A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti
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"I shall not give you one of the new arrivals, for it is better that these for a time should serve on larger ships, get accustomed to naval work, and learn the ordinary routine of duty on board. I shall, therefore, send you one from either the Theseus or the Limerick, and fill up his place with a new-comer. Your duties will be precisely the same as those assigned to you in the Arrow, except that I shall not impress upon you the necessity for giving a wide berth to suspicious vessels. You will cruise on the coast of Hayti, take off refugees, communicate, if possible, with chiefs of the insurgents, and see if there is any strong feeling among them in favour of annexation to England. You will be authorized, in case it is absolutely necessary in order to save the inhabitants of any coast town from slaughter from the blacks, either to help the garrison with your guns or to land a portion not exceeding half your crew to aid in the defence."
"I am indeed greatly obliged to you, admiral, and assure you that I will do my best to merit your kindness and confidence."
"It is to yourself rather than to me that you are indebted for what is virtually a step towards promotion. Just at present I do not think that you are likely to have any opportunity of taking advantage of your increased force, as we have heard no complaints of pirates of late. We may hope that these scoundrels, finding that the islands are growing too hot for them, have moved away to safer quarters. At any rate, if there are any of them in these waters, they are likely to be among the northern Cays, and are probably confining their depredations for a time to ships trading between Europe and Florida, or to vessels from here which have passed beyond the general limit of the seas we patrol."
On Nat's return to the dockyard, he delighted Lippincott with the news of the exchange that they were to make. Turnbull was in hospital, but the surgeons had reported that his wound was not so serious as it seemed at first, and that a fortnight's rest and quiet would go far to render him convalescent. The sailors, too, were glad to hear that they were going to be transferred to a craft in which they would be able to meet an enemy with confidence. They were also pleased to hear that there was to be no change in their officers, for they had unbounded trust in their young commander, and had from the first agreed that they had never sailed in a more comfortable ship. After seeing Turnbull and acquainting him with the news, Nat paid a visit to the Pickards. They had landed on the evening of their arrival, and, after stopping a day in an hotel, had established themselves in a pretty house outside the town, which Monsieur Pickard had hired from a merchant who was on the point of sailing for England, and would be absent several months.
Monsieur Pickard had, on arriving, gone to a merchant with whom he had business connections, and to whom he had frequently consigned produce for shipment to England or France when there happened to be no vessel in Port-au-Prince sailing for Europe.He had obtained from him a loan on the security of the season's produce, which had, fortunately, been sent down to be warehoused at Port-au-Prince two or three weeks before the insurrection broke out.
Nat's friends, too, heartily congratulated him on obtaining the command of a larger vessel.
"After the troubles and anxiety we have of late gone through, Monsieur Glover, we feel the comfort of being under the protection of the British flag, and shall enjoy it all the more now that we know that you are not going to sea again in that pretty little vessel, for if you fell in with another large corsair you might not be so fortunate as you were last time. As you have said, if an unlucky shot had struck one of your spars, you would have been at her mercy, and we know what that mercy would mean. I intend to stay here for a short time, till madame and the girls get quite accustomed to their new home, before sailing for Port-au-Prince; but whether I am at home or away you know how welcome you will be here whenever you happen to be in port. How long do you think it is likely to be before you are off?"
"I was speaking to the superintendent of the dockyard before I came out, and he says that he will get the Agile ready for sea in three weeks' time. He cannot possibly manage it before; the hull could be ready in a week, but the suit of sails will require three times as long, though he has promised to take on some extra hands if he can get them. Orders have, however, been given by the Thames to the chief native sail-maker of the place to patch some of the sails and to make several new ones, and he has taken up some of the best hands in the town. Then, no doubt, whoever gets the command of the Arrow will be wanting her sails pushed forward, though that is not certain, for it is not unlikely that, now the Agile has been bought into the service, the Arrow will be sold. Indeed, one of the principal merchants here would be glad to buy her as a private yacht if he had the chance, as he often has business at the other islands, and she is just the craft that would suit him. He said that by putting up shorter topmasts twelve men would be enough to sail her, and that he would exchange the guns for eight-pounders, as from what he had heard she could outsail almost any craft she was likely to meet with, and small guns would be quite sufficient to prevent any of these little native piratical craft from meddling with her. However, I think the superintendent will keep his word, and that in three weeks' time I shall be off."
