Cape Finisterre, NW Spain. 26th June 1631
Finisterre finally appeared off the port beam. In contrast to the previous day when they had encountered a terrible Biscay storm the sea was now relatively calm with only a gentle Atlantic swell to rock the boat. Most of the crew were busy repairing minor damage to deck fittings but about six mariners were aloft trying to repair a broken foremast boom. All were balancing precariously on the cross-rigging. Having cut away the torn sail they were now untangling the broken spar, its two ends hanging almost at right angles to each other.
Below them on the deck women and children prisoners were roaming about nervously, their fellow male captives remaining shackled in the hold below. Some were carrying buckets of waste from the hold to throw over the ships side and returning them filled with salt water to wash away the detritus.
Suddenly there was a shout from aloft, “Look out below!” One half of the shattered spar had released itself and was plummeting towards the deck. A man who was standing close to the foremast either did not hear or could not move fast enough and was almost instantly pinioned to the deck by the falling fragment. There was the unmistakable crack of a bone shattering and this was soon followed by a screeching howl. After a few moments hesitation - when to a man they had all looked skyward - the sailors on deck rushed to the screaming man. Blood was already staining the deck timbers and rapidly forming a large crimson pool. One of the helping sailors, sickened by the sight, rushed to the gunwale to vomit into the sea below. Two sharp edged fragments of bone from the mans shattered femur were protruding through his breeches just above the knee. One of the mariners took charge and tied a tourniquet around his upper thigh to try and stem the flow of blood. It was only partially effective.
The commotion brought Murat Reis to the mast step, a passage having been cleared for him by the Janissaries. “What happened?” he demanded before looking upwards at the horrified sailors still on the ratlines above. He then glanced down at the stricken man whose face he could not see and shouted at his first mate, “Get the surgeon. Quickly!”
Murat began to walk away but the mate called after him, “Captain, Captain, that is the surgeon!”
Murat stopped and looked back to assess the situation. “Then there is little we can do. Dispatch him swiftly and toss the body overboard.” Murat looked up at the foremast. “Get the boom replaced or we will have a Frenchie on us.”
The mate hesitated.
“Move, or you will follow him,” Murat glared at him.
“Excuse me, Captain.”
Murat Reis turned. His face barely concealed his surprise at being addressed by one of the women captives in his native Dutch. “What do you want?” His inquiry was harsh and dismissive. “Speak woman.”
She pulled back a little from him. “I am a surgeon. Let me help. If you instruct the sailors to bring me the medical chest and a brazier I will attend him. Time is critical.”
The mate was already ordering two nearby men to go but suddenly realised he had usurped his captain. He was relieved when he looked at the Reis to see him nod his assent. The one-time Dutchman watched as the woman walked to where the injured man lay, by now unconscious from pain and loss of blood and did not attempt to question her further. Something in her steel blue eyes defied any delay. The surgeon’s chest arrived quickly along with a brazier of red hot coals from the galley. Opening it she removed the top shelf containing various powders and bottles and reached in to select the instruments she required. Cutting the man’s breeches from below the tightly applied tourniquet she instructed two of the bigger sailors to pin his arms. They placed a rolled cravat of cloth in his mouth and tied it behind his head. While they did this she placed the knife and other instruments in the coals and while waiting for them to become red hot examined the man’s shattered leg. Then, with little hesitation, she retrieved the knife and deftly incised the skin from just above the knee in an oblique circumference. She extended the incision inwards through the fat and muscle until she met the bone of the femur. Then selecting a curved dismembering knife she cut away any tendon or sinew attachments that remained.
The sailors watched silently only becoming agitated when the man began to show signs of consciousness. One of them handed her the saw but she shook her head. The saw would not be needed except to pare back the sharp point of the upper fragment. Once she had severed all the attachments she - by lifting and rotating the lower leg - pulled the lifeless limb away easily from the by now fully conscious surgeon. She handed it to one of the onlookers who dispatched it speedily over the side. Reaching upwards she released the tourniquet slightly to be greeted by a jet of blood from deep within the wound. “Bosun, pass me those crow’s beake forceps, and the silk thread.” Taking the forceps she guided them into the stump and once clamped shut pulled down with gentle traction to reveal a white tendon-like vessel. She quickly looped the thread and knotted it securely. She repeated this manoeuvre on three more occasions the last time not tying but crushing the captured tissue. She then released the tourniquet again and was pleased to note that there was very little blood loss. The whole procedure had taken about fifteen minutes.
