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“Nothing could have pleased me more. In those days everyone in our village had heard stories of men who had shipped out to the Indies and returned covered in gold and precious gems. I have, senhor, a true love of the sea. I worked hard, learned, and I did well.
“It was mid September, and we sweltered in the hot breath at the tail end of the southwest monsoon. My ship, the Santo Inez, a small but sturdy two-masted caravel, was outbound from our enclave at Goa with a cargo of powder and shot for the Portuguese forts at Madras. By this time, though I was only twenty-five, I was second in command, the piloto.
The captain smiled at me with a buccaneer’s gleam in his eye. Here was a man who was actually doing what I longed to do--traveling, seeing the world! I leaned back against the warm stones and listened with rapt attention.
“We ran the ship along the Malabar Coast with plans to put in at the Indian ports of Mangalore, Karnaqapalli, and, perhaps, Trivandrum to look for trading opportunities and with luck to catch the beginnings of the northeast monsoon. We planned to round Cape Comorin and make our way north along the coast to Madras. The breeze held a steady southwest at fifteen knots for many days, but on the afternoon of our sixteenth day, it suddenly began to veer southeast and freshen. This was not unexpected. Toward the end of the monsoon season, the wind becomes like a woman, fickle and difficult to predict.
“Our ship, she was running downwind, and as the wind grew stronger, the captain reduced sail. The Santo Inez was square rigged. I am not sure, Senhor Tavernier, how familiar you are with our Portuguese ships. They can be square rigged like your cogs, or lateen rigged like an Arab dhow. The square rig is perfect for running downwind; the lateen allows us to sail upwind, which your square-rigged vessels are not able to do. This is why we Portuguese were the first to round the cape and to sail to the Indies.
I looked at my father, who smiled, winked, and turned back to Captain Santos.
“The sky turned to lead, and the wind blew stronger. Toward evening, huge seas began to batter our stern, slipping beneath the hull and causing the ship to buck like an unbroken horse. The wind continued to freshen, growl, and then to howl. The ship’s waist was awash, and the seas broke over our poop. The wind drove us further and further south, and, as I said, with the square rig we had little choice but to hold steady and run directly before the blast.
“The storm lasted for ten days, and as it began to blow itself out, we found ourselves at night in unfamiliar waters. After spending many days and nights on deck, I rolled exhausted into my hammock for an hour’s sleep between watches. To the east, the next morning, we could just make out the outline of land shrouded in blue mist. I thought it must be an island.
“Two days sailing with the shoreline in view made it clear that this was a large landmass. I altered course toward the land, hoping to find a settlement or a landmark that would help me to fix our position. After almost a month at sea, we were short of fresh water. Alfonso, the ship’s boy, was about ten years old and had the sharpest eye on board—much like your son, full of life. I ordered him into the main crosstrees to keep a lookout for signs of water, a stream or river where we could fill our casks.
My father turned to me with a smile. “You hear, Jean-Baptiste? Would you like to be a cabin boy, go to sea? Perhaps the captain could be persuaded to take you with him.”
I sat up straight: “Oh yes, father, I am ready.”
“Ha, ha, did you hear that, Captain? Could you use a boy who gets seasick on the ferry crossing the Seine”?
“Father,” I protested, my face turning scarlet. “That is not true, and besides it was only once, and the day was very windy.”
Captain Santos lifted his hand and gestured for quiet. He looked at me appraisingly.
“Hmm, he is still young, yet, senhor, and skinny. Perhaps in a year or two. How old are you, boy?”
“I am nine.”
“Nine next month”! my father interjected. “Enough, Jean-Baptiste. Please continue, Captain.”
The captain rubbed his chin. “Hmm, yes, well, no more than an hour passed when Alfonso called down. He had spotted a stream flowing into a narrow sandy cove a point or two off the starboard bow. Through the glass I could make out a cluster of unfamiliar looking trees growing along a riverbank. Beyond the watercourse for miles in either direction all that could be seen was a deserted stretch of rock-strewn beach with no sign of any sort of village or settlement.
“We had no idea what country this was or what manner of people we might encounter. Still we needed water. The Captain decided upon caution. We would stand offshore and send the ship’s boat with myself as coxswain to reconnoiter the shore. I chose six oarsmen. My first choice was Da Silva, the bosun, a lanky black-haired brute of a man with a livid scar running halfway around his throat, the souvenir of an unsuccessful attempt on the part of the Indian officials to hang him. Alfonso begged to go along, so I put him in the bow as lookout.
