by Mike Lord
Ebook ISBN: 9781311736833
[ Historical Adventure Romance, MF ]
Apart from Nick the story follows the history closely. Many of the ship’s crew did not return to England, many died and others married or lived with local girls, and many families today in Sri Lanka can trace their ancestry to members of the ship’s crew.
The sound of the splintering mast was not only heard, but felt by us all throughout the whole ship. The main mast that had been hewed from good English wood five years ago could no longer stand the fury of the tropical storm. Men were running to take in the remaining sail and adjust the rigging. We were all stripped to the waist and the few clothes that we did wear were sodden with rain and sea water.
Everyone appeared to be shouting, but the sailors ran with some purpose. A few had axes and were cutting at the rigging which had not sheared off as the mast went over the side.
‘Stand back ! When it goes the rope end will cut you to the bone’, someone shouted above the gale.
I could hear orders being given to cut away the sheets still holding the remains of the mast to the ships side. And then as the mast, with attached sails, crows nest and rigging, fell astern we could all feel the ship regaining a sense of purpose, and running before the storm. The ship’s carpenter, Francis Crutch, was chopping with his long axe at the wooden cheeks holding the stump of the mast.
“Mr. Crutch,” called the captain above the noise of the storm, “belay that ! Please be so kind as to check the pumps.” The captain shouted over the noise of the wind and rain, his voice carrying forward on the wind.
The carpenter had stopped cutting wood, and staggered across the swaying deck to the pump. In the belly of the ship I could see two of the ship’s crew working the wooden arm of the pump, spouts of water came through the wooden nozzle and fell back into the sea. He said some thing to one of the crew, nodded, and made his way towards the captain to report. I did not hear what he said, but the captain nodded. We were all watching the captain’s face, and we all had confidence in his ability and the decisions he would make. From the attitude of the captain, there did not appear to be a major problem with water in the ship’s hold. He was more concerned with the trim of the remaining sail.
The storm had suddenly started yesterday evening when we were approaching the Coromandel coast, and we had had little option but to run before the furiously gusting storm. We had been driven south and west by the storm, which had blown all night, and now in the mid-morning had taken away our main mast. Within an hour of losing our mast the storm, as if it had it’s achieved its main purpose, abated as quickly as it had started, and the captain had been able to assess the damage to the ship.
We were also hungry, as one of the first things to do when rough weather starts is to extinguish the galley fires. I was detailed to assist William Hubbard, the ship’s cook, in getting the tinder glowing so that we relit the galley fires, and generally helping the cook to feed the crew.
We … ? I’d better tell you.
* * *
My name’s Nick. I suppose you’d call me the cabin boy, but I’d never been given a title. I’d been working in the “Ann” for nearly four years since the age of ten, or thereabouts. I was born in Norfolk, and was often called “Norfolk Nick”. I never learned to read or write until I was past 30, when I’m writing this story.
My mother had been ‘in service’ at a large house in Norfolk, near Attleborough, and suddenly left to get married to a young farmer who was the son of a tenant in the big estate. I learned later that my biological father was probably the youngest son of the landed Norfolk family. Somebody else told me that I probably had blue blood in my veins, but when I looked it seemed to be the same colour as everyone else’s. My mother had another son who was about two years younger than me, and he was my father’s preferred son, hence my reason for being here now.
One day, in the evening at the end of the summer, I was listening to some men talking in our local village Inn.
“I hear there’s a ship recruiting in Lowestoft,” said one.
“It depends where they’re goin’,” said another.
“I could do with a job that takes me around,”
Well, I knew that Suffolk was close to Norfolk, so I decided to go. But that’s easier said than done, especially when you’re only ten. I was at the Inn because that morning I’d been beaten by my father for breaking some eggs, which in fact my younger brother had done, so I was still feeling somewhat rebellious, and sore. I decided that I could get to Cromer, which was about as far away as I knew, and maybe Lowestoft was close by.
In the middle of the village near to the river was a signpost, which had several fingers pointing in different directions. One pointed to Norwich, but I knew that Norwich wasn’t near the sea. Another finger said Cromer, so I decided to go there. It was evening when I started, and it wasn’t long before I felt tired and hungry. I’m always hungry. I’ve never been fat, and people often say I’m as thin as a beanpole. When I was about 15 I also started to grow upwards, so that now I’m still long and thin, but not so tall.
As it was getting dark I came across a large tithe barn at the roadside, and with nobody around decided to look around – mainly for food. I found some eggs. Not knowing who the eggs belonged to I made a whole in each end and sucked out the contents, carefully replacing the eggs where I found them. There appeared to be no one around so I slept in the straw where I found the eggs. I was up as usual early next morning and on my way to Cromer. The driver of a wagon with two horses, full of sacks, gave me a lift to the next village.
