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James Braithwaite, the Supercargo: The Story of his Adventures Ashore and Afloat

William Henry Giles Kingston

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  James Braithwaite, the Supercargo; The Story of his Adventures Ashoreand Afloat, by W.H.G. Kingston.


  This is a typical Kingston book, very skilfully written, with lots ofdifficult situations very well described. But what is worth rememberingis that it is probably the last book Kingston ever wrote, for he hadalready been diagnosed with a rapid and terminal illness, which Isuppose to have been cancer. Yet, despite the position that redoubtableauthor found himself in, he still gave us one of his very bestwell-written adventure stories.

  A supercargo is a position in the ship's crew analogous to the ship'sclerk. His work consists of knowing exactly where every item of thecargo is stowed, so that it can be put in the right place for it to bemost conveniently taken out on its arrival at its destination.

  Do read it and judge for yourself. You will find it worth the shortseven hours it takes to read aloud.





  "What's the name of the craft you want to get aboard, sir?" asked oldBob, the one-legged boatman, whose wherry I had hired to carry me out toSpithead.

  "The _Barbara_," I answered, trying to look more at my ease than I felt;for the old fellow, besides having but one leg, had a black patch overthe place where his right eye should have been, while his left arm waspartially crippled; and his crew consisted of a mite of a boy whoseactivity and intelligence could scarcely make up for his want of sizeand strength. The ebb tide, too, was making strong out of PortsmouthHarbour, and a fresh breeze was blowing in, creating a tumbling,bubbling sea at the mouth; and vessels and boats of all sizes and rigswere dashing here and there, madly and without purpose it seemed to me,but at all events very likely to run down the low narrow craft in whichI had ventured to embark. Now and then a man-of-war's boat, withhalf-a-dozen reckless midshipmen in her, who looked as if they would nothave the slightest scruple in sailing over us, would pass within a fewinches of the wherry; now a ship's launch with a party of marines,pulling with uncertain strokes like a huge maimed centipede, would comeright across our course and receive old Bob's no very complimentaryremarks; next a boatful of men-of-war's men, liberty men returning fromleave. There was no use saying anything to them, for there wasn't one,old Bob informed me, but what was "three sheets in the wind," or "halfseas over,"--in other words, very drunk; still, they managed to findtheir way and not to upset themselves, in a manner which surprised me.Scarcely were we clear of them when several lumbering dockyard lighterswould come dashing by, going out with stores or powder to the fleet atSpithead.

  Those were indeed busy times. Numerous ships of war were fitting outalongside the quays, their huge yards being swayed up, and guns andstores hoisted on board, gruff shouts, and cries, and whistles, andother strange sounds proceeding from them as we passed near. Others layin the middle of the harbour ready for sea, but waiting for their crewsto be collected by the press-gangs on shore, and to be made up withcaptured smugglers, liberated gaol-birds, and broken-down persons fromevery grade of society. Altogether, what with transports, merchantmen,lighters, and other craft, it was no easy matter to beat out withoutgetting athwart hawse of those at anchor, or being run down by the stillgreater number of small craft under way. Still it was an animated andexciting scene, and all told of active warfare.

  On shore the bustle was yet more apparent. Everybody was in movement.Yellow post-chaises conveying young captains of dashing frigates, oradmirals' private secretaries, came whirling through the streets as ifthe fate of the nation depended on their speed. Officers of all grades,from post-captains with glittering epaulets to midshipmen with whitepatches on their collars and simple cockades in their hats, werehurrying, with looks of importance, through the streets. Large placardswere everywhere posted up announcing the names of the ships requiringmen, and the advantages to be obtained by joining them: plenty of prizemoney and abundance of fighting, with consequent speedy promotion; whilefirst lieutenants, and a choice band of old hands, were near by to winby persuasion those who were protected from being pressed. Jack tars,many with pig-tails, and earrings in their ears, were rolling about thestreets, their wives or sweethearts hanging at their elbows, dressed inthe brightest of colours, huge bonnets decked with flaunting ribbons ontheir heads, and glittering brass chains, and other ornaments of glass,on their necks and arms. As I drove down the High Street I had met acrowd surrounding a ship's gig on wheels. Some fifty seamen or morewere dragging it along at a rapid rate, leaping and careering, laughingand cheering. In the stern sheets sat a well-known eccentricpost-captain with the yoke lines in his hands, while he kept bendingforward to give the time to his crew, who were arranged before him withoars outstretched, making believe to row, and grinning all the time inhigh glee from ear to ear. It was said that he was on his way to theAdmiralty in London, the Lords Commissioners having for someirregularity prohibited him from leaving his ship except in his gig onduty. Whether he ever got to London I do not know.

