Tour Of The Caribbean – A Mysterious Ship

FOR many and many a year in Barbados the cry of ” A sail in sight” would send a thrill through the settlement. It was a cry which emptied the little school-house of its boys, impelled the shopkeeper to clap on his wig and hasten to the beach, and led the planter among the canes to stop and turn his pony’s head homewards. If it was on a Sunday when the cry came it drew folk out of church, one by one, and hurried the droning sermon to a close.

Every ship, whether great or small, brought news, but it was often the smallest which carried the most weighty tidings—tidings of a French fleet bearing westward, of a sea fight off St. Lucia, of a derelict with dead men awash on her deck and the name Mary of Barbados under her stern. Every item of public news that ever reached Bridgetown had been bawled over the gunwale of some sea-weary craft to upturned faces in boats, while the anchor splashed into the bay and the cable rattled through the hawse-pipe. In this wise came the tidings, ” The Queen is dead ” ; ” All has been lost at Worcester “; ” Nelson has blown them to blazes at Trafalgar.”

So long as the sails of the formless ship were as a light in the haze she brought with her the very message that everyone hoped for and waited for. She brought money to the castaway, forgiveness to the prodigal, promotion to the war-tanned captain, and a summons home to the fretting subaltern whose heart had been left behind in a green rectory in Devon.

From the Governor to the lounger on the quay there was a period of anxious suspense until the watchman made out the rig and cut of the on-coming craft. To the Governor it might mean advancement or recall, to the lounger the landing of a King’s officer in search of a pirate who had turned wharfinger for a time.

On January 28, 1682, a ship was observed to be approaching Barbados from the south. She was apparently heading for Bridgetown, and was romping along with the trade wind on her starboard quarter. Curiously enough she did not seem to be in any hurry, for her lee sheets were handsomely eased off. Anyone who stood on the little cliff at St. Lawrence would have had a good view of her as she drew near to the reef. Her flag, in spite of rents and dirt, showed the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew. It was to be inferred, therefore, that she was British. She flew also another flag, a blood-red burgee decked with a bunch of white and green ribbons, which was a mystery to all beholders.

The ship was so wan, so weather-stained, so old as to be almost spectral. She may have been a ghost ship come to look into Carlisle Bay for the fleet of Columbus. The paint on her sides was ash-coloured. The tar had cracked away in blisters leaving bare the planks which were as yellow as a faded leaf. Her bottom, as she heeled over to the breeze, was green with weed and crackling with barnacles. Her sails, patched and ragged, hung about her masts like cerecloths, while many of her spars were splintered and fished.” She looked as if she had passed through a century of sun, wind and rain. She creaked like an old basket.

She was a galleon of some 400 tons, with the lines of a Spanish man-of-war, but the great house on the poop and all the carved work about the stern had been uncouthly hacked away, giving her the aspect of a ruin. She showed no guns along her sides, but there were ports for cannon on two decks, which ports had been closed and daubed over as if to conceal their existence. Across her stern, in letters of faded gilt, was her name. It was in Spanish and was a curious name— The Most Blessed Trinity.

If any could have seen her closer they would have noticed that the timbers about her rudder-post were charred. Someone had evidently tried to set her on fire. Her sides and bulwarks showed many shot holes. She was leaking pretty freely, for a couple of men were cursing at the pump. The water that came out of her stank of rum, stale hides and sour wine. There were cutlass hacks along her gunwale, especially by the rigging, as if men had boarded her. The cabin door had evidently been burst in by a bloody shoulder for there was still a mark on the cracked panel. There was a trickle of dry and faded blood down the stair, and in the corner of the cabin, on the skirting-board, was a horrible glue-like daub with black hair sticking to it where a man, whose brains had been blown out, had fallen and died.

The craft held on her course until she ” opened ” Carlisle Bay. People on shore were hurrying down to the careenage to get the first look at this ancient, mysterious and weather-worn ship, which might have hailed from Cathay. The moment, however, that the ghostly vessel reached the mouth of the inlet she suddenly shifted her helm, and, with the tiller hard-a-weather, swung to leeward and sailed away towards the north. In a few hours she had vanished.

