George Henty.

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

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It was some minutes before the boat again appeared. It was at once headed for the frigate.

"Mr. Playford has news for us of some sort," the captain said, "the men are rowing hard." In a few minutes the boat came alongside. The second officer ran up the accommodation ladder.

"Well, Mr. Playford, what is your news?"

"There is an inlet, sir, though if we had not been close in to those rocks I should never have noticed it. It runs almost parallel with the coast for a quarter of a mile. I thought at first that it ended there, but it makes a sharp angle to the south-east, and continues for a mile or so, and at the other end there is a large schooner, I have no doubt a slaver. I fancy they are landing the slaves now. There is a barracoon on the shore and some storehouses."

"Did they see you?"

"No, sir; at least I don't think so. Directly I saw that the passage was going to make a turn, I went close in to the rocks on the other side, and brought up at the corner where I could get a view without there being much fear of our being seen, and indeed I don't think that it would have been possible to make us out unless someone had been watching with a glass."

"We shall soon know whether they saw you, Mr. Playford. If they did they will probably set all hands to work to tow the schooner out, for though there is not wind enough to give us steerage-way, these slavers will slip along under the slightest breath. They can hardly have made the frigate out. They probably thought the hiding-place so secure that they did not even put a watch on the cliffs. Of course if there was anyone up there they could have seen the boat leave our side, and would have watched her all along.

"Did you see any place at which the cliff could be climbed?"

"No, sir, and up to the turn the rocks are just as steep inside as they are here, but beyond that the inlet widens out a good deal and the banks slope gradually, and a landing could be effected anywhere there, I should say."

"We will send the boats in as soon as it gets dark, Mr. Hill. If they saw us coming they would drive off the slaves into the woods before we could get there, so the best plan will be to land a strong party at the bend, so that they can get down to the barracoon at the same time that the others board the schooner. No doubt this is a regular nest of slave-traders. It has long been suspected that there was some depot on this side of the island. It has often been observed that slavers when first made out were heading in this direction, and more than once craft that were chased, and, as it seemed, certain to be caught in the morning, have mysteriously disappeared. This hiding-place accounts for it.

"You did not ascertain what depth of water there was at the mouth of the creek, Mr. Playford?"

"Yes, sir, I sounded right across with the boat's grapnel; there is nowhere more than two and a half fathoms, but it is just about that depth right across."

"Then it is evident that we cannot take the frigate in.

What is the width at the mouth?"

"About thirty yards."

An hour later the Orpheus anchored opposite the mouth of the inlet, which, however, was still invisible.

"I think that, as this may be an important capture, Mr. Hill, it would be as well for you to go in charge of the boats. Mr. Playford will take the command of the landing-party. I should say that twenty marines, under Lieutenant Boldero, and as many blue-jackets, would be ample for that. He had better take the long-boat and one of the gigs, while you take the launch, the pinnace, and the other gig. If they have made us out, we may expect a very tough resistance, and it may be that, although Mr. Playford saw nothing of them, they may have a couple of batteries higher up."

"Likely enough, sir."

"You had better let the landing-party have a start of you, so that if they should unmask a battery on the side on which they are, they can rush down at once and silence it."

"Very good, sir."

The sun was now approaching the horizon; as soon as it dipped behind it the boats were lowered, and the sailors, who had already made all preparations, at once took their places in them. Needham was in command of the gig that carried a portion of the landing-party, Nat was in charge of the other gig, and Low was in charge of the pinnace, Mr. Hill going in the launch. Nat had first been told off to the gig now commanded by Needham, but the captain said to the first lieutenant, "You had better take Glover with you, Mr. Hill, and let Needham go with Mr. Playford. Scrambling along on the shore in the dark, one might very well get a heavy fall, and it is as well that Glover should not risk breaking his arm again."


Night fell rapidly as soon as the sun had set, and by the time the boats reached the mouth of the inlet it was already dark. The two boats under the second officer entered first, rowed up the inlet to the bend, and landed the marines and sailors on the opposite side; the boarding-party lay on their oars for five minutes and then followed. The oars were muffled, and the men ordered to row as noiselessly as they could, following each other closely, and keeping under the left bank. They were about half-way up when the word "Fire!" was shouted in Spanish, and six guns were simultaneously discharged. Had the Spaniards waited a few seconds longer, the three boats would all have been in line with the guns. As it was, a storm of grape sent the water splashing up ahead of the pinnace, which, however, received the contents of the gun nearest to them. It was aimed a little low, and fortunately for the crew the shot had not yet begun to scatter, and the whole charge struck the boat just at the water-level, knocking a great hole in her.

