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By William Degenhard
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1981 William Degenhard
All rights reserved.
Had it been my purpose to provide you with a story of pure adventure, an exposition of my earlier life might well have served better. I had just turned eighteen when the Revolution flamed across that famous bridge at Concord. My home was in Pelham, Hampshire County, but I had left it the previous year to enter Harvard College at Cambridge. My eventual purpose had been to pursue the profession of law.
My father had been reluctant to allow me to follow such a career, for lawyers have never been popular in the country districts. But my interests had never been directed toward farming, though I had never shirked my duties at home. I had always been restless, discontented with the narrow boundaries of our farm and town. One of my earliest recollections is the delight with which I awaited our annual trip to Boston. Every fall my father would carry there our surpluses of flax and/or hogs, grain, wool or whatever had been a good crop that year. He would sell or exchange them for our winter's supply of necessaries, such as loaf sugar, tea, coffee, bar iron and so on and the few luxuries we could afford, as silk ribbons for my mother's dresses and spices for my father's flip. From our situation, we might as well have traded at Springfield or, farther on, Worcester. But my father, too, felt the need for a complete change once a year.
My father will ever hold my esteem and affection, for once he saw he could not reconcile me to farming or at least to entering the ministry, he bowed to my desires. My elder brother, Jonathan, and my younger brother, Increase, seemed content to stay home, so my presence wasn't necessary to maintain our family's existence. My father was not a rich man, though our farm provided us with an abundant living and enough cash to pay our taxes, buy our necessaries and a few luxuries. Nevertheless, he drew upon his savings and, with his blessings, sent me off to Cambridge.
I was aware my father had been saving that money to buy a piece of pasture land he had admired for many years, though he rarely spoke of it at home. Accordingly, I determined to become as small a drain as possible upon his purse. During the fall term at college, I applied for a position as schoolmaster for the winter months at Hubbardston. In late November, I was notified by the selectmen that my appointment had been approved.
For teaching those months I received 39 shillings and my board. As was the custom, I was saddled upon a new family every two weeks and thus came to know almost all of the people in the surrounding area. I was a young man at the time, yet I was treated with as much respect as if I had been of the ministry. I was given the softest bed, the choicest of food, and if the canny householder asked me to provide little Zeb with extra schooling in the evening, I could hardly object. But, as obtained every winter at home, I did so wish I could vary my diet. It was pork, pork, pork, fresh and salted and in sausages, boiled and braised and roasted, until at length I could not hear a pig squeal without belching in sympathy.
War talk filled the air, much more in the east than back home. For many years, we had watched with growing concern as the British became more and more arrogant in their treatment of our commerce and industry. Yet, while we in the west became heated at the news of the Boston Massacre and damned the king when we heard of the Boston Port Bill, those events seemed rather remote to us. Indeed, even in Hubbardston, which is in Worcester County and far from the sea, we were hardly aware of the growing certainty of war. True, a company of Minutemen was formed in Hubbardston, but the drills were not taken so very seriously.
Thus, we were shocked when the storm finally broke on that fateful 19th of April. At the side of Adam Wheeler, with whom I was residing, and other of the friends I had made in Hubbardston, I marched forth to battle. We reached Middlesex too late to take part in the famous action at Concord and Lexington. But my school days were over. My plans for a prosperous career in law, so carefully laid, were engulfed in the torrent. And too, I resigned myself to postponing the day I would claim Judith, the girl who had taken my affections and promised to become my wife.
With some reluctance, yet with a resolve to do my duty, I returned to Pelham, wound up my affairs and joined my militia company. The summons to battle was not long in coming. Early in June I bade farewell to my friends and family. My father was resigned, my younger brother envious, my mother tearful but brave. With drums rattling, our column set out for the town of Boston, then under siege. In my company was Jonathan, my elder brother, Daniel Shays, Tom Packard, Tom Johnson, and others whom you will meet in these pages. We paused in Amherst to join with the company there and so I had a final moment with Judith, whose father owned the tavern and store facing the common. I promised I would soon return. She promised she would wait. That day marked the last time I saw any of those most precious to me for eleven long years.
Of my wanderings, I shall deal as briefly as possible. Jonathan and I fought side by side in that terrifying engagement at Bunker's Hill. My brother was slightly wounded in the retreat and was sent home. But he returned in time to give his full share to the dreary task of keeping Boston under siege. I was quickly absorbed into the new army, which was reorganized under the leadership of our esteemed General Washington. But not even the inspiration of so great a commander could give me enthusiasm for a military career. Instead of excitement and gallant action, I found that army life meant ditch digging and monotony between infrequent skirmishes.