As I listened to Captain Santos story, I closed my eyes and the sky turned blue. I could hear the harsh cry of gulls and smell the sharp tang of the sea. I was the lookout.
“I armed the crew with musket and cutlass. As an officer, I carried my personal weapon, a rapier of good Toledo steel that had fallen from the hand of a dying hidalgo, or so he called himself.”
Captain Santos smiled wolfishly; a single gold tooth gleamed in the firelight. “The man insulted me, then foolishly tried to draw the long blade in the close quarters of a ship’s passageway.”
He shook his head. “You must understand, senhor, every Portuguese butcher’s son, once he rounds the Cape of Good Hope, is magically transformed into an aristocrat and demands to be addressed as Dom. Such foolishness, no? A nobleman indeed! Was I to bow my head to the son of a butcher? No, but I was still a young man and hot headed. My dagger was buried in his guts before he could clear his scabbard.”
He shrugged. “It seemed a shame to waste such an excellent blade, but I did not wish to make the same mistake as the late hidalgo. I had the blade shortened for shipboard use by an armorer in Goa, who also made me a fine dagger with the remains.”
Captain Santos returned to his story.
“The cove was narrow, but there was enough water for the Santo Inez to anchor just within the shelter of the headlands, which would protect her from the north, south, and east.
“To the left and right of the river, there was a rocky beach two-cable lengths in width. Fringing the beach, an unbroken line of dunes stretched as far as one could see in both directions. The dunes were so high they blocked our view into the interior. The only touch of color in this dun-hued vista was the small copse of spindly trees grouped on either bank of the river.
“The trouble began as our prow scraped up on the shore. The ship’s arrival had been observed. A large party of natives appeared on the peak of a dune. I raised my glass to get a better look. There were about twenty of the devils, some armed with spears, others with clubs. They trotted toward us.
“These were people such as I had never seen before. First of all, senhor, they were black and wooly headed like Africans, but unlike African men, who are often huge and muscular, these men were short, bandy-legged with broad squashed noses, thick lips, and deep set eyes. There were a few women, with flat teats that dangled almost…” He abruptly stopped speaking and looked in my direction! “Ah, senhor, I ask your pardon,” he said. “Perhaps these are matters that should not be discussed in front of the boy”?
My father laughed, then stared for a moment into the fire and slowly shook his head. “No Captain, continue. My son will someday be a man of the world. Such things are, I fear, an important part of his education. It is necessary that he see things as they are.”
My heart swelled with pride at hearing my father’s words: “Father, I…!”
My father raised a restraining hand. “Jean-Baptiste, two more logs, if you please. The fire grows dim and not one word to your mother, not one about what you hear tonight.”
He picked up the bottle: “Senhor, your glass stands empty, and talking is thirsty work.” Our guest gratefully accepted another portion of brandy and raised his glass in a toast to his host. The logs blazed and the two men drank while I squirmed in my seat, impatient for the captain to resume telling his story.
“Ah, that is better! An excellent brandy,” he said with a smile and a wink in my direction. “And now where was I? Oh yes, Madre de Deos, senhor, how does one describe such people?
“The natives stopped about fifty paces from us and started doing some sort of dance—shouting and cavorting and making threatening gestures with their spears. We could understand nothing of their barbarous gibberish, but it was very clear that they desired us to leave, and, if we did not, they proposed to attack us. I stepped forward and attempted with sign language to signal our peaceful intent. My efforts were ignored.
“One man, perhaps the leader, rushed forward several steps, stopped and began shaking his spear, and pointed toward the ship. He was the ugliest of the lot, covered in dung with idolatrous symbols painted all over his face and body. These hostiles seemed not at all interested in any sort of parlay. The group paused a moment, then started forward in a body to join their leader. Something had to be done before they came within spear range.
“My best tactic—allowing them within range of our muskets but keeping beyond the range of their spears—was not working. The savages edged ever closer. They appeared to be working up the nerve to charge us. I remember thinking that they probably had never seen a musket. I turned to Da Silva and ordered him to fire over the head of the chief, who continued to cut his capers, muttering and dancing about like a rabid monkey.
