Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 32


Embark for England.—Nearly wrecked off Ambergris Quay.—Vessel runs upon the Colorados-reef.—Becalmed off the Havannah.—Clear the Gulf.—Voyage across the Atlantic.—Land at Deal.

As we were to embark the next day, I called to take leave of the intendant, to whom I was indebted for much civility, and on Monday the 15th, about two o'clock, went on board the vessel which was to take us to England. We did not sail till the next day; for our crew was not complete. The master was a Mr. Smith, a shrewd good natured Glasgow man: he had been mate of another vessel and was induced to take the command of this: our mate was a clever active young fellow who belonged to the brig, but had declined taking charge of her; though, from the ability he evinced during the voyage, he proved himself perfectly competent to the task. After dusk, three or four more hands came on board, also the pilot; and after proceeding amongst the quays for about seventeen miles, we anchored on the 17th: when the pilot had left us, the evening set in very stormy: it afterwards blew a hurricane; we were off Ambergris Quay, and, the wind blowing hard from the n.e., we endeavoured to tack, but missed stays, and were a long time before we could get her to fill and gather way enough to make a second attempt, which most fortunately succeeded, as we had not room to wear, and must have been cast away had she missed stays a second time.

On the 23d, about sun-set, when off the western point of Cuba, the mate, whilst he happened to be looking over the side of the vessel, in conversation with me, suddenly started up, ordered the helm to be put a-lee and all sail to be reduced. I soon discovered that we were running right amongst a shoal of sunken rocks, which proved to be the Colorados: we had not room either to wear or stay: and were gliding upon them as gently as possible: we then got out the long-boat, put the kedge anchor into her, and were proceeding to carry it with only a three inch hawser: it immediately struck me that so small a rope would not be strong enough to heave us off, and I prevailed upon the captain to make use of one double the size: it was most fortunate that he followed my advice, as we were obliged to heave so hard that we were in momentary expectation of the one we did use breaking: at length the hawser dropped all of a sudden, and we concluded it had snapped and all was over with us, but the men in the boat observed that we were afloat, and called to us to heave round, which we did right merrily: we then weighed the anchor, made sail, and stood off.

At two o'clock, p. m., the next day we saw a raking vessel coming up to us, full sail, but when within two miles of us she tacked about and veered off. The 25th and 26th we were becalmed off the island of Cuba, and suffered much apprehension on account of the numerous pirates with which the coast is infested. The captain, mate, and the whole of the crew had their separate stories to tell of the bloody deeds of those miscreants, as each new creek or table-land marked out the spot in which they had been perpetrated. The captain said that, on his way to Belize, he had been boarded by a small boat containing thirty men, who pretended they only wished to know if they had any Spaniards aboard: they told him it was useless to make any resistance, for that, on firing a shot, more boats would put off, and they should all be massacred: he escaped with no other injury than some plunder of the articles they wanted out of the cargo. "But what became of the Eliza?" said another, "Why she was skuttled off Yucatañ," answered a third," and Jem, who escaped up the country, afterwards saw all the bodies of his mess-mates on the beach without their heads."

This kind of conversation, a thermometer at 98°, and a dead calm which made it easy for pirates to row up to us and impossible for us to escape, should they be inclined to attack us, rendered our situation any thing but agreeable. To add to my comfort, I had been presented, on my departure from Belize, with some English newspapers; in the shipping accounts of which I had the satisfaction of reading some delectable specimens of the proceedings of these marauders: one I remember was particularly striking, respecting a circumstance which had taken place, a few months before, at the Bay of Matanzas, which spot, if we were fortunate enough, we might expect to be off in the course of twenty-four hours:—it was, that a vessel about 300 tons burthen was found stranded within three miles of that port: she had been plundered and skuttled, and the decks were strongly marked with blood, and it was added, "It is supposed that all hands were murdered." There was something so unbecoming and unsatisfactory in this mode of being taken off, that I would, at this time, willingly have exchanged places with the lowest officer in his Majesty's navy, on the point of a desperate engagement; for I should at least have died honourably, and my name and death would have been recorded for the benefit of my relatives, as far as regarded the certainty of my fate: but should any thing happen to me of the nature we were anticipating, not even that consolation would be left them; besides which, the objects of my Mission would be lost to the government, who might, in the absence of information respecting the motives by which my conduct was actuated, have condemned it for the very exposure to which I was thus subjected. I, therefore, agreed with the captain to land me at the Havannah, in the hopes of falling in with one of his Majesty's ships, or being able to get a passage in some vessel proceeding with a convoy out of this dangerous gulf; but it so happened that just as we were passing the mouth of the harbour, a fine breeze sprung up, which promised to take us well on our voyage, and carried us on during the night within twenty leagues of the great in-draught or creek on the southern extremity of the coast of Florida.

Here we were again becalmed, and it is the most dangerous place at which vessels can possibly be so, in the whole gulf; for the tide sets you in at five knots an hour right amongst rocks and shoals, on which you are sure either to be wrecked or to be plundered by the pirates, who infest it. With great difficulty we avoided being sucked into this trap; and by day-light the next morning discovered from our mast head half a dozen small vessels putting off to us with all press of sail: had not a good breeze fortunately sprung up which gave our vessel seven knots, although being laden heavily with mahogany, she was a dull sailer, they would have been up with us. As we expected they would be so in the course of the day, we began to muster our forces. I had taken upon myself the office of commander in chief as well as master of the ordnance: we mustered six muskets, but they were all rusty and out of order; two of them had no ramrods, three of them wanted flints, and the sixth had the pan broken. We had plenty of grape shot, and it was proposed to shower it well into the boats as they neared us, but the quantity of gunpowder, which was now got out with difficulty from under some of the mate's clothes and a profusion of bedding in one of the after births, was lamentably deficient.

When we had arranged our materiel in the best way we could, the captain and I retired into the cabin to hold a council of war: he, then, put to me a question of a very posing nature; for, observing, as he did with some calmness, that he knew nothing of the crew, "how do you know," said he, "that they will fight?" He gave me strong reason to suspect that they would not, and continued "they shall not want an example, however, for fight I will to the last drop of my blood, because the pirates are sure to give me no quarter, and they will most probably—kill you."

When we had regained the deck, we saw a boat on our starboard bow, about six miles off, making up to us with two large lug-sails: as she neared us we perceived she was perfectly crammed with men. The captain began now to be quite serious in his determination; spoke kindly and in an encouraging way to the crew; and we were ready for action. The lugger passed a head, and then came close down on our larboard bow, within musket shot of us. Our two guns on this side were loaded with grape, rusty nails, and pieces of iron, and I had undertaken to fire the priming with a cigar which I was diligently smoking for the purpose. For fear they should not think the guns were actually loaded, we had placed two men out upon them, in order that they might be seen by the lugger's crew at a distance, as occupied in ramming in well the charges they contained. Before coming up to us, she shortened sail: on her quarter deck she carried a large swivel brass gun; and, had she boarded us, she had hands enough to have destroyed our crew thrice over: but whether she did not like our warlike appearance, or whether, distracted from her intention by two large vessels now heaving in sight, she satisfied herself with passing us in dead silence, made sail and steered for the creek, where we had witnessed her companions in the morning.

The Margaret had all the appearance of a brig of war: she had six port-holes on each side, four of which were without guns, but were left open as pretending that the guns were withdrawn: another manœuvre also conduced, in all probability, to our safety on this occasion; for on nearing the lugger, we altered our course a point or two, as if with the desire of coming up with her, for, as we knew we could not escape, it was thought best to put on an imposing attitude; and it was the general opinion that we owed our safety to the intimidation which we thus excited. For some minutes there was a silent pause: the crew stood gazing at the pirate, and then walked off quietly to their duty or their births. These fellows as I looked at them, I said to myself, must be English sailors, and no doubt they will fight:—for as every body knows, the bull-dog bites but seldom barks.

