Yes, I’ve since worked out I drank to drown my discontent, but that’s the thing with drinking, you often don’t know why at the time. You don’t realize that the drinking is a symptom, not a cure. So I sat and watched as Nassau fell to rack and ruin, and being so drunk, I forgot to feel disgusted about it. Instead I spent day after day at the same table of The Old Avery, either staring at my filched picture of The Observatory or attempting to etch out a letter to Mother or to Caroline. Thinking of Father. Wondering if the fire at the farmhouse had hastened his death. Wondering if I was to blame for that too and knowing the answer was the reason why my letters to Mother ended up crumpled bits of paper on the floor of the terrace.
Mind you, I wasn’t so wrapped up in my problems that I forgot to eye up the delicious behind of Anne Bonny, even if she was forbidden to us. (Officially, that was. But Anne, let’s just say she liked the company of pirates, if you know what I mean.)
Anne had arrived in Nassau with her husband, James, a buccaneer and lucky bleeder for being married to her. Having said that, she had a way about her, did Anne, like she wasn’t afraid to give a fellow the glad eye, which did make you wonder if old James Bonny had his hands full with that one. I’d wager that serving ales at The Old Avery wasn’t his idea.
“There’s precious little in this town but piss and insects,” she used to complain, blowing strands of hair off her face. She was right, but still she stayed, fending off the advances of most, accepting the advances of a lucky few.
It was around that time, as I wallowed in my own misery, days spent chasing away one hangover while working on new ones, that we first heard about The King’s Pardon.
“It’s a bag of shite!”
Charles Vane had said that. His words penetrating that midmorn booze buzz I’d been working on.
“It’s a ruse,” he thundered on. “One to keep us soft before they attack Nassau! You’ll see. Mark me.”
What was a ruse?
“It’s no ruse, Vane,” said Blackbeard, his voice betraying an unusual seriousness. “I heard it straight from the mouth of the greasy Bermudan captain. There’s a pardon on offer for any pirate who wants it.”
A pardon. I let the words sink in.
Hornigold was there too. “Ruse or not, I think it’s plain the British may return to Nassau,” he said. “With arms no doubt. In the absence of any clear ideas, I say we lay low. No piracy and no violence. Do nothing to ruffle the king’s feathers for now.”
“Preserving the king’s plumage is no concern of mine, Ben,” Blackbeard rebuked him.
Benjamin turned on him. “It will be when he sends his soldiers to scrub this island clean of our residue. Look around you, man. Is this cesspool worth dying for?”
He was right, of course. It stank, and more so every day: a vomitous mixture of shit and bilge-water and rotting carcasses. But even so, difficult though it might be for you to believe, it was our vomitous mixture of shit and bilge-water and rotting carcasses, and we were prepared to fight for it. Besides, it didn’t smell so bad when you were drunk.
“Aye, it’s our republic. Our idea,” insisted Blackbeard. “A free land for free men, remember? So maybe it’s filthy to look at. But ain’t it still an idea worth fighting for?”
Benjamin averted his eyes. Had he already decided? Had he made his choice?
“I can’t be sure,” he said. “For when I look on the fruits of our years of labour, all I see is sickness . . . idleness . . . idiocy.”
Remember what I said about Benjamin? How he dressed differently, had a more military bearing. Looking back now, I think he never really wanted to be a pirate, that his ambitions lay on the other side, with His Majesty’s Navy. He was never especially keen on attacking ships, for one thing, which was a rarity among us. Blackbeard told the story of how a vessel under his command had once laid siege to a sloop, only for Benjamin to steal the passengers’ hats. That’s all, just their hats. And yes, you might think it was because he was an old softy and didn’t want to terrorize the passengers too much, and maybe you’d be right. But the fact is, out of all of us, Benjamin Hornigold was the least like a pirate, almost as though he wasn’t willing to accept that he was one.
All that being the case, I don’t suppose I should have been surprised by what happened next.
“Dearest Caroline . . .”
And that, on that particular occasion (location: The Old Avery, as if you needed telling), was as far as I got.
“Putting some shape to your sentiments?” Anne stood over me, brown and beautiful. A treat for the eyes.
“Just a short letter home. I reckon she’s past caring anyway.”
I crumpled up the letter and tossed it away.
“Ah, you’ve got a hard heart,” said Anne as she moved off behind the bar. “It should be softer.”
Aye, I thought. Yer right, lass. That soft heart felt like it was melting. In the months since we’d heard about The King’s Pardon, Nassau was riven, divided into those who took the Pardon, those who planned to take the Pardon (after one final score), and those who were dead against the Pardon and cursed all others, led by Charles Vane, and . . .
Blackbeard? My old friend was keeping his powder dry, but looking back I think he’d decided that a life of piracy was no longer for him. He was away from Nassau on the lookout for prizes. News of big scores and strange allegiances were reaching our ears. I began to think that when Blackbeard had left Nassau, he’d never had any intention of returning. (And he never did, as far as I know.)
And me? Well, on the one hand I was wary of being mates with Vane. On the other, I didn’t want to take the Pardon, which made me mates with Vane whether I liked it or not. Vane had been waiting for Jacobite reinforcements to arrive but they never had. Instead he began making plans to leave, maybe establish another pirate republic elsewhere. I would take the Jackdaw and leave with him. What other choice did I have?
Then came that morning, a few days before we were due to depart, as I sat on the terrace of The Old Avery, trying to write my letter to Caroline and passing the time of day with Anne Bonny, when we heard the sound of carriage-gun fire from the harbour. An eleven-gun salute, it was, and we knew exactly what was up. We’d been forewarned about it. The British were coming to take control of the island.
And here they were with a blockade that bottled up both entrances to the harbour. HMS Milford and HMS Rose were the muscle. Two warships escorting a fleet of five other vessels, on which were soldiers, craftsmen, supplies, building materials, an entire colony come to flush out the pirates, drag Nassau up by its bootstraps and return it to respectability.