“The bosun smiled, lifted his musket, aimed, and fired. The gun’s report paralyzed the devils. The chief opened his mouth as if to speak, staggered, and cupped his hand around the wound that sprouted like a red blossom over his heart. He reeled once and toppled over on his back. Seeing their headman sprawled out on the beach, the savages broke ranks and took to their heels, running until they were lost from view over the top of a dune. The boat crew cheered!
“’Silencio !’ I bellowed, staring into the bosun’s eyes. ’Da Silva, I ordered you to fire over the man’s head, did I not’?
“The bosun stared back at me as if I were an idiot. I repeated the question.
“He shrugged. ’I do not understand, Senhor Piloto. The savage was about to attack you. I acted only to save your life.’
“I heard a snicker or two from behind me. ’Silencio’! I ordered again glaring at Da Silva.
“The bosun had killed the native as one would swat a fly with no thought of remorse. What could I say? I was within a hair’s breadth of ordering the same thing myself.
Perhaps he was right. As the padres say, such creatures are damned, and it is no sin to kill them, but something in me balked at killing a man in cold blood, no matter that he was a savage. This was something I could not say to my men, you understand, they would think me weak or, worse, a fool. Still, it hurt my pride. I ordered them back to the boat.
“Capitan Rodrigo walked over to where I stood at the rail, brooding, watching the men ferry our casks back and forth to the river. He clapped me on the back. ’I believe we put the wrath of God into those savages, eh, Fernando’?
“’I wonder, capitan, It seems too easy.’
“’Have you seen anything more of the creatures’?
“’No, Dom Rodrigo, I have seen nothing. Perhaps they are waiting for the night.’
“’Yes, perhaps.’ The captain set his jaw. He might have been a handsome man, but his face had been cruelly marked by the pox. ’I have ordered the two starboard cannon to be loaded and I will set a watch.’ He stroked his chin. ’If they come back, we will be ready. A round of grape will put the fear of God in them.’
“’You are wise to take precautions, Dom Rodrigo.”
“The capitan nodded and slapped his palm on the rail, his gaze traveling up and down the rocky beach. ‘They will not be back, believe me. They have lost their leader. It will take time to pick another. I will send a hunting party ashore. Jorge is a steady man. He will lead them. We need fresh meat, Fernando. I am sick to death of salt pork.’
“The captain’s plan gave me a bad feeling. I started to argue, to make a protest. ‘But, Dom Rodrigo, we know nothing of the interior of this country. There may be thousands of savages just beyond those dunes.’
“’Thousands? I do not think so. I sent Alfonso to the maintop. His young eyes see nothing. Look at this God forsaken land, Fernando. Madre de Deos, what would they live on, hey?’
“Our hunting party returned at sundown with Alfonso running far in the lead, as usual.
“’Alfonso, have you seen any sign of the savages’?
“’No, Senhor Piloto.’
“Captain Rodrigo smiled. ’There you see, Fernando. They are still running, ha, ha.’
“The party had bagged two odd furred creatures that looked like a cross between a giant rat and a rabbit. Jorge, the second mate, swore that it stood upright like a man and hopped along, making great strides on its muscular rear legs. The animal had shown no fear, and it had been easy work to put a musket ball through its head.
“The prospect of fresh meat put all hands in a festive mood. The captain detailed two men to remain on board, one on deck and the other in the crosstrees as a lookout. The rest of the crew went ashore. The men gathered drift wood and built a large fire on the beach. In the general merriment, the confrontation with the savages was all but forgotten. This was to prove a terrible error.
“The meat was tough and stringy, but it was meat, and after four weeks of salt-pork and ship’s biscuit, it tasted like the finest beef. A keg of rum made its way ashore. This was a bad mistake, senhor. Stupido! We were intruders in an unknown land among hostile savages, but Dom Rodrigo ignored it.
“When I was a young man, senhor, I slept like the dead. I would fall asleep and know nothing until the morning, but, this night I could not sleep. And since that night, I have slept like a cat. Every breeze, every change in the motion of my ship, I feel it.
“There was little wind that night. The sea lapped gently upon the sand, and the moon was about to set. The men were lying down to sleep; I left the fire and wandered up the beach to bathe in the warm sea.
