George Henty.

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

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Those who remained were ranged in rows by the bulwarks from end to end of the craft; then the anchors were got up, and the sails dropped and sheeted home. The wind was very light, but was sufficient to give steerage-way, and with the British ensign flying at the peak the two vessels sailed out of the inlet and joined the frigate, which began to make sail as soon as they were seen issuing from the narrow mouth. Glad indeed were all on board the three vessels when, after a voyage unmarked by any adventure, they entered Port Royal, for although the negroes, feeling confident that they were in good hands, had been docile and obedient, they were still terribly in the way.

Though all had been made to take a bath every morning, the odour in the crowded prizes was almost overpoweringly strong. On arrival, the negroes were landed and lodged in some large government storehouses near the fort. Each was presented with ten yards of cloth on leaving for the shore, and they were, before being housed, permitted to sort themselves, so that families and friends might be together. Interpreters explained to them that it would be impossible to send them back to their friends in Africa, but that they would be apportioned out among the plantations of the island. The wages they were to receive were explained to them, and they were told that a government official would visit each plantation in turn, and would listen to any complaints that might be made as to their food and treatment, and at the end of three years all who wished it could either change masters or take up a piece of land, build a hut, and cultivate it on their own account.

The poor creatures were well satisfied with this. They were overjoyed at being united to their relations and friends, and to know that they would still be together; and were assured that they would be well cared for, and in time be as much their own masters as if at their villages in Africa. The schooner was sold; the brigantine was, as the captain had expected, bought into the service; Mr. Playford was offered and accepted the command of her. Mr. Normandy took his place as second lieutenant of the Orpheus, and Mr. Marston received his promotion and the post of third officer. As the Cerf– which was the name of the brigantine – was to be considered as a tender of the frigate, those on board her were still borne on her books. Curtis and Glover were appointed to her, with a petty officer and forty men.

The pirates were tried and executed, with the exception of one, who was a mere lad. He had, he asserted, been forced to join the pirates – being spared by them when the rest of his comrades had been murdered, as they had lost their cook's mate, and required someone to fill his place. This, however, would not have saved his life had he not promised to lead his new captors to the chief rendezvous of the pirates, which had so long eluded the search that had been made for it. He acknowledged, however, that he was not acquainted with its exact position.

He had sailed in and out four or five times, and had only a general idea of its position, but asserted that he should certainly know the island if he saw it. A fortnight after reaching Port Royal, the frigate and brigantine sailed in company.

The indications given by the boy pointed to an island lying a short distance off the northern coast of Venezuela.

There were originally, he said, four vessels working together, three brigantines and a large schooner, one of which had arrived from France only a short time before the Cerf sailed on her last voyage. The entrance to the pirates' stronghold was on the south side of the island, and was, he said, so well concealed that vessels might sail past the place a thousand times without noticing it. There were two batteries at the water's edge, inside the entrance, each mounting twelve eighteen-pounder guns that had been taken from prizes. The channel here was not more than fifty yards across. A very heavy boom was at all times swung across it just above the batteries, and this was opened only when one of the craft entered or left.

There was, however, he said, a spot on the outer side of the island where a landing could be effected, at a little ravine that ran down to the shore. This was thickly wooded, and some large trees growing at its mouth almost hid it from passing vessels. At other points the shore was steep, but there was so much vegetation on every ledge where trees or bushes could obtain a foothold, that from the sea it would seem that the cliffs were not too steep to scale.

The prisoner had been placed on board the Cerf, which, as soon as she was fairly at sea, was altered as far as possible in appearance by a white band with ports painted along her sides; a false stem of an entirely different shape from her own was fastened to her, her light upper spars sent down and replaced by stumpy ones, and other changes made that would help to alter her appearance.