When the British finally evacuated in the summer of 1776, both my brother and I left the army. Jonathan returned home to help with the farm work and, as I later learned, reenlisted as soon as the harvest was in, serving gallantly throughout the remainder of the war. I was lured to Salem and the sea, where men were urgently needed for an ever expanding privateering fleet. I cannot deny I was as much motivated by the tales of fabulous rewards as my desire to serve my country. Common seamen were reported to be dividing fantastic sums of prize money. It was an irresistible temptation for one such as I who had never had more than one shilling to rub against another.
Salem was indeed a maelstrom. Every shipyard was a hive, every tavern jammed with tough, blasphemous tars, every counting house working far into the night to keep track of the ever mounting profits. Though I had never before stepped foot on a deck, I had no difficulty in obtaining a berth. In September of 1776, I was signed aboard the Resolve, 150 tons and 20 guns, Aziel Green, master. Thus my career as a seaman — one I took to immediately — was launched.
For the next three and a half years, I was almost continuously at sea. During the first year, we rarely met a British man-o-war, though we did engage one frigate of 50 guns against our 20 and, by good luck and good sailing, emerged the victor. The profits had not been exaggerated. One voyage alone gave me three hundred pounds sterling as my share.
Unlike most seamen, I was not content to keep my station. I studied navigation and saved my money, for I could see that, as time went on, prey was getting harder to find. By the spring of 1780, the lush days were definitely done and the shares from each voyage were shrinking alarmingly. Accordingly, I determined to make one last effort to substantially increase my capital. I bought an interest in the Falcon, 130 tons and 25 guns, and was signed aboard her as second mate.
Alas, this was to be my least profitable voyage. For three solid months we cruised fruitlessly through the Caribbean and along the coast of the United States, as our country was now called. Very often we met enemy shipping, but the British naval escort each time proved too formidable for us to attempt an attack. Twice, we had brushes with the enemy, once defeating a frigate of 40 guns which unfortunately sank and deprived us of a prize. The second time we were forced to turn and run, the weight of the metal against us making the odds hopeless.
In desperation, we crossed the ocean and coasted off the shores of our ally, France. Late in May of 1780, we were off the Straits of Gibraltar. There, we fell in with an Algerian xebec of 32 guns and immediately engaged her. We fought bravely, but we were defeated — swamped by numbers, you might say, for the Turks swarmed over our decks in enormous waves. After more than half of our crew had been slaughtered, we were forced to strike.
For almost six and a half years I remained a prisoner of the Turks in Algiers. After being brought ashore, we were sold into slavery. I was placed in the Dey's marine, stripped of my clothes, chained to an oar, lashed without respite or mercy. The casualties among us were horrible, men dying right and left of the pest, of ruptures, of sheer exhaustion. How I managed to survive that ceaseless torture baffles me to this very day.
The price set on my body was a thousand Algerian zequins, a little over two thousand dollars in our money. The ransom was not forthcoming, either from Congress or the Commonwealth. I wrote to my family and told them of my plight, scarcely hoping they could raise such a sum, but urging them to apply to the Legislature for my relief. After almost a year, the French consul informed me my father had transmitted fourteen hundred dollars for my ransom. My hopes were short lived. The Dey became insulted at having been offered less than his demands and doubled my ransom. I knew my father had borrowed to send me this much. I knew another such sum would be absolutely beyond his borrowing power. I returned the money.
I spent two hideous seasons in the galleys, the seasons running from May to late November, when the Algerians laid up their ships for the winter months and set the slaves to other laborious works, such as road building. The second year, I went to the Dey's palace gardens, heaven after the hell I had been through.
One day I fell into conversation with a Moorish merchant, Hassi Suliman, who had been to the palace on business. He learned I was an American, that I could write and cipher, that I disliked the British. So, he effected to buy me for he needed a clerk. He had dealings with the British in tea and other East India goods and felt I would not favor them, which indeed I soon proved I did not.
My life became unspeakably easier and pleasanter. I was well treated and allowed considerable freedom, even to roaming the city at will. Escape was impossible, for no captain would risk taking me. Any captain caught aiding a slave to escape was himself enslaved and his ship and cargo confiscated.
Not until the spring of 1786 did my opportunity come. Hassi Suliman sickened and took to his bed. By this time, a certain mutual esteem had grown up between us and he trusted me to carry on his business. He was an old man, childless, and I felt that if he died, my most probable fate would be a return to the galleys. Such a prospect called for desperate measures.
