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From Bristol to Cape Horn

The Duke and Dutchess had been moored alongside the Quay at Bristol to receive the bulk of their stores and provisions. Situated in the heart of the medieval city, the Quay was reckoned to be one of the finest and busiest in the world. On either side of the long, narrow waterway was a dense cluster of houses, shops, warehouses and churches. Visitors arriving at the Quay were confronted by a mass of people ‘running up and down with cloudy looks and busy faces, loading, carrying and unloading goods and merchandizes of all sorts from place to place’.1 The quayside was lined with wooden cranes, and was full of barrels, bales, casks and teams of horses drawing sledges loaded with heavy goods. The poet Alexander Pope was astonished by the sight of what appeared to be a street full of the masts of hundreds of ships: ‘The street is fuller of them, than the Thames from London Bridge to Deptford, and at certain times only, the water rises to carry them out; so that at other times, a long street full of ships in the middle and houses on both sides looks like a dream.’2

In mid-June 1708 the Duke and Dutchess left the Quay and were towed down the winding River Avon, through the Avon Gorge and out to the anchorage at Kingroad in the great expanse of the Severn Estuary. Lighters and barges could still bring the remaining stores out to the ships but reluctant seamen were prevented from deserting. On Tuesday 2 August, at about four in the afternoon, the two ships weighed anchor and, in company with nine merchant ships, they crept downstream. The wind was so light that they continued to be towed until they dropped anchor in Bridgwater Bay, beyond the tiny island of Steep Holm. Around midnight the wind increased. They set sail and at six in the morning they ran past the village of Minehead, the ships heeling before a brisk south-easterly breeze.

With inexperienced crews and his ships ‘out of trim, and everything in disorder’, Rogers noted that the other merchant vessels sailed much better. This was a concern because a French warship of 46 guns was reported to be cruising in the vicinity and the two privateers were in no fit state to put up a fight. The ships were kept cleared for action but there was no sign of the warship and on 5 August they sighted the coast of Ireland. An incompetent Kinsale pilot nearly ran the Duke ashore in foggy, blowy weather but Rogers over-ruled him and on the afternoon of 7 August they rounded Cork Head and came to anchor in the Cove (Cobh in Irish), the outer harbour of the city of Cork. Here they stayed for the next three weeks. Noblett Rogers provided them with more seamen and the remaining provisions needed. They improved the trim of the ships and during a spell of fine weather they heeled them over and cleaned and tallowed them below the waterline. By the end of August they had a full complement of men and twice the number of officers usual on privateers, ‘to prevent mutinies, which often happen in long voyages’.

They had set sail from Bristol with 117 men on the Duke and 108 on the Dutchess, but some forty of them deserted or were dismissed at Cork. The additional men recruited in the Irish port made up the numbers to 183 on the Duke and 151 on the Dutchess. Rogers noted that one-third of the seamen were foreigners and the British recruits included tinkers, tailors, hay-makers, pedlars, fiddlers, one Negro and about ten boys. He was, however, optimistic that this mixed bunch would prove to be adequate once they had got their sea legs and been taught the use of firearms.

At ten o’clock on the morning of 1 September the Duke and Dutchess and twenty outward-bound merchant ships set sail from Cork. They were escorted by HMS Hastings, which kept them company until they were clear of any French privateers cruising in the Atlantic approaches. Although deeply laden with stores the two ships now sailed as well as any others in the fleet. On the fourth day the warship’s commander, Captain Paul, invited the senior officers of the two Bristol ships to join him for a meal aboard his ship, ‘where we were very handsomely treated’. When they parted on 6 September they gave him a salute with their guns which he returned, and wished them a prosperous undertaking.

A week after leaving Cork the Duke and Dutchess were 184 miles due west of Cape Finisterre and on their own except for the Crown-Galley, a small vessel which was bound for Madeira. ‘Now we begin to consider the length of our voyage,’ Rogers wrote, ‘and the many different climates we must pass, and the excessive cold which we cannot avoid, going about Cape Horn.’3 It was agreed at a council meeting that they should get in a good stock of strong liquor at Madeira as the men would prefer that to warm clothing. And then, eleven days out from Cork, Rogers had the first serious test of his leadership. The cause was a ship flying a Swedish flag which they had intercepted and searched. Rogers could find no reason to take her as a prize and decided to let her go on her way. This caused a mutiny among his men which was led by Giles Cash, the boatswain of the Duke. Rogers’ response was to whip one of the mutineers and put ten others in irons. They remained in irons for several days on a diet of bread and water, with sentries guarding them. Cash was sent aboard the Crown-Galley in irons to be put ashore at Madeira.

