Life Aboard a British Privateer – Part 2

Many a modern pleasure yacht would exceed the tonnage of the frigates “Duke” and “Dutchess”, the “Duke” being 320 tons, with 30 guns and 117 men, and the “Dutchess” only 260 tons, with 26 guns, and 108 men. “Both ships” says Rogers, 2well furnished with all necessaries on board for a distant undertaking weigh’d from King Road Bristol August 2nd 1708 in company with the “Scipio”, “Peterborough frigot”, “Prince Eugene”, “Bristol Galley;’ “Berkley Galley”, “Bucher Galley”, Sherstone Galley”, and “Diamond Sloop” bound to Cork in Ireland.” These “galleys” must not be confounded with the lateen rigged vessels of that name in the south of Europe ; being simply small, low, straight ships of light draught easily moved by oars or sweeps in calms. In Rogers’ time a ship was said to be “Frigate built” when she had a poop and forecastle rising a few steps above the waist, and “galley built” when there was no break in the line of her deck and topsides. But the use of oars was not confined to these Bristol galley built ships, for Rogers speaks of using them on several occasions in the “Duke” and “Dutchess”. While in old draughts of small vessels of this class, of even a later date, row-ports are often shown.

Between the Holmes and Minehead the little fleet came to “an Anchor from 10 to 12 at night, when all came to sail again, running past Minehead with a fine gale at S.E. at six in the morning”.  No time was lost before an attempt was made to add to the number of the fleet, for the same day, at 5 p.m, the “Dutchess” like a young hound, breaks away from the pack in chase of what seemed a large ship, which they lost sight of again at 8 o’clock. But “having been informed at Bristol that the “Jersey”, a French man-of-war, was cruising betwixt England and Ireland, the ships sailed all night with hammocks stowed and cleared for a fight. Though it was well for us,” says Rogers, “that this proved a false alarm, since had it been real we should have made but an indifferent fight, for want of being better manned”.

After parting company with three galleys and the “Prince Eugene”,  the feet, on the 5th of August, “finding they have overshot their port, come to an anchor at noon off two rocks, called the Sovereigne’s Bollacks, near Kinsale; at 8 p.m. they weighed again with a small gale at east, which increased and veered to northard”. At this time Rogers had a Kinsale pilot on board who, he says, “was like to have endanger’d our ships by turning us into the next bay to the west of Cork, the weather being dark and foggy.” “Which” says Rogers, “provoked me to chastise him for undertaking to act as pilot without understanding his business better.” On the 7th the “Duke” and “Dutchess” anchored in the Cove of Cork, and remained there, more or less weather bound, until the 28th, the entries in Rogers’ log varying little beyond telling us that on the 11th, “it blow’d fresh and dirty weather”,  while on the 12th, “it blew fresh and dirty weather, on which day there clear’d and run near forty of our fresh water sailors.” In whose place “came off a boat load of men from Cork, that appear’d to be brisk fellows but of several nations; so I sent to stop the rest till we were ready, our ships being pester’d”.  On the 28th the weather was fine enough to “Careen clean and tallow the ships five streaks below the water line” Nothing marked the smart privateersman and seaman of those days more than his constant care in keeping the bottom of his ship perfectly clean. Indeed. Captain Rogers never seemed happier than when he had one or other of the little frigates heeld over for scraping and cleaning, in some quiet bay, so nearly upon her beam ends, as to bring her keel almost out of water.

When shipping the rest of his crew before sailing from Cork, we get a taste of Rogers foresight and policy. For he tells us, “we have now above double the number of officers usual in privateers, besides a large complement of men” adding, “we took this method of doubling our officers to prevent mutinies, which often happen in long voyages, and that we might have a large provision for a succession of officers in each ship in case of mortality”.  It must, however, have been a sore trial to a tarpaulin seaman, like Rogers, to have to note at the same time, “that in order to make room for our men and provisions, we sent the sheet cable and some other store cordage on shore, having on board three cables besides, and being willing rather to spare that than anything else we had aboard.”

In a small frigate quite a fourth part of the hold was, before the introduction of chain cables, occupied by the cable tier or room; and when one considers, not only the space they filled, but the difficulty of handling them,. and the care required to keep them from chafing when in use, and from damp and rot when stowed away, it is astonishing that ships returning from long cruises ever had an anchor or cable left which they could trust. Among the troubles attending the use of hemp cables, that of firing in the hawse holes and at the bits, or timbers they passed over in running out, was one ; and each time the anchor was let go men were stationed with buckets of water to prevent this.

