THE CHIMNEY CORNER.
* A STRANGE CAPTURE. Some years ago, I commanded one of Her Britannic Majesty’s Dispatch gun vessels, stationed on the west coast of Africa for the suppression of the slave trade. In the course of two years thus engaged we had, as usual, done very little good, and lost a great number of men by coast fever and sickness generally. A few vessels had been captured, but many more had slipped through our fingers, by reason of the treachery of the informers on shore, most of whom eventually proved to be in the pay and interests of the slave-dealers. The slave captains, too, had become very knowing ; they were mostly old hands at the business, and contrived to give us the slip in many different ways. For instance, in chasing them on a dark night, they would show a bright light over the stern, and after we had followed this for some hours would drop a large cask with a lighted lantern fitted to it, at the same instant putting out their own light. It was easy for them then to alter their course so as to double back and sail away in the darkness, leaving us intent on watching their false light. This stratagem generally succeeded when the nights were very dark. Or, when hotly pursued in the daytime they frequently practised a most inhuman trick to increase their distance. When we were close upon them they used to throw a slave overboard with a plank for him to cling to, or very often without even that. They well knew that a British man-of-war would not pass a poor wretch struggling in the water and leave him to drown. Thus, whilst sail was being shortened, the ship hove to, boats lowered, the man picked up, and the vessel got on her course again, they contrived to get a fine start ahead, for these manoeuvres, even in the smartest ship, will take some considerable time ; and in this way, as much ground was lost as would take many hours to recover, for a stern chase is a long one.
The luck had been against us for a long time, and after many false informations and fruitless chases, wo succeeded in capturing a slaver in a most singular manner, without any chase at all. It happened in this way. One fine morning, when cruising off the coasts of Loango and Congo, the officer of the watch reported a strange sail in sight. I went on deck, took my glass, and there, surely enough, was a very suspicious-looking craft'right ahead. It was a dead calm, and we soon steamed up to her. She was a clipper barque of about four hundred tons. From her taut spars great clouds of snowy canvas flapped heavily against the rigging as her long low hull rolled slowly from side to side on the glassy surface of the heaving ground swell. Judging by her rakish appearance, and by her being a great deal out of the usual trackof homeward or outward bound vessels—in'fact, being in a very suspicious locality— one naturally came to the con elusion that she must be a slaver. I hoped very soon to have the pleasure of lifting her hatches to ascertain whether this assumpion were correct or no. As a preliminary step, the demand to show her colours.was made ; to my great annoyance she hoisted the stars and stripes of America. This precluded the right of search. However, I resolved to board her, and try and detect some signs of her having a black cargo. With that object in view I had the gig manned, and in a few minutes was alongside the doubtful craft.
The captain, a tall, gaunt Yankee, received me at the gangway, and, without waiting to be asked, produced his papers, which seemed to be all regular enough. The barque was the Independance, of Boston, Massachusetts, Robert Stormont, master, from Hew York to the Cape of Good Hope and back on a trading voyage. She was now homeward bound, and was twenty-seven days out from the Cape, so the captain informed me. Having taxed him with being out of the usual route, he explained that this was a new notion of his—he kept well over to the eastward so as to make a fair wind of the north-east trades, when he should meet them. Whilst pointing out to him the fallacy of this idea, I took a few turns up and down the deck with him, and succeeded in drawing him into a long argument. Whilst thus engaged, I noticed that all the hatches were indeed battened tightly down ; but that there were no things stowed’ on the top of them, as is usually the case in merchant vessels whose hatches are never required to be opened during the voyage. This strengthened my suspicions, and from the captain’s eagerness to satisfy all my enquiries, I had very little doubt as to the nature of his cargo. It was certain that if he had slaves on board, those hatches could not remain closed for an hour without suffocating them. If they were opened during that time, the presence of slaves would be easily perceptible, and in that case the vessel would be a lawful prize. Considering these things, I sat on the taffrail, and taking out a bundle of choice Havannahs, proposed a smoke. This the Yankee agreed to, and we smoked away and got tolerably social, although at the same time it was amusing to see how very fidgety he was getting.
In the course of conversation it turned out that fhe had been in China, and as that was the last station on which I had served we were enabled to compare notes on that subject. He interested me very much by giving an account of the clever way in which ho suppressed a mutiny that broke out in his ship on her last voyage. It appeared that he was chartered to take three hundred Chinese coolies, the very dregs of the population, from Hong Kong to California. It occurred to these Celestial vagabonds, some time after the vessel had put to sea, to murder the officers and crew and run away with the ship. In order to effect their purpose they adopted a highly ingenious expedient. Several large bonfires were made on the lower deck an a cry of “ Fire fire,” was raised ; the Chinamen thinking that the officer and crew would rush down to extinguish the fires, and then they would be easily able to fall upon them with their knives, and murder them all simultaneously. But our friend the captain, far too wide awake for that, simply hadjall the hatches battened down, and smothered the Chinamen in their smoke. When they were sufficiently choked and thus reduced to subjection, he demanded that they should deliver up the ringleaders of the mutiny. This they did, and without any trial he hung them six in number, at he foreyard arm the same day. We continued thus, spinning yarns and smoking for some time longer, when a breeze sprang up, and the Yankee, thinking to shake me off, said—- “ Wa’al, stranger, guess we’ve got wind at last. I’m sorry you must say good-bye, but I reckon I must fill away and go on my course, for I can’t afford to be stopping here all the day talking.” “ Don’t mention it, my dear friend,” I replied. “You see there is no necessity for that. I may just as well go your way as any other, for I’m anly cruising. Here take another cigar and settle down again.” I then shouted to the first lieutenant to keep within hail, on the same course as the barque. Upon this the Yankee’s long sallow face darkened and grew longer ; he ■was evidently much put out. He certainly did not appear to appreciate this act of courtesy on my part. I kept on talking, and tried to involve him in another argument, anything for an excuse to pass the time. But he was trying equally hard to put an end to the conver-
sation by sullenly replying “yes” or “no” to everything, and never volunteering a remark or comment of his own. But, in nowise put out by his broad hints, I commenced a series of long-winded stories, keeping him at the same time well supplied with cigars. It was delightful to see how excessively nervous and fidgety he was. He well knew that if this lasted much longer his cargo would not be worth much ; so }ie kept on giving me the strongest hints to go, all of which I pretended not to understand. At length he appeared to be losing his temper, and the more cross he got the more obtusely good-natured and urbane I became.
1 now very quickly brought matters to an issue by hailing the gig that was towed astern.
“ Gig there.” “ Sir,” replied the coxswain. “ Go on board and get your dinners, and tell the first lieutenant to send the boat back with some more cigars in an hour’s time, and say that I found the captain such a remarkably agreeable man that I intend to spend the afternoon with him. D’you understand ? ” “ Ay, ay, sir.” When our friend the Yankee heard this he let fly a volley of oaths, and then said resignedly—- “ Guess it’s no use, captain. I’m fairly smoked out this time ; the ship’s yours, I reckon,” and then, turning to the mate, “ Here, Nathan, haul down that flag and git them hatches up and let them unfort’nit cusses git some air, for I reckon they’re smothered pretty considerable. This is a dodge I never heered tell on afore.”
She had nearly six hundred slaves on board. lam glad to say none died of suffocation through my ruse. She was the best prize that we took during that commission.
Permanent link to this item
THE CHIMNEY CORNER., Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 85, 10 April 1880
THE CHIMNEY CORNER. Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 85, 10 April 1880
Using This Item
See our copyright guide for information on how you may use this title.