1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 06

Sehested was oddly relieved by the small man’s absolute lack of social courtesies. “As part of the Union of Kalmar, Denmark is pleased to assist King Gustav of Sweden and the nations of the United States of Europe over which he presides, in clearing these waters of Spanish influence and righting the many wrongs they have wrought.”

Stirke squinted at Sehested. “You’ve rehearsed that? Fer me?” He shook his head. “A turr’ble waste of time, that. I’m naught but a ship’s master who freights from the Indies what I can sell in Somers Isles and the Bahames.”

Sehested smiled. “You are right; I practiced it. And had it memorized long before I came to the Lesser Antilles, now almost a year ago.”

Stirke’s smile was easier, amused. “‘ad much use fer it, have ye?”

“Only a little. But that is still too much.”

Stirke’s laughter was like a barking cough. “Ah, ‘an ye ain’t so much as dandy as I took ‘e for. Ye’re alright, Hannibal Sehested. Now, since I’ve no cannon nor belly for a fight this day, I’d as soon deliver me messages and be off.”

As they made their way to the pilot-house, the little Bermudan stared around at the unfamiliar cannons and gear that was being worked and tended on Resolve‘s weather deck. “‘an sure that it’s a New Age in the New World. I’ve no idea what half this ironmongery might be, but I ken it set those Spanish dogs back on their haunches last year, hey?”

“There’s probably some truth to that,” Evertsen admitted as a German soldier indicated that they had to wait a moment before proceeding up the stairs to the flying bridge.

Timothy took no note of the delay. “Hsst,” he sneered at Cornelis’ understatement. “This winter past, there was little talk of aught else. At least on the islands I sail ‘tween. For near on two years, there wasn’t a ship from Europe that didn’t fly the yellow and red. But now, others be showin’ up again. And the food we freight from Kitts and your home port on Statia? Might’ve saved us all, I wager. As I hear it, your lot weren’t much better off.”

In the space of two seconds, Cornelis Evertsen went from being the marginally laconic executive officer of the Resolve to an animated story-teller. Sehested chided himself for having missed the subtle signs that such a transformation might be possible — very probably because he himself had been too preoccupied attempting to discern if the young officer’s demeanor had been genuine or carefully veiled mockery. But as his story of the Dutch travails of the past two years unfolded, the source of his sudden garrulousness was clear: an enthusiastic and outgoing person by nature, Evertsen had learned to keep that in check. Certainly, part of that was due to the reserve expected of leaders in combat. But it was also a likely adaptation to being the right hand of an admiral who was not only an introvert but who would otherwise have been routinely outshined by his staff officer’s brighter and more engaging personality. 

But now, warming to his topic and freed of all those constraints, Evertsen commenced to unfold his tale with energy and conviction. And detail. Lots and lots of detail. Indeed, Hannibal had the distinct impression that his re-telling of the events was as every bit as therapeutic for him as it was informative for Stirke.

A rising tide of anxiety had surged into Dutch-held Recife along with Tromp’s badly damaged ships in 1633. That Christmas had been a dismal one: not only did the colonists learn that the majority of their nation’s fleet was now resting in pieces on the sea-bed off Dunkirk, but word arrived on a jacht from newly settled St. Eustatia that the Dutch colony on St. Martin had fallen to the Spanish in June.

After considerable initial debate, most of Recife’s councilors conceded that their position was untenable. What Dutch ships remained were either trapped in Amsterdam, or out of touch in the East Indies. It was only a matter of time before Spanish and Portuguese forces pressed their advantage, knowing that no further succor was coming to the New Holland colony in Brazil.

So, after first setting the Portuguese back on their heels with a sharp offensive that had them suing for a truce, Tromp immediately set in motion subtle plans that put the colony in a position to evacuate swiftly. Which they had done in May of 1634, to the utter amazement of the Portuguese.

But safe distance from their Iberian antagonists had been purchased at the expense of a year of extreme privation. Over ten times the number of colonists already on St. Eustatia, the refugees from Recife hadn’t the tools, skills, or time to raise an adequate crop before their supplies ran out. Rationing was adopted. Fresh water was scarce. Life in tents invited illnesses that thrice threatened to become epidemics. And with men outnumbering women almost ten to one, tensions remained perpetually poised to explode into violence.

A year later, the first rays of hope arrived along with the first crop from leased lands on St. Kitts. But it was not quite three months later that full, bright deliverance arrived in the form of the USE and Danish flotilla known as Task Force X-Ray.

As Cornelis related that happy ending, gestured toward Hannibal. Who was glad that neither the storyteller nor his listener could see what was in his own mind: the squalid tent city that had been Oranjestad; the stick-thin colonists with sunken and desperate eyes; the stink of more wastes than could be readily removed from those dusty streets; and the perpetual moaning of the old who were sick and the children who were hungry. And he, Hannibal Sehested, was ashamed to remember and relive his reaction: horror, revulsion, and a genuine desire to turn immediately about and return to Europe.

His mind’s eye shut, and he was abruptly back in the present, Stirke staring at him intently. Had the little sunbaked Englishman seen him re-experiencing that disgust, that vile failure of courage, morality, and empathy which had been his first reaction to the plight of the Dutch?

Stirke squinted. “Not often a man knows he’s able to do so much for so many of his fellow men, eh, Hannibal Sehested?”

“Sadly,” Hannibal forced out of a dry throat, “that epiphany is even rarer than you think.”

“So you must share it widely, then!”

Hannibal swallowed a sudden spurt of bile. “I am not worthy to do so. Of that I solemnly I assure you. But I can testify to this: you are right when you aver that Lieutenant Evertsen, and his comrades — both Dutch and those of our other nations — have put the Spanish back on their heels. And that is why it is important that we have met.” Sehested lowered his voice to a murmur. “For only by combining efforts, will we be able to prevent Spain from reasserting her stranglehold upon all our communities.”

Stirke glanced sideways at him as the German guard stepped aside and Evertsen motioned him toward the steps. “Ah, now I see why your king has a man here, Hannibal Sehested. To gather us ’round a flag.” He started up. “Well, we might be willing, but Bermuda and her boats are but so much flotsam and jetsam in the currents of great nations and kings.”

“Wars are not always won by the heaviest broadside alone, Timothy. Sometimes, the keenest eyes and the fastest ships are just as important.”

Stirke stopped with one foot on the flying bridge, looked back at Sehested. “Aye, ‘an that’s true enough. True enough that it bears more speech, I’m thinking.” He smiled and mounted the last step — and stopped as if he’d been clapped in irons.