Our government, at this time, was negotiating a treaty with the Dey, but was offering to settle for half of the amount of ransom and tribute demanded. This, I was sure, the Dey would never accept. Accordingly, I appropriated the amount of my ransom, plus ten per cent import duty on the money and about two hundred and fifty pounds extra, from Suliman's strongbox and asked the French minister to effect my release. He was reluctant at first, but I finally persuaded him to undertake the task.
Suliman was still sick when word came from the palace that I had been ransomed. We parted affectionately and, as a token of friendship toward me, he gave me a beautiful ivory-handled dagger, both the handle and sheath studded with small rubies and emeralds. The value of the dagger was, I should judge, about a hundred pounds sterling.
I felt no sense of guilt in having cheated him, first because he would be repaid from the ransom money for the amount he had spent to buy me, second because he was a rich man, anyway, and third, because I felt that, if he had paid me regular wages, the account would have been virtually balanced. Many years later, a captain of my acquaintance visited Algiers and talked to Suliman. He told me the old Moor related with relish how he had been outsmarted by a Yankee.
I took passage on the first available ship, a French vessel, and reached Le Havre early in March of 1786. There I waited for nearly a month, taking only the time to visit Paris for a few days. Since no American vessel arrived, I went on to London. There, I also had to sit and wait. I was surprised, for I had believed we did considerable trading with the English. This was the first indication of the conditions I was to encounter when I returned to my native land.
At long last, in early April, the Prosperous, of Boston, arrived in the Port of London. I immediately waited upon Captain Bryce and asked for a berth. When I was informed he had a full crew, I bowed to necessity and paid for my passage.
We sailed on Thursday, the 20th of April, and our voyage consumed a total of 49 days, an excellent passage. You can well imagine my feelings as I turned my face homeward. I was mighty impatient to see the shores of America, but I was troubled, too. Eleven years had passed since I had last seen my home, eleven wasted years. Soon, I would have to pick up the threads of a life I hardly remembered had ever existed. I couldn't recover the ambitions of my youth, though I was aware opportunities for high government position, open to lawyers, had increased a hundredfold since independence. Schooling was no longer possible for me. What could I do? Return to farming? To commerce? To the sea? I had some experience in all three. But I did not know what I really wanted.
This was my state of mind as we drew closer to Boston. But before reaching port, one incident of the voyage deserves mention, an incident which shocked me and has some bearing on my tale. Thus, by your leave, I shall open my narrative on the 2nd of June, 1786, five days from Boston Light.
You will imagine me as I was then, 29 years of age, a tall man, angular of features, rather sharp nose, grey eyes, my skin browned from my years of residence in Algiers. My hair was my own, a natural brown, tied into a queue with a small blue silk ribbon. My clothes were ordinary, but neat, for I had bought them new in London. My coat and breeches were of a fine dark blue serge, my waistcoat of buff shalloon, my shirt an excellent white linen with a ruff in the front, my stockings of black thread and my shoes a stout black cowhide, fitted with pewter buckles.
On this second day of June, we were spanking along on a stiff breeze that bid fair to bring us to Boston in another four days at the very most. The air was crisp and clear and the sinking sun gave a pretty golden tint to the fore sides of the bellied canvas. Captain Bryce and I were standing with our backs to the taffrail, swapping stories of our experiences in the war, for Bryce, too, had been a privateer, commanding a ship of sixteen guns.
The tinging of eight bells — four in the afternoon — had not long since faded away when our conversation was interrupted by a hail from the foretop:
"A sail! A sail! Dead astern!"
The voice from aloft set off a stirring chain of memories in my mind. It was all so familiar — the alarmed cry, the sudden tenseness, the eager rush to the rails, the hush broken only by whispering as we strained to see if the ship was friend or foe, if we must clear the deck for action or run for our lives. For many moments, I didn't realize that the pattern was now being repeated. Then, I noticed that our crew was crowded at the rails, some clambering into the rigging, staring anxiously astern. I was puzzled. That the ship on the horizon was dangerous to us seemed absurd. The United States was at peace. Indeed, every sea power whose ships might be in these waters was at peace with us. Pirates were known to be operating in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, but none had ever ventured this far north. So, I set down my fears to imagination and gave my full attention to the approaching sail.
Excerpted from The Regulators by William Degenhard. Copyright © 1981 William Degenhard. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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