Life Aboard a British Privateer – Part 4

A voyage of near 6,000 miles now awaited the little frigates before reaching Juan Fernandez, the first place they expected to refresh at after leaving the Isle de Grande. A good stock of necessaries was, therefore, laid in here, and a letter, giving an account of their proceedings so far, left with the Governor of Angre de Reys, to be sent to England by the first opportunity. They did not clear the Brazilian coast until December 3rd, and little is recorded in Rogers’ journal until the 6th, when, in close, cloudy weather,

“At length did cross an albatross,

Thorough the fog it came”

Rogers spells it  “Alcatros, a large bird” he says, “who spread their wings from eight to ten feet wide.”

The whole of this part of the voyage might, indeed, be described in quotations from the “Ancient Mariner, for we read that, December the 13th, “in the afternoon the little Duke’s mainsail was reef’d, which was the first time since we left England”. For

“Now the storm blast came, and he

Was tyrannous and strong;

He struck with his o’ertaking wings,

And chased us south along.”


“And now their came both mist and snow,

And it grew wondrous cold”

Or, as Rogers says, “We find it much colder in this latitude than in the like degree North, though the sun is in its furthest extent to the southard, which may be ascribed to our coming newly out of warmer climates, or tis probable the winds blow over larger tracts of ice than in the same degree of N. latitude”.

Then we read of thick fog, in which they lose sight of their consort for many hours, “though we made all the noise agreed on between us”. And so the monotonous sea-life wears on, varied only by the smallest events, as when, December I0th, the commanders agree to chop boatswain’s mates, the Dutchess “being mutinous, and they willing to be rid of him”. Or how, on the 18th, “in cold hazy rainy weather, one of the men on board the Dutchess fell out of the mizen top, and broke his skull” and Captain Rogers boards her “with two surgeons where they examine the wound, but found the man irrecoverable, so he died, and was buried next day ; brisk gales from W.N.W.”.  &c.

On the 23rd high distant land is sighted, “which appear’ d first in three, afterwards inseveral more islands. This,” says Rogers, “is Falkland’s Land, describ’d in few draughts, and none lay it down right, tho the Latitude agrees pretty well”. On Christmas Day, blowing a strong gale S.W., at six in the evening they lost sight of the land, but spying a sail under their lee bow, distant four leagues, “immediately,” says Rogers, “let our reefs out, chas’d, and got ground of her apace, till ten at night, when we lost sight of her. We spoke our consort, and agreed to bear away to the north ward till dawning, as we were both of opinion, that if homeward bound, the chase, after loosing sight of us, would Steer north. But when it was full light we saw nothing, being thick hazy weather, till 7 a.m. When it cleared we saw the chase again, and falling calm, we both got out our oars, row’d, and tow’d with boats ahead, and gained on the chase, till six in the evening, perceiving we approach’d her, I went in my boat to speak with Captain Courtney, and agree how to engage he if a great ship, as she appear’d to be, and adjusted signals, if either of us should find it proper to board her in the night. On returning on board a breeze sprang, and we made all possible sail, keeping the chase in view ’til ten o’clock, when it came on thick again, but being short nights, we thought it impossible to lose one another, and kept her open on our larboard, and the Dutchess on our starboard bow. At one in the morning I was persuaded to shorten sail for fear of losing our consort if we kept on. At daylight it was a thick fog, so that we could see neither our consort nor chase for an hour, when it clear’d, and we saw our consort on our larboard bow, and fir’d a gun for her to bear down, but we immediately saw the chase ahead of the Dutchess  a few miles, which gave us new life. We forthwith hal’d up for them, but the wind heading us, we had a great disadvantage in the chase. The water was smooth however. And we ran at a great rate, until it coming on to blow more and more, the chase outbore our consort, so she gave off, and being to windward, came down very melancholy to us, supposing the chase to have been a French homeward bound ship from the South Seas. Thus this ship escap’d, which considering that we always out-went her before, is as strange as our first seeing of her in this place, because all ships that we have heard of, bound either out or home, keep within Falkland’s Island.”

Woodes Rogers was no doubt a very hardheaded mariner, still few sailors are without a trace of superstition, and his closing remark, in describing this long and unsuccessful chase, points to a feeling with him that the vessel which all at once “out-bore his consort” was one, the speed and presence of which in that sea was to him a mystery. His own ships were clean, and sailing their best ; but very few English vessels of that time were able to “out-go” the ships then built by the French for trade, or piracy, in the South Seas.

