The scene that enveloped Bligh as he reached the deck was staggering in scale. Screams and shouts issued a group of women who were being forced to the hammock nettings of the ship by marines at bayonet point. Herded together like a writhing ball of herring, Bligh wondered at just how many had come aboard since the ship had anchored. Curses and threats rained down from the wives and prostitutes, more than a few of whom were spitting and clawing at the marines. These were dockyard women; scarred, calloused, and capable of defending themselves.
Standing serenely on the poopdeck and supremely unconcerned by the tumult beneath him was Captain Cowan. A mass of seamen were gathered opposite the pressed women on the main deck, held at bay either by the marines or by the force of their Captain’s will. Men who had grumbled and muttered at Acheson’s flogging a few days earlier were now dangerously close to open sedition. Glares of fierce hostility were directed up at the poop deck and fists were clenched in anger at the treatment of the women.
Captain Cowan, for his part, stood reading the articles of war to the rioting women and seething sailors, his reedy voice somehow carrying above the tumult. He read slowly and purposefully, not rushing.
“Article Fourteen…If when action, or any service shall be commanded, any person in the fleet shall presume or to delay or discourage the said action or service, upon pretence of arrears of wages, or upon any pretence whatsoever, every person so offending…”
Bligh was aghast at the chaos that the captain had created. Women were being backed into bumboats that were gathered around the ship, hissing and spitting like cornered cats.
“Article Fifteen…Every person in or belonging to the fleet, who shall desert or entice others so to do, shall suffer death…”
Others were batting aside bayonets with forearms like a bullock’s hind quarters, screaming bloody murder.
“Article Eighteen…If any person in or belonging to the fleet shall make or endeavour to make any mutinous assembly upon any pretence whatsoever, every person offending herein, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of the court martial, shall suffer death.”
Cowan paused and looked up. Bligh was too far away to see the captain’s eyes but just for a moment they seemed to pierce him like a bayonet. There was no way that Cowan could know of the discussion they had just had in the galley, and yet Bligh felt that these words had been said with him as their target. It was as though, as with Acheson, the captain had sensed discontent rather than heard it; as though he could feel unease and malcontent in the ship as easily as he could dry rot in timber. Bligh dropped his eyes quickly.
“A bleeding disgrace!” said Spratt from behind Bligh, half shouting. “These women have every damned right to be on board!”
“Enough, Spratt!” said Bligh sharply. “I’ve already had one of my men flogged for speaking out of turn – I won’t have another!”
Spratt said no more but spat his wad of tobacco out on the deck, grinding it into the oak with his foot. The seaman looked up at the poop deck as though daring the captain to notice. Thankfully, Cowan had his nose in the Articles of War.
Bligh would normally have found Spratt’s abandonment of his superstitions regarding women on board amusing but there was real danger here. Although women were, strictly speaking, not allowed on a ship like the Cleopatra, every captain Bligh had ever heard of allowed them to board ship when in harbour. It was part of an unspoken agreement that compensated seamen for long, lonely nights at sea, time away from their families and no pay for months on end. Cowan was again violating something more sacred than navy rules; he was disregarding tradition.
The struggling marines, ever a wall between the seamen and the officers in the navy, had managed to herd most of the women into the bumboats. Stones, shoes and other more unmentionable items were being tossed at the men in their smart red uniforms and there was still a dozen stalwarts fighting to avoid being put off the ship.
Spratt’s simmering rage was in sharp contrast to Acheson, who simply stood on deck sucking his few remaining teeth and looking around him with a worried expression.
“I don’t see Ugly Bertha.”
Bligh shook his head in disbelief. Before today he would have bet his last shilling that Daniel would have been at the heart of any discontent on board but here he was, standing calmly by whilst chaos reigned on the Cleopatra. He scanned the deck for the bosun, a lieutenant, anyone, to restore some semblance of sanity to the ship.
Meanwhile, a fishwife with upper arms like tree trunks had gathered around her a small nucleus of grim, battle-hardened women who were actually driving back the squad of marines closest to them. Perhaps panicking in the gaze of his captain, a young marine swung the butt of his musket towards a prostitute to drive her back. At this moment the whore received a push in the back from another woman, and the weapon struck her clean on the temple. She crumpled to the deck.
“No you don’t you villain!” shouted Spratt, a growl of righteous indignation issuing from him. The squat seaman made his way towards the ruckus, elbowing fellow crew members out of the way in his haste to reach the offending marine. Some of the crew were now in a state approaching open revolt. Men were being held back by a combination of their own shipmates and the bristling array of marine muskets, half of which had turned from the women and were now pointing at them.
It was towards this maelstrom of activity that able seaman Spratt paced. Bligh had been late seeing his man charge forward, and realised with horror what Spratt was doing. He ran after him, buckled shoes slapping off the deck and blue coat billowing behind him in the winter breeze.
“Bill!” he called above the tumult, but to no avail. The seaman had reached the mass of marines who were still pressing the women down the side of the Cleopatra and into the waiting boats. Spratt was brandishing a tar-stained finger at the marine who had struck the whore.
Amid the shrieks of the whores and protestations of the marines, and over the seething outbursts of Spratt, Bligh could just make out the shouts of Captain Cowan, who had obviously spotted the midshipman and his man.
“Spratt! Get back to starboard!”
Spratt turned in surprise, halfway through his diatribe. One of the young marines who had been on the receiving end of Spratt’s wrath took the opportunity to reverse his musket and thrust the butt of the gun into the Spratt’s stomach, doubling the seaman over. Outraged, Bligh stepped forwards, summoning every ounce of his fifteen years of authority. What the midshipman was going to say never left his lips. The butt of the marine’s gun swung back around and caught Bligh to the side of the head. As he fell, the last thing he saw before darkness overtook him was a statuesque Captain Cowan on the poop deck, his lips pinched into a thin line of distaste.
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.