Life Aboard a British Privateer – Part 7

Before sailing for Guam, it was necessary to appoint a commander for their new consort, the Batchelor frigate, and Captain Dover having, it seems, a large money-stake in the ships, was, much against Rogers’ wish, selected by the majority for this post. But under protest from Rogers, who as he lay, no doubt in great misery, on his back, recounts “how it was now after taking this rich prize our great misfortune to have a paper war amongst ourselves”.  Rogers’ chief objection to Captain Dover was “that owing to his violent temper, capable men could not well act under him, while as a Dr of physick he was incapable as a seaman himself”.

A peace was, however, patched up, by appointing Mr. Robert Frye, Rogers’ first lieutenant, and Mr. William Stretton to take sole charge of the ship as to navigation, with Mr. Selkirk and another as chief mates ; Captain Dover to have command in other matters. And being a large ship, “thirty good men were sent on board her from the Duke  with twenty-five from the  Dutchess  and thirteen from the Marquiss” Before sailing, “ten of the Duke’s guns were struck down into the hold, to ease the ship, being altogether useless betwixt here and theEast Indies”

The voyage from Cape St. Lucas in California to Guam, one of the Ladrone islands, occupied fifty -eight days, the best day’s run being 168 miles, and the worst 41. The distance sailed by reckoning was 6,300 miles, which gives an average of 108 miles a day, about equal to a speed of four and a half miles an hour, which may seem slow to us, but it must be remembered that the speed of the dullest sailer was that of all the others in company and that besides the loss of speed due to the rapid fouling of uncoppered ships in the tropics, it was the custom then to shorten sail after dark. Beyond the death of many wounded men, nothing of importance is recorded after leaving Port Segura on the 11th of January until the 14th of February, when, “in commemoration of the ancient custom, of chusing valentines” Rogers “drew up a list of the fair ladies in Bristol, that were in any ways related to, or concerned in the ships, and sent for his officers into the cabin, where every one drew and drank a ladies health in a cup of punch, and to a happy sight of em all, which I did” he says, “to put ’em in mind of home” 

The Duke had been leaky for some time, and after many attempts to stop the leak with bonnet-pieces, &c., one pump had to be constantly kept going, two men of  each watch taking an hour’s spell at the pump at a time ; “which labour, together with being on short allowance” Rogers says, “makes our people look miserably”. So that there was much rejoicing among all hands at sighting Guam on March the 11th; but though !several flying prows came off to look at the ships, and run by them very swift” none could be tempted to venture aboard until Rogers hoisted Spanish colours when “on turning into the harbour one came under his stern with two Spaniards in her, who being told in Spanish, in answer to their questions, that they were friends from New Spain, willingly came on board, and enquired whether they had any letters for the Govenour? We had one ready” says Rogers, “and detaining one Spaniard on board, sent the other ashore with our letter which was thus.

We being servants of Her  Majesty of Great Britain, stopping at these islands on our way to the East Indies, will not molest the settlement provided you deal friendly with us, being willing to pay for whatever provisions you. can spare, &c. But, if after this civil request, you do not act like a man of honour, and deny us our request, you may immediately expect such military treatment as we are ease able to give you. 

Signed, Woodes Rogers, S. Courtney, and E. Cooke.”

This letter appears to have acted like a charm upon the Governor of Guam and his officers, for he at once answered “with a present of four bullocks, one for each ship, with limes oranges and cocoanuts. And being now arrived” says Rogers, “at a place of peace and plenty, we all became indifferent well reconciled among ourselves after the misunderstandings at California which had been so much increased of late by our shortness of water and provisions”.

And in return for the Governor’s civility, an entertainment was “provided for him and four Spanish gentlemen on board the Bachelor where we all met, and made ’em,” says Rogers, “as welcome as time and place would afford, with musick and our sailors dancing, when I, not being able to move myself, was hoisted in a chair out of my ship and the boat into the Batchelor”  Considering that he was in an enemy’s port, Captain Rogers appears to have rapidly established diplomatic relations with the Governor of Guam of a most friendly and agreeable kind. For this entertainment was followed by one of the same sort on board the Duke, Dutchess and Marquiss which were returned by the Governor and his suite on shore when Rogers and his brother officers, after partaking of “sixty dishes of various sorts, presented the Governor, in return for his four bullocks and civility”.

And after purchasing “14 small lean cattel, two cows and calves, 60 hogs, 100 fowls, with indian corn, rice, yams and cocoa nuts”  in proportion, Rogers ended his week’s stay at the island by leaving there an old Spaniard “called Antonio Gomes Figuero, whom they took in the first prize in the South seas, designing to carry him to Great Britain” as a witness upon any question which might arise there respecting other prizes taken in the South Seas.