The usual foul weather, at any rate, came upon them at once, when,

“With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea

Off shot the spectre- bark,”

in the shape of “strong gales with heavy squalls from south to west” during which the Dutchess (to ease and stiffen her) “put the guns into the hold again that she took up in the chase.” Christmas Day, and those following it, must have been days of “toil and trouble” on board the Duke and Dutchess to both men and officers ; but Rogers made up for it all when, “in fresh gales of wind from W.N.W. with fogs, being New Year’s Day, every officer was wished a – Merry New Year by our own musick, and I had a large tub of punch hot upon the quarter-deck, where every man in the ship had above a pint to his share, and drank our owners and friends’ healths in Great Britain, to a happy new-year, a good voyage, and a safe return. After which we bore down to our consort, and gave them three huzzas, wishing them the same”. Though, like most good seamen, Woodes Rogers appears to have been lucky in his weather, and during the three years’ cruise to have sustained little damage from storm or tempest, the Duke and Dutchess did not escape a few hours dusting in the passage “about Cape Horn” for in latitude 60·58 S on the 5th of January, just past noon, “it came on to blow strong” when Rogers says, “we got down our foreyard and reef’d our foresail and mainsail ; but there came on a violent gale of wind and a great sea. A little before 6 p.m. we saw the Dutchess’ lowering her mainyard. tack few up, and the lift unreev’d, so that the sail to leeward was in the water and all aback, their ship taking in a great deal of water to leeward. Immediately they loosed their spritsail, and wore her before the wind. I wore after her, expecting when they had gotten their mainsail ow’d, they would take another reef in, and bring to under a two reef’d mainsail and reef’d and ballanc’d mizen. But to my surprise they kept scudding to southward.

“I dreaded running amongst ice, because it was excessive cold ; so I fir’d a gun as a signal for them to bring to, and brought to ourselves again under the same reef ‘d mainsail. They kept on, and our men reported an ensign in their maintopmast rigging as a signal of distress, which made me doubt they had sprung their mainmast.

“So I wore again, our ship working exceeding well in this great sea. Just before night I was up with them again, and set our fore-sail twice reef’d to keep ’em company, which I did all night. About three the next morning it grew more moderate ; we soon after made a signal to speak with them, and at five they brought to. When I came within haile I enquir’d how they all did aboard?

“They answered they had ship’d a great deal of water in lying by, and were forced to put before the wind, and the sea had broke In the cabin windows, and over their stern, filling their steerage and waste, and had like to have spoil’d several men. But God be thank’d, all was otherwise indifferent well with ’em, only they were intolerably cold and everything wet”.

The next day the weather was raw cold and rainy with a great sea from N.W., which did not, however, deter Rogers and Captain Dampier from “going in the yall on board the Dutchess to visit ’em after the storm, where” he says, c”we found ’em in a very orderly pickle ; with all their clothes drying, the ship and rigging cover’d with them from the deck to the main-top while six more guns are got into the hold to make the ship more lively”. That so far the Duke  and Dutchess spite of their small size and number of men (333), were healthy ships, is shown by an entry here in the log of the death of “John Veal a land-man, being the first death from sickness out of both ships since our leaving England”. After running as far south as Lat. 61. 53, “which” says Rogers, “for ought we know is the furthest that any one has yet been to the southward, and where we have no night”, they, on the 15 of Jan., in longitude 79.58 from London, “accounted themselves in the South Sea being got round Cape Horn”.  Ten days later, the Dutchess ” speaks the Duke to the effect that her men are greatly in want of a harbour to refresh them, many being ill through want of clothes, and being often wet in the cold weather.  Matters were not much better on board the Duke, “several of ours” says Rogers, “being very indifferent. So that as we are very uncertain of the latitude of “Juan Fernandez”  the books laying ’em down so differently that not one chart agrees with another, and being but a small island, and in some doubts of striking it we designe to hale in for the mainland to direct us”. At seven in the morning, however, of January 31st, I709, all their doubts were set at rest, and the foundation laid, upon which the “Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” are built, when Captain Rogers made Juan Fernandez, bearing W.S.W., ditsant about seven leagues.

The next day at 2 p.m., Rogers says, “we hoisted our pinnace out, and Captain Dover with the boats crew went in her to go ashoar, tho we could not be less than 4 leagues off.

