Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Robert Lyde and the "Friend's Adventure"

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"A TRUE and Exact Account of the Retaking a ship, called the Friend's Adventure of Topsham, from the French; after She had been taken six days, and they were upon the Coasts of France with it four days. When one Englishman and a Boy set upon seven Frenchmen, killed two of them, took the other Five prisoners, and brought the said Ship and them safe to England. Their Majesties' Customs of the said Ship amounted to 1000 and upwards. Performed and written by Robert Lyde, Mate of the same ship." London, 1693.

In February, 1689, Robert Lyde, of Topsham, shipped on board a pink of the same port, eighty tons, Isaac Stoneham, master, bound for Virginia, and on 18 May following arrived there, took in a lading, and set sail in company with a hundred merchantmen for home under convoy of two men-of-war. A fortnight after, storms separated the Topsham boat from the convoy, so that she had to make the best of her way home alone, and on 19 October came up with two Plymouth vessels of the fleet about forty leagues west of Scilly, the wind easterly. On the 21st the crew saw four other ships to leeward which they took to be some of their consorts, but which proved to be French privateers. They managed to escape them, but were captured by a privateer of St. Malo, of twenty-two guns and over a hundred men, on 24 October, and were taken to St. Malo as prisoners, where they were detained and treated with gross inhumanity, during seventeen days. Lyde says: "If we had been taken by Turks, we could not have been used worse. For bread we had 6 lbs. and one cheek of a Bullock for every 25 men for a day; and it fell out that he that had half a Bullock's eye for his lot, had the greatest share." After seventeen days they were all removed to Dinan, where were many other English prisoners confined in the cramped tower of the fortification that is still standing, with its small cells. Here they were herded together in a place not fit to contain one quarter of the number, and there they were retained for three months and ten days. "Our allowance was 3 lb. of old Cow-Beef without any Salt to flavour it, for seven men a day; but I think we had 2 lbs. of Bread for each Man, but it was so bad that Dogs would not eat it, neither could we eat but very little, and that that we did eat did us more hurt than good, for 'twas more Orts than Bread, so we gave some of it to the Hogs, and made Pillows of the rest to lay our Heads on, for they allowed us fresh Straw but once every five weeks, so that we bred such swarms of lice in our Rags that one Man had a great Hole eaten through his Throat by them, which was not perceived till after his Death, and I myself was so weak that it was 14 weeks after my releasement before I recovered any tolerable strength in me.

"They plundered us of our Clothes when we were taken, and some of us that had Money purchased Rugs to cover our Rags by day, and keep us warm by night; but upon our return home from France, the Deputy Governor of Dinan was so cruel as to order our said Rugs to be taken from us, and staid himself and saw it performed; and when some of our fellow Prisoners lay a dying they inhumanly stript off some of their Cloaths, three or four days before they were quite dead. These and other Barbarities made so great an Impression upon me, as that I did then resolve never to go a Prisoner there again, and this Resolution I did ever after continue in and by the Assistance of God always will."

Lyde returned to his home at Topsham, an exchange of prisoners having been effected, but not till four hundred out of the six hundred English prisoners crowded into the dungeons at Dinan had perished of disease and starvation.

In his Preface, Lyde says: "I here present you with a Token of God Almighty's Goodness in relieving me from the Barbarity, Inhumanity and most cruel Slavery of the Most Christian Turk of France, whose Delight it was to make his own Subjects Slaves, and his chief Study to put Prisoners of War to the most tedious and cruel lingering Death of Hunger and Cold, as I have been experimentally (to my own Damage both felt and seen), by a five Months' Confinement in this Country."

Shortly after his return to Topsham Lyde shipped as mate of a vessel, the Friend's Adventure, eighty tons, bound for Oporto, and sailed on 30 September, 1691. Oporto was reached in safety, but on the way back, off Cape Finisterre, the vessel was taken by a French privateer. Resistance had been impossible, at all events must have been unavailing, but before surrendering Lyde concealed a blunderbuss and ammunition between decks among the pipes of wine. When the Friend's Adventure was boarded the lieutenant ordered Lyde and a boy to remain on her, and the master, four men, and another boy were conveyed on board the privateer. Seven Frenchmen were left on the Friend's Adventure to navigate her and take her to St. Malo. This done, the privateer departed. Lyde was determined not to go through his former experiences as a prisoner in France, and he endeavoured to induce the boy to assist him against the French crew, but the lad was timorous, thought such an attempt as Lyde promised must fail, and repeatedly refused to take any part in it. The boat was not very seaworthy, and needed much bailing. As the boy represented to the mate, even if they did overmaster the French crew, how could they navigate the vessel and keep the pumps going till they reached England?

After a few days they approached St. Malo, and the repugnance in Lyde's mind against renewing his experiences there and at Dinan became overmastering.

"At 8 in the morning all the Frenchmen sat round the Cabbin's Table at Breakfast, and they call'd me to eat with them, and accordingly I accepted, but the Sight of the Frenchmen did immediately take away my Stomach, and made me sweat as if I had been in a Stove, and was ready to faint with eagerness to encounter them. Which the Master perceiving, and seeing me in that condition, asked me (in French) if I were sick, and I answered Yes! But could stay no longer in sight of them, and so went immediately down between Decks to the Boy and did earnestly intreat him to go presently with me into the Cabbin, and to stand behind me, and I would kill and command all the rest presently. For now I told him was the best Time for me to attack them, while they were round the Table, and knock down but one man in case Two laid hold upon me, and it may be never the like opportunity again. After many importunities, the Boy asked me after what manner I intended to encounter them; I told him I would take the Crow of Iron and hold it in the Middle with both Hands, and I would go into the Cabbin and knock down him that stood at the end of the Table on my right Hand, and stick the point of the Crow into him that sat at the end of the Table, on my left Hand, and then for the other five that sat behind the Table. But still he not consenting, I had second thoughts of undertaking it without him, but the Cabbin was so low that I could not stand upright in it by a foot, which made me at that time desist.

"By this time they had eat their Breakfast, and went out upon Deck; then I told the boy with much trouble, We had lost a grave opportunity, for by this time I had had the ship under my command. Nay, says the Boy, I rather believe that by this time you and I should have both been killed."

Lyde then, to stimulate the slack fellow to action, recounted to him the miseries to which he would be subjected in prison in France.

"In a little time after they had been upon Deck, they separated from each other, viz. the Master lay down in his Cabbin and two of the Men lay down in the Great Cabbin and one in a Cabbin between Decks, and another sat down upon a low Stool by the Helm, to look after the Glass, to call the Pumps, and the other two men walked upon the Decks. Then, hoping I should prevail with the Boy to stand by me, I immediately applied myself to Prayer, desiring God to pardon my Sins, and I prayed also for my Enemies who should happen to dye by my Hands. And then I endeavoured again to persuade the Boy but could not prevail with him to Consent.

"Then the Glass was out, it being half after eight, and the two men that were upon Deck went to pump out the Water. Then I also went upon Deck again, to see whether the Wind and Weather were like to favour my Enterprize, and casting my Eyes to Windward, I liked the Weather, and hop'd the Wind would stand. And then immediately went down to the Boy, and beg'd of him again to stand by me, while two of the men were at the Pumps (for they pumpt on the starboard side, and the Steeridge Door open on the starboard side, so that they could not see me going aft to them in the Cabbin). But I could by no Persuasions prevail with the Boy, so that by this Time the Men had done Pumping; whereupon losing this opportunity caused me again to be a little angry with the Boy."

Again Lyde warned the lad of the horrors before him if taken a prisoner to S. Malo. The boy replied that rather than endure such distresses he would turn Papist, and volunteer on board a French privateer. This roused Lyde's wrath, and he said some very strong things. He told him that this would not help him; some of the English prisoners of war with himself had turned Papists, but had already become so attenuated by disease and suffering that they had died.

"The Boy asked What I would have him do? I told him to knock down that Man at the Helm, and I will kill and command all the rest. Saith the Boy, If you be sure to overcome them, how many do you count to kill? I answered that I intended to kill three of them. Then the Boy replied, Why three and no more? I answered that I would kill three for three of our men that died in Prison when I was there. And if it should please God that I should get home safe I would if I could go in a Man-of-War or Fireship, and endeavour to revenge on the Enemy for the Death of those 400 Men that died in the same Prison of Dinan. But the Boy said Four alive would be too many for us. I then replied that I would kill but three, but I would break the Legs and the Arms of the rest if they won't take quarter and be quiet without it."

