A Voyage of Self-Isolation by Ian Robertson
Written by Ian Robertson
2ND AUGUST 1592
‘So. It is decided. Yes?’ Father looked at Mother and then at the two young ones, Bernaldo and Maria. They suddenly felt very grown up. By being considered important enough to be included in a family conference meant that they had had bestowed on them the status of adulthood, despite what they secretly admitted to themselves was their immaturity. They were uncertain as to the full implications of the family’s situation and equally uncertain of the effect on the whole family’s future that this decision would determine.
‘Yes.’ They all mouthed their agreement or were they really simply conveying a form of consent to what would, under normal circumstances, have been a decision autocratically taken by the head of the family, the father Antonio and probably without consulting his wife, Isabel.
Father continued ‘We leave our home here on our island in the Azores and return to our homeland of Portugal in this year of Our Lord 1592 where there will be more opportunity for us all.’
‘When do we go?’ Asked Bernaldo.
‘Very soon.’ His father replied. ‘Come with me all of you to the harbour’s edge. You may have wondered why I was away for so long yesterday. Well, here is the answer. I have found a vessel just come from the farthest points of the globe on its way home and we shall sail in her.’ He had an expression of smugness on his face which made his already pointed nose to almost jut forward in a show of pride; his self-satisfaction was evident in his tone. ‘The ship will not be here for more than a day. Just long enough to load fresh supplies after her long passage, so come now.’
As they neared the harbour district they became aware of an absolute babble of sound. Figures were moving back and forth some carrying barrels in their arms, others with sacks on their backs all moving towards a gigantic wooden structure which dwarfed all its surroundings.
‘There’ said father. ‘That is our ship.’ He continued indicating straight ahead of them.
‘I don’t see any ship father. Just another building.’ Said Maria, her confusion clear.
‘Look again. Look not just straight ahead at a level with your eyes, but look upwards. What do you see now?’
They all raised their heads and as they did so they saw tall masts and rigging coming out of the top of what they had initially thought to be a large warehouse; the largest any of them had ever seen. It was certainly bigger than the biggest building on their island of Flores. Bigger indeed than the church, or even the fort that housed the Portuguese garrison.
Antonio, swelling with pride, waved exuberantly and cried out ‘Well, what do you think? I said I had found us a ship for our journey home and this is it.’ Before any of his family could say what it was that they thought, he continued. ‘The biggest ship you are ever likely to see. It’s a carrack. I’ve not wasted my time. I have found out lots about what is to be our floating home for the next few weeks. Now, let me tell you what you need to know. She is big – Yes, but how big? I’ll tell you numbers which may not mean much to you, but think about the small fishing boats or the size of storehouses or the houses in the villages and remember how much bigger this ship is. Well she, and all ships are referred to as she, don’t ask me why because I don’t know.’
He tugged at the end of his nose, a mannerism they were very familiar with. It meant that what he was going to say was very important. ‘She is, in length 165 feet long and across her main deck is 47 feet wide. Please don’t ask me how tall the masts are ‘cos I don’t know, but they look like they reach to the sky. Anyway you won’t have to climb them so it doesn’t really matter.’ He looked at his little family group hoping they would at the very least snigger at what he thought was quite a humorous remark, but there was only silence although, as one, their mouths were gaping open in wonderment at the sight before them. He continued: ‘She is very heavy indeed. Weighs 1,600 tons and she can carry 900 tons of cargo. Can you see her guns? She’s got thirty-two of them. That’s more than the garrison fort here. It needs a huge crew both to sail her as well as the soldiers. I have heard there are between 600 and 700 altogether.’ He breathed out expansively as he waited for the murmurs of appreciation in response to all his carefully gathered information.
Isabel was the first to speak. ‘But how will we get on board and where will we stay for the voyage?’
‘This ship, and she has a name – the Madre de Deus, has, so I am reliably informed, a total of seven decks. That’s like having a house with seven floors. There will be plenty of choice once we’re on board.’ He replied.
‘Yes, but how do we get on board? And when?’ Persisted Isabel wanting to get the practicalities of their pending voyage clear in her mind. This was so typical of her husband. Full of factual information. Very interesting though those facts may be, he was always very light on how to turn his ideas into action. But she was used to this and knew from past experience how to get a practical plan formulated in such a way that he believed he had done it himself.
‘Mm’ he replied. ‘My information is that she will set sail on the morning tide so we have to board tonight.’
Isabel mulled this over in her mind. It had to be tonight. Well so be it. She thought of what needed doing before they could leave. Little enough in all truth. Yes, nothing to cause any delay. She looked at Bernaldo and Maria still mesmerised by the sight of the Madre de Deus in all her enormous splendour. They would go onboard this very minute if their father told them to.
Isabel continued: ‘How do we get on board if there are six or seven hundred in the crew? I understand we have to do it tonight, but where will they be. Won’t we be seen? All those soldiers and sailors leaving port on the morrow having already been at sea for so long?’ She knew the answer to this and hoped that her husband would come to the same conclusion in due course. Sometimes she thought of herself as a farmer. She sowed seeds in her husband’s mind and prayed for a bumper crop.
Antonio pondered for a few moments. ‘I don’t see any difficulty at all providing we keep our eyes peeled. You can see how hard they are all working carrying on the supplies and getting her ready to sail. I know why they are working at such a pace now.’
‘Oh yes. And why is that?’ Asked Isabel ingenuously.
‘Simple my love. Simple. They have been away at sea for I don’t know how long. They will make certain that every task is duly done by nightfall and then the taverns and brothels will be doing a roaring trade through this night.’
‘Antonio!’ Isabel said sternly. ‘The young ones.’
‘What? Oh sorry. Mustn’t mention brothels must I?’ Realising he had now mentioned them twice he looked sufficiently chastened. ‘Anyway they are too interested in the ship to take any notice of what I’m saying.’ It was true, Bernaldo and Maria were still standing with their mouths agape, looking at the magnificent carrack moored at the quay. “There will be some of the crew left on board to keep a lookout. They call it a harbour watch.’ Antonio continued, ‘Probably no more than a half dozen and they’ll be too busy with their wine and dice.. That’s when we’ll go onboard and find our special place.’ He puffed out his cheeks and snorted through his nose and added: ‘There woman. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.’
‘We are going to be stowaways aren’t we father? Asked Bernaldo feeling greatly daring at what his father may consider his speaking out of turn.
‘Yes’ His father responded. ‘And what is wrong with that? In a ship of this size we can easily self-isolate.’
‘What do you mean “self-isolate?”’ Queried Maria emboldened by Bernaldo’s daring.
Her mother interrupted before the father could reply. ‘Your father has a way with words little ones. You know what he’s like. Self-isolate really means we will avoid coming into contact with anyone else. We’ll find somewhere out of the way, which should be easy enough considering her size, and make our home there until we reach Portugal. We’ll only go out when it is really necessary to get food and to, you know….’
‘So when father says “self- isolate” what he really means is that we hide away out of sight. Yes?’ Continued Bernaldo.
‘Quite right my son. Absolutely correct.’ re-joined their father. ‘We shall make a snug little place for ourselves and feed on the sailors’ stores in such a way that they will not even suspect that we are here.’
‘How do we do that?’ Asked the mother.
‘With a little bit of cunning planning.’ He continued tapping the side of his nose. A nose which he liked to think of as being a fine facial feature, but which other people, out of his hearing of course, referred to as his “pointed hooter”. He was eager to prove that he had thought everything through and was not phased by the way he was being questioned. ‘All the supplies, be they in barrels or sacks, are stacked one above the other in a cleverly stowed sequence. They draw their supplies from the front of each stack. We draw our supplies from the back and no one will be any the wiser. Now, do whatever you have to do. Gather what you need and make sure you are back here at midnight. I have friends to say farewell to and I’m sure you must have as well so off you all go.’ He made a shooing motion and the three of them went their separate ways excited by the news they had to tell, but also sad at the thought of the goodbyes they had to say.