"I may possibly be at Port-au-Prince before you, then," Monsieur Pickard said. "I am thinking of chartering a small brig and going in her to Port-au-Prince, and bringing my goods back from there. Now that the mulattoes are up in arms, the place cannot be considered as absolutely safe; and as I calculate they are worth from eight to ten thousand pounds, I think it will be well to get them over as soon as possible."
"I quite agree with you, Monsieur Pickard, and should certainly advise you to lose no time. Unless I get instructions to the contrary, I shall, in the first place, cruise round the shore of the bay of Hayti."
Ten days later, indeed, Monsieur Pickard sailed in the brig that he had chartered. Nat had called to say good-bye the evening before, and, to his embarrassment, was presented by him with a very handsome gold watch and chain, the former bearing the inscription that it was a small token of the deepest gratitude of Eugene Pickard, his wife and daughters, for having saved them from the most terrible fate.
"It is only a little thing, Monsieur Glover," the planter said – "a feeble token of our gratitude, but something which many years hence will recall to your memory the inestimable service that you have rendered us."
The superintendent of the dockyard kept his word, and in three weeks the Agile was afloat again, and the next morning twenty men drafted from the war-ships in the port were transferred to her. Those of the Arrow, with the exception of five still in the hospital, had shifted their quarters to her a fortnight previously. Turnbull had rejoined the evening before. His arm was still in a sling, but otherwise he was quite convalescent. Lippincott had that morning given up the bandage round his head, which had kept him almost a prisoner until now, for he had refused to go into the town until after nightfall with his head bound up, although Nat had many times assured him that an honourable wound would not be regarded as any disadvantage by the young ladies at Kingston. The assistant surgeon, James Doyle, a cheery young Irishman, also joined that morning.
"It is glad I am to be out of all the ceremony and botheration on board the frigate," he said as he shook hands with Nat, "and to be afloat on my own account, as it were. Saunders, the surgeon, was enough to wear one out with his preciseness and his regulations; faith, he was a man who would rather take off a man's leg than listen to a joke, and it put me on thorns to hear him speak to the men as if they were every one of them shamming – as if anyone would pretend to be ill when he had to take the bastely medicines Saunders used to make up for them."
"I don't think you will find much shamming here, doctor, especially if the new hands are as good as the others; and I hope that your services will not often be required except in the matter of wounds."
"No fighting means no wounds, and I am afraid that there is no hope of fighting," the surgeon said, shaking his head mournfully; "you and the Orpheus have pretty well cleared out the pirates, and it was a case of pure luck that you came across this craft the other day. But there is no doubt that the Orpheus' men have had all the luck, and the big ships' turn won't come till we have war with France. However, it may be that the luck will stick to you for a bit yet, for, by my faith, I shall before long have forgotten how to take off a limb or to tie up an artery for want of practice. We all envied you when you came in the other day with the two prizes behind you, both big enough to have eaten you up, and though we cheered, there was many a man who grumbled, 'Bad cess to them, the Orpheus' men have got all the luck.'"
"But the Orpheus had nothing to do with it," Nat laughed.
"No, I know that; but you had been one of their men, and had, as I have heard, more than your share already of adventures."
Nat had received no further orders, and sailed that afternoon; two days later he was off the entrance of the great bay. He coasted along the shore as near as he could venture, always keeping a man on watch for signals made by anyone anxious to be taken off. When it became dark the anchor was dropped, so that no part of the shore could be passed without the ship being observed. It was on the seventh day after sailing that he arrived at Port-au-Prince. Half an hour after he had anchored, Monsieur Pickard came off in a boat.
"It is lucky that I lost no time," he said after the first greetings were over; "I got my last bale of goods on board the brig an hour ago, and we are going to warp her out at once so as to be under shelter of your guns."
"Why, what is the matter?"
"There is news that a large force of mulattoes and negroes are coming down from the hills and will be here probably to-morrow morning. Luckily a great part of the negroes were turned out of the town a fortnight ago. There are only two hundred soldiers here, and about as many white volunteers – little enough to defend the place if they attack us. No doubt they chose the moment because there is not a French war-ship of any kind in port. However, I think that all the white women and children are on board the ships. They are all crowded. I have about twenty on board the brig, and have rigged up a sail as an awning, and on such a warm night as this they will sleep better there than they would in a cabin. I can assure you that there was the greatest satisfaction when you were seen coming in. Several of the captains had talked of towing their vessels out three or four miles into the bay, but as soon as it was certain that you were an armed ship, the idea was given up, as many of them were only half-laden; and it was felt that, of whatever nationality you were, you would prevent the negroes from coming off in boats to murder the women and children. Of course I did not know that it was you until I made out your figure from the shore, but as soon as I did so, I told all I knew that they need not trouble about the safety of those on board ship, for I could answer for it that you would not hesitate to turn your guns on any boats that went out to attack them."
"Well, Monsieur Pickard, I cannot believe that the town will be taken, but at any rate I congratulate you on having got all your produce an board."
"Yes, it is a very important matter to us; we cannot calculate upon finding a purchaser for our house at Cape Fran?ois at anything approaching its value at ordinary times. I have a couple of thousand pounds lying at my banker's, and although six months ago I would not have taken forty thousand for the estate and the slaves upon it, I suppose I may consider myself fortunate if I get half that sum, or even less, now. Anyhow, if I get my crop here safe to Jamaica, I need not worry myself as to the future."
"If the place is attacked in the morning, monsieur, I have the admiral's authority to land half my men to aid in the defence; and though twenty men is but a small number, they may render some assistance. I intend to hold them in reserve, and to take them to any spot at which the insurgents may be pressing back the defenders. I shall be obliged if you will inform the officer in command of the troops and the civil authorities that they can count on my assistance to that extent. Will you give them my advice to get all the available boats ranged along by the quay opposite to us, so that in case of the worst all can retreat there. I will cover their embarkation with my guns. Lastly, I should advise the captains of all the ships in port to tow their vessels out and range them behind us, so that there may be nothing to interfere with our line of fire."
"I will inform the committee of defence directly I go ashore, and they will doubtless send off at once to order the various ships to anchor at the spot you indicate. It will be a relief, indeed, to them all to know that you have undertaken their protection."
"I will go ashore with you," Nat said; "though I have landed here more than once I do not know the place well enough to be able to act quickly. I should like to see exactly where your batteries are placed, and where it is most likely that the negroes will make their chief attack."
They went ashore and landed together, and walked to the house where the principal men of the town were assembled.
"Will you come in with me?" Monsieur Pickard asked.
"No, I will leave you to explain what I propose to do and what I recommend that they should do. There is sure to be a lot of talk and discussion, and I do not wish to lose time. The sun will be setting in another hour, so I will make my round at once."
Passing through the town, Nat visited the various batteries that had been erected, and decided that if the blacks were well led they would work round and attack the remains of the native town. The batteries had principally been erected round the European quarter, as if any enemy coming from the hills would be certain to make a direct attack, while the native quarter was almost entirely undefended, although with this once in the possession of the enemy the whole town would lie open to them.
"It is clear that this is the real point of danger," he muttered. "Fortunately, from where we are lying our guns can sweep the widest street that runs down through this quarter. I shall mention my ideas to Pickard. No doubt he is still talking away at the meeting."
He went back to the house. M. Pickard and half a dozen other gentlemen were standing at the door. M. Pickard at once introduced them to him.
"My object in coming round here, gentlemen, is to tell you that in my opinion your defences, which are quite strong enough to protect the town against any body of negroes coming down on the easterly side, are wholly insufficient to repel an attack if made on the native town. I trust, therefore, that when the troops man the defences a considerable number of them at least will be so placed as to be ready to meet an attack from that side. There is practically nothing to prevent the negroes from entering there, and, as many of the mulattoes with them must be perfectly aware of the position of the batteries, they are scarcely likely to propose to make an attack upon them, knowing that the negroes would not be able to face an artillery fire, but would lead them round to attack the almost defenceless native portion of the town."
"We have always reckoned upon their coming upon us by one of the main roads from the hills," one of the gentlemen said.
"So I see, monsieur; but some of the mulattoes with them are men of considerable intelligence, and would be hardly foolish enough to try to break down the door that you have closed against them when they know that there is an open entrance at the back. If there is a man with the smallest spark of military genius about him he will commence the attack by a feint in considerable force against the batteries, and then, under cover of the smoke of your guns and his own – for I hear from Monsieur Pickard that they are said to have fifteen or twenty guns which they have taken at small places on the coast – will send round the main body of his force to fall on the native town. That is my opinion, gentlemen. I know very little of military matters, but it seems to me that is the course that any man of moderate intelligence would pursue, and I therefore should strongly advise that at least half your volunteer force should take post to defend the native town, and so give time to the remainder to come up and assist in the defence. I shall post my sailors in a position where they can best aid in the defence in this direction, and shall have the guns of my ship in readiness to open fire on the native town if you are driven back."
"Thank you, sir. We shall have another meeting late this evening, and I shall do my best to urge the committee to act as you suggest."
Nat returned on board the Agile. Already most of the ships in the port had anchored a short distance outside the brigantine, and a few that had kept on until the last moment taking their cargo on board were being towed by their boats in the same direction. Turnbull and Lippincott were anxiously awaiting Nat's return. Retiring into the cabin, he told them the result of his investigation of the defences and the position on shore.
"I think we shall have hot work to-morrow," he went on. "If the negroes are not absolute fools they will not knock their heads against the batteries. There are twenty cannon in position, for the most part ships' guns, and as I hear that they have plenty of ammunition, and especially grape, they would simply mow the niggers down if they attacked them. There is only one battery with three guns covering the native town, and the blacks ought to have no difficulty in carrying this with a rush. We have learnt by experience that, whatever their faults, they can fight furiously, and are ready enough to risk their lives. Thus, this battery may be taken in a few minutes. If a hundred of the volunteers held the huts behind it they might check them for a time, but as the negroes are several thousands strong the resistance cannot be long. The best point of defence will be that street facing us here. Our guns will come into play, and it is there that I shall join the French as they fall back.
"I shall get you, Mr. Lippincott, to row round this evening to all these craft near us, and to request the captains, in my name, to send all the men provided with muskets they may have, on board us, as soon as firing is heard. You will remain on board in charge, Turnbull; with your arm in a sling, you are not fit for fighting on shore. With your twenty men you ought to be able to work the guns pretty fast. Between their shots the men with muskets would aid. Of course you would use grape. If their attack lulls in the least send a few round-shot among the houses on their side. Pomp and Sam had better go ashore with us and act as boat-keepers. I will take the boat higher up than those of the townspeople, for if a panic seizes them there would be a mad rush to get on board. We will go a couple of hundred yards farther, and the boat will lie a short distance out, and not come in close till they see us running towards it. In that way we can make sure of being able to get on board."
"I should certainly have liked to land," Turnbull said, "but I know that I am not fit yet for hard fighting."
"I suppose you will be taking me along with you?" Doyle said.
"By all means come if you like, but I was not thinking of doing so."
"It is not often that we get a chance of taking a share in the fun. As a rule, as soon as the guns are loaded and ready for action we have to go below, and to stop there bandaging and dressing wounds, with not a chance of seeing what is going on. This is just one chance in a hundred. I should be no good here, for there is no one to look after. I will take with me two or three tourniquets and some bandages, and perchance I may be the means of saving some poor boy's life; and while not so engaged I may have a slap at these murdering blacks. I am a pretty good shot, and when a man can bring down ten snipe out of every dozen, as I have done time after time in the ould country, he ought to be able to put a bullet into a black man's carcass."
"If you are bent upon going, by all means do so. As you say, a tourniquet clapped on directly a man is wounded may save his life, and every additional musket will be a valuable addition to our strength."
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