The boy clutched at the rim of the canvas bucket in which he crouched sixty feet above the deck as the ship went about. The mast canted over sharply as she thrust her head through the wind. The ship was a caravel named the Lady Edwina, after the mother whom the boy could barely remember.
Far below in the pre-dawn darkness he heard the great bronze culverins slat against their blocks and come up with a thump against their straining tackle. The hull throbbed and resonated to a different impulse as she swung round and went plunging away back into the west. With the south-east wind now astern she was transformed, lighter and more limber, even with sails reefed and with three feet of water in her bilges.
It was all so familiar to Hal Courtney. He had greeted the last five and sixty dawns from the masthead in this manner. His young eyes, the keenest in the ship, had been posted there to catch the first gleam of distant sail in the rose of the new day.
Even the cold was familiar. He pulled the thick woollen Monmouth cap down over his ears. The wind sliced through his leather jerkin but he was inured to such mild discomfort. He gave it no heed and strained his eyes out into the darkness. ‘Today the Dutchmen will come,’ he said aloud, and felt the excitement and dread throb beneath his ribs.
High above him the splendour of the stars began to pale and fade, and the firmament was filled with the pearly promise of new day. Now, far below him, he could make out the figures on the deck. He could recognise Ned Tyler, the helmsman, bowed over the whipstaff, holding the ship true; and his own father stooping over the binnacle to read the new course, the lantern lighting his lean dark features and his long locks tangling and whipping in the wind.
With a start of guilt Hal looked out into the darkness; he should not be mooning down at the deck in these vital minutes when, at any moment, the enemy might loom close at hand out of the night.
By now it was light enough to make out the surface of the sea rushing by the hull. It had the hard iridescent shine of new-cut coal. By now he knew this southern sea so well; this broad highway of the ocean that flowed eternally down the eastern coast of Africa, blue and warm and swarming with life. Under his father’s tutelage he had studied it so that he knew the colour, the taste and run of it, each eddy and surge.
One day he also would glory in the title of Nautonnier Knight of the Temple of the Order of St George and the Holy Grail. He would be, as his father was, a Navigator of the Order. His father was as determined as Hal himself to bring that about, and, at seventeen years of age, his goal was no longer merely a dream.
This current was the highway upon which the Dutchmen must sail to make their westings and their landfall on the mysterious coast that still lay veiled out there in the night. This was the gateway through which all must pass who sought to round that wild cape that divided the Ocean of the Indies from the Southern Atlantic.
This was why Sir Francis Courtney, Hal’s father, the Navigator, had chosen this position, at 34 degrees 25 minutes south latitude, in which to wait for them. Already they had waited sixty-five tedious days, beating monotonously back and forth, but today the Dutchmen might come, and Hal stared out into the gathering day with parted lips and straining green eyes.
A cable’s length off the starboard bow he saw the flash of wings high enough in the sky to catch the first rays of the sun, a long flight of gannets coming out from the land, snowy chests and heads of black and yellow. He watched the leading bird dip and turn, breaking the pattern, and twist its head to peer down into the dark waters. He saw the disturbance below it, the shimmer of scales and the seething of the surface as a shoal came up to the light. He watched the bird fold its wings and plunge downwards, and each bird that followed began its dive at the same point in the air, to strike the dark water in a burst of lacy foam.
Soon the surface was thrashed white by the diving birds and the struggling silver anchovies on which they gorged. Hal turned away his gaze and swept the opening horizon.
His heart tripped as he caught the gleam of a sail, a tall ship square-rigged, only a league to the eastward. He had filled his lungs and opened his mouth to hail the quarterdeck before he recognised her. It was the Gull of Moray, a frigate, not a Dutch East Indiaman. She was far out of position, which had tricked Hal.
The Gull of Moray was the other principal vessel in the blockading squadron. The Buzzard, her captain, should be lying out of sight below the eastern horizon. Hal leaned out over the edge of the canvas crow’s nest and looked down at the deck. His father, fists on his hips, was staring up at him.
Hal called down the sighting to the quarterdeck, ‘The Gullhull up to windward!’ and his father swung away to gaze out to the east. Sir Francis picked out the shape of the Buzzard’s ship, black against the darkling sky, and raised the slender brass tube of the telescope to his eye. Hal could sense anger in the set of his shoulders and the way in which he slammed the instrument shut and tossed his mane of black hair. Before this day was out words would be exchanged between the two commanders. Hal grinned to himself. With his iron will and spiked tongue, his fists and blade, Sir Francis struck terror into those upon whom he turned them – even his brother Knights of the Order held him in awe. Hal was thankful that this day his father’s temper would be directed elsewhere than at him.
