Pirates Action by John Masefield



In engaging an enemy's ship at sea the custom wasto display the colours from the poop, and to hangstreamers or pennons from the yardarms.[30] The spritsailwould then be furled, and the spritsail-yard broughtalongship. The lower yards were slung with chain,and the important ropes, sheets and braces,[31] etc., weredoubled. The bulkheads and wooden cabin walls wereknocked away, or fortified with hammocks or bedding,to minimise the risk of splinters. The guns were castloose and loaded. The powder or cartridge was broughtup in "budge barrels," covered with leather, from themagazine, and stowed well away from the guns, eitherin amidships, or on that side of the ship not directlyengaged. Tubs of water were placed between the gunswith blankets soaking in them for the smothering ofany fire that might be caused. Other tubs were filledwith "vinegar water or what we have" for the spongingof the guns. The hatches leading to the hold were takenup, so that no man should desert his post during theengagement. The light sails were furled, and in somecases sent down on deck. The magazines were opened,and hung about with wet blankets to prevent sparksfrom entering. Shot was sent to the shot-lockers ondeck. Sand was sprinkled on the planking to give agreater firmness to the foothold of the men at the guns.The gunner and his mates went round the batteries tomake sure that all was ready. The caps, or leaden plates,[335]were taken from the touch-holes, and the priming powderwas poured down upon the cartridge within the gun.The carpenter made ready sheets of lead, and plugs ofoakum, for the stopping of shot-holes.[32] The cook-roomfire was extinguished. The sails were splashed with asolution of alum. The people went to eat and drink attheir quarters. Extra tiller ropes, of raw hide, were roveabaft. The trumpeters put on their[33] tabards, "of theAdmiral's colours," and blew points of war as they sailedinto action. A writer of the early seventeenth century[34]has left the following spirited account of a sea-fight:—
"A sail, how bears she or stands shee, to winde-wardor lee-ward? set him by the Compasse; he stands rightahead, or on the weather-Bowe, or lee-Bowe, let fly yourcolours if you have a consort, else not. Out with all yoursails, a steady man to the helme, sit close to keep hersteady, give him chase or fetch him up; he holds hisown, no, we gather on him. Captain, out goes his flagand pendants, also his waste-clothes and top-armings,which is a long red cloth about three quarters of a yardbroad, edged on each side with Calico, or white linnencloth, that goeth round about the ship on the outsidesof all her upper works fore and aft, and before thecubbridge-heads, also about the fore and maine tops, aswell for the countenance and grace of the ship, as tocover the men for being seen, he furies and slinges hismaine yarde, in goes his spret-saile. Thus they use tostrip themselves into their short sailes, or fighting sailes,which is only the fore sail, the main and fore topsails,because the rest shouldnot befired nor spoiled; besidesthey would be troublesome to handle, hinder our fightsand the using our armes; he makes ready his closefights fore and aft.
"Master, how stands the chase? Right on head I say;[336]Well we shall reatch him by and by; what's all ready?Yea, yea, every man to his charge, dowse your topsaile tosalute him for the Sea, hale him with a noise of trumpets;Whence is your ship? Of Spaine; Whence is yours? OfEngland. Are you a Merchant, or a Man of War? Weare of the Sea. He waves us to Lee-ward with his drawneSword, cals amaine for the King of Spaine and springshis loufe. Give him a chase piece with your broadside,and run a good berth ahead of him; Done, done. Wehave the winde of him, and he tackes about, tacke youaboute also and keep your loufe [keep close to the wind]be yare at the helme, edge in with him, give him a volleyof small shot, also your prow and broadside as before, andkeep your loufe; He payes us shot for shot; Well, weshall requite him; What, are you ready again? Yea, yea.Try him once more, as before; Done, Done; Keep yourloufe and charge your ordnance again; Is all ready?Yea, yea, edge in with him again, begin with your bowepieces, proceed with your broadside, and let her fall offwith the winde, to give her also your full chase, yourweather broadside, and bring her round that the sternmay also discharge, and your tackes close aboord again;Done, done, the wind veeres, the Sea goes too high toboord her, and we are shot thorow and thorow, andbetwene winde and water. Try the pump, bear up thehelme; Master let us breathe and refresh a little, andsling a man overboard [i.e. lower a man over the side] tostop the leakes; that is, to trusse him up aboute themiddle in a piece of canvas, and a rope to keep him fromsinking, and his armes at liberty, with a malet in the onehand, and a plug lapped in Okum, and well tarred in atarpawling clowt in the other, which he will quickly beatinto the hole or holes the bullets made; What cheeremates? is all well? All well, all well, all well. Thenmake ready to bear up with him again, and with all your[337]great and small shot charge him, and in the smoke boordhim thwart the hawse, on the bowe, midships, or ratherthan faile, on the quarter [where the high poop made itdifficult to climb on board] or make fast your graplings[iron hooks] if you can to his close fights and shear off [soas to tear them to pieces]. Captain, we are fowl on eachother, and the Ship is on fire, cut anything to get clearand smother the fire with wet clothes. In such a casethey will presently be such friends, as to helpe one theother all they can to get clear, lest they should both burntogether and sink; and if they be generous, the firequenched, drink kindely one to another; heave theircans overboord, and then begin again as before.
