Authors: Tim Severin
Also by Tim Severin
The Brendan Voyage
The Sindbad Voyage
The Jason Voyage
The Ulysses Voyage
In Search of Genghis Khan
The China Voyage
The Spice Island Voyage
In Search of Moby Dick
Seeking Robinson Crusoe
Viking: Odinn’s Child
Viking: Sworn Brother
Viking: King’s Man
First published 2008 by Macmillan
First published in paperback 2009 by Pan
This electronic edition published 2008 by Pan
an imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd
Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Rd, London N1 9RR
Basingstoke and Oxford
Associated companies throughout the world
ISBN 978-0-330-47988-2 PDF
ISBN 978-0-330-47987-5 EPUB
Copyright © Tim Severin 2008
The right of Tim Severin to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
You may not copy, store, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
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In 1679 the Caribbean was a dangerous and lawless sea. Jamaica, Hispaniola and the arc of islands known as the ‘Caribees’ were variously claimed by rival nations – notably France and England. The opposite shore, the ‘Main’ or continental coast, was jealously guarded by Spain as the vulnerable frontier of her vast land empire in the Americas. Smuggling was rife. For years the island governments had made up for a lack of men and ships by deploying irregular local forces, which operated as little more than licensed brigands. They had acquired a taste for plunder, and – though officially the region was now at peace – these soldiers and sailors of fortune were prepared to attack any easy and lucrative target.
leaned back and braced himself against the sloop’s mast. It was hard to hold the little telescope steady against the rhythmic rolling of the Caribbean swells, and the image in the lens was blurred and wavering. He was trying to identify the flag at the stern of a vessel which had appeared on the horizon at first light, and was now some three miles to windward. But the wind was blowing the stranger’s flag sideways, directly towards him, so that it was difficult to see against the bright sunshine sparkling off the waves on a late-December morning. Hector thought he saw a flicker of blue and white and some sort of cross, but he could not be sure.
‘What do you make of her?’ he asked Dan, offering the spyglass to his companion. He had first met Dan on the Barbary coast two years earlier when both had been incarcerated in the slave barracks of Algiers, and Hector had developed a profound respect for Dan’s common sense. The two men were much the same age – Hector was a few months short of his twentieth birthday – and they had formed a close friendship.
‘No way of telling,’ said Dan, ignoring the telescope. A Miskito Indian from the coast of Central America he, like many of his countrymen, had remarkably keen eyesight. ‘She has the legs of us. She could be French or English, or maybe from the English colonies to the north. We’re too far from the Main for her to be a Spaniard. Perhaps Benjamin can say.’
Hector turned to the third member of their small crew. Benjamin was a Laptot, a freed black slave who had worked in the ports of the West African coast before volunteering to join their vessel for the voyage across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean.
‘Any suggestions?’ he asked.
Benjamin only shook his head. Hector was unsure what to do. His companions had chosen him to command their little vessel, but this was his first major ocean voyage. Two months ago they had acquired their ship when they had found her stranded halfway up a West African river, her captain and officers dead of fever, and manned only by Benjamin and another Laptot. According to the ship’s papers she was the
, registered in La Rochelle, and the broad empty shelves lining her hold indicated that she was a small slave ship which had not yet taken on her human cargo.
Hector wiped the telescope’s lens with a strip of clean cotton rag torn from his shirt, and was about to take another look at the stranger’s flag, when there was the sound of a cannon shot. The noise carried clearly downwind, and he saw a black puff of gun smoke from the sloop’s deck.
‘That’s to attract our attention. They want to talk with us,’ said Benjamin.
Hector stared again at the sloop. It was obvious that she was closing rapidly, and he could see some sort of activity on her stern deck. A small group of men had clustered there.
‘We should show them a flag,’ Benjamin suggested.
Hector hurried down to the dead captain’s cabin. He knew there was a canvas bag tucked away discreetly in a locker behind the bunk. Pulling open the bag, he tipped out its contents on the cabin floor. There were some items of dirty linen and, beneath them, several large rectangles of coloured cloth. One had a red cross stitched on a white ground, which he recognised as the flag worn by the English ships that had occasionally visited the little Irish fishing port where he had spent his summers as a child. Another was a blue flag with a white cross. In the centre of the cross was a shield bearing three golden fleurs-de-lys. That flag too he recognised. It had flown on the merchant ships of France when he and Dan had been prisoner-oarsmen at the royal galley base in Marseilles. The third flag he did not know. It also displayed a red cross on a white background, but this time the arms of the cross ran diagonally to each corner of the flag, and the edges of the arms of the cross were deliberately ragged. They looked like branches cut from a shrub after the shoots had been trimmed away. It seemed that the deceased captain of
had been prepared to fly whichever nation’s flag suited the occasion.
Hector returned on deck, all three flags under his arm in an untidy bundle. ‘Well, which one is it to be?’ he asked. Again he glanced across at the unknown vessel. In the short interval he had been below decks it had come much closer. Well within cannon shot.