Cape Cod – Old Sea Ways – Pt. 2

THE “Pilot” of Messrs. Mount & Page was contrived from the reports of some who “put more westing into their navigation” to sail for plunder rather than trade; and in Volume IV, on the “West India Navigation from Hudson’s Bay to the River Amazones,” they step down easily from Terre de Labrador, where lay, they thought, the chance of that shortcut to Cathaia, to the treasure-house of the Spanish Main. The Yankee captain, laying a northern course to Europe would need only to reverse the sequence of procedure in the “Pilot’s” voyage thence. “When a voyage is intended from the river Thames to those Northern Parts of America, you may go out of the North Channel by Scotland or else through the West Channel by the Lands End of England, according as the winds may favour you.” Martin Frobisher, of will as stubborn as the impenetrable North, had set sail by the West Channel to prove his “plaine platte” that Frobisher’s Straits should make a broad highway to the East by the other way round of the world. He sailed by Greenland, where “you will have the sea of divers colours, in some places green, in some black, and in others blue”; and there is Cape Desolation, “the most deformed land that is supposed to be in the whole world,” where the water is “black and thick, like a standing pool.” It was Warwick Sound “where Sir Martin Frobisher intended to lade his supposed gold ore,” says the “Pilot,” and within his “Streits” lies “a whirlpool where ships are whirled about in a moment; the waters making a great noise and are heard a great way off.”

So much for their Meta Incognita, where the old mariners dug worthless ore, and fished, and killed whale, and made poor trading with the wretched natives; and never breaking through to Cathaia, they were swept up and down, among “strange rocks and overfalls and shoals.” Caught by winter, they bivouacked somehow in the snows, and in June nosed their way out to free water, or, undiscouraged, beat ahead for their Northwest Passage. The “Island of God’s Mercy.” and “Hold with Hope” tell of some cockle-shell sailor’s escape from “many points and headlongs” and “broken ground and shoals, worse than can be expected.” Captain Bayley, Captain Zacchary Gillam, in his “Nonsuch Ketch,” Henry Southwood, and William Taverner cruised here, and their findings are printed in the “Pilot.” And as to Newfoundland and the fishing-banks, if we go astray, it is by our own obstinacy: for the reporter here is a peppery old party who “informs those that are bound for that coast that they may not be deceived, as I myself had been like to have been in going to Saint John’s on the 29th day of June, 1715, at 8 o’clock in the morning, … having been just a month that very day from Plymouth Sound,” by reason of “a very great error in those charts which have hitherto been published.” And he sets us right as to computing “the true Distance between the Lizard and Cape Spear,” where other navigators “would still continue the old erroneous Way; because, they say, when I argu’d with them, it is the custom; they might as well have persuaded me, that old custom could oversway Reason.”

Yankee cruisers to the southward found profitable advice, again: for “such as are bound for Virginia or Maryland will find many times on the coast of America various winds and weathers, and streams and currents also, therefore they must take the more care, and not trust with much confidence to dead reckoning.” (Mr. Rich tells us of one Truro skipper who “could keep a better dead reckoning with fewer figures than any sailor ever known. A few chalk marks on the cabin door or at the head of his berth, and he knew his position on the Western ocean, whatever wind or weather, as well as if in his father’s cornfield.”) “For by experience,” the “Pilot” goes on to say, “has been found sometimes in twenty-four hours such currents as hath carried them either to the Northward or Southward, contrary to the reckoning beyond credit.” But we are off for the Caribbees, and as we leave “those northern parts of America,” Saint Vincent and Domenica, Marygalante, “Guardaloupa,” and all the jewelled drops of the Antilles, from Bermuda to the Isle of Pearls, slip by on the blue ribbon of the summer seas; and the wind, whether or no, veers back to the “spacious time of great Elizabeth,” when Hakluyt is the master. Yet may we as well sail by the “Pilot,” who also knows “Franky Drake,” and tells us that the “Islands of the Virgia Gorda were ever accounted dangerous, but we find by the worthy Sir Francis Drake, in his relation of them, that they were not so, who sailed through and among them. There is good shelter, if you are acquainted with going in among them, for many hundred sails of ships.” And here, with Drake, sailed Martin Frobisher to recoup his fortunes blasted by the north, and returned to England with sixty thousand pounds in gold and two brass cannon as profit.

All is war and pillage, surprise and counter-manceuvre. On Hispaniola, over against the two islands Granive and Foul Beard in the Bay of Jaguana, “the Spaniards have made three or four ways through the Krenckle woods against time of war, that they may convey their merchandise thro’ the same woods with-out being discovered.” “In a little bay near Cape Tiburon the English used to lie, waiting for the Saint Domingo fleet, and the reason why they laid there was, because there was refreshment to be had from the shore.” And at Veragua, where is “good fresh water, and almost anything you want,” we hear of Drake again: “It is said that on this island Sir Francis Drake fell ill and died, and was there buried.” But here the “Pilot” trips, for Drake, sick with rage and disappointment, died when the fleet lay off Porto Bello, and was buried from his ship. There are treacherous keys among the islands where many a great ship has laid her bones; the Coffin Key, dreaded of sailors, where after sundown walk the ghosts of murdered men; and quiet little bays for “cruizing ships to anchor, when they want to heel or boot top, or to refit any of their rigging.” Saona is “a fruitful island abounding in cassava . . . so that it hath oftentimes been to the Spaniards as a granary whereby they have been sustained.” And practical directions for the navigator run with the allusion to old report: at Illuthera you may look out for two white cliffs “called the Alabasters”; “along shore you will see a hill resembling a Dutchman’s thumb cap”; and one Captain Street tells of the “Colloradoes” pricking out “where we saw to the eastward of us three hommocks on Cuba,” with “flocks of pelican sitting on the red white sand.” “Take this one more observation of the Colloradoes,” says Captain Street, “when you think you are near them, keep then your lead going, for there is good gradual shoaling on them, at first coming on them, excellent sticking oazy ground and then sand.”

