1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 38

Even rags, Tromp reflected, continuing the futile task of cleaning his hands with a towel already inundated with bilge water, even rags were rare enough commodities, here. What weaving the locals did was crude, and not suitable to all purposes.

“Shall I fetch you another towel, sir?” Willi asked as he peered into the evidently expectant mess.

“No use, Willi. Let’s not keep the cook waiting.”

The watch officers had taken advantage of the admiral’s inspection of Aemelia‘s orlop deck and stores to rouse the first watch out of hammocks and make for the galley, where the cook (one of the few that had all his limbs) had set about building his fires and preparing the food, all the while debating provisions with the purser, as usual. However, the moment the admiral entered, the men, regardless of rank or age, looked up expectantly, with the suppressed smiles of boys who’ve done their chores early and without being told to.

Tromp suppressed a smile himself, nodded to the cook. “Up early today, are we, Ewoud?”

Ewoud effected dour annoyance. “It is as the admiral says. These louts couldn’t wait to fill their bellies today. Can’t think why. Sir.”

“No, me either,” agreed Tromp, going along with the act. The men grinned. As had sailors from the dawn of time, they had a natural affinity for a quiet, firm commander who could enjoy and acknowledge a joke without becoming part of it himself. “What feast have you set on today?”

There was a quick exchange of glances — none too friendly — between the purser and the cook before the latter waved at the simmering pots with a hand that invited inspection. “Well sir, this morning I thought we’d depart from local fare, and –“

Tromp shook his head. “A nice gesture, Ewoud — and Mr. Brout,” he added with a glance at the purser who had no doubt pushed Ewoud to use the Old World supplies, “but there are to be no exceptions while we are in port. Local foodstuffs only.”

“But sir,” Brout explained, hands opening into an appeal, “soon, even the peas will spoil if we do not –“

“Mr. Brout,” Tromp let his voice go lower, less animated, and then turned to face the suddenly quiet purser, “I assure you, I have the spoilage dates of all our dry goods well in mind. And they do not worry me.” Particularly since, after today, we’ll be finishing them up quickly enough. “Do I make myself clear?”

Brout looked as though he might have soiled himself. “Yes, Admiral. Perfectly clear.”

Ewoud was trying hard not to smile, and, satisfied, sent his young assistant — barely thirteen, from the look of him — scurrying to swap around the bags and casks of waiting food. “Tapioca and mango, then. Smoked boar for a little flavor.” The mess-chiefs who’d come down from each group of mess-mates sighed. Tapioca and cassava crackers were the new staple of the Dutch navy. Such as it was.

Tromp looked over Ewoud’s broad, sweat-glistening shoulders deeper into the galley, saw familiar bags and barrels with Dutch markings. The last of the foodstuffs we sailed with, of the meals that we thought we’d eat until the day the sea swallowed us up instead. Whether on the Dutch ships that had sailed into disaster at Dunkirk or on those moored in safety at Recife, there was little variation in the bill of fare that had been loaded into their holds before leaving the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

Each day had begun with bread and groat-porridge, and lunch had been less of the same, but usually with strips of dried meat and also a sizeable part of the daily portion of cheese. Sunday dinner meant half a pound of ham or a pound of spiced lamb or salted meat with beans. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday fish with peas or beans were on the menu. On Thursday it was a pound of beef or three ounces of pork and on Friday and Saturday it was fish again. But long before the food ran out, the beer was gone. Since it spoiled comparatively quickly, it was an early-journey drink.

Even before the disaster at Dunkirk, the admiralties had also taken a page from the books of the up-timers, and citrus or other fruits had been part of the provisions on the way out, and then, were a high priority item to acquire as soon as landfall was made in the New World. Happily, that was easily accomplished. And if the transition from gin to rum had been strange, it was not unpleasant, and Tromp had to admit that it mixed with a wider variety of the local juices. Indeed, it turned a cup of soursop from a rather musky, acquired taste, into a delightful and reputedly healthful drink.

But what started as a few expedient replacements for Old World comestibles had now become a wholesale substitution of them, since the familiar foods of home had no way to reach them. It had been a month since Tromp had enjoyed bread made from anything other than cassava, and longer since he had any meat other than goat. But at least he had two full meals a day, which was more than could be said for the almost three thousand people who were his charges on Saint Eustatia. And now, he would have to dip deeply into already-scant stockpiles of durable food —

“Mr. Brout, you are to be given the first helping of breakfast.”

“Why — yes, Admiral. Thank you.”

“Do not thank me. It is so you may go ashore as soon as possible. You are to requisition as much salt fish, smoked goat, dried fruit, and hard-baked cassava loaves as you can find. Tapioca for porridge, and beans, too.”

“I am to ‘requisition’ it, sir?”

“Yes. We will settle accounts later.” If we’re alive to do it. “You are to return by noon. The supplies are to be loaded by nightfall.”

“Admiral, that leaves me little time to negotiate for a fair –“

“Mr. Brout, you do not have time to negotiate. You will see that the holds of our ships are provided with three months rations, at a minimum. You are to begin by calling upon Governor Corselles. He will have my message by now, and will accompany you to ensure the compliance of your suppliers.” And to watch out for your own profiteering proclivities, Brout.

Whose eyes were wide. “Yes, Admiral. If I may ask, are we soon to weigh anchor –?”

But Tromp was already out the door and into the narrow passageway. He was halfway up the ladder to the gun-deck before the raucous buzz of hushed gossip surged out of the galley below him.

Willibald, at Tromp’s heels, laughed softly.

“Something amusing, Mr. van der Zaan?”

“Yes, sir. Very much, sir.”

“And what is it?”

“How an admiral of so few words can work up so many men so very quickly.”

Tromp shrugged and turned that motion into an arm-boost that propelled him up onto the gun deck with satisfying suddenness. Men who were hunched in whispering clusters came to their feet quickly. Over his shoulder, he muttered, “A man who yells does so because he is unsure that he is in command. Remember that, Willi.”

“I will, sir.”

Tromp, walking with his hands behind his back, nodded acknowledgments to the respectful greetings he received from each knot of befuddled seamen. However, his primary attention was on the guns. The last of the culverins were gone, as he had ordered. In their place were cannon, although one of those was only a thirty-pounder, or ‘demi cannon.’ But each deck’s broadsides would be a great deal more uniform now: another up-timer optimization that tarrying at their Oranjestad anchorage had enabled. Gone was the mix of culverin and cannon of various throw-weights and the occasional nine pound saker, and with it, the variances of range and effectiveness that made naval gunnery even more of a gamble than it already was.

He popped a tompion out of a cannon’s muzzle, felt around within the mouth of the barrel. Sufficiently dry, and with a paucity of pitting that testified to the routine nature of its care. Salt water was a hard and corrosive taskmaster.

Admirably anticipating his next point of inspection, a gunner came forward at a nod from his battery chief and made to open a ready powder bag. Tromp nodded approval, turned to young van der Zaan. “Fetch Lieutenant Evertsen to find me here. He’ll need to complete the inspection. Then make for the accommodation ladder.”

“Why, sir? Are you expecting –?”

A single coronet announced a noteworthy arrival on the weather-deck.

“Yes,” Tromp answered, “I am expecting visitors. Now go.”

*     *     *

Tromp looked up when, without warning, the door to his great cabin opened and Jan van Walbeeck entered. “You’re late,” the admiral muttered.