After a long discussion and much inquiry, the boy was finally induced to give a reluctant consent to help. The attempt was to be made that day. "At 9 in the morning the two men upon Deck were pumping; then I turned out from the Sail, where the Boy and I then lay'd, and pull'd off my Coat that I might be the more nimble in the Action. I went up the Gunroom Scuttle into the Steeridge, to see what Position they were in, and being satisfied therein. Then the Boy coming to me, I leapt up the gunroom Scuttle, and said, Lord be with us! and I told the Boy that the Drive Bolt was by the Scuttle, in the Steeridg; and then I went softly aft into the Cabbin, and put my Back against the Bulkehead and took the Jam Can, and held it with both my Hands in the middle part, and put my legs abroad to shorten myself, because the Cabbin was very low. But he that lay nighest to me, hearing me, opened his eyes, and perceiving my intent, endeavoured to rise, to make resistance; but I prevented him by a Blow upon his Forehead, which mortally wounded him, and the other Man which lay with his Back to the dying Man's side, hearing the Blow, turned about and faced me, and as he was rising with his left Elbow, very fiercely endeavouring to come against me, I struck at him, and he let himself fall from his left Arm, and held his Arm for a Guard, whereby did keep off a great part of the Blow, but still his Head received a great part of the Blow.

"The Master lying in the Cabbin on my right Hand, hearing the two Blows, rose and sate in the Cabbin and called me—bad names; but I having my eyes every way, I push't at his Ear with the Claws of the Crow, but he, falling back for fear thereof, it seemed afterwards that I struck the Claws of the Crow into his Cheek, which Blow made him lie Still as if he had been Dead; and while I struck at the Master, the Fellow that fended off the Blow with his Arm, rose upon his Legs, and running towards me, with his Head low, to ram his Head against my Breast to overset me, but I pusht the point at his Head. It struck it an inch and a half into his Forehead, and as he was falling down, I took hold of him by the Back, and turn'd him into the Steeridg.

"I heard the Boy strike the Man at the Helm two Blows, after I had knock'd down the first Man, which two Blows made him lye very still, and as soon as I turn'd the Man out of the Cabbin, I struck one more Blow at him that I struck first and burst his Head, so that his Blood and Brains ran out upon the Deck.

"The Master all the while did not stir, which made me conclude that I had struck him under the Ear, and had killed him with the Blow.

"Then I went out to attack the two Men that were at the Pump, where they continued Pumping, without hearing or knowing what I had done; and as I was going to them, I saw that Man that I had turn'd into the Steeridg crawling out upon his Hands and Knees upon the Deck, beating his Hands upon the Deck, to make a Noise, that the Men at the Pump might hear, for he could not cry out, nor speak. And when they heard him, and seeing his Blood running out of his Forehead, they came running aft to me, grinding their Teeth; but I met them as they came within the Steeridg Door, and struck at them, but the Steeridg being not above 4 ft. high, I could not have a ful Blow at them, whereupon they fended off the Blow, and took hold of the Crow with both their Hands close to mine, striving to hawl it from me. Then the Boy might have knockt them down with much ease, while they were contending with me, but that his heart failed him, so that he stood like a Stake at a distance on their left side, and 2 Foots length off, the Crow being behind their Hands. I called to the Boy to take hold of it, and hawl as they did, and I would let go all at once, which the Boy accordingly doing, I pusht the Crow towards them, and let it go, and was taking out my Knife to traverse amongst them, but they seeing me put my right hand into my Pocket, fearing what would follow, they both let go of the Crow to the Boy, and took hold of my right Arm with both their Hands.

"The Master, that I thought I had killed in his Cabbin, coming to himself, and hearing they had hold of me, came out of his Cabbin, and also took hold of me with both his Hands about my Middle. Then one of the Men that had hold of my right Arm let go, and put his Back to my Breast, and took hold of my left Hand and Arm, and held it close to his Breast, and the Master let go from my Middle, and took hold of my right Arm, and he with the other that had hold of my right Arm did strive to get me off my Legs; but knowing that I should not be long in one piece if they got me down, I put my right Foot against the Ship's side, on the Deck, for a support, and with the assistance of God, I kept my Feet, when they three and one more did strive to throw me down, for the Man at the Helm that the Boy knocked down rose up and put his Hands about my Middle and strove to hawl me down. The Boy seeing that Man rise and take hold of me, cried out, fearing then that I should be overcome of them, but did not come to help me, nor did not Strike one Blow at any of them neither all the time.

"When I heard the Boy cry out, I said, 'Do you cry, you Villain, now I am in such a condition! Come quickly, and knock this Man on the Head that hath hold of my left Arm'; the Boy perceiving that my Heart did not fail me, took some courage from thence, and endeavoured to give that man a Blow on the Head, with the Drive-Bolt, but struck so faintly that he mist his Blow, which greatly enraged me against him.

