Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 6)

Chapter 9 
Saidia, NE Morocco. 29th July 1631

Standing on the poop-deck Murat was surveying the shoreline and the fine sandy beach of the small town of Saidia. He had a telescope which had been given to him by his cousin Johann Janssen, the son of Holland’s most famous lens maker and which had been almost a unique instrument when he first sailed south. Behind him the grommet - his cabin boy who was being trained in navigation - was using a backstaff - sometimes called an ‘English quadrant’ - to estimate their latitude from the noonday sun. He stood with his back to the sun and measured its reflected angle off the horizon. 
“Thirty five degrees and nine minutes north, Captain,” the boy said confidently.    
Leaving down the telescope Murat consulted both his Zaccuto’s chart and the Thresoor der Zeevaerdt, Waghenaer’s famous compilation of sea charts of which he had one of the few copies of its most recent Dutch edition. Later in his cabin he would - as he had done all his seafaring life - carefully and with neat small handwriting annotate the charts with his own observations. Murat also knew that the morning’s navigational exercise was probably unnecessary given their sight of land in familiar waters - but it was important to maintain the discipline and continue to log as someday those acquired skills would be all they could rely on to navigate. The charts also told him they were about fifteen degrees east of the Maderia meridian. There was no accurate way of determining the exact longitude onboard and although Gallileo had devised a method using Jupiter’s moons it was impossible to do this with any consistency at sea. In any event Murat Reis knew that he was considered to be one of the best ‘dead reckoners’ in the Algerian fleet and could be relied on to be very accurate in his navigation. “Good Whilhem,” he said as he handed the young lad the telescope and charts. “Now go below and fetch the woman surgeon to the deck. Be careful to stow these and the backstaff away properly.”
The lad hurried away. Close by a sailor was throwing out a rope with knots spaced at seven fathom intervals. He would call the speed by timing the belay with the half-minute glass. 

They had made good progress after entering the straits of Gibraltar and hugging the African coast to avoid Spanish or English men ‘o’ war had decided to anchor off Saidia. The sandy beach allowed the longboat easy access to take on supplies and some fresh water. If none could be found in the village then he knew that the Arabs in this area often had underground silos. From here it would be one more sail to Algiers and home. The expedition had continued to prosper. In the hold below and aboard the other ship were a total of two hundred captives. Further raids on the Galician village of Santa Eugenia and Punta Umbria in Huelva had yielded another sixty men. The only children aboard were those from Baltimore. The raid on Punta Umbria had brought particular pleasure to his chief gunnery officer as he was a Morisco whose family had been expelled from Huelva. His knowledge of the area had helped plan and execute the raid without a hitch. There had been no deaths on- board so all in all a very satisfactory expedition. Murat afforded himself a satisfied grin and it was still in place when Catherine joined him on the poop-deck. “How are your charges?” he asked.
Catherine Cullen noticed the grin and good humour, but was no longer puzzled by this man of many moods. “Well, Suarez’s binding came off today and the skin has healed completely. He still has some pain but the shape of the stump is ideal for a comfortable falsie. In fact the carpenter has already started carving one.”
“Very good.” Murat was pleased but seemed distracted as he began looking towards the shore again.
Unsure as to whether he was finished with her or not Catherine hesitated before turning to descend towards the main-deck.
“Surgeon Cullen, wait a moment please. I want to talk to you.” 
Throughout the journey he had had always remained formal and indeed had arranged for one of the aft culverins to be removed and the space screened off so she could have her privacy. They sometimes had eaten together but generally she took her food with her fellow captives below. All onboard had treated her with respect but somehow from the tone of the Captain’s voice the situation was soon to change. “What is it you want Captain?” 
Murat dismissed the sailor who had been throwing the speed line, and once they were alone on the poop-deck moved Catherine close to the stern-rail, away from possible listening ears. “We will be in Algiers in two days and thus your circumstances will soon change again.” He spoke in a low voice. “Captives are our most valuable cargo and most will be bartered or sold to the highest bidder. These slave owners are taking an investment gamble which they will either recoup by accepting a redemption or by getting their pound of flesh. When we land the Dey of Algiers is entitled to one eighth of all cargo and after that it is split between me and the remainder of the crew. I am entitled to half and there is a defined proportion for every other crew member. Because of your services I am going to try to hold on to you myself or arrange for my land partner to take you.”
Catherine was incensed and challenged him. “Your land partner. What do you mean?”
Murat waited for a few moments as if carefully choosing his words. “Most of us need the financial backing of a powerful armadone to undertake these ventures. In addition Ali Bitchnin Reis my armadone has provided sailors at his own expense.” Catherine frowned inviting Murat to explain further. “Ali Bitchnin is a Venetian called Piccinio who came to Algiers, converted to Islam and married one of the daughters of Murat “the great” Reis. He has become one of the most wealthy and ruthless sea captains ever and owns a large flotilla of galleys. His slave bano is the third biggest after the Grande and the Bastarda and has about four hundred captives, at any one time. He will make use of your skills.” 
Catherine’s thoughts had roamed to the horror stories that had reached Ireland of the treatment meted out to captives, particularly women, by the African barbarians. “My skills?” she asked with rising apprehension. 
Murat recognised the panic that flickered briefly in her eyes. He let it settle before snorting a sneering laugh. “As a surgeon, you foolish woman. Do not flatter yourself on any other account. Ali Bitchnin has more than enough concubines in his harem to keep him satisfied. According to him a new woman is made available every Friday. In any event his own personal surgeon, your patient, is indisposed for a while and the hospital will require your attention.”
Catherine was stung by the rebuke. She was again amazed by the Dutchman’s ability to dispense kindness and cruelty towards her in an almost detached and instantaneous mix. She tried to recover the lost ground. “Hospital! What hospital?” Her tone was one of haughty disbelief. 
Murat countered with sarcasm. “Oh, contrary to what lies our Redemptionist friends may spread abroad about us, we ‘Barbarians’ do have facilities in place. Indeed Ali Bitchnin’s bano has a hospital as well as a Christian church where captives are allowed observe their religious duties. The Grande bano has had a Trinitarian hospital since 1551 although recently it’s fallen into disrepair. In general, Ottoman society has a very developed social welfare system derived from their nomadic Seljuk forefathers. The principal mosques of most major cities have a hospital attached with physicians, surgeons and oculists employed and Algiers is no exception. The initial development of these bimaristans in the early Islamic empires was probably influenced by Byzantine xenon such as the famous ones of Saint Samson and the Pantokrator in Constantinople - and predates by three hundred years the Crusader inspired institutions of the West. The hospital attached to the main mosque in Algiers, however, is not open to slaves, hence their separate establishment within the banos by the Redemtionist monks." He paused for a moment to look up towards a flapping topsail.

"Ottoman Islam," the captain continued, "is far more tolerant of Christianity than is the opposite and most decisions tend to be commercial rather than the result of any warped sense of religious superiority.” Murat watched Catherine’s eyes carefully for any reaction. There was little and he continued, “My present concern with you is that the Dey tends to take any captive with special skills. He is bound to hear of you.” He paused for a moment. “When we arrive in Algiers all of the captives will be taken to the zoco, the slave market, and the Dey will make his choice first. After that Ali Bitchnin and I will select our share. Some we will keep and the rest will go for auction. This involves being displayed in the zoco for up to three days. At the end of the auction the Dey again has the right to match any price if he wishes to acquire a particular captive. If you are not selected on the first round then your fate will be in my hands. The Spanish captives are the most valuable as they not only work hard but also are far more likely to be ransomed. We have not had many captives from Ireland but I assume that like the English here, redemptions are few and far between.” Murat Reis stopped to let this information sink in.
Catherine was appalled. “What about the children?” 
Murat replied in a very matter-of-fact way, “Most will be separated from their parents and sold as household slaves. Some will be selected for education and schooling in the Castle. The Algerian equivalent of the devshirme. If there is an enhanced value in keeping a family together then that is what will happen.” 
Catherine wilted at the thought of what might happen. “What is the devshirme?”
Murat Reis did not appear to hear her. He had moved swiftly to the front of the poop and shouted towards the maindeck, “Drop anchors and send the longboat for supplies bosun.” He waited awhile to watch the manoeuvre safely undertaken and then returned to Catherine. “You asked about the devshirme. Well its explanation requires a small history lesson. The Ottoman empire as represented by the Sultanate of Rum in particular and the Divan in general, is the result of conquest and rule established by the Osmanli people. They trace their lineage to the bygone glories of the Seljuks of Konya but in essence they were little more than a fierce border clan of marsh-warriors or gazis harassing the edge of Bysantium. With resolute ambition and despite a setback against Termelene, they gradually established control in Anatolia, Syria, the Balkans and Egypt, thus incorporating most of the previously ruled Arab lands. By the middle of the last century, Suleyman the Magnificent was soon declaring himself the padishah-i Islam - the Emperor of Islam. The dynasty appears to have one distinctive characteristic apart from Islam which has ensured its continuation. There is an absolute fear of civil war caused by diluting succession and towards this end the crowning of most Sultans is marked by an orchestrated fratricide of all possible rivals. Our present ruler Murad IV had two brothers killed, the sole surviving brother was spared as he is an imbecile and no threat. His grandfather Mehmed III on his accession had nineteen of his brothers taken from the harem, circumcised and strangled with silken cords. One was as young as two months. In addition about ten pregnant concubines were also thrown in the Bosphorous in weighted sacks. This concern percolates through all levels of government and the military, with murder and assassination being the ultimate sanction.” The Dutchman cast an anxious glance towards the main-deck and then continued. “The yeni cheri or new soldiers, are called Janissaries in the West and contrary to what you might think, are not generally Turkish. For the most part they are Serbian and Albanian Christian children taken hostage when very young and recruited into special schools for education, conversion to Islam and subsequent induction into the Janissary corps or other branches of the civil service. This is possible because Islamic law prohibits the killing of hostages under twenty years of age. The Sultan is entitled to one slave in every five and the devshirme, which takes place every five years, ensures a constant supply of skilled soldiers and administrators. The total time of education of those who make the palace or inner school, the so-called ich-oghlans, is about fifteen years. The majority however receive a more basic, but still extensive, education and in due course enter one of the Janissary training schools. Because they are not born Muslim they have no special inheritance rights and their advancement is personal and depends on their individual ability and loyalty. This loyalty is primarily to their officers, their orta battalion and the Janissary ocak or corps. Because of the influence of the Bektasi dervish sect in particular, they have evolved into a secret and powerful force in Ottoman society and as has already occurred in Algiers are nearly totally independent of the Sultan’s control.”
Murat Reis stopped his account and suddenly started laughing. Catherine cast him a puzzled glance. “I am sorry. You have heard about armies fighting on their stomachs? Well, the whole Janissary ethos is dictated by food - from their most sacred totem the kazan, or cooking pot, to the food spoon they wear on their caps to even the meaning of the officer’s titles. Do you know that corbasi means soup-maker and that they refer to the Sultan as the ‘father who feeds us’? I find it all very amusing.”
“It probably reflects their nomadic origins,” Catherine suggested and Murat, no longer threatened by her quick intelligence, agreed.
“You are probably right. They are not allowed to marry until retired and when they do their own legitimate children - because the corps was not open to freeborn Muslim individuals - have no rights of admittance thus preventing dynastic power struggles. In recent years, however, there have been more and more family admissions occurring and also a huge influx of non- military-trained Muslims has been allowed. This will serve, I fear, to eventually weaken the corps. At present when a Janissary is captured or killed all his property reverts to the Sultan. It is a system of political control, modelled on the Mamluks, that rewards skill and survival instincts, and hence in a small way given the size of the empire, my own success. They have soldered Ottoman paranoia to Islamic shari ’ah law in a marriage of bureaucratic convenience.” Murat stopped for a moment, it was a long time since he had discussed anything of this kind with anyone, never mind a woman. “Did you understand all my Dutch?”
Catherine nodded. She was suddenly aware of how minute and possibly tenuous her own place in the grand scheme of things was. She now realised what had attracted her to Boyle and his straddling of the very core of power. Boyle, Oh God! She had not thought of him in weeks. How far away that life now seemed. 
Murat was still explaining. “You will see when you get to Algiers how everything is zealously regulated into guilds and proscribed for - right down to the uniforms of rank and the colours of fez and turbans. For example Greeks will wear sky blue hats and black slippers whereas the Jews have yellow hats and blue slippers. If you see fur they are Muslim. Everything is in its place and that place is highly defined. Algiers in particular, since the death of the last Beylerbey Ilj Ali in 1587, has become a fiefdom of the Janissaries with little interference from Istanbul. The Sultanate seems to have lost its way. When the thousandth anniversary year of the Hijra , the flight of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina, passed in 1592 without the end of the world occurring, the Ottomans appeared to grow suddenly tired of conquest. Their very reason for being appeared to evaporate and the personal control that they exerted deserted them. Power has shifted to the Divan and the Janissaries. In Algiers the Dey is elected by proclamation by the officers of the ocak and as a result most have brief tenures usually ending in assassination.”
Murat Reis stopped speaking at the approach of Murad Corbasi. He had been watching the couple deep in their conversation from near the mainmast. The Janissary stopped in front of Catherine and as if almost aware of what they had been talking about looked down at the pair of red cedic-pabuc or house slippers that Murat had given her the previous day. He did not address her directly but looked at Murat and spoke in Turkish. “Yanse, she will need to change those.” 
Murat smiled at the familiarity of the nickname - any potential for insult defused. ‘This man will go far,’ he thought to himself. “Yes Murad Corbasi. You are right.”
The Janissary commander looked towards the shore. “I have sent a cavus in the longboat, to travel by land to inform the Aga of our imminent arrival. What are your estimates?” 
Murat looked up at the sky. “We will weigh anchor after the yemek prayers and travel through the night - depending on the wind about two full days sailing to Algiers.” 
The Janissary corbasi watched as Catherine left the poop-deck and descended to the quarter-deck. “An interesting woman Yanse. Do you not think?”
Murat Reis was aware that the comment was business-like and not sexual. ‘What information had the corbasi forwarded by his courier?’ he thought to himself. He knew he would have to be very careful in his dealings from now on as it was more than likely that a manifest of the various captive’s worth would be in Algiers before them. “Yes Murad, very . . . thin though.” 
The corbasi laughed loudly.

Chapter 10 
Cape Falcon, Algeria. 30th July 1631

The morning sun was rising on the eastern horizon as they sailed the passage between Cape Figalo and the Habibas Island. They had not made much progress beating into the light headwinds earlier in the night but with dawn these had freshened and swung more to the port quarter. The stronger wind was now filling the sails and driving the ship forward at good speed. Murat was on deck when a shout from the mainmast look-out alerted him to a sail appearing near the most easterly point of the island. Fetching his telescope he rushed to the fore-deck and trained it on the horizon. The ship was a galley, patrone class, heavily laden and even as he watched he saw that they were changing course. By the time Murat had been joined by the Janissary corbasi, he could smell the stench of the distant galley. He did not avert his gaze as he spoke, “Spanish galley, about thirty oars, and very low in the water.” Murat turned to face the mainmast and shouting up to the look-out, asked if any other ships were visible.
“No sir, on its own!” The reply came back immediately. 
Murat then bellowed at his mate, who was already issuing orders to the Yildirim’s crew. “Order the boatswain to signal Altratche Reis in our other ship and prepare all ordinance. Break out full sail and be ready to run up our colours on my signal.” Murat trained his telescope back onto the Spanish ship. He watched for a moment but then suddenly turned to the corbasi and as he handed him the telescope said in an agitated voice. “Shit, Murad. They have seen us. They are crossbenching. What do you think?” 
The Janissary took the instrument and surveyed the scene. “Could they outrun us?”
Murat could feel the Yildirim - like a hunting dog released from its leash - responding to its full sail and beginning to make significant headway. The Spanish galley was now only a half a league or so off. He smiled as he spoke, “No.”
The Janissary handed back the telescope. “Good. May Allah grant us a prize Murat Reis. As our glorious prophet Mohammed said ‘a victory at sea is worth ten on land’. How long to contact?” Murat thought for a moment. “At our present speed of eight knots and their maximum of five, less than a glass to broadside range.” 
The corbasi smiled. “Very well. I will prepare my men.” 
As Murad departed the fore-deck Murat could see that all the main-deck demi-culverins were already manned. He knew that the heavier cannon on the lower forecastle-deck would be able, even at the present distance, to have the galley in range but Murat wanted a clean capture and would wait to pick off his target carefully.

The next half hour passed very quickly and they rapidly closed the distance. When they were about four hundred fathoms astern of the galley Murat ordered the running up of his colours. Standing close beside him on the fore-deck was his cabin-boy, the first in a line of sailors ready to relay his orders. “Furl the main- sail and main topsail. We will approach under full fore-course and mizzen. Fore-deck guns loose two cannon shot across its bows. Run up the Dutch ensign as well.” 
Murat could feel the recoil beneath his feet as in a clap of thunderous smoke two culverins were fired simultaneously. He now saw that the hoisting of his colours - he always flew the United Provinces ensign alongside the Algerine flag when attacking a Spanish ship - and the cascade of water thrown up by the plunging cannon balls had caused panic on the galley. He noted that the galley had altered course again to make directly for the shore. This manoeuvre was to bring the galley across his bows. “Gunnery officer. Use only chain shot in the bow cannon. Take out the galley’s mainmast. Aim high.”
The distance between the boats was narrowing rapidly. Murat looked upwards. “Mizzen and fore top-sail only. Get the men off the rigging. Only the gunners in the nest to remain aloft.” He was thinking fast and descending from the forecastle began to run aft. He was met by the grommet who handed him his sabre and pistols. “Port culverins load with canister shot. Be ready to fire on my signal.” He reached the rudder-post. “Helmsman, on my mark swing starboard to present our teeth.”
The toothless Corsican helmsman smiled, waiting for the moment. He braced himself against the bulkhead.
Murat Reis looked to the shoreline, he had about a league of deep water to work in. As they came astern of the galley, he waited for the first sign of smoke from its aft cannon. It came and before the following sound had reached him he touched the helmsman on the shoulder. “Now!”  The Yildirim groaned as it tacked hard. They were now fully abeam of the galley and its salvo had passed astern. Murat could see where his own chain-shot had torn the galley’s mainsail yard asunder, its sail fluttering useless as it hung down in two spineless halves. His decks towered above the laden galley. “Lower gun deck! Rake the fore and aft-castles with canister shot.” Ten seconds later his ship strained as all seven cannon were discharged. When the smoke had cleared he could see the galley’s helmsman’s decapitated body slumped over the rudder. The aft-castle structure had been blown away and men were already jumping into the sea. A musket shot slammed into the cabin wall behind his shoulder. He didn’t move as he continued shouting the orders. “Three more canister shot to fore-castle. Begin small arms fire. Get those aloft to pick off their carbineries. Helmsman, bring Yildirim onto the Spaniard’s bow.”
Once again the ship strained as it closed on a collision course. On the fore-deck a number of Janissaries were ready with grappling hooks. “Yield dogs. Yield!” They screamed in unison. With the sound of crunching wood, the impact caused one of them to fall between the two hulls where he was instantly crushed. The others threw the hooks ensnaring the galley’s bowsprit. Any attempts to cut the lines were met by a hail of musket shot.

“Turn her into the wind. Boatswain release the longboat.” 

Far below the Algerian’s decks, where he was chained to his galley bench, Djivo could hear this instruction clearly but from his low position could only see a few faces peering over the frigate’s gunwales. All around him was a mixture of blood, entrails and severed limbs where the canister shot had spewed its destruction. As the ships came together the fiol had been snapped upwards like a twig. The little Languedocian beside him was not quick enough and a large splinter on the outboard end of the oar had penetrated his eye socket to put an end to his chills. He hung there, lifted off the bench, his body racked by its final pinioned spasms. All around were the screams of injured and terrified men. In what seemed like an eternity he was aware of the gradual cessation of musket shot and the clash of swords. Down the central corsia streamed Turks with their red tunics and wild faces. 
By this time the bow of the galley was being forced under the hull of the bigger ship and water was pouring into the decks. Just as quickly as it had closed the corsair ship broke away again and with a screech of timber the galley lurched back on its keel. With this Djivo could feel his bowels emptying and it was the last thing he remembered as he collapsed to the deck between the benches.

©R.Derham 2001,2009

No comments: