Tour Of The Caribbean – A Harbour Entry

IT is a romantic and even tragic entry, the entry into the lagoon-like harbour of San Juan. There are many San Juans in these seas, but this is San Juan Bautista, the capital of the island of Puerto Rico. The island was discovered by Columbus on his second voyage, and was colonised by the Spaniards with much murdering and savagery. Spanish it has remained, with unimportant interruptions, until late years—until 1898, in fact, when it became a dependency of the United States of America.

Saint John the Baptist is a walled town, old and weather-beaten, very massively fortified, and hoary with annals of rough fighting in which sakers and demi-culverins, fire-ships and pikes have borne stout parts. The entrance into the harbour from the open Atlantic is narrow and wild-looking. On one side, on a point of ragged land, is a Spanish fort, a pile of terrific and heart-less walls, yellow with age and streaked with black as if with tears. On the other side is a low, rocky island which is often hidden by drifting spray, the Isla de Cabras. Between the two is the eddying sea passage, where smooth-backed combers hurl themselves through, brushing their great shoulders against the slimy fortress wall, and then crashing upon the rocks beyond the glacis as well as upon the shore of the battered island.

When the wind is northerly and the ocean swell high and arrogant the ship making for the haven is hurried breathless down the gap, with much rolling to and fro, as if a hand beneath the sea was lifting the keel. In taking this channel in heavy weather even a tourist steamer must feel that, just for one fine moment,

it is an object of romance. The thrill, however, dies away when the anchor is dropped, and the deck is boarded by postcard vendors and the owners of cabs.

San Juan is as fine an example of a walled city as will be found among the islands or along the Spanish Main. Within the circuit of its formidable black masonry the town stands huddled, although of recent times the houses, with an assurance of security, have crept out boldly from beyond the fortifications and have settled themselves down in open suburbs. The town in reality occupies a narrow island separated from the mainland by a channel which, passing beneath the San Antonio bridge, winds into . the harbour by Isla Grande and by Miraflores Bay. The sea margin of the island presents to the Atlantic a cliff of sinister rock, 100 feet high, surmounted always by the menacing black wall.

The city is on a slope, for the land drops from the cliff summit to the level shore of the harbour. Thus of San Juan little is to be seen from the sea, save the ill-looking forts, the black wall, and a suspicious tower or two peeping above the battlements. But to the placid tree-encircled harbour, to the harbour of sunny creeks and silver shoals, the city opens its arms and its very heart.

The veteran fort that stands at the harbour mouth, brooding over the swirling entry, is called El Morro. It was built, they say, in 1584, while the gaunt wall which surrounds the town was not completed until 1771. Morro Castle, therefore, was well known to Drake and to that aristocratic pirate the Earl of Cumberland. There is no doubt but that it has been greatly strengthened since these two sturdy Englishmen mocked and defied it. It is now an immense fortress, with three tiers of batteries facing the sea, with spray-wetted platforms and sally-ports, under whose doors the sea creeps in at times of high tide. Its horrible walls are made one with the dead cliff. There are so many loopholes in its front that the place seems more full of eyes than the head of the giant Argus. In each black, skull-like socket, where would be the pupil of a globe, is the muzzle of a gun, an iris of steel.

This San Juan, this very harbour mouth, comes into the scene of one of the most pathetic of the sea stories of England, the story of the last voyage of John Hawkins and Francis Drake.

These great Elizabethan sailors, kinsmen and life-long friends, had followed the sea from boyhood. Ever famous as two of the most conspicuous figures in an age of heroic pioneering, the tale of their lives is one long saga of daring and adventure. None had done more than they to break the sea power of Spain, or to lay the foundations of Britain’s position as mistress of the sea. Both had fought against the Armada in the memorable year of 1588; both had made themselves ” so redoubtable to the Spaniards ” that their very names were breathed with awe in the court of Philip ; both were possessed by a hate of Spain so fervid that it became little less than a tenet of religion.

