1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 37

Chapter 19

St. Eustatia, Caribbean

With the dawn silhouetting the culverins that jutted out aggressively over the ramparts of Fort Orange behind them, Martin Tromp turned to look into St. Eustatia’ wide leeward anchorage. Almost thirty-five hulls lay invisible there, except for the spars that stuck upward from them. Like crosses in a water-covered graveyard, he thought, gloomily, Which is what this harbor will be, if we — if I — fail to dance every one of the next steps correctly.

Soft movement behind him meant the only other man in the skiff, besides the combination steersman and sail-handler, had approached. “Should we take you straight to the Aemelia, Admiral?” asked Jakob Schooneman, captain of the Dutch fluyt Koninck David. A merchant, an adventurer, and now, quite obviously, a confidential agent for the United Provinces, and possibly for the USE as well, Jakob Schooneman had been absent from the Caribbees for many months. He had made a northern passage back to the New World, touching at several places along the northern reaches of the Atlantic coastline, searching for other Dutch ships that could be spared for Tromp’s fleet: the last in this hemisphere flying Dutch colors, after the disastrous Battle of Dunkirk, not quite two years earlier. Jakob Schooneman’ success had been modest, at best.

Tromp nodded, not turning to face Jakob Schooneman, determined not to look him in the eyes until he could be sure of what the captain would be seen in his own. Tromp looked up at the sides of the hull now looming out of the charcoal-blue mists: the Aemelia, his fifty-four-gun flagship, and one of the few to survive the withdrawal from Dunkirk. He could still see her as she was during that perilous October flight across the Atlantic to Recife: her hull scarred and holed by cannonballs, most of her spars and rigging incongruously new because almost all of what they had sailed into battle with had been shot away or so badly savaged that they had to replace it as soon as they knew they were free of Spanish pursuit. Only the stout mainmast remained of the original spars, black with both age and grim resolve. Or so Tromp liked to think.

When he could discern the faint outlines of her closed gun-ports, he turned to the master of the Koninck David. “Thank you for coming to see me directly, Captain Jakob Schooneman. Your visit was most informative.”

“Glad to have been of service, Admiral.”

“Which we are happy to return. The lighters will be out with your provisions by noon. You are sure that none of your men wish shore liberty?”

Jakob Schooneman smiled crookedly. “‘Wish it?’ They most certainly do. I wish it myself. But circumstances dictate otherwise, wouldn’t you agree, Admiral Tromp?”

Tromp suppressed a sigh, looked into the purple-grey western horizon. “Yes, they do.” Now close abeam his flagship, Tromp called up to the anchor watch. The ship above him was silent for the moment it took for the watch officer to stick his head over the gunwale, squint down and determine that yes, it truly was the admiral arriving before the full rose of dawn was in the sky. Then the Aemelia‘s weather-deck exploded into a cacophony of coronets and drums which rapidly propagated into the lower decks as well.

“Nothing like an unannounced inspection to set the men on their toes, eh, Admiral?”

“Indeed. And it is a serviceable pretext, today.” An accommodation ladder was dropped down along the tumbledown of Aemelia‘s portside hull. In response, the skiff’s tiller-man lashed his handle fast and grabbed up a pole to bump against the fifty-four-gunner’s planking, keeping them off. Tromp put out his hand. “Fair weather and good fortune to you, Captain. You have need of both, it seems.”

Jakob Schooneman’s lopsided smile returned. “I shall not deny it. And you, Admiral, the same to you.”

Tromp nodded, prepared to ascend, thought Yes, I need fair weather and good fortune, too. For all our sakes.

*     *     *

Tromp was surprised to see lanky Willem van der Zaan waiting for him at the forward companionway. It was Tromp’s wont — indeed, most officers’ — to first make for their berth in the aft quarter. But here was Willi, waiting at the forecastle, his cuffs rolled up neatly and pinned, even.

Tromp managed not to smile at the fresh-faced youngster’s quick nod and winning smile. “You are up early, Mr. van der Zaan. And more mysterious still, you knew to wait for me here, at the other end of the ship from my quarters. Have you been consorting with sorcerers?”

“No, Admiral. Just watchful.”

“You saw me coming?”

“No, sir…but I was standing the last leg of the middle watch and saw the fluyt that came in slow and quiet from the north. At night. Passing other ships at anchorage without a hail.”

Tromp stared at Willem. “Little Willi” — what a misnomer, now! — had not just grown in mind and body, but subtlety. A year ago, he might not have come to such a quick and certain surmise that the incoming ship’s quiet approach signified an ally wishing to make a brief, surreptitious visit. Instead, he would have reflexively sounded an alarm signifying that pirates were upon them under cover of night. “You are very observant, Willi.”

“I am the admiral’s eager pupil, sir. If I’m not mistaken, that was the Koninck David, sir, wasn’t it?”

“Mmm. And how did you know?”

“Captain Jakob Schooneman’ rigging, sir. He’s always ready to run as near to the wind as he can.”

Because he’s often working in dangerous waters, gathering, or carrying, confidential information. Tromp felt his smile slacken even as his pride in van der Zaan grew. All of which you know, don’t you, Willi? Knowledge is what brings childhood’s end, and you are indeed Little Willi no longer. Which means that now, you will face the same duties — and dangers — as the rest of us. May God watch over you, dear boy, for from here on, my ability to do so will be greatly reduced.

They passed the galley. Urgent sounds of hurry that bordered on chaos spilled out.

“Early to be serving breakfast,” observed Tromp.

“Turning out for the admiral,” was the respectful correction offered by van der Zaan, as they passed. “I suspect the cook will be putting an extra few rashers of bacon on, today. Do you not wish to inspect?”

Tromp nodded. “Yes, but they are doing well to be about their business so smartly. I shall give them time to make good their special preparations.” He turned to his young assistant. “Letting men succeed, particularly in a special task which they have taken up on their own initiative, builds their pride. Which builds their morale.”

“Yes, Admiral,” said Willi with a smile which also said, As you have well and often taught me, and as I have well and fully learned. After a moment, he added, almost cautiously,You seem distracted, sir.”

If you only knew. “Not at all, Mr. van der Zaan. I am simply quiet when I am most attentive.”

“Ah. Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”

Is that a way of saying, “Of course I will agree to your obvious lie, sir”? Well, no matter.

Willi followed Tromp to the next ladder down. “Where are we headed, sir?”

Tromp stopped, hands on either side of the almost vertical between-deck stairs that seamen called ‘ladders.’ He looked at the young man gravely, knew that the moment he uttered their first inspection site, Willi would know what was in store, what kind of news had come in from the Koninck David in the small hours of the morning. “The bilges, young Willem. We are going to the bilges.”

Willem van der Zaan’s eyes widened. Because he had not forgotten — how could he? — Martin Tromp’s weekly litany about preparing for battle: “You check the ship from keel to foretop. You do it yourself. Meaning you start in the bilges.”

“The bilges?” van der Zaan almost whispered, looking very much like Little Willi again.

Tromp just nodded and headed below.

*     *     *

Tromp was still trying to wipe the stink of the bilge water off his hands when he returned to the galley. The ship was in readiness — he had expected no less — and despite the long wait for action, she was well-caulked and her gear made fast with tight lashings and adequate dunnage. But the inescapable fact was that there was simply less gear than there should have been. Dry goods were low, as was cordage and canvas. They had managed to procure some through the intercession of Sir Thomas Warner, the English — well, now state-less — governor of nearby St. Christopher. But sails came at quite a price, since Warner got the canvas via the occasional traffic from Bermuda. Wherever possible, Tromp and his fleet of almost forty ships had adopted local expedients in place of Old World manufactures, but good, reliable chandlery — to say nothing of nails, tools, and metal fixtures of all kinds — was not being produced in the Caribbees, or anywhere in the New World, outside the greatest of the Spanish ports.