are times in life when events reach a point where it would not be
thought possible they could fall any lower. Then, without warning,
destiny leads the way to the pit. It is at this point when a choice
has to be made: either take the long arduous climb and confront all
obstacles, or step into the abyss and allow fate to take its course.
if the rape of Maracaibo were not enough to witness, the blameless
crew of the Maryland brig were also forced to endure the loss of
their ship. After two long weeks the bloodshed and looting of
innocent towns had finally ceased and most of the flotilla had now
headed out to sea. It was misfortune that The
Chesapeake Venture was
one of the last vessels to leave the Spanish colony for, by the time
she reached the bar, the tide was already beginning to run. The ship
didn’t stand a chance, she buried her keel into the sand and
refused to move. For the Spanish fort at the western point of the
channel, the brig became a steady target from that moment on. Already
scarred from a week of battering, there was little hope for the
vessel. It was decided that all hands should abandon ship; not such
an easy task as the French who had commandeered the vessel had
already slipped away in the cutter an hour before. The remainder of
the crew were now at the mercy of the sea. As luck would have it, an
English barque had anchored on the windward side of the bar to pick
up the survivors.
spent most of the morning lifting men from the wreck strewn waters,
the crew of the English vessel had expected the task to be over by
now and were waiting to weigh anchor and head out to sea. All eyes
were fixed on the brigantine with its bow wedged into the leeward
side of the sand bar. Another distant crack sounded from the fort
guarding the entrance to the bay. Seconds later the iron went
crashing into the sea less than twenty feet off the stern of the
vessel; and still the last man didn't appear to be in a hurry to
a distance his appearance seemed hardly that of a merchant seaman;
not only did he seem to be younger than most of the survivors they
had taken aboard, but his clean shaven features, boyish face and
fashioned hair were more akin to a city-dweller than that of a sea
captain. The crew looked to one another as a second shot fired out
from the Spanish fort. This time the ball ripped through the rigging
of the vessel and yet, still unconcerned, the stoic figure seemed
only interested in reaching for something over the bowsprit of his
Hopkins, the man at the centre of the crew's attention, set his mind
to the task at hand. The forward jib, the only sail intact, was
flapping in the breeze with its sheet trailing out over the starboard
bow. If only he could find something that would reach -- a pole, a
staff, anything long enough to bring the rope aboard -- he could then
bring his ship downwind and slip her over the bar before it was too
glanced across to the shore as a distant crack and an angry puff of
white smoke drifted out into the bay. He squatted behind a cable
housing. A whistling sound, gentle at first, approached The
from the direction of the fort. Within seconds the sound increased to
a screaming crescendo as it passed somewhere over the mizzen yard.
The ball hit the water with a crash about twenty yards off to
starboard. Toby returned to his task.
searched amongst the wreckage littered across the forecastle deck -
nothing there. The main deck was worse; broken spars, tangled ropes,
ripped canvas everywhere. The ship had taken on serious list and most
of the wreckage was piled up against the port gunwale. Toby surveyed
the heap. His eye caught something; something glittering in the
sunlight. He took a closer look. Buried deep beneath a pile of
splintered wood was a gold band; a band which was attached to the
finger of a very pale arm. Who the arm belonged to he had no idea.
All the surviving members of the crew had been mustered before
abandoning ship, so who was this? He reached forward and gripped the
man’s wrist. With feet placed apart he gave one mighty heave. The
next moment he was on his back; hands still clinging on to the man’s
wrist. The wrist was certainly attached to an arm, but that was all:
no body, just an arm, pale and torn with a bone protruding from a
matted tangle of veins and sinews.
he remembered. This was Nathaniel Lathan’s arm. The unfortunate man
had been stationed on deck when the main mast came down. The vessel
took on such a shake that Nathaniel fell to the deck and landed his
right hand into a coil of wire. The mast came crashing to the deck
and the wire shot up to the sky taking the man’s arm clean away
from his body as if it were a twig from a dry bush. Toby looked at
the limb. Not much use to Lathan now, he thought. However, he may be
pleased to have his ring returned. Toby tried to ease the band off
the finger, but it wouldn’t shift. He took his knife from his belt,
sliced through the digit at the knuckle and pocketed the ring. He was
wondering what he should do with the appendage. Should he toss it
over the side?
looked over to the waiting English vessel; to the breaking surface of
the waters on the windward side of the bar and hoped all his crew had
made it to safety. But judging by the frenzy of activity beneath the
surface he feared the worst. Another shot came from the fort across
the bay, this time sending a tower of spray a few yards off the
stern. Toby stuffed the arm back amongst the wreckage and got to his
feet. There may be something he could use below.
silence was so strange down below decks: unexpected, eerie. Normally
there would be much activity on this deck but, without the presence
of the crew the silence was unworldly. The scent of burnt powder
still hung in the air as if the shots had been fired only moments
before. The gangway along the main hold was in much the same
condition as the decks above. A number of canons had loosened from
their moorings and blocked the gangway, powder kegs overturned with
their contents strewn over the planks, and canon irons, like French
boules, rolled about the deck everywhere. Toby’s eyes wandered to
the bulkhead where the French sea-robbers, in their crude manner, had
hacked through the hull of his beautiful ship to make six gun ports.
