Back | Next

Act 6, The Spanish Main

"Here's a health unto her Majesty,
"with a fa la la la la la la.
"Confusion to her enemies,
"with a fa la la la la la la."

Oars dipped in unison in time to the rhythm of the song and bit into the water. Backs strained in unison.

"And he who would not drink her health,
"we wish him neither wit nor wealth.
"Nor yet a rope to hang himself,
"with a fa la la la la la la."

The small rowing boat leapt forward but was immediately braked by a heavy cable lifting behind it. Water ran down the rope, falling in a long line into the sea. The other end of the cable was tied to the bow of a race-built galleon. Oars lifted, feathered, and dipped again. Imperceptibly, the bows of the galleon swung away from the tropical shoreline.

"May she live in mirth and jollity,
"with a fa la la la la la la.
"And past-time with good company,
"with a fa la la la la la la.
"And he who would not join in glee,
"must puritan or papist be,
"And him we curse with misery."

William Hawkins stood on the small raised deck at the stern, where he could oversee the operation.

"Boatswain," he bawled forward.

"Captain!" The voice came from the bow.

"Tell them to put their backs into it. The ship is helpless like this. I swear a gaggle of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting could do a better job. Call themselves sea dogs!"

"Aye, aye, sir."

The boatswain screamed abuse at the men in the boat. William tuned him out with the ability of long experience. The bay was perfect. It curved shallowly inwards from the north. There would be reefs and shallows up there protecting the anchorage. The sea cut deeply into the land in the south, until it met a low ridge that projected perpendicularly out into the Caribbean as a peninsula. Here, the water was still deep close in to the shoreline. A ship could anchor here in perfect safety and be invisible to traffic moving up the coast from the south. Only the tips of the ship's masts would project over the headland and they would be wonderfully hidden against the trees.

A man old for the sea climbed laboriously up the ladder to the poop. He knuckled his forehead to William in lieu of removing a cap. It was hot and it was humid. Everyone stripped down. William himself wore only his breeches and a shirt open to the waist.

"Hot work, master carpenter," said William.

"Yes sir, I wondered if I might carry out some repairs? I am worried that the trip across the Atlantic has caused some timbers to work loose."

William frowned. "I suppose you can, but I want the ship ready for to sail at one hour's notice. As your first priority, master carpenter, I want the pinnace reassembled."

"Very good, sir."

English ships sailing to the Spanish Americas often took a small pinnace in a knocked-down condition in the ship's hold. On arrival, the boat could be reassembled to provide useful support. The Swallow carried a fifteen-ton pinnace equipped with two masts as well as oars.

The song went on interminably as the oars dipped and pulled. William wiped the sweat from his eyes. It was so fetid that he felt that he could almost cut the air with a cutlass. The Americas had a damnable climate that was utterly unsuitable for civilised men.

The bow slowly swung until the warship pointed out to sea.

"Release anchor," said William.

"You heard the captain, you bacon-fed knaves," repeated the boatswain.

A solid splash indicated compliance.

"Run a cable to the stern," ordered William.

The rowing boat pirouetted on its oars and, freed from the huge drag of the Swallow, leapt down the side of the ship. Mariners released the cable from the bow, passed it down the ship, and refastened it securely to the stern. The boat stopped alongside to receive a shore anchor, then raced for land.

Light surf rolled gently onto bright, white Caribbean sand. The boat hissed as its keel ran up the beach. The crew jumped overboard and hauled the rowing boat further up the sand. Under the direction of a coxswain, the boat crew dug the anchor into firm soil at the top of the narrow beach and attached the cable. The boat crew relaxed in the shade of the tropical trees that lined the edge of the beach. It had been a long voyage.

William surveyed his new empire. Raucous bird cries, and other strange noises exotic to an English ear, erupted from the jungle. Organic vapours curled off the land to assault his nose. Disease would be rife here. A small stream ran down the side of the peninsula and exited into the sea by means of a gully in the sand.

"It all looks peaceful enough, Master Smethwick, but I want six armed men on the beach at all times when we have a party ashore," said William. Smethwick was the ship's master, the professional navigator who was William's second in command. The master's duties included the routine handling of the ship. He was responsible for choosing the ship's tack under sail and he had to get the best from her in all seas and winds.

