Friday, January 23, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 2)


Baltimore, SW Ireland. 19th June 1631

The setting sun captured the moisture on the upper rigging of the mainmast and as Murat Reis stared upwards he almost expected some sort of ghostly spider to descend from its glistening web. There was a steady wind coming from the south-west and it was only when a sudden burst of cold spray, whipped up by a squall, reached high to the poop-deck to catch his face that his fixation was ended. Looking down towards the main-deck he watched as the mariners belayed the sheets of the mainsail in response to a change in the wind direction. He could also feel the ship falling away from its line in an effort to fill the sails. He leaned over the small guard rail and growled down to the quarter-deck in coarse Italian. “Helmsman, hold your course wretch.”
The sailor shouted back without looking up. “Aye Captain, steady north by nor’west.”
Murat could just about hear the response as another squall caused the lateen or triangle-shaped mizzen-sail beside him, to luff. “Tell the bosun to bring the Englishman here.” He bellowed, unnecessarily loudly, to the young boy who acted as his quarter-deck runner and who followed him shadow-like around the poop-deck. The lad shot down the ladder to the main-deck and went to the base of the mainmast where a small figure stood accompanied by two taller dark-skinned men wearing bright red tunic tops, breeches and simple turbans. 
Presently, a man with a peculiar bobbing head motion that tossed his sandy-speckled grey hair like the tentacles of a jellyfish, ascended his way back up the ladder leading from the quarter-deck. His progress was slow and it was only when he had finished the short climb that Murat realised the man’s ankles were still tightly manacled. He instructed the accompanying soldiers to release him. They did so but remained in close attendance watching him carefully. “I trust the soldiers have treated you well,” Murat spoke in English, his accent guttural and harsh.
“Yes, Captain.” The small man with the jellyfish hair, whose reported age was younger than his sea-scarred face implied, was quick to respond. “I am glad to be out of the hold though. Them Frenchies down there, sure stink.” His remark was rewarded by a slight but briefly sustained smile on the Captain’s face.
Edward Fawlett was only in his early forties but his body ached as he bent to rub his ankles where the manacles had left their mark. Most of his pain, however, was the result of the beating he received at the hands of this renegade and his heathen Turks when they had boarded his boat whilst fishing off Dartmouth the previous day. He and his five men were taken captive and his boat sunk. They had been kept below in the orlop deck since then, chained in the company of a number of French, Portuguese and since earlier today, Irish captive sailors. He looked upwards at the younger captain with the intense eyes, unsure as to what was going to happen.
“You say you know your way in this area?” Murat asked while he watched the mainsail fill, enjoying the feeling of his beloved ship lurching forward in response.
“Yes, Captain,” Fawlett’s voice became stronger with his certainty. “The pilchard grounds in the narrows and Bristol haven are about played out and many now do their fishing in the plentiful waters of this coast. I have been here a good number of times.” He could not hear the Captain’s response as Murat had turned his back to look towards the coast off the ships starboard side.
“Lodeman this is where . . .”
The words were lost as another squall hit the deck but Fawlett brightened at the official title used by the Captain. Under generally accepted sea-laws it implied a reward for a job well done but equally personal disaster if there was any mistake. He decided to press his opportunity. “Sorry Captain, I cannot hear you with the wind,” He shouted.
Murat Reis turned to face him one hand resting on a poop lantern. “I said that this is where you begin your work, and if I am satisfied and the attack is successful then you might be released.”
Fawlett moved to join him near the starboard rail and scanned the shore that lay about one mile away. The evening light was good and the headlands were easily identified because of intense shadows cast by the setting sun. He raised his arm and pointed in a north-easterly direction. “Those rocks to our stern quarter are the Staggs Castles and those on our bow quarter are the Kedge Rocks. Directly ahead is the Gascanne Sound between Sherkin Island and Cape Clear Island. Point the ship at the sound and once the Kedge Rocks are cleared to the north-east you can reach towards the opening to Baltimore haven. The entrance is only thirteen score fathoms wide and is guarded by the Beacon promontory on the land side and a lesser cliff on Sherkin side. To the seaward side of the Beacon outcrop is Eastern Hole Bay where you can safely drop anchor. There is about eight fathoms of water at full ebb. Luckily by that time it will be dark and our approach obscure. There is a . . .” The Englishman did not want to stop but Murat Reis held up his hand.
“It looks like a lee shore.” Murat was always wary of a trap in unfamiliar waters.
Fawlett looked to the horizon. “Not tonight I think. The wind is swinging west nor’west to come off the land.”
“Very well. Instruct the helmsman accordingly.” The words were spoken sharply as Murat, dismisively, turned away once again, this time to look aft. The fisherman and his silent escorts descended from the poop-deck and a slight smile again crossed the captain’s face as he imagined the English sailor trying to explain his instructions to the Corsican helmsman. “Who said salvation should come easy?” Murat murmured to himself as he looked at the sea and the faint phosphorous trail in the stern’s dark wake. Below him the ropes pulling the longboat and the two seine fishing boats, taken earlier in the day, slackened and tautened as they surfed and crested each successive wave. Further astern again was his second ship - a captured French polacre of about one hundred tons armed with four culverins and an extra eight demi-culverins that Murat had placed on board, accompanied by a prize crew of about sixty mariners and soldiers - with his long time friend Alratache Reis in command.
His own ship Yildirim, the Thunderbolt, named in honour of the fourth Ottoman ruler Beyazid I, was a three master of about three hundred tons. It had twenty four guns and was normally manned by fifty sailors and about forty mariners of the ta’ifat al ru’sa - the militia of the corsair captains. On this voyage there were also about one hundred Janissaries of the Algiers ocak. The ship itself had been built in Sale, although its design came from stolen plans of Phineas Pett, the master of Chatham yard. This latest experimental design for a fast frigate, with its gun ports bowed forward, was an attempt to counteract the manoeuvrability of the Dunkirkian ships, which were causing havoc in the English channel. Modifications also included lowered decks, a smaller tumble-home and altered mast steps. The poop-castle, typical of the larger galleons, had almost been completely dispensed with. In addition a more responsive lateen rig on the mizzen-mast, allowed much greater progress into the wind. The Yildirim’s design, like many of the galleass that the Barbary corsairs sailed, had also included portholes for oars which allowed the ship to make way even in conditions of no wind. Its speed advantage over the older and often bigger English ships that patrolled these waters was further enhanced by deliberately dry docking the boat every two months to clean and tallow its hull. Since Buckingham’s death, Murat thought to himself, the English navy has become toothless. By common agreement the once powerful navy had been destroyed on land by political ineptitude and at anchor by the teredo worm. By depending more and more on prize ships and commandeered merchant vessels - whose sea worthiness was often better than ships of the line - the English had given corsair captains like himself the advantage in sea-battles.’
Murat Reis did not often take time to dwell on his destiny but the realisation that this opportunity for personal revenge was almost within his grasp caused a flood of buried images to burst upon his consciousness. He remembered his youth in the United Provinces as the young Jan Janssen, growing up in Haarlem to become a privateer in the North Sea and raiding the Spanish supply routes with Dutch letters of marque. Captured in 1618 by Algerian corsairs he converted to Islam and sailed as mate to Soliman Reis. After Soliman died he had decided to throw his lot in with the corsairs sailing out of Sale-Rabat. Here the Hornachero moriscos had established a pirate haven on the southern bank of the Bou Regreg estuary and were more than welcoming to a renegade Dutch seaman whose mutual hatred of Spain had been forged by the brutal campaigns of the army in Flanders. With their finance he was able to establish himself as an able corsair captain, plundering in particular, the West Indies’ trade as it made for the Gibraltar narrows. Murat enjoyed the life, the freedom and the riches it had brought.
He also remembered, with deep bitterness, how the authorities in Amsterdam would not let him disembark when he put in at Veere in 1622. Despite his wife’s pleas for him to remain in Holland he returned south without her and their children, as her family would not let her go. Sailing from his homeland for good he had returned to Morocco and taken a local woman as his wife. ‘Jan Janssen’ had become ‘Murat’. The Turkish captain’s title of Reis being added in deference to his professional ability. Although many renegade captains had converted to enhance their prospects and profit margins he personally had found a strange and unexpected peace in the submission of Islam. Unusually for a convert he was accepted by his Turkish allies as being a sincere Muslim but also dedicated enough to be considered mu’min.
The Sale-Rabat sojourn had soured however with the arrival of more and more English pirates. They never integrated and indeed maintained northern havens on the south-west coasts of England and Ireland - havens to which he had no access. Increasing friction between the more powerful English Salee Rovers, as they were called, and those northerners who had converted, led to his decision to transfer his allegiance to Algiers. He was immediately rewarded by being made Admiral of the taiffe - the league of sea captains. In Algiers he was known as ‘Yanse’ in deference to another Murat Reis, a famous galley corsair captain who had been admiral about thirty years earlier and who was now Beylerbey - the Turkish regional governor - in the Morea.
The rivalry between the corsair captains of Algiers and Sale-Rabat was long standing and as he dwelt on this thought, Murat spat with anger into the sea far below. He remembered in particular the events of September 23rd, 1627 with bitter clarity. On that day after a long-fought battle between his ship and the Portuguese galleon Rosario - with the loss of many of his best men - he had finally succeeded in boarding her. He was about to claim its rich cargo of sugar when the ship of the English corsair pirate Neasdon, happened upon the battle and landing a fresh crew of mariners on board the Rosario forced Murat and his exhausted men to relinquish their prize. Despite protests to the taiffe at Sale he got little support and no recompense. Neasdon had taken his prize to Bristol and although another English captain was dispatched from Sale to counterclaim, Murat had felt his pathetic attempts with the Privy Council were half-hearted. He had vowed his revenge then - that day of reckoning was finally here. To raid Baltimore - one of the most staunch northern havens of the Sale-Rabat English corsairs - he knew would send the right message. Indeed if Allah favoured this voyage, there would be captives to bargain with those dogs in Morocco.
“Coming up on Eastern Hole!”
The helmsman’s shout tore into Murat’s thoughts. He raced from the poop-deck almost knocking the young deck runner over. On reaching the main-deck he sought out his first mate. By now it was almost dark but a clear star-filled sky and a rising three-quarter moon was giving them some light. All around him was intense activity as men scrambled up the rigging to reef the sails. He could just make out their shapes, like scurrying rats.
“Issue instructions for a silent approach. Any man who disobeys will feel my wrath! Once the anchors are holding bring up the longboat and have the oars covered in sarambo.”
As the mate disappeared into the shadows Murat listened for the echoes off the fast approaching cliffs. There were no lights visible and the sailor casting the sound whispered his findings each time he passed the captain.
“Drop both bow anchors,” Murat suddenly ordered when he was satisfied with the depth reading.
The sharp splash was followed by the noise and smell of burning rope as it played out. The screech faded as the anchors hit bottom but was soon replaced by the creaking agony of the rope as it strained against wood cleats. Ever so slowly the ship’s forward momentum halted with the bow turning to point seawards as the flood tide caught its hull. Murat went to the rail to watch his second ship complete the same manoeuvre and drop anchor about one hundred yards away. They had expertly followed his course using the Yildirim’s poop-deck lanterns as a guide. Once he had satisfied himself that they were also holding fast Murat ordered the runner to douse the lights. The Yildirim’s longboat was then pulled alongside and very quickly six mariners and four of the Turks - armed with muskets - climbed down and took their places on the benches. Murat turned to the English fisherman who had been brought back to the poop-deck and stood there silently. “Fawlett, you are to come with me to survey the approach. Get down into the longboat.”

©R.Derham 2001,2009

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