1801, Bantry Bay, Ireland
A ship was comparable to a small town. There were glaziers and glassblowers, farmers and fishermen, shoe cleaners and snuff makers. Shoehorning such a population into a seventy-four gun ship like HMS Cleopatra however, meant that the intrigues and undercurrents that ran through any town were multiplied many times over.
Added to this already potent brew was the fact that the majority of seamen on board were not there by choice. After being pressganged into service, torn away from loved ones, and kept at sea for months on end, there was an unspoken contract between captain and crew stating that a seaman’s welfare was the responsibility of his commanding officer. This was an agreement that had just been trodden into the oaken planks by a pair of immaculately polished hessian boots.
Midshipman John Bligh, fifteen years old and still not able to shave every day, looked fixedly up at the furled sails of the Cleopatra, ochre against the pale winter sky. A web of furled flying jibs, fore skysails, main royals, and mizzen top-gallants occupied his eyes. The young man could do nothing, however, to block out the noises assaulting his ears.
In his short service in the British Navy, Bligh had observed that it was not the severity of a punishment that incurred the wrath of a crew, but rather the capriciousness with which it was applied. This particular flogging demonstrated fickleness on a hitherto unheard of level, and Bligh stared solemnly skywards as he and the men of the seventy-four stood at attention for the spectacle. The clenching of fists, grinding of teeth, and shuffling of feet did not mask what Bligh originally heard as a high pitched whine. With horror he realised that the noise issued from able seaman Daniel Acheson, the elderly seaman’s greying features contorting with pain as the lashes continued.
Neither a missed button nor an unshaven chin had escaped Captain Theophillus Cowan’s roving eye during his first crew inspection. The new man was clearly anxious to make an impression, having only commanded eighteen gun smuggling ships before. Each and every mess had been reprimanded over some misdemeanour, real or imagined. The Cleopatra, with a crew of over six hundred men and half that number again in women now they were in port, was a highly sought after captaincy and Cowan must have had friends with influence in Whitehall to gain command of her.
Bligh had stood up proud and straight in front of his men, breathing a sigh of relief when his small group of Focslemen had gone largely unnoticed. As the captain walked away slowly towards the next poor group of shivering men, Daniel Acheson, perennial malcontent and troublemaker in chief, had been unable to hold his water.
“Jesus on the cross,” Acheson had muttered. “We’ll be here ‘till the dog watches if he carries on at this rate, damn his eyes! He’s going on like the blacksmith’s bellows!”
It had been barely a murmur, hardly a mumble, and even this was quickly snatched away by the cold December breeze. Bligh had struggled to suppress a grin at his rating’s whisper, but Captain Cowan’s head had snapped around. A cold glare pierced across deck and speared straight into Bligh’s small group of men like a boarding pike.
Bligh had watched with mounting apprehension as the tall, skeletally thin, silver-haired captain had stalked across deck. With eyes like blue ice underneath his bicorne hat, he had hauled Acheson out of formation and had him lashed summarily to a grating by three stunned marines.
“Captain, please! He didn’t mean…” stuttered Bligh, only to be cut off by an urgent shake of the head from the first lieutenant.
Procedure dictated that Acheson be held overnight and punishment issued the following morning but it appeared that the new captain was not set on procedure. At hearing the sentence prescribed in the captain’s thin, reedy voice a gasp had issued from the crew. Eighty-four lashes. Acheson’s ruddy face had paled but his gaze was steady and filled with contempt as he had stared implacably back at his new captain.
The sneering indifference from Acheson had not lasted. He watched the man’s flesh creep as the cat’s tails whined and thudded into his back. Bligh thought ruefully on how pointless this exercise in discipline would prove to be. Napoleon had recently signed the peace of Amiens and those ships like the Cleopatra in Admiral Mitchell’s Irish squadron were excitedly anticipating being decommissioned and having their crews disbanded. The men were owed shore leave and a holiday atmosphere had abounded when the Cleopatra had made port at Bantry Bay, at least until Captain Cowan had come aboard to replace the ailing Captain Leroy.
There was a brief pause as a fresh arm took possession of the cat ‘o’ nine tails. A brutally effective tool, it had remained unchanged through centuries. Nine pieces of line a quarter of an inch thick were spliced onto the end of a rope, and sailmakers’ whippings put on the end of the tails. The weapon weighed a total of thirteen ounces, and in the hands of a skilled bosun could break even the bravest tar. Acheson’s back looked like charred meat now, criss-crossing between livid purples, discoloured browns, and fresh crimsons. There were ever increasing mutterings from the small group of Focslemen assigned to Bligh’s command as the captain stood eagerly beside the Bosun’s mates, exhorting them to ever greater cruelty with the cat.