“This night was sultry. The sky overflowed with stars, and the heavens looked like an upturned bowl or a knitted cap pulled down over the brow of the world. I walked along the sand just at the water’s edge, feeling the warm seawater lapping and sucking about my ankles. I stripped off my clothes and swam out beyond the breaker line, turned over on my back, floated, and studied the sky.
“A pilot uses the sky; I love it like a man loves a woman. To look at it brings me closer to God. In this place, the constellations were all wrong. Many I had never seen before. One I remember was very beautiful, four bright stars almost directly overhead formed a perfect cross. We had come, senhor, very far south. Perhaps to the Terra Incognita that is marked on the charts. I do not know, but, then, what else could it have been? If it was an island, it was a very large one. And the people! I have visited many places, remote islands, places few white men have seen, but Madre de Deos, I have yet to see any people who look like these, with nothing on, naked, covered in filth, just as God or, maybe the Devil, had made them.
“Just then I had a feeling—I cannot explain it—like a cold finger running down my back. Something was wrong at the camp. I stopped and listened, but I could hear nothing.
I swam to shore, threw on my clothes, picked up my pistols, and began to run up the beach. The moon had set, and all was dark. This was bad. It meant our sentries had gone to sleep and let the fire die down. But, I knew, senhor, something was not right. I was young, strong and much lighter than I am today. I ran as swiftly as I could.
“At first I could see nothing amiss. The fire still emitted a faint glow, which, added to the bright starlight, made it possible to pick out large details. Then I noticed many large dark clumps surrounding the perimeter of the camp. They looked like bushes, but there were no bushes on this beach. Half a cable length away, I could see they were men, many men.
“Running at full speed, I cocked my pistol and fired into the first clump. The shot ripped through the still night like a clap of thunder. The bush became the shape of a man, screamed, and fell to the ground. Another shape loomed up in front of me. My second shot caught the savage square in the face and threw those nearby into confusion. It also woke up the camp. The attackers scattered left and right, panicked by the pistol shots. I ran into the camp and grabbed some dead branches and threw them on the fire. Flames blazed up, illuminating a lurid scene of confusion and death.
“My shots only stunned the savages for a few moments. They quickly resumed their attack with spears, rocks, and clubs. They had planned well and held the advantage of surprise and numbers. There must have been a hundred at the least. Some of my men had gained their feet, but they were groggy from drink, and I saw several shipmates broken on the sand, the black blood gleaming in the star light. I found my bedroll and snatched up my rapier just in time to parry a spear thrust. I impaled the bastard on the point of my sword, then wheeled right and slashed the throat of another.
“The battle became a series of images momentarily caught in the firelight. Shapes rose and fell, danced together briefly then separated. Screams of pain and rage pierced the night. Some of the men grappled blindly with attackers, who swarmed over them like flies on a dead fish. One or two of our men managed to grab muskets, and several of the savages lay writhing on the sand. Da Silva, who earlier seemed dead drunk, clubbed one of the savages to the ground with the his musket, then roaring like a rabid beast, picked up another and broke him over his knee like a rotten stick. A few of our men were up and fighting with cutlass and dirk. The fight seemed to go on forever, but in fact lasted barely half a glass.
“I inflicted the greatest damage with the point of my rapier, using its length in a classic stoccata lunga to slip through my opponent’s guard and stick him like a ripe melon. A thrust to a depth of only three fingers into a vulnerable part—the throat, the heart—is all it takes to kill a man. During the time it takes to extract a stubborn blade from a deep thrust, a man is virtually defenseless. In a fight against several attackers, this can lead to his ruin.
“From the ship they could see that a fight was going on. Our gunner, thanks be to God, was officer of the deck, and, though half-drunk himself, he had the presence of mind to take the action that preserved us.
“The moon had set and with only the light from the fire, the gunner could not really tell what was happening. He dared not fire with grape lest he destroy our own people, so he levered up the gun that had been loaded with ball, aimed the shot well over our heads and touched off the fuse. The cannon belched a tongue of flame. The explosion, coming from so close inshore, was deafening. For the savages it was as if a thunderbolt had been hurled from the heavens. They froze, dropped their weapons, and ran like the Devil himself was at their heels.”
As the captain finished his story I found that I was almost out of breath, and the sweat rolled down my face. How could such a story fail to stir a young man’s blood? This was so much more than words drawn upon a map. From that day, I knew my destiny.