  On arriving at Portsmouth, I had gone to the Blue Posts, an inn of oldrenown, recommended by my brother Harry, who was then a midshipman, andwho had lately sailed for the East India station. It was an inn morepatronised by midshipmen and young lieutenants than by post-captains andadmirals. I had there expected to meet Captain Hassall, the commanderof the _Barbara_, but was told that, as he was the master of amerchantman, he was more likely to have gone to the Keppel's Head, atPortsea. Thither I repaired, and found a note from him telling me tocome off at once, and saying that he had had to return on board in ahurry, as he found that several of his men had no protection, and werevery likely to be pressed, one man having already been taken by apress-gang, and that he was certain to inform against the others. Thusit was that I came to embark at the Common Hard at Portsea, and had tobeat down the harbour.

  "Do you think as how you'd know your ship when you sees her, sir?" askedold Bob, with a twinkle in his one eye, for he had discovered my verylimited amount of nautical knowledge, I suspect. "It will be a toughjob to find her, you see, among so many."

  Now I had been on board very often as she lay alongside the quay in theThames. I had seen all her cargo stowed, knew every bale and packageand case; I had attended to the fitting-up of my own cabin, and wasindeed intimately acquainted with every part of her interior. But heroutside--that was a very different matter, I began to suspect. I sawfloating on the sea, far out in the distance, the misty outlines of ahundred or more big ships; indeed, the whole space between Portsmouthand the little fishing village of Ryde seemed covered with shipping, andmy heart sank within me at the thought of having to pick out the_Barbara_ among them.

  The evening was drawing on, and the weather did not look pleasant; stillI must make the attempt. The convoy was expected to sail immediately,and the interests of my employers, Garrard, Janrin and Company, would besacrificed should the sailing of the ship be delayed by my neglect.These thoughts passed rapidly through my mind and made me reply boldly,"We must go on, at all events. Time enough to find her out when we getthere."

  We were at that time near the mouth of the harbour, with Haslar Hospitalseen over a low sandbank, and some odd-looking sea-marks on one side,and Southsea beach and the fortifications of Portsmouth, with a church
tower and the houses of the town beyond. A line of redoubts andSouthsea Castle appeared, extending farther southward, while the smoothchalk-formed heights of Portsdown rose in the distance. As a personsuddenly deprived of sight recollects with especial clearness the lastobjects he has beheld, so this scene was indelibly impressed on my mind,as it was the last near view I was destined to have of old England formany a long day. For the same reason I took a greater interest in oldBob and his boy Jerry than I might otherwise have done. They formed thelast human link of the chain which connected me with my native land.Bob had agreed to take my letters back, announcing my safe arrival onboard--that is to say, should I ever get there. My firm reply, added tothe promise of another five shillings for the trouble he might have,raised me again in his opinion, and he became very communicative.

  We tacked close to a buoy off Southsea beach. "Ay, sir, there was apretty blaze just here not many years ago," he remarked. "Now I mind itwas in '95--that's the year my poor girl Betty died--the mother of Jerrythere. You've heard talk of the _Boyne_--a fine ship she was, ofninety-eight guns. While she, with the rest of the fleet, was at anchorat Spithead, one morning a fire broke out in the admiral's cabin, andthough officers and men did their best to extinguish it, somehow orother it got the upper hand of them all; but the boats from the otherships took most of them off, though some ten poor fellows perished, theysay. One bad part of the business was, that the guns were all loadedand shotted, and as the fire got to them they went off, some of theshots reaching Stokes Bay, out there beyond Haslar, and others fallingamong the shipping. Two poor fellows aboard the _Queen Charlotte_ werekilled, and another wounded, though she and the other ships got underway to escape mischief. At about half-past one she burnt from hercables, and came slowly drifting in here till she took the ground. Sheburnt on till near six in the morning, when the fire reached themagazine, and up she blew with an awful explosion. We knew well enoughthat the moment would come, and it was a curious feeling we had waitingfor it. Up went the blazing masts and beams and planks, and camescattering down far and wide, hissing into the water; and when we lookedagain after all was over, not a timber was to be seen."

