George Henty.

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



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"They must be gathering at the edge of the trees now," the lieutenant said at last. "Now, Tomkins, light that fireball and heave it over."

The ball, which was formed of old junk, was about the size of a man's head. The material had been smeared with tar mixed with sulphur, and Tomkins held in his hand the lanyard attached to it. He applied a slow match to it, and it broke into a blaze at once. Swinging it round his head, he hurled it far in front of him. By its light as it fell a crowd of figures could be seen gathered along the edge of the forest. A fierce yell broke from them, and loud shouts were raised by the leaders ordering them to charge, but before they could get into motion four guns poured a storm of grape among them, followed directly afterwards by the contents of four others. An appalling din of yells and shrieks was heard, but without an instant's hesitation a score of figures in European dress darted forward, followed by a mass of blacks, behind whom came another thirty or forty Europeans or mulattoes driving the negroes before them.

"Pick off the whites!" Lieutenant Boldero shouted to the marines, and a dropping fire of musketry was at once opened.

The distance, however, from the edge of the trees to the palisades was but some fifty yards; the light was dim and uncertain, and in a minute from the first shot being fired the assailants were swarming along the foot of the palisade. There was no hesitation, and it was evident that the men who led the attack had made every preparation. A number of the assailants carried ladders; these were placed against the wall, and the whites and mulattoes swarmed up, closely followed by the negroes. So sudden and unexpected was this assault that in several places they obtained a footing inside the palisades, but with a wild yell the slaves at once rushed up the bank and fell upon them. At the same moment the boom of the schooner's guns told that they had made out parties of the enemy advancing against the flanks of the works.

The arrival of the slaves soon changed the position. The assailants were cut down, run through, or forced to leap down over the stockade that they had just crossed. In spite of the shouts of the lieutenant, the slaves, thirsting for vengeance, leapt down after them, and fell with such fury upon the assailants that these, seized with a panic, fled. At the edge of the trees, however, the efforts of the whites checked the flight. Guns and pistols were discharged for the first time, and a fierce fight presently raged.

"We must go down and lend them a hand," the lieutenant said. "Keep your men here, Mr. Glover, to get the guns loaded again; I will take my blue-jackets and the marines. Light a port fire or two, else, in spite of their white head-gear, we shall be hurting our friends."

The sailors and marines soon scrambled down the ladders, and, led by their officers, rushed forward with loud cheers. Their arrival at once decided the fortune of the fray.

Rushing through their black allies, they fell with sword and cutlass, musket and bayonet, upon the Europeans, whose pistols had given them a decided advantage over the slaves, but who could not stand the charge of the marines and seamen. These pursued them for some little distance, but when beyond the range of the lights of the stockade Lieutenant Playford halted them. The slaves, however, continued the pursuit for some time, and then they, too, returned, having overtaken and killed many of their flying enemies.

"There is nothing more to be done till daylight," Mr. Playford said. "Indeed, I do not think that we shall hear any more of these fellows, who, to do them justice, fought well. Our guns must have done a good deal of execution, though they would have done much more had they not been so close; the bullets had hardly begun to scatter. However, we shall see in the morning. It is lucky that we armed the slaves, or it would have gone very hard with us. You see, we had half our men at the guns, and the others were too thinly scattered along the line to be able to defend it against so determined an attack. I expect they never calculated on the slaves being armed, and thought that they had only forty or fifty men to deal with. After the lesson that they have had I don't think they will molest us again, unless there are any troops in the neighbourhood that they can bring up."

The palisades were recrossed and sentries set; grog was served out to the seamen and marines; the slaves were mad with delight, and danced and sang songs of triumph for some time. As soon, however, as the lieutenant motioned them to return to their huts they did so at once. Many of them were wounded more or less severely, but they seemed to think nothing of this, being too much pleased with the vengeance they had taken to care aught for the pain. Nat prepared to return to the schooner with his men, none of whom were, however, seriously hurt, as they had been held in reserve. Altogether, three sailors and a marine had been killed and six severely wounded.

"Are you going on board, Mr. Playford?"

"No; I shall stay ashore till morning. I do not think that there is the remotest chance of the attack being renewed; however, it is clearly my duty to stay here."

As soon as it was daylight Nat went on shore again, and with ten of his own men, ten marines, and a hundred of the slaves, went over the ground to collect the wounded, and learn the loss of the assailants. All the wounded sailors had been carried into the fort when the fight ceased. Six Spaniards and nine mulattoes lay dead either on the earthen rampart or at the foot of the palisade. All of them were pierced in several places by pikes, or mutilated with blows of axes. Round them lay some twenty plantation negroes, and thirty others had fallen at the edge of the wood, shattered by the discharges of the cannon or killed in the hand-to-hand conflict; among them were twelve of the released slaves. Not a single white or mulatto was found alive.

The party pursued their way for a quarter of a mile into the wood. Here and there were scattered the bodies of the assailants who had been overtaken by their pursuers. The latter had done their work thoroughly, for not a single man was found to be breathing. When they came to a point beyond which the slaves by signs apprised them that they had not gone, they returned, collecting and carrying down the bodies of the dead as they went. They found on their return that two trenches, four feet deep and thirty feet long, had already been dug, at the edge of the forest and as far from the camp as possible. In one of these the bodies of the Spaniards and mulattoes were laid, and in the other that of the negroes. The earth was then filled in.

"It has been an unpleasant job, but a necessary one," Lieutenant Playford said, when he knew that the work was done, and the whole party re-entered the fort. "In a climate like this the place would have been uninhabitable in a couple of days if we had not buried them all."

In the afternoon two fresh graves were made, and the fallen sailors were reverently laid to rest in one, the dead slaves in the other. Water was brought up in buckets by the negroes from the edge of the creek, and all signs of the conflict on the rampart and at the foot of the palisade either washed away or covered with earth. Then matters resumed their former aspect.

Early the next morning the look-out on the cliff ran down and reported that a large brigantine was just entering the inlet. Mr. Playford shouted the news to Nat.

"I will send off the marines to you," he said. "I will remain here with the blue-jackets."

The Spanish flag was at once run up to the peak. In two or three minutes the boat with the marines came alongside. They and the greater part of the sailors at once lay down on the deck, while the few who remained on foot took off their straw hats and white jumpers, tied handkerchiefs round their heads, and gave themselves as unseamanlike an appearance as possible. Ten minutes later the brigantine appeared round the point; there was scarce a breath of wind, and she had two boats towing her. A flag hung from her mast-head, and as Nat turned his glass upon it he exclaimed to Boldero, who, having removed his coat and cap, was standing by his side:

"It is the black flag; the fellow must be pretty sure of his welcome or he would never venture to haul it up."

In the meantime the guns ashore had been slued round, and were now pointed on a spot somewhat ahead of the schooner. She came slowly along until within some four or five lengths of the latter, then there was a sudden shout on board, followed by a tremendous hubbub. It was clear that the line of palisades surrounding the huts had been noticed and the guns seen.

The brigantine was crowded with men. She carried twelve guns in her ports, and a long swivel eighteen-pounder in her bow. There was now no longer any motive for concealment, the marines and seamen leapt to their feet with a cheer, and a moment later the schooner's two foremost guns, which would alone bear on the boats, spoke out, while almost at the same moment two of those on the rampart sent a shower of grape into them. Both boats sank immediately, those of the crews who were uninjured swimming to the brigantine. Contradictory orders were shouted on board the pirate. One by one her guns on the port side answered those on the ramparts.

"Get ready, my lads!" Nat shouted, "she will be alongside directly."

The impetus of the schooner's way was indeed sufficient to take her slowly but surely forward, and the pirate slightly changed his course so as to bring her outside the schooner. Playford saw what his object was, and the remaining guns poured their charges of grape across the deck of the brigantine, committing terrible havoc. Before they could be loaded again she was alongside the schooner, and so covered by her from the fire of the guns on shore. As the vessels came abreast of each other at a distance of two or three feet only, Nat and the young marine officer leapt on to the pirate's deck followed by their men. The resistance of the pirates was desperate. Although they had suffered much loss from the fire of the guns, they were still numerically stronger than their assailants, and, fighting as they did with the desperation of despair, they not only held their ground, but pushed their assailants back towards the bulwark.

For three or four minutes the fight continued without any marked advantage to either party; the pistols of the seamen and pirates and the muskets of the marines were empty, and they were fighting hand to hand. Then slowly the advantage turned against the pirates, but the issue was still undecided when there was a loud cheer, and Mr. Playford with fifteen sailors leapt on the deck of the pirate from the other side, the approach of the boat having been unnoticed in the heat of the fray. The pirates now broke; their captain had fallen, and, outnumbered and hopeless, some threw down their arms, while others jumped overboard. Those who surrendered were at once bound and battened down in the hold of the schooner, some eight or ten only gained the opposite shore and took to the woods. The victory had not been a bloodless one. Five of the frigate's crew had been killed, and there were few among Nat's command who were not more or less severely wounded.

"It was a sharp fight, Mr. Glover," Mr. Playford said.

"It was indeed, sir. At one time they fairly drove us back, but I think that we should have beaten them even if you had not brought help to us."

"I am sure you would," the lieutenant said warmly. "I could see as I boarded that although the men in front were fighting hard, those in the rear were hanging back as if they had had enough of it. Still, you might have lost more men than you did before you finished with them if we had not turned up. You see, fighting with pirates is quite a different thing from fighting with any other opponents. These fellows know well enough that there is no mercy for them, and that they have nothing before them but to fight until they die, or to be tried and hanged. The veriest coward would fight till the last with such an alternative as that before him. I would rather fight a hundred and fifty French or Spanish seamen than a hundred pirates. She is a fine roomy craft that we have taken, and I think we shall now be able to carry off all these blacks. No doubt it will be a close pack for them, but for a short voyage that will not matter. Now let us see to our wounded. After that is done we can get off the hatches and have a look round below. Of course she may have come in here for water, but it is likely that she has at least some booty in her hold."

This proved to be the case. She was half full of goods of a more or less valuable kind, and these, by the marks on the bales and boxes, had evidently formed part of the cargoes of three ships. Two days later the Orpheus was seen returning along the coast, and Nat was at once sent off by the lieutenant with his written report of what had taken place since she had sailed. The gig reached the side of the frigate just as the anchor was let go.

"I see your right arm is in a sling, Mr. Glover," the captain said as he handed him the report, "so I suppose that you have had some fighting."

"Yes, sir, we have had some pretty sharp fighting."

"What is your wound?"

"Only a chop with a cutlass, sir."

"Oh, you came to hand-to-hand work, did you?"

Nat gave no answer, for the captain had opened the report and was now running his eye down it.

"Very satisfactory," he said, as he handed it to the first lieutenant. "An attacking force handsomely repulsed and a pirate captured. Very good work indeed, very good. I see Mr. Boldero was wounded, Mr. Glover."

"Yes, sir, he was hit on the head with a pistol-shot. Fortunately the ball glanced off the skull. He was stunned for a time, but is now nearly himself again."

"Here is some work for you, Dr. Bemish," the captain said. "Mr. Playford reports that ten of the cases are serious. I am going ashore in my gig at once, and will take you with me. You had better send the cutter at once, Mr. Hill, to bring off the wounded. You may as well return in your own boat, Mr. Glover, Mr. Curtis can go in charge of the cutter. Mr. Needham can go with me."

Nat at once returned to his boat. He was overtaken by the captain's gig when half-way up the inlet. He rowed to the schooner, while the gig made straight for the landing-place where the lieutenant was standing.

"I congratulate you, Mr. Playford," the captain said as he stepped ashore. "You seem to have had a pretty busy time of it since we have been away. I certainly did not think they would attempt to attack you when you had those guns in position, and I did not reckon on the pirate. She is a fine brigantine; the schooner looks quite small beside her."

"Yes, sir, she is over three hundred tons. Her broadside guns are all twelve-pounders, and she carries an eighteen-pounder as a swivel. She had a crew of seventy men, of whom only eight or ten got ashore, the rest were all accounted for except twelve, who are in irons below. The credit of capturing her, sir, really belongs to Mr. Glover, for although I went off to his assistance he would have taken her without my aid, though the pirates were still fighting strongly."

"Well, it has been a very successful business altogether, Mr. Playford. The capture of the brigantine is specially fortunate, as I have failed to come across any native craft as I had hoped to do, but with this extra accommodation we shall be able to manage to carry off all the slaves. I see by your account that Mr. Glover had the marines as well as his own twenty men."

"Yes, sir, I sent Lieutenant Boldero and fourteen marines on board; he had lost six either killed or seriously wounded in the attack here. I own that I had hardly calculated upon the brigantine getting alongside the schooner. I thought that when we had smashed up her boats, which I made certain we should do, she would be so completely at our mercy that, being becalmed, she would haul down her flag; but she had sufficient way on her to take her alongside the schooner, and her captain put her there so cleverly that I could not fire at her except through the schooner. I saw at once that the whole position was changed, for if he had captured the schooner he might have put all his men into the boats and made a dash for shore; and as I had so few men fit for work it would have been awkward, though with the aid of the blacks I have no doubt I should have driven them off."

"Then I suppose your discharge of grape did not do him very much harm?"

"Not so much as it ought to have done, sir. You see the first two guns we fired destroyed his boats. The other guns were all too weakly handled to be trained on the pirate as he forged ahead, and as far as I could see not one of them did any serious execution among his crew. Yesterday I told off four negroes to each gun, and kept them at work all day learning how to train them under the direction of the sailors. If I had thought of that before we should have swept his decks with such effect that when she got alongside the schooner Mr. Glover's party would have had easy work of it."

"You could hardly think of everything, Mr. Playford, and you certainly did right in sending the marines off to the schooner directly you had news that this brigantine was entering the inlet. No doubt if you had wished to sink her it would have been better to have kept them on shore to help work the guns, but as she is a valuable prize, and we wanted her badly to help carry away the slaves, you were quite right not to try to damage her. You say she is half full of plunder?"

"Yes, sir, and there were nearly eight hundred pounds in money and thirty-four watches and some jewellery found in the captain's cabin."

"She is a valuable capture, and I should think the admiral would buy her into the service. She is just the sort of craft that we want. The schooner would be too small to tackle one of these heavily-armed pirates with their crowds of men. So your slaves fought well?"

"That they did, sir. If it had been daylight I doubt whether any of the whites who led the attack would have escaped. Of course they had no particular animosity against the negroes, but I believe that they would have followed the whites and mulattoes half across the island."

"Well, do you think that the two craft will carry all the slaves?"

"Hardly, sir; the schooner can stow a hundred and fifty. Of course it will be close work, but there will be room for that number to lie down, and with the hatches both open they will be all right. By rearranging the cargo a bit, two hundred could sleep in the hold of the brigantine. That would still leave rather over one hundred and fifty."

"Well, we must give up part of the hold of the frigate to them," the captain said, "there is no help for it. There are about that number of women and children, are there not?"

"Yes, sir."

"They had better go off in the frigate, then. Of course, the prisoners will be sent off too – I will pay a visit to the brigantine, and then go off myself, and will send the boats in as soon as I get there. You may as well be getting the men on board at once. As soon as they are all off, you will, of course, set fire to all the sheds here, but you may as well send off a boat-load of stores suitable for them to the frigate, and will, of course, victual these two craft. I shall send you another forty men to fill up the vacancies that have been caused, and to furnish a crew for the brigantine, of which, of course, you will take the command. You and the schooner will keep in close company. The marines will return to the ship. Mr. Needham will be your second on the brigantine."

"How about the guns, sir? They are all old pieces, and scarcely worth carrying away."

"Yes, but I won't leave them here to be used for defending this place again. You had better take them off their carriages, spike them, get them into the boats, and heave them overboard, well out in deep water. Do you think that you will be able to get everything done before dark, Mr. Playford?"

"Yes, sir, it is only nine o'clock now, and if you will send a strong working party, in addition to those who will be taking the slaves on board, to help with the stores and guns, I have no doubt that I shall be able to get the work done well before sunset."

"Very well. Mr. Hill will come on shore as soon as I return to the frigate."

The work went on without ceasing all day, and the pinnace, which had been recovered and repaired before the frigate sailed, and the launch, went backwards and forwards to the frigate with the women, children, and stores, while the boats of the brigantine and schooner carried the men to those craft, as soon as the stores for the voyage, and the bales of cotton and other goods that would be useful, had been taken off. When the two large boats had finished their work they were employed in carrying out the guns, which had, before the slaves embarked, been brought down by them to the edge of the water. By three o'clock all was finished, and the last boat-load of the sailors rowed out to the prizes, after having set fire to all the huts. These were soon in a blaze, to the delight of the negroes, who danced and shouted for joy. Half of these were sent below at once, as they crowded the decks to such an extent as to render it impossible for the sailors to work.



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