Friday, November 13, 2009

Chapter 2: Captured by Privateers

From the quarterdeck we watched the Sultan’s gunners lighting the fuses of the culverins, followed by explosions loud enough to rattle our teeth, the culverins transformed into fire-spewing dragons. The smoke and the smell of gunpowder filling my nostrils were like fumes of the devil.

“Here’s some of your own medicine!” Captain Leslie shouted, as his men cheered loudly.

The cannon balls whizzed towards the Prosperous, skimming over the waves like ducks and drakes, but—despite my silent incantation—fell short of their target and plunged harmlessly into the sea.

"The Devil!" I shouted, slamming my fist down on the gunwale in pique.

Now it was the turn of the Properous to unleash a broadside from the mighty cannons mounted on her deck. The red flames and bright flashes of the big guns in the sunlight were like exploding firecrackers. Muskets exploded in muffled volleys on her deck, a bouquet of deadly bright flowers aimed at us. One of the cannon balls found its mark and crashed into the Sultan, gouging a hole in the gunwale and showering splinters onto the deck. Some lascars were hit by the deadly projectiles, screaming in agony as they fell.

Captain Leslie paced the quarterdeck in long, excited strides, bellowing orders to his men to reload the cannons. The frigate was quickly closing the gap between our two ships, and I saw her men, nets and grappling hooks at the ready, preparing to board our vessel.

Nobody on the Sultan had any idea of how to repel the boarding party, and I realized we were doomed. I felt helpless and frustrated. This was the first time I was witnessing the principle of might is right being driven home on such a large scale.

Then, as the two vessels came within hailing distance of each other, a total silence fell. No gun fired, no voice called out, no horn sounded. I watched mesmerized as the two vessels headed toward each other on a collision course, then felt someone’s hand grip me by the shoulder. I turned to look. It was Captain Leslie, no longer grim and defiant, but an unnerved, beaten dog.

‘It’s all over,” he said. “We don't have a chance in hell.”

The Prosperous swung around to avoid a direct hit but tacked parallel to us, permitting her men to throw their nets and grapples onto the Sultan. There was a loud screech as the two ships scraped against each other; the boarding party unleashed a volley of musket fire onto the Sultan, sending our men scurrying for cover, and then scrambled aboard.

Captain Leslie ordered his men on the quarterdeck to reload their muskets and pick off the attackers. I had never used a musket, always thought them a clumsy and unreliable weapon at close quarters. But the men were apparently well-trained, loading the matchlocks, priming the fuse, and firing in unison. Thunder exploded in our faces, the air thickened with black smoke, and the dry bitter odor of gunpowder hit our nostrils. A few of the enemy crumpled and fell into the sea, to loud jeers. While our men fumbled to reload, the boarding party charged onto the main deck below us, took cover, and began to pick us off like turkeys. We were forced to take shelter in the captain’s cabin on the quarterdeck.

“Order the men to charge, Captain,” I said, gripping my sword.

“It’s no use resisting any further,” Captain Leslie said. He seemed a beaten man. “They’ve got control of my ship now. If we don’t surrender they might set us on fire.”

“But Captain, don’t give up now.”

“It’s easy for you to talk, you don’t have everything you own riding on this ship.” Turning to Tom, he said. “Hang out a white cloth. All right, men, you’ve done your best. Down your weapons.” The men quickly obeyed.

He was wrong; I did have everything riding with the ship. Five of the enemy rushed in, brandishing their weapons, shrieking like banshees. I grabbed a pike from one of the men and plunged it into the stomach of the nearest assailant.

The poor lascar was stopped in his tracks by the pike which I held fast in his body, but he kept making scrabbling motions to come at me and run me through with his sword; but try as he might, the hilt of my blade kept him at bay. The fellow wriggled like a spiked fish, his eyes bulging, face horribly contorted, and fell dead on the deck in his own pool of blood.

"Davenport," the Captain shouted, "you're going to get us all killed!"

The dead man’s companions surrounded me and began hitting me with the stock of their muskets. I raised my hands to ward off the blows, my back smarting at the pummeling and my heart pounding like a pestle as they caught hold of me and tied my arms behind by back. The dead man was the first I’d ever killed, and thought he deserved what he got. I didn’t feel a bit of remorse.