Were she recognized by the pirates as she sailed past their island it would at once be suspected that one of the men recently captured had revealed the rendezvous, and that she was cruising near it to obtain an exact idea of the best mode of attack before other craft came up to assist her. They had no doubt that the pirates had already received news of the surprise and capture of the brigantine. Some of the men who escaped would doubtless have made for the nearest port, and hired a negro craft to take them to their own island, which they would have reached before the Orpheus arrived at Port Royal with her prizes. The pirates would therefore be on their guard, and would either have deserted their head-quarters altogether or have added to their defences. The sight of their late consort would confirm their fears that their whereabouts had become known, and it was therefore of importance that her identity should not be suspected.

Changed as she now was, she might be taken for a man-of-war brigantine. Her height out of water had been increased by four feet by painted canvas fastened to battens. She had ten ports painted on each side, and looked a very different craft from the smart brigantine that had sailed away from the island. It had at first been suggested by Mr. Playford that she should be disguised so as to look like a trader, but Captain Crosbie had decided against this.

"There are," he said, "three of these pirates, and even two of them might together be more than a match for you. By all accounts they are each of them as strong as you are in point of armament, and would carry at least twice as many men as you have. Even if you beat them off it could only be at a very great cost of life, and I certainly should not like you to undertake such an enterprise unless you had at least double the strength of men, which I could not spare you. By going in the guise of a vessel of war they would not care to meddle with you. They would know that there would be no chance of booty and a certainty of hard fighting, and of getting their own craft badly knocked about, so that it will be in all respects best to avoid a fight. They may in that case not connect you with us at all, but take you to be some freshly-arrived craft. You had best hoist the Stars and Stripes as you pass along the coast."

When the changes were all effected the ships parted company. The brigantine was to sail east until within a short distance of Grenada, then to cruise westward along the coast of the mainland; thus going, there would be less suspicion on the part of those who saw her that she was coming from Jamaica. A rendezvous was appointed at the island of Oruba, lying off the mouth of the Gulf of Venezuela.

Their prisoner was French, and he was very closely questioned by Lieutenant Playford, who spoke that language well. He said that they always sailed north to begin with, then sometimes they kept east, and certainly he heard the names of Guadeloupe and St. Lucia. At other times, after sailing north they steered north-west, and came to a great island, which he had no doubt was San Domingo. It was not in this craft that he sailed, he was only transferred to her with some of the others for that cruise only. After they had once made either the western islands or San Domingo, they cruised about in all directions.

"The great point is," Mr. Playford said to the midshipmen after a long talk with the prisoner, "that at starting they generally hung about these islands, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, and so on, for some time, and it was considered their best cruising ground, though also the most dangerous one, as we have always some cruisers in those waters. That would certainly place the island somewhere off the north coast of Caracas. He declared that the first day out they generally passed the western point of an island of considerable size with some high hills. The only island that answers to that account is, as you see in the chart, Margarita. Therefore I feel convinced that the pirate hold is in one of these groups, off Caracas, either Chimana, Borrshcha, or these two islets called Piritu Islands. Altogether, you see, there are over a dozen of these islands scattered along near the mainland.

"It is quite out of the general course of trade, as nothing would go into that bay except a craft bound for San Diego, or this place marked Barcelona, lying a short distance up the river. They would take care not to molest any of the little traders frequenting these ports, and might lie in an inlet in one of these islands for years without their being ever suspected, unless perhaps by some of the native fishermen, who probably supply them with fish and fruit from the mainland. Anyhow, I don't suppose a British cruiser is seen along that coast once a year."


A fortnight later the Cerf passed along under easy sail between the island of Margarita and the mainland. She was now getting very close to the spot where, if the prisoner was right, the pirates' hold lay. The Stars and Stripes was hanging from the peak, and with her high bulwarks and ten ports on each side no one would have suspected that she was not, as she seemed, an American man-of-war, heavily armed. Passing close to another island, they headed more south into the bay as they neared Caracas. Every foot of the islands was closely scanned. Five miles farther, they came abreast of the Chimana isles, and pointing to one of these that lay nearer the shore than the others, the prisoner exclaimed that he was certain that that was the island.

"I am sure of it," he exclaimed, "both from the look of the island itself, and from that high range of mountains on the mainland to the south-east."

"You are quite sure?"