He looked beyond the Gull of Moray, sweeping the horizon as it extended swiftly with the coming of day. Hal needed no telescope to aid his bright young eyes – besides, only one of these costly instruments was aboard. He made out the others’ sails then exactly where they should be, tiny pale flecks against the dark sea. The two pinnaces maintaining their formation, beads in the necklace, were spread out fifteen leagues on each side of the Lady Edwina, part of the net his father had cast wide to ensnare the Dutchmen.
The pinnaces were open vessels, with a dozen heavily armed men crowded into each. When not needed they could be broken down and stowed in the Lady Edwina’s hold. Sir Francis changed their crews regularly, for neither the tough West Country men nor the Welsh nor the even hardier ex-slaves that made up most of his crew could endure the conditions aboard those little ships for long and still be fit for a fight at the end of it.
At last the full steely light of day struck as the sun rose from the eastern ocean. Hal gazed down the fiery path it threw across the waters. He felt his spirits slide as he found the ocean empty of a strange sail. Just as on the sixty-five preceding dawns, there was no Dutchman in sight.
Then he looked northwards to the land mass that crouched like a great rock sphinx, dark and inscrutable, upon the horizon. This was the Agulhas Cape, the southernmost tip of the African continent.
‘Africa!’ The sound of that mysterious name on his own lips raised goose pimples along his arms and made the thick dark hair prickle on the back of his neck.
‘Africa!’ The uncharted land of dragons and other dreadful creatures, who ate the flesh of men, and of dark-skinned savages who also ate men’s flesh and wore their bones as decoration.
‘Africa!’ The land of gold and ivory and slaves and other treasures, all waiting for a man bold enough to seek them out, and, perhaps, to perish in the endeavour. Hal felt daunted yet fascinated by the sound and promise of that name, its menace and challenge.
Long hours he had pored over the charts in his father’s cabin when he should have been learning by rote the tables of celestial passages, or declining his Latin verbs. He had studied the great interior spaces, filled with drawings of elephants and lions and monsters, traced the outlines of the Mountains of the Moon, and of lakes and mighty rivers confidently emblazoned with names such as ‘Khoikhoi’, and ‘Camdeboo’, ‘Sofala’ and ‘the Kingdom of Prester John’. But Hal knew from his father that no civilized man had ever travelled into that awesome interior and wondered, as he had so many times before, what it would be like to be the first to venture there. Prester John particularly intrigued him. This legendary ruler of a vast and powerful Christian empire in the depths of the African continent had existed in the European mythology for hundreds of years. Was he one man, or a line of emperors? Hal wondered.
Hal’s reverie was interrupted by shouted orders from the quarterdeck, faint on the wind, and the feel of the ship as she changed course. Looking down, he saw that his father intended to intercept the Gull of Moray. Under topsails only, and with all else reefed, the two ships were now converging, both running westward towards the Cape of Good Hope and the Atlantic.They moved sluggishly – they had been too long in these warm southern waters, and their timbers were infested with the Toredo worm. No vessel could survive long out here. The dreaded shipworms grew as thick as a man’s finger and as long as his arm, and they bored so close to each other through the planks as to honeycomb them. Even from his seat at the masthead Hal could hear the pumps labouring in both vessels to lower the bilges. The sound never ceased: it was like the beating of a heart that kept the ship afloat. It was yet another reason why they must seek out the Dutchmen: they needed to change ships. The Lady Edwina was being eaten away beneath their feet.
As the two ships came within hailing distance the crews swarmed into the rigging and lined the bulwarks to shout ribald banter across the water.
The numbers of men packed into each vessel never failed to amaze Hal when he saw them in a mass like this. The Lady Edwina was a ship of 170 tons burden, with an overall length of little more than 70 feet, but she carried a crew of a hundred and thirty men if you included those now manning the two pinnaces. The Gull was not much larger, but with half as many men again aboard.
Every one of those fighting men would be needed if they were to overwhelm one of the huge Dutch East India galleons. Sir Francis had gathered intelligence from all the corners of the southern ocean from other Knights of the Order, and knew that at least five of these great ships were still at sea. So far this season twenty-one of the Company’s galleons had made the passage and had called at the tiny victualling station below the towering Tafelberg, as the Dutch called it, or Table Mountain at the foot of the southern continent before turning northwards and voyaging up the Atlantic towards Amsterdam.
Those five tardy ships, still straggling across the Ocean of the Indies, must round the Cape before the southeasterly trades fell away and the wind turned foul into the north-west. That would be soon.
When the Gull of Moray was not cruising in the guerre de course, which was a euphemism for privateering, Angus Cochran, Earl of Cumbrae, rounded out his purse by trading for slaves in the markets of Zanzibar. Once they had been shackled to the ringbolts in the deck of the long narrow slave hold, they could not be released until the ship docked at the end of her voyage in the ports of the Orient. This meant that even those poor creatures who succumbed during the dreadful tropical passage of the Ocean of the Indies must lie rotting with the living in the confined spaces of the ’tween decks. The effluvium of decaying corpses, mingled with the waste odour of the living, gave the slave ships a distinctive stench that identified them for many leagues down wind. No amount of scouring with even the strongest lyes could ever rid a slaver of her characteristic smell.
As the Gull crossed upwind, there were howls of exaggerated disgust from the crew of the Lady Edwina. ‘By God, she stinks like a dung-heap.’
‘Did you not wipe your backsides, you poxy vermin? We can smell you from here!’ one yelled across at the pretty little frigate. The language bawled back from the Gull made Hal grin. Of course, the human bowels held no mysteries for him, but he did not understand much of the rest of it, for he had never seen those parts of a woman to which the seamen in both ships referred in such graphic detail, nor knew of the uses to which they could be put, but it excited his imagination to hear them so described. His amusement was enhanced when he imagined his father’s fury at hearing it.
Sir Francis was a devout man who believed that the fortunes of war could be influenced by the god-fearing behaviour of every man aboard.
He forbade gambling, blasphemy and the drinking of strong spirits. He led prayers twice a day and exhorted his seamen to gentle and dignified behaviour when they put into port – although Hal knew that this advice was seldom followed. Now Sir Francis frowned darkly as he listened to his men exchange insults with those of the Buzzard but, as he could not have half the ship’s company flogged to signal his disapproval, he held his tongue until he was in easy hail of the frigate.
In the meantime he sent his servant to his cabin to fetch his cloak. What he had to say to the Buzzard was official and he should be in regalia. When the man returned, Sir Francis slipped the magnificent velvet cloak over his shoulders before he lifted his speaking trumpet to his lips. ‘Good morrow, my lord!’
The Buzzard came to his rail and lifted one hand in salute. Above his plaid he wore half-armour, which gleamed in the fresh morning light, but his head was bare, his red hair and beard bushed together like a haystack, the curls dancing on the wind as though his head was on fire. ‘Jesus love you, Franky!’ he bellowed back, his great voice easily transcending the wind.
‘Your station is on the eastern flank!’ The wind and his anger made Sir Francis short. ‘Why have you deserted it?’
The Buzzard spread his hands in an expressive gesture of apology. ‘I have little water and am completely out of patience. Sixty-five days are enough for me and my brave fellows. There are slaves and gold for the taking along the Sofala coast.’ His accent was like a Scottish gale.
‘Your commission does not allow you to attack Portuguese shipping.’
‘Dutch, Portuguese or Spanish,’ Cumbrae shouted back. ‘Their gold shines as prettily. You know well that there is no peace beyond the Line.’
‘You are well named the Buzzard,’ Sir Francis roared in frustration, ‘for you have the same appetite as that carrion bird!’ Yet what Cumbrae had said was true. There was no peace beyond the Line.
A century and a half ago, by Papal Bull Inter Caetera of 25 September 1493, the Line had been drawn down the mid-Atlantic, north to south, by Pope Alexander VI to divide the world between Portugal and Spain. What hope was there that the excluded Christian nations, in their envy and resentment, would honour this declaration? Spontaneously, another doctrine was born: ‘No peace beyond the Line!’ It became the watchword of the privateer and the corsair. And its meaning extended in their minds to encompass all the unexplored regions of the oceans.
Within the waters of the northern continent, acts of piracy, rapine and murder – whose perpetrator previously would have been hunted down by the combined navies of Christian Europe and hanged from his own yard-arm – were condoned and even applauded when committed beyond the Line. Every embattled monarch signed Letters of Marque that, at a stroke, converted his merchantmen into privateers, ships of war, and sent them out marauding on the newly discovered oceans of the expanding globe.
Sir Francis Courtney’s own letter had been signed by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, the Lord Chancellor of England, in the name of His Majesty King Charles II. It sanctioned him to hunt down the ships of the Dutch Republic, with which England was at war.
‘Once you desert your station, you forfeit your rights to claim a share of any prize!’ Sir Francis called across the narrow strip of water between the ships, but the Buzzard turned away to issue orders to his helmsman.
He shouted to his piper, who stood at the ready, ‘Give Sir Francis a tune to remember us by!’ The stirring strains of ‘Farewell to the Isles’ carried across the water to the Lady Edwina, as the Buzzard’s topmast men clambered like monkeys high into the rigging, and loosed the reefs. The Gull’s top-hamper billowed out. The main sail filled with a boom like the discharge of cannon, she heeled eagerly to the south-easter and pressed her shoulder into the next blue swell, bursting it asunder.
As the Buzzard pulled away rapidly he came back to the stern rail, and his voice lifted above the skirling of the pipes and the whimper of the wind. ‘May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ shield you, my revered brother Knight.’ But on the Buzzard’s lips it sounded like blasphemy.
With his cloak, which was quartered by the crimson croix pattée of the Order, billowing and flapping from his wide shoulders, Sir Francis watched him go.
Slowly the ironic cheering and heavy banter of the men died away. A sombre new mood began to infect the ship as the company realized that their forces, puny before, had been more than halved in a single stroke. They had been left alone to meet the Dutchmen in whatever force they might appear. The seamen that crowded the Lady Edwina’s deck and rigging were silent now, unable to meet each other’s eyes.
Then Sir Francis threw back his head and laughed. ‘All the more for us to share!’ he cried, and they laughed with him and cheered as he made his way to his cabin below the poop deck.
For another hour Hal stayed at the masthead. He wondered how long the men’s buoyant mood could last, for they were down to a mug of water twice a day. Although the land and its sweet rivers lay less than half a day’s sailing away, Sir Francis had not dared detach even one of the pinnaces to fill the casks. The Dutchmen might come at any hour, and when they did he would need every man.
At last a man came aloft to relieve Hal at the lookout. ‘What is there to see, lad?’ he asked, as he slipped into the canvas crow’s nest beside Hal.
‘Precious little,’ Hal admitted, and pointed out the tiny sails of the two pinnaces on the distant horizon. ‘Neither carries any signals,’ Hal told him. ‘Watch for the red flag – it’ll mean they have the chase in sight.’
The sailor grunted. ‘You’ll be teaching me to fart next.’ But he smiled at Hal in avuncular fashion – the boy was the ship’s favourite.
Hal grinned back at him. ‘God’s truth, but you need no teaching, Master Simon. I’ve heard you at the bucket in the heads. I’d rather face a Dutch broadside. You nigh crack every timber in the hull.’
Simon let out an explosive guffaw, and punched Hal’s shoulder. ‘Down with you, lad, before I teach you to fly like an albatross.’
Hal began to scramble down the shrouds. At first he moved stiffly, his muscles cramped and chilled after the long vigil, but he soon warmed up and swung down lithely.
Some of the men on the deck paused at their labours on the pumps, or with palm and needle as they repaired wind-ripped canvas, and watched him. He was as robust and broad-shouldered as a lad three years older, and long in limb – he already stood as tall as his father. Yet he still retained the fresh smooth skin, the unlined face and sunny expression of boyhood. His hair, tied with a thong behind his head, spilled from under his cap and glistened blue-black in the early sunlight. At this age his beauty was still almost feminine, and after more than four months at sea – six since they had laid eyes on a woman – some, whose fancy lay in that direction, watched him lasciviously.
Hal reached the main yard and left the security of the mast. He ran out along it, balancing with the ease of an acrobat forty feet above the curling rush of the bow wave and the planks of the main deck. Now every eye was on him: it was a feat that few aboard would care to emulate.
‘For that you have to be young and stupid,’ Ned Tyler growled, but shook his head fondly as he leaned against the whipstaff and stared up. ‘Best the little fool does not let his father catch him playing that trick.’
Hal reached the end of the yard and without pause swung out onto the brace and slid down it until he was ten feet above the deck. From there he dropped to land lightly on his hard bare feet, flexing his knees to absorb the impact on the scrubbed white planks.
He bounced up, turned towards the stern – and froze at the sound of an inhuman cry. It was a primordial bellow, the menacing challenge of some great predatory animal.
Hal remained pinned to the spot for only an instant then instinctively spun away as a tall figure charged down upon him. He heard the fluting sound in the air before he saw the blade and ducked under it. The silver steel flashed over his head and his attacker roared again, a screech of fury.
Hal had a glimpse of his adversary’s face, black and glistening, a cave of a mouth lined with huge square white teeth, the tongue as pink and curled as a leopard’s as he screamed.