The decision to leave had taken them unawares and there were concerns that not all those they needed to say farewell to could be seen before they had to return to the quayside later that night.
The town clock chimed twelve and the watchman made his cry of “Twelve o’clock and all’s well.”
‘Where is your father?’ Asked their mother irritably as the three of them huddled out of sight behind some bales in the shadow of a warehouse.
‘I don’t know.’ Responded Maria the tone of her voice indicating that she had made every effort to be at the rendezvous on time and that it was typical of her father to have one rule for himself and another for everyone else.
Bernaldo waved in the direction of the town where figure silhouetted against the dim light coming from the windows of the various building, was walking towards them. ‘Here he comes at last.’
‘Greetings my dear family. Here we are all together ready to start our adventure!’ Antonio said expansively.
Isabel cut across him; ‘We were here in plenty of time. Where were you then Antonio that you arrive late and cause us to worry. As if I need to ask.’
Antonio hung his head apologetically. ‘Sorry. But I had more to do than I thought. You know how it is don’t you, dear heart? So, now it is time for us to go. I can hear the soldiers and sailors ashore are making the most of their night so let us be off. Or rather let us be on. On, eh? Do you get it? On. Oh, never mind. I will check there is no one about and then signal for you to follow me on board. Keep close to me and don’t make a sound.’
‘Wait just a moment Antonio.’ Cried Isabel. ‘Do you know where to go when we get on board?’
‘Of course. Trust me.’
‘But how do you know?’ Pressed Isabel.
‘Because I have watched which hatchway they went down with the supplies, that’s how. We go where they went and make a space behind all that stuff like I said before.’ Antonio sounded offended at the thought that he wasn’t to be trusted.
‘I should have known that you had it planned well my love.’ Said Isabel placatingly. ‘We will wait for your signal.’
The signal, when it came, could only have been made by him. He made a huffing sound by filling his cheeks and exhaling in short bursts. A noise that wouldn’t make anyone sit up and take notice since it would be lost among the sounds of the resting ship; the breeze in the rigging; the rubbing of the rope fenders against the quayside. It blended in well, but the three waiting on the dockside recognised it immediately.
Isabel, Maria and Bernaldo, continually looking from side to side, crept to where Antonio was waiting by a gangplank that seemed to them to go on forever at a very steep angle.
‘Right,’ whispered Antonio ‘Total silence now. Not a peep from any of you. This is the only risky part where we might possibly be spotted. Follow me as closely as you can up the gangway, across the deck and through the hatch. If you have a question, just the one, ask it now, but whisper it!’
Bernaldo whispered: ‘Why is this gangplank so steep? It wasn’t like this when all the supplies were being loaded.’
‘What’s that you say? Speak up lad, I can’t hear you.’ Said his father turning the side of his head towards his son.
‘I said why is the gangplank so steep? Has it been moved?’ Repeated Bernaldo wondering now just what his father meant when he said “whisper”.
‘Alright boy, no need to shout. I can hear you and let us hope that no one else can. It’s the tide my son, the tide. As the tide comes in, or rises as we say, so the ship rises up as well. The ship floats so the end of the gangplank where its joined to the ship goes up as well. By the time the crew comes back the tide will be about to go out or to ebb or turn as we say. After that it would be nowhere near as steep, but then it won’t be attached to the ship, but be brought onboard because when the tide turns is when the ship will sail. Makes it easier to leave the harbour. Most of the crew won’t notice whether the gangplank is steep or not because they’ll be rat-arsed,” Isabel frowned at her husband, “Sorry mother, Didn’t mean to say that. Meant to say drunk. Anyway with the tide on the turn in a few hours time, that’s when the ship will sail so best find our place now. Follow me and be quiet.’
As a close -knit group they made their way quickly and quietly up the gangplank they paused after stepping on the main deck. They, even father, were even further impressed by the size of the Madre de Deus now they were on the main deck as the mainmast, all 121 feet of it, soared heavenwards, seeming to reach the stars.
‘That’s it. Look around. Make the most of your last sight of our island of Flores. The next land you will see will be our very own Portugal.’ Said Antonio looking landward himself. ‘Come now. Follow me to the hatch over there. We’ll be going down to what I have been told is called the hold. That’s where, as I told you, those supplies have been stowed. It’ll be darker the further we go so keep close. Hush. Look over there.’
They turned their heads as one as a light appeared on their right accompanied by the sound of laughter. The door to a stern cabin had opened and a figure emerged loosening the fastenings of his breeches. He was followed by a cloud of exotic tobacco smoke and raucous cries.
‘Hey Pedro, have one for me.’ Shouted someone.
‘And don’t get it all over your shoes.’ Shouted another.
Pedro, walked, none too steadily, to the bulwark only a few yards from where the little family group huddled and prayed they would remain unseen. He tugged at the open front of his breeches and there was an air of desperation about him as he fumbled drunkenly.
Isabel moved her face against Maria’s to prevent her from seeing whatever Pedro was going to extract which could cause a degree of upset to a young impressionable female. Maria made no attempt to look anyway. She knew what would be kept in those breeches. At last, his fumbling successful , Pedro took a hold of himself and eased up onto the bulwark and gazed at the town with its bawdy houses so near and yet so far.
‘Not there you idiot.’ Yelled one of his fellow members of the harbour watch. ‘The other side. Piss in the sea not on the quay.’
Pedro heard this and saw the sense in it. ‘Can’t afford to have one of the officers come along and catch me. It’s alright to be caught having had a little drink, but not pissing on the quay.’ He thought he had just thought this to himself although, in reality, he had spoken out loud. Turning about, he weaved his unsteady way to the seaward side and, with a great sigh, pissed into the sea. He then started to sing and whilst doing that gave himself a good shake resulting in a thorough wetting of his shoes and a fair sprinkling on his breeches as he repeated his fumbling operation in reverse. He managed to find the cabin door and, at the second attempt, opened it.
‘Shut the bloody door can’t you?’ A slurred voice cried and the door was duly closed.
The family gave a collective sigh of relief.
‘Come on. Quick and quiet.’ Said father and then scuttled across the deck and down the ladder from the maindeck into the gloom below. They followed, needing no second bidding for the requirement to be silent and speedy.
‘Is this where we’re staying?’ Asked Isabel looking around at a large space with slung hammocks and large cannon on both sides.
‘No, not here.’ Replied Antonio. ‘Three more decks down to go.’
They went even deeper. Three more sets of ladders until they came to their final destination.
‘Here.’ Proudly said Antonio. ‘This is it. This is where we shall make our little home and no one will know we are here.’
‘But there is no room for us here. It is full of barrels and sacks from floor to ceiling.’ Cried Maria.
‘Deck to deckhead. Deck to deckhead my dear.’ Corrected her father; keen to demonstrate his new found knowledge of new nautical terms. ‘Do you remember what I told you? We are going behind all these supplies. It is simple. The ship’s hull is curved so instead of the supplies being flush with the planking there is a slight gap on each side. All we have to do is, one at a time, crawl through that gap until we reach the far end and that is our temporary home.’
‘But how do you know that there’ll be a space big enough for us behind all this?’ Queried Isabel.
‘Because I’ve been told. That’s why.’ He began to bluster hoping that his wife would interpret it as his resenting being challenged. In reality he was desperately searching his memory for what it was that he had actually been told. He knew it was something else about the way the Madre de Deus was constructed, but what was it? He wished his wife wouldn’t put him on the spot like that. Especially in front of the little ones. It just made him flustered. Agitated. Then he couldn’t think properly and in all likelihood he would say the wrong thing and then regret it later. Now, stay calm. What was it he had been told? It was very similar to what he had just said about the barrels and the curve in the ship’s hull. Got it.