“As soon as it was dark we saw a light ashore ; and our boat being then about a league from the island bore away for the ships when she saw the light, and we put out lights for the boat, tho’ some were of opinion the light we saw was our boat’s. But as night came on it appeared too large for that. So we fir’d one quarter deck gun, and several muskets, showing lights in our shrouds, that our boat might find us, whilst we ply’d in the lee of the Island. About two in the morning our boat came on board, having been in tow of the Dutchess  and we were glad they got well off, because it began to blow. We were all convinc’d this light was on shore, and designed to make our ships ready to engage, believing them to be French ships at anchor, which we must either fight, or want water” &c. The next morning “we tacked, to lay the land close aboard, and about ten open’d the south end of the island ; here the flaws came heavy off shore, and we were fore’d to reef our topsails. When we open’d the middle bay, were we expected to find our enemy, we saw all clear, and no ships in that, nor the next bay. Though we guessid there had been ships there, but that they were gone on sight of us. About noon we sent our yall ashore with Capt. Dover, Mr. Frye, and six men, all arm’d ; meanwhile we and the Dutchess kept turning to get in, and such heavy flaws came off the island that we were forcd to let fly our topsail sheets, keeping all hands to stand by our sails for fear of the winds carrying ’em away : though when the flaws were gone we had little or no wind. Our boat not returning we sent our pinnace, also arm’d, to see what was the occasion of the yall’s stay ; for we were afraid that the Spaniards had a garison there and might have seized ’em. We put out a signal, and the Dutchess show’d a French ensign. Immediately our pinnace return’d from the shore, and brought abundance of craw-fish with a man cloth’d in goat-skins, who look’d wilder than the first owner’s of them. He had been on the island four years and four months, being left there by Captain Stradling in the ship “Cinque-Ports.’ His name was Alexander Selkirk, a Scotchman, who had been master of the Cinque- Ports,’ a ship that came here last with Capt. Dampier, who told me this was the best man in her ; so I immediately agreed with him to be mate on board our ship.

“Twas he made the fire last night when he saw our ships, which he judg’d to be English. During his stay here he had seen severa! Ships pass, but only two came to anchor, which as he went to view he found to be Spanish and retired from ’em, upon which they shot at him. Had they been French, he would have submitted, but chose to risque dying alone” (note, not living alone) “in the Iland, rather than fall into the hands of the Spaniards in these parts, lest they murder, or make a slave of him in the mines ; for he fear’d they would spare no stranger that might be capable of discovering the South Sea. The Spaniards he said had landed before he knew what they were, and came so near him that he had much ado to escape : for they not only shot at him, but pursue’d him into thewoods, where he climb’d a tree at the foot of which they stop’d and kill’d several goats just by, but went off again without discovering him. He told us he was born at Largo in the county of Fife, Scotland, and was bred a sailor from his youth. The reason of his being left here was a difference betwixt him and his captain. When left, he had with him his clothes and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets, and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books.

“He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could ; but for the first eight months had much ado to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with piemento trees, cover’d them with long grass, and lin’d them with the skins of goats which he killed with his gun as he wanted, so long as his powder lasted, which was but a pound, and that being near spent, he got fire by rubbing two sticks of piemento wood together on his knees. In the lesser hut, at some distance from the other, he dressed his victuals, and in the larger he slept, and employed himself in reading, singing Psalms, and praying, So that he said he was a better Christian while in this solitude, than ever he was before, or than he was afraid he should ever be again. At first he never eat anything till hunger constrain’d him, partly for grief, and partly for want of bread and salt ; nor did he go to bed till he could watch no longer. The piemento wood, which burnt very clear, serv’d him both for fire and candle, and refresh’d him with it’s pleasant smell. He might have had fish enough, but could not eat ’em, as for want of salt, they made him ill, except Crawfish, which are there as large as lobsters and very good. These he sometimes boiled, and at others broiled as he did his goats flesh, of which he made very good broth, for they are not so rank as ours ; he kept an account of 500 that he kill’d while there, and caught as many more, which he marked on the ear and let go.’ When his powder fail’d he took them by speed of foot ; for his way of living, and continued exercise of walking and running, clear’d him of all gross humours, So that he run with wonderful swiftness thro the woods, and up the rocks and hills, as we perceiv’d when we employ’d him to catch goats for us. We had a bull dog which we sent with several of our nimblest runners to help him catch goats ; but he distanc’d and tir’d both the dog and men, catch’d the goats and brought em to us on his back. He told us that his agility in,pursuing a goat had once like to have cost him his life ; he pursue’d it with so much eagerness that he catch’d hold of it on the brink of a precipice hidden by some bushes, so that he fell with the goat down the said prescipice a great height, and was so stun ‘d and bruised with the fall that he narrowly escap’d with his life, and when he came to his senses found the goat dead under him. He lay there about 24 hours and was scarce able to crawl to his hut a mile distant, or to stir abroad again in ten days. After a while he came to relish his meat well enough without salt and bread, and in the season had plenty of good turnips which had been sow’d there by Captain Dampier’s men, and have overspread some acres of ground. He had enough of good cabbage from the cabbage trees and season ‘d his meat with the fruit of the piemento tree, which is the same as the Jamaica pepper and smells deliciously. He soon wore out all his shoes and clothing by running thro the woods ; and at last, being forced to shift without them, his feet became so hard that he run every where without annoyance, and it was some time before he could wear shoes after we found him. For not being used to any so long, his feet swelled when he first came to wear ’em.

