Life Aboard a British Privateer – Part 3

Considering that Captain Rogers’ main object in cruising among the  Grand Canaries was to lay in a store of liquor for his voyage “about Cape Horn”, this small Spanish bark, with a cargo of two butts of wine, and a hogshead of brandy, was a lucky windfall.

A trifling hitch occurred, however, about her ransom, owing to the headstrong conduct of Mr. Carlton Vanbrugh, the “Duke’s”agent, “who, against his Captain’s judgement” went ashore with the master of the prize to settle this matter, and was there detained; the authorities refusing to let him go unless the bark was restored to them free of charge ; they claiming protection from capture for all vessels trading between these Islands ; which view of the case was supported, or not only by the British Consul at Oratava, but by certain English merchants there, and from whom Rogers received a long letter actually advising him to give up his prize; which he answered in full, with his reasons for not doing this; the chief of which was, that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

The answer of the Spanish authorities, however, “being” as Rogers tells us, “of a dilatory character” he at once wrote the following dispatch; informing them “that had it not been out of respect for his officer ashoar, he would not have staid one minute, and that now he should stay only till morning for their answer, taking meanwhile a cruise among the Islands in order to make reprisals, and tho’ he could not land his men, that he would visit the town with his guns by eight next morning ; ·when he hoped to meet the Govenor’s Frigot, and repay his civility in his own way” “Which letter” says Rogers, “had its effect, for as we stood in close to the town at eight o’clock next morning, we spy’d a boat coming off, in which proved to be one Mr. Crosse, an English merchant, and our agent Mr. Vanbrugh, with wine, grapes, hogs, and other necessaries for the ransom of the bark. And so, upon his coming up, we immediately went to work, discharged the bark, and parted her cargoe between our ships. We treated Mr. Crosse as well as we could, and at his desire, gave the prisoners back as much as we could find? of what belonged to their persons, particularly to the fryars their books, Crucifixes, and Reliques. We presented the old Padre with a cheese, and such as were strip’d with other clothes, so that we parted well satisfied on all sides”.

After which very comfortable arrangement, Captain Rogers, carefully concealing his destination from the Spaniards by stating that he was “bound to the English West Indies” sailed on his way rejoicing, “that now we are indifferently well stocked with liquors, and shall be better able to endure cold when we get the length of Cape Horn”.

On the afternoon of the 22nd another sail was spy’d and chaced to the westward, until “a stiff gale coming on, put us” says Rogers, “out of hopes of seeing her again to advantage”. The next day, the weather being fine, with fresh gales, the officers of both ships again dine together on board the “Duke” when a committee is held, and a vote of censure passed upon Mr. Carlton Vanbrugh for landing against the wish of his Captain. No doubt also the quality of the Canary was discussed, and perhaps helped to smooth the course of this debate. 

It would seem, from the next entry in the log, that the penalties usually exacted by Neptune of those crossing the Line for the first time, then became his due somewhat earlier in the voyage; or upon first entering what sailors call the “Horse latitudes”. For Rogers says that September the 25th “we passed the tropick, and according to custom duck’d those that had not done so before. The manner of doing it was by a rope thro’ a block from the main yard to hoist ’em above halfway up to the yard and let ’em fall at once into the water, having a stick cross thro their legs, and well fastened to the rope that they might not be surprised and let go their hold.

“This prov’d of great use to our freshwater sailors to recover the colour of their skins, which were grown very black and nasty. Those that we duck’d after this manner three times, were about sixty, and others that would not undergo it chose to pay half a crown fine ; the money to be levy’d and spent at a public meeting of all the ships companies when we return to England. The Dutchmen and some Englishmen desir’d to be duck’d, some six, others eight, ten, and twelve times, to have the better title for being treated when they come home.”

The “Duke” and “Dutchess” made the Island of Sal, one of the Cape de Verds, on the morning of September 29th, and “after being satisfied” says Rogers, “it was Sal, we stood from it W. and W. by N. for St. Vincent, going under easy sail all night because we had none aboard either ship that was acquainted with these islands ; but on the 30th when day broke we saw ’em all in a range much as is laid down in the draughts, and at ten o’clock anchored in the bay of St. Vincent in five fathom water”. When one considers the means by which these early master mariners determined their position at sea, and that for want of good timekeepers they were almost quite dependent upon dead reckoning for their longitude, the accuracy and boldness with which Rogers made his landfalls is truly surprising.

