Cape Colony is proving a tiresome assignment for Thomas Kydd’s daring commander-in-chief Commodore Popham: South America’s Spanish colonies are in a ferment of popular unrest. Rumors of a treasure hoard of Spanish silver spur him to assemble a makeshift invasion fleet and launch a bold attack on the capital of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate in Buenos Aires. Navigating the treacherous bars and mud flats of the river, the British invasion force wins a battle against improbable odds, taking the capital and the silver. But the uprising that promises the end of Spanish rule never arrives and the locals begin to see dark conspiracies behind the invader’s actions. Now Kydd’s men must face resistance and the betrayal of their closest allies. Can they save themselves and their prize?
About the Author
Julian Stockwin is a retired teacher and educational psychologist, and a former lieutenant commander of the Royal Navy Reserve. He entered the British Navy at age 15 and was eventually named a Member of the British Empire. He is the author of the Kydd Sea Adventures series.
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A Kydd Sea Adventure
By Julian Stockwin
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Julian Stockwin
All rights reserved.
In the dilapidated office Mr Owen looked up from his reckoning. "Bananas at eighty reis the quintal seems a little excessive, Mr Ribeiro," he said slowly, mopping his brow. The humidity was formidable, the dull heat like a suffocating blanket, but the purser of a frigate of His Majesty's Navy had his standards and he sweltered in coat and breeches.
Shrugging, the fat Portuguese trader leaned back in his chair. "You think? I sell you green ones, not go rot, best in Mozambique."
Tugging at his clammy neckcloth and dismissively eyeing the handful of half-ripe fruit brought for his inspection, Owen looked pained. "My captain wishes only to serve his worthy crew with a mort of sweetness in their diet, but if the price is beyond my allowance —"
"Then I help! I can find th' red banana, very creamy, very cheap and for you —"
"No, no, Mr Ribeiro, the crew would think it sharp practice. Were you to vary your price to accommodate a larger order — say, five quintals — and payment in silver reals, then ..."
Nicholas Renzi, sitting to one side of the table, fanned himself with a palm leaf. The negotiations dragged on and his attention wandered. The doorway was jammed with wide-eyed children, fearful but entranced by this visitation from the outer world. Beyond, in the harsh sunlight, was the noisy ebb and flow of an African market town. The world of war with Napoleon Bonaparte might have been in another universe but it was precisely why he was here. Hove to off the river mouth and enjoying the fresh oceanic breezes was HMS L'Aurore, a thirty-two-gun frigate whose captain was his closest friend, Thomas Kydd.
As his confidential secretary, Renzi had an unquestioned right to come and go on ship's business; in these last weeks he had often landed with the purser but not to lend his presence for business negotiations to secure fresh foodstuffs. He had every sympathy for the dry Welshman who, as a man of independent business aboard ship, had to balance his costs at supplying stores and necessaries with fairness at the point of issue yet leave himself with sufficient profit to weather financial storms. In the absence of an agent-victualler this meant making a deal with often unscrupulous local merchants that might well be repudiated later by an officious Admiralty functionary in faraway London.
The purser probably suspected but had never enquired the real reason why Renzi so often accompanied him: if there was one thing a scouting frigate needed from the shore even more than fresh victuals it was information. With an infinite number of directions to sail off in, even the tiniest whisper was better than nothing, and Renzi had personally witnessed the effectiveness of Admiral Lord Nelson's network of merchant intelligence in the Mediterranean before Trafalgar, overseen, it was rumoured, by his own secretary.
The current mission for L'Aurore was an important one. Only a few months before, the British had taken Cape Town, the Dutch settlement at the tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope, to secure the all-important route to India. With slender military resources, it lay vulnerable to a vengeful counter-attack by the French, specifically by Admiral Maréchal, who was known to be at sea with a battle squadron greatly outnumbering the few ships of the Royal Navy on station there.