“Clear the decks of captives. Back to work all of you. Boatswain thirty lashes apiece with the cat for those idiots above. Maybe a checked shirt will remind them to be more vigilant in future.” Murat stood to watch as the decks were cleared rapidly and only then made for his cabin. Looking around once, he spoke to his mate this time in a more gentle tone, “When you are finished here bring that women to my quarters.”
The ruddy-faced man had difficulty suppressing a smile. “Aye Captain.”
The woman did not look up to watch Murat leave. She pulled at the tunic of one of the helping sailors. “Sailor, take these rosewater and juniper powders and prepare a tincture.” She had retrieved two bottles from the box shelf that had been put to one side. “Once done soak some clean pieces of linen in it and bring them to me.”
The sailor looked puzzled at the request. “I have some coal-tar ready to seal the wound, ma’am.”
The woman shook her head and spoke sternly, “I will not use that, but thank you.”
As he departed she took the saw and pared back the sharp broken end. After satisfying herself that there was very little bleeding she then inserted five skin sutures from side to side, to envelop the stump. Finished she covered the wound with the linen strips that had been soaked in the tincture and then bound it tightly. “Thank, you,” She said as the mate helped her to her feet. The other sailors were lifting the injured man to help him below.
“Thank you ma’am. Suarez, the ship’s surgeon is my wife’s sister’s husband. You had better come with me now to the Captain. He is not a man to wait.” The mate’s tone was adamant.
“I noticed!” As she made her way towards the quarter-deck, one pair of eyes followed her intently. The corbasi had watched intently as the whole drama unfolded, his facial expression unchanging.
Murat Reis by now back in his cabin was somewhat unsettled by the turn of events but more than that highly intrigued by the woman captive. Soon there was a knock on the door and the woman was shown in without a word. The white night-shift that she had been wearing was soaked in blood. Murat went to a sea chest that served as his chart table and opening it took out a linen gandura and white woollen jellaba.
“Here, take these. You may wash yourself here. I will step outside until you are ready.” Picking up the pair of duelling pistols he kept in the cabin Murat moved into the corridor.
Behind him the woman quickly pulled the stained shirt over head and threw it out the cabin window. There was a small door leading to the head and as she opened she could see and hear the sea below. Her body was taut, almost boyish in shape with narrow hips and small breasts. She moved steadily and gracefully and having washed herself down donned the gandura and jellaba. She was pulling back her long night-dark hair when the captain re-entered. He was smoking an iron pipe and the fumes quickly filled the cabin. “What is your name?”
The woman sat on the chest finally exhausted by her efforts and the conditions below deck during the storms of the past few days. Murat went to the door and instructed his cabin boy to bring wine, bread, cheese and some figs. He returned quickly and set them before the woman. The boy watched her carefully as he did so, almost as if afraid she were about to cast a spell on him. She smiled at him weakly as she broke off a piece of bread. Having dipped it in the wine she placed it in her mouth and began chewing slowly. “My name is Catherine Cullen.”
Murat was looking at his manifest. “I have you recorded here as a maid. No mention is made of you being a surgeon.”
She looked at him for a moment before continuing, “I was in the house of Ould Osbourne, the elderly infirm man that you released back in Baltimore. As I helped him from the house and aboard the ship, the clerk assumed I was a maid, when he found out I was not his wife or daughter.”
Murat spoke as he closed the manifest, “I didn’t know that women were accepted as trained surgeons.” and placed it alongside his sea-charts.
“My father Edmund Cullen was a surgeon as are my six brothers. Following my apprenticeship I became a member of the Guild of Saint Mary Magdelene, the barber-surgeons in Dublin, which is open to both men and women. I was made a maiden freewoman and franchisee of the City of Dublin in September 1621. There would be more of us but because of the rantings of the German Dominicans in books such as the Malleus Maleficarum, women in general and female practitioners in particular, are increasingly viewed with suspicion, whatever their church allegiance.” She paused for a minute, while taking some more of the food, but was clearly agitated. “The wave of witchcraft hysteria spreading throughout all countries has resulted in many hereditary women healers and midwives being burnt without cause. Crass male ignorance and perversity!”
Murat glanced down at Catherine’s feet, which were almost a blue-white colour. She shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. “Where did you learn Dutch?” He looked at her face. The defiant eyes glared back at him.
“My mother was Italian and I have studied, albeit in male disguise, in both Leiden and Padua. I have an ear for language.”
He admired the uncompromising intelligence and the arrogant way in which she defended her talents. “I have seen many amputations. Why did you not use the coal-tar to seal the stump?”
It was Catherine’s turn to indulge him with a haughty smile. “My father was a student of Ambroise Pare. His teachings decry the use of tar as both hazardous and cruel. Rosewater and juniper are kinder and appear to promote healing. If there is no infection the stump will heal well enough to support an artificial limb without proud flesh causing ongoing pain.”
Murat accepted the explanation, without argument. It was time to be magnanimous. “In any event, Surgeon Cullen, I am in admiration of your obvious skill and am grateful. Suarez has been with me a long time and is one of the best. I am sure if he survives he will be most appreciative.”
Catherine smiled weakly at the compliment, wary. “Yes, from what I could gather it appears he was well liked by all the men. A good sign for any surgeon. His medical chest was well stocked and I noticed a new edition of Woodall’s book. Most impressive for a ship’s journeyman.” Murat Reis had turned his back and was opening out the small cabin window. He grunted as his tolerance for her arrogance wore thin. An uneasy silence descended until broken by Catherine. “Captain?” She was chewing on some of the dried figs, enjoying their rich textured sweetness.
“Yes,” Murat replied curtly. He watched the ship’s wake trailing out behind them, far below, before turning to look at her. Catherine lifted her eyes to fix on his. “Did you mean what you said about killing him?”
For the first time her voice had lost some of its assurance. He looked across the room at his bed. “Do you see my cot, Surgeon Cullen. It is essentially a coffin with bedding. If I am killed my crew will place me in that and throw it overboard. There is no room on a ship for the dead or seriously injured. The sea awaits us all. For the surgeon a quick death would have been a mercy. He would have expected it. By the way, I am not totally unfamiliar with the writings of Pare. Remember his reaction as a young surgeon to the sergeant-major cutting the throats of his mortally wounded comrades in order to release them from their pain. We onboard ship would do no less.”
Catherine stared at the bed. The reality biting to her core. “Are you married?” The suddenness of Murat’s question had caught her by surprise. She looked up at him. “No,” she replied.
He continued. “A virgin?”
Catherine smarted at the intrusion. “The two states are not conditional on each other. I will excuse your impertinence.” She was becoming angry at the casual way in which this corsair was probing her.
Murat began laughing. “Very good Surgeon Cullen. Very good.” Another cloud of smoke erupted from his freshly packed and lit pipe. “What were you doing in Baltimore?”
Catherine relaxed a little. “I was going to operate, at the request of a friend, on Ould Osbourne’s cataracts. I have a special skill with eyes and had arrived the previous day. Why all these questions?”
Murat Reis had opened the door and was about to leave. “I will explain another time. Tonight you can have my cabin. I will arrange for another box. No harm will come to you.”
Cartagena, SE Spain. 30th July 1631
Djivo was bent over the oar, his chest heaving and his out-stretched arms locked in spasm. They had been quarter-rowing for most of the night because of little wind and the short periods of rest had not brought much respite. Thankfully a levante breeze had risen in the last hour and coming, as it did, from the port aft-quarter it was filling the galley’s two goose-winged sails and beginning to propel the boat at a reasonable speed. If this kept up Djivo thought, they could expect a longer period of rest unless they were pushed, too much leeward, off-course. One of the deck slaves had dispersed some biscuits and water and Djivo licked the last crumbs from his shaking fingertips. The night was still dark and its bright constellations were obscured at regular intervals by fast moving clouds. He leant down to rub his left ankle which was chained to the foot bench. The skin was already chaffed and bleeding and this was made worse by the water lapping at his feet. The galley was so heavily laden its foot benches were at sea level and every large swell sent a torrent of water from fore to aft.
Between him and the corsia were two Anatolian slaves. They were already asleep - well used to the rhythm of the galley in this their fifth year of captivity. On the gunwale side, in the fourth position, was a dissenter from Langue d’Oc who had been sold into captivity by the Jesuits. He shook with the chills of the fugue and every breath seemed like his last. There was little chance of escape for any of them however, the foot chains ensured that if they encountered a superior force, either of nature or man, the likelihood of drowning, tethered as they were, was high. Better it so, rationalised the captains of Spain’s squadron, than to possibly provide a ready made crew for a corsair galley. Djivo’s only consolation was that for him this hell on earth of an existence would be short lived as he would be handed over at Oran to begin his sentence.
‘His sentence,’ Djivo thought back on the events of the last few months and how all his notions of maintaining identity and pride had been rendered completely impotent. After the Christmas mass and the meeting with the O’Driscolls he had heard nothing more from them until his appeal was heard in late May. This had being - most unusually in Spain’s slow legal system - quickly scheduled. He had heard of other prisoners awaiting appeals for many years and rather than being a burden on the prison system been taken from the Alcazar to be illegally enslaved in the undermanned galleys. Most were unlikely to survive long enough to ever appear before a court again.
Because of his connections and nobility, and the testimony of his efforts on behalf of Spain’s war effort, Djivo recognised that an accommodation had been made in his case but any hope that this exception would result in his freedom was soon dashed. His sentence was commuted to one year’s banishment but he knew that few if any desterados returned from the presidios of Spain’s half-hearted attempt to control the Barbary coast. If anything his reduction in sentence increased his jailers cruelty and it was almost with relief, on a warm late June morning, that he was brought to the prison yard to be marched away.
About forty other prisoners were gathered there and with the approach of a tall heavy-set man accompanied by the chief jailer were quickly and roughly marshalled into a line. Djivo was at the end and he watched as the man marched down the line picking out about fourteen of the youngest and fittest before stopping in front of him. The jailer began reading an account of Djivo’s sentence from a manifest but was stopped suddenly by the bigger man’s hand closing the folio.
“Enough. I know all about this Dalmatian.” Djivo stiffened at the hostility in his voice. “Slavujovic. I am Alvaro de Mendoza of the superintendencia de conducciones and as your appeal has failed you are to be transferred to Cartagena to join a galley sailing for Oran.” He turned to the smiling jailer. “Chain him. His ankles are to remain in their keep-friends.”
By now most of the selected convicts had a neck collar applied and a long chain linked them all. Djivo was the only one whose leg chains remained attached. He became enraged. “You have no right to treat me this way,” He shouted out at the departing de Mendoza.
The bull-necked superintendent stopped and returned to face Djivo. There was a cruel scowl on his face as he lifted Djivo’s jaw by pulling at the neck collar. When he spoke it was a mixture of spittle and words that washed over Djivo’s own face. “You are a filthy Ragusan hidalgo de bragueta , with no rights. You killed one of Spain’s finest and although your Order has protected your miserable hide thus far it has no power over me. You will be marched with this bunch of vermin gypsies, thieves and bigamists to Cartagena and you will have frequent opportunities to reflect on the fact that the narrow thread of your life is mine to cut. If there is a God in heaven I will have such an excuse to kill you.” With that de Mendoza bent Djivo double by kicking him in the groin before smiling and turning away. “March them out !”
The journey from Toledo to Cartagena had taken three weeks. Through the mist of his pain Djivo remembered the towns of Madrilejos, Pedro Munoz, La Roda, Albacete, Jumilla and Murcia. He remembered them particularly for the way in which they were viciously pelted with stones by the children and spat on by the adults. A regular sport with the passing chains it appeared. He remembered the cigarrales of the rich townspeople - their adobe walls hiding the orchards of plenty - and whose children perched on the gates threw the biggest rocks. The only kindness he could remember on the whole journey was when on one occasion a gypsy woman in Cieza had approached and given them some Damascus apricots. She was beaten by the guards for her trouble.
At night in some barn, chained to the others Djivo’s dreams were of Cervantes’ Don Quixote of La Mancha, which he had read. Not for them, however, was a doddering saviour about to appear to effect a rescue. He dreamt of the warmth of linen boxes but each day the harsh morning nightmare returned without respite, without hope. On finally reaching Cartagena, their details were taken by the galley clerk and their collars removed but only after their heads were shaved. They were taken to the prison where Djivo had been kept during his trial but where this time he was thrown into a communal pit. On that first night one of the forzados, a young gypsy called Raphael, was carried away his body racked by the tetanic spasms of an infected wound. Djivo could still hear the agonised groans and had prayed that his death came quickly, his pitiful short life at a merciful end.
A day before sailing Djivo and the remainder of the chain were taken to the galley San Jorge. He had noted the irony of the name and that she was a patrone class with about twenty nine oar benches on either side set up for ‘a scaloccio’ rowing. Selecting four men per oar, the galley-master positioned each according to their size and supposed ability. Of the chusma about twenty were to be buenos boyas, hired for the short trip, and the rest were an even mixture of forzados and slaves all of whom were restrained without distinction. All of the chained men remained onboard for the twenty-four hours - while the galley was being loaded - and they had finally put to sea about two days previously. Because the wind was light they had rowed with all hands for about four hours at a high stroke rate before switching to quarter mode. By then Djivo’s own arms were rigid in spasm and he found it hard to release them from the fiol’s handhold when their first rest period and drink of water came... His exhausted thoughts were interrupted by the sudden searing pain of a whip’s tail arcing across his hunched back. By this time daybreak was upon them and from the shouted orders Djivo realised that the south-easterly levante wind had indeed pushed them off course towards Habibas Island to the west of Oran. The island lay about a league away and the captain now ordered all hands to the oars and the helmsman to make the necessary correction. He then heard even louder shouting from the bow. “A square-rigger and a polacre leaving the lee of the island, under full sail.”
With this there was the order for passé-vogue or full cross bench rowing. As they had turned into the wind the sails were furled and every man aboard whipped into maximum effort. This involved standing on the next bench and pushing the fiol of the oar as far forward as possible and then pulling back and upwards to dip the oar before dropping to a momentary sitting position to complete the cycle. Somewhere behind him there was the sickening sound of somebody’s skull caving in, as he probably mistimed his ascent and got hit by the oar behind.
The oar’s galverne strained against the thole pins as if they would snap at any minute. Djivo knew that they could only sustain this effort for about an hour and Oran lay about four hours away. He could see the frigate’s topsails gaining the distance between them quickly - their ability into the wind negating the rowers efforts. His ankle chain appeared to tighten even more. As the ships lay between them and the shore the possibility of beaching was gone and their only hope was to get between Plane Island, to the east, and Cape Falcon. Behind him he could hear one of the gypsies screaming for his chains to be released but was distracted as an elderly forzado on the bench in front of him suddenly collapsed at the oar. The old man was quickly freed from his chains and his position taken by one of the deck slaves. His lifeless body was then immediately dispatched overboard. Djivo was exhausted and almost welcomed the sight of the larger frigate’s sails as they hove into view about four-score fathoms astern.
The San Jorge’s captain was frightened. His voice betrayed him as he barked a string of commands. “It’s an Algerine frigate. Prepare to fire the ironpieces. All carbiniers to starboard side. Unfurl the sails. Come about and reach for the shore.” The orders continued to be issued, fast and furious, with increasing panic and lessening effect.
Djivo realised that most of the slaves had stopped rowing. The speed of the galley was dropping fast and as the first cannot shot hit the water about three fathoms away, sending a wave to wash over the low gunwale. Djivo crossed himself furiously. The two Anatolians chained to the oar beside him began laughing . . . They stopped just as suddenly when someone shouted that the square-rigger was now flying both Algerine and Dutch colours.
©R.Derham 2001, 2009