And what use had they been? Most of the canons had been salvaged from
Spanish galleons and didn’t work at all, and those that did were
about as accurate as Cromwell’s musket.
crack from the shore reminded Toby to move. Lying across the port
side of the hatch was a ramrod; a pole of about five feet in length:
just what he was looking for. He took one step forward then stopped.
Slumped against the base of the mast housing was Owen Fuller. While
the nature of this poor man’s demise had been reported to him
earlier that day, Toby was not prepared for the sight which was
presented to him now. The man was well turned out; a clean singlet
and dusted breeches, even his shoes looked as if they had been
respectfully polished for the occasion. In fact, Fuller was as well
turned out as the day he enlisted aboard The
three months before. Healthy in every respect except for one - his
head was missing.
would have been facing the starboard bulkhead when the incident
happened. Toby looked over his shoulder. At eye level, a clean round
opening of about six inches diameter had been pierced through the
hull of the ship. The ball, which passed with equal force through the
port side of the ship, would have taken Fuller’s head off in an
instant. There would be little point in looking for it now.
dragged the body over to the canvas awnings stacked in the corner and
heaved the man onto the pile. He wrapped the top sheet around the
body and fastened it with a length of lanyard. Once done, he lifted
Fuller over his shoulder and dropped him onto the deck at the nearest
gun port. Toby considered the package for a moment, then left,
returning a minute later with the Holy Bible in his hand. Turning to
Psalm 107 he started to read aloud.
that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters,
these see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep...”
he reached verse twenty-eight there was a resounding crash and the
whole brig shook like a baby’s rattle. There was no crack of canon
fire, nor a whistle to warn him, just a deafening crash as the ball
splintered its way through the port side of his ship.
raised his voice. “He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves
thereof are still.”
came another sound: a rushing sound of water entering the bilge space
below his feet.
was now only a matter of time.
are they glad because they be quiet so he bringeth them unto their
that, Toby closed the Holy Book and lifted the body to the gun port.
It was as Fuller was suspended half way through the opening that Toby
had a thought. The last thing he wished to do was give the sharks a
free offering in the way of a body bag. He rested Fuller’s feet on
the deck and fed a cannonball into the lower part of the canvas tube.
Once secured, he pushed the body through the port and stuck his head
through the opening. For a few moments the bag floated on the surface
of the sea then sank to the depths below.
ship gave a sudden lurch followed by an unhealthy creaking as the
stern began to rise above the waterline. Toby raced to the upper
deck, returned his Bible to his kitbag and crammed the remaining
space with as many pieces of splintered wood as he could lay his
hands on. Without a second thought, he leapt over the starboard rail
and allowed the current to take him over the bar towards his
soon as the word went out that the man had gone over the side the
crew of the Lady Charlotte gathered at the rail. The tide was running
fast now. With his kitbag supporting his head, the man slipped over
the bar and raced towards them, his lifeless body lying face-up
amidst a trail of blooded water. At that point the crew took him to
Tobias Hopkins was far from being dead; rather than make a commotion
in the water and attract the attention of hungry sharks, he chose to
lie perfectly still; his thoughts occupied with the arduous task
ahead. As he was lifted from the frenzied waters, his main concern
was, not for himself, but for the well-being of the crew of his
vessel. And particularly the well-being of John Fowler, for without
him his next task would be impossible.
was somewhat disappointed by the crowd who had gathered around the
gunwale to greet him. The disorderly group appeared to be little
different to the company of French buccaneers he and his crew had
been forced to endure over the past few weeks. While their clothing
was conventional enough; canvas or linen knee-length slops,
waistcoats and plain linen shirts, most had adorned themselves with
an identifying accessory of sorts. Some wore an earring of gold, for
others it was a shark’s tooth or some other sort of trophy. And all
were armed with a general disregard to safety; pistols tucked into
cummerbunds and muskets propped against the gunwale. There was a
sense that these men had a disregard for authority as most of the
company were either leaning against a bulkhead or slouched on the
and bedraggled, Toby’s first words as he was dragged over the rail
were to enquire of the whereabouts of his Mate. Toby straightened up
and slung his kitbag over his shoulder.
you be so good and direct me to Mister Fowler.” He said surveying
the bemused onlookers.
man dressed in a naval lieutenant’s jerkin stepped forward from the
crowd. “And who, may I ask, are you?”