“But he, being in all appearance not likely to live, we dismissed him here ; he first giving a certificate that he saw us take certain barks and prisoners subjects to Philip V. King of Spain” Rogers was so pleased as a seaman with the speed and handiness offlthe Aying proahs of Guam (or, as he spells it, prows) – which, he says, “by what I saw, I believe may run twenty miles an hour for they passed our ships like a bird flying” -that he carried one of them with him to London, thinking it might be worth fitting up there as a curiosity on the canal in St. James’s Park. This was more than thirty years before the account of these “flying proahs” appeared in Anson’s voyage.

The Duke  continued so leaky at this time, that before leaving Guam Rogers decided upon handing over to Captain Courtney a chest of plate and money to be put on board the Dutchess. While Rogers himself “being still very weak and not able to stand” it was agreed that Captain Courtney, in the Dutchess should lead the squadron by night through the almost unknown straits of Molucca, and among the various reefs, shoals, and islands they must pass in the passage to the island of Bouton or Boutong, where they designed to wood and water on their way to Batavia.

The order of sailing was therefore “for the Dutchess to keep ahead with a light, her pinnace when possible to be ahead of her, all signals for tacking or altering course to be given by the Dutchess”.  So little was this part of the world then known to the English, that even Dampier, their pilot, who had been there twice, and was the discoverer of some of these islands in 1699, seems to have lost his way; So that they were glad to get hold of the Malay skippe of a small native bark, and persuade him by bribes, in spite of his fear of the Dutch, to act as pilot between Bouton and Batavia. Rogers says, however, that “this way into India would not be difficult if better known”.

After leaving Guam the weather was for some days dark, squally, and unsettled, with thunder and lightning, and mention is made of more than one ugly gale of wind, while three tropical April showers, in the form of water-spouts, were met with on the 15th of that month, one of which had like to have broke on the Marquiss had not the Dutchess broke it before it reached her, by firing two shots.

On the 29th of May, however, the four ships were safely anchored at the island of Bouton but stayed there only long enough to water and get a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables; Rogers finding the king of the island both “dilatory and designing in his dealings with them” notwithstanding which, before sailing, they made him “a present of a Bishop’s cap, a thing of little use to us, but what he highly esteem ‘d and gratefully accepted of”. 

It was on the 17th of June, 171O, near the north coast of Java, that the Duke  and Dutchess met the first vessel bound east from Europe since they sailed from Bristol in August, 1708. She was a Dutch ship of 600 tons and 50 guns, from whom they learnt “that Queen Anne’s Consort, Prince George of Denmark, was dead. That the wars continued in Europe, where we had good success in Flanders, but little elsewhere”. And what was of more importance to them at that time than any European news, they “borrowed” from this ship, “a large draft of those parts”.

In addition to the troubles of a leaky ship, with the clang of her pump constantly ringing in his ear, and the dangers of an intricate navigation among coral reefs, &c., Rogers tells us that here “their voyage was like to have been ruined by the mutinous conduct of an officer on board his ship, with other officers and men on board the Dutchess which knot was only broken by putting the leaders in irons” &c. On anchoring in Batavia Road, however, matters smoothed down rapidly, at least so far as the men were concerned, for Rogers says, “Till now I find that I was a stranger to the humours of our ship’s company, some of whom are hugging each other, while others bless themselves that they were come to such a glorious place for punch, where arack is eightpence per gallon, and sugar one penny a pound, whereas a few weeks past a bowl of punch to them was worth half the voyage”.  While personally Captain Rogers is made happy, and congratulates himself, first, “on the discovery of a large musket shot, which the doctor now cut out of his mouth, it having been there six months, so that the upper and lower jaw being broken and almost closed, he had much ado to come at it” and next, “that several pieces of his foot and heel bone having been removed, he believes himself, thank God, in a fair way to have the use of his foot and recover his health”. Though Rogers makes light of these trifling operations and discomforts, and they are not pleasant subjects to dwell on, they could not be passed without notice, as pointing out distinctly the sort of man physically fit to have charge of “a charming undertaking” of this kind, while considering the ways of life on ship-board in those days, and the climate he was in at this time, the marvel is not that “he now thought himself in a fair way to recover his health” but that he lived to reach home and write his travels.

They anchored in Batavia Roads on the 20th of June, where they found “betwixt thirty and forty sail great and small” and having, “as customary” says Rogers, “lost almost a day in running so far west round the Globe, we here altered our account of time”. 