It was while victualling and shipping men at this time that a side-note appears of the “Strange behaviour of our men at Cork,” alluding to the fact, “that they were continually marrying whilst we staid there, though they expected to sail immediately.” Among others, a Dane was coupled by an Irish priest to an Irish woman, without understanding a word of each other’s language, so that they were fore’d to use an interpreter. “Yet” says Rogers, “I perceived this pair seem’d more affict’d at separation than any of the rest ; the fellow continu’d melancholy for several days after we were at sea”. Whether the Irish bride shared her Danish husband’s depression is, of course, not related by Rogers, who goes on to say that “the rest, understanding each other, drank their cans of flip till the last minute, concluding with a health to our good voyage, and their happy meeting, and then parted unconcern ‘d”.

Though the chief command of the expedition fell to Woodes Rogers, master mariner, yet, as was the case in most of these private ventures to the South Seas, several of his officers were men with no claim to the name of sailor, who had either money invested in the ships, or interest with the owners. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that “the second Captain of the Duke”  and captain of the Marines, was one Thomas Dover, a doctor of phisick” or that this Captain Dover’s first lieutenant was “his kinsman, Mr Hopkins, an apothecary”. On the other hand, Rogers had cleverly secured as his master the celebrated William Dampier, also rated “Pilot of the South Seas,” “he having” as Rogers says, “already been there three times and twice round the world”. This was no doubt poor Dampier’s last venture at sea, for though Rogers mentions his name once or twice in consultation during the cruise, he is altogether lost sight of toward the end of it. Among the other officers, “the third mate, John Ballet, was also designed surgeon, having” says Rogers, “been Captain Dampier’s doctor in his last unfortunate voyage;” while two young lawyers have their names upon the ship’s books, “designed to act as midshipmen”/

Including boatswains, gunners, carpenters, &c., there were on board the “Duke” thirty-six officers, and of the rest of the crew, we are told that “a third were foreigners, while of Her Majestie’s subjects many were taylors, tinkers, pedlars, fiddlers, and hay-makers, with ten boys; with which mix’d gang we hope to be well manned as soon as they have learnt the use of arms, and got their sea legs” which, says Rogers, “we doubt not soon to teach ’em and bring ’em to discipline”.

It was the 1st of September before the “Duke” and “Dutchess”, left the Cove of Cork with twenty merchant vessels, under convoy of Her Majesty’s ship “Hastings” “both of us” says Rogers, “very crowded and pester’d ships, their holds full of provisions, and between decks encumbered with cables, much bread, and alto- gether in a very unfit state to engage an enemy, without throwing many stores overboard”. Nevertheless, on the 2nd, the two little frigates stand out from the fleet to chase a sail to windward; and Rogers is glad to find that they sailed as well as any in the fleet, not even excepting the man-of-war, so that, he says, “we begin to hope we shall find our heels, since we go so well tho deep and pester’d.”

The chase, however, proved an inoffensive “French built Snow”, of Bristol, joining our feet from Baltimoor ” (Ireland). The weather being fine on the 4th of September, Rogers and Captain Courtenay of the “Dutchess” in answer to a signal from Captain Paul, of the Sherstone galley, make a morning call upon that gentleman, in which they are joined by the commander of the “Scipio” and after being “handsomely treated by Captain Paul”,  he proposes joining them in a few days, privateering off that well-stocked preserve, Cape Finisterre. A marginal note occurs here in Rogers’ journal of “Captain Paul’s civility,” referring to a present, or tip, “of some scrubbers, and iron scrapers for our ships’ bottoms, together with a speaking trumpet and other things we wanted, for which Captain Paul would accept nothing in return”.

The time had now come for parting company with the man-of-war, “and it became necessary” says Rogers, “to acquaint the ships companies with our designes in order that while in company with our design. with one of Her Majesties ships any malcontents might be exchanged into her. But with the exception of one fellow who expected to have been made tything man in his parish that year, and said his wife would have to pay forty shillings in his abscence, all hands were satisfied,” while even the discontented tything man became reconciled to his lot, when asked to join all hands at the grog-tub in drinking to a good voyage. Parting company, however; with the man-of-war also entailed giving up the proposed cruise off Finisterre with the Sherstone Galley, or as Rogers puts it “we had to break measures with Captain Paul. But I excused it to him and saluted him, which he answerd and wished us a prosperous undertaking. Wind N. by W. and clear weather.” As the crowded little frigates roll across the Bay of Biscay together before this fair wind, we have the first entry in Captain Rogers’ log of one of the many snug little dinners given on board his ship to the officers of the “Dutchess,” and which is returned by them in due form the next day.

This constant interchange of civilities among the officers of ships sailing in company is a very marked feature in the manners and customs of the mariners of that date. Among men -of-war anchored in roadsteads or in port such events are even now, of course, not uncommon. But in those days, judging from entries in Rogers’ log, few days passed at sea without actual communication by boat between the ships, the crews of which must have had constant practical experience, both in lowering and hoisting in boats. While, though this must often have been done with a high sea running, there is no record of a mishap to a boat or crew during the entire Cruise – a fact speaking volumes for the fine boatmanship of the sailors of this period.