Tobias Hopkins, Master of the Chesapeake Venture.”
statement was greeted with a few chuckles from the group.
naval man held up his hand. “Give the boy a chance.” He turned
back to Toby. “But we were told that the vessel was commanded by a
vessel was commandeered from us when we were set on course for
Barbados. They held us hostage and took us on to Tortuga. The
Chesapeake is a merchant vessel…” Toby looked up toward the empty
horizon, “was a merchant --”
as we thought, Captain Hopkins. Those French butchers couldn’t
handle a canoe let alone a brigantine. You will be pleased to know we
set them adrift in a cutter to let the Spanish deal with them.”
member of the group, who had been running a kerchief through the
barrel of his pistol, leaned across to his shipmates. “Ha! An’
pissin’ their breeches, they was too.”
man in the naval jerkin leaned with his back against the gunwale. “I
am Captain-Lieutenant Hackett and I am in command of this vessel.
Welcome aboard the Lady Charlotte, Captain Hopkins.” He nodded
toward the stern. “You will find your crew over there on the poop
thanked him and was about to take his leave when one of the group
raised his hand. “You forgettin’ something Captain? Or should I
erupted from the crowd.
Lieutenant addressed his crew. “Leave him be. I have my doubts the
boy could stay afloat for long with his pockets laden with takings.”
He turned back to Toby. “You are welcome aboard, Mister Hopkins. We
are now bound for Port Royal on the Island of Jamaica. Have you been
I fear I have not, Lieutenant.”
in for a treat.”
mid-morning the survivors of The
had been mustered on the poop deck where John Fowler, a bear of a man
with wavy light-brown hair and a beard which hid much of his genial
face was calling out names from the vessel’s crew list.
A man standing in the front of the gathering raised his hand.
Where’s Matthew?” There was a note of panic in the Mate’s
young hand of about fourteen years pushed to the front. “Here I am,
let out a sigh of relief. “That’s fine, lad. Just stand easy.”
He placed a mark against the boy’s name. “You all together, Son?
Not been hurt, have you?”
John gave a concerned glance over to the mizzen deck where the crew
of the Lady Charlotte were still gathered at the port rail. He
returned to his list.
The gentle reply came from the back; a seaman who stood a good head
and shoulders above the rest. Samuel, a Yaocomaco Indian who could
lift a main spar with one hand, had been The
bosun from the very beginning.
Mate was about to call the next name when there was a distraction
amongst the crew. He looked over his shoulder to see his captain
making his way up to join them. Toby leaned against the poop rail
while the men who had followed him from the main deck sat around to
watch the proceedings.
somewhat relieved, continued with the roll.
name was greeted with an empty silence. All looked to their captain
as the name was called again. The look on the crew's ashen faces was
to haunt Toby over the next weeks.
down with the starboard skip, Chief.”
eyes turned to Jackson.
feet was tangled in the rigging when she went down. Sucked under like
a lead, he was.”
man squatting on the hatch, removed his pipe and stabbed the air. “If
those French bastards hadn’t overloaded that skip with canon irons
he'd be here with us now!”
evoked a response from the crew; “Aye, aye!” “True enough.”
now. Let’s get on, shall we?” John Fowler read out the next name.
man with the pipe blew out a cloud of smoke. “John, you know I’m
here. I was just talking with --”
bear with me. Let's get this job done properly, then we can move on.”
Fowler marked Davies as present.
I intervene for a moment, Mister Fowler?” Toby, who had been
standing aside during the proceedings, felt that a degree of
formality was required. With his speech prepared, he stepped forward
and addressed his crew.
the raids along the coast are now over and God has spared us.”
opening words elicited a few looks amongst the privateers who had
followed Toby from the mizzen deck.
“No longer do we
have to endure another day with the scent of blood on our hands,”
Toby continued. “We should now put all this behind us and set to
me, Captain.” Fowler moved close to Toby and gave a nod towards the
gathering of onlookers. “With respect,” said the Mate, “but now
may not be the right time to say too much on that topic, do you not
frowned at their audience who, in turn, waited for a further response
you wish, Mister Fowler, but I would like a private word with you
when you’ve done.”
Captain,” John nodded. “May I also suggest that you get that arm
pool of fresh blood was spreading across the deck beneath the
captain’s right arm. “Point taken, Mister Fowler, I’ll do that
right away. Carry on.”
left the company and was directed to the purser's quarters where he
was bandaged, given a hammock and an issue of rum. Armed with these
items he took claim of a quiet corner on the forecastle where he laid
out the contents of his kitbag to dry.