This last expedition was to some extent a voyage of revenge. The foul treachery of the Spaniards at San Juan d’Ulloa had never been forgotten, forgiven or effaced. More than that, Hawkins’s only son, Richard, had been captured by the Spaniards, together with his ship Dainty. The lad was now lying, as his father believed, in some torture chamber of the Inquisition on the Spanish Main. The old man, in spite of his failing health and the need of a final spell of peace, could not rest in England. He was ever haunted by the picture of his beloved boy, the delight of his life, either utterly alone in a cramped cell or in a vaulted room wherein were a rack and hooded figures. He could hear the creaking of the wheels, the twang of the rope about the livid wrists as the lever moved through another notch. He could catch the gasping breath, the grinding of the teeth, and see the sweat streaming from the brow. Moreover in Plymouth was Judith, his son’s young wife, and the sight of her anguish was beyond all bearing. So he went to Drake, his kinsman and old shipmate. “Would he go with him?” “Go with him ! Yes, a thousand times!

Thus the two got together a fleet, and sailed away from Plymouth on August 28, 1595, just two years after Richard Hawkins had been taken prisoner. They were both old and broken-down men, although Drake was only fifty-five and Hawkins sixty-three. They had a fine fleet of twenty-seven ships and a force of 2500 men and boys. No less than six vessels were ships of the Queen. Of these Drake commanded the Defiance, 500 tons, and Hawkins the Garland, 700 tons.

In many a year had these two sailed out of Plymouth harbour bound for the West Indies or the Main. This was the last occasion of their going, the last time that either of them would see the coasts of Devon. As the familiar cliffs faded in the gloom they vanished for ever ; and we may be sure that the last figure they would see before the land grew dim would be Judith, praying to God that they may have good speed.

The voyage was disastrous from the beginning to the end. The aged admiral, who was spending the last blood in his veins in the quest for his son, was a dying man. Drake, the intrepid fighter, the scourge of the seas, the West Indian Vanderdecken, had lost his cunning and his prestige. Spanish spies had gone ahead with news of their projects.

The English had not been long at sea before a painful scene took place, at the council table, between the two old friends. They disagreed as to the policy of a forced landing on the Canaries. Drake’s advice prevailed ; an invasion was attempted, but it failed utterly.

Beaten off, they laid a course for the familiar Caribbees, made Domenica, and rested at anchor under the shelter of Marie Galante. Here befell another calamity. The hindmost ship of the fleet, the Francis, was taken by the Spaniards, and the crew sent as prisoners to Puerto Rico after the plans of the English had been extracted from the master by torture. It was Drake’s intention now to sack San Juan of Puerto Rico, but it was not until November that they headed their ships northwards in search of a channel through the Virgin Islands.

More than two entire months had passed away and nothing had been done. The time was long for a man whose days were numbered. One can picture the aged admiral as he leaned over the ship’s side, looking for the land that was so slow in coming—a fine figure of an old sea lion, although his hair and his trim moustache were white and his face furrowed, and although the hand that clutched the bulwarks was thin and nerveless. The goal he was destined never to behold. Culebra was passed on November 12, and on the same day, just at the hour of sundown, the easternmost point of Puerto Rico came in sight. John Hawkins was now rapidly nearing his end, and the last sound that would have fallen upon his dying ears was the cry of the man at the look-out, ” Land ahead ! ” 1 It was a fitting death, to die at sea amidst the scenes of his brilliant exploits, to die at the time of the setting of the sun, at the moment that the long-sought shore was sighted.

In the meanwhile the Spaniards at San Juan were awaiting the coming of Drake and his ships. We have an account of his attack upon the town preserved in Spanish records of the time.’ The city was astir. The women and children were being hurried away to places of safety. They pattered over the bridge to the mainland, a fluttering, chattering cavalcade, in litters, on mules or asses, and on foot, carrying with them a jumble of household treasures, silks and cooking pots, bed linen and pet monkeys.

Men were lining up in the streets, in the Plaza, and in the castle square. They mustered a force of 10,000, including 800 mariners, and fifty horsemen with lance and buckler. On El Morro were mounted no less than twenty-seven “very good brass guns.” The cathedral bell was tolling, for the bishop was about to offer Mass, and to preach a sermon to all who could be spared from the ramparts. Merchants were busy hiding treasure in vaults or under floors, and in holes dug in gardens by night.

A ship called the Capitana de Tierra Firme, and another belonging to Senor Pedro Milanes, were sunk in the narrow entry to the port—an exciting spectacle, no doubt, for the gaping crowd at the foot of El Morro, since the sea runs strong in the passage and the scuttling of two great ships is no mean sight.

