The Story of Captain Roberts

The North Wind was immensely crowded,with both the hold and the covered gun deck packed with prisoners and guards, and more prisonerscrammed into every nook and cranny. We were exiles, deported from the island of Eleuthera tosome prison colony in Georgia. Most of the prisoners were pirates, headed by the notoriousCharles Roberts. I was not, I hasten to add, but somehow I got caught up in the fighting and mistaken for one of them. The ship carried a skeleton crew of Navy sailors, as well as a sizeable contingent of Eleutheran soldiers to act as guards. I was put in a sort of alcoveoff the gun deck, and by chance chained next to Captain Roberts himself.

The captain was a giant of a figure: a full head or more taller than me, twice as broad across the shoulders, and hands that could surely crush the life from a man. His hair and beard were matted, his brow lowered in a permanent ferocious scowl, and the wild eyes of a caged bear. He was expensively dressed, despite his manic appearance, in a waistcoat and trousers worth more than a year of my sailing wage from the plate fleet.

The third person tied up in our little nook was another man I recognised from the trial, Jim Boon, a black man who had been the privateers’ quartermaster. I took quite a liking to Boon, who seemed a friendly enough man, more reserved and gentler of disposition than the captain.

Being unable to see the sun, I found it difficult to judge what time was passing except by the air temperature. We had left before dawn; by the time we were first fed the deck was hot and stuffy, with a stink of sweat drifting in from the gun deck main where the other prisoners were. No more than a dozen words had passed betweenme and my companions in the alcove.

A guard came in to give us our food. He was narrow-faced and pale-haired, wearing the red uniform of a soldier – Eleutheran, not Navy. He wore the keys to our chains at his belt, on plain view for us to see; and he wore a pistol on his other side just as openly. The food was a few biscuits and a thin strip of salted meat each, enough to keep us alive but only just. The guard gave me an odd look as he set it down, then said:

“You’re young for one of this gang, aren’t you? How’d you fall in with these crooks?”

“I suppose I take what I’m given,” I said.

“Well, it’s a shame. You’re too young to waste your life like this.”

I was surprised by his cheek – he was barely older than I was. Captain Roberts clearly thought the same, because he pulled himself upright and said:

“I have a question for you, boy. What interest is it to you who’s on my crew?”

The guard smiled a thin-lipped smile. “Oh, I’ve followed you and your crew’s doings for years, Roberts. Enjoy the food; it’s all you’re getting today.”

The captain spat on the floor as the guard left. “There’s an ignorant little prick. Tell me, lad,” he added, facing me for the first time, “how did you come to be here? You ain’t one of my crew, though these men seem to think you are.”

I hesitated. I had felt flattered when he defended me, and I found myself wanting to impress him now. It was in part because we would be spending a long time together on the ship and in the penal colony, but also because of who he was: the man was a legend, perhaps the most infamous man on water; I had spent my childhood reading about him. Who wouldn’t want to someone like that to think well of them?

“I robbed the governor’s house,” I said, “but I got caught.”

He chuckled. “Not the worst a man can do, is it? Were it your first time?”

I nodded. “First serious crime.”

Jim Boon, the quartermaster, was watching us through narrowed eyes. “I have to say I agree with the guard,” he said. “How old are you, nineteen? Twenty? Too young to be here, certainly.”

“Let the boy be,” said Captain Roberts. “It’s his choice.”

I was stung again by being called ‘boy’; I’d been a sailor nearly half a decade, and I wasn’t a child by any stretch. Still, I supposed it was understandable I would seem inexperienced to a man like Roberts.

The captain started pulling on his chains again, the rattling preventing any further conversation. There came a pounding against the bulkhead behind us. It was the guard back again, knocking on the wood with his baton.

“Will you settle down?” he said. “You’re riling up the other prisoners with the noise.”

“Fuck your peace and quiet,” Roberts snapped. “The chains are too tight, I can’t lie back.”

“Well, if you want a break from wearing them, I’d be happy to oblige,” said the guard. “We’ll take you up on deck, get you some fresh air, even a post to lean on while we whip you raw. Keep making noise, and it’ll happen.”

He left with a self-satisfied smile. Roberts snarled with frustration and gave a few more defiant tugs on his chains, then fell back and stared at the deck above.

After a few minutes of silence, he looked across at Boon. “That storm’s coming up. Won’t be too much longer.”

Boon raised an eyebrow. “Well, let’s hope our captors enjoy it,” he said.

“How do you know there’s a storm coming?” I asked.

“I’m a bloody good sailor, that’s how,” said Roberts. “I’ve known this one’s coming for two days. It’s all there if you look for it – speed of the wind, the movement of the sea, the feel of the air. This one’s a big one. Hurricane, maybe, or something close.”

“I’ve sailed with lots of captains, and I’ve never known anyone who can predict the weather – not like that, anyway.”

“Some people are good sailors and some ain’t,” said Roberts. “You ain’t bad, I can tell that. You hold yourself like a seaman. Not like that nancy boy out there. He must’a been trained on land. If he’s ever set foot on ship before, I’d be surprised.”

Boon added, “Whereas you seem like you’ve done a bit of sailing before?”

“I have,” I said, happy to have it noticed. “I sailed in the Spanish plate fleet for a time, though it was a few years ago. The ship went down off Florida. Since then –”

“She sank?” Roberts asked, sharply.

“Er, yes, that’s right. Full cargo of silver went down with her. The Spaniards weren’t too impressed.”

“Did they recover the cargo?”

“Well, no, not yet. They’ve done very few recoveries during the war. I think they plan to dive for it after the war ends.”

Hours passed, and my fellow hostages spoke little. The air in the hold grew hotter, thicker, more oppressive, and my hunger and thirst grew by equal measures. As we came towards early evening, I noticed a change in the motion of the ship that meant the waves were growing choppier. The sails began to flap agitatedly, and I heard raised voices as sailors hurried to their posts. Not long after that, heavy rain started to hammer against the deck above us, and a trickle of water began to run down through a crack in the hull.

Roberts tried to move away from the water, cursed when he reached the end of his chains, and started pulling angrily on them again until the guard reappeared.

“Will you stop playing with those bloody chains?” snapped the guard, whose skin was tinged with green from the ship’s increasingly violent rocking.

“You boys enjoying the weather?” said Roberts. “Don’t suppose you mind. Must be hard for someone like you to get much wetter, eh?”

“I don’t have time for this,” said the guard. He made to leave, but as he did so the ship gave a sudden lurch, and the guard stumbled and had to catch hold of the bulkhead to stay upright.

Roberts laughed. “Have you never been on a ship before, boy?”

“As a matter of fact, this is my first time,” said the guard. “I requested the post specifically for the pleasure of your company, Charles. The famous Captain Roberts at my feet – how many people can say they’ve had that? But I must say I’m disappointed. I hoped you’d at least have pissed yourself or something by now.”

All the mirth left Roberts’ face, and he spat at the guard’s feet. “You really are an unpleasant little twat, aren’t you?”

“No.” said the guard, “Well, only to you, Roberts. My brother was in Havana. Your most famous achievement, wasn’t it, the sacking of Havana? I don’t know if it was you who killed him or one of your crew, and I don’t rightly care. I’d be happy to see you all hang.”

I remembered reading about the sacking of Havana. It had happened nearly a decade before – I had been ten years old, and to my innocent mind it had seemed like a fantastic story. The whole town of Havana had been raided by Roberts and his men, burned to the ground. The death toll had been in the thousands.

“What a cock,” Roberts said, as the guard left.

He glanced at the deck above us, where the rain was still lashing against the deck. “This squall’s coming along nicely, don’t you think, Jim?”

Boon sat up slightly. “Does look to be a powerful one, Captain,” he said. A look had come into his eyes I didn’t expect: eagerness.

“Reckon the rest of the guards are as disorientated as that one is?” said the captain.

“I expect they might be, Captain.”

Roberts pushed himself up onto his haunches, resting his hands on the metal loop that connected his chains to the floor, the loop he had been pulling at and loosening all day.

“Let’s find out,” he said.

He made one great, wrenching movement, his muscles bunching and writhing. Metal squeaked and groaned on wood; the captain roared; and then with a terrible grinding, crunching sound, the loop burst from the deck. There stood Captain Charles Roberts, fists clenched, breathing heavily with pent-up anger: a force of nature released from a cage that should never have hoped to hold it.

“I’ll be back,” he said, and he disappeared around the edge of the alcove.

I heard a shout, then a muffled grunt. Something heavy thudded into the bulkhead behind me from the other side, and I flinched away, appalled. More shouts of alarm came from the guards. There were several gunshots – I cowered back from each of them. The shouts of alarm became cries of pain. Then came a ragged cheer, in the voices of many men.

Roberts reappeared. He was more animated than I had yet seen him, his eyes wide and bright. The chains were gone from his wrists. In one had he held our guard’s bunch of keys, in the other, the guard’s pistol. His waistcoat was sprayed with something red.

“They’re a shambles out there!” he panted, running to Boon to undo his manacles. “Not a clue what’s going on. Half of them are so seasick can barely stand!”

He released Boon, then turned to me.

“Will you help us, boy?”

“I – I don’t –”

“Fucking stay here, then!” said Roberts, and he and Boon disappeared round the bulkhead again.

So I stayed in our little alcove, still manacled to the floor. From outside I could hear the shouts of men, and the screams, and the sounds of steel on flesh. Occasionally there were gunshots, which were followed, always, by more screams. I was repulsed by it.

I had always expected the cries of the dying to be a single scream, abruptly cut off; something clean. I hadn’t expected the sounds of drawn-out pain, the screaming or moaning that never seemed to stop. One man was whimpering, “Oh God, oh God,” for what must have been over an hour, before his voice finally failed. It was horrific to hear – insufferable, to listen to their suffering.

I became aware of a wetness around my knees. Looking down, I saw something red trickling through a crack beneath the bulkhead, running around in rivulets as the ship rolled. I barely contained a cry. I pulled as far away from the blood as I could, to the other corner of the little alcove, and I huddled there, just praying that soon it would all be over.

The fighting continued throughout the night, while outside the storm tossed the ship from wave to wave. Pre-dawn light was already starting to filter into the alcove by the time the squall blew itself out, and the screams faded into quiet not long after.

I started when someone came into my alcove, partly expecting it to be one of the guards; but it was Jim Boon, holding the set of keys.

“What’s happening?” I asked, as he bent to unlock me.

“We’ve taken back our ship,” he said. “They fought hard, but those Eleutherans weren’t used to fighting on board ship in that kind of weather. Captain’s up on deck, getting her back in order. He’s asked me to take you up to him.”

It should have been a wonderful feeling, the regaining of liberty, but to my mind it felt tainted.

“What happened to the guards?” I asked Boon.

“Some surrendered. Most did not. Do not mourn them; they died trying to keep you in chains. Shall I take you to see the captain?”

He led me out across the gun deck. The stench was overpowering – it smelled like a meat market. The deck was awash with blood. Bodies of soldiers, Navy men and privateers alike, were piled along the bulkheads. Glancing back at the alcove where I had been chained, I saw the body of our guard slumped against the bulkhead there. It was his blood that had trickled under into the alcove.

I bent over and retched. Boon gave me a sympathetic look.

“Come,” he said, gesturing me towards the ladder up to the main deck. “The air is clearer above.”

I followed him, not looking back at our guard. Up on the main deck there were more bodies. Several of the privateer crew were throwing them overboard, one by one, to float in a line behind the ship, while others were swabbing the blood from the deck.

I looked away, and tried to comfort myself with other things. It was good to taste fresh, salty air again. The sky was growing lighter in the east; it would be sunrise soon. Though it would be a dim and gloomy sunrise, with the sky still so clouded from the storm.

Boon led me into the captain’s cabin at the aft end of the ship. Roberts was inside, squinting at a spread of charts on the table. He looked up as we entered.

“Ah! Enjoying your freedom, boy? What do you think of our ship?”

“I don’t think much of what it cost to obtain,” I told him. I indicated the window of his cabin, which faced aft; the line of bodies we were trailing behind us was visible through it.

The captain followed my gaze. “Don’t worry about those men,” he said. “They were soldiers. They would have happily seen you hang for petty theft.”

“They didn’t deserve death for it,” I said.

The captain laughed scornfully. “Where was this courage during the fight? When you were skulking in your cell, not wanting to risk your pretty neck, while I fought for your freedom?”

I didn’t answer. He stepped around his desk, put his giant hand on my soldier.

“Sometimes deaths have to happen, lad,” he said. “There are prices we pay for our freedom, out here.”

I looked at him, in his expensive clothes still spattered with dead mens’ blood, commanding his own ship while the bodies of his enemies drifted past the windows. It was unbelievable to me that I had been so enamoured with the man when we first met.

“You haven’t paid any price,” I said. “The men you killed did.”

For a moment Roberts’ hand tightened on my shoulder, and I thought he might strike me; but then he seemed to regain control of himself. He stepped back and gave a laugh.

“Let’s talk about something else,” he said. “You have your freedom now, boy – like it or not, you do – so now we need to decide what to do with you. There’s a spot for you on the crew, if you want it; else we’ll be making port tomorrow for repairs, so you’re welcome to disembark then.”

“Disembark, please,” I said.

“I thought you’d say that,” said the captain. He glanced over my shoulder at Boon, who was still stood between me and the door, arms folded – he hadn’t spoken since we came in.

“There was one other thing,” the captain went on. “Something I’d like to ask you, now that our circumstances are somewhat improved. You mentioned a ship that went down, a Spanish one, with a cargo of silver? Do you remember where it sank?”

“I do,” I said, surprised. “More or less.”

“It would be very useful information for us,” said the captain. “Could you maybe point to the location on a map?”

“I know the coordinates,” I said. “But I’m not sure I see a reason to tell you.”

“In exchange for your safe passage to shore, you understand,” said Roberts, lightly. The threat was obvious.

“I suppose I can tell you,” I said. “It was –”

I broke off at a sudden movement from Boon behind me, as though he were about to speak; but he said nothing.

“Go on, boy,” said Roberts.

“It was twenty-five twelve north, seventy-nine fifty-five east,” I said. “Just off the coast of Florida.”

“Thank you, lad,” he said. “Now, I have one last favour to ask of you. Can you keep that location between us? Can I trust you not to tell my crew where that sunken ship is?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Leverage, boy. There’s a lot of men here not too happy that their captain let them be captured. You’ve got to have something your crew needs, else they might decide you ain’t the captain they need anymore.”

He stepped closer to me, so that his beard was almost brushing my face. “I never asked, boy – what’s your name?”

“It’s George,” I said, surprised. “George Stephenson.”

Boon moved again, apparently involuntarily.

“Well, George,” said the captain, “you’re a decent man, I can tell that. Can I have your word as such that you won’t tell my crew what you just told me?”

“I won’t tell them,” I said.

Roberts looked down at me for a long moment.

“The trouble is, boy, I don’t think I believe you.”

I realised what was happening the second Roberts started moving. He lunged at me. I dived backwards away from him, ducking under one swinging blow and another, trying to move further away – but there was a chair behind me and I tripped.

Roberts was on top of me. His great weight pushed me into the deck, holding me down, his hands pressing down against my throat. Dark spots swam in my vision.

“Captain –” I heard Boon’s voice cry. He was just there, why wasn’t he coming to help?

The chair I had tripped over had come down with us, collapsing under the captain’s weight. A broken chair leg was digging into my back. I reached for it, managed to grab it, and swung it up to hit the captain’s head, once, twice, and again. The captain grunted and rolled off me. I gave a laugh of triumph, jumping to my feet –

Except that I couldn’t.

I wanted to, but my limbs didn’t move.

The captain was straightening up, moving away from me.

There was a knife in his hand, and it was wet with blood.

“I still don’t see why that was necessary, Captain,” I heard Boon say, from what seemed a long way away.

“He would have told someone,” the captain said. “He was too decent to be trusted. Clear the boy away, would you, Jim?”

“Aye, Captain,” said Boon, quietly.

It takes a long time to die of a stab wound – a long time for enough blood to drain from the body that the body can no longer function. I was still conscious as Boon carried me out of the captain’s cabin, across the deck, hoisted me up against the rail of the ship. Perhaps he noticed the flicker of life in my eyes, because he spoke to me.

“I’m sorry, George. We have to look after ourselves, you must understand that.”

A breeze picked up for a second, slightly chill against my skin. Overhead, the sails filled momentarily. It must have been my sailor’s training that made me notice the weather, even as my own blood flowed down my front, down my trouser-legs, into my shoes.

Boon adjusted his grip on me. “I know you will judge me,” he said. “But if our positions were reversed … I think you would do the same thing I am doing.”

He let go. I tipped slowly over the rail, bounced once off the hull of the ship. The sea rushed up to meet me. Water filled my eyes, blinding me, reducing the world to blurred shapes and impressions. I felt rather than saw the great bulk of the ship sliding past me. For a brief moment I drifted along after it, carried by its wake; and then the currents released me, and I floated free.