With light and contrary winds holding up their progress, they decided to miss Madeira and press on to the Canary Islands. On 18 September they saw the great mountain peak of Tenerife on the horizon to the south-west, and the next day, as they were passing the island of Grand Canary (Gran Canaria), they chased and captured their first prize. This was a small Spanish bark of twenty-five tons with forty-five passengers on board, including women and four friars from one of the neighbouring islands. The passengers were greatly relieved to find that their captors were English, and not Turkish corsairs, who would have sent them off to the slave markets of Morocco. At this date there were many more white Christian slaves confined in the Barbary states of North Africa than there were black African slaves labouring in the plantations of the New World.4

With fair weather and a stiff breeze the Duke and Dutchess headed for Tenerife to obtain a ransom for their prize and her cargo. Carleton Vanbrugh, the shipowners’ agent, insisted on going ashore with the Spanish master of the bark in order to carry out the negotiations. Rogers, against his better judgement, let him go and was proved right when the next day a boat came out to them from the town of La Orotava with a flag of truce and a letter to say that unless the English privateers restored the bark and her cargo they would detain Vanbrugh. Rogers and Captain Courtney sent a firm but courteous letter back making it clear that Vanbrugh must be released and a ransom paid or they would sail away with the bark and the passengers, who were their prisoners. Failing to get a satisfactory answer to this, Rogers and Courtney warned the Vice-Consul of the island that at eight the next morning they ‘would visit the town with their guns’. This had the desired effect and promptly at 8 a.m. a boat came out to the privateers with Vanbrugh on board, as well as an English merchant from the town and a ransom in the form of wine, grapes and hogs. The captured vessel was sold to the English merchant for 450 dollars, the passengers were released with their belongings and the four friars had their books, crucifixes and relics returned to them.

On 22 September the two privateers set sail for the Cape Verde Islands, some 900 miles south-west of Tenerife. The weather being fair and the seas calm, Rogers invited Captain Courtney and three of his officers to dine with him on the Duke. After their meal they held a council meeting to discuss the taking of the Spanish bark and the subsequent negotiations. It was concluded that ‘we do all approve of all that was transacted’. However, while they were still gathered in the great cabin, Carleton Vanbrugh complained that Captain Rogers had not treated him as he ought to have done. Determined to avoid any future misunderstandings, Rogers immediately put his complaint to the council, who ‘adjudged the said Mr Vanbrugh to be much in the wrong’. The unusually democratic regime on the two ships, with their frequent council meetings to determine and approve all major actions, sometimes made life difficult for Rogers, but this minor incident showed that he was often able to use the meetings to get his own way and impose his will on recalcitrant members of the crew.

It took them nine days to reach St Vincent (São Vicente), one of the smallest of the ten Cape Verde islands. Rogers’ description of their arrival is typical of many passages in his book of the voyage, based as it is on his daily logbook or journal. Written in the language of a seaman, it contains useful information for mariners who may follow in his tracks:

At ten o’clock we anchored in the Bay of St Vincent in five fathom of water. ’Tis a fine bay: the northmost point bore north near a mile distant and the westermost point bore west distant about two miles: Monks Rock, which is like a sugar-loaf, high and round, and bold on every side, lies almost in the entrance of this fine sandy bay. Sailors must be careful as they come in, not to run too near under the high land of the north point, for fear of being becalmed, and sudden flaws coming every way upon ’em.5

He noted that there was a constant trade wind blowing from the north-east, except from October to January, when ‘it sometimes blows southerly with tornadoes and rain’.

While boats were sent ashore to fill up their empty water casks, Joseph Alexander, who was a linguist, was despatched to the nearby island of St Antonio (Santo Antão) with a letter to the local governor and a shopping list which included cattle, goats, pigs, chickens, melons, potatoes, limes, brandy and tobacco. Using the prize goods from the Spanish bark as payment they succeeded in obtaining everything they needed. The only problem was that Alexander had disappeared – he had presumably decided that he preferred the delights of a tropical island to facing the rigours of Cape Horn. As always the matter was put to the vote of the council and it was unanimously agreed that it was better to leave him behind than to hold up the voyage waiting for one man who had disobeyed orders.

On 8 October they put to sea, loaded with fresh provisions, full water casks and wood for the galley fires. They had originally intended to head for Trinidad but decided that it was such a small island that they might miss it. Instead they set a course for the Portuguese island of Grande in Brazil, which lies on the Tropic of Capricorn sixty miles west of Rio de Janeiro. Dampier had called there in 1703 while in command of the St George and knew there was a safe anchorage where they could stock up with firewood and fresh water.