Down the slope of Campeachy Bay the whole coast is fever-stricken and bare of all comfort; nor is there brook or fresh water, unless you dig deep in the sand, save one spring about two hundred yards from the shore, where “you may see a small dirty path that leads to it through the mangroves.” Forests rise from the marshes, rivers skulk behind great sandbars; the place smells of pirates, and their light-draft brigs thread the innumerable salt lagoons, that Laguna of the Tides, perhaps, where “small vessels, as barks, periagoes, or canoes may sail.”

Turning, we are for “the Amazones,” and then back again, up the great coast of the mainland. Here is the “Oronoque” and many a lesser stream: the Wannary, “shallow, craggy and foul, the land soft and quaggy,” and “therefore thereabouts not inhabited but with that vermin Crocodile, of which there are in this place abundance “; and the Caperwaka with an island in it where there is rich quarry for fo’c’s’le hunters — “such multitudes of parrots and other fine feathered fowls, that you cannot hear each other speak for their noise; there are many apes on this island, and other creatures, which I omit here to mention.” At the Roca Islands “are no beasts but some few fowls, which they call Flamingoes, having long legs almost like storks, with orange-coloured feathers, and great crooked bills,”

All along to Caracas a captain must be on the alert because of “the boisterous winds that blow there,” the “Turnadoes,” that “cause a great over-flowing of water.” And “the land is very high, some say as high as Teneriffe. You have there an extra-ordinary hollow sea, therefore those that would anchor on this coast do best to run a little westward . . where you may lie quiet and secure.” Down through the “Gulph of Venezula” “the country is full of brooks and rivulets; the people, ugly, thin, and ill-favoured, going naked, are frightful to behold.” But “there is much gold brought from thence, and some costly stones of several virtues,” and “in the country are many tygers and bears.” Rio de la Hacha, as we know, was “formerly a rich place by reason of the pearl fishing and other trading. On the east side of the river lies a bank which must be shunned,” as was successfully accomplished by Captain John Hawkins when he outwitted the Don and watered his ship at the enemy’s wells — perhaps that Jesus of Lubec he was to lose by Spanish treachery at San Juan d’Ulloa. And the river Trato, with its mouth blocked by “march land and Sea Cows,” runs “South a long way into the bowels of the country near the golden mines of Canea.” Gold and more gold, and here, in the old days, was bloody work done by Spain which, in turn, was pillaged by England and France. One Captain Long made a smug show of setting up “English col-ours by consent of the Indian natives,” but on a certain reef “Captain Long had like to have lost His Majesty’s Ship the Rupert prize.” And between the keys called the Sambello and main “used to be the rendezvous of the French buccaneers,” as off Andero and Catalina “the French used to lie with their privateers and plague the Spaniards to leeward, especially those at Porto Bello and Nombre de Dios.” At Lake Nicaragua “is a thing may be called a wonder; some of the trees can scarcely be fathomed by fifteen men; that is the body of the tree; which thing is confirmed by many.” And it was such a tree that Drake climbed when first he looked upon the slow surge of the Pacific and swore the oath that was to disturb Spain’s comfortable looting of the South Seas.

Mexico is coasted about in short order. An island off Vera Cruz comes in chiefly for “extraordinary remarks”; for “in this place the Spanish fleet used to lie, and bring their loading from all parts, until the month of March, from whence they sail to the Havannah, where they always make their fleet to depart for Spain.” And “now we come to the wild coast of Florida, of which take brief account,” says the “Pilot,” because, forsooth, there was then little trade or plunder to be had. Even the mighty Mississippi appears only as the Bay of Spirito Sancto, with, inland, a shadowy “mishisipi.” Steering out by Florida, we discover the Gulf Stream, “an extraordinary strong current, without rippling or whirling, or any other distinction than in the main ocean, always setting to the northward, occasioned by the northeast winds, which there always blow, not altering till you come as far as the Canaries or Salt Islands or thereabouts.”

But we turn back toward the “Northern Parts of America,” and the good ports of Baltimore or Boston or New York, and leave John Hawkins and Francis Drake and their mates who, after all, were only seeking gold at as good a bargain in blood or adventure as fortune sent, and were traders no less than the man who owned our “Pilot” and pored over its charts and quaint letterpress while the shores of Africa thundered in the offing or, down by the Spanish Main, his lookout watched sharp for the lurch of a pirate brig. Nor was he less adventurer than they, though he travelled the Western Ocean by roads that were as undeviating, for a good seaman, as those built by Rome, and knew the way of the currents there and the steady sweep of the trades. More than once he had anchored at Prince’s Island for a cargo of sugar and oil, more than once he had weighed and run before the “Turnado” and crept back to his anchorage when the commotion was past. He had traded at Matanzas and Surinam; he knew the trick of the Spaniard at “the Havannah” and Cadiz; and down at Rio he rode fast horses on the beach and steved his hold full of precious woods. He was no scholar, yet could calculate his position at sea by the latest mode of the navigator; he was no linguist, yet could bend French-man, or Russian, or the wily Chinese hong to his will. Like the Elizabethans, he loved gold: for that meant home and honor and dry land under foot. And he plunged into seafaring with all the strength in him only to win through to that career ashore when he should own the ships that other men sailed. He showed an unaffected, outspoken piety that would be impossible to the young blood of today, and he and his calling are no more. Yet the type persists, the type of all true adventurers old and new : the men who steer for free waters, but first of all are masters of the ship.