It would seem as if the captain of the gruesome ship had seen something in Carlisle Bay that had frightened him. But the naven was asleep in the sun. A few traders were lying along the quay near Bridgetown, while at anchor in the pool was a large frigate, H.M.S. Richmond.

The captain of The Most Blessed Trinity was no other than Bartholomew Sharp,’ an acrid-looking villain whose scarred face had been tanned to the colour of old brandy, whose shaggy brows were black with gunpowder and whose long hair, half singed off in a recent fight, was tied up in a nun’s wimple. He was dressed in the long, embroidered coat of a Spanish grandee, and as there was a bullet hole in the back of the garment it may be surmised that the previous owner had come to a violent end. His hose of white silk were as dirty as the deck ; his shoe buckles were of dull silver. This was the companion of Dampier, Ringrose and Wafer, the hero of the ” Dangerous Voyage and Bold Attempts of Captain Bartholomew Sharp.” His admirers wrote of him as ” that sea artist and valliant commander,” but the captain of H.M.’s frigate Richmond knew him as a desperate and unconscionable pirate with a price on his head.

Sharp, with 330 buccaneers, had left the West Indies in April 1680. They landed on the mainland, and crossing the Isthmus, made for Panama. Having secured canoes, they attacked the Spanish fleet lying at Perico, an island off Panama city, and after one of the most desperate fights ever recorded in the annals of the sea they took all the ships, including The Most Blessed Trinity. Then followed a long record of successful pirating, of battle, murder and sudden death, of mutinies and quarrels.

In the end some of the desperadoes returned ” home ” across the Isthmus ; but Sharp, in the Trinity, determined to keep to the ship, to sail the whole length of South America, to weather the Horn and to reach the West Indies by way of the sea. This was the ” dangerous voyage ” which had occupied eighteen months of unparalleled adventure, peril and hardship.

Barbados was the first point of ” home ” they had reached, so that any who saw the gaunt ship on that day in January saw the end of a cruise the like of which had never been. But for the glimpse of H.M.S. Richmond in Carlisle Bay, Sharp and his comrades would have been filling the taverns of Bridgetown with boisterous oaths, strange tales, and the fumes of rum. A warrant was out against Bartholomew, so he had to be circumspect.

The log of the “dangerous voyage” affords reading as lurid as the ” Newgate Calendar.” It records how they landed and took towns, how they filled the little market square with corpses, how they pillaged the church, ransacked every house, and then committed the trembling place to the flames. It tells how they tortured frenzied men until, in their agony, they told of hiding places where gold was buried ; how they spent an unholy Christmas at Juan Fernandez ; how, in a little island cove, they fished with a greasy lead for golden pieces which Drake is believed to have thrown overboard for want of carrying room. It gives account of a cargo of sugar and wine, of tallow and hides, of bars of silver and pieces of eight, of altar chalices and ladies’ trinkets, of scented laces, and of rings torn from the clenched and still warm fingers of the dead.

The “valliant commander” had lost many of his company on the dangerous voyage. Some had died in battle ; others had mumbled out their lives in the delirium of fever, sunstroke or drink ; certain poor souls, with racked joints and bleeding backs, were crouching in Spanish prisons ; while one had been left behind on a desert island in the Southern Pacific.

When The Most Blessed Trinity started on her journey south she had on board two English surgeons. These gentlemen were, no doubt, kept well employed. They went ashore with the boats at Arica when the pirates made the attempt to seize and sack that town. As civilians they would take no part in the actual gun and cutlass business. The fighting on this occasion being much protracted the two surgeons took advantage of their enforced leisure to become intoxicated. When the pirates were compelled to retreat—for they were utterly routed—the two representatives of the healing art were bawling out the latest London songs on the floor of a deserted tavern. They were rudely sobered when they found their hands tied behind their backs and a Spanish fist screwing at their collars. Of all the prisoners taken these two learned men alone escaped being murdered ; for it was believed that they might, when sober, be a comfort to the sick of Arica.