“After he conquer’d his melancholy he diverted himself sometimes by cutting his name on the trees, and the time of his being left and continuance there. He was at first much pester’d with cats and rats, that bred in great numbers from some of each species which had got ashore from ships that put in there to wood and water. The rats knaw’d his feet and clothes while asleep,  which obliged him to cherish the cats with goats flesh ; by which many of them became so tame that they would lie about him in hundreds, and soon deliver’d him from the rats.

“He likewise tam’d some kids, and to divert himself would now and then sing and dance with them and his cats ; so that by the care of Providence, and vigour of his youth, being now about 30 years old, he came at last to conquer all the inconveniences of his solitude and to be very easy. When his clothes wore out he made himself a coat and cap of goatskins, which he stitch’d together with little thongs of the same that he cut with his knife. He had no other needle but a nail, and when his knife was wore to the back, he made others as well as he could of iron hoops that were left ashore, which he beat thin and ground upon stones. Having some linen cloth by him, he sow’d himself shirts with a nail and stitch’d ’em with the worsted of his old stockings, which he pull’d out on pur- pose. He had his last shirt on when 

“At his first coming on board us” says Rogers, “he had so much forgot his language for want of use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seemed to speak his words by halves. We offer’d him a dram, but he would not touch it, having drank nothing but water since his being there, and t’was some time before he could relish our victuals. He could give us an account of no other product of the Island except some small black plums, which are very good, but hard to come at, the trees which bear ’em growing on high mountains and rocks. The climate is so good that the trees and grass are verdant all the year. He saw no venomous or savage creature, nor any sort of beast but goats on the Island. The first of these having been put ashore here on purpose for a breed, by Juan Fernandez, a Spaniard, who settled there with some families till the continent of Chili began to submit to the Spaniards, which tempted them to quit this island, tho capable of maintaining a number of people, and of being made so strong that they could not easily be dislodg’d. Ringrose, in his account of Capt. Sharp’s voyage and other buccaneers, mentions one who had escap’d ashore here out of a ship, which was cast away with her company, and says he liv’d five years alone before he had an opportunity of another ship to carry him off. While Capt. Dampier talks of a Moskito Indian that belong’d to Capt. Watlin, who being a hunting in the woods when the Captain left the island, liv’d here three years alone, and shifted much as Mr. Selkirk did, till Capt. Dampier came hither in 1684 and carry’d him off; the first that went ashore was one of his countrymen and they saluted one another, first by prostrating themselves by turns on the ground, and then embracing.

“But whatever there is in these stories this of Mr. Selkirk I know to be true, and his behaviour afterwards gives me reason to believe the account he gave me how he spent his time, and bore up under such an affiction, in which nothing but the Divine Providence could have supported any man. And by this we may see, that solitude and retirement from the world, is not such an unsufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly call’d, or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was, who in all probability must otherwise have perished in the seas, the ship which he left being cast away not long after, when few of the company escaped. We may perceive also by his story” adds Rogers, “the truth of the maxim that necessity is the mother of invention,  since he found means to supply his wants in a very natural manner, so as to maintain life, tho not so conveniently, yet as effectually as we are able to do with the help of all our arts and society. It may likewise instruct us how much a plain and temperate way of living conduces to the health of the body and the vigour of the mind, both which we are apt to destroy by excess and plenty, especially of strong liquor. For this man, when he came to our ordinary method of diet and life, tho he was sober enough, lost much of his strength and agility. But I must quit these reflections, which are more proper for a philosopher and divine than a mariner, and return to my own subject.” 