"We are sinking, Mr. Hill," Low said. "Will you come alongside and pick us up?"

Although the launch was but a length behind, the gunwale of the pinnace was nearly level with the water as she came alongside. Its occupants were helped on board the launch, which at once held on her way. Half a minute later six guns were fired from the opposite bank. The boats were so close under the shore that their position could not be made out with any certainty. Three men were hit by the grapeshot, but beyond this there were no casualties.

"Keep in as much as you dare," Mr. Hill said to the coxswain; "the battery opposite will be loaded again in a couple of minutes, but as long as we keep in the shadow of the shore their shooting will be wild."

The battery, indeed, soon began to fire again, irregularly, as the guns were loaded. The shot tore up the water ahead and astern of the boats, but it was evident that those at the guns could not make out their precise position. Another five minutes and the boats were headed for the schooner.

"You board at the bow, Mr. Glover, I will make for her quarter. Now, lay out, lads, as hard as you can, the sooner you are there the less chance you have of being hit."

A moment later a great clamour arose behind them. First came a British cheer; then rapid discharges of pistols and muskets, mingled with the clash of cutlasses and swords; a minute or two later this ceased, and the loud cheer of the marines and seamen told those in the boats that they had carried the battery. The diversion was useful to the boats. Until now the slavers had been ignorant that a party of foes had landed, and the fact that a barracoon full of slaves, and the storehouses, were already threatened, caused something like consternation among them. The consequence was that they fired hastily and without taking time to aim. Before they could load again the boats were alongside, unchecked for an instant by the musketry fire which broke out from the deck of the schooner as soon as cannon had been discharged.

Boarding-nettings had been run up, but holes were soon chopped in these by the sailors. Headed by Nat, the crew of the gig leapt down on to the deck, for the greater part of the slaver's crew ran aft to oppose what they considered the more dangerous attack made by the occupants of the crowded launch. The defence was successfully maintained until the crew of the gig, keeping close together and brushing aside the resistance of the few men forward, flung themselves upon the main body of the slavers, and with pistol and cutlass hewed their way through them till abreast of the launch. The slavers attacked them furiously, and would speedily have annihilated them, but the crew of the launch, led by Mr. Hill, came swarming over the bulwarks, and, taking the offensive, drove the slavers forward, where, seeing that all was lost, they sprang overboard, striking out for the shore to the right.

Severe fighting was now going on opposite the schooner, where the landing-party were evidently attacking the barracoon and storehouses.

"To the boats, men!" Mr. Hill shouted, "our fellows are being hard pressed on shore; Mr. Glover, you with the gig's crew will remain in charge here."

Indeed, it was evident that the resistance on shore was much more obstinate than had been expected. Nat stood watching the boat. Just as it reached the shore one of the sailors shouted, "Look out, sir!" and he saw a big mulatto rushing at him with uplifted sword. His cutlass was still in his hand, and throwing himself on guard he caught the blow as it fell upon it, and in return brought his cutlass down on his opponent's cheek. With a howl of pain the man sprang at him, but Nat leaped aside, and his cutlass fell on the right wrist of the mulatto, whose sword dropped from his hand, and, rushing to the side, he threw himself overboard. In the meantime a fierce struggle was going on between the sailors and seven or eight of the slavers who, being unable to swim, had thrown themselves down by the guns and shammed death, as had Nat's antagonist, who was first mate of the schooner. The fight was short but desperate, and one by one the slavers were run through or cut down, but not before three or four of the sailors had received severe wounds.

"Get a lantern, mate," one of these growled, "and see that there are no more of these skulking hounds alive."

The sailors, furious at what they considered treachery, fetched a light that was burning in the captain's cabin, and without mercy ran through two or three unwounded men whom they found hiding among the fallen. It was soon clear that the reinforcement that had landed had completely turned the tables. Gradually the din rolled away from the neighbourhood of the storehouses, there was some sharp firing as the enemy fled towards the wood behind, and then all was quiet. Presently there was a shout in Mr. Hill's voice from the shore:

"Schooner ahoy!"