There was an Irishman at the helm, an active clever hand, with whom, in the tedious moonlight nights, whilst stretched along the bench on the side of the binnacle, I used to converse. The sailors called him the captain's own, they meant 'my cockswain,' but I called him Pat: he was the best seaman in the brig, and had great influence by his commanding person and ready wit in managing the politics of the forecastle. One of the crew, a little mutilated man, who had come on board, merely to get home to England and was always on the sick list, although we had no doctor, had become mutinous, and the captain had requested me to get the matter settled by Pat's interference. Pat did the business like a statesman, for he carried the point of union; and at the same time relieved the weaker party from all penalties and disabilities, which, considering the unsatisfactory state of our physical resources, was so desirable, not to say necessary, for our preservation.

We had frequently, afterwards, occasions, when all hands were mustered, to perceive that the efforts of this individual were very useful; whilst it was remarked to his credit, that he never after shewed the least symptoms of disobedience.

In honour of our bloodless victory, the crew were regaled with some strong grog, which Pat was distributing from the bench behind the tiller, by the captain's special leave; for the sails were all full, and it was all plain sailing: the vessel was steered in the interim, by his protegé, the little sailor, who came in for the dregs of the can, and then went merrily about his duty.

We did not get out of the gulf till the 31st, having been sixteen days embarked from Belize, fourteen out of which we were liable hourly to be attacked by the pirates. The chief nests of these miscreants are in the Isle of Pines, to the s. w. of Cuba, all along the north coast of Yucatan and both sides of the whole length of the Gulf of Florida. The exertions of the North Americans to root out and destroy them cannot be sufficiently commended: they have effected much by means of small men-of-war steam-boats, whereby they have been enabled to follow them into the narrow creeks, whither they betake themselves for refuge, and to destroy many. The only other part where they have a secure lodgment is in the island of Puerto Rico; and from this, as well as the points above mentioned, they are constantly hovering about Belize and the Mosquito shores. We understood that early in the present year, between seventy and eighty of them had been hung at Jamaica; but however laudable have been the exertions of his Majesty's vessels in their endeavours to suppress them, much yet remains to be done. It is only the Spaniards who allow of and harbour them in their territory. In the bay of Matanzas, to the east of the Havannah, and in various other parts of the Spanish dominions it is quite notorious that the authorities are in league with the pirates and share their nefarious gains.

On the 7th September we had made one fifth of the passage, dead reckoning; and the sailors were grumbling about shortness of provisions and the total consumption of the grog. I had given them the last bottle of brandy on the 1st of the month, and shared with them my live stock; of which there remained at present two goats and one pig—one pig we had already killed, and two others were washed overboard in the storm at Ambergris Quay. The feeling however which I experienced at being out of the fell swoop of the pirates made all these difficulties light. On the 14th we came up with and boarded the Mary and Jane of Costine, Boston, and bought some beef and biscuit, which came to about five or six pounds sterling, and which we had some difficulty in making the master take. His name was Usher Dyer, bound for Martinique, with stores and provisions, but unfortunately he had not a drop of grog to spare.

19th. We were in lat. 39° 52′; long. 54° 58′, under a strong breeze, the sea running higher than, during my little nautical experience, I had ever seen. The next day was calm and the next a hurricane, in the midst of which we saw a brig bound to Newfoundland: she was within hail; but it was useless to hail her. Up to the 26th we had seen three brigs and a schooner, and this day, with a nine knot's breeze passed a ship close enough to read her log, but did not hail her. The next, we spoke the Packet, New York, from Jamaica: she had lost her mizen mast in a gale on the 10th, and informed us that two ships for Liverpool had been plundered by pirates in the gulf. By 12 o'clock on the 5th we were about three leagues s. of Scilly; and after having experienced, the next day, off the coast of Cornwall, the greatest storm we had met with on the voyage, having very nearly been wrecked off the light-house,—we had a fine run up channel, and I landed at Deal at 7 o'clock in the evening of the 8th, arriving in London on the 9th, being that day two years that I had left the metropolis on the duties of the respective commissions to Mexico and Guatemala.