"I, feeling the Frenchman that held about my middle hang very heavy, I said to the Boy, 'Do you miss your Blow, and I in such a Condition? Go round the Binkle and knock down that Man that hangeth upon my Back,' which was the same Man the Boy knock't down at the Helm. So the Boy did strike him one Blow upon the Head, which made him fall, but he rose up again immediately, but being uncapable of making any further resistance, he went out upon Deck staggering to and fro, without any further Molestance from the Boy. Then I look't about the Beams for a Marlin-Speek, and seeing one hanging with a strap to a nail on the Larboard Side, I jerk't my right Arm forth and back, which clear'd the two Men's Hands from my right Arm, and took hold of the Marlin-Speek, and struck the Point four times, about a quarter of an inch deep into the Skull of that man that had hold of my left Arm, before they took hold of my right Arm again. And I struck the Marlin-Speek three times into his Head after they had hold of me, which caused him to Screech out, but they having hold of me, took off much of the force of the three Blows, and being a strong-hearted Man, he would not let go his hold of me, and the two men, finding that my right Arm was stronger than their four Arms were, and observing the Strap of the Marlin-Speek to fall up and down upon the back of my Hand, one of them let go his right Hand and Took hold of the Strap and hawl'd the Marlin-Speek out of my Hand, and I, fearing what in all likelyhood would follow, I put my right Hand before my Head as a Guard, although three Hands had hold of that Arm; for I concluded he would knock me on the Head with it; but, through God's Providence it fell out of his Hand and so close to the Ship's side that he could not reach it again without letting go his other Hand from mine, so he took hold of my Arm with the other Hand again.

"At this time the Almighty God gave me strength enough to take one Man in one Hand, and throw at the other's Head. Then it pleased God to put me in mind of my Knife in my Pocket, and although two of the Men had hold of my right Arm, yet God Almighty strengthened me so that I put my right Hand into my Pocket, and took out my Knife and Sheath, holding it behind my Hand that they should not see it; but I could not draw it out of the Sheath with my left Hand, because the Man that I struck on the Head with the Marlin-Speek had still hold of it, with his Back to my Breast; so I put it between my Legs, and drew it out, and then cut the Man's Throat with it, that had his Back to my Breast, and he immediately dropt down, and scarce ever stirr'd after. Then with my left Arm I gave both the Men a Push from me, and hawl'd my right Arm with a jerk to me, and so clear'd it of both of them; and fetching a strike with intent to cut both their Throats at once, they immediately apprehended the Danger they were in, put their Hands together and held them up, crying, Corte, corte (i.e. Quarter), Mounseer y moy allay par Angleterre si vou plea. With that I stopt my Hand, and said Good Quarter you shall have. Alle a pro (Go to the Fore), and then I put up my Knife into the Sheath again.

"Then I made fast the Steeridg Door, and ordered the Boy to stand by it, and to keep it fast, and to look through the Blunderbuss Holes, and if he did see any Man coming towards the Door, he should tell me of it, and come into the Cabbin for the Blunderbuss and Amunition which I had hid away before we were taken.

"After that I had loaden, I came out with it into the Steeridg and look't forward, out of the Companion, to see if any Man did lye over the Steeridg Door—but seeing no Man there, I went out upon Deck and look't up to the Maintop, for fear the two wounded Men were there and should throw down anything upon my Head; but seeing no Man there, I asked the Boy if he could tell what was become of the two wounded Men that came to themselves and went out upon the Deck whilst I was engaged with the three Men in the Steeridg. The Boy told me they had scrambled over-board. But I thought it very strange that they should be accessary to their own deaths. Then I ordered the Boy to stand by the Steeridg Door to see if that Man betwixt Decks did come up, and if he did, to tell me.

"Then I went forward to the Two Men that had cried for Quarter, but they, being afraid, ran forward and were going up the Fore-shrouds, but I held up the Blunderbuss at them, and said, Veni abau et montea Cuttelia et ally abau,[1] and then they put off their Hats and said, Monsieur, moy travally pur Angleterre si vous plea; but I answered Alle abau, for I don't want any Help; and then they unlid the Scuttle, and went down. Then I went forward, and as I came before the foot of the Mainsail I look't up to the Foretop, and seeing no Man there, I look't down in the Forecastle, and showed the two men a Scuttle on the larboard side that went down into the Forepeak, and said: Le Monte Cuttelia et ally abau. They unlid the Scuttle, and put off their Hats and step't down.

"Then I call'd down to them and asked them if they saw any Men betwixt Decks as they went down, and they answered No. Then I call'd forward the Boy and gave him the Blunderbuss and bid him present it down the Forecastle, and if he saw any Men take hold of me, or if I call'd on him for help, then he should be sure to discharge the Blunderbuss at us, and kill us all together, if he could not shoot them without me.

"Then I took the Boy's Bolt and put my head down the Scuttle, and seeing no Man there I leap't down in the Forecastle and laid the Scuttle and nail'd it fast, and thought myself fast, seeing two killed and two secured.