The accompanying figures, from a standard work upon navigation of the period, are interesting as showing the curious form of nautical instruments used by old shipmen, like Woodes Rogers, for taking altitudes of the sun, moon, pole, stars, &c., before the invention of Hadley’s quadrant. “Davis’s Quadrant” invented by the celebrated navigator of that name in Queen Elizabeth’s time, was the best of these. This instrument was known also as “the back-staff” from the position of the observer with his back to the sun when using it. The crosse-staff or fore-staff was, however, still used, as it was in the time of Columbus ; this was simply a four-sided straight staff of hard wood, about three feet long, having four cross -pieces of different lengths made to slide upon it as the cross-piece does upon a shoemaker’s rule. These cross- pieces were called respectively the ten, thirty, sixty, and ninety cross, and were placed singly upon the staff according to the altitude of the sun or star at time of observation ; the angle measured being shown by a scale of degrees and minutes intersected by the cross-piece on that side the staff to which it (the cross) belonged. Besides the cross staff, a form of small quadrant, called an “Almacantas staff” was used just after sunrise, and before sunset, for finding the sun’s azimuth, and the variation of the compass, while in latitudes north of the line, the “Nocturnal” gave the hour of the night, by observing with it the hands of the great star-clocks, Usa Major and Minor, as they turned about the Pole Star.

“The day after anchoring at St. Vincent” Rogers says, “we clear’d our ships, but it blow’d too hard to row our boatloads of empty butts ashoar ; and we could do little to wooding and watering, till this morning, we were forc’d to get a rope from the ship to the watering-place, which is a good half mile from our anchorage, and so haul’d our empty casks ashoar by boat- loads, in order to have ’em burnt and cleaned in the inside, being oil-casks, and for want of cleaning our water stunk insufferably. But borrowing a cooper from the “Dutchess” and having five of my own, we made quick dispatch”. “We also sent a boat to St. Antonio, with one Joseph Alexander a good linguist, and a respectful letter to the Govenour, who accounts himself a great man here, tho’ very poor, to get in truck for our prize goods what we wanted ; they having plenty of cattel, goats, hogs, fowls, melons, potatoes, limes, ordinary brandy, tobacco, &c”. And while here Rogers adds, “that tho’ our people were meanly stock’d with clothes, and the “Dutchess’s  crew much worse, yet we are both forc’d to watch ’em very narrowly, and punish’d some of ’em, to prevent their selling what they have” In his letter to the Govenour, Rogers tells him that “as our stay cannot exceed two days, despatch is necessary, and that the bearer can inform his Honour of the publick occurrences of Europe, and the great successes of the Confederate arms against the French and Spaniards, which no doubt must soon be follow’d with a lasting peace, which God grant”. 

From an entry in the journal a few days later to the effect “that our boat return’d yesterday with two good black cattel, one for each ship, but no news of our linguist” it appears that worse luck befell him than that which attended Mr. Carlton Vanbrugh, or it may be that he took less real interest in the cruise than that gentleman. Whether this was so or not,  the officers of both frigates at once agreed, on the return of the boat “with the two good black cattel” that they “had better leave him behind than to wait with two ships for one man that had not follow’d his orders ” or as Captain Rogers puts it in a marginal note, “our linguist deserts”.

That there was honour as well as method among the leaders in these “undertakings to the South Seas” is clear from the minutes of a debate now held on board the “Duke” “to prevent those mutinies and disorders amongst the men who were not yet reconcil’d since the taking of the small Canary prize”. Among these regulations it was agreed “that what is plunder be adjudg’d by the superior officers and agents in each ship; and that if any person do conceal any plunder exceeding in value one piece of eight, twenty-four hours after capture of a prize, he shall be severely punished and lose his share of the plunder. The same penalty to be infict’d for being drunk in time of action or disobeying his officer’s commands, or deserting his post in sea or land service. That public books of plunder are to be kept in each ship, the plunder to be appraised and divided as soon as possible after capture. Every person to be sworn and serched so soon as they shall come aboard, any person refusing, to forfeit his share of the plunder; and that whereas Captain Rogers and Captain Courtney to make both ships companies easy, have given the whole cabin plunder (which in all probability is the major part), to be divided among the crew, it is agreed that the said Captains Woodes Rogers and Steph : Courtney, shall have 5 per cent. each of ’em over and above their respective shares, &c. That a reward of twenty pieces of eight be given to him that first sees a prize of good value exceeding 50 tuns”. Rogers adds that this arrangement was “agreed on in order to make the men easy, without which we must unavoidably have run into such continual scenes of mischief and disorder, which have not only tended to the great hindrance, but generally to the total disappointment of all voyages of this nature, that have been attempted so far abroad in the memory of man.”