L'Aurore's orders were to follow the coast around the south of the continent and up the Indian Ocean side, stopping vessels, seeking word. As far north as Lourenço Marques, there had been not even a rumour, but Kydd had pressed on, if only to prove the French absent from the area. He knew that on the other side of Madagascar the French had strong island bases in a direct line from India, which could well be sheltering a battle group. Leda, the larger fellow frigate to L'Aurore, was sent to look into these, so L'Aurore had sailed on into the Mozambique Channel, past hundreds of miles of the frightful remoteness of the dark continent to the foetid flatness of Quelimane, an ancient Arab slave market but now a lonely outpost of the Portuguese empire, itself dating from the daring voyage of Vasco da Gama in the 1490s.
"Five quintal?" Ribeiro came back with a frown. "We just quit o' three cargo for Zanzibar, not so many left. Cost me more to find."
Idly Renzi looked out at a grove of densely clustered scrub palms nearby. To his surprise he made out arrays of the unmistakable yellow curves of magnificently sized fruit. More than enough, surely. "Er, may we not avail ourselves of those fine bananas yonder, or are they spoken for perhaps?" he enquired.
The other two men turned to him with surprise. "Do allow I should conduct my business without your valued assistance, Mr Renzi," Owen said huffily. "Those are not bananas, rather plantains, which every soul knows may only be suffered to be eaten after cooking." He turned back to Ribeiro and stiffly concluded arrangements for a delivery of three quintals of standard bananas.
As Renzi rose with the purser, he offered casually, "Then your trade prospers, Mr Ribeiro?"
The man looked up guardedly. "As is always the chance o' luck in these days. Why you ask?"
"Oh, just that Mr Napoleon is stirring up trouble in these parts. Has your business suffered at the hands of the French at all?"
"They don't trouble as we," Ribeiro replied.
"Then you haven't heard — his ships of war are at sea. He seeks bases for his privateers, territory to add to France. Should he decide on Quelimane, well, as you have no friends ..."
"Er, no friends?"
"Those who will rid you of him, should you tell them in time. You haven't seen any French ships — big ones, I mean to say?" Renzi added.
"Um, no, not b' me."
"Perhaps have had word of such?" It was a last try. So far north and failing any intelligence, L'Aurore must now cease her search and put about for Cape Town with nothing to report.
Renzi shrugged and turned to go.
"Wait." Ribeiro hauled himself to his feet, snorting with the effort. "I not seen, but the fishers? They on the sea, they will know." He went to the doorway and called over a wizened man on the other side of the street.
After a brief exchange in some African dialect, Ribeiro beamed. "He say yes! Ver' big one, two day ago up th' coast."
Renzi snapped to full alert. "Just one? Where was it going?"
"He remember Pebane way — t' the north."
Curious onlookers joined them, and another seamed individual broke in with excited jabber.
"He say he saw as well, four day ago but swear it were off t' the south."
Renzi frowned. How much reliance should he place on these fishermen? A lone ship — and was it truly a big one?
"How many masts did it have?" he asked.
Both were insistent that it was three-masted and square-rigged on each. This, therefore, was not a local trader, nor yet a privateer or even an armed schooner, for it was ship-rigged in exactly the same way as a frigate or ship-of-the-line. Was it one of Maréchal's scouting frigates ranging ahead of the deadly squadron?
His heart quickened, but Kydd would need to know details. North or south — where was it headed? If he offered money to the wider community for information they would say anything they thought would please him but he did have something up his sleeve. "Oh, Mr Owen," he said to the purser, "do send for my sea-bag, if you will."
One of the boat's crew, red-faced with exertion in the heat, hurried up with a mysterious carry-all, surrounded by a noisy crowd of screeching children and their elders. Renzi took it, bowing politely to the young seaman who, taken aback, awkwardly bowed in return and for good measure touched his forelock.
