My shipmates were nut-brown, every single one of them. Their faces were lined and weathered and some of the older men had skin like melted candles. The older ones were quiet, mainly, their eyes hooded and cautious.
Most wore scarves or handkerchiefs tied loosely around the neck, had tattoos, beards and wore gold earrings. There were older crewmates aboard, their brown, weather-worn faces like melted candles, but most were about ten years older than I was. They came from all over, I soon discovered: London, Scotland, Wales, the West Country. Many of our number were black, around a third of them, some of whom were runaway slaves who’d found freedom on the seas, treated as an equal by their captain and ship-mates—or should that be, treated as the same level of scum by their captain and ship-mates. There were also men from the American colonies, from Boston, Charleston, Newport, New York and Salem. Most seemed to wear weapons constantly: cutlasses, daggers, flint-lock pistols. Always more than one pistol, it seemed, which I soon found out was due to the danger of the first one failing to fire because of a damp charge.
They liked to drink rum, were almost unbelievably coarse in their language and the way they spoke about women, and liked nothing better than a roaring argument. But what bonded them all were the captain’s articles.
He was a Scotsman. Captain Alexander Dolzell. A big man, he rarely smiled. He liked to adhere to the articles of the ship and liked nothing more than reminding us of them. Standing on the sterncastle deck, his hands on the rail as we stood assembled on the quarter-deck, main deck and forecastle, warning us that any man who fell asleep on duty would be tarred and feathered. Any man found with another man would be punished with castration. No smoking below decks. No pissing in the ballast. (Of course, as I’ve already told you, that particular article was something I carried over to my own commands.)
I was fresh, though, and new on board ship. At that stage of my career I don’t think it would even have occurred to me to break the rules.
I soon began to settle into the rhythm of life at sea. I found my sea legs, learnt which side of the ship to use depending on the wind and to eat with my elbows on the table to stop my plate from sliding away. My days consisted of being posted as lookout, or on watch. I learnt how to take soundings in shallow waters and picked up the basics of the navigation. I learnt from listening to the crew, who when not exaggerating tales of going into battle against the Spanish, liked nothing better than to impart nuggets of nautical wisdom: “Red at night, sailor’s delight. Red in the morning, sailors take warning.”
The weather. The winds. What slaves we were to it. When it was bad the usual cheery atmosphere would be replaced by one of grim industry as the day-to-day business of keeping the ship afloat in hurricane winds became a matter of simple survival, when we would snatch food in between maintaining sail, patching the hull and pumping out. All done with the quiet, concentrated desperation of men working to save their own lives.
Those times were exhausting, physically draining. I’d be kept awake, told to climb the rat-lines or man pumps below decks, and any sleep would be snatched below decks, curled up against the hull.
Then the weather would abate and life would resume. I watched the activities of the older crewmates, their drinking, gambling and womanizing, understanding how relatively tame my own exploits in Bristol had been. I thought of those I used to encounter in the taverns of the West Country, how they considered themselves to be hardened drinkers and brawlers, if only they could have been here to see my ship-mates in action. Fights would break out over nothing. At the drop of a hat. Knives pulled. Blood drawn. In my first month at sea I heard more bones crunch than I had in the previous seventeen years of my life. And don’t forget, I grew up in Swansea and Bristol.
Yet, for all of the violence, it would seem to dissipate as quickly as it flared up. Men who moments before had been holding blades to each other’s throats would make up in a round of backslapping that looked almost as painful as the fighting but seemed to have the desired effect. The articles stated that any man’s quarrels should be ended on shore by sword or pistol in a duel. Nobody really wanted that, of course. A quarrel was one thing, possibility of death quite another. So fights tended to be over as quickly as they’d begun. Tempers would flare, then die down.
Because of this, genuine grievances on board were few and far between. So it was just my luck to be on the receiving end of one.
I first became aware of it on my second or third day on board because I turned, feeling a penetrating stare upon me, and returned it with a smile. A friendly smile, or so I thought. But one man’s friendly smile is another man’s cocky grin and all it seemed to do was infuriate him even more. Back came a glare.
The next day, as I made my way along the quarter-deck, I was struck by an elbow so hard that I fell to my knees, and when I looked up, expecting to see a grinning face—“gotcha!”—I saw only the smirking face of the same man as he glanced over his shoulder on his way to his station. He was a big man. Not the sort you’d want to be on the wrong side of. Looked like I was on the wrong side of him, though.
Later, I spoke to Friday, a black deck-hand who often had the hammock near mine. Describing the man who had knocked me down, he knew who I was talking about straight away.
“That’ll be Blaney.”
Blaney. That was all I ever heard anybody call him. Unfortunately—by which I mean, unfortunately for me—Blaney hated me. He hated the guts of me.
There was probably a reason. Since we’d never spoken, it couldn’t have been an especially good reason; the important thing was, it existed in Blaney’s head, which at the end of the day was all that mattered. That and the fact that Blaney was big and according to Friday skilled with a sword.
Blaney, you might have guessed by now, was one of the gentlemen I first met the evening that I arrived early for the departure of the Emperor. Now, I know what you’re thinking; he was the one to whom I’d spoken, who was all ready to teach me a lesson or two for my impudence.
Well, no, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. Blaney was one of the other men sitting at the cask playing cards. A simple, brutish man, with what you might call a prominent forehead, thick eyebrows that were permanently bunched together as though he was always confused about something. I hardly noticed him on that night, and thinking about it now, perhaps that was why he was so infuriated; perhaps that’s why the grudge was born: he’d felt ignored by me and that had annoyed him enough to nurture this hatred of me.