A complete overhaul, both of ships and prize goods, was now made ; and all bale goods carefully repacked in “waxcloth, and tarpaulins”.

While the Marquiss being found much honeycombed by the worm, was condemned as unfit for the voyage home “about the Cape of Good Hope” and after discharging her cargo into the other ships, her hull, “being very leaky, was sold for 575 Dutch dollars to Captain John Opie, of the Oley frigate, lately arrived from London”.

The Dutch were naturally not at all anxious to assist English ships in this part of the world ; and it was the 8th of July, “after a long correspondence and many dilatory answers, before Rogers got leave from “the General” at Batavia to refit and careen at Horn Island, about three leagues to the northward of their present anchorage. He by no means suffering them to “careen at Umrest where all the Dutch ships are cleaned. ” This was a great grievance to Captain Rogers, especially as at Batavia he was not in a position to strengthen the Saxon of his despatches by any allusion to his six-pounders. That he did what he could in a leaky ship to keep his powder dry at this time is, however, shown by an entry in the Duke’s  log, “that in rummaging one day in the powder room we found a leak three or four foot under water which we did our best to stop”. While before arriving at Batavia the ten guns, which had been “struck down into the hold” at sea, were got up and mounted. This hoisting in and out of a frigate’s hold of ten cannon as wanted, reads oddly in these days of heavy guns.

The forty sail Rogers found lying in Batavia Road were nearly all Dutch, and during his stay there of four months only five other English ships touched at the port. Owing to “some unwholesome water drunk by his crew while careening at Horn Island” Rogers lost several men here by fever, &c and to replace them and others, who tempted maybe by the price of arrack, ran from the ships at this time, thirty-four Dutch sailors were shipped before sailing. Rogers must have known something of sailors and their ways, but even he expresses surprise at men deserting so late in the voyage, and losing their hard-earned shareof prize-money, or, as he calls it, “plunder”; perhaps, however, in the case of the Duke’s men, the prospect of constant work at the pumps had something to do with their leaving her.

The “Duke, Dutchess and Batchelor, did not actually take their “departure from Java Head” until October 4th, and it was the 27th of December before they “came up with Cape Falso and by noon were abreast of the Cape of Good Hope and saw the Table Land”.  During this three months’ voyage, Rogers says, “nothing remarkable happen ‘d, except that on the 31st of October the Duke having three feet of water in her, and her pumps choaked, we fir’d guns for our consorts to come to our relief, but had just sucked her (i.e. pumped her dry) “as the Dutchess came up”.

“During the whole of this voyage” Rogers says, “he remained very thin and weak, as his ship did leaky” and the day after anchoring in Table Bay, “they buried Mr. Ware, chief surgeon, with naval honours as usual ; being a very honest useful man, and good surgeon, bred up at Leyden in the study of phisick as well as surgery”.  

They lost also while at the Cape another important officer, in the person of Mr. Vanburgh who in the early part of the cruise, as the Duke’s agent, more than once gave Rogers trouble in his negotiations about plunder, &c.

The expenses of ships in commission could not have been great in Rogers’ time, or they would have entirely swallowed any profits, even of a privateering cruise, due to the owners, owing to the length of time the vessels lay idle at anchorages such as Batavia Roads and Table Bay. For though the Duke and her consorts arrived at the Cape on the 27th of December, 1710, it was April, 1711, before they sailed for England in company with sixteen Dutch East Indiamen and six English ships. Rogers was anxious himself not to have waited for the convoy of these ships. “Thinking we should loose too much time by staying for them, and the benefit of their convoy to Holland; which would not only be out of the way, but very tedious and chargeable, while having large quantities of decaying goods on board, the time lost in waiting for the Dutch at the Cape might be better spent in Brazil, where we could lie in little danger from an enemy and vend our goods at great rates; sailing thence to Bristol through the North channel with the summer before us. Keeping in the latitude of 55 or 56 degrees for two or three hundred leagues before getting the length” (i.e. longitude) “of the north of Ireland, and by that means avoiding the track of an enemy”. But though Rogers “earnestly press’d that if they would not agree to this, one of the privateers might take this run alone, and the other keep with the Batchelor and Dutch fleet, the majority was against the thing, and thought it safer to go home altogether under convoy of the Dutch than run any risk of losing their rich prize by meeting an enemy between the Cape and home. Much of the officers’ time during their long stay at the Cape was spent ashore holding sales of prize goods to the Dutch settlers ; and among other things so disposed of. Rogers also wrote to his owners from here telling them “of his safe arrival with the Acapulco ship, now called the Batchelor frigate mounted with 20 great guns, and 200 brass pattereroes, with 116 men ; a firm ship ; and that the Duke and Dutchess,  being fitted with everything necessary, only waited for the fleet which was expected to sail about the end of March”.