For six weeks the two ships sailed south across the empty expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. There were days of calms with sudden showers of rain, and days of fresh gales and overcast skies. At last, on the afternoon of 18 November, they sighted land and rounding a headland which they took to be Cape Frio, they came to anchor in 22 fathoms. They were at the eastern end of a large island which lay across the entrance of a great bay. The high, upper slopes of the island were thickly wooded and an unbroken mass of trees came right down to the water’s edge. The next day Dampier, with a boat full of seamen, went ashore to make enquiries and returned in the evening with confirmation that they had reached their objective and were lying off Grande. To have successfully made their intended landfall after a voyage of 3,000 miles was a considerable achievement and a testimony to Dampier’s navigation skills. The charts at his disposal were rudimentary and navigation instruments at this period were limited to the compass for direction finding, the lead-line for measuring depths and the cross staff or back staff for finding latitude by measuring the angle of the sun at midday. Until the later decades of the eighteenth century and the introduction of the nautical almanac and the chronometer, longitude could be calculated only by dead reckoning (working out speed and distance and allowing for tides and currents) and this could lead to disastrous errors over long distances.6

The first task after the ocean voyage was to fill their water casks. Two boats went ahead of the ships, taking soundings as they went. With a light head wind the ships could make little progress under sail and had to be towed into a deep, sheltered cove where they could anchor close to the source of the fresh water. From the local Portuguese they learnt that French ships bound to and from the Pacific often used the same place to wood and water. The two weeks spent at Grande were filled with activity, interrupted at intervals by heavy tropical downpours and tempered in fine weather by the extreme heat. Repairs were carried out on the masts of the Duke, and both ships had to be heeled over and careened. The sailors spent a profitable time catching a variety of fish with nets and lines, and most mornings local villagers arrived with canoes full of fruit, chickens and corn ‘to exchange for such things as we could spare’.

Edward Cooke went across the bay to the small town of Angra dos Reis with presents for the local Governor. ‘At our first landing, the Portuguese fired several shot, taking us for French; but were afterwards sorry for it, and received us very kindly.’ Cooke was told that some French ships had called in recently and plundered the town of plate and valuables. Although the town had two churches, a Franciscan monastery and a guard house with twenty soldiers, most of the inhabitants lived in low mud houses thatched with palm leaves. The Governor and the friars proved to be generous hosts and invited the privateers to attend a religious ceremony to mark the Conception of the Virgin Mary. Rogers, Courtney and some of their officers, accompanied by the ships’ musicians, joined the local congregation for the church service. The musicians were installed in the gallery and enlivened the service with noisy sea shanties performed with trumpets, oboes and violins. Afterwards the musicians led a procession through the town: a statue of the Virgin Mary decked with flowers was carried on the shoulders of four men and this was followed by forty monks; next came the Governor with Rogers and Courtney, and they were followed by the rest of the privateer officers, and the chief inhabitants of the town, everyone carrying large, lighted candles. After the ceremony the privateers were lavishly entertained by the friars in the monastery and then by the Governor in the guard house. ‘They unanimously told us, they expected nothing from us but our company, and they had no more but our music.’

The only blot on this pleasant interlude was caused by the impetuous Carleton Vanbrugh. A local canoe was spotted leaving the island one morning and it was suspected that two Irishmen, who had deserted the ship and fled into the woods, were using it to escape to the mainland. Vanbrugh took some men in a pinnace to intercept the canoe and gave the order to fire at the people in it. One of the Indians in the canoe was wounded by the shot and later died, in spite of the best efforts of the ships’ surgeons. Once again the council met and formally reprimanded Vanbrugh for disobeying orders ‘and acting contrary to what he was shipped for’. Several days later he was transferred from the Duke to the Dutchess ‘for the good of our intended voyage’.

They sailed from Grande on 3 December with a strong north-easterly wind setting them on the way to Cape Horn. As the weather got steadily colder the six tailors on board the two ships were kept busy making warm clothes from blankets, and altering spare clothes from the officers for the use of those sailors who had made little or no provision for the conditions they were going to face.

Fresh gales alternated with light airs and thick fog. They sighted an albatross and a great number of seals and porpoises. On 23 December they passed close by the Falkland Islands and two days later saw a distant sail which they chased for a while, believing her to be a French ship homeward bound from the Pacific but they lost her when they had to beat into a fierce headwind. On 1 January 1709 the weather moderated, and with relatively smooth water they were able to drink in the New Year with the aid of a large tub of hot punch on the quarterdeck. While the musicians played, every man downed a pint and drank to friends back home, a good voyage and a safe return.

