The Annotated "Privateersman"/Chapter II

We are pursued by two Schooner-Privateers, and failing to escape them a terrible Contest ensues—Three Acts of a Murderous Naval Drama—We are worsted—Captain Weatherall is killed—I am plundered and wounded.

About six weeks after the unlucky affair before described we met with a still greater disaster. We had cruised off the Spanish main, and taken several prizes; shortly after we had manned the last and had parted company, the Revenge being then close in shore, a fresh gale sprung up, which compelled us to make all sail to clear the land. We beat off shore during the whole of the night, when the weather moderated, and at daybreak we found out that we had not gained much offing, in consequence of the current; but, what was more important, the man who went to the look-out at the masthead hailed the deck, saying there were two sails in the offing. The hands were turned up to make sail in chase, but we found that they were resolutely bearing down upon us; and as we neared each other fast we soon made them out to be vessels of force. One we knew well—she was the Esperance, a French schooner-privateer, of sixteen guns and one hundred and twenty men; the other proved to be a Spanish schooner-privateer, cruising in company with her, of eighteen guns, and full manned.

Now our original complement of men had been something more than one hundred; but by deaths, severe wounds in action, and manning our prizes, our actual number on board was reduced to fifty-five effective men. Finding the force so very superior, we made every attempt with sails and sweeps to escape, but the land to leeward of us, and their position to windward, rendered it impossible. Making, therefore, a virtue of necessity, we put a good face upon it, and prepared to combat against such desperate odds.

Captain Weatherall, who was the life and soul of his crew, was not found wanting on such an emergency. With the greatest coolness and intrepidity he gave orders to take in all the small sails, and awaited the coming down of the enemy. When everything was ready for the unequal conflict, he ordered all hands aft, and endeavoured to inspire us with the same ardour which animated himself. He reminded us that we had often fought and triumphed over vessels of much greater force than our own; that we had already beaten off the French privateer on a former occasion; that the Spaniard was not worth talking about, except to swell the merits of the double victory, and that if once we came hand to hand our cutlasses would soon prove our superiority. He reminded us that our only safety depended upon our own manhood; for we had done such mischief on the coast, and our recent descent upon the plantation was considered in such a light, that we must not expect to receive quarter if we were overcome. Exhorting us to behave well and to fight stoutly, he promised us the victory. The men had such confidence in the captain that we returned him three cheers, when, dismissing us to our quarters, he ordered Saint George’s ensign to be hoisted at the main-masthead, and hove-to for the enemy.

The French schooner was the first which ranged up alongside; the wind was light and she came slowly down to us. The captain of her hailed, saying that his vessel was the Esperance, and our captain replied that he knew it, and that they also knew that his was the Revenge. The French captain, who had hove-to, replied very courteously that he was well aware what vessel it was, and also of the valour and distinguished reputation of Captain Weatherall, upon which Captain Weatherall, who stood on the gunnel, took off his hat in acknowledgment of the compliment.

Now Captain Weatherall was well-known, and it was also well-known that the two vessels would meet with a severe resistance, which it would be as well to avoid, as even if they gained the victory it would not be without great loss of men. The French captain therefore addressed Captain Weatherall again, and said he hoped, now that he was opposed to so very superior a force, he would not make a useless resistance, but, as it would be no disgrace to him, and would save the lives of many of his brave men, his well-known humanity would induce him to strike his colours.

To this request our commander gave a gallant and positive refusal. The vessels lay now close to each other, so that a biscuit might have been thrown on board of either. A generous expostulation ensued, which continued till the Spanish vessel was a short distance astern of us.

“You now see our force,” said the French captain. “Do not fight against impossible odds, but spare your brave and devoted men.”

“In return for your kind feeling towards me,” replied Captain Weatherall, “I offer you both quarter, and respect to private property, upon hauling down your colours.”

“You are mad, Captain Weatherall,” said the French captain.

“You allow that I have lived bravely,” replied Captain Weatherall; “you shall find that I will conquer you, and if necessary I will also die bravely. We will now fight. In courtesy, I offer you the first broadside.”

“Impossible,” said the French captain, taking off his hat.

