The Capture of the Cotton Ship by Michael Scott

The northwester still continued, with a clear blue sky, without a cloud overhead by day, and a bright, cold moon by night. It blew so hard for the three succeeding days, that we could not carry more than close-reefed topsails to it, and a reefed foresail. Indeed, toward six bells in the forenoon watch of the third day, it came thundering down with such violence, and the sea increased so much, that we had to hand the fore-topsail. This was by no means an easy job. “Ease her a bit,” said the first lieutenant,—“there,—shake the wind out of her sails for a moment, until the men get the canvas in.” Whirl, a poor fellow pitched off the lee foreyard-arm into the sea. “Up with the helm—heave him the bight of a rope.” We kept away, but all was confusion, until an American midshipman, one of the prisoners on board, hove the bight of a rope at him. The man got it under his arms, and after hauling him along for a hundred yards at the least—and one may judge of the velocity with which he was dragged through the water, by the fact that it took the united strain of ten powerful men to get him in—he was brought safely on board, pale and blue, when we found that the running of the rope had crushed in his broad chest, below his arms, as if it had been a girl’s waist, indenting the very muscles of it and of his back half an inch deep. He had to be bled before he could breathe, and it was an hour before the circulation could be restored, by the joint exertions of the surgeon and gun-room steward, chafing him with spirits and camphor, after he had been stripped and stowed away between the blankets in his hammock.

The same afternoon we fell in with a small prize to the squadron in the Chesapeake, a dismantled schooner, manned by a prize crew of a midshipman and six men. She had a signal of distress, an American ensign, with the union down, hoisted on the jury-mast, across which there was rigged a solitary lug-sail. It was blowing so hard that we had some difficulty in boarding her, when we found that she was a Baltimore pilot-boat-built schooner, of about seventy tons burden, laden with flour, and bound for Bermuda. But three days before, in a sudden squall, they had carried away both masts short by the board, and the only spar which they had been able to rig was a spare topmast, which they had jammed into one of the pumps,—fortunately she was as tight as a bottle,—and stayed it the best way they could. The captain offered to take the little fellow who had charge of her, and his crew and cargo on board, and then scuttle her; but no—all he wanted was a cask of water and some biscuit; and having had a glass of grog, he trundled over the side again, and returned to his desolate command. However, he afterwards brought his prize safe into Bermuda.

The weather still continued very rough, but we saw nothing until the second evening after this. The forenoon had been even more boisterous than any of the preceding, and we were all fagged enough with “Make sail,” and “Shorten sail,” and “All hands,” the whole day through; and as the night fell, I found myself, for the fourth time, in the maintop. The men had just lain in from the maintopsail-yard, when we heard the watch called on deck,—“Starboard watch, ahoy!”—which was a cheery sound to us of the larboard, who were thus released from duty on deck and allowed to go below.

The men were scrambling down the weather shrouds, and I was preparing to follow them, when I jammed my left foot in the grating of the top, and capsized on my nose. I had been up nearly the whole of the previous night, and on deck the whole of the day, and actively employed too, as during the greater part of it it blew a gale. I stooped down in some pain, to see what had bolted me to the grating; but I had no sooner extricated my foot than, overworked and overfatigued as I was, I fell over in the soundest sleep that ever I have enjoyed before or since, the back of my neck resting on a coil of rope, so that my head hung down within it.

The rain all this time was beating on me, and I was drenched to the skin. I must have slept for four hours or so, when I was awakened by a rough thump on the side from the stumbling foot of the captain of the top, the word having been passed to shake a reef out of the topsails, the wind having rather suddenly gone down. It was done; and now broad awake, I determined not to be caught napping again, so I descended and swung myself in on deck out of the main rigging, just as Mr. Treenail was mustering the crew at eight bells. When I landed on the quarterdeck, there he stood abaft the binnacle, with the light shining on his face, his glazed hat glancing, and the raindrops sparkling at the brim of it. He had noticed me the moment I descended.

“Heyday, Master Cringle, you are surely out of your watch. Why, what are you doing here, eh?”

I stepped up to him and told him the truth, that, being over-fatigued, I had fallen asleep in the top.

“Well, well, boy,” said he, “never mind, go below, and turn in; if you don’t take your rest, you never will be a sailor.

“But what do you see aloft?” glancing his eye upwards, and all the crew on deck, as I passed them, looked anxiously up also amongst the rigging, as if wondering what I saw there, for I had been so chilled in my snooze, that my neck, from resting in the cold on the coil of rope, had become stiffened and rigid to an intolerable degree; and although, when I first came on deck, I had, by a strong exertion, brought my caput to its proper bearings, yet the moment I was dismissed by my proper officer, I for my own comfort was glad to conform to the contraction of the muscle, whereby I once more staved along the deck, glowering up into the heavens as if I had seen some wonderful sight there.

“What do you see aloft?” repeated Mr. Treenail, while the crew, greatly puzzled, continued to follow my eyes, as they thought, and to stare up into the rigging.

“Why, sir, I have thereby got a stiff neck—that’s all, sir.”

“Go and turn in at once, my good boy—make haste, now—tell our steward to give you a glass of hot grog, and mind your hand that you don’t get sick.”

I did as I was desired, swallowed the grog, and turned in; but I could not have been in bed above an hour, when the drum beat to quarters, and I had once more to bundle out on the cold wet deck, where I found all excitement. At the time I speak of, we had been beaten by the Americans in several actions of single ships, and our discipline improved in proportion as we came to learn by sad experience that the enemy was not to be undervalued. I found that there was a ship in sight, right ahead of us—apparently carrying all sail. A group of officers were on the forecastle with night-glasses, the whole crew being stationed in dark clusters round the guns at quarters. Several of the American skippers were forward amongst us, and they were of opinion that the chase was a man-of-war, although our own people seemed to doubt this. One of the skippers insisted that she was the Hornet, from the unusual shortness of her lower masts, and the immense squareness of her yards. But the puzzle was, if it were the Hornet, why she did not shorten sail. Still this might be accounted for, by her either wishing to make out what we were before she engaged us, or she might be clearing for action. At this moment a whole cloud of studding-sails were blown from the yards as if the booms had been carrots; and to prove that the chase was keeping a bright lookout, she immediately kept away, and finally bore up dead before the wind, under the impression, no doubt, that she would draw ahead of us, from her gear being entire, before we could rig out our light sails again.

And so she did for a time, but at length we got within gun-shot. The American masters were now ordered below, the hatches were clapped on, and the word was passed to see all clear. Our shot was by this time flying over and over her, and it was evident she was not a man-of-war. We peppered away—she could not even be a privateer; we were close under her lee-quarter, and yet she had never fired a shot; and her large swaggering Yankee ensign was now run up to the peak, only to be hauled down the next moment. Hurrah! a large cotton ship, from Charleston to Bourdeaux, prize to H.M.S. Torch.

She was taken possession of, and proved to be the Natches, of four hundred tons burden, fully loaded with cotton.

By the time we got the crew on board, and the second lieutenant, with a prize crew of fifteen men, had taken charge, the weather began to lower again; nevertheless we took the prize in tow, and continued on our voyage for the next three days, without anything particular happening. It was the middle watch, when I was startled by a violent jerking of my hammock, and a cry “that the brig was amongst the breakers.” I ran on deck in my shirt, where I found all hands, and a scene of confusion such as I never had witnessed before. The gale had increased, yet the prize had not been cast off, and the consequence was, that by some mismanagement or carelessness, the sway of the large ship had suddenly hove the brig in the wind, and taken the sails aback. We accordingly fetched stern away, and ran foul of the prize, and there we were, in a heavy sea, with our stern grinding against the cotton ship’s high quarter.

The mainboom, by the first rasp that took place after I came on deck, was broken short off, and nearly twelve feet of it hove right in over the taffrail; the vessels then closed, and the next rub ground off the ship’s mizzen channel as clean as if it had been sawed away. Officers shouting, men swearing, rigging cracking, the vessels crashing and thumping together, I thought we were gone, when the first lieutenant seized his trumpet—“Silence, men; hold your tongues, you cowards, and mind the word of command!”

The effect was magical. “Brace round the foreyard; round with it—set the jib—that’s it—foretopmast staysail—haul—never mind if the gale takes it out of the bolt rope”—a thundering flap, and away it flew in truth down to leeward, like a puff of white smoke. “Never mind, men, the jib stands. Belay all that—down with the helm, now don’t you see she has stern way yet? Zounds! we shall be smashed to atoms if you don’t mind your hands, you lubbers—main-topsail sheets let fly—there she pays off, and has headway once more, that’s it—right your helm now—never mind his spanker-boom, the fore-stay will stand it—there—up with helm, sir—we have cleared him—hurrah!” And a near thing it was too, but we soon had everything snug; and although the gale continued without any intermission for ten days, at length we ran in and anchored with our prize in Five Fathom Hole, off the entrance to St. George’s Harbor.

It was lucky for us that we got to anchor at the time we did, for that same afternoon, one of the most tremendous gales of wind from the westward came on that I ever saw. Fortunately it was steady and did not veer about, and having good ground-tackle down, we rode it out well enough. The effect was very uncommon; the wind was howling over our mastheads, and amongst the cedar bushes on the cliffs above, while on deck it was nearly calm, and there was very little swell, being a weather shore; but half a mile out at sea all was white foam, and the tumbling waves seemed to meet from north and south, leaving a space of smooth water under the lee of the island, shaped like the tail of a comet, tapering away, and gradually roughening and becoming more stormy, until the roaring billows once more owned allegiance to the genius of the storm. Then we rode, with three anchors ahead, in safety through the night; and next day, availing of a temporary lull, we ran up, and anchored off the Tanks. Three days after this, the American frigate President was brought in by the Endymion, and the rest of the squadron.