Though practically under the able leadership of Rogers, the two privateers formed together small floating commonwealth, no important measures being decided upon until they had passed a committee of the officers of both ships. The first of these marine parliaments sat on board the “Duke” just after an entry in Rogers’ log says, “that now we begin to consider the length of our voyage, and the many different climates we must pass, and the excessive cold which we cannot avoid going about Cape Horn; at the same time we have but a slender stock of liquor, and our men but meanly clad, yet good liquor to sailors is preferable to clothing. Upon this we held our first committee to debate whether t’was necessary for us to stop at Madera ?”

Here follows a minute of the resolutions as passed, which are formally signed by each member of the Committee, thus: 

“Thos: Dover, President.

Stephen Courtenay. 

Carleton Vanbrugh.

Woodes Rogers.

Tho Glendall.

Edward Cooke.

John Bridge.

William Dampier.

John Ballet.

Robert Frye.”

At six the next morning both frigates go in chase of a sail, “the Dutchess having a mile start given her in order to spread the more: ” Rogers adding “that it blew fresh with a great sea, and the chase being to windward, we crowd’d extravagantly.” Nine hours later they came up with the chase, “who bore right down upon us, showing Swedish colours. We fired twice at her before she brought to, when we board’d her, Captain Courtney’s boat being just before ours. We examined the master, and found he came round Scotland and Îreland.”

This was a very usual track in the old war times, in order to avoid capture in the British Channel. But it made Rogers suspect the Swede of having something in the shape of warlike stores on board, so that, naturally anxious to prove her a prize, after such a long chase to windward, and believing some men “he found drunk, who told us they had gunpowder and cables aboard, he resolved to strictly examine her, placing twelve men on board, and taking the master and twelve of her men on board the “Duke”. Nothing, however, was found to prove her a prize, and Rogers “let her go”, he says, “without the least embezelment. Her master giving him two hams and some ruff’t dried beef”,  in return for which Rogers gave him “a dozen bottles of red-streak cider”.

The character both of Rogers and his crew come out strongly on this occasion, for he tells us “that while I was on board the Swede yesterday our men mutiny’d. The ringleaders being our boatswain and three inferior officers. But this morning the chief officers having kept with me in the after part of the ship we confined the authors of this disorder, in which there was not one foreigner concerned, putting ten mutineers in irons, a sailor being first soundly whip’d for exciting the rest to join him. Others less guilty were punished and discharg’d, but I kept the chief officers all arm’d, fearing what might happen ; the ship’s company seeming inclin’d to favour the mutineers, some beg’d pardon and others I was fore’d to wink at”. The only reason for this rising was discontent of the crew at not being allowed to plunder the Swede. “Two days later” says Rogers, “the men in irons discover’d others who were ringleaders in the mutiny”. These are, of course, placed in irons with the rest, Captain Rogers judiciously creating a new boatswain, “in the room of Giles Cash, who, being a most dangerous fellow” I agreed with the master of the “Crown Galley” then in company, to carry for me in irons to Madera “which extreme measure” was taken because “on September the I4th a sailor follow’d by near half the ship’s company came aft to the steeridge door, and demanded the boatswain out of irons ; on which” says Rogers, “I desired him to speak with me on the quarter deck, which he did, where, the officers assisting, I seiz’d him (i.e., tied him up) and made one of his chief comrades whip him, which method I thought best for breaking any unlawful friendship amongst themselves, which, with different correction to other offenders, allay’d this tumult, so that now they began to submit quietly and those in irons to beg pardon and promise amendment. This mutiny would not have been easily lay’d were it not for the number of our officers, which we begin to find very necessary to bring our crew to discipline, always difficult in privateers, but without which”’tis impossible to carry on any distant undertaking like ours. Fine pleasant weather,moderate gales”.  Two days later, “on their humble submission, and strict promise of good behaviour for the time to come” the mutineers are set free ; “they having” says Rogers, “while they continued in irons had centries over ’em, and were fed with bread and water.”

On September the 18th they sight “Pico Teneriff, and at 5 next morning spy’d a sail under their lee bow, which proved a prize, a Spanish bark about 25 tuns belonging to Oratava in Teneriff, and bound to Forteventura with about 45 passengers ; who rejoiced when they found us English, because they feared we were Turks. Amongst the prisoners were four Fryars, one of them the Padre Guardian for the Island of Forteventura, a good honest fellow whom we made heartily merry drinking King Charles the Thirds health, but the rest were of the wrong sort.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *