George Henty.

A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti

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It was just getting light on the following morning when the sound of a cannon was heard, and it was followed by several other shots, mingled with the rattle of distant musketry. The town woke up with a start. Drums beat in the streets, and in a minute or two men armed with rifles and muskets poured out from their houses, and hurried to the rendezvous settled upon the night before. The firing came from the eastern side of the town, and the three batteries in that direction were all engaged. Mingled with the report of the guns came the sound of a more distant cannonade, showing that the insurgents' artillery was also at work. Among the shipping there was as great an excitement as in the town. On board every ship men were running up the ratlines to see if a view of the scene of action could be obtained from aloft. On the decks numbers of women, who had hastily thrown on their upper clothing, or wrapped themselves in shawls, listened anxiously to the sound of firing. Scarce one but had a husband, brother, or son among the defenders of the place.

There were ten vessels lying outside the Agile, and from each of these boats presently put off to the brigantine, some with three or four men, others with as many as ten, all armed with muskets.

"You will soon see how matters go, Turnbull, and whether this is a real or only a feigned attack."

The landing-party were in a few minutes ready to embark. Each man carried fifty rounds of ammunition for his musket, and a dozen additional cartridges for his pistols. Their water-bottles were slung over their shoulders, and each had a hunch of bread and of cold meat that had been boiled in the galley the night before in readiness. They took their places in the cutter and gig, and were soon rowed ashore to the point which Nat had fixed on the previous evening. The various boats and lighters used in loading the ships had all been gathered at the quay facing the Agile, and Nat was pleased to see that his advice in this respect had been followed.

The orders to Sam and Pomp, who were to remain one in each boat, were that they should push the boats out as far as the head-ropes – which had been lengthened for the occasion – would allow them, drop a small grapnel over the stern, and should then keep a sharp look-out. The moment the party were seen returning they were to pull up the grapnels, and haul on the head-ropes till the boats were alongside. Both were armed, and the orders were that they were to shoot anyone who should try to force himself into either boat before the sailors came up.

Nat led his party to an empty house close to the street commanded by the Agile's guns. Six of the sailors were placed as sentinels at the ends of streets running into this, the rest piled arms.

"Now, Mr. Lippincott, I shall be obliged if you will go and ascertain how the affair is proceeding, and whether the batteries are keeping the insurgents well in check.

I am about to start for the battery on this side, where I shall get a fair view of the country round, and see how matters stand.

"You will remain here, Mr. Thompson," he went on to the boatswain, "in charge of the party. I shall take Newman with me in case I have any orders to send to you. Will you come with me also, Doyle?"

The two officers, followed by an active young seaman, started. On arriving near the end of the native town, Nat was glad to see a group of the volunteers in front of him. They saluted as he came up.

"What force have you here, gentlemen?" he asked.

"Fifty men, captain."

"It would have been better if it had been a hundred and fifty. If they come here in force you will not be able to keep them at bay long. Where is your main body?"

"They are gathered in front of the municipal offices in readiness to move wherever their services may be most required."

"That is quite satisfactory. I was afraid that most of them might be at the batteries at the other side of the town, where the troops ought to be quite able to hold their own against the blacks."

At this moment another gentleman, with a red sash over his shoulder, came up. He was the commander of the company stationed there.

"I am afraid that we are rather out of it, monsieur," he said, after exchanging salutes with Nat.

"I am still more afraid, sir, that you are by no means out of it. I think that you will find that before many minutes are over you will be hotly engaged. I have come forward to tell you that my men are placed just on the other side of Royal Street, and to beg that if you are not able to maintain yourselves here – and if you are attacked, I am convinced that it will be in such force that you will be unable to do so – you will not endanger your force by holding on here too long, but will retreat to Royal Street, and there make a stand, occupying the houses on the other side of the street. The guns of my vessel are loaded and in readiness to sweep the street with grape as the negroes try to cross it; and we shall have in addition some forty or fifty men from the merchantmen outside her, who will aid in keeping them in check. If I might advise you, I should say that it would be well for you to write a note, now that you have time to do so, saying that you are attacked in overwhelming force, and are about to fall back to Royal Street, which you will, aided by my sailors and guns, hold to the last, and begging your commander to send his whole force up to support you. This you will, of course, keep until the attack comes, and will send off as soon as you perceive that your position here is untenable."

"I think that is a very good suggestion," the officer said, "and shall carry it out at once."

"I will go on to the battery," Nat said; "from there I shall get a better idea of the situation."

They had scarcely gone beyond the line of houses when a French soldier came running in.

"What is your news?" Nat asked him.

"A great crowd of the enemy are coming, sir. The captain has sent me to beg the commander of the volunteers here to bring up his force to support him."

"You will find him a hundred yards farther on. Now, doctor, you will go forward and have a look."

Arriving at the battery, which was manned by twenty French soldiers under a young lieutenant, Nat and the doctor mounted the parapet. The enemy were still half a mile away. They were in no sort of order, but were coming on in a confused mass.

"There must be three or four thousand of them, lieutenant," Nat said quietly. "You may check them a little, but you will never keep them out of the town if they come on with a rush. I suppose you are loaded with grape?"

"Yes, monsieur," the young Frenchman said.

He felt relieved at the arrival of the commander of the British ship of war, for he was feeling the responsibility of his position greatly.

"I should let them get within four or five hundred yards," Nat said quietly, "then fire your guns singly, loading as rapidly as possible. Here come the volunteers; place five-and-twenty of them on each side of your battery. Let them lie down, and open fire when the enemy are within two hundred and fifty yards. If they come on in spite of the fire, I should say that you had best all retire at the double. It will be of no use trying to hold the houses; they would only outflank you and cut you off. I have already arranged with the volunteers that they shall make a stand at Royal Street. I have a party of my sailors there in readiness to help them, and as the guns of my ship will sweep the street we should certainly be able to hold it until help arrives."

"Thank you, monsieur, I will do as you suggest."

At this moment the volunteers came up at a run.

"Where do you wish me to place my men?" the captain said to the French lieutenant.

"I shall be obliged if you will put half of them on each side of the battery. Let them lie down there, and open fire when the enemy are within two hundred and fifty yards. If when they get within a hundred yards, your fire and ours does not stop them, we will then retreat together at the double. If we were once surrounded we should have no chance whatever. Give your guns an elevation of five hundred yards," he said to his men.

When this was done he looked inquiringly at Nat. The other nodded.

"Yes, I think it is about five hundred yards." Then he turned to the seaman: "Go back as quickly as you can, Newman, and tell Mr. Thompson that the blacks are coming, and that we shall probably be with him five minutes after you arrive. Tell him also to send a man down as we had arranged to the wharf, to signal to the ship to be in readiness."

As he spoke the first of the guns boomed out. A few seconds later the second was fired, and this was followed by the third at a similar interval. The cannon were old ship guns, and had been heavily charged with grape, and the destruction wrought upon the crowded mass of negroes was so great that they stopped suddenly. Several of their leaders were seen to rush to the front waving and gesticulating, and with a wild yell the negroes again advanced. They had gone but fifty yards when the gun that was first fired spoke out again, followed quickly by the others. This time there was no pause in the advance. Yelling furiously the negroes, who were armed with guns, discharged them at random. Two more rounds were fired, and then the crakle of the rifles and muskets of the volunteers broke out. The centre of the negro line paused indecisively, but the flanks continued on their way without a check.

"It is just as I thought," Nat said to the doctor, who was loading and firing his piece rapidly. "Do you see how their flanks are extending? One more round, lieutenant, and then we had best be going, or we shall be cut off from the town."

Again the three guns were discharged. The execution was terrible in the centre of the black line, but the flanks still kept on.

"Now, captain, get your men together," Nat said to the civilian officer who was standing beside him; "if you go to the right I will go to the left. They won't hear our voices in this din."

Another half-minute and the soldiers and volunteers were running at the top of their speed, but keeping well together, towards the town. They had a hundred and fifty yards' start, and also the advantage that the blacks had been coming forward at a run for over half a mile. Therefore, although the latter came on with yells of triumph and exultation, they did not gain on the little party. Indeed, when they once entered the native town the French considerably increased their distance, for the negroes, fearing that they might fall into an ambush, came along more carefully.

"Post your men at the windows of the houses opposite to you," Nat said to the French lieutenant.

"Did you send your messenger on?" he asked, as he ran up to the volunteer officer.

The latter gave an exclamation of horror.

"No, I forgot all about it."

"So did I, or I should have reminded you of it. Give it to one of the men now, and tell him to take it as hard as he can run. Tell your men off in threes and fours to the houses opposite. I have no doubt we can keep them in check till help comes."

Thompson was waiting in the street as the party ran up.

"Where have you posted your men?" Nat asked him.

"I thought most likely that they would come down this street, so I put four men in each of the two houses facing it, seven are in the two houses facing the next street coming down, the rest are here."

Nat hurried up to the French officer.

"My men are in the two houses facing this and the next street, will you occupy the houses next them, and tell the officer of the volunteers to scatter his men in twos and threes in the other houses. Doctor, you had better join the party in the house facing the next street; and do you, Mr. Thompson, place yourself with five men in the house facing the street beyond. We shall have the brunt of it, for they are more likely to come by these streets than by those near the harbour, knowing, as they do, that our ship is lying anchored off there."

It was three or four minutes before Nat, from the window at which he had posted himself, saw a great body of negroes and mulattoes coming along the street facing him.

"Open fire at once, lads," he said. "Take good aim; every shot ought to tell in that crowd, and our fire will let them know on board that the blacks are close at hand."

Yelling, shouting, and brandishing their weapons, the insurgents poured down. The fire from the next two parties had showed that the negroes were also advancing by the streets above.

A minute later three black columns poured into Royal Street, and as they did so a fire broke out from every window facing them. Then came a deep roar, and a storm of grape swept along the street; another and another followed, and with yells of surprise and fear the rioters rushed back into shelter, leaving the streets strewn with dead and dying. It was some minutes before they could rally, and in the meantime three of the guns of the Agile sent ball after ball among the houses to the west of the street. Three times did the negroes attempt to cross the fatal road, but each time they fell back with heavy loss, which was specially severe in their last attempt, as the main body of the volunteers had now come up, entered by the backs of the houses and joined the defenders, and the fire of two hundred and fifty muskets played terrible havoc among the assailants. There was a pause in the fight now, and the ship's broadside continued to sweep the native town with balls while an occasional spurt of musketry fire broke out when the blacks showed themselves in any of the streets. Suddenly from a score of houses in the native town smoke, followed speedily by flames, mounted up.

"The scoundrels have fired the town," exclaimed Doyle, who had now joined Nat. "They see they have no chance of crossing here, and as they cannot plunder the place they have made up their mind to destroy it."

"Yes, and they are likely to succeed, doctor, the wind is blowing this way. Half the native houses are roofed with palm leaves, and will burn like tinder. Our only chance now is to drive the blacks out altogether and then fight the fire."

He at once sent a sailor down with a flag to signal to the ship to stop firing, then he went out into the street. As soon as he was seen he was joined by the French lieutenant and the commander, with several officers of the volunteers, together with Monsieur Pickard.

"I think, gentlemen," Nat said, "that unless we take the offensive and drive the blacks out of the town there will be little hope of extinguishing the fire. The wind is blowing strongly in this direction, and there is not a moment to be lost if we are to save the town. The negroes must be thoroughly demoralized, they must have lost over a thousand men here and three or four hundred before they entered the town. It is quite likely that they have retreated already, but in any case I do not anticipate any serious resistance."

The others at once agreed. The drums were beaten, and the volunteers, soldiers, and sailors poured out from the houses, and then, dividing into three columns, advanced down the streets through which the blacks had retired. They met with no resistance. A few negroes who had entered houses to gather plunder were shot down as they issued out, but with these exceptions none of the enemy were seen until the columns issued from the town, when the negroes could be seen retreating at a run across the plain. The French officer at once ran forward with his men to the little battery, and sent shot after shot among them, for they were still less than half a mile away. The sailors and volunteers slung their muskets behind them, and, running back, endeavoured to check the course of the flames. This, however, was impossible. The fire spread from house to house with extraordinary rapidity. The wind hurled the burning flakes on ahead, dropping many upon the inflammable roofs, and in twenty minutes the whole quarter west of Royal Street was in flames. Nat was now joined by Turnbull and all the crew, the two negroes, who had been sent off to the ship with the boats, alone remaining in charge of the vessel.