‘My dear, at the back of these supplies, where the stern of the ship begins it narrows. Also the main-deck has another half-deck above it and that is where the ship is steered from. I’m not going to confuse you with the technical details.’
Isabel interrupted him with a whisper bordering on a harsh hiss. ‘Don’t talk to me as though I’m an idiot, just because I’m female and can’t understand anything except for getting meals and looking after our offspring. Just answer my question if you please.’
He knew he had said something wrong yet again so, humbly, proceeded simply to answer her question as directly as he knew how. After all he had not been on the ship before and was hoping against hope that the information he had been given was going to be proved true.
‘Sorry Isabel.’ He whispered. ‘I didn’t mean to. Oh, alright I’ll start again. The ship is steered from above by several members of the crew. There is a mechanical device, and before you ask I don’t know what it’s called, which comes down through the decks and connects with the rudder. You know what the rudder is?’ He looked at his wife who was still glowering at him. ‘Yes, well, of course you do. Anyway what this all means is that the space it takes up doesn’t leave room there to store barrels and all the other stuff right up to the stern bulkhead. The space that does remain, however, is more than enough for us to stay in.” He looked at his wife, feeling satisfied with his explanation. “There. I told you I knew there would be a space didn’t I? You do know what a bulkhead is don’t you.’ Antonio sensed that with that last dig he had got it wrong yet again and hastily said: ‘Right. Let’s go. Me first then Maria, Bernaldo follows and then you mother.’ He disappeared rapidly through the gap toward the stern knowing they would be behind him.
Isabel had tried to imagine what their space would be like and although her husband had said they would have plenty of food to eat she could foresee problems if they had to break into casks. The food, whatever it was, could be so near and yet so far.
They emerged into their space.
‘Well, my goodwife?’ said Antonio returning to his old expansive self. ‘What do you think of this as a place for self-isolation while we sail to our new home?’
‘Tis better than I thought husband. There is room for us all to move freely and to sleep. It is dry as well. I was worried that because we are on a ship it would be wet or at least damp or quite smelly, but it’s not. Well, maybe just a little bit smelly, but we’ve slept in worse places than this. Yes, it’s a good place husband.’
‘When can we have something to eat?’ Interrupted Maria. ‘I’m hungry.’
‘So am I.’ Added Bernaldo.
‘Never mind you two about eating.’ Said Isabel. ‘You had supper before we came on board and its well past your bedtime.’
‘Oh come on goodwife.’ Interjected Antonio. ‘This is an adventure. They’re excited. Why don’t we all have something to eat? Plenty of time to sleep later.’
‘Alright husband. What do we eat?
Antonio felt it was time to assert himself again. ‘I’ll show you not only what we’re going to eat, but also how we are going to get it.’ He moved over to one of the casks. ‘Watch this. Not all barrels are made as good as they could be. I had pondered this question as well but see here.’ He indicated where there was a slight gap between two wooden staves. ‘This is our way in.’ And so saying he prised apart the two staves until he could reach inside and pull out what was stored within. ‘There. What do you think of that? This is like having our very own cheese shop.’ He grinned triumphantly. ‘And fresh too. Only loaded today and probably has only been in the cask a couple of weeks. Why don’t one of you tear a hole in one of them there sacks and see what you can find to go with the cheese?’
Bernaldo approached the nearest sack. He saw what poor quality of material the sack was made of and he easily tore a large hole and took out a solid lump of something he didn’t recognise. All he knew was that it looked, and felt, like a small pale brown brick.
‘What is this father? Are we supposed to eat bricks? He asked, the challenging doubt clear from his tone.
‘That my son is what sailors call “hard tack” or ship’s biscuit. It’s just flour and water that’s shaped into slabs and then twice baked.’
‘Why’s that?’ Maria was eyeing the slab suspiciously.
‘Well.’ Answered Antonio thinking he knew the answer, but wasn’t quite sure. ‘Its baked twice to make it harder than if it was only baked the once.’
‘Yes, but why?’ Isabel asked, joining in the questioning.
‘Because;’ Antonio sought inspiration. He did know why. Now, what was it he had been told? ‘Right. It is baked a second time to make it harder…’ He could hear his voice beginning to falter and then it came back to him. ‘It’s done so that it will last a long time, which is essential on a voyage when there is uncertainty about when and where fresh supplies can be got. There, does that satisfy you? Now let’s eat and then it’s to sleep everyone.’
And so they settled down to their first meal in self-isolation on the Madre de Deus. A meal which was to prove to be the first of a great many and nearly all the same.
Despite the strangeness of their surroundings, the smells and the muted sounds of the ship they fell asleep shortly after their makeshift , late night repast.
3RD AUGUST 1592
‘We are on the move!’ Cried out Antonio. ‘wake up everyone.’ He had become aware of an additional creaking of the ship’s timbers, a slight rocking and swaying motion that had awoken him from a deep slumber.
‘Oh husband.’ Murmured Isabel sleepily. ‘We can’t go out to wave goodbye to our island of Flores so let us sleep while we may.’ With that she turned her back and quickly relapsed into sleep once more.
‘ I thought you’d like to know that’s all.’ Said Antonio sulkily. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep and he would have to lie there in the gloom looking at the deckhead or counting the barrels and sacks until the others showed signs of waking, which would make it safe for him to get up. What that really meant was he would have to wait for Isabel to awaken. He found himself talking, as quietly as he could to himself: ‘I’ll bet she’ll ask me why I haven’t gone to fetch more food so we can break our fast.’
It didn’t seem to be so very long before Antonio felt something digging into his back.
‘Husband?’ said Isabel.’ It must be time for us to break our fast by now. Have you gathered more food? I’m certain sure we must all be hungry by now.’
‘Listen goodwife of mine.’ Exploded Antonio. ‘I’ve been lying here awake for an age trying not to interrupt yours or the young ones’ sleep. If I had gone foraging I would have woken you. So I didn’t. That is why there is no food yet. Because I am considerate.’
‘Well.’ Responded Isabel. ‘There is no need for you to talk to me in that tone of voice. No need at all. And it being first thing in the morning. Is the whole day to be like this?’
‘I’ll go now then shall I my love?’ His sarcasm did not go unnoticed; simply unacknowledged.
‘That would be very nice my dear.’ Said his wife all sweetness and light.
Groans and snuffles announced slow emergence of Maria and Bernaldo from their slumbers.
‘Come along you two, your father will be back soon with food to break our fast.’ Said Isabel.
‘Are we on the move?’ asked Maria. ‘When did we leave? Why wasn’t I told?’
‘You were fast asleep and apart from telling you we had set sail there was nothing for you to see with us being down here in self-isolation as it were.’ She answered. ‘Anyway here comes your father now. Come on. Up you get.’
‘Here we are. ‘Tis time to break our fast, not that it was that many hours ago we ate.’ Said Antonio. ‘Cheese and hardtack again, but hopefully it will not be the same forever. We’ll need to explore these supplies to see what else there is but yet eh? Where’s Bernaldo? Come on sleepyhead. Food awaits you as do we!’
There was a muffled groan from where Bernaldo was lying. ‘I’m not hungry. I’m not feeling well. I’m sick.’
‘What ails thee son?’ Enquired Antonio solicitously.
‘The whole world is rocking up and down and then from side to side. And the noise. Creaking and groaning and I can hear voices from far away. I think I’m going to die.’ He said this in a pathetically, pleading little voice so different from his usual boisterous cries.
‘Bernaldo is seasick. Bernaldo is seasick.’ Chanted Maria. ‘What he needs is a big chunk of cheese, don’t you brother dear?’
‘Hush your mouth you nasty child.’ Interjected Isabel. ‘Bernaldo, just you stay right where you are. It will pass and upon the morrow you will be much better won’t he husband?’