"Then I went upon Deck, and took the Blunderbuss from the Boy and gave him the Bolt, and went aft, and ordered the Boy as before to stand by the Steeridg Door, and give me an account if he saw any Man come towards him with a Handspike; and then I went aft into the Cabbin, and cut two Candles in four pieces and lighted them, one I left burning upon the Table, the other three I carried in my left Hand, and the Blunderbuss in my right Hand; and I put my Head down the Gun-room Scuttle and look't around, and seeing no Man there, I leap't down and went to the Man that lay all the time asleep in a Cabbin betwixt Decks, and took him by the Shoulder with my left Hand, and wakened him, and presented the Blunderbuss at him with my right Hand, and commanded him out of his Cabbin, and made him stand still, till I got up into the Steeridg. Then I call'd the Man, and he standing on the Scuttle and seeing the Man that had his Throat cut almost buried in his Blood, he wrung his Hands, crying out, O Jesu Maria! I told him I had nothing to do with Maria now. Monte, monte et allez a pro! Then he came up and went forward looking round to see his Companions, but I followed him, and made him go down into the Forecastle. Then I gave the Boy the Blunderbuss and ordered him to present it at the Man if he perceived him to come towards me while I was opening the Scuttle, then to shoot him.

"Then I took the Crow and leap't down with it into the Forecastle and drew the Spikes and opened the Scuttle, and bid the Man come down and joyn his Companions. And after that I nailed down the Scuttle again, and went aft and ordered the Boy to stand by the Steeridg Door again, and I took the Candles and the Blunderbuss and went down between Decks and looked in all Holes and Corners for the two wounded Men and found them not. Then I went on Deck, and told the Boy I could not find the Men, and he said they were certainly run overboard. I told him I would know what was become of them before I made sail.

"Then I told the Boy I would go up into the Maintop, and see if they were there; and so I gave him the Blunderbuss and bid him present it at the Maintop, and if he saw any man look out over the Top with anything in his Hand to throw at me, he should then shoot them. Then I took the Boy's Bolt, and went up, and when I was got to the Puddick Shrouds I look'd forwards to the Foretop, I saw the two Men were cover'd with the Foretopsail, and their Sashes bound about their Heads to keep in the Blood, and they had made a great part of the Foretopsail Bloody, and as the Ship rould, the Blood ran over the Top. Then I call’d to them, and they turn'd out and went down on their knees, and wrung their Hands, and cried, O corte, corte, Monsieur. Then I said, Good Quarter shall you have, And I went down and call'd to them to come down, and he that the Boy wounded came down, and kissed my Hand over and over, and went down into the Forecastle very willingly. But the other Man was one of the three that I designed to kill; he delayed his Coming. I took the Blunderbuss and said I would shoot him down, and then he came a little way and stood still, and begged me to give him Quarter. I told him if he would come down he should have quarter. Then he came down and I gave the Boy the Blunderbuss"—and then ensued the redrawing of the nails and the reopening of the scuttle, so as to thrust these two wounded men in with the others. But Lyde called up one of the men, a fellow of about four-and-twenty, and who had shown Lyde some kindness when he was a prisoner on the ship. We need not follow Lyde in his voyage home. He made the Frenchman help to navigate the vessel. But they had still many difficulties to overcome, the weather was rough, the ship leaked, and there were but Lyde and the Frenchman and the boy to handle her.

Even when he did reach the mouth of the Exe, though he signalled for a pilot, none would come out to him, as he had no English colours on board to hoist, and he was obliged to beat about all night and next day in Torbay till the tide would serve for crossing the bar at Exmouth. Again he signalled for a pilot. The boat came out, but would approach only near enough to be hailed. Only then, when the pilot was satisfied that this was not a privateer of the enemy, would he come on board, and steer her to Starcross, which Lyde calls Stair-cross. Thence he sent his prisoners to Topsham in the Customs House wherry. There they were examined by the doctor, who pronounced the condition of two of them hopeless.

Lyde's troubles were by no means over; for the owners of the Friend's Adventure were vastly angry at her having been brought safely back. She had been insured by them for £560, and when valued was knocked down for £170; and they did much to annoy and harass Lyde, and prevent him getting another ship.

However, his story got about, and the Marquess of Carmarthen introduced him to Queen Mary, who presented him with a gold medal and chain, and recommended him to the Lords of the Admiralty for preferment in the Fleet.

With this his narrative ends. He expresses his hope to serve their Majesties, and to have another whack at the Frenchmen.

  1. "Venez en bas, et montez le 'Scuttle' et allez en bas."