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A Ship for the King
By Richard Woodman
Severn House Publishers LtdCopyright © 2011 Richard Woodman
All rights reserved.
Summer 1620 – Spring 1623
It was to be many, many months before Kit Faulkner next encountered Sir Henry Mainwaring, four years during which he served Captain Strange, who in turn taught him the business of seamanship in accordance with the indenture Kit had marked with a curiously assured monogram. Although Strange had discovered this was almost the limit of the boy's literacy, it was quickly apparent that Mainwaring's instinct had proved correct: Faulkner was exceedingly quick on the uptake, a bright, intelligent adolescent who swiftly turned into a tough, sinewy youth for whom the crude victuals of the Swallow seemed like manna from heaven.
The equinoctial outward passage of the Swallow had been rough and for three days the wretched Faulkner had repeatedly spewed-up his guts. Strange left him to his misery and the cuffings he received from the boatswain on the occasions when he failed to make the rail before voiding himself. Happily the decks were sluiced incessantly by green seas so that Faulkner was relieved of the humiliation of cleaning up his own vomit, but much of the time Strange observed his charge lying shivering in the lee scuppers, indifferent to the cold seawater that swirled about him, a bight of rope cast about him by the same boatswain who admonished him for fouling the decks. From time-to-time a pannikin of hot burgoo was offered to him by another of the able seamen and for most of the three days this act of solicitude was rejected by the lad. But on the fourth day out, after a veering of the wind produced a ray or two of sunshine which, with the southing they were making, combined to throw a patch of comparative warmth upon the Swallow sufficient to dry her damp decks, Strange observed Faulkner take the pannikin and spoon its contents into his mouth. Almost as he watched, Faulkner seemed to lose his greenish pallor and assume something of the countenance of normality, and by the time they raised Cape Ortegal Kit Faulkner had not only turned-to to wash decks with the morning watch, but had made his first ascent of the rigging at sea. That evening he assisted at the whip-staff and began to learn to box the compass in quarter-points. From that moment he forsook boyhood and aspired to do everything that was undertaken by the able seamen, and it was Faulkner who first spotted the approaching pirate as they closed the Straits. The action was brief and spirited; the Swallow, aided by a fresh and fair wind which allowed her to play her guns to advantage, deterred the sea-rovers from Sallee from making a close approach. Discouraged, they made off after easier prey.
Having once fallen into the hands of the Barbary corsairs, Captain Strange made more than adequate provision for such an encounter, employing, besides competent seamen, a gunner of skill. Moreover, he had laid in a quantity of powder and shot, especially bar-shot, which would give his ship the edge against all but a most determined attack. It was not in the interest of the mixture of Moors, Arabs, and renegade Christians who made up the crews of the corsairs, whether they emerged from Sallee, Algiers, Tunis or Tripoli, to press their attack if there was much danger of losing their lives. They were usually after easy pickings, but the experience made its mark on young Faulkner and he gradually learned the story of his commander from the seamen who increasingly regarded him as a useful addition to their complement.
Nor was Gideon Strange unique in his history, for every year hundreds of seamen were captured and enslaved by the so-called Moors. Many turned apostate, renouncing their Christianity, submitting to circumcision, and finding liberty of a kind in the service of the pirates. They were generally treated well, unless, like Strange, they refused to recant and tried to escape. Captain Strange had spent several years chained to the oar of a galley until ransomed by Mainwaring during one of his periodic spells in Algiers. Mainwaring had got wind of Strange's predicament on account of his being a commander in the service of the Levant Company. A condition of release was that Strange served under Mainwaring until the latter obtained his pardon from King James, whereupon Mainwaring retained Strange's services, setting him up in a Bristol ship as a partner, an offer Strange could not refuse. A single man whose father had died in his youth and whose mother had succumbed to grief at the capture of her son and expired at the onset of an epidemic of the plague, Strange rapidly recovered lost ground and was, within a short time, a comparatively wealthy man. Apart from serving as master and part-owner of the Swallow, he was also a partner with Mainwaring in the ownership of several other vessels, assisting his liberator and colleague in turning his ill-gotten gains into legitimate assets, stock and money.
The two men's affairs were thus intimately linked and they had consequently become firm friends. Such was the confidence between the two that shortly before the Swallow had sailed, Strange had received a letter from Mainwaring outlining the state of his affairs at court. My Friend, Mainwaring had written,
I find matters here of so complicated a nature as to offer me a considerable future. The King in his wisdom has appointed me one of a Commission to enquire into the state of the Navy Royal and to make such commendations as best serve the State in these difficult times. I had some notion of this when leaving the boy F. in your charge but I do urge you to bring him on with all haste if, as I suspect and hope, he proves able. At least he knows nothing else and is thus devoid of distractions. Should there be other young men come among the crew who show ability, treat them in like wise but do not deprive yourself of able seamen on this account. Two or three is all that I seek for the King's service which is woefully in want of proper men bred to the sea and able to give him good return. As for myself, I am in a fair way to receiving a greater commission but upon this it is premature to speculate. I wish thee God-speed to Smyrna and a good voyage withal.
Your affectionate Friend,
The Swallow had indeed had a good voyage, making first for Leghorn and then the island of Zante, before loading her final homeward cargo of silk, oil and raisins at Smyrna. This had been followed by several more equally successful voyages in which several subsequent encounters with pirates had met with similar receptions to that initial brief exchange of fire. Only one of these had turned out to be serious and it occurred when the Swallow lay becalmed off the north coast of Malta. One morning, pulling down the glittering path of the rising sun, an Algerine galley had come upon them, surprising the morning watch.
Had the captain of the galley held his fire for a moment longer, his surprise would have been complete, but his first shot, fired from the heavy cannon mounted over the galley's long beak-head, not only startled the Swallow's mate with its detonation as he directed the trimming of the sails to a cat's paw of wind, but it ricocheted over the ship's waist, tearing through a foremast backstay before falling into the sea.
'On deck! On deck! All hands to arms!' the terrified mate roared as the seamen on watch ran to the guns, casting off the lashings. Thanks to Strange's precautions these were kept loaded when there was any danger of attack, the charges being drawn and changed every morning. As the galley drew close, its crew assembling on its forecastle in anticipation of boarding, two guns loaded with langridge barked from the Swallow's waist and cut a swathe through the men, robbing them of their ardour.
Both Strange and Faulkner had been below but they, like the others off watch, were soon on deck and bearing arms. Nevertheless, the galley came on and ran alongside, her starboard oars trailing, as stink-pots of Greek fire were hurled aboard the Swallow. These inextinguishable devices meant the enemy were intent on the capture of men, rather than cargo, though they would take both if they overcame resistance rapidly. Seeing the missiles, Strange shouted for them to be thrown overboard before their contents had a chance to spread.
One had hit the bunt of the mainsail but failed to ignite it and fell to the deck, where several others lay, their burning contents running out over the wooden deck. Fortunately this was still wet from the swabbing the watch had been giving it, but the persistent nature of the Greek fire meant that they had only a second or two to deal with the threat.
Darting out from among the seamen, Kit Faulkner picked up a burning stink-pot, hurled it back whence it came, over the heads of the men straining to get another round off from the guns.
'Good lad!' hollered the mate, as he drove a boarding pike at one of the pirates trying to clamber aboard. Behind Faulkner, others similarly disposed of the other stink-pots. What followed was a confused violent struggle about which Kit afterwards recalled very little except that his hand was burned – though from the heat of the stink-pot not its infernal contents. The last he saw of the galley was it drifting astern, several of its huge starboard oars broken. A miraculous breeze, of which the earlier cat's paw had been a precursor, sprang up with the rising sun and the two vessels drew apart. The enemy made one attempt to chase them but the breeze strengthened, and although it seemed for a while that the Algerine would persist, a few cannon shot were fired from the stern-chase guns, one of which – judging from the cries that came faintly downwind – fell among the slaves on their benches, causing havoc and dissuading further aggression.
Thus by the summer of 1620, when the Swallow lay in Bristol, the tall youth with his brown hair clubbed and wearing breeches, a long waistcoat under a cutaway coat and sporting a broad-brimmed hat, carried himself with the air of an experienced mariner who had learned sufficient of his business to be released from his indenture prematurely, and to be carried upon the ship's books as second mate. It was in this capacity that, having cleared the Swallow inwards at the Customs House, Captain Strange summoned both his mates to his cabin. Pouring each a glass of wine and pledging them a toast on the conclusion of a successful voyage, he invited them to be seated.
'Well, gentlemen,' Strange began, taking a letter from his satchel, 'I have here a letter of some import for us and I thought it best to take you into my confidence before we sign off the crew. I must first ask for your word as to remaining silent upon the detail of the matter contained herein.' Strange looked up. 'Mr Quinn?'
'Of course, Cap'n Strange.'
Strange looked at Faulkner. 'Aye, sir, my word upon it.' The lad's formal response in a voice long broken was in such contrast to Quinn's rough assertion that it amused Strange. Faulkner had acquired – from God alone knew where – a certain rough polish.
'Very well,' he said, holding up the letter to the light coming in through the stern glazings. 'It is from Sir Henry Mainwaring.'
Reuben Quinn, the mate, threw a quizzical look at Faulkner as Strange began to read that portion of the missive that contained the content that he wished to share.