"Certain, captain; there are the large trees I spoke of growing down close to the water. It is behind them that there is a little ravine by which one can climb up."

No alteration was made in the ship's course, but she continued her way until sunset, when she dropped anchor off the mouth of the river La Pasqua, some twenty miles west of the islands.

As soon as it was dark Curtis was sent off in a gig manned by six rowers. The oars were muffled; the orders were to row round the island within an oar's length of the shore, and to find the entrance to the channel, which, if the prisoner was right as to the place, should be on the side facing the mainland. Pierre, the French lad, was taken with them. It was a long row to the island, but the gig was a fast one, and, at three o'clock in the morning, she returned with the news that Pierre's information had been correct. They had found the opening but had not entered it, as Mr. Playford had given strict orders on this point, thinking it probable that there would be a sharp look-out kept in the batteries, especially as the supposed cruiser would certainly have been closely watched as she passed.

An hour later the anchor was got up and the Cerf sailed for Oruba, off which she arrived three days later. There were no signs of the frigate, and indeed the Cerf had arrived at the rendezvous before the time fixed. At daybreak on the third morning the topsails of the Orpheus were made out from the mast-head, and four hours later she and the Cerf met, and Mr. Playford went on board the frigate to report.

"This is good news indeed," the captain said when he heard that the haunt of the pirates had been discovered. "Of course you have taken the exact position of the island, for we must, if possible, take them by surprise?"

"Yes, sir; it lies as nearly as possible in 64° 30' west longitude and 10° 22' north latitude."

"We will lay our course east, Mr. Playford, for, of course, you will keep company with us. The water is deep all along the coast, and there seems to be from thirty to thirty-eight fathoms to within a mile or two of the coast. I shall lay my course outside the Windward Islands as far as Blanquilla, thence an almost due south course will take us clear of the western point of Margarita and down to this island. We will discuss our plan of attack later on."

On the morning of the third day after leaving Oruba the island of Blanquilla was sighted. The frigate made the signal for Mr. Playford to go on board, and on entering the captain's cabin he found him and Mr. Hill examining the chart.

"You see, Mr. Playford, we are now as nearly as possible a hundred miles north of the island; with this wind we should pass the point of Margarita at about four o'clock in the afternoon; if it freshens we will take in sail, I want to be off the island say three or four hours before daybreak. You will send that French lad on board when you go back; as soon as we anchor he will go in the gig with Mr. Hill to reconnoitre and make sure that there is no mistake about the place. When he finds that it is all right he will come back. The boats will be in the water, and the men on board in readiness, and will at once start, so that the landing may, if possible, be effected just at daybreak at this ravine on the north of the island. At the same hour you will sail in and take up your place opposite the mouth of the harbour, and fight anything that tries to come out.

"It is quite possible that as soon as our party attack the place on the land side any craft there may be there will cut their cables and try to make off. On no account try to enter; the batteries would blow you out of the water. You will start as soon as the boats leave the ship, and will therefore have light enough for you to go in and to avoid making any mistake, for you see there are half a dozen islands lying close together. There is no objection to their seeing you, and indeed I should be rather glad if they do, for in that case they are the less likely to discover the landing-party, and though they must see the frigate they will think that she is only lying there to cut them off if they try to escape. They will be manning their batteries and getting everything ready to give you a warm reception, and I hope that we shall drop upon them as if out of the clouds.

"Mr. Hill will command the landing-party, which will consist of a hundred and fifty seamen and the thirty marines, which, with the advantage of surprise, ought to be sufficient. As you report that the island is less than a mile long and not much more than half a mile across, the landing-party will soon be at work. After they have landed, Mr. Hill will divide them into two parties, and will endeavour to make his way round the inlet, keeping up among the trees, and then rush down upon the batteries. When he has captured these he will fire three guns as a signal to you. You will have your boats in readiness, and will at once tow the schooner in, and, on reaching the boom, bring her broadside to bear upon any craft there, and generally aid the landing-party with your guns. If, by good luck, the three craft we have been so long looking for are all there you will have a strong force to tackle; you may certainly take it that their crews will together mount up to three hundred men, and it is likely that there may be a hundred others who form what we may call the garrison of the place when they are away."

