1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 21
East of Dominica
Shortly after a skiff delivered Tromp to the Amelia, the first preliminary report of the engagement was handed to him.
La Flota, as hoped and anticipated, had elected not to split into its two primary parts before making landfall in the New World. That was why it was still so large. The bigger of the two parts, the Tierra Firma Fleet, existed to collect the goods waiting along the Spanish Main, from Santa Margarita Island all the way to Cartagena. The route of the Nueva Espana fleet varied, but always crossed the Gulf of Mexico and wound up at Vera Cruz, where riches from most of New Spain accumulated.
This year, the Tierra Firma fleet had been comprised of eight war galleons and twenty-one merchantmen: enough to send smaller detachments to various ports of call, each with their own security contingent. The Nueva Espana fleet had numbered seventeen merchantmen and only three war galleons; not many pirates ventured into the open waters of the Gulf, where the currents were unhelpful or weak and the wind was scarce and fickle. So in total, Tromp had intercepted no fewer than thirty-eight merchantmen and eleven war galleons. There had been either three or four pataches as well, but they had slipped away during the battle.
So too had six of the rearmost naos, which were not dual-purpose ships like galleons. Built strictly for commerce, they had burthens of five hundred toneladas or more and rode out storms as well or better than galleons. However, they were even slower and so, were always kept at the rear of La Flota, where they were easiest to protect and least likely to be the first to encounter a threat.
On this day, however, that rearmost position had enabled six of the naos’ captains to decide that discretion was the better part of valor. Three must have done so within the first quarter hour of sighting the allied fleet. Despite unpromising winds, they went south as close-hauled as their rigging allowed, frantically dumping their cargo as they went. That was known only because the jacht which briefly gave chase fished out some light crates that were still be floating in their vanished wake.
The other three naos fled somewhat later. Judging from what Tower observed, their decision to do so occurred shortly after the thirteen ships of Anvil began maneuvering to cut off any chance of escape to the north. Perhaps one or more of the nao’s maintopmen had also caught sight of the jachts flying in from their picket positions as part of the detection net. That would have been more than enough evidence to convince any nao’s captain that the attackers meant to surround the entirety of La Flota. One of the merchantmen had fled southeast, another northeast, another perversely turned about and began the risky job of beating hard into what had been their strong eastern tailwind.
In the end, that dubious plan of escape proved to be no worse than the others. Tromp still had a superabundance of enemy ships to commandeer or scuttle, as well as Spanish seamen and troops to transfer to temporary mass prisons in same holds that had carried the seamen who would now sail the many prize hulls back to St. Eustatia. As it was, he could barely spare the jacht he did send in pursuit, which left so late that he had every expectation that she’d lose the nao in the dark. As she did.
The greater disappointment of the day was the need to scuttle six of the Spaniards. But first, the carpenters and bosuns among his boarding teams had to determine which ships were likely to remain afloat for at least a day or two, or had to be unloaded immediately.
That presented a slew of immediate challenges. Firstly, the four ships which were safe enough to unload had to have their complements gotten off before they could be searched and adequately assessed. Only then could a salvage team be put aboard. Meanwhile, the Spanish crew had to be transferred under guard to the overcrowded holds of Tromp’s fluyts and the capacious USE merchantman Serendipity. But that could not be effected until these temporary prison ships came alongside the smoking hulks, assisted by overtaxed steam tugs during their final approaches. Meanwhile, courier skiffs were racing to and fro between the mostly radio-less Dutch ships, whose Aldis lamps were still being reserved for combat and emergency signals. All the movement and hurry made the battle seem serene, by comparison.
Had the Dutch not had the unemployed manpower and months of training to prepare, it could not have been accomplished. And had the weather been poor or the seas too rough, all the preparation would have been for naught; salvage operations in those conditions were not merely difficult but terribly dangerous, particularly those involving cannon.
There had been considerable debate whether the Spanish guns could even be claimed from those ships which ultimately required scuttling. The Dutch did have the portable tackle required; they’d brought some from Recife and had constructed more since. Additional operators had been trained in the prior months, and they now went about their business with singular fervor. In addition to their wages, each cannon carried a bonus which went up along with its weight of throw. Besides, the mere idea of turning so many Spanish guns back upon their makers had the special savor of revenge seasoned by irony.
Even after being grounded near Dominica’s windward coast, the four ships that could be safely unloaded proved particularly treacherous when it came to disassembling and moving the largest guns, which were of course in the lower batteries. A quick consideration of the manpower available and time required decided Tromp; he would remain on Amelia and lead the rest of the fleet to rendezvous with Eddie off Guadeloupe. Meanwhile, Resolve and the remainder of Hammer would remain with the salvage teams as they undertook the careful extraction of the guns. The other stores and supplies of the four grounded hulks would be removed first and transferred to the rest of the fleet, however. Because, if the weather turned and the waves grew, the stricken ships might be floated off the bottom and driven onto rocks, or crushed down by high waves that could either roll them or break them up.
The last two of the six ships to be scuttled were two war galleons that were so badly damaged, with so many lingering fires, and such full magazines, that salvage operations would have been suicidal. So, as soon as their crews had been ordered to put down their boats and abandon their ship, the Dutch went aboard with axes and hammers to work away at the hull, and left behind long-fused and carefully tamped powder charges.
As the second scuttling charge went off with a dull crump, Tromp was watching the other one begin its death-roll. Two hours earlier it had been a scourge of the seas; now it was being taken to the benthic bosom of that same element. He sighed and glanced at the tally sheets that summarized what remained of La Flota, and hence, what his fleet had taken this day.
Of eleven war galleons, three had been sunk, two scuttled by charges immediately, and two would meet a similar fate when salvage was complete. That left four as prizes, two of which were so badly damaged that it would be months before Oranjestad’s shipwrights made them seaworthy. The pair that would be ready for service sooner were the two survivors of the trio that had sped toward Resolve at the start of the battle. They were by far the most handsome prizes in terms of military use, but only modestly so in terms of cargo. Of course, they shouldn’t have had any cargo at all, since the warships of La Flota were officially restricted to carrying naval stores. However, as with so many other rules imposed by the Escorial, circumvention was routinely achieved via nepotism, bribes, and/or chicanery. So the war-galleons’ cargos, while modest, were also choice.