Our captain returned the salute, and then, slipping down from the gunwale, ordered the sails to be filled, and after a minute, to give the Frenchman time to prepare, he fired off in the air the fusee which he held in his hand, as a signal for the action to begin. We instantly commenced the work of death by pouring in a broadside. It was returned with equal spirit, and a furious cannonading ensued for several minutes, when the Spaniard ranged up on our lee quarter with his rigging full of men to board us. Clapping our helm a-weather, and hauling our fore-sheets to windward, we fell off athwart his hawse, and raked him with several broadsides fore and aft; our guns having been loaded with langridge and lead bullets, and his men being crowded together forward, ready to leap on board of us, her deck became a slaughter-house. The officers endeavoured in vain to animate their men, who, instead of gaining our decks, were so intimidated by the carnage that they forsook their own. The Frenchman, perceiving the consternation and distress of his consort, to give her an opportunity of extricating herself from her perilous condition, now put his helm a-weather, ran us on board, and poured in his men; but we were well prepared, and soon cleared our decks of the intruders. In the mean time the Spaniard, by cutting away our rigging, in which his bowsprit was entangled, swung clear of us, and fell away to leeward. The Frenchman perceiving this sheered off, and springing his luff, shot ahead clear of us. Such was the first act of this terrible drama. We had as yet sustained little damage, the enemy’s want of skill, and our good fortune combined, having enabled us to take them at such a disadvantage.

But, although inspirited by such a prosperous beginning, our inferiority in men was so great that our captain considered it his duty to make all sail in hopes of being able to avoid such an unequal combat. This our enemies attempted to prevent by a most furious cannonade, which we received and returned without flinching, making a running fight of it, till at last, our fore-yard and foretop-mast being shot away, we had no longer command of the vessel. Finding that, although we were crippled and could not escape, our fire continued unabated, both the vessels again made preparations for boarding us, while we on our part prepared to give them a warm reception.

As we knew that the Frenchman, who was our most serious opponent, must board us on our weather-bow, we traversed over four of our guns, loaded to the muzzle with musket-balls, to receive him, and being all ready with our pateraroes and hand grenades we waited for the attack. As he bore down for our bows, with all his men clinging like bees, ready for the spring, our guns were discharged and the carnage was terrible. The men staggered back, falling down over those who had been killed or wounded, and it required all the bravery and example of the French captain, who was really a noble fellow, to rally the remainder of his men, which at last he succeeded in doing, and about forty of them gained our forecastle, from which they forced our weak crew, and retained possession, not following up the success, but apparently waiting till they were seconded by the Spaniard’s boarding us on our lee quarter, which would have placed us between two fires, and compelled us to divide our small force.

By this time the wind, which had been light, left us, and it was nearly a calm, with a swell on the sea which separated the two vessels; the Spaniard, who was ranging up under our lee, having but little way, and not luffing enough, could not fetch us, but fell off and drifted to leeward. The Frenchmen who had been thrown on board, and who retained possession of our forecastle, being thus left without support from their own vessel, which had been separated from us by the swell, or from the Spaniard, which had fallen to leeward, we gave three cheers, and throwing a number of hand grenades in among them we rushed forward with our half-pikes, and killed or drove every soul of them overboard, one only, and he wounded in the thigh, escaped by swimming back to his own vessel. Here, then, was a pause in the conflict, and thus ended, I may say, the second act.

Hitherto the battle had been fought with generous resolution; but after this hand-to-hand conflict, and the massacre with which it ended, both sides appeared to have been roused to ferocity. A most infernal cannonade was now renewed by both our antagonists, and returned by us with equal fury; but it was now a dead calm, and the vessels rolled so much with the swell that the shot were not so effective. By degrees we separated more and more from our enemies, and the firing was now reduced to single guns. During this partial cessation our antagonists had drawn near to each other, although at a considerable distance from us. We perceived that the Spaniard was sending two of his boats full of men to supply the heavy loss sustained by his comrade. Captain Weatherall ordered the sweeps out, and we swept our broadside to them, trying by single guns to sink the boats as they went from one vessel to the other. After two or three attempts, a gun was successful; the shot shattered the first of the boats, which instantly filled and went down. The second boat pulled up and endeavoured to save the men, but we now poured our broadside upon them, and, daunted by the shot flying about them, they sought their own safety by pulling back to the vessel, leaving their sinking companions to their fate. Failing in this attempt, both vessels recommenced their fire upon us, but the distance and the swell of the sea prevented any execution, and at last they ceased firing, waiting till a breeze should spring up, which might enable them to renew the contest with better success.