"The natives have no reason to love Spaniards and we Europeans probably all look alike to them," said William.

"We are running short of water, Captain. I'll fill the casks at that stream."

"Very good, Master Smethwick." The master could be safely left to organise such details with his usual competence.

"Boatswain." William beckoned to the man.

The boatswain was the senior petty officer on the ship. The master and captain were educated men and the carpenter a technical specialist who had learned his trade through long apprenticeship, but the boatswain was a seaman who had risen through the ranks. He, with his mates, was particularly responsible for sails and rigging but there was no end to his duties. He oversaw anchoring and the boat crews. He cleared the ship for action and he commanded that portion of the crew who worked the sails when the ship fought.

Most of all, the boatswain was the senior sailor responsible for discipline. There was no more important a man on an English ship, save the captain himself.

The man skipped up to the poop, with the agility learnt by a lifetime at sea.

"Cap'n," he said.

"You see that hill there," said William gesturing to the end of the peninsula where a rounded hummock rose out of the screen of trees. "I'll have two men up there from dawn to dusk watching to the south for a sail."

"Aye, aye, Cap'n."

"The men may go ashore to stretch their legs, boatswain, but tell them to stay close to the ship.

The boatswain touched his forehead and went down into the waist of the ship.

"I want four volunteers, you," the boatswain said, and pointed, "you, and you two. Take the small boat and clear a path up to that hillock. Well, get a move on."

Behind William, an expensively dressed man watched the activity with bored disinterest.

"I may as well go ashore myself, Hawkins. Arrange a boat for me will you?" asked Christopher Packenham.

William hid his irritation.

"The crew are rather busy right now. I will see what I can arrange later," said William.

Packenham gave the sniff that indicated that he was displeased. William had got very fed up with hearing that sniff over the duration of a five-thousand-mile journey.

"I think sooner rather than later, Hawkins. After all, my cousin Henry invested heavily in this enterprise."

Maybe it was a good idea to get Packenham ashore as soon as possible. Maybe he would fall in a bog and drown, thought William, viciously.

Before the Swallow arrived, the small bay had shown no sign that human beings existed. But gradually, man made his usual impact. Vegetation was cleared and a camp set up at the waters edge. Sailors cleared a track to the lookout post.

Day followed day but no sails were sighted. William sent out hunting parties for fresh meat but the yield was disappointing. The men grew bored, sick, and fractious, in equal measure. Inevitably, floggings were required to maintain discipline.

William forced himself to watch each punishment. The crew needed to know that the captain backed his officers and supported each decision. He stood impassive as a young mariner was stripped to the waist and tied to a tree. A mate shoved the traditional wooden peg between the mariner's jaws.

"I am not sure I can allow this, Hawkins," drawled Packenham.

"I don't require your permission, Packenham. Stay out of my affairs." William was past politeness.

"Don't get above your station, Hawkins. You drive the ship but everyone knows I am really in charge of this expedition. My cousin—

William thrust his beard into Packenham's face before the man could finish. "A pox on your cousin. Get in my way again and I'll strip your back next." Packenham recoiled, shocked. William turned away before the man could react. This situation could easily run out of control.

"Boatswain's mate, carry out the punishment," William said to the man with the cat-o'-nine-tails.

The cat descended with a slap on the offender's back.

Packenham recovered his dignity and backed off with the enigmatic smile of someone who had scored a point.

The boatswain watched him go.

"I smell trouble, Cap'n. The men have stopped complaining."

The cat descended again.

"Yes, I know," said William. "Discipline is ever a problem on our ships. I sometimes wonder whether we should pay our men a flat fee rather than give them shares of the proceeds."

"The Spaniards pay their men and they run away," the boatswain said. "Our men fight to win their share."

"True," William agreed.

The cat descended again.

The offender groaned in pain through the wooden peg.

"The young gentleman," said the boatswain, making the word sound like an obscene insult, "is spending a great deal of time with some of the malcontents. He calls them bold rogues and makes much of what he calls 'your timidity' in just waiting here. Sorry, Cap'n, his words not mine."

It was the duty of the boatswain to act as the captain's eyes and ears among the ordinary mariners and speak frankly to his superior.

"Does he now? Does he indeed?" William pondered. "In future, boatswain, no one but the shore guards and hunting parties are to be equipped with firearms. Make sure you select the guards yourself from trustworthy men."

"Aye, aye, sir," said the boatswain, with grim satisfaction. He spat in the sand.

Sailors cut down the young seaman. He hung loosely in their arms, head lolling.

The next day Packenham accosted William within earshot of the crew.

"This is a complete waste of time. We are just rotting on this beach while a king's ransom in treasure passes us by."

"What do you suggest, Master Packenham?" asked William, with deceptive mildness.

"We go after the silver. That's where the real money is in Spanish America. The gold is played out."

William laughed out loud. "The silver mines at Potosi are in Peru, Master Packenham. We can't reach them. The silver is carried to the Pacific coast then shipped north. And we can't get there either. No English ship has ever operated in Pacific waters, unless you count Oxenham's doomed enterprise. From Panama, they move it across the jungle in heavily guarded mule trains to the fort at Nombre de Dios. There the silver awaits the arrival of a flota of heavy galleons to convoy it to Spain. We can't take the fort and we can't take the flota. So don't waste my time."

"Drake did it," said Packenham. "Drake took a mule train on the isthmus."

"Yes, Drake did it but you're not Drake," said William. Honesty forced him to add, "No one is."

William counted points on his fingers. "Drake had more men than us, he had allies, which we don't, and he organised the Cimarrones to work with him."

Packenham looked blank.

"Cimarrones are escaped slaves. They hate the Spanish," explained William.

"So why can't we use these Cimarrones?" asked Packenham.

"Because the Spanish massacred them for helping Drake," said William. "Just like they killed Guillaume le Testu, Drake's French ally. Just like they cut up Oxenham's last expedition to the isthmus. Oxenham is still rotting in a Spanish jail where not even Drake can free him."

William turned his back, ending the conversation.

A few days later a deputation of men, including Packenham, came to William.

"I want to organise a hunting party, Hawkins. I feel like a little sport. Your man"—Packenham pointed at the boatswain—"won't give us arms without your permission."

"Fair enough," said William. "You have my permission. But I suggest you watch your trail and get back here well before nightfall. These jungles can be confusing and dangerous."

Packenham sneered, "I don't need your advice, Hawkins. I have hunted every inch of Cornwall." Packenham stomped off.

"Possibly you have," muttered William to his retreating back. "But this isn't Cornwall."

William stood with the boatswain and watched Packenham's party disappear into the jungle. The boatswain spat after them. The next time William saw the petty officer, he was in earnest discussion with the master gunner. The gunner was a technical specialist like the carpenter. He was responsible for all the ship's heavy weapons, gunpowder, and shot.

William wondered what the two petty officers were up to. The boatswain and gunner had crewed together since before William had first gone to sea. They had the comfortable relationship of two professionals who each knew that they could rely on the other. The captain turned his back. Part of the art of leading fighting men is to know what not to see. Packenham's hunting party did not return that night.

They returned the next day. "Here come the bold adventurers," said the boatswain pointing to the north end of the bay.

William turned. "Pity. I could have withstood the loss if they never turned up. They don't seem to have been too successful, boatswain." Packenham's party were clutching a couple of unidentifiable small furry animals. One man was limping badly and another required the support of two comrades to walk at all. William watched them stagger towards the camp.

A few minutes later the long boat arrived with a change of guard for the shore party. "Phelps, stay with me." The boatswain held out his arm, keeping the old guard party on the beach. This doubled the number of armed loyal seamen he had immediately available.

It took the hunting party an hour or more to reach the camp. Out to sea, the pinnace disengaged from the Swallow and rowed slowly in an arc towards the shore. William surveyed the party as it approached. They were covered in mud.

"The mighty hunters return," said the boatswain, loudly. "You don't seem to have caught much but mosquito bites."

His lip curled in a sneer at one of the more truculent malcontents, who was limping. "Hey, Jenks, what happened? Got savaged by a squirrel did you?"

