1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 40

Van Walbeeck nodded enthusiastically. “Most prudent. And speaking of guards, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t set up some special detachments of them here, too.”

Tromp folded his arms. “You mean, here in Oranjestad? We already have greatly over-sized guard complements on all our warehouses, on the batteries, the outposts, the –“

“We need them on the women, Martin. Particularly the visiting English ladies.”

“The ladies –?” And then Tromp understood. “Oh.”

“Yes. ‘Oh.’ Martin, there are less than four hundred women on Saint Eustatia, out of almost three thousand persons, more if you count our shipboard crews. Most of the four hundred women are already married. And you have seen the effects, surely.”

Tromp surely had. Brawls, drunken or otherwise, had been steadily increasing for six months. And however the causes and particulars varied, there was usually a common thread: it had started over a woman. It may have been that the woman in question had never spoken to, perhaps never even looked at, any of the combatants, but that hardly mattered. Like a bunch of young bucks in rutting season, any incident that could in any way be construed as a dispute over mating dominance resulted in locked horns. “What do you suggest?” he asked van Walbeeck.

“Cuthbert Pudsey.”

“The English mercenary who’s been in our ranks from Recife onward? A one man guard-detachment?”

“Martin, do not be willfully obtuse. Of course not. Pudsey is to be the leader of, let us call it a ‘flying squad’ of escorts who will accompany any English ladies who come to call at Oranjestad. And given that it will be a merit-earned duty –“

“Yes. Perfect comportment and recommendations will be the prerequisite for being posted to that duty. With any brawling resulting in a six month disqualification from subsequent consideration. But really, Jan, you do not think our men would actually go so far as –?”

“Martin, I will not balance the safety of the English ladies who visit — or perhaps, in the future, seek shelter with — us on my projections or hopes. We will assume the worst. And in the bargain, some lucky guards will come near enough to recall that ladies do, indeed, sweat — excuse me, perspire — in this weather. That they are not such perfect creatures, after all.” Van Walbeeck squinted as the light rose sharply on the table before them. The sun had finally peeked around the steep slope of the volcanic cone that was known simply as The Quill, St. Eustatia’s most prominent feature

“Hmm. It is still the scent of a woman, Jan. And in circumstances such as ours, that will only quicken their starved ardor.”

“No doubt, and no helping it. But charged with protecting the fairer sex, I feel fairly certain that our guards would more willingly die defending them than protecting me.”

“Far more willing,” drawled Tromp,

“While you are around,” smiled Walbeeck, “I shall never lose my soul to the sin of Pride. You are my guardian angel.”

“A more improbable guardian angel there has never been,” Tromp grunted as he felt the sunlight grow quick and warm on the side of his face.

“And yet here you sit, wearing a halo!” Walbeeck grinned, gesturing to the sun behind Tromp. “Now, have you decided to stop serving coffee on this sorry hull of yours?”

“Not yet,” said Tromp, who almost smiled.

*     *     *

Two hours later, the coronet pealed again. Tromp frowned at Walbeeck’s sudden and serious glance at the rum.

“Just one swallow. For perseverance in the face of immovable objects and irremediable ignorance.”

“Jan, don’t reinforce our enemies’ characterization of us.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“You know perfectly well what I mean. Our resolve in battle is too often linked to our bolting shots of gin just before. ‘Dutch courage,’ they call it.”

“Well, I could use a little of that courage right about now…”

The dreaded knock on the door was gentle enough but felt like a death knell to Tromp. “Enter,” he said, trying to keep the sigh out of his voice. He flattered himself to imagine that he had succeeded.

The group that entered was not quite as ominously monolithic as he had feared. There were friendly faces among those crowding into the Aemelia‘s suddenly claustrophobic great cabin. Servatius Carpentier and “Phipps” Serooskereken had been part of the Politieke Raad at Recife, and early converts to the exigency-driven agricultural changes that they had brought to St. Eustatia. But Jehan De Bruyne, also a member of that body, had been diametrically opposed from the start, and remained so, now drawing support from original Oranjestad settlers such as Jan Haet and Hans Musen, whose expectations of quick wealth had been dashed by the arrival of Tromp’s ships and slavery injunctions.