At this time it was about eleven o’clock in the forenoon, and the combat had lasted about five hours. We refreshed ourselves after the fatigue and exertion which we had undergone, and made every preparation for a renewal of the fight. During the engagement we were so excited that we had no time to think; but now that we were cool again and unoccupied we had time to reflect upon our position, and we began to feel dejected and apprehensive. Fatigued with exertion, we were weak and dispirited. We knew that our best men were slain or groaning under their severe wounds, that the enemy were still numerous, and, as they persevered after so dreadful a slaughter, that they were of unquestionable bravery and resolution. Good fortune, and our captain’s superior seamanship, had, up to the present, enabled us to make a good fight, but fortune might desert us, and our numbers were so reduced that if the enemy continued resolute we must be overpowered. Our gallant captain perceived the despondency that prevailed, and endeavoured to remove it by his own example and by persuasion. After praising us for the resolution and courage we had already shown, he pointed out to us that, whatever might be the gallantry of the officers, it was clear that the men on board of the opposing vessels were awed by their heavy loss and want of success, and that if they made one more attempt to take us by the board and failed, which he trusted they would do, no persuasion would ever induce them to try it again, and the captains of the vessels would give over such an unprofitable combat. He solemnly averred that the colours should never be struck while he survived, and demanded who amongst us were base enough to refuse to stand by them. Again we gave him three cheers, but our numbers were few, and the cheers were faint compared with the first which had been given, but still we were resolute, and determined to support our captain and the honour of our flag. Captain Weatherall took care that this feeling should not subside—he distributed the grog plentifully; at our desire he nailed the colours to the mast, and we waited for a renewal of the combat with impatience. At four o’clock in the afternoon a breeze sprang up, and both vessels trimmed their sails and neared us fast—not quite in such gallant trim as in the morning, it is true—but they appeared now to have summoned up a determined resolution. Silently they came up, forcing their way slowly through the water; not a gun was fired, but the gaping mouths of the cannon, and their men motionless at their quarters, portended the severity of the struggle which was now to decide this hitherto well-contested trial for victory. When within half a cable’s length, we saluted them with three cheers, they returned our defiance, and running up on each side of us, the combat was renewed with bitterness.

The Frenchman would not this time lay us on board until he was certain that the Spaniard had boarded us to leeward; he continued luffing to windward and plying us with broadsides until we were grappled with the Spaniard, and then he bore down and laid his gunwale on our bow. The Spaniard had already boarded us on the quarter, and we were repelling this attack when the Frenchman laid us on the bow. We fought with desperation, and our pikes gave us such an advantage over the swords and knives of the Spaniards that they gave ground, and, appalled by the desperate resistance they encountered, quitted our decks, strewed with their dead and dying shipmates, and retreated in confusion to their own vessel. But before this repulse had been effected, the French had boarded us on the weather-bow, and driving before them the few men who had been sent forward to resist them, had gained our main deck, and forced their way to the rise of the quarter-deck, where all our remaining men were now collected. The combat was now desperate, but after a time our pikes, and the advantage of our position, appeared to prevail over numbers. We drove them before us—we had regained the main deck, when our brave commander, who was at our head, and who had infused spirit into us all, received a bullet through his right wrist; shifting his sword into his left hand, he still pressed forward encouraging us, when a ball entered his breast and he dropped dead. With his fall fell the courage and fortitude of his crew, so long sustained—and to complete the mischief, the lieutenant and two remaining officers also fell a few seconds after him. Astonished and terrified, the men stopped short in their career of success, and wildly looked round for a leader. The French, who had retreated to the forecastle, perceiving our confusion I renewed the attack, our few remaining men were seized with a panic, and throwing down our arms, we asked for quarter where a moment before victory was in our hands;—such was the finale of our bloody drama.

Out of fifty-five men twenty-two had been killed in this murderous conflict, and almost all the survivors desperately or severely wounded. Most of the remaining crew after we had cried for quarter jumped down the hatchway, to avoid the cutlasses of their enraged victors. I and about eight others, having been driven past the hatchway, threw down our arms and begged for quarter, which we had little reason to expect would be shown to us. At first no quarter was given by our savage enemies, who cut down several of our disarmed men and hacked them to pieces. Perceiving this, I got on the gunwale ready to jump overboard, in the hopes of being taken up after the slaughter had ceased, when a French lieutenant coming up protected us, and saved the poor remains of our crew from the fury of his men. Our lives, however, were all he counted upon preserving—we were instantly stripped and plundered without mercy. I lost everything I possessed; the watch, ring, and sword I had taken from the gallant Frenchman were soon forced from me, and, not stripping off my apparel fast enough to please a Mulatto sailor, I received a blow with the butt-end of a pistol under the left ear, which precipitated me down the hatchway, near which I was standing, and I fell senseless into the hold.