  Bob also pointed out the spot where nearly a century before the _Edgar_had blown up, and every soul in her had perished, and also where the_Royal George_ and the brave Admiral Kempenfeldt, with eight hundredmen, had gone down several years before the destruction of the _Boyne_."Ay, sir, to my mind it's sad to think that the sea should swallow up somany fine fellows as she does every year, and yet we couldn't very welldo without her, so I suppose it's all right. Mind your head-sheets,Jerry, or she'll not come about in this bobble," he observed, as we wereabout to tack round the buoy.

  Having kept well to the eastward, we were now laying up to windward ofthe fleet. There were line-of-battle ships, and frigates, andcorvettes, and huge Indiamen as big-looking as many line-of-battleships, and large transports, and numberless merchantmen--ships andbarques, and brigs and schooners; but as to what the _Barbara_ was likeI had not an idea. I fixed on one of the largest of the Indiamen, butwhen I told old Bob the tonnage of the _Barbara_ he laughed, and saidshe wasn't half the size of the ship I pointed out.

  It was getting darkish and coming on to blow pretty fresh, and how tofind my ship among the hundred or more at anchor I could not possiblytell.

  "Well, I thought from your look and the way you hailed me that you was asea-faring gentleman, and on course you'd ha' known your own ship," saidold Bob, with a wink of his one eye. "Howsomever, we can beat aboutamong the fleet till it's dark, and then back to Portsmouth; and then,do ye see, sir, we can come out to-morrow morning by daylight and tryagain. Maybe we shall have better luck. The convoy is sure not to sailin the night, and the tide won't serve till ten o'clock at earliest."

  "This comes of dressing in nautical style, and assuming airs foreign tome," I thought to myself, though I could not help fancying that therewas some quiet irony in the old man's tone. His plan did not at allsuit my notions. I was already beginning to feel very uncomfortable,bobbing and tossing about among the ships; and I expected to becompletely upset, unless I could speedily put my foot on something morestable than the cockleshell, or rather bean-pod, of a boat in which Isat. I began to be conscious, indeed, that I must be looking likeanything but "a sea-faring gentleman."

  "But we _must_ find her," I exclaimed, with some little impetuosity; "itwill never do to be going back, and I know she's here."

  "So the old woman said as was looking for her needle in the bundle ofhay," observed old Bob, with provoking placidity. "On course she is,and we is looking for her: but it's quite a different thing whether wefinds her or not, 'specially when it gets dark; and if, as I suspects,it comes on to blow freshish there'll be a pretty bobble of a sea hereat the turn of the tide. To be sure, we may stand over to Ryde and haulthe boat up there for the night. There's a pretty decentish public onthe beach, the Pilot's Home, where you may get a bed, and Jerry and Ialways sleeps under the wherry. That's the only other thing for you todo, sir, that I sees on."

  Though very unwilling to forego the comforts of my cabin and the societyof Captain Hassall, I agreed to old Bob's proposal, provided the_Barbara_ was not soon to be found. We sailed about among the fleet forsome time, hailing one ship after another, but mine could not be found.I began to suspect at last that old Bob did not wish to find her, buthad his eye on another day's work, and pay in proportion, as he mightcertainly consider that he had me in his power, and could demand what hechose. I was on the point of giving up the search, when, as we werenear one of the large Indiamen I have mentioned, a vessel running pastcompelled us to go close alongside. An officer was standing on theaccommodation-ladder, assisting up some passengers. He hailed one ofthe people in the boat, about some luggage. I knew the voice, and,looking more narrowly, I recognised, I thought, my old schoolfellow,Jack Newall. I called him by name. "Who's that?" he exclaimed. "What,Braithwaite, my fine fellow, what brings you out here?"

  When I told him, "It is ten chances to one that you pick her outto-night," he answered. "But come aboard; I can find you a berth, andto-morrow morning you can continue your search. Depend on it your shipforms one of our convoy, so that she will not sail without you."

  I was too glad to accept Jack Newall's offer. Old Bob looked ratherdisappointed at finding me snatched from his grasp, and volunteered tocome back early in the morning, and take me on board the _Barbara_,promising in the meantime to find her out.

  The sudden change from the little boat tumbling about in the dark to theIndiaman's well-lighted cuddy, glittering with plate and glass, intowhich my friend introduced me--filled, moreover, as it was, withwell-dressed ladies and gentlemen--was very startling. She was thewell-known _Cuffnells_, a ship of twelve hundred tons, one of the finestof her class, and, curiously enough, was the very one which, two voyagesbefore, had carried my brother Frederick out to India.