Hearing nothing more of “their good linguist,” the “Duke” and “Dutchess” “came to sail at seven in the evening” of Oct. 8th, from St. Vincent. In his description of these islands Rogers mentions “that they have here very large spiders, which weave their webs so strong that ’tis difficult to get thro’ ’em, and that the heats are excessive to us who came newly from Europe, so that several of our men began to be sick and were blooded” while “some of the officers that went ashore a hunting could meet no game but a wild ass, which, after a long chase they got within shot and wounded yet he afterwards held out so as to tire them, and they return’d weary and empty handed”.

The piety of the expedition appears to have increased steadily as it got further from home, for as they draw near the Equator “in close cloudy weather with squalls of rain” we read how first “having put up the smith’s forge, and he began to work on such things as we wanted,” that a day or two after “We began to read prayers in both ships, mornings and evenings, as opportunity would permit, according to the Church of England ; designing to continue it the term of the voyage”.

The number of junior officers on board the frigates was not always unattended with troubles, in all which cases the first remedy tried by Captain Rogers was that of shuffing, or exchanging them from ship to ship. But it is a significant fact that it was the day after a dinner party on board the “Dutchess,” that her captain came on board the “Duke” with his second mate, Mr. Page, desiring to exchange him into the “Duke”, in the room of Mr. Ballet. Page, however who seems to have held views of his own upon this subject, having declined to get into the “Dutchess’s boat”, and thereby “caused his superior officer to strike him, whereupon Page struck again and several blows past”  was on his arrival on board the “Duke” at once “ordered on the fore-castle into the bilboes; where, it being calm, he slipped through the ship’s corporal’s hands overboard, thinking to swim back to the “Dutchess”. A boat, however, being alongside, he was soon overtaken, brought on board, and lash’d to the main geers, where for this, and his abusive language exciting the men to mutiny, he was drub’d and afterwards confined in irons on board the Duke”. 

A week later Rogers mentions incidentally in his log, “that this morning I let Mr. Page out of irons on his humble submission, and promises of amendment; fair pleasant weather with fresh gales”. On board the “Duke” however, the bilboes must have been kept in fair working order, with little time to get rusty, for two days after Mr. Page got clear of them, “two persons being accus’d of concealing a peruke, two shirts, and a pair of stockings from the plunder of the Canary bark, are found guilty and order’d into them”.

Beyond noting what Rogers calls a “turnado” with lightning, “which fell as if it had been liquid” and that “while the storm held, which was not above an hour, the ships even with all sail furl’d lay along very much” nothing remarkable is recorded after leaving the Cape de Verds until November 16th, when “with a brave breeze at E. they stood in with the land, and supos’d it to be the island of Cape Frio on the coast of Brazile”. But “the brave breeze” failing them near land, they were two days “towing and rowing the ships” in foggy, rainy weather, before anchoring in the cove off the Isle of Grande, where they designed to wood, water, and careen their frigates.

Terror of past depredations, committed by the French Corsairs, had made the Brazilians very suspicious of strangers, and Rogers says “his boat was fir’d on several times when trying to land with a present to the Govenour of Angre de Reys; but on finding them to be English the fryars begged pardon and invited them to their Convent.” Besides wooding, watering, and careening his frigates, while at the Isle of Grande, Rogers appears to have unrigged the Duke’s main and fore masts, for he speaks of “seeking for wood to repair our main and fore trustle trees” (supports of the round tops) “which were broke” and that while so engaged “they found abundance of Frenchmen’s graves, which the Portuguese told them were those of Frenchmens near half the crews of two great French ships that water’d in this place nine months before. “But” adds Rogers, “God be thank’d ours are very healthy”. 