Several of the boatswain's men laughed. The limper's face twisted in anger but he failed to respond. The boatswain was a big man who had often demonstrated an almost fiendish ability to inflict painful damage in a brawl.

"You can be silent, you peasant," Packenham said. "I won't have my men insulted by the likes of you."

"Your men?" asked William. "The boatswain will talk to my men any way I see fit and I require you to keep a civil tongue in your head when talking to my officers."

"I've had enough from you too, you jumped-up tradesman's son." Packenham's sword came free with a hiss of steel, closely followed by William's.

The dozen guards in demi-armour took station on their captain and the boatswain. Packenham did not seem to notice but the malcontents around him looked nervous. The tension in the air was thicker than the humidity. A rat-faced sailor near Packenham glanced around as if looking for a bolthole and froze.

"Master Packenham, master . . ." Ratface pulled on the gentleman's arm and pointed.

The pinnace was grounded on the sand close in shore. The bow swivel gun was pointed straight at the malcontents. Behind it stood the gunner, who had a burning slow match in his hand.

Packenham looked more puzzled than frightened.

"You dare not," said Packenham to William.

The gunner grinned.

Packenham wore a look of stubborn incomprehension. He was a rich young man, whose wealth and status had too often protected him from his own bad decisions. He seemed unable to comprehend that here, beyond the line, his mistakes might be lethal.

"The gunner dares," said Ratface, nearly in tears. He knew just how easily men could die from stupidity. "The gunner dares anything."

The gunner's grin widened.

William's mind raced. It would be embarrassing to shoot the cousin of a backer but mutiny was mutiny. Besides, William was not without family connections of his own.

"Cap'n, the signal, sir." One of Packenham's party pointed up at the lookout post.

A white flag waved where it could be seen only from inside the bay. A cheer went up from the men on the Swallow and the tension broke like a summer storm.

"You men." William pointed at the malcontents. "Get the stern anchor up and into the rowboat. Then pick up the men on the lookout."

"Aye aye, sir." Incipient mutiny was forgotten in the anticipation of action.

"Boatswain, I want a boarding party in the pinnace. Master Packenham, accompany the boatswain, if you please."

Even Packenham had cheered up at the prospect of loot. He grinned at William and saluted before climbing into the pinnace.

The Swallow crept out under tow from the pinnace and rowboat until she cleared the headland. In the open sea, the wind filled her sails and the crew cast off the cables. The pinnace raised sails, while the rowboat shot back to the ship.

William had timed it perfectly so that the Swallow erupted from the bay straight into the weather gauge, upwind of the target ship. The sea dogs had a perfect attack position. Whosoever had the weather gauge controlled the battle, deciding when and where to initiate an attack. The galleon built up speed, as wind power overcame inertia. The master stood on the rear deck below William, instructing the topmen to trim the sails so as to get the perfect tack. William felt a surge of pride as the ship accelerated to combat speed. Race-built English galleons were constructs of the highest technology produced by man. Not even the ancients, despite their great wisdom, had ever built anything like the Swallow. The only thing afloat faster than an English race-built galleon was a Portugese caravel, but they were too light to fight.

The target vessel was a Spanish coastal trader. She was armed and only slightly smaller the Swallow. The Spanish called this type of vessel an urca; the English called them hulks.

The boatswain tucked the pinnace in behind the galleon, where she would be both protected and hidden until she was needed. William joined the gunner and master on the rear deck.

The urca still cruised lazily up the coastline. She showed no sign of having seen the Swallow. A galleon under full sail was hardly inconspicuous.

"The watchmen yonder must be blind or drunk," said the master, grinning at William.

"They must do this trip every year and never see anything but the occasional Spanish trader. Why should this trip be different? Why bother to stare at jungle for league after league?" William shielded his eyes from the sun to get a better view. "I don't think much of the set of the urca's sails."

"Very sloppy, sir," the master agreed.

All of a sudden there was frantic activity on the enemy ship. Men swarmed up the rigging and started hauling on the yardarms.

"She's trying to change tack. I half expected her to yield immediately. She must realise that she can't escape," said William.