Which he does, and at once goes on to tell how “this morning we clear’d ship, unbent our sails, and got them ashoar to mend and make tents for our men, while the Govenour, for so we call’d Mr. Selkirk, (tho we might as well have nam’d him absolute Monarch of the island,) caught us two goats, which make excellent broth mixed with turnip tops and other greens for our sick, they being twenty in all, but not above two that we account dangerous”. Selkirk kept up this supply of two goats a day, during the time the ships remained at Juan Fernandez ; and no doubt the poor half-wild sailor man rather enjoyed these last goat-hunts before he became absorbed into the busy monotony of sea life on board Rogers’ little frigate. We seldom catch Captain Rogers giving himself time for repose during his cruise, but the natural charms of this island appear to have had some effect even. upon his practical matter of fact temperament, for he says, while here, “twas very pleasant ashoar among the green piemento trees, which cast a refreshing smell. Our house being made by putting a sail round four of ’em, and covering it a top with another ; so that Capt. Dover and I both thought it a very agreable seat, the weather being neither too hot nor too cold”.

Rogers, however, did not come about the Horn into the South Seas to sit under the shade of sweet-smelling trees, especially after having “been inform’d at the Canaries, that five stout French ships were coming together to these seas”, therefore, having completed the wooding and watering of his ships, and the boiling down of about eighty gallons of sea-lions’ oil, which, he says, “we refin’d and strain’d to save our candles, or for the sailors to fry their meat in for want of butter” he is, just eleven days after making the island, ready for sea again, with its “absolute Monarch” aboard.

Before sailing, however, certain signals, to be made by the arrangement of their sails, were agreed upon between the commanders as to the chasing of ships, &c, while in case of the frigates being separated before reaching their next place of refreshment, the island of Lobos de la Mer, it was settled that “two crosses were to be set up there at the landing place near the farther end of the starboard great island : and a glass bottle to be buried direct north of each cross, with news of what had happen’d since parting, and their further designes”.

Nothing indeed now appears to have been left undone which could add to the safety and efficiency of the small force under Rogers’ command.

“For a fortnight after leaving Juan Fernandez” he says, “we put both pinnaces in the water to try them under sail, having fixed them each with a gun after the manner of a patterero, and all things necessary for small privateers, hoping they’l be serviceable to us in little winds to take vessels” and a few days later in a calm, both frigates are again heeled and tallowed, though the nearest land was sixty miles distant; while the crews are put upon an allowance of water of three pints a man per day, “that” says Rogers, “we may keep at sea some time without being discover’ d by watering ashore. Because an enemy once discovered, there was nothing of any value put to sea from one end of the coast to the other”.

It was now the 9th of March, and in fair weather, before a moderate gale at S.E., the ships are kept under easy sail, with all boats in tow, about twenty-one miles off the coast of Peru, “in hopes of seeing rich ships either going or coming out of Lima ; the men beginning to repine, that tho come so far, we have met with no prizes in these seas,” which may have accounted for the frigates being brought to for a day at this time, while the men are “sent in the boats under the shoar to examine two white rocks which at a distance look’d like ships.”

On the 16th, however, a small prize of sixteen tons, manned by two Spaniards and some Indians, falls into their hands, and Rogers learns from these Spaniards that no enemy has been in those parts since Captain Dampier was there four years ago ; also that Stradling’s ship, the “Cinque Ports” “who was Dampier’s consort, founder’d on the coast of Barbacour, only Captain Stradling and six or seven men being saved, who lived four years prisoners at Lima much worse than our Govenour Selkirk whom they left on Juan Fernandez”.

The following day, piloted by the crew of their prize, they anchored in the “Thorow -fair between the islands of Lobos de la Mer” and Rogers, finding his new prize well built for sailing, at once resolved to fit her out as a privateer. She was, therefore, taken “into a small round cove in the southermost island, haul’d up dry, and after having her bottom well cleaned, relaunched, and called the Beginning, Capt. Cook being appointed to command her.”

In the meantime, while Rogers stayed to overlook this, and the building of a “larger boat for landing men, should an attempt be made upon the mainland” the Dutchess having landed her sick men, and been heeled and cleaned outside, is sent upon a cruise round the island, with instructions to meet the Beginning when ready, off the southernmost end of it. Like a true seaman, Captain Rogers appears to have thoroughly enjoyed this work of fitting out his “small bark” and describes how he got a spare topmast out of the Duke “which made her a new main mast, a mizen topsail being alter’ d to made her a mainsail.” And though the work included “fixing a new deck with four swivel guns,” she was so victualed and manned by 20 men from the Duke and 12 from the Dutchess,’ all well arm’d, and ready for sea,” in three days from the time of being taken in hand.

“As I saw her out of harbour” says Rogers, proudly, “with our pinnace she looks very pretty and I believe will sail well in smooth water, having all masts sails rigging and materials like one of the half galleys fitt’d out for Her Majestie’s service in England.”

Two days after joining the Dutchess the pretty little Beginning captured another small prize, the Santa Josepha, of 50 tuns.

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