Respectful nods notwithstanding, Musen was quick to confirm both the purpose and tenor of this visit by the determinative civil bodies of the St. Eustatia colony. “Admiral Tromp, we are sorry to disturb you on this busy day –“

— not half as sorry as I am —

“– but we have just learned that you will be setting sail soon. Today, it is rumored.”

Tromp shrugged. “There are always rumors. Please continue.”

Musen looked annoyed. “Very well. Since no one seems to know, or is willing to say, when you might return, we must make an appeal now, relevant to upcoming matters of commercial importance.”

Tromp had had cannon aimed at him with less certainty of fell purpose. “Yes?”

“Admiral, you have forbidden the acquisition of new slaves with which to work the plantations here on St. Eustatia –“

“– which we still protest!” Jan Haet put in archly.

“– but we presume that this would not apply to any farms established on land that is not Dutch-owned.”

Tromp resisted the urge to grind his molars. And damn me for a fool that I did not see this coming. “Mr. Musen, allow me to prevent you from spending time here profitlessly. The rules that apply here on Saint Eustatia apply equally to any plantations you may put in place on Saint Christopher’s.”

“But that is English land!” shouted Jan Haet.

“But under our dominion while we lease it!” retorted Phipps Serooskereken.

“Immaterial,” countered Musen coolly. “The terms of use permitted on the tracts around Sandy Point were made quite explicitly by Lord Warner: use of slaves is expressly permitted.”

Jan van Walbeeck smiled broadly, and perhaps a bit wickedly. “Then perhaps you are preparing to swear loyalty to Thomas Warner?”

The various combatants started at him.

“Because, logically, that is what you must intend.”

Jan Haet, as ardent a Dutch nationalist as he was a slaveholder, rose up to his full height of 5′ 5″. “I intend no such thing, and you know it, Jan van Walbeeck!”

“Do I? Here is what I know. Fact: Lord Warner may no longer be a Lord at all. England has renounced claim to the land he holds and upon which his title is based. Fact: your actions are not constrained by what he permits, but by what this regional authority allows you to do, as a Dutchman, in this place and time. And you have been forbidden from acquiring more slaves. So unless you wish to renounce your citizenship in the United Provinces, what Thomas Warner permits you to do is secondary to what your government permits. And fact: swearing allegiance to Warner makes you men without a country and therefore invalidates you from working the leased land at Sandy Point, since that agreement exists solely between the representatives of the United Provinces and Thomas Warner.” Jan Walbeeck smiled. “But of course, you can always become citizens of Thomas Warner’s nation. If he ever declares one, that is.”

Jehan de Bruyne had been frowning slightly at the deck throughout the exchange. “I will ask you to reconsider your ruling on slavery one last time, Martin. I am not sure you understand the degree of dissatisfaction it is causing among our people.”

Oh, I understand Jehan. I even understand the veiled threat in your calm tone. Tromp folded his hands. “Mijn Heer de Bruyne, your own council, the Politieke Raad, voted in support of this measure. And I remain unclear how you can conclude that a slave population poses no credible threat to our security here. You have only to look at Thomas Warner’s experience. In the last seven years, he has had to struggle to maintain control over his colony. And why? Not threat from the Caribs: they are no longer appear willing to try cases with him. No, his problems arise from resentment and rebelliousness among his slave population.”

Musen sniffed. “That is because the French keep stirring the pot.”

“That may even be true, Hans, but would we be immune to such trouble? Will the French see us as any less interlopers than the English? Indeed, given the presence of our forces on the island, will they not consider us an even greater problem? Because once we arrive and provide both plantation and border security for Thomas Warner, they will have even less chance to displace him — and us. Unless, that is, we bring our own slaves, whom they would no doubt attempt to suborn as well.”