Soon the boarding party had secured the Sultan and herded our men out of the captain’s cabin onto the deck and began disarming us. The captain of the Prosperous appeared, heaving his porcine body onto the quarterdeck and swaggering towards us in his purple coat, lace cuffs and silver buttons glinting in the sun. He was a short, heavily-built man, with a face like the dying sun, perspiring like a pig, continually dabbing his face with a linen handkerchief.

“Right lads,” he said. “Stay calm, do as you’re told, and no one will get hurt.” He walked up to Captain Leslie, his face shaded by his tri-corner hat, and addressed the taller man.

“Good day to you, sir,” he said in is gravelly voice. “I’m Captain Coates, of the Prosperous, of His Siamese Majesty’s navy, at your service.” He kept tugging the lapels of his coat with both hands, rocking on the heels of his boots to steady himself.

“I’m Captain James Leslie,” the captain said, towering over his opponent, “of the Sultan, a merchant ship of the King of Golconda. What is the meaning of this outrage, Sir?”

“I have letters of marque and reprisal,” Captain Coates said, taking out a sheet of black paper and waving it in the air, “issued to me by the Barcalon of Siam, authorizing me to seize the King of Golconda’s ships; the countries of our two masters are a state of war.”

“State of war! Nonsense! This is plain piracy,” Captain Leslie spluttered.

“What is the nature of your cargo,” Captain Coats demanded.

“We’re carrying Madras cotton cloth and piece goods,” Captain Leslie replied in a calmer voice. “Calicoes, muslins, dungarees, that sort of thing, heading for Syriam in the kingdom of Pegu. I’m warning you, Captain Coates, seize this ship and it’s piracy, and I shall report it to the President of Madras Council, Sir.”

“Excellent,” Coates replied, ignoring his countryman’s bluster. “I shall relieve you of your command and goods, which now belong to the King of Siam.” His red face beaming with satisfaction, and dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief, he turned to me and asked: “And who, Sir, may you be?” His men had fingered me as being responsible for skewering one of his lascars.

“Roger Davenport, late of the Honorable Company, Sir.”

“Be so kind as to order your men to cease all resistance,” he said to Captain Leslie, jerking his head in my direction. “The native merchants and passengers are to remain below deck; they will be released as soon as we reach Mergen. Your crew will continue to man the ship, under my officers’ orders. You and your officers will remain in this cabin.”

Captain Leslie saw it was useless to argue and tried another tack. “But Captain Coates,” he said, wringing his hand. “Be reasonable now. We’re Englishmen. Can we not come to some sort of agreement? Let us pay an indemnity and be on our way. I’m sure the Moorish merchants will contribute towards any fine you care to impose. What say you, good fellow?”

“My orders are to impound merchant ships of the King of Golconda and send them to Mergen. This is precisely what I intend to do. Good day, Sir.”

He looked at us good-naturedly, as if he’d done something innocuous like inviting us to dinner.

“The captain and his officers are to remain in this cabin,” he ordered his men. “Disarm everyone else and escort them below. Untie Mr. Davenport and let him return to his cabin.” He spun around on his heels and strode off, leaving Captain Leslie red-faced and spluttering with rage.

"Arrogant, pompous fool," Captain Leslie shouted after the retreating figure.

“Well, Captain,” I said, rubbing my wrists, “It looks like we’re going to Mergen, willy-nilly.”

Captain Leslie and his officers were confined to the captain’s cabin on the quarterdeck. A prize crew from the Prosperous came on board to take command of the Sultan. They repaired the sails and rigging, consigned the dead laskars to the deep, and set course for Mergen, a port in the Siamese province of Tenassery. Captain Coates and the Prosperous then broke away to take more prizes.

The Moorish passengers and I were ordered to remain in our cabins but were allowed up on deck for fresh air. Once a day the quartermaster called the men to a hot meal, which he doled out equally to all, though I preferred to keep to myself. I spent most of the daytime lying in my bunk, emerging at night to lie on the deck staring at the codices of the night sky, those specks of light known to be guided by angels. But what were they, I wondered; suns to other worlds, or portals to the heavens? Would that I knew.

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