upon some further madness. They watched her go, and thanked their stars that they were quit of her.

"This mad fickle Crew were upon new Projects again." They were going to Persia, no less; but they never got there. They had to put in to the Coromandel coast for water, and here "the main Body were for going into the Mogul's Service." "It was what these men had long been thinking and talking of as a fine Thing," so now they put it into practice. They throve mightily in the Mogul's service; but they could not remain in it for very long. Most of them crept back to the coast, to ship themselves elsewhere, and some "went up and down Plundering the Villages," till the Mogul's hair was gray. Those who stayed by the Cygnet tried to take her to the Red Sea. On the way they took a rich Portuguese ship, which they gutted. Later on, some of the Cygnet's men went off with a New York slaver; and at last the whole crew left her, in order to go to Achin, "having heard there was plenty of Gold there." Some sailors of another vessel "undertook to carry her for England"; but she was old and rotten; and her days above sea were numbered. "In St. Augustin's Bay in Madagascar" her crew went ashore, having broken their hearts at her pumps ever since they joined her. In St. Augustin's Bay she slowly filled to her portsills, and at last sank gracefully, her little blue vane still fluttering, to puzzle the mermaids with her bales of silk stockings.