Looking significantly at Ribeiro, Renzi opened it and peered inside. The hubbub died to an expectant hush as others flocked to join the throng. After a pause he straightened in satisfaction, then pointedly laced it shut. "Mr Ribeiro," he announced importantly, "our good King George is concerned at the hard life of the fishermen of Quelimane. He directs me to distribute these small gifts as a token of his esteem — but only to the worthy fisher-folk themselves."
The faces around him looked doubtful, but after his words had been translated, several grinning, weatherbeaten men pushed themselves to the front. Renzi regarded them solemnly, then dipped into the bag and drew out the red uniform coat of a private of the Royal Marines. A collective gasp went up as it was presented to the oldest fisherman, who drew it on reverently.
He twirled about in his finery to universal admiration, and Renzi hid a grin at the sight of the patched and worn cast-off that had been routinely consigned to the boatswain's rag-chest. More treasures were handed out: a pair of seaman's white duck trousers with frayed bottoms, a sailor's jacket with two brass buttons still on it, half a dozen holed stockings.
Renzi allowed that he would be obliged if he could hear from any who had seen the big ship, and stood back to let the noise and jollity overflow as things were tried on, exchanged, bartered. One man detached from the rest and passed along his observation, then more came forward. Renzi carefully entered their words into his notebook until in all he had eleven firm reports.
Such men's lives depended on knowing where they were so he now had the time and position of each sighting; individually plotting them on the chart would give a clear picture of the track.
Pleased with himself, he politely withdrew, leaving them to their bounty.
"Well done, Nicholas!" Kydd said happily, wielding his dividers on the East Africa chart. "I do hope Mr Oakley is not too discommoded by our making free with his rag-chest. Look here, I think I have it ..." Renzi leaned over. The neatly encircled dots marched from the south regularly until, near Pebane in the north, the last two made an irregular hook. "He's come from around Madagascar to spy out the channel, and here in the north he's turned about and is starting to head back. We have a chance."
"Dear chap — you're omitting one thing ..."
"These are past reports, this latest being yesterday. By now the fellow is well on."
"Not so. See — on this track, the speed made between points is trifling. He's spending his time casting about, conducting a good search while our fisher-folk have to land their catch smartly and lose no time in returning. Nicholas, I'll wager should we rest here we'll see him topsails over, say, early tomorrow."
Kendall, the sailing master and a man of few words, nodded in agreement and a reluctant smile surfaced. "Sir, there's th' question o' —"
"Yes. If he's a frigate his first duty is to report to his admiral, not offer battle with a chance o' damage, so he'll bear away as soon as he sights us and we'll not discover his squadron rendezvous. We're to calm his fears in some way, I believe."
And lure him on. There was no way Kydd could alter his ship into a lesser breed or make it appear impotent, and with no handy island to conceal themselves ... "I shall think on it, Mr Kendall," he said, and began pacing up and down. Nothing came of it so he went out on deck. It was pleasant under the quarterdeck awning, now permanently rigged, and by his order all officers had doffed coat and waistcoat and now felt the breeze gratefully through loose shirts.
"Sir," acknowledged Curzon, the officer-of-the-watch, touching his hat. "A conclusion, at all?"
"Mayhap we'll sight a scout tomorrow. We stay off and on this coast — he'll come from the north, if he does."
"Aye aye, sir."
Kydd looked about the bright seascape, then at the distant palm-fringed shore. It would not do to dignify these remote outposts with a visit by a full post-captain, Royal Navy, so he had never once set foot on this Africa, with its steaming tropical forests and all the mystery of an unknown continent, so different from the south. Perhaps one day ...
"'Scuse me, sir." An anxious voice broke into his thoughts. It was Searle, one of the volunteers of the first class, brought on board in those dark months before Trafalgar — less than a year before, Kydd realised, with surprise.
The young lad was all but unrecognisable as the pale, terrified schoolboy who had presented himself, resolutely determined to be an admiral one day. Now he was inches taller, lithe and brown, with confidence yet still a degree of modesty about him. Here was his next midshipman.