  I had never before been on board an Indiaman. Everything about herseemed grand and ponderous, and gave me the idea of strength andstability. If she was to meet with any disaster, it would not be forwant of being well found. The captain remembered my brother, and wasvery civil to me; and several other people knew my family, so that Ispent a most pleasant evening on board, in the society of the nabobs andmilitary officers, and the ladies who had husbands and those who hadnot, but fully expected to get them at the end of the voyage, and theyoung cadets and writers, and others who usually formed the complementof an Indiaman's passengers in those days. Everything seemed done inprincely style on board her. She had a crew of a hundred men, acaptain, and four officers, mates, a surgeon, and purser; besidesmidshipmen, a boatswain, carpenter, and other petty officers. I wasinvited to come on board whenever there was an opportunity during thevoyage.

  "We are not cramped, you see," observed Newall, casting his eye over thespacious decks, "so you will not crowd us; and if you cannot bring usnews, we can exchange ideas."

  True to his word, old Bob came alongside
the next morning, and told methat he had found out the _Barbara_, and would put me on board in goodtime for breakfast.

  I found Captain Hassall very anxious at my non-appearance, and on thepoint of sending the second officer on shore to look for me, as it wasexpected that the convoy would sail at noon; indeed, the _Active_frigate, which was to convoy us, had Blue Peter flying at her mast-head,as had all the merchantmen.

  "You'd have time to take a cruise about the fleet, and I'll spin you noend of yarns if you like to come, sir," said old Bob, with a twinkle inhis eye, as his wherry was see-sawing alongside in a manner mostuncomfortable to a landsman.

  "No, thank you, Bob; I must hear the end of your yarns when I come backagain to old England; I'll not forget you, depend on it."

  Captain Hassall had not recovered his equanimity of temper, which hadbeen sorely ruffled at having had two of his best men taken off by apress-gang. He had arrived on board in time to save two more who wouldotherwise also have been taken. He inveighed strongly against thesystem, and declared that if it was continued he would give up Englandand go over to the United States. It certainly created a very badfeeling both among officers and men in the merchant service. While wewere talking, the frigate which was to convoy us loosed her topsails andfired a gun, followed soon after by another, as a signal to way. Themerchantmen at once began to make sail, not so quick an operation as onboard the man-of-war. The pipe played cheerily, round went the capstan,and in short time we, with fully fifty other vessels, many of themfirst-class Indiamen, with a fair breeze, were standing down Channel;the sky bright, the sea blue, while their white sails, towering upwardsto the heavens, shone in the sunbeams like pillars of snow.

  The _Barbara_ proved herself a fast sailer, and could easily keep upwith our _Active_ protector, which kept sailing round themajestic-looking but slow-moving Indiamen, as if to urge them on, as theshepherd's dog does his flock. We hove-to off Falmouth, that othervessels might join company. Altogether, we formed a numerous convoy--some bound to the Cape of Good Hope, others to different parts ofIndia--two or three to our lately-established settlements in New SouthWales, and several more to China.

  I will not dwell on my feelings as we took our departure from the land,the Lizard lights bearing north half east. I had a good many friends tocare for me, and one for whom I had more than friendship. We hadmagnificent weather and plenty of time to get the ship into order;indeed I, with others who had never been to sea, began to entertain thenotion that we were to glide on as smoothly as we were then doing duringthe whole voyage. We were to be disagreeably undeceived. A gale sprangup with little warning about midnight, and hove us almost on ourbeam-ends; and though we righted with the loss only of a spar or two, wewere tumbled about in a manner subversive of all comfort, to say theleast of it.

  When morning broke, the hitherto trim and well-behaved fleet werescattered in all directions, and several within sight received somedamage or other. The wind fell as quickly as it had risen, and duringthe day the vessels kept returning to their proper stations in theconvoy. When night came on several were still absent, but were seenapproaching in the distance. Our third mate had been aloft for sometime, and when he came into the cabin he remarked that he had countedmore sail in the horizon than there were missing vessels. Some of theparty were inclined to laugh at him, and inquired what sort of craft hesupposed they were, phantom ships or enemy's cruisers.

  "I'll tell you what, gentlemen,--I think that they are very probably thelatter," said the captain. "I have known strange things happen; vesselscut out at night from the midst of a large convoy, others pillaged andthe crews and passengers murdered, thrown overboard, or carried off. Weshall be on our guard, and have our guns loaded, and if any gentry ofthis sort attempt to play their tricks on us they will find that theyhave caught a tartar."