"Well, Master, the day is spent, the night drawes on, letus consult. Chirurgion, look to the wounded, and windeup the slain, with each a weight or bullet at their headesand feet to make them sinke, and give them three Gunnesfor their funerals. Swabber, make clean the ship [sprinkleit with hot vinegar to avoid the smell of blood]; Purser,record their Names; Watch, be vigilant to keep yourberth to windeward that we lose him not in the night;Gunners, spunge your Ordnance; Sowldiers, scowre yourpieces; Carpenters about your leakes; Boatswaine and therest repair your sails and shrouds; and Cooke, you observeyour directions against the morning watch; Boy, Holla,Master, Holla, is the Kettle boiled? Yea, yea; Boatswaine,call up the men to prayer and breakfast [Wemay suppose the dawn has broken].
"Boy, fetch my cellar of bottels [case of spirits], a healthto you all fore and aft, courage my hearts for a freshcharge; Gunners beat open the ports, and out with yourlower tire [lower tier of guns] and bring me from theweather side to the lee, so many pieces as we have portsto bear upon him. Master lay him aboord loufe for loufe;mid Ships men, see the tops and yards well manned, with[338]stones, fire pots and brass bailes, to throw amongst thembefore we enter, or if we be put off, charge them with allyour great and small shot, in the smoke let us enter themin the shrouds, and every squadron at his best advantage;so sound Drums and Trumpets, and Saint George forEngland.
"They hang out a flag of truce, hale him a main, abase,or take in his flag [to hale one to amaine, a main or a-mayn,was to bid him surrender; to abase was to lower thecolours or the topsails], strike their sails, and come aboordwith their Captaine, Purser, and Gunner, with their commission,cocket, or bills of loading. Out goes the boat,they are launched from the ship's side, entertaine themwith a generall cry God save the Captain and all thecompany with the Trumpets sounding, examine them inparticular, and then conclude your conditions, with feasting,freedom or punishment as you find occasion; but alwayeshave as much care to their wounded as your own, and ifthere be either young women or aged men, use themnobly, which is ever the nature of a generous disposition.To conclude, if you surprise him, or enter perforce, youmay stow the men, rifle, pillage, or sack, and cry aprise."
Down below in the gun-decks during an action, thebatteries became so full of the smoke of black powderthat the men could hardly see what they were doing.The darkness prevented them from seeing the verydangerous recoiling of the guns, and many were killedby them. It was impossible to judge how a gun carriagewould recoil, for it never recoiled twice in the same manner,and though the men at the side tackles did their best toreduce the shock they could not prevent it altogether.It was the custom to close the gun-ports after eachdischarge, as the musketeers aboard the enemy couldotherwise fire through them as the men reloaded. The[339]guns were not fired in a volley, as no ship could havestood the tremendous shock occasioned by the simultaneousdischarge of all her guns. They were fired insuccession, beginning from the bows. In heavy weatherthe lower tiers of guns were not cast loose, for the rollingmade them difficult to control, and the sea came washingthrough the ports and into the muzzles of the guns, knockingdown the men and drenching the powder. It sometimeshappened that the shot, and cartridge, were rolled cleanout of the guns. In sponging and ramming the menwere bidden to keep the sponge or rammer on that sideof them opposite to the side exposed to the enemy sothat if a shot should strike it, it would not force it into thebody of the holder. A man was told off to bring cartridgesand shot to each gun or division of guns and he wasstrictly forbidden to supply any other gun or guns duringthe action. The wounded were to be helped below bymen told off especially for the purpose. Once below, inthe cockpit, they were laid on a sail, and the doctor or hismates attended to them in turn. In no case was a manattended out of his turn. This system seems equitable,and the sailors were insistent that it should be observed;but many poor fellows bled to death, from shatteredarteries, etc., while waiting till the doctor should be ready.The chaplain attended in the cockpit to comfort the dying,and administer the rites of the Church. When a vesselwas taken, her crew were stripped by those in want ofclothes. The prisoners were handcuffed, or chainedtogether, and placed in the hold, on the ballast. Theship's company then set to work to repair damages, cleanand secure the guns, return powder, etc., to the armoury,and magazines, and to give thanks for their preservationround the main-mast.

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