'In accordance with directions from the Lord High Admiral I am charged to muster a number of armed merchantmen to act in support of a squadron of His Majesty's ships-of-war, the whole of which is to be placed under the command of Sir Robert Mansell as admiral, having Sir Thomas Button as his vice admiral and Sir Richard Hawkins as his rear admiral. To which purpose and our mutual advantage, I have commended the services of yourself and the Swallow, as both knowing the seas unto which the squadron will presently be dispatched and for that you have acquitted yourselves notably in several sea-fights against the pirates of Barbary. To this end you are commanded to recruit a crew suitable for an enterprise to the Mediterranean, to augment your armament by some swivels and murderers besides shipping any extra great-guns as you think desirable and the ship may bear; lay in powder and stores for six months, and such water as will hold sweet for as long as half that time ...' Strange paused, passed over the rest of the letter which he set down before him. 'Well, you see the way the wind blows gentlemen; we are to become a King's ship.'
'And under favourable charter, I wouldn't wonder, sir,' remarked Quinn, rolling his eyes with amusement.
'No doubt,' responded Strange with a smile. 'Sir Henry was scarcely to be expected to let such an opportunity escape us. The question is – our crew. They will want paying-off but I have to have the ship ready to sail in ...' he consulted the letter, 'ten days'.
'I am content to stand by, sir, having no other place to go,' offered Faulkner. Strange nodded. Until released from his indentures the young man had usually been lodged ashore at Strange's own expense whenever the Swallow lay in her home port. 'Mr Quinn?'
'Well, Cap'n, it does not seem unreasonable for a man to want to lie in his marriage bed for a night or two, and I imagine the men will feel the same, if only with a whore, but my guess is that if thou puts it to them, they will oblige.'
'We must of necessity conceal our destination, so I purpose that we put it about that we are to embark upon a Guinea voyage ...'
'That will not be popular, Cap'n,' said Quinn, 'what with the stinking fever rife and word of the Gloucester losing half her men before ever she left the Sherbro.'
'True,' said Strange, 'but we need an explanation for the additional ordnance ...'
'Might we not need that if we were intending a short voyage to Spain, sir?' said Faulkner.
'Good idea,' said Quinn quickly, 'and the promise of a short voyage is inducement enough.'
'We'll have to break it, though,' ruminated Strange, 'and I do not like to mislead men.'
'They will understand if the enterprise goes well, Cap'n.'
'Maybe,' said Strange, 'and if it goes ill, they will not forgive me my deception'.
Quinn laughed. "Twill not miscarry, Cap'n Strange. Why, we have seen off the Moors ourselves and didn't Cap'n Mainwaring do some such thing with his crew when he first went on account? I have certainly heard something of the affair.'
'One does not enquire too deeply in such directions, Mr Quinn,' Strange said quickly.
'Maybe not, Captain, but if we go in goodly company with the King's ships, how can we fail?'
But they did fail and a year later Kit Faulkner stood once again before his benefactor, having been summoned to attend Sir Henry Mainwaring when the Swallow arrived home. Mainwaring was fuller in the face than Kit remembered, but retained his kindly, encouraging smile and it was difficult to cast him as a former pirate. For his part, Mainwaring noticed the greater change evident in the younger man who, for all his youth, had matured both physically and intellectually.
'Well, Mr Rat, you have grown mightily. Pray be seated ... A glass of wine ...' Mainwaring proffered a glass brimful of a rich Oporto.
They sat for a moment and then Mainwaring asked his protégé, 'I have spoken to Sir Robert Mansell as to the Mediterranean enterprise but, tell me, why in your opinion did the expedition miscarry?'
'In my opinion, sir?'
'Aye, in your opinion, Kit. You are not without wits, I think.'
'Well, sir, the place – Algiers, I mean – is formidable. The harbour is protected by a vast mole, well embrasured and filled with artillery enfilading any approach. We were, it has to be admitted, tardy in pressing our suit. Our embassy had failed despite the Dey promising much, but in truth giving us nothing, so we withdrew and then two or three times came again before the place, making sundry demonstrations without effect ...' Faulkner appeared to falter and Mainwaring prompted.
'May I speak frankly, sir?'
'Indeed, I would have you so, even if you impute some blame to those of us here at home.'
'That is part of the seat of our dilemma, sir. As time passed and we expected stores and reinforcement, nothing came and the admiral grew exceeding vexed, as did Sir Thomas Button, while Sir Richard Hawkins so fulminated against the inactivity that he seemed sometimes fair set to split himself asunder as I believe he since has ...'
'Alas, yes,' Mainwaring said, reflecting on the death of Mansell's vice admiral. 'He was beset by a fit in the presence of the Privy Council when informed that his expenses would not be met ... a sad end for a man who saw action against the Armada ...'
'I am sorry for it, sir, for he was much esteemed in the fleet.'
'But perhaps past the age for active service?'
'It was said so, sir, among those who pretended to know.'
'So, but you made several attempts to carry the harbour, did you not?'
'Indeed, sir, we spent much time in preparation and practice with fireships, but every time we essayed the venture, the wind turned contrary and when, in desperation, we pressed the attack by boat, we were caught in crossfire and driven off. We set alight but two of the piratical vessels, but those fires were, I believe, put out.'
Excerpted from A Ship for the King by Richard Woodman. Copyright © 2011 Richard Woodman. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd.
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