It was two days after Captain Cowan’s arrival on HMS Cleopatra and the pale winter sun had spent itself, leaving the ship huddled in half-light on an iron-grey Bantry Bay. Any free time that the men had would usually be spent on the forecastle. There would be cock-fighting, story-telling, dancing, and dicing, but not today. Bligh was with the gun crew that he commanded, as well as a few others crowded around the galley stove. Its black hulk dominated the room, dimly lit by tallow candles sputtering inside lanterns of tin and translucent horn. Bligh preferred the company of his men as opposed to the other midshipmen in the cockpit, especially today. He shivered, although whether at the damp threatening to invade every loose stitch in his clothing or the unease at what was being discussed he was not sure.
“You wait ‘til Dan gets back from the surgeon,” said William Spratt, jabbing his finger at Hooker, the ship’s purser. Responsible for supplying clothes and food to the men on board a ship, pursers were renowned for giving short measure and pocketing the difference. Hooker, plump and red faced, was no different.
“You can’t rely on the good judgement of a man who has just been flogged,” jeered the fat man, smirking as he cleaned his wire spectacles.
“Even if that be true, it ain’t just Dan who the captain’s mistreated.”
The seaman leaned forwards on his barrel and began counting off his tar-stained fingers.
“Rum ration halved, eight floggings in three days, shore leave cancelled, sent to the Indies…”
“All part of being a seaman,” interjected Hooker.
“And what would you know about that?” cut in a female, laughing.
Bligh looked up to see Mollie perched on the knee of Spratt. She was one of many women on board; as hard-bitten and salt-wrinkled as any of the men. The moment a ship berthed it was inundated with bumboats filled with whores, all claiming to be married to someone on board but in reality looking to ply their trade with men who had been starved of female company for weeks on end. The Cleopatra had half as many women on board as it did men, and lack of space meant lack of privacy. Hooker placed his spectacles onto the end of his nose and looked down at the woman with scorn.
“There are those of us who don’t spend the majority of time on board on our backs”.
“That’s enough of that,” put in Bligh wearily as Spratt began to rise in defence of the woman. “We’ve enough fights on our hands without creating our own.”
“Quite right, young master,” acquiesced Spratt slowly. “Bad luck to be arguing amongst ourselves below decks.”
Hooker sneered at them both. “Fights on our hands? You’ll do what every seaman does – complain bitterly until the next issue of grog.”
Pitman, the ship’s one-armed cook, was ladling burgoo into wooden bowls for the men. The thin oatmeal did not look appealing, and Hooker turned his nose up at the offering. Doubtless he would allocate himself something more appetising from the stores, thought Bligh.
“It ain’t always like that,” argued Spratt quietly. “The admiralty wasn’t so confident after Hermione”.
The atmosphere seemed to tighten in the room. A creak sounded from the decks below, and silence stretched briefly between the men. Spratt, superstitious to the point of parody, touched the bulkhead next to him. Noises from the deep could mean anything from mermaids to sea monsters as far as he was concerned.
The 1797 mutiny on HMS Hermione had occurred when Captain Pigot, a bully and a tyrant, had been murdered by his crew after flogging his men so viciously that two had died. The men on-board, doubtless righteous in their intentions, had overstepped their mark and butchered not only the captain but innocent officers. The topic was still an uncomfortable one for officers and ratings alike. Hooker was looking at his pocket watch, seemingly fascinated by it, whilst everyone except Spratt was looking at the floor.
“Best not to talk about that,” said Bligh, nudging a head towards the purser, whose dark eyes were sparkling. “Besides, most of those tars ended up swinging from the yardarm.”
Spratt however was beside himself, and took no heed of the listening purser.
“There’s a young topm’n in the sick bay as we speak. Two broken legs, likely never to walk again, and all because of that cap’n’s terror.”
Bligh nodded, his mouth set in a grim line. Captain Cowan had introduced a rule whereby the last man down from the topsails would be flogged. It was an inherently unfair rule, because when piped down by the bosun, the boys on the yardarms had the furthest to climb to reach the deck. In his haste to avoid a flogging, Harper, a young topman of fourteen, had missed his footing on the frosty rigging and fallen to the deck, where his ankles had buckled under him. Screaming in agony, the young sailor had been forced to wait whilst Cowan ordered twenty strokes with the cat. The crew had watched on with horror as the incoherent Harper had two dozen lashes added to his broken ankles.
Spratt continued, chewing his tobacco with fervour. “It’s a damned disgrace. And there’s a reason we’re huddled down here in the galley like moths around a flame. It ain’t for the cooking, that’s for damn sure!”
Bligh found himself nodding in agreement again. The captain had made the crew simulate “clearing” the ship for action. Bulkheads had been removed so that the gun decks were clear for the length of the ship, and all of the seamen’s’ belongings had been thrown down in the hold. The officers had been turned out of their cabins and the decks had been scattered with sand, hammocks stowed against the railings to protect against imaginary splinters in battle.
The crew had then practiced at the great guns until they were exhausted. The decks were thick with smoke and men’s ears had bled from the noise. A crew would usually practice at the guns once every four or five weeks. Cowan had made them fire shot after shot on the decks for hours on end, until the Cleopatra’s decks were shaking and her sides straining. Due to a perceived lack of speed at the guns, Cowan had decreed that the crew would spend the night without hammocks or belongings. Bligh like the whole crew was cold, tired, and miserable; his ears ringing and his throat still dry with gunpowder smoke.
“I don’t think we’re there yet, Bill,” said Bligh, coughing. “Things change awfully quickly in the navy.”
“That’s as may be, young master, but you mark my words, when Dan comes back from the surgeon, there’ll be mutiny in the air.”
Bligh laughed but he was the only man who did. There were several nods from around the galley stove and the cook beat one of his cooking pots enthusiastically with a spoon, saying “hear, hear”.
“Risky talk,” put in Hooker nodding at Bligh, “in front of a midshipman”.
A voice sounded from the doorway to the capstan.
“A midshipman who spoke up for me on deck and in front of a new captain”.
Daniel Acheson appeared from the gloom. The seaman, pale and walking stiffly, nevertheless wore a small smile on his face as he approached the small group.
“Did you pipe up for one of your fellow crew members, Hooker?” he asked mildly, running his hand over the grey stubble that had grown during his recovery.
“I…that’s not my place,” stammered the purser. “I see you’ve recovered sufficiently to join us again.”
“It is astounding what the surgeon can do. That and the attentions of a girl below decks. Ugly Bertha they’re calling her.” He grinned knowingly. “She’s quite something”.
“On board recently,” cut in Mollie disparagingly, picking her nose and flicking the results away. “The other girls ain’t getting a look-in since she’s come aboard.”
Bligh walked over to Acheson. The man looked pale and the smell of rum rose from him. Acheson’s back was probably in ribbons and he was still twice the seaman that most on board were, drunk or not.
“How are you Dan?”
“Surgeon’s stitched me up, sir.”
“It’s a goddamned disgrace, Dan,” put in Spratt.
“Now Bill,” chided Acheson mockingly. “You know I don’t tolerate blasphemy near me.”
The men laughed and even Hooker smiled.
“Be that as it may,” continued Spratt, grinning, “twelve lashes is the most a captain’s s’posed to hand out without a court martial.”
Bligh was surprised to see Acheson looking uncomfortable. The able seaman was usually amongst the most forthright of speakers in the crew and not shy of airing his opinions.
“Now Bill,” he placated, his tar-stained hands held up in front of him. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It were one flogging. You and I have had dozens.”
Bligh looked around the dimly-lit room and saw his furrowed brow mirrored in the faces of everyone apart from Acheson.
“Dan, no-one denies that you’ve earned your share of punishment in the past but I’m inclined to agree with Bill on this. It was perverse.”
Acheson turned to the galley stove, warming his hands on the still-smouldering flames.
“This captain ain’t never commanded a seventy-four before and…”
“No hearing, no waiting until the proper time, just out with the cat and off with your shirt!”
Spratt was standing once more, lips curled with rage. Bligh thought again how curious it was that men could be half-starved, imprisoned on a ship, taken away from their families and flogged, yet raised barely a murmur as long as this treatment was part of a structure. Take away that structure, that security, and you shook the solid keel upon which the seamen relied.
“It was my back, damn you! You carry on like a damned fishwife! I just think we should give the Cap’n a chance, that’s all!” said Acheson, to snorts of derision around the stove.
Bligh stared at the seaman. Acheson was a poacher, years ago given the choice between service in his majesty’s navy or prison. There were few seamen more anti-establishment, and yet the older man had taken a liking to Bligh when the midshipman had first come aboard as a frightened and timid young boy. As the newest petty officer aboard, Bligh had been clueless, and yet Acheson had guided him through his first weeks and months without ever showing the animosity that he displayed towards the other officers. Despite himself a small smile formed on his lips as he remembered.
“Has that Ugly Bertha muddied your brains?” asked Spratt, chewing tobacco furiously. “Three men flogged already? It’s time we had our say. It don’t have to be one person; we can send a letter to the captain. The young master here can write it for us, if he will. We’ll all sign it in a circle, like, so that no man’s name is first. The Captain will find it much more difficult if he has to try two dozen of us.”
Bligh was worried at the turn that this discussion was taking.
“Now Bill. There’s no call to be jumping in with two feet. After all, things said in jest might so easily be misinterpreted.”
He flashed his eyes towards Hooker, who had become very quiet and still, looking at his pocket watch again. Spratt, though, was incensed. He was on the point of replying, when interrupted by a scream from above. This was followed by another wail, and a thudding of footsteps. The group of men looked at Bligh for direction.
“Better go and take a look,” he said, and made for the stairs to the deck. He led his men hurriedly up onto the gangway, and towards the mainmast.
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.