"Very well, sir."

The two vessels headed south under easy canvas, passed the point of Margarita at the hour that had been arranged, and then taking in still more sail proceeded slowly on until, about one o'clock in the morning, the island could be made out with the night-glasses. Then both were laid to, Captain Crosbie having forbidden anchoring, in the first place owing to the great depth of water, and in the next because, although the island was three miles away, the chain-cable running out might be heard at night if the pirates had anyone on watch on the hill. Nat, whose watch it was, saw the gig shoot away from the side of the frigate. An hour later and there was a bustle and stir on board the Orpheus, and all her boats were lowered. At five bells the crew began to take their places in them, and soon afterwards the gig returned. The watch below were called up and sail was made, and at half-past three the boats started, and the Cerf was headed towards the land. Dawn was just breaking when they reached the island. All was still. It had been arranged that, unless discovered, the attack on the batteries was not to be made until five o'clock, and just at that hour the Cerf arrived off the narrow entrance to the port. Half an hour before, a musket had been discharged on the hill above them, and it was clear that their coming had been observed; but as no sound of conflict could be heard inland there was every reason to suppose that the pirates had no suspicion of a landing having been effected on the other side.

"That is what I call being punctual," Nat said to Curtis as two bells rang out just as they opened the passage.

A light kedge anchor was dropped, and as this was done a patter of musketry broke out from the hill above them. Their action showed that the arrival of the brigantine was no matter of chance, but that she was there expressly with the intention of attacking the pirates' stronghold, and those who had been watching her, therefore, saw that any further attempt at concealment was useless. In the night the canvas band had been taken down, as there was no longer any reason for concealing the identity of the brigantine. The musketry fire only lasted for a minute, for suddenly a roar of battle broke out within a hundred yards of the mouth of the entrance. The sailors burst into a loud cheer. It was evident that the landing-party had met with complete success so far, and had approached the batteries unobserved, and that a hand-to-hand fight was going on.

Above the cracking of pistols the cheers of the seamen could be plainly heard, but in two or three minutes the uproar died away, and then three guns were fired at short intervals. The boats were already in the water, the kedge lifted, and the crews bending forward in readiness for the signal.

"Take her in, lads!" the lieutenant shouted, and the schooner's head at once began to turn towards the inlet.

A moment later two broadsides were fired.

"There are two of their craft in there!" Curtis exclaimed. "Now our fellows have carried the batteries they have opened fire on them."

As he spoke there was another broadside, which was answered by a hurrah from all on deck. It was clear that they had had the good luck to catch all the pirates at once. Three minutes' rowing and the boom was in sight. Mr. Playford called to one of the boats to take a rope from the stern to the battery on the right-hand side, and ordered the others to cease rowing.

"We have way enough on her!" he shouted. "As soon as you get near the boom take her head round to port, and carry the rope to shore. You can fasten it to the chain at the end of the boom."

As he gave the order a gun spoke out from the battery on the right, followed almost immediately by one on the left.

"They are slueing the guns round!" Nat exclaimed. "We shall be having our share of the fun in another minute or two."

They could now obtain a view into the piece of water inside the passage. It was nearly circular, and some three hundred yards across. Two brigantines and a schooner were lying in line, within fifty yards of the opposite shore. A large range of storehouses stood by the water's edge, while the hillsides were dotted with huts, and dwelling-places of larger size. By the time that the brigantine was got into position by the side of the boom the pirates had loaded again, and several shots struck her.

Her guns were already loaded, and those on board poured a broadside into the brigantine at the end of the line. The sailors in the battery were working with might and main to slue all the guns round to bear upon the pirates. On the hillsides above them a scattered fire of musketry was being kept up, and Mr. Hill hailed the schooner.

"Mr. Playford, will you land a party of fifteen men on each side to clear the hills of those rascals? I don't think there are many of them, but they are doing us a good deal of damage, for they can hardly miss us closely packed as we are here."

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