"We have beaten the negroes, Turnbull, but the fire will beat us. If this wind continues it will sweep the whole town away. It is useless to try and save any of these native houses. Look at the burning flakes flying over our heads!"

After a short consultation with the French officers they agreed that the only chance was to arrest the fire at the edge of the European quarter, and that the whole force should at once set to work to pull down the native houses adjoining them. The sound of cannon on the other side of the town had continued until now, but it gradually ceased, as the news reached the negroes there that the main attack, of whose success they had felt sure, had hopelessly failed, and it was not long before the troops from the batteries came up to assist the workers. Their labours, however, were in vain. A shout of dismay called the attention of the men who, half-blinded with the dust and smoke, were working their utmost. Looking round, they saw that the flames were mounting up from several of the houses behind them. The wood-work was everywhere as dry as tinder, and the burning flakes, which were falling thickly upon them, had set the houses on fire in a dozen places.

"We can do nothing more, sir," the officer in command of the troops said. "The business part of the town is doomed. All that we could even hope to save are the detached houses standing in gardens and shrubberies."

So it turned out. The flames swept onward until the business quarter, as well as the native town, was completely burnt out, and it needed all the efforts of the soldiers and inhabitants to prevent the private residences of the merchants and planters from being ignited by the burning fragments scattered far and wide by the wind. It was noon when the officers and crew of the Agile, accompanied by M. Pickard – who was, like all the rest blackened by the dust and smoke – returned on board.

"Well, that has been as hot a morning's work as I ever went through," Turnbull said. "It is hard to believe that a battle has been fought and a town destroyed in the course of about five hours."

"Yes; I think on the whole we may be very well satisfied, Turnbull, though I suppose the people who have lost their houses and stores will hardly see it in the same light. Still, they saved their lives, and at any rate, Monsieur Pickard, you can be congratulated on having got all your goods on board just in time."

"I am thankful indeed that it is so," the planter said. "I hope, of course, to get something for my estate. As to the house, after what we have seen here I cannot set much value on it. What has happened this morning may happen at Cape Fran?ois to-morrow. They might not be able to take it, but a dozen negroes choosing their time when a strong wind is blowing, and starting the fires in as many places, might level the town to the ground. At any rate, I shall direct the captain of the brig to sail at once for Kingston, and to deliver the cargo to my agent there, and shall proceed myself to Cape Fran?ois. I wish to learn whether the bank there has sent off its funds and securities to some safer place, or is retaining them. In the latter case I shall withdraw them at once, and shall put up my estates for sale."

"I will give you a passage, Monsieur Pickard. I have nothing more to stay here for, and shall sail up the coast to-morrow morning."

"Thank you very much; I accept your offer with gladness. I am anxious to close all my connection with this unfortunate island as soon as possible."

In the afternoon the governor of the town, with the officer commanding the troops, the maire, and a deputation of the leading citizens, came off to thank Nat for the assistance that his crew and guns had rendered. They brought with them an official document rehearsing these services, and saying that had it not been for the assistance they had rendered, the town would undoubtedly have been captured by the blacks, and probably all the whites on shore massacred, together with their wives and families, who had taken refuge on board the shipping. The commandant stated that this document would be sent to the British admiral at Kingston. Nat replied very modestly, saying that both the officers and men on board had rejoiced at being able to render a service in the cause of humanity, and that he was only acting in accordance with the orders he had received from the admiral to afford every aid in his power to the white population of the island.

After this official visit many of the merchants, planters, and military officers came off individually to thank him for having saved their wives and families by the protection that he had afforded to the shipping, and by the aid given by his guns and the landing-party, which had alone saved the town from capture. At daybreak next morning the Agile got up her anchor and started for the north. The brig containing Monsieur Pickard's property had sailed the previous afternoon, and the rest of the shipping were preparing to start at the time the Agile got up anchor. All of them were crowded with fugitives, the women and children being now joined by many of their male relatives, who had lost almost all they possessed by the destruction of their homes and warehouses.

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