“Bloody disgrace, that’s what it is,” growled William Spratt, a sturdy man of forty years with a face heavily marked by smallpox scars and elongated by pendulous jowls. “Jus’ looking to make an example, so he was.”
“Quiet Bill,” shot back Bligh, anxious to avoid further punishment for his men. “We can discuss it below decks”.
There was more shuffling of feet from Spratt and a few others but nothing further said as each man counted down the final flesh-rending strokes of the punishment.
Bligh, put off balance by the turn of events, looked shoreward to see if this display was perhaps for the benefit of a more senior officer watching. The sandy beach was deserted. Even Cowan’s wife had not stayed to see her husband board his new ship. Bligh had watched as the woman, bejewelled and in a green dress that probably cost as much as he earned in a year, had bade her husband farewell from the window of her carriage. She had held a handkerchief over her mouth as she did so, as though she could smell the reek of the Cleopatra from where it lay anchored out in the harbour. The carriage had clattered away over the cobbles even before Cowan had boarded the small boat that had been sent for him.
Marines, resplendent in their red uniforms and as ever a barrier between the officers and the seamen, were now assisting Acheson to his feet. No stranger to the lash due to a habit of hoarding his rum ration and then getting incoherently drunk, Acheson was nevertheless foaming at the mouth and could barely walk. Bligh could see speckles of red mixed in with his greying hair, but the seaman kept his face low so as to avoid showing his tears to the crew. The marines removed his blue jacket from where it had been tucked into the seaman’s trousers to protect his kidneys and, all dignity foregone, half-carried him below decks to where the ship’s surgeon would attend to him.
Captain Cowan was resplendent in an immaculate blue coat and almost painfully white waistcoat and stockings, all which had somehow avoided any blood from the flogging. He turned to the assembled crew with a smug and satisfied expression on his face.
“I will not tolerate taking our Lord’s name in vain on this ship,” he said in a supercilious whine. “It is palpably injurious to order and discipline. Nor will I tolerate drunkenness, ribaldry or insubordination in any form. Despite my aversion to spoken irreverence, aboard the Cleopatra I am as God to you. Obedience will be unswerving and unquestioning. Punishment will be swift and sure.”
The captain enunciated each syllable with absolute propriety, as though determined that not a single word would be lost on his captive audience. Gone were the excited entreaties that had accompanied the flogging, replaced with a dull, administrative drone. Despite the icy December winds swirling around the naked masts Cowan was resplendent in only his captain’s uniform. No overcoat adorned his shoulders, as though he could not trust to intuition to inform the crew of his recent promotion.
“I bring on board orders from the admiralty. In two weeks and not a day more we will carry out convoy duty. A new captain means a new slate for us all and any shore leave you may have accrued is cancelled. We sail for Jamaica. Mr Cotton will allocate tasks accordingly over the next fortnight, at the end of which time I shall expect to see this ship in every respect ready for sea.”
Bligh’s heart sank. A thick silence enveloped the deck, as though the rest of the crew were struggling to understand what Cowan had said so calmly. The crew had been expecting to be disbanded after Napoleon had signed the peace of Amiens. Already planning how they would spend their well-earned pay, the seamen had sent letters to their loved ones informing them of their imminent return. Those happy plans would now be dashed, wives disappointed, and children brought to tears. Bligh himself had sent a letter telling his mother of his expected arrival. Brow furrowed, he pictured her forlornly looking out of the window, awaiting his return in vain.
Seemingly impervious to the venomous looks directed his way, Cowan was now benignly inspecting belaying pins. Bligh could almost feel the disbelief radiating from the men behind him. Not only had Cowan just cancelled the shore leave of men who had been ship bound for months and who had been looking forward to seeing wives and children; he had effectively sentenced a good number to a slow and painful death. A posting to the Indies meant one thing-Yellow Fever. Ships’ crews were devastated by the disease and protecting a convoy to Jamaica was tantamount to saying that at least half of them would end their days jaundiced and vomiting blood.
There was not a word said as Cowan bent down to inspect a section of the deck. Even the first lieutenant seemed at a loss, and unaware that he had ceased to participate in the inspection. He stood listless as the new captain shook his head and muttered at some perceived fault or other, before casually stepping over a smear of Acheson’s blood on the deck and continuing his tour.
To be continued…
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/mjrichardso0.