The Spanish ship had a fatter, rounder hull to carry cargo and fewer seamen than the Swallow so she had no hope of escaping the English warship. The attempt to change direction was not going well. William was sure he saw one figure fall from the mast.

"She must be carrying valuable cargo, to take so much trouble to escape," said the master with relish. "Her captain probably feels he has to make a show of it, for form's sake."

The bow of the urca started to swing, but then she failed to complete the tack and her sails started to swing and spill air. She lost speed and the Swallow overhauled her fast. Finally, she fell back on to her old course.

"Order, counterorder, disorder," said William, quietly to himself.

He noticed activity around the urca's guns.

"Master gunner."


"What range do you think you can get from a bow gun in these conditions?"

The gunner considered. "Four hundred yards, sir."

William estimated the range at one thousand yards and closing.

"I think she means to make a fight of it. Load the bow and portside guns."

"Aye, aye, sir."

William walked forward with the master gunner. They made their way along the port waist of the ship.

"Portside gunners load the culverins. Bow the guns forwards," said the gunner. Each culverin was under the command of a gunner's mate.

The mates had already broken down the bow breechloaders when William and the gunner climbed into the fo'csle.

"I'll load them up personally, lads." The gunner motioned the men aside and selected a shot for the first gun, using a calibration ring. There was no such thing as a fixed calibre, as each handmade gun was slightly different and the iron balls tended to swell in sea conditions. Stamps on the bow guns proudly recorded that they had been made by Thomas Pitt's foundry, in the Weald of Kent.

The art was to find a shot that just fitted the ring. The ball had too much "windage" in the barrel if it was too small, causing it to bounce from side to side when fired such that the gun did not shoot true.

The gunner charged the gun breeches when he was happy with his choice of shot.

"So this is the new corned powder you made me buy at such a dainty price," said William, reaching his hand into it. "I see why they call it corned. It feels like handling barley seed."

"The powder is glazed, right after mixing, into granules. The big advantage is that you don't have to remix it on deck."

William winced. "Don't remind me, gunner. I was on the Plymouth Trader when a powder mixer blew and set off the gun stores. We went into action with half our starboard guns dismounted and two gun crews slaughtered before the enemy had fired a shot."

"Corned powder burns better too, so the fall of the shot is more predictable." The gunner charged each breach with a carefully measures quantity of powder. Two of the crew picked each breach up by rope handles and laid them on the gun carriages, behind the barrels. They inserted wooden wedges at the back of the guns and hammered them down to press the breeches into position.

"Hold her steady," William ordered the master, who passed the message on to the steersman. "Break open the bloody flag," William yelled.

The signalman pulled on a line and a large rectangular bloodred flag unfurled from the main mast, indicating that the galleon was about to go into action. A loud cheer broke out on the decks of the Swallow, closely echoed from the pinnace behind.

"What range would you call, captain?" asked the gunner.

"Maybe three-fifty yards."

"Would have put it at three-seven-five myself."

The gunner picked up the linstaff from where it stood upright in a bucket of sand. A burning slow match projected from the top, which was shaped like a hunting hound's head. He looked at the target and checked the bearing again, before lowering the match to the touchhole. A hiss indicated he had fired. The cannon went off after a short pause.

William followed the shot; it splashed down thirty yards short and behind the target.

"Oh, good shot, gunner."

"Not good enough," the gunner said. "These breechloaders are not as accurate as the culverins. Faster to reload though."

He carefully modified the alignment of the second cannon and fired again. This time, William saw a splash right under the target's bow. The Spaniard sailed on.

"How very peculiar. I thought she would surely surrender once she knew we meant business. Can you get in another shot?"

The gunner replied by reloading the port gun, which took some little time. The Swallow continued to overhaul the urca. The gunner realigned the weapon very carefully.

"Two hundred yards?"

"Two hundred," confirmed William.

The gunner fired again. This time the shot hit the sea beside the target.

"Bounced into the hull, I distinctly saw timbers break," said William, happily.

He waited but the urca sailed on.

"She won't haul her colours down," William said, surprised. "Oh well, they've asked for it."

He dropped off the forecastle. "Fire the main armament as it bears. Musket range mind."