‘Aye, that he will. Come the morrow and you’ll be like a proper sailor. I have heard that some of the sailors get sick every time they go to sea.’ Added Antonio comfortingly.
‘There you are, Bernaldo.’ Said his mother. ‘Even sailors get seasick sometimes. Now, let those who wish to eat, eat. And you my girl, you leave your brother alone and give thanks to the Lord for this food and for not feeling the motion of the ship in a bad way.’
The roar when it came was thunderous. It reverberated from stem to stern, from starboard to larboard and it felt as though it lasted for an eternity. Then came the acrid smoke of gunpowder seeping into the very fabric of the ship, even into the family’s hiding place.
‘What in heaven’s name was that father?’ cried Maria attempting to cover her ears and her nose at the same time.
‘Are we going to explode?’ Queried Bernaldo anxiously; his seasickness instantly forgotten.
‘Well, Husband,’ said Isabel. ‘What is happening? What noise is this?’
‘Hush all of you.’ Responded Antonio. ‘It is the custom when a ship leaves port to fire its guns as a salute that’s all. Perhaps I should have mentioned it before.’
He tried to keep the smugness out of his voice, but he was taking more and more pride in showing off his recently acquired snippets of nautical knowledge.
‘Are you certain though?’ continued his wife. ‘We must be well away from Flores by now. Why would they fire guns in salute several hours after sailing? That is what I am asking you my dear.’ There was that note of steel entering his wife’s voice which he knew from past experience heralded the fact that she would not accept any gainsaying.
‘What would you have me do goodwife?’
‘Find out what is happening, that’s what. Go on, now. We could be fighting someone for all we know stuck down here.’ She said challengingly.
‘Alright I’ll go. But we’re hardly stuck down here. We only came on board last night. I’m going!’ He went back the way they had come in the previous night. He looked around and listened. There was no one on their deck so he climbed up the ladder to the next deck. The smell of smoke was stronger there and he could hear the sound of voices from the deck above. He positioned himself under the open hatch, but behind the ladder where he would not be seen if anyone came down.
A disembodied voice floated down from above:
‘That should send them scuttling back to England. Attacking us! One firing of our guns and they will return to their Virgin Queen!’
‘They’ve never seen a carrack the size of the Madre. They would be fools indeed to even think of taking us. Look at them. They are like a child’s toys. Why, it would need three or four of them to even equal our mighty size and weight. Only one of them has actually challenged us, but there must be more.’ Said another.
‘Sail Ho.’ Came the cry from a cry from the masthead. Up on deck, unseen by Antonio, the two seamen shaded their eyes to seek out this other vessel.
‘What will our Captain do now?’ Questioned one of them.
‘What Captain Fernão de Mendonça Furtado ? I know him of old. He will not alter course. If ships are astern, giving chase he will keep sailing on. If they overhaul us we will blow them out of the water. If there are little ships like the one we’ve already seen ahead of us, he will sail straight through them and blow them to smithereens. They cannot touch us my friend.’
Antonio had heard enough. On the one hand he had been proved wrong. On the other hand he had heard from members of the crew that there was nothing to be concerned about. He scuttled back down the ladder, past the barrels to where the family was awaiting his news.
‘Well husband?’ Queried Isabel. ‘And none of your long stories. Are we being attacked?’
‘Well my love.’ He started in his usual methodical way and then seeing the look of impatience forming on his wife’s face hurriedly went on: ‘I was wrong.’ That he felt was the best way to start. An Apology. An admittance that he was not infallible could only go down well. ‘I’ve heard two members of the crew talking. We were attacked by an English ship. A very small ship it appears. Our guns were fired to frighten it off. From what I heard there is probably at least one other quite close, and there may be others that aren’t in sight yet. They said these ships are very, very, little indeed, and so small in fact, that each one would need to be three or four times its actual size to stand any chance to stand any chance against us. I found out the name of our captain. Captain Fernão de Mendonça Furtado. They say he has a reputation as a fighting captain and he will keep sailing on his set course. If any ships obstruct his passage then he will sail straight at them and blow them out of the water.’
‘Thank you husband.’ Said Isabel. ‘So, not a salute after all. Your news is quite reassuring is that not so children?’
‘Yes mother.’ Said Bernaldo.
‘Thank you father.’ Enjoined Maria.
Isabel turned to her husband again. ‘So there is no risk to us at all?’ She looked at Antonio’s face for confirmation that all was well.
‘Nothing whatsoever to fear. If the guns are fired again it is to sink the little English vessels as we sail through them.’
The quiet lasted for only two hours before the guns boomed out again.
‘It’s alright.’ Said Antonio. ‘We’ve come within range of another English ship. Just remember how small they are. We will sail right through them without regard to their number.’ They nodded in response, but still looked at each other for reassurance.
‘What was that?’ Cried Bernaldo in alarm.
‘If I knew for certain then I’d tell you.’ Answered Antonio. ‘It sounded to me like some cannon balls hitting us. We’re in the safest possible place down here. They are small ships with small guns and they cannot hurt us. All will be good in a few hours when we have outdistanced or destroyed them, so just stay calm. We are safe.’
There were several more thuds as the Madre de Deus was hit time and time again, but the little group of stowaways could not detect any sign of damage. At least there was no water coming in that they could see.
The Madre de Deus’ guns thundered once again and in the silence that followed they heard a great cheer.
‘Must have hit one of them.’ Said Bernaldo.
And so the hours passed and it seemed that at almost two hourly intervals the guns roared out again, which could only signal that yet another English ship had come within range.
‘I’m going to see what’s happening.’ Said Antonio and was gone before anyone could stop him.
As before, there was no sign of life on their deck and Antonio crept up the ladder to see the next deck deserted as well. He knew it was risky, but he had to be able to justify his little foray by being able to tell his family what the situation was, so he climbed the next ladder. It was difficult to make out any details through the smoke lingering like a grey cloud against the deckhead above the guns and their sweating crews.
‘Them bastards has shot away our bow rigging which is making it hard to steer for port.’ Shouted one.
‘Head back to port? What for? We’re bigger than all they put together.’ Responded another.
A third sailor joined in: ‘I heard someone say there was a load more damage than that so the safest thing would be to turn back to Flores where we shall be under the protection of the guns of the fort. They won’t dare to attack us there.’
There was a sudden almighty grinding crash.
‘What the Devil!’
One of the gunners yelled: ‘I’m going up to see what that was.’ And he sped as fast as only a sailor could up the ladder, and the next, to the maindeck. He was back in a matter of minutes.
‘They English arses has only been and rammed us. More than that, they’s lashed themselves to us so we can’t steer or make headway properly.’
‘Why’ve they done that?’ Yelled another.
‘They’re between us and the land so we can hardly make steerage way in the direction we want to go.’
Any further talk was made impossible by another grinding crash on the seaward side.
‘The bastards. I don’t need to go up on deck to see what that was. Theys done the same thing. Soon we won’t be able to move at all.’
‘Why don’t we just fire the cannons into them?. Just sink them?’ Asked one.
‘Think about it son.’ Said the gun captain. ‘How big are we? How small are they? We can’t fire the cannon at them because they are too far underneath where the cannons are.’ He sounded exasperated, but tempered his tone a little. ‘I never thought it’d come to this, but it looks like they’ll try to board us and then it’s going to be hand to hand, my boys. Hand to hand.’ He finished talking and drew a cutlass from where they were in a rack against the mast. ‘It’s getting dark lads. If I were they English I would be thinking about now would be a good time to attack.’
The men milled about getting their weapons and clambered up to the maindeck not seeing Antonio who was making himself as small as possible in the dark recess behind the ladder. As soon as they had gone he made rapid progress back to their place of self-isolation.