“Have you had breakfast ?” queried the driver.
“Well, there’s some bread in that cloth,” he offered, and nodded with his head towards his bag, and which I ate gratefully. But I still had a long way to walk. It took me all day.
I always seem to gravitate towards Inns, which I did as soon as I got to Cromer. I just used to hang around, and being small and thin no-one seemed to notice me. What I really wanted to find out was about ships. But this time I was noticed, or at least was tripped over, by a large man who swore at me using words that I’d never heard before. He was wearing strange clothes, at least strange for a farmer, and later that evening I followed him from the Inn, through the small town, to the port.
As luck would have it he went towards to biggest ship in the harbour. I didn’t know then but this ship was a coastal trader, which used to ply all along the east coast, and went as far south as the port of London. Not knowing what else to do I slipped aboard behind him and hid myself among some sacks on the deck. The ship sailed on the tide later that night, and then I learned what seasickness was all about. Between bouts of sickness, and then hunger, the ship’s next port of call was Lowestoft.
I was amazed. There were many more ships in Lowestoft harbour, and someone told me they were fishing boats. When no-one was around hunger drove me ashore. A woman at the back door of an Inn, again, gave me some stale bread which I ate ravenously. I also managed to listen to some of the men in the Inn talking, although many of the words they used were strange to me then. What I did learn was that a new ship in London was recruiting sailors. Apparently, as the captain came from Suffolk, he wanted sailors from there. It was a huge ship, to my mind, needing over 200 men !
But where was London, and how did I get there ?
My problem was solved later that afternoon by several of the men arranging to meet in the harbour where they could get passage on a ship to London, and there join this new ship. They mentioned the word “Ann”, but then I didn’t know that ships had names like people. I just followed the men, and stayed close to them on the ship, still un-noticed, until we got to London. There they found the ship called “Ann”, which was huge to my mind, and just I followed them on board. No one noticed me, again. I found the kitchen, and learned it was called a galley, and somebody there gave me some food. I was happy.
There I stayed. It was nearly Christmas Day. That was over four years ago, and the time I am writing about now actually happened over twenty years ago, in the year of our Lord 1659. Of course, I was eventually noticed and was duly chastised by the captain and told to make myself useful. But by that time the ship had sailed, and it was over two and a half years before we got back to London, the first time.
* * *
We had lost not only our main mast but also a goodly proportion of the ships rail, several hatches were torn off, and one of our boats had been smashed. Our longboat was still intact and safe, and we still had one small dingy. The sail maker, Charles Beard, had rigged a larger topsail on the foremast and the ship was responding to the wind. The captain realised that there was land to the west and decided to try to find sanctuary there. He managed to take some readings in the early afternoon, and decided that the wind had blown us further south than he had first thought.
A lookout had been positioned on the foremast and the next afternoon hailed land ahead. We all craned our necks and shaded our eyes to get a closer look. The captain and his son, also called Robert, were busy locating the position of the ship.
“To the north,” announced the captain, “is the Dutch port of Trincomalee, and ahead and to the south is the mouth of the Mahaweli river. The place ahead is known as Cottiar, and the land ahead is called Ceylon.”
The land we were looking at was flat although it had a beach with a fringe of palm trees. Inland we could see some hills but they were hazy in the evening sunshine. The sea was clear and we could sea fishes just below the surface, so some of us decided to start fishing.
The captain wrote in his log that it should be possible to find a new mast in the woods beyond the shoreline, and that he would anchor in the river estuary, so as to avoid any Dutch ships in Trincomalee harbour. I heard him telling this to Mr. John Loveland, who was the ship’s merchant.
I learned so much just by listening.
That evening the captain and Robert Jnr. went ashore. Many of us had climbed up and were lying in the rigging waiting to see what happened. Robert Jnr. signalled that they had seen a village just to the north, and we watched them as they walked along the top beach towards the village to the north. We waited a long time.
In was almost dark when we spotted them walking back along the beach. There were two other men with them, carrying baskets, and both Mr. Knox and Robert Jnr. carried what looked like armfuls of fruit.
The two men were short and slim, and had light brown skins without a blemish. They came with the captain in the long boat, but did not come aboard the ship. None of us knew their language, and they didn’t know ours so we looked at one another. Robert Jnr. spoke mainly using gestures, and smiles.
After the storm, and several days of ships stores, the fruit and the freshly grilled fish we had caught whilst waiting for the captain to return, was very welcome to those of us on board, and we all ate too much.