The weather is now described “as violent hot,” spite of which Rogers speaks of “cleaning one side of the Dutchess,’ on the afternoon of the 24th, and the other side the next morning giving the ships great lists ; and that having men enough, he let the pinnace, with Captain Dover, Mr. Vanbrugh, and others, go whilst the Duke was cleaning, to take their pleasure, but to return by twelve o’clock, when we should want our boat. And when they did so, they brought with ’em a monstrous creature, which they had kill’d, having prickles like a hedgehog, with fur between them, and a head and tail like a monkey’s. It stunk,” says Rogers, “intolerably, which the Portugeuse told us was only the skin, that the meat of it is very delicious and that they often kill’d them for the table. But our men, being not yet at very short allowance, none of ’em had stomach good enough to try the experiment, so that we were fore’d to throw it overboard to make a sweet ship”. That some of those forming the crews of the Duke and Dutchess should not enjoy their cruising voyage as well as Rogers and his officers did, is not surprising, and this was evidently the case with “Michael Jones and another, two Irish land-men who” says Rogers, “while we lay at the Isle of Grande run into the woods thinking to get away” in spite of the experiences “of two such sparks that run away the day before from the Dutchess and in the night were so frighted with tygers as they thought, but really by monkeys and baboons, that they ran into the water hollowing to the ship till they were fetch’d aboard again”.

Captain Rogers evidently regarded desertion from his ship as an act of foolish ingratitude, and that men incapable of appreciating the advantages of prosecuting to the bitter end a voyage with him to the South Seas, deserved the severest form of punishment for upon recovering these two ungrateful “Irish land-men” a few days later, they were at once “order’d to be severely whip’d and put in irons”. It was while engaged in Intercepting a canoe, suspected of helping these men to escape, that the Duke’s agent, Mr. Vanbrugh, again got into trouble, through unluckily shooting an “indian, the property of a certain fryar who own’d and steer’d that canoe. While, as the friar alleged that that canoe “in the confusion,” he not only “lost his slave, but gold amounting to £200, and threatened to seek justice in Portugal or England,” Rogers was not able, “though he made the fryar welcom as he could, to reconcile him”. A committee of inquiry was therefore wisely called upon Mr. Vanbrugh’s conduct in firing, without orders, upon the canoe.

The result of which inquiry was, that after first entering a protest in the ship’s books against on board the Mr. Vanbrugh, he was shifted into the cDutchess her agent, Mr. Bathe, taking his place on board the Duke.

Having completed their refit in rather less than a week, which as it included the lifting of the rigging of the Duke’s main and foremast, besides the wooding, watering, and careening of both frigates under a tropical sun, was not bad work ; they wound up their stay at the Isle de Grande, by “assisting with both ship’s musick” at an important religious function, or as Rogers calls it, “entertainment” at Angre de Reys; ” where” he says, “we waited on the Govenour, Signior Raphael de Silva Lagos, in a body, being ten of us, with two trumpets and a hautboy, which he desir’d might play us to church, where our musick did the office of an organ, but separate from the singing, which was by the fathers well perform ‘d. Our musick  played “Hey boys up go we!” and all manner of noisy paltry tunes. And after service, our musicians, who were by that time more than half drunk, march’d at the head of the company; next to them an old father and two fryars carrying lamps of incense, then an image dressed with flowers and wax candles, then about forty priests, fryars, &cc., followed by the Govenour of the town, myself, and Capt. Courtney, with each of us a long wax candle lighted. The ceremony held about two hours ; after which we were splendidly entertained by the fathers of the Convent, and then by the Govenour. They unanimously told us they expected nothing from us but our Company, and they had no more but our musick”.The day after, however, bffore sailing, Rogers in return, entertained the Governor and fathers on board the Duke. “When” he says, “they were very merry, and in their cups propos’d the Pope’s health to us. But we were quits with ’em by toasting the Archbishop of Canterbury; and to keep up the humour, we also proposed William Pen’s health, and they liked the liquor so well, that they refused neither” while as “in the evening it came on blowing with thick showers” the Governor, the fathers and friars, made a night of it on board the frigates, not being landed till next morning, “when we saluted ’em with a huzza from each ship, because,” as Rogers says, “we were not overstock’d with powder, and made them a handsome present of butter and cheese from both ships in consideration of the small presents and yesterday’s favours from ’em, and as a farther obligation on ’em to be careful of our letters which we took this opportunity to deliver into their own hands”.

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