‘Where have you been? We’ve been worried sick. What if they’d seen you?’ Said Isabel. ‘What if they’d caught you?’
‘There, there.’ Answered Antonio panting after his exertions to hurry back to his family. ‘I’ll tell you all I know as soon as I’ve got my breath back .’ he panted, the sweat running down the side of his nose from his exertions to get back to his family as soon as possible. ‘Right. Now. This is not the best news ever. In short there are more English ships than was at first thought. The Madre de Deus was making for Flores for the protection of the fort’s guns. The ship has suffered damage and cannot steer easily. Two English ships have rammed us, one each side, and lashed themselves to us to prevent us going anywhere. It looks as though there will be other damned English coming alongside very soon. We can’t fire our cannons at them because, being so small, they are below our guns.
The gun crews that I saw believe the Madre is going to be boarded so it’ll be hand to hand fighting, probably as soon as its properly dark, which will be very soon indeed. There you have it.’ Antonio slumped on to the deck exhausted. ‘I can tell you no more. As long as we stay here out of sight and stay very, very quiet then we shall be safe.’
‘And if the English win, what then husband? What will become of us then eh?’ Queried Isabel , her lower lip trembling.
‘We can’t stay here we’ll all die!’ Exclaimed Maria in alarm.
‘Maria! We stay where we are.’ Said her father sternly. ‘Listen to me all of you. We are a family and my duty as your father is to protect you from all harm. If, and I stress if, the ship starts to sink then we will leave it, but not until then. This is for your own good. For our good. Do you understand?’ He looked at each one in turn.
‘Yes dear.’ Said Isabela looking him firmly in the eye, grateful for the way he had taken control.
‘Yes father.’ Echoed Maria and Bernaldo looking for additional reassurance from each other.
‘Goodwife, children. You are the most precious thing in my life, but I am not a soothsayer. I cannot read the cards, not that I have any.’ A touch of humour might be appreciated he thought. ‘I see no portents in the movement of the stars either. It is no comfort, but we must stay out of sight here and will have to rely on the good Lord to bring victory to the crew of the Madre de Deus.’ He continued: ‘There will be a lot of noise and cries of pain if, no – when battle commences. We cannot do anything about what is to happen except for each of us to give up prayer to God for victory for the Portuguese followers of the true faith, and damnation for the protestants of England.’
‘It has been quiet for some little time now, but how can we tell who won? I can hear muffled voices, but cannot follow what is being said.’ Isabel sounded as though she was bordering on becoming hysterical.
‘Hush woman’ Responded Antonio. ‘I too am trying to listen to their talk now that the fighting is over.’
‘Thank the good Lord for that at least.’ Interjected Maria.
‘Come father.’ Said Bernaldo; his seasickness having shown no signs of returning. ‘We’ve had many hours of combat. Ship to ship. Man to man and we have had to stay below here; not able to show ourselves. Just listening.’ His voice gradually faded away as he felt himself on the edge of tears. He didn’t want the rest of the family to see how frightened he really was. After all he was nearly fully grown and, more importantly, male.
‘Will you all just be quiet while I squeeze past the side of the barrels so that I can hear better without you asking me questions I don’t know the answers to? I might even get a sight of what has happened and find out who won.’ He started his short journey as he was speaking and crawled forward, not responding to the calls of his mother and sister to “be careful”. Of course he would be careful, he thought to himself.
Whoever had been fighting who and whoever had won should not really make much difference to their situation. They were still in self-isolation and had to remain out of sight , avoiding all contact outside of his family. As Antonio reached the front of the stacked supplies he paused, crouching down as low as he could, his eyes darting from left to right and back again. His ears strained to hear any snatches of conversation. There was a lot of noise, but none of any fighting although there were patches of blood on the deck even this far down. He could also hear the sound of men groaning from the pain from their wounds on the decks above. There was much raucous shouting and yelling and the sound of things being broken followed by cries of delight or disappointment, which told him that whoever these people were they were intent on taking whatever they could find for themselves. He heard footsteps clattering down the ladder to the deck where he was crouched out of sight.
‘Tis nowt but supplies down ‘ere Jim.’ Said the first man to reach the deck.
‘No treasure then? Still we’ll not starve with all this. Let’s not look any further here. Don’t know what’s in they barrels? Some foreign muck I suppose but ‘twill see us fair home. Come on then Dick. Plenty more to find on t’other decks. Best get to it afore those other buggers. Finders keepers, eh!’ Both men laughed as they climbed back up the ladder belching alcohol fumes as they went.
Antonio scuttled backwards as silently as he could to where the rest of his family were huddled together nervously waiting for his return. He turned to face them.
‘Well.’ Said Isabel. ‘What is happening husband? What have you found out? Oh, I’m so glad you’re back. I, we, were so worried in case you had been seen and caught, or worse.’ The hysterical note had re-appeared despite her obvious joy at Antonio’s safe return.
‘Hush woman, hush.’ Antonio said in what he hoped was a commanding, yet reassuring tone. He continued: ‘We know there was fighting and we know that it is now all over.’
Isabel showed her frustration and interjected: ‘Just tell us what you have found out.’
‘Very well.’ Antonio sensed this was not the right time to go into any lengthy explanation and continued. ‘The Madre de Deus has been taken by the English.’
Isabel exclaimed: ‘The English? Taken by the English? But the Portuguese and the English are friends. They have been for years. Hundreds of years. We’re not at war with England. Surely you heard wrong husband.’
‘My goodwife, do you not listen to what news reaches us at Flores? What do you and the other goodwives talk about when you gather together at home? Yes, we have been friends with the English for many years. You are right. Hundreds of years, in fact, but things change my love. They changed when we, the Portuguese, decided to become the friends of the Spanish. We cannot be friends with England at the same time because England and Spain are at war. There, does that make it clear to you? Anyway two English sailors came down to this deck. It’s alright they had no sight of me. They saw the barrels and sacks and joked about having enough food to see them home and hoped it wasn’t all “foreign muck”. The they went back up talking about treasure and how they had to get to it before the other buggers did.’
‘Mind your language husband.’ Said Isabel.
‘English though. Does that mean we are going to England and not Portugal?’ Queried young Maria with a dawning realisation of how uncertain their future now seemed.
‘What were the English sailors like?’ Asked Bernaldo.
‘Just like any other sailors only speaking English, and, like other sailors I could smell from their breath that they were half rat-arsed!’
‘Antonio!’ Beseeched Isabel. ‘The young ones.’
‘Sorry my love. Not half rat-arsed. I meant to say half drunk. Forgive me.’ He replied in his best humbly chastened voice. His eyes focussed on Maria and Bernaldo who were trying, unsuccessfully, to hide the fact that that they were giggling uncontrollably. ‘And just what are you two laughing at?’
‘Nothing father.’ They spluttered in response.
‘Well Antonio.’ Said Isabel. ‘The children have something to laugh about and that is no bad thing. Come dear; we are still safe; you are back with us and we have food enough to meet our needs. A late supper I think and then pray that the English get completely drunk and fall asleep so that we may too.’
5TH AUGUST 1592
‘I’ve just heard the new captain, Captain Christopher, make a speech to the English crew.’ Reported Antonio returning from another spying trip on another deck. What he said was:
‘Men, first things first. We have no Portuguese prisoners to guard since Sir John Burgh, in his wisdom, has had them put ashore yesterday. Now, we have gained a great victory and made ourselves rich, even if Sir John has claimed all the treasure, and what treasure it is, in the name of the Queen. Let us not dwell on what cannot be changed. What is the Queen’s is the Queen’s and what she knows naught about well,’ he paused, ‘that would be ours to keep. What say you lads?’ The crew as one cried out a loud huzza accompanied by loud shouts of God Save the Queen. ‘We have a challenging task before us now. You saw for yourselves how many men the Madre de Deus carried. Some say 600-700, but a lot of those were soldiers. There are only 52 of you of the prize crew to sail this treasure ship to England, but you are 52 English seamen – not foreigners. Not Portuguese. So sail her with a will and with God’s blessing. We shall see good old England before too long and that means home and treasure to spend made all the sweeter by knowing that each man has his purse full.’ The sound of even more cheering resounded through the ship. Captain Christopher continued: ‘Have no fear of any enemy ships trying to take us my boys. We can either work the ship or we can put up a little resistance. We will work the ship and the others, the Roebuck, Dainty, Golden Dragon, Sampson, Tiger and the Foresight are to escort us home and what a magnificent sight we shall make when we enter harbour. We’re an armada, but this time an English one! We are to be a whole fleet well guarded, and to hell with any of England’s enemies. So let us make sail for home, for England and good Queen Bess.’
Having reported on the captain’s speech Antonio continued. ‘There were more huzzas and then I heard the sound of their horny feet as they scattered to their individual tasks to get underway. And that is that my goodwife and youngsters.’
‘So we are going to England and not to Portugal after all. It is as I feared and now it has come true. Oh what can we do?’ Wailed Isabel.
‘Come goodwife.’ Said Antonio sternly. ‘There is nothing we can do except keep hidden and wait however long it takes to reach their home port and then, only then, can we make proper plans. We must pray to the good Lord to learn not to rail against the things we cannot change, and to accept that we can only change what it is in our power so to do.’
‘Yes dear’. Said Isabel contritely. ‘That counsel is wise and we would all be wise ourselves to follow it. Do you hear children?’
‘Yes mother.’ Said Maria and Bernaldo.
11TH AUGUST 1592
SUSPICIONS FROM THE ENGLISH CREW
‘Husband’ said Isabel quietly making sure the young ones were out of earshot. ‘I’m afraid that if we’re found and caught then they’ll eat us.’
‘What on earth makes you think that? Where did that idea come from woman?’
Isabel continued ‘I heard them say so. They said they’ll send the Black Hunter. What did they mean by that?’
‘Listen to me’ continued Antonio ‘They can’t know that we’re here and anyway when did you hear that?’
‘You were all fast asleep when some sailors came down for some supplies. I kept ever so quiet, but you was a snoring so that I thought the whole ship would have heard.’
‘I don’t snore.’ Interjected Antonio.
‘Just be quiet and listen to what I have to say. Our very lives depend on this.’ She continued firmly.
Isabel was determined to prove to her husband that her fears were not merely imaginings brought about from being confined in what he called their self-isolation. ‘They say they’ve heard us in the night. They thought the ship was haunted. They said some of them were afraid to come down here even carrying lanterns. One of them said there was a Jonah on board. Someone or something to curse the ship. Bring bad luck.’
Antonio interrupted again. ‘Well that’s good for us, isn’t it? If they’re afraid to come down here then they can’t find us can they?’
‘You’re not listening husband. They say there’s someone or something down here and they say the ship will have to be exercised whatever that means.’
‘Exorcised not exercised.’ Spluttered Antonio trying his hardest not to laugh. He cleared his throat and continued in an effort to reassure her that things were fine and they were perfectly safe as long as they continued to stay where they were. ‘That’ll be a job for one of their priests. It’s their religion. He gets rid of evil spirits. Load of hokum, but the sailors believe it. Not so much hokum as what they called their “old religion” or so I’ve been told. That was just like ours. The Portuguese; the true Catholic faith, if you believe such stuff. Now if it was a genuine catholic performing it he would do a lot more than talk words at us. He’d make a real fuss. He’d make spells in another language still, Latin I think it’s called. He’d burn candles and swing a strange globe type thing on a chain with smelly smoke coming out of it. Drives away the spirits by the smell I shouldn’t wonder.’ He looked across to his wife hoping to see a look of acceptance on her face.
‘But who is the Black Hunter? Which one is he?’ She responded with a note of desperation in her voice.
‘How would I know which one he is?’ He replied rather testily. ‘You haven’t been up there like I have, but this crew is made up of all sorts and one of them is most likely black. That’s all. And hunter? Does it mean he is a hunter or is that just his name and he might be sent to find us. You’ve already said they think the ship’s haunted, so if that’s the case then what can this Black Hunter do? It’s a job for the priest like I said and once he’s done that exorcism there’s no point in anything else being done is there? Spirits, demons, ghosts and Jonahs. This is all sailor talk. Superstitious every last one of them. We’re safe here. Just keep it that way and see the youngsters are doing well until we reach wherever it is we are now going to.’ Antonio turned his back and settled down for a nap.
6TH SEPTEMBER 1592
‘What are they doing now husband?’ Asked Isabel hearing muffled shouts and catcalls from the maindeck so loud were they.
‘Alright goodwife I’m on my way. At least we’re not being attacked that I do know.’ And so saying he followed his usual route and crouched behind the last ladder before the maindeck. It was obvious there was a serious commotion above.
‘Look at they bastards sailing off now we’re nearly home.’ Said one.
‘So much for our escort and us entering port like a triumphant fleet.’ Said another disgustedly.
A third joined in. ‘I know what they be up to. It don’t matter what Sir John Burgh said about all this treasure has been captured in the Queen’s name. All they ships are manned by sailors with their pockets full of gold, silver and jewels and they’re sailing off round the coast to find a port where they can sell it all as soon as they can. Why I’d wager they will go to Exeter, Portsmouth and probably as far as Dover or even Harwich to sell their booty.’
‘Why not go straight to London that’s where the most merchants are?’ said yet another joining in what seemed to be a gathering of most of the crew.
‘Think man think.’ Rejoined the third seaman. ‘Those despatches will have got to London easily by now. Anyone caught trying to sell any loot from the Madre de Deus will be arrested as soon as he attempted it. So without a doubt anywhere but London.’
‘Come on lads.’ Said a fresh voice. ‘Let those buggers know what we thinks o’ them.’
Shouted insults and waving fists followed the departing ships. ‘Right lads.’ Said the first seaman. ‘drop your breeches and bare your arses at them buggers. One, two, three and show them your backsides and shit on the lot of them.’
‘That’ll show them. Now it’s just us and the Roebuck.’
DARTMOUTH: 7TH SEPTEMBER 1592
‘Now what’s happening father?’ Asked Maria as the sound of cheering reached them in their little haven. ‘They’re making that odd “Huzza” noise again.
Just wait here. I’ll have a look.’ Said Antonio.
‘Can I come with you this time?’ Requested Bernaldo hopefully.
‘You’ll not be going anywhere my boy.’ Interjected his mother. ‘Only your father leaves our space. You know that. He’s used to making sure he is not seen and you are not.’
Antonio continued: ‘I won’t be too long. I’ll try to get to the open deck to see what’s going on, but if it’s not safe I’ll get as close as I can and hear what they are saying. And before you even say it, yes, I will be very careful.’ With that Antonio left by the usual route passed the barrels and looking all around him climbed up the first ladder and then the next. There were still no members of the crew in sight. Good. He went up the third ladder where it was so much lighter and airy with the setting sun penetrating through the open hatch. A fresh breeze wafted the sea air with, if he was not very much mistaken, the first faint smell of land. He hesitated. So near to the main deck. Should he go all the way? The voices were loud so he could easily make out what was being said without having to risk being seen. If they were that excited there was little or no chance of anyone coming down below. He positioned himself behind the ladder as he was quite accustomed to do and listened.
‘Not long now lads. It’s to be Dartmouth for us tonight.’ Said one.
‘Aye.’ His companion answered. ‘We be well passed Start Point and those little bays. Just the tide to count on now.’
‘Looks much like near enough high tide to me. You can barely see the rocks by St. Petroc’s church. Never mind the rocks. What about the great boom chain from Dartmouth Castle to that little castle at Kingswear?’ Put in another.
‘’Tis bringing her in with it coming on evening with dark not so far off that worries me.’ Said a fourth.
‘Well we have two Sailing Masters, William Anthony as well as John Bedford who used to be in the Roebuck. They both know the River Dart right well, which is why I feel safe with bringing her in at this time.’ Said the first speaker. ‘You can trust them alright. After all we didn’t run on the rocks at the Scillies did we?’ There were muffled grunts of agreement and several “ayes” from the others.
‘Yes but what about the boom? We must be the biggest ship ever to be brought up the Dart!’ Another seaman queried nervously.
‘They lower it of course. They do know we’re coming. Captain Cross in the Foresight was sent with Sir John Burgh’s despatches, and don’t forget Captain Norton went off in the pinnace and they’d both have got back to England well afore us.’ Continued the first seaman.’ Sounding a little irritated at the other crew member who he felt was adding a worrying note to what was supposed to be an occasion for celebration.
‘Well I still ‘ope that someone will have lowered that chain that’s all. We need 26 feet of water beneath us to be safe in this great bugger so I, for one, shall be praying to the Lord that chain drops far enough.’
‘Oh, you were always such a worrier.’ Called out another disembodied voice in the gathering gloom. ‘We’ll get across it and up the river safe enough. We won’t be docking as such though. Not with that draft we won’t. No tying up at the quayside at Bayards Cove for us. We’ll have to be anchored midstream as fair as you like. We’ll need our own boat though to get our stuff ashore afore some nosey legal bastard stops us.’
The first seaman took over the direction of their conversation. ‘There be no shortage of boats coming out to us. They knows what we be a carrying. Treasures not just gold, silver, pearls and diamonds, but all that fine cloth and they spices.’
‘I’ve ‘ave ‘eard pepper can fetch more than gold.’ Said another interrupting.
‘Get on boy. You must be maze.’ Commented a third.
‘Well I got a sack full as well as the other stuff.’
‘The first seaman attempted to bring the conversation back to where he wanted it. ‘And I ’ave ‘eard there’s something even more valuable that Sir John’s holding onto.’
‘What’s that then? What’s more valuable than what we’ve got?’ Came a cry.
The first one continued. ‘Well they say he’s found a document what tells ‘ow to trade with China on the other side of the world. If you ‘ad that secret you could ‘ave more wealth than the likes of us can even imagine.’
‘Yes, but that’s the point isn’t it? It’s not for the likes of us. No use if you can’t read.’ Interjected another.
‘Now,’ continued the first seaman, ‘what are we going to do when we’ve moored? And I’m only talking about the four of us now. As I see it we’ve got two choices. First we take that gert big boat on deck as our own. Not sure about that ‘cos it takes seven to row it when it’s loaded and we may have to fight for it ‘cos we won’t be the only ones what ‘ave this idea. Second there’s going to be boats of all sizes coming out to us. We can choose a big one and get her to tie up to us. We loads all our loot on it and then they can row us over to Bayards Cove where we unload. Two of us stay by the stuff to guard it while the other two find a buyer. That won’t be ‘ard. There’s merchants and all kinds watching us come in. They’ll be waiting sure enough and they’ll ‘ave to bid against each other and we sell to the highest. Better than going one by one to a shop.’ He looked expectantly at the others. ‘What do you think lads?’.
‘And ‘ow much is that going to cost us?’ Queried one of the others.
‘Jesus Christ Jem!’ Exploded the self-appointed leader. ‘We’ve each got a little fortune of our own. It doesn’t matter what it costs to get our stuff ashore. We could offer to buy their bloody boat and then give it back to them as a present when we get ashore!’
‘Alright, alright.’ Said Jem. ‘Only I’ve never ‘ad anything like this before.’
‘Well you’d better get used to it lad. Each of us ‘as enough to buy an ‘ouse with a large plot of land. Not to mention all the finery to make us look like gentlemen. We won’t need to go to sea ever again.’
One of the others chipped in. ‘See ‘ow that sits in a couple of days. When the whores and the ale ‘ouses ‘ave taken all there is to take. Who’ll ‘ave the sorest head and the emptiest purse eh? That’s if they even leave you with a purse whether you ‘ave anything to put in it or not!’
‘Enough’ Came the bellow. ‘Are we agreed? Use a boat from the shore?’ The others nodded to signal their agreement. ‘Good. That’s settled then. We’ll gather all our things and watch over them tonight and on the morrow , in daylight, when we can see properly that’s when we’ll make our deal. We’ll ‘ave gold in our pockets, good English ale and as many Dartmouth maids as we want!’
The four seamen started the “Huzzaing” again until there was a commanding cry of: ‘All hands prepare to shorten sail.’ As the Madre de Deus began to enter the river mouth.
‘Time to get back to our space now all these men are starting to run about’ thought Antonio. Down the ladders he went, his eyes gradually adjusting to the increasing gloom.
‘Oh, there you are at last!’ Isabel greeted Antonio in a tone suggesting he had promised to return at a fixed time and had been deliberately late. ‘Well, tell us what is happening!’
‘I can tell you where we are anyway. We are soon to enter the River Dart and then anchor in the middle of it at a place called Dartmouth. There, will that do?’ He answered the question half sarcastically and half defiantly.
‘What’s that scraping sound?’ Said Bernaldo as the very structure of the ship shuddered from stem to stern until it felt as though it might tear itself asunder.
‘That’s just the chain.’ Responded Antonio in his superior tone.’
‘What chain, Antonio?’ Asked Isabel. ‘And don’t take that know-all tone with me.’
‘ Yes my love.’ Said Antonio aware that he had perhaps not been so clever in using that tone after all. ‘There is a chain rigged across the river mouth to stop any enemy ship from getting in. It is raised when any danger threatens and lowered to the river bed to allow other vessels in. It is lowered as far it can be, but the Madre needs at least 26 feet of water and clearly the chain can only be lowered to a depth a little short of that. We are very heavy as well so the chain would most likely break before the ship rips its bottom out.’ He paused, listening as the grating sound carried on past them. ‘There, the noise has stopped. We are through, so we can relax and wait while we sail upstream to our anchorage.’
’Thank you, Antonio.’ Said Isabel. ‘We know how dangerous it is for you when you go up there. We do and we appreciate what you do for our safety. Just one further question, dear. What happens to us next? Where do we go then?’
‘Right. I’ve listened to a little group of them. They’re getting a boat in the morning and we’ll be going to the shore on it. They’ve quite a lot of what they call their plunder to load on to it so when it’s all loaded we’ll wait until no one is looking and then get on the boat and hide amongst their stuff just like we have here and then when we reach the shore we jump off and run like hell.’
‘Sorry my love. Run as fast as we can.’ Said Antonio. ‘So let’s get a good night’s sleep.’
8TH SEPTEMBER 1592
‘Wake up husband. Wake up.’ Isabel shook him vigorously. ‘Tis morning and there’s much moving about up there.’
‘And bumping on the sides all around us.’ Added Bernaldo.
Antonio gave a shake of his head as he dragged himself from sleep. ‘I’m awake. Give me a minute and I’ll have a look .’
‘But what’s all the bumping?’ Asked Maria.
‘It’ll be boats bringing folks to the ship I reckon,’ Surmised Antonio. ‘Now I’m going up to see whereabouts those four seamen are and if they’ve got a boat yet.’
‘What if they haven’? What if they’ve already been and gone?’ Asked Isabel anxiously.
‘And how will you recognise them anyway? You haven’t actually seen them have you? Only heard them.’ Queried Bernaldo.
‘Hush all of you.’ Retorted Antonio sternly although he had been thinking the same thing himself. ‘I’m off.’
He made his way to his usual listening post and seeing no nobody below deck at all he ventured higher until he had a clear view of the main deck. There was little chance of anyone noticing him there. All was hustle and bustle. There were bags, bales and chests all over the deck in piles with each having a small group of men keeping watch over them. Every group seemed to be in negotiations with at least one potential buyer of their plunder, and some were engaged with three or four. There were quiet voices, loud voices, accusations, a great deal of finger pointing and waving of hands in the air. But where were the four men he needed to find? He had to listen for their voices amidst all the hubbub, ‘What if they had already left?’ He asked himself and quickly found the answer. ‘Find some others, that’s what. Shouldn’t be too difficult.’ He recognised their voices. The four seamen were leaning over the side of the ship and shouting and gesticulating. They didn’t seem to have much plunder with them on deck which could only mean that most of it had already been stowed on their boat.
He went back down the ladder to find a way of seeing what boat they had got without being seen himself. He made his way along the lower deck with all the cannons run out to demonstrate to those ashore what a powerful ship the Madre de Deus was and how brave the Englishmen were to have captured her. The open gun ports also made excellent mooring points for the larger boats to pass their ropes through to tie up to a cannon to keep them close to the ship’s side for ease of loading. Antonio moved cautiously forward, listening for the voices of his four and, sure enough, nearly at the end of the row of cannons he heard them calling from the deck above. Seeing a rope tethered around a gun he peered out along its length to see a large boat tethered below with its whole bow area stacked with goods. He listened intently to what was being said, but couldn’t get any indication of when they planned to leave to go ashore. With that uncertainty in mind he hastened back to his family. He found them waiting expectantly.
‘Well?’ Asked Isabel ‘Are we going?’
‘When?’ Asked Maria.
‘How?’ Asked Bernaldo.
‘We’re going soon. Very soon.’ Said Antonio knowing only too well that speed was of the essence. ‘They have a boat and it’s towards the bow with its painter looped around one of the big guns.’
‘Painter? What’s a painter got to do with anything?’ Queried Maria afraid that her husband was going to string out what he was going to say in that infuriating manner of his.
‘Just listen will you.’ Responded Antonio in a tone that meant he would brook no interruptions. ‘A painter is just a rope they use to tie the boat up. Now, we are going to that gun port and we’ll use that rope to get down into the boat. They’ve already loaded most of their stuff aboard it and a great pile it is. Easy for us to hide behind as well. Now listen and take note that we are going to do is this. We are going to the gun port as quietly and carefully as we can, making sure no one sees us. Then we will go one at a time down that rope onto the boat and then hide behind the sacks and bales. The only real danger of discovery is while you are actually on the rope. You must hold on tightly and don’t try to go too fast or you’ll lose your hold and drop into the water. Yes, before you even say it, I know you can swim, but that’s not the issue here. If you fall in the river you will make a splash and that will give us away.” Isabel, Maria and Bernaldo all nodded. ‘Right. You wanted to know when we would be going. We are going now. I will lead the way. Maria next. Bernaldo after her and Isabel you bring up the rear. Let’s go.’
And so they moved out past the stacks of supplies which had hardly been depleted since there were only 52 seamen and their officers on board instead of the original 600-700. Then up the ladder and the next one to where the cannons muzzles pointed shoreward through the open gun ports.
‘Now.’ Said Antonio. ‘This rope is the one securing their boat to the ship. I shall go first making certain there is no one watching. I can see from here that there is nobody on the boat so that means they are all on board the Madre de Deus probably getting rat-arsed and saying goodbye to all their mates although they’ll probably see them all again soon enough in an ale house or a brothel.’ He joked.
‘Antonio!’ Cried Isabel. ‘You’ve just said brothel and rat-arsed in front of the youngsters AGAIN!’ The three of them looked at her and as she realised what she’d just said herself they all permitted themselves a good giggle, even Isabel.
‘Right. It’s all clear. I’m going now.’ Said Antonio squeezing by the side of the cannon’s barrel. He looked again from left to right and then up and down, and gripping the rope, made his way quickly and silently down onto the boat.
‘You next Maria.’ Isabel told her daughter. Maria repeated the actions of her father and as soon as her feet touched the wood of the boat Antonio simply gestured to her to conceal herself in a gap behind the piled loot.
‘Come on Bernaldo.’ Hissed Antonio waving encouragement to his son.
Bernaldo clutched at the rope and started to make his way down. His grasp slipped as he came upon a section with some wet seaweed affixed to it.
‘Careful lad.’ Muttered his father. ‘Can’t afford a splash now ,can we?’
Bernaldo stood for a moment on one of the thwarts, his heart beating rapidly, and then hastened to where Maria was already hidden.
‘Right my love, Your turn.’ Antonio smiled at his wife. She was still as pretty as the day he had married her. Isabel made the short journey down the rope without mishap and she and her husband joined their children out of sight.
‘Nobody is to say a word.’ whispered Antonio. ‘Total silence. Do you understand?’ The other three nodded. ‘When we get to shore we stay together, but run like hell.’ Even Isabel couldn’t resist a little grin at his use of language as she looked at her husband.
How long they waited there in their hiding place before the four seamen and the boat’s crew came on board they had no idea. This was the end of the boredom of their seemingly endless voyage after the English had taken the majestic Madre de Deus . They were grown very used to waiting indeed. They heard the sound of the oars being shipped in the tholes in the gunwales. The oarsmen gave way together without the necessity of any commands and soon the boat reached the quay at Bayard’s Cove. This was the moment of greatest risk. They had to leap ashore before one of the crew took the painter to moor them by the weed covered steps.
‘Now go!’ Cried Antonio leading the way. They all made it safely and hid behind a stack of barrels to take stock of their surroundings.
From over Antonio’s shoulder came a voice softened by a Devonian burr. ‘You be new here, but you’re with friends. Come with me. They’ll never catch you now.’
One of the seamen looked up and turned to the others.
‘There you are. I told you there was something scrabbling about down there but you wouldn’t have it would you? Huh! You and your stories of Demons, ghosts; a Jonah. Nothing of the sort! It was bloody rats. A family of sodding rats!’
The capture of the Madre de Deus (Portuguese spelling) in 1592 is a historical fact. The main tactics employed by the much smaller English vessels are also a matter of record.
The treasure which she was carrying was estimated to be in the region of £500,000 which in Elizabethan times was more than the Queen’s total income. Figures vary but it is reckoned that by the time Queen Elizabeth had her share the total figure had dropped to £140,000 with seamen selling their plunder throughout the south and east of England.
I have avoided the use of technical maritime terms as far as possible but for those of you unsure as to what ‘tholes’ are, well they are the precursor of modern day rowlocks. There were wooden pins standing upright in the gunwales of rowing boats which were fixtures for the oars.
The events are as true as I could make them from my self-isolating family’s perspective, but all the conversations, both above and below decks are my own invention.
For what I regard as almost the definitive work on the capture of the Madre de Deus I can do no better than refer you to an article published in the Mariner’s Mirror in 1968 by E. W. Bovill to whom I am eternally grateful.
Bovill, E. W., The Madre de Dios: The Taking of the Carrack, The Mariner’s Mirror, 54.2, 1968, 129-152
Ian Robertson is engaged in Doctoral research at the University of Greenwich and is also an independent researcher having gained an MA in Maritime History at the Greenwich Maritime Institute.
He describes himself as a ‘serial careerist’ having been a Merchant Navy steward, a musician, a session singer, an expert witness in child protection, a delegate for the International Red Cross in Romania, a lecturer and a freelance trainer.
His research interests primarily focus on the ‘wooden world’ of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries with an emphasis on de-anonymising ‘Jack Tar’ in his various guises through their stories told through their letters and in pursuit of this regularly presents papers at international conferences.
As this story shows his interests are not confined to that period. As Ian puts it ‘All I want to do is answer questions that no one has asked before.’
©Ian Robertson and Tudors Dynasty