"Ay, ay, sir."

"Load with grape, Mr. Glover, and send a round or two occasionally into that wood behind the houses; I am going to leave thirty men here under Mr. Playford, and to take the rest over to the opposite side and carry the battery there."

"Ay, ay, sir."

And as the guns pointing on that side had not been discharged, he at once opened fire on the wood. A minute later the launch and gig rowed past the schooner and soon reached the opposite side. Ten minutes passed without any sound of conflict being heard, and Nat had no doubt that the battery had been found deserted. It was not long before the boats were seen returning. They rowed this time to the schooner.

"Mr. Glover," the first lieutenant said as he reached the deck, "do you lower the schooner's cutter, put all the wounded on board, take four of your men and row out to the frigate and report to the captain what has taken place. Tell him that Mr. Playford carried the battery on the right in spite of the guns, and that I have spiked those in the battery on the left, which I found deserted. Say that we have had a sharp fight on shore with a large number of negroes led by two or three white men and some mulattoes, and that I believe there must be some large plantations close at hand whose owners are in league with the slavers. You can say that we found a hundred and twenty slaves in the barracoon, evidently newly landed from the schooner, and that I intend to find the plantations and give them a lesson in the morning. How many wounded have you here?"

"There are fourteen altogether, sir; ten of them were wounded in the first attack, and four have been wounded since by some of the slavers who shammed death."

"There are eight more in the launch, happily we have only two men killed. You had better give all the wounded a drink of water; I have a flask, and I dare say you have one: empty them both into the bucket."

There was a barrel half full of water on deck; a bucketful of this was drawn, and the two flasks of spirits emptied into it, and a mug of the mixture given to each of the wounded men. They were then assisted down into the schooner's boat; four of the gig's crew took their places in it, and Nat, taking the tiller, told them to row on.

Half an hour later they came alongside the frigate. A sailor ran down the ladder with a lantern. Nat stepped out and mounted to the deck. The captain was standing at the gangway.

"We have been uneasy about you, Mr. Glover. We heard a number of reports of heavier guns than they were likely to carry on board a slaver, and feared that they came from shore batteries."

"Yes, sir, there were two of them mounting six guns each. Mr. Playford, with the landing-party, captured the one on the eastern side; Mr. Hill, after the schooner was taken and the enemy on shore driven off, rowed across and took the other, which he found unoccupied."

"What is the loss?"

"Only two killed, sir, but there are twenty-two wounded, two or three of them by musket-shots, and the rest cutlass wounds. They are all in the boat below, sir."

A party was at once sent down to carry up such of the wounded as were unable to walk. As soon as all were taken below, and the surgeon had begun his work, the captain asked Nat to give him a full account of the proceedings.

"I cannot tell you much of what took place ashore, sir," he said, "as Mr. Hill left me in charge of the schooner. After we had carried her, he went ashore with the crews of the launch and pinnace to help Mr. Playford."

"Tell me all you know first."

Nat related the opening of the two batteries, and how one had been almost immediately captured by Mr. Playford.

"So the pinnace was sunk?"

"Yes, sir, the enemy's charge struck her between wind and water, and she went down at once; her crew were picked up by the launch. I hear that none of them were injured." Then he told how they had kept under the shelter of the shore, and thus escaped injury from the other battery, and how the schooner had been captured.

"It was lucky that your men got a footing forward, Mr. Glover. You did well to lead them aft at once, and thus assist Mr. Hill's party to board."

Nat then related the sudden attack by the slavers who had been feigning death.

"It was lucky that it was no worse," the captain said. "No doubt they were fellows who couldn't swim, and if there had been a few more it would have gone hard with you. And now about this fight on shore; it can hardly have been the crew of the schooner, for, by the stout resistance they offered, they must have been all on board."

"Yes, sir."

Nat then gave the message that Mr. Hill had sent.

"No doubt, Mr. Glover; I dare say this place has been used by slavers for years. Probably there are some large barracoons where the slaves are generally housed, and planters who want them either come or send from all parts of the island. I will go ashore myself early to-morrow morning. There is no question that this is an important capture, and it will be a great thing to break up this centre of the slave-trade altogether. Now that their hiding-place has once been discovered, they will know that our cruisers will keep a sharp look-out here, and a vessel once bottled up in this inlet has no chance whatever of escape. You can go with me, it is thanks to the sharpness of your eyes that we made the discovery."

The sun had not yet shown above the eastern horizon when the captain's gig passed in through the mouth of the inlet, and ten minutes later rowed alongside the wharf in front of the barracoon.

"There is another wharf farther along," the captain said; "we may take that as proof that there are often two of these slavers in here at the same time. Ah, there is Mr. Hill! I congratulate you on your success," he went on, as the first lieutenant joined him; "there is no doubt that this has been a regular rendezvous for the scoundrels. It is well that you attacked after dark, for the cross fire of those batteries, aided by that of the schooner, would have knocked the boats into matchwood."

"That they would have done, sir. I was very glad when I saw the boat coming, as I thought it was probable that you were on board her, and we are rather in a difficulty."

"What is that, Mr. Hill?"

"Well, sir, as soon as we had settled matters here we followed the enemy, and found a road running up the valley; and as it was along this that most of the fellows who opposed us had no doubt retreated, I thought it as well to follow them up at once. We had evidently been watched, for a musketry fire was opened upon us from the trees on both sides. I sent Mr. Boldero with the marines to clear them out on the left, and Mr. Playford with twenty seamen to do the same on the right, and then I pressed forward with the rest. Presently a crowd of negroes came rushing down from the front, shouting, and firing muskets. We gave them a volley, and they bolted at once. We ran straight on, and a hundred yards farther up came upon a large clearing.

"In the middle stood a house, evidently that of a planter. A short distance off were some houses, probably inhabited by the mulatto overseers, and a few huts for his white overseers, and some distance behind these were four large barracoons. We made straight for these, for we could hear a shouting there, and had no doubt that the mulattoes were trying to get the slaves out and to drive them away into the wood. However, as soon as we came up the fellows bolted. There were about a hundred slaves in each barracoon. No doubt the fellows who attacked us were the regular plantation hands. I suppose the owner of the place made sure that we should be contented with what we had done, and should not go beyond the head of the inlet; and when the firing began again he sent the plantation men down to stop us until he had removed the slaves. I left Mr. Playford in command there, and brought twenty men back here; and I was just going to send off a message to you saying what had taken place, and asking for instructions. You see, with the slaves we found here, we have over five hundred blacks in our hands. That is extremely awkward."

"Extremely," the captain said thoughtfully. "Well, I will go back with you and see the place. As to the houses – the plantation house and the barracoons – I shall have no hesitation in destroying them. This is evidently a huge slaving establishment, and, as the blacks and their overseers attacked us, we are perfectly justified in destroying this den altogether. If I could catch their owner I should assuredly hang him. The difficulty is what to do with all these unfortunate creatures; the schooner would not hold more than two hundred if packed as close as herrings. However, the other thing is first to be thought of."

Nat followed his commander and the lieutenant to the plantation, or, it should rather be said, to the depot; for the clearing in the valley was but a quarter of a mile long and a few hundred yards wide. It was evident that if the owner had a plantation it was at some distance away, and that the men with whom they had fought were principally mulattoes and negroes employed about the place, and in minding the slaves as they were brought in.

They passed straight on to the barracoons. The sailors had already brought the slaves out and knocked off their irons. The poor creatures sat on the ground, evidently bewildered at what had taken place, and uncertain whether they were in the hands of friends or enemies.

"Some of the men have found the cauldrons in which food is cooked," Mr. Hill said, "and are now preparing a meal for them; and as we found some hogsheads of molasses and stores of flour and rice they will get a better meal than they are accustomed to. I have set some of the strongest slaves to pump water into those big troughs there; the poor beggars will feel all the better after a wash."

"They will indeed. I don't suppose they have had one since they were first captured in Africa."

In half an hour a meal was served. As an effort of cooking it could hardly be termed a success, but was a sort of porridge, composed of flour and rice sweetened with molasses. There was some difficulty in serving it out, for only a few mugs and plates were found at the barracoons. These were supplemented by all the plates, dishes, and other utensils in the houses of the owner and overseers. By this time the negroes had been taken in parties of twenties to the troughs, where they had a thorough wash.

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