On 5 January the weather changed for the worst. As the wind increased to storm force the two ships found themselves in the midst of ominous great waves. Both ships were heavily reefed and Rogers noted that the Duke coped well with the heavy seas, but he was dismayed to see that the Dutchess was in serious trouble. While the crew were lowering her mainyard the sail fell to leeward into the sea, dragging the ship over so that she took in a great deal of water. In danger of sinking from the weight of water in her, the crew let loose the spritsail and managed to wear ship so that she could run downwind. For a while she scudded before the wind, followed by the Duke, but at around 9 p.m., just as the officers of the Dutchess were gathering for a meal in the great cabin, a breaking sea smashed through the stern windows, ‘and hove the first lieutenant halfway between the decks, with several muskets and pistols that hung there, darting a sword that was against a bulkhead of the cabin through my man’s hammock and rug, which hung against the bulkhead of the steerage, and had not the bulkhead of the great cabin given way, all we who were there must inevitably have drowned before the water could have been vented’.7

The ship’s yawl was stove in on the deck and Cooke thought it a miracle that no one was killed by the shutters, bulkhead and weapons which were driven through the ship with prodigious force, ‘but God in his mercy delivered us from this and many other dangers’. A few men suffered bruises and everything in the ship was soaked with icy water, including all their clothes, hammocks and bedding. While they tried to sort out the chaos below deck the Dutchess continued to run before the wind. Rogers was worried that if they continued their southerly course they would find themselves among ice because it was so bitterly cold. He was told by one of his lookouts that the Dutchess was flying an ensign in her maintopmast shrouds as a signal of distress. He continued to keep his ship in close contact with the Dutchess throughout the night and about three in the morning the weather began to moderate and he was able to get within hailing distance. He was greatly relieved to hear that they had not lost any men. The next day there was still a huge sea running but Rogers and Dampier were able to get across to the Dutchess in the yawl, ‘where we found ’em in a very orderly pickle, with all their clothes drying, the ship and rigging covered with them from the deck to the maintop’.

Earlier in the voyage two men had been killed by falls from the rigging and now they suffered the first two losses from sickness. On 7 January John Veale, a landsman in the Duke, died after suffering swellings in his legs, and on 14 January the Dutchess buried a man who had died from scurvy. By this date they reckoned they were clear of Cape Horn. On the 10th they had obtained a latitude reading of 61 degrees 53 minutes, which they believed was the furthest anyone had yet been to the south. As they entered the Pacific and headed north an increasing number of men began to fall ill, a few showing the symptoms of scurvy and many suffering from the freezing cold.

Scurvy was the scourge of long-distance ocean passages and would continue to be so for many years to come. It had plagued the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Magellan, and it would take a terrible toll on the sailors of Anson’s voyage of 1740–4, when nearly two-thirds of the men in the squadron died from the disease. The physical effects were graphically described by Pascoe Thomas, who was a teacher of mathematics on Anson’s flagship, the Centurion. He described how hard nodes and black spots appeared on his limbs

till almost my legs and thighs were as black as a negro; and this accompanied with such excessive pains in the joints of the knees, ankles and toes, as I thought before I experienced them, that human nature could never have supported. It next advanced to the mouth; all my teeth were presently loose, and my gums, over-charged with extravasated blood, fell down almost quite over my teeth; this occasioned my breath to stink much.8

The physical breakdown of the body was accompanied by extreme lethargy. Particularly depressing was the reopening of old wounds and the fracturing of bones broken years before.

Although the cause of scurvy (a lack of vitamin C in the diet) was not established until the 1930s, experienced seafarers were aware of the link between scurvy and diet. Some ships of the East India Company were being supplied with lemon juice in the seventeenth century and although the Royal Navy did not make a regular practice of supplying ships bound on overseas voyages with lemons and lemon juice until the 1790s, most long-distance seafarers knew that fresh fruit and vegetables were an effective cure. Woodes Rogers was certainly aware of this. When he came to write his account of his voyage he recorded, ‘The general distemper in such long runs is the scurvy; and the methods to prevent the ill effects of it are so well known, that they may easily be provided against.’9 His journal entries make it clear that he and his fellow officers knew that the sooner they reached Juan Fernández and got the sick men ashore with access to fresh food, the better would be their chance of survival.

On 20 January they could see the distant mountain ranges of Patagonia to the east and a week later they identified the island of St Mary (Isla Santa Maria) off the coast of Chile, which was near the same latitude as Juan Fernández. Despite having Dampier on board they had some doubts about the exact position of the island, ‘the books laying ’em down so differently, and not one chart agrees with another’. By now a lot of men in the Dutchess were ill from prolonged exposure to the cold and wet, and two more had died. Turning away from the mainland of South America, the two ships headed west, aiming for the small island which lay 400 miles out across the heaving waters of the Pacific Ocean.

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