On a certain Wednesday, at the break of day, the English fleet appeared on the eastern horizon, rising up spectre-like against the red glow of the dawn. Everyone rushed to the sea-wall and gazed eastwards, their faces lit by the enlarging light. The fleet came on very slowly, for the wind was faint. In the van was a single pinnace, with some small boats taking soundings. Then came, in solemn order, the six great galleons of the Queen, with the Defiance leading. Among the six was the Garland, bearing in her state cabin the body of the admiral. After the Queen’s galleons came the privateers, and then, on either wing as well as in the rear, the little pinnaces.

The anxious silence was broken at last by the boom of a gun. It was fired from the Boqueron battery on the east point of the island, and was directed at the boats with the scouting parties. They cleared off nimbly, but the fleet advanced with sober deliberation, and cast anchor opposite to the harbour mouth.

Drake loved to show his contempt of Spaniards at all times, but on this occasion the parade cost him dear, for in the evening as he was supping in his cabin on the Defiance, with ports open and the table ablaze with lights, a round shot from El Morro crashed through the ship’s side, smashing his chair under him, and killing his friend, Sir Nicholas Clifford, on the spot.

The next morning being Thursday and St. Clement’s Day the English fleet, from whose guns not one single shot had been fired, were found to have moved westward to an anchorage near the Isla de Cabras, that spray-driven island over against the castle. This was mysterious and disconcerting, especially as small boats were hovering about the entry to the harbour busy with the lead. There were five of the enemy’s ships in the haven, and it was Drake’s intent to set fire to these, and having put them out of action, to attack the city from the harbour side.

During the whole of Thursday there was no stir of life in the fleet, but at ten o’clock, when it was dead dark, twenty-five boats with muffled oars made for the harbour entry. They crept in close to the rock; feeling their way to the place where the ships were lying. They set fire to their sterns, and in a moment San Juan was awake and in an uproar.

As the flames mounted up the masts, shrouds and yards appeared through the smoke like the spars and rigging of phantom ships ; men were seen rushing to and fro on the flaming decks, or dropping out of port-holes. The fires lit up the English boats as they darted over the shining surface of the haven. In a second the ” very good brass guns ” on El Morro were lashing the water with shot and shell. The English cheered as they battered the ships with ” fire potts ” and bombs. The Spaniards replied with musketry and with stones picked up from the ballast.

Some nine or ten of the English boats were sunk and the crews drowned, or shot down as they swam, or hacked to death as they clung to the channels of Spanish ships. One frigate, the Magdalena, was burnt to the water’s edge ; many of her sailors died in the flames, others were killed by small shot from Drake’s men. The captain, jumping overboard, swam through the glare and the crowd of boats to the frigate Sancta Ysabel, dodging many a cutlass cut at his head on the way.

The fires on the other ships were put out. The fight lasted only for one hour, during which time the whole harbour and town were lit by the glare of flames, so that faces could be seen on the walls, while the air was rent by an incessant cannonade, by the patter of small arms, the crackling of burning planks and the yells of men. The attempt had failed. The British were driven off with the loss—so the Spaniards reckoned—of over 400 men.

When Friday came Drake was planning another attack. He would sail his galleons right into the port, into the desperate passage, and destroy the four remaining ships of the enemy with cannon shot. The Spaniards could hear the rattle of his capstans as the anchors came up to the chant of the men. The attacking ships worked up to windward, lulled up and came about, and then with the trade-wind on the port quarter, sailed under full canvas for the harbour mouth.

The Spaniards had that morning already sunk two more vessels in the entry, and as Drake swept down upon them they scuttled another in the fair-way, making five in all. The passage was now impossible, so the Defiance and her consorts as they neared the cliff put their helms hard-a-port, and ran silently down to their old quarters off the Isla de Cabras. It was “at vesper time ” when they dropped anchor there. Drake, the invincible Drake, had been again repulsed.

That very night, when it was so dark that none could see, the English fleet bore away—beaten.

Before they left there was one duty to be done. By the gun-wale of the Garland lay an object sewn up in canvas, with a round shot secured at one end. It was lit by the light of a solitary lantern, the glimmer of which revealed also the figure of Drake standing bareheaded and with downcast eyes. The plank on which the strange bundle lay was tilted by trembling hands and the body of John Hawkins dropped into the everlasting sea. Thus did the two old shipmates part company.