Including the Duke, Dutchess and Batchelor a fleet of twenty-five armed ships was now ready to sail under the command of a Dutch flag, vice – and rear-admiral. For though really only armed merchantmen, the commanders of these Dutch Indiamen, most of which were a thousand tons, took the rank and state of officers in the Dutch navy. And it must have been a picturesque scene in Table Bay, when at daybreak on the 5th of April “the Flag hoisted a blue ensigne, loos’d his foretopsail, and fir’d a gun as the signal to on board the unmoor”. In doing which Duke, Rogers says, “our cable rubb’d against the oakum, which for a time had partially stopped the leak, and occasioned his ship to be as leaky as ever, after having been indifferent tight for some time”. As soon as the fleet was under weigh, the captains of the English vessels were signalled to go on board the flag-ship, to receive their order of sailing, &c “which were very particular and obligatory to be punctually observ’d”.

A voyage from the Cape to the Texel, even by the direct route up the British Channel, was a long one in those days for a fleet of this size, touching nowhere, and with over 5,000 men to feed ; but the course they steered, away across the Atlantic to the westward of the Azores, and then north-eastward as far as the Shetlands, almost doubled the length of it. The squadron crossed the line on the 14th of May, “being the eighth time we have done so” says Rogers, “in our course round the world”.  This was thirty-eight days after leaving the Cape, giving a mean speed of rather more than three miles an hour. The Spanish ship, the Batchelor seems to have been the dullest sailer among them, for Rogers speaks of often taking her in tow, and of the Dutch admiral’s “civility in allowing her to keep ahead of the fleet at night, which he would not permit any other ship to do”.  No collisions or disasters of any sort are recorded during the whole of this long voyage, the monotony of which was varied on the 15th of June by an entertainment on board the flag-ship to the skippers of the English, and some of the Dutch ships, “when the good humour of the Admiral soon made all the company understand each other without a linguist”.  While on reaching latitude 51 north, thick foggy weather prevailed for many days, “during which the Flag-ship fir’d two guns every half hour, each ship answering with one, which consum’d a great deal of powder, but by the noise of the guns it was easy to keep company, though often so thick that we could not see three ship’s lengths” (equal to about one now).

Greatly to Rogers’ admiration, the Dutchmen, being good ship’s husbands, spent most of this time in scraping and cleaning their ships, bending new sails, &c “so that they look as if newly come out of Holland ” and as they drew nearer home, and the chance of meeting an enemy increased, “the three admirals hall’d down their flags, and to appear more like men of war hoist’d pennants at their maintop mastheads”.

Evidently men like these three Dutch admirals were as much at home, if not as happy, afloat as ashore, if indeed a change from floating securely a few feet above the sea level to land many feet below it, could be called being ashore.

How many of those who to-day rattle about Holland by rail, and admire the stately well-to-do look of old Dutch cities and towns, give a thought to these sedate fleets of sailing Indiamen, in which the wealth that built and kept the sea from swallowing them every higher tide than usual was slowly but surely carried two hundred years ago ; or know that shipping, moving then some five miles an hour under sail, actually paid its owners better than now, though driven by the feverish beat of steam round the world at fifteen knots. Soon after making Fair Island, near the Shetlands, on the 16th of July, Rogers says, “We fell in with the Dutch men of war, with the exception of one or two that remained cruising with the fishing doggers off the north-east of Shetland, where having little wind we lay by, the boats from the land coming to and fro all night and supplyd us with what they had, being poor people who live by fishing”.

The whole squadron, now in convoy of the men-of-war, with a small breeze, turned south again down the North Sea, and after seven days “crossed the bar, and anchored at 5 p.m. of the 23rd of July at the Texel in Holland, the Dutchmen” says Rogers, “firing all their guns for joy at their arrival in their own country, which they very affectionately call Fatherland”.

The cruise of the Duke and Duchess  was virtually ended when they anchored in the Texel Roads, where they were met by some of the owners from England. But many delays occurred before they were ready to sail again, with some East India ships for London, in convoy of the Essex, Canterbury, Meday and Dunwich men-of-war; so that it was October 14th before the last entry in Woodes Rogers’ log was made, “that this day, at 11 of the clock, we and our Consort and prize got up to Eriff, where we came to an anchor, which ends our long and fatiguing voyage”.

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