The gun crews had finished loading the heavy culverin muzzleloaders on the gun deck. The gun carriages on English ships were four-wheeled and attached to the hull by a complex series of ropes and pulleys. The crews hauled them through the gun ports and trained them forward, under the supervision of the gunner.

William ran aft, leaving the gunner to get on with his job. He positioned himself by the whipstaff, the steering position, from where he could fight the ship. He kept her on course driving right into the target vessel. At one-twenty-five, he held his arm out and swept it down. The steersman threw his full weight against the whipstaff. The lever put the tiller over, pushing the Swallow's bow starboard by ten degrees.

The gunner looked along the front port culverin. At one hundred yards, he stepped to one side and signalled the gun captain to fire.

"On the downward roll," said the gunner. A shot fired on the downward roll would catch the target in the hull and, at this range, maybe below the waterline as the enemy hull rolled upwards.

The billow of white smoke hid the fall of shot, but William saw the target's sails shake in the concussion. Only about half the gunpowder burnt in the barrel, the rest formed a blast zone that did more damage at short range than the shot.

The culverin recoiled. The heavy mass of the gun absorbed much of the recoil such that it could be secured on pulleys that allowed it to move inwards, ready for reloading. English sea dogs could reload in just five minutes. English culverins had to be heavier than Spanish guns of the same calibre, in order to withstand repeated firing. This had the advantage of increasing the stability of the weapon and, hence, accuracy.

The gunner oversaw the firing of each gun as it came on target. The urca rocked over at each blast, sails and rigging parting. Swivel guns on the galleon's castles poured antipersonnel shot into the carnage. The rear culverins smashed in at fifty yards. The urca never got a shot off, as her decks were increasingly swept clean of men with every concussion.

As the Swallow pulled clear, William leaned over the side and waved his cap at the pinnace below. The boatswain acknowledged. The small warship pulled round the back of the galleon and ran alongside the Spaniard's bow. Sea dogs swarmed up the urca's side on lines. William noticed that Packenham was the next man up after the boatswain. Gentleman's sons might be a pain in the rear but they knew how to fight.

"Master Smethwick, you have the ship," said William. "Get the long boat alongside. Boarding party to me."

It would take the master some time to turn the Swallow round. You couldn't handle a galleon as if it were a beer wagon.

William took the tiller of the longboat himself. "Row, you whoresons. Men are dying over there."

He steered the boat around the stern of the urca. A sailor threw a grappling hook up onto the high rear deck. William ran up the sloping side of the merchant ship, pulling himself along the line. He heaved himself up over the rail. Fighting was still going on in the waist of the ship. The Spaniards up on the rear deck were utterly focused on the boatswain's men so they failed to notice William. He hauled two more boarders onto the deck before an enemy turned and noticed them. William launched instant attack to defend the rest of the boat crew climbing up behind him.

An officer in a helmet and demi-armour engaged William and they crossed swords. William got a thrust through the officer's guard but it glanced off the man's breastplate.

A Spanish soldier fired a swivel gun down into the waist. Screams indicated that he had found targets, probably on both sides. The man turned as one of William's boarders approached.

"I yield," said the soldier in English, raising his arms.

"Too late now, matey." The sea dog gave the traditional reply and ran him through. You could surrender before the battle or, if you survived, afterwards. What you couldn't do was kill a sea dog's mates, and then surrender to him when your luck soured.

More Swallows poured onto the Spanish ship behind William. One of them brained William's opponent with a boarding pike. All of a sudden, a man was in front of William with his sword reversed.

"We strike, we yield, please."

William raised the sword and yelled down into the ship.

"She strikes. Cease fighting. That means you too, Jenkins. I saw that. Cut another man's throat after he surrenders and I'll hang you."

The carnage on the urca's decks was appalling. She was carrying soldiers, who must have encouraged the crew to resist. Many of the crew must have been cut down by culverin fire in the first few terrible minutes. A number of Swallows were casualties but most of the bodies were Spanish.

"What were they trying to defend?" William asked himself.

A door to one of the rear gallery cabins opened. A woman, no, a lady, with jet-black hair and dressed in a deep green Spanish court dress, walked out.

"I am the Lady Isabella," she said, in English.

Back | Next