In his inattention Kydd had nearly tripped over the bight of a circle of long-splicing that the lad was working on. He picked up the piece and squinted down its length. "Why, that is a caution to the fo'c'slemen themselves, I'd swear." On the gratings a blank-faced seaman sat cross-legged. A wash of warmth came at the sight of Doud, lined and tattooed, the picture of a deep-sea mariner. Long ago it had been this man who had made it possible for him, a raw landman, to climb the rigging to the main-top in the old Royal Billy at Spithead. Later he had ventured out on the main-yard, to the topsail yard and then —
Suddenly he had it! This thinking about masts and yards, sails — a frigate would rightly shy from another if the mission was more important, but if it came across easy meat, a contemptible little sloop, perhaps, then it could make to capture it or even ignore it. Either way it could be enticed closer until the fast-sailing L'Aurore had a chance of closing with it.
"Mr Oakley!" he hailed, striding back to the quarterdeck. "I have a pretty problem in the article of rigging, and I'd be obliged if you'd attend on me."
It took some explaining, but it brought a broad grin to the redheaded boatswain, who stumped off forward, bawling for his men. It was hard work, but by the ringing of eight bells at the beginning of the dog-watches it was done, and over supper and grog the seamen had something daring to talk about.
The morning dawned clear and bright, the weather perfect for Kydd's plans: a gentle warm breeze; a flat, calm seascape and crystal visibility to the northern horizon. It was time to prepare.
"Strike all sail, if y' please," he said. Canvas vanished from every yard and was furled above in a tight harbour stow. L'Aurore slowed and then idly drifted.
"Stream the sea-anchor," he ordered. A canvas triangle on a line was lowered over the transom. The frigate felt its gentle tug as the pressure of the south-setting Mozambique current took charge, L'Aurore's bows swinging obediently to face into it — to the north.
It was time for the finale. "Rig false sails, Mr Oakley," Kydd demanded.
From half a hundred blocks came the squealing of sheaves as quite another suit of sails fell from the yards. "Brace around, y' sluggards!" But this was not to catch the wind at the most effective angle — it was the opposite. Each yard was trimmed edge on to the slight breeze, the sails hanging shivering and impotent. Any with the slightest acquaintance of a full-rigged ship would have been mightily puzzled to see L'Aurore now. An ingenious system of tackles and beckets allowed her to set topsails where the lower course would be, topgallants from the topsail yards and royals above. In effect, setting the frigate's sail plan down by one tier.
This gave her the appearance of a small Indiaman, trying a dash inside Madagascar instead of the more direct route on the far side. Men looked up in wonder at their Lilliputian fit of sails, and overside at their total lack of motion. Kydd gave a half-smile: this was not normally the way a full-blooded frigate faced the enemy.
There was not long to wait. Within an hour there was an excited hail from the masthead. To the north, square sail! Long minutes later another cry confirmed it as a three-master. Unable to restrain himself Kydd leaped for the shrouds and joined the lookout in the bare fore-topgallant masthead. He fumbled for his pocket telescope and steadied it on the far distant blob of white. There, unmistakably, was a full-rigged ship and he waited impatiently for its hull to lift above the horizon.
Eventually, to his intense satisfaction, Kydd saw a single line of gun-ports along the length of the ship. No merchantman this: a frigate on the loose without a shadow of a doubt.
He snapped his glass shut and, with a tigerish grin at the lookout, swung down to the deck again. "It's him. We'll soon see if we've gulled the looby."
Excerpted from Betrayal by Julian Stockwin. Copyright © 2012 Julian Stockwin. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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"Features more high-seas adventure, ocean battles, bloody melees, and general villainy. Stockwin is a master of Napoleonic-era atmosphere and rich descriptions of the military, politics, and society. Stockwin's series is approaching the level of C.S. Forester's Hornblower books." —Publishers Weekly (August 20, 2012)