Captain Sharp, although the leader of so many ” bold attempts,” had not himself been free from certain domestic troubles during the voyage. They were mostly due to religion, or rather to the fervour of a religious revival among the ship’s company. The crew became at one time so repelled by Sharp’s lax morals, indifferent piety and utter disregard for the Sabbath that they could stand it no longer ; so they seized him, put him in irons and dropped him down on to the ballast.

In his stead they elected one John Watling, an old and blood-thirsty buccaneer. He at once began Sunday services on board the Trinity, to the great comfort of the men. Bartholomew Sharp, as he sat in the dark, on the damp stones with which the bilge was ballasted, could hear the music of familiar hymns rendered by hearty throats, a little husky, perhaps, from too much liquor. He could hear, too, and this would pain him most in his solitude, the fog-horn voice of the pious Watling ” leading in prayer,” or expounding select passages from the Holy Scriptures. Unfortunately, John Watling the revivalist was killed a few days later by a bullet through his liver, so his career as a Scripture reader was short.

During Watling’s captaincy, Sharp, as soon as he had been lifted up from the ballast, did his best to appear before the company as a just man made perfect. Among some prisoners taken about this time was an aged Indian. He was questioned as to Arica, the town Watling was proposing to attack. His answers were judged to be false, whereupon the godly Watling, without further parleying, ordered him to be shot to death, ” which was accordingly done.”

This sentence was too much for ex-captain Sharp, who seems to have found grace while sitting on the stones in the bilge. He protested against the cold-blooded murder of the poor, untutored savage. Was he not a man and a brother? The voice of the tender-hearted Bartholomew faltered as he talked of the old man’s little home, of his aged wife, of his devoted sons. The pleadings of this high-principled gentleman fell unfortunately upon deaf ears. Finding his counsel of no avail, Sharp drew himself up to his full height on the sunlit deck, and in a voice trembling with dignity and emotion, called for a basin of water. It was an unusual request, and as basins are apt to get broken on pirate ships the water was probably brought him in a battered salver stolen from a Spanish altar. Sharp at once proceeded to perform a rarely witnessed act. As a blear-eyed ruffian of a steward held the basin before him, he deliberately washed his hands in the not over clean water. Then, as he wiped his fingers on the lappels of his coat, he said solemnly, and with his eyes turned heavenwards, ” Gentlemen, I am clear of the blood of this old man.” It was a great and impressive ceremony—Bartholomew Sharp in the character of Pontius Pilate—but it did not save the life of the wretched Indian.

It only remains to be said that The Most Blessed Trinity, after the alarm at Barbados, sailed wearily away to Antigua. Here some fourteen of the pirates landed, including Esquemeling, the historian of the ” dangerous voyage.” They secured a passage to England in the Lisbon Merchant, and reached the peaceful town of Dartmouth in March 1682.

Sharp, however, did not feel quite easy at Antigua. He was getting a little anxious about himself, and if he read Shakespeare must have often repeated the reflections of the boy in ” Henry V.” who said to Pistol,

” Would I were in an alehouse in London ; I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.”

Sharp, therefore, moved on to the remoter colony of Nevis. In the little shy harbour of that island the poor, battered, friendless ship came to an anchor at last. Bartholomew was sick of the sight of her, so he handed her over to the piteous remnant of his crew, who had gambled all their loot and savings away and had not a penny to offer for their passage home.

As the ” sea artist,” in his gayest clothes, sailed out of Nevis on a homeward-bound merchantman he would have passed the Trinity lying at her anchor, dead-beat. He would have noticed her shot-riddled hull, her ragged sails, her rotting and too familiar decks. The warm breeze would have brought him a whiff from her open hold—a whiff of stale rum and staler bilge water. The odour would have reminded him of the days when he lay in irons below decks, listening to hymns. It may be that he waved his lace-ruffled hand to the poor, shirtless, unshaven gamblers who hung over her gunwale and who watched, through the tears in their eyes, the last of their comrades starting on their way to England and home.