I liked Benjamin, of course. He had been Blackbeard’s mentor just as Blackbeard was mine, and there was never a better sailor than Benjamin Hornigold.
Although you may think I’m only saying this because of what subsequently happened, you’re going to have to believe me when I swear it’s true. I always thought there was something apart about him. Hornigold had a more military bearing, a hawk nose like a tuft English general, and he dressed more like a soldier than a buccaneer.
But still, I liked him, and if I didn’t like him as much as I liked Thatch, well, then I respected him as much, if not more. After all, Benjamin was the one who had helped establish Nassau in the first place. For that, if nothing else, I liked him.
I was sailing with Thatch in July 1713 when the quartermaster was killed on a trip ashore. Two weeks after that we received a message and I was called to the captain’s quarters.
“Can you read, son?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and I thought briefly of my wife back home.
Thatch sat at one side of his navigation table rather than behind it. His legs were crossed and he wore long black boots, a red sash at his waist and four pistols in a thick leather shoulder belt. Maps and charts were laid out beside him but something told me it wasn’t those he needed reading.
“I need a new quartermaster,” he said.
“Oh, sir, I don’t think . . .”
He roared with laughter, slapped his thighs. “No, son, I don’t ‘think’ either. You’re too young, and you don’t have the experience to be a quartermaster. Isn’t that right?”
I looked at my boots.
“Come here,” he said, “and read this.”
I did as I was asked, reading aloud a short communication with news of a treaty between the English, the Spanish, Portuguese . . .
“Does it mean . . . ?” I said, when I had finished.
“Indeed it does, Edward,” he said (and it was the first time he’d ever called me by my name rather than “son” or “lad’—in fact, I don’t think he ever called me “son” or “lad” again). “It means your Captain Alexander Dolzell was right, and that the days of privateers filling their boots are over. I’ll be making an announcement to the crew later. Will you follow me yourself?”
I would have followed him to the ends of the Earth but I didn’t say so. Just nodded, as though I had a lot of options.
He looked at me. All that black hair and beard lent his eyes an extra penetrating shine. “You will be a pirate, Edward, a wanted man. Are you sure you want that?”
To tell you the truth, I wasn’t, but what choice did I have? I couldn’t go back to Bristol. I didn’t dare go back without a pot of money, and the only way of making money was to become a pirate.
“We shall set sail for Nassau,” said Thatch. “We pledged to meet Benjamin should this ever happen. I dare say we shall join forces, for we’ll both lose crew in the wake of this announcement.
“I’d like you by my side, Edward. You’ve got courage and heart and skill in battle, and I can always use a man with letters.
I nodded, flattered.
When I went back to my hammock, though, and was alone, I closed my eyes for fear that tears might squeeze out. I had not come to sea to be a pirate. Oh, of course, I saw I had no other choice but to follow that path. Others were doing it, including Thatch. But even so, it was not what I had wanted for myself. I’d wanted to be a man of quality, not an outlaw.
Like I say, though, I didn’t feel I had much choice. From that moment on, I abandoned any plans I had of returning to Bristol as a man of quality. The best I could hope for was to return to Bristol as a man of means. My quest became one of acquiring riches. From that moment on I was a pirate.
There is nothing quite so loud as the sound of a carriage-gun blast. Especially when it goes off in your ear.
It’s like being pummelled by nothing. A nothing that seems to want to crush you, and you’re not sure whether it’s a trick of your eyesight, shocked and dazzled by the blast, or whether the world really is shaking. Probably it doesn’t even matter. Probably both. But the thing is, it’s shaking.
Somewhere the shot impacts. Boat planks splinter. Men with their arms and legs torn off and men who look down and in the few seconds they have before dying realize that half of their body has been shot away, begin screaming. All you hear in the immediate aftermath is the shrieking of the damaged hull, the screaming of the dying.
How close you are will determine how handsomely you react. I wouldn’t say you ever get used to the blast of a carriage-gun, the way it tears a hole in your world, but the trick is to recover swiftly and recover from it more swiftly than your enemy.
We’d been off the coast of the Cape Buena Vista in Cuba on a ship led by a man known as Captain Bramah when the English had attacked. We called those upon the brigantine the English even though English made up the core of our crew and I myself was English by birth, English in my heart. That counted for nothing as a pirate. You were an enemy of His Majesty (Queen Anne had been succeeded by King George), an enemy of the Crown, which made you an enemy of His Majesty’s Navy. So when we saw the Red Ensign on the horizon, the sight of a frigate foaming across the ocean towards us, figures running to and fro on her decks, what we said was, “Sail ho! The English are attacking! The English are attacking!” with no bother for the small details of our actual nationalities.
We were too busy trying to stay alive.
This one came at us fast. We were trying to turn and put distance between us and her six-pounders, but she bore down upon us, slicing across our bows, so close we could see the whites of the crew’s eyes, the flash of their gold teeth, the glint of sun on the steel in their hands.
Flame bloomed along her sides as her carriage-guns thundered. Steel tore the air. Our hull shrieked and cracked as the shot found their mark. The day had been full of rain but the powder-smoke turned it into a night full of rain. It filled our lungs and made us cough, choke and splutter, throwing us into even more disarray and panic.
Then that feeling of the world crashing in, that shock, and those moments of wondering if you’d been hit and if maybe you were dead, and perhaps this was what it felt like in heaven. Or most likely—in my case at least—in hell. Which, of course, it must be, because hell is smoke and fire and pain and screaming. So whether you were dead or not, it made no difference. Either way you were in hell.