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VOYAGE OF THE BRITANNICA - The untold story - A South Seas Adventure.....Not “Mutiny on the Bounty”…but almost

The author, who has spent considerable time living and working in the islands of the Pacific, decided he would set the fictitious tale of H.M.S. Britannica mainly in Samoa but also touching on Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti and the East Indies.  

To capture the hard life of sailors in the wooden sailing ships of the eighteenth century much of the story is seen through the eyes of a young woman who, disguised as a lad wins a place in the crew of a ship that is bound for the South Seas.  

In those day women as crew on ships was unheard of particularly on naval vessels. It was thought that women on ships could only cause trouble. She does this to get away from her life in Portsmouth, England, in which she sees no future but a bleak existence in a cold climate.  

She and the rest of the crew set out on an amazing adventure where they experience the customs and love life of the Polynesian people, they learn about tribal warfare, cannibalism and a way of life completely different to that in Europe. They are caught up in a mutiny and two of the crew are marooned on an island in the Fijis from which they manage to escape aided by a survivor from one of the earlier Captain Cook voyages. The three take part in a harrowing canoe trip back to Samoa with only the stars to guide them. They are eventually rescued by the Pandora which had actually been sent from England to search for the Bounty mutineers.  

Our heroine survives it all and arrives back in cold old England glad to be home after all. A tale of tall ships, rascals, a love story and as always, survivors against all the odds.

In Store Price: $AU27.95 
Online Price:   $AU26.95

ISBN:   978-1-921406-78-2   
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 287
Genre: Fiction
Cover: Clive Dalkins

By the same author:
Nobody Reads the Credits

Author: Gordon E. Carr
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2009
Language: English

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The Bounty  

T

he cold wind whipped around the gaunt buildings and splashed muddy puddles between the black cobblestones of the road that ran down to the Mariners’ Arms, public house and inn at the city of Portsmouth, England. A lonely figure hurried along that bleak road; it was 16-year-old Rosie O’Dwyer. She clutched her thin, hooded cloak around her but it did little to keep out the driving, soaking rain. In her cold hand she clutched a quart jug which she would have filled with brown ale at the public house. It was for her father who was inordinately fond of brown ale and indeed spent most of his limited income, as a lowly clerk in a counting house, on the tipple. Rosie was one of seven hungry children. There wasn’t much money in the house for food as brown ale took preference.

It was the year 1787 during the reign of King George III. Rosie was of Irish extraction; Protestant Irish and, luckily for her, had been able to have some education at a small school run by the local church so, unlike many of her contemporaries, she could read and write and she hoped for a better life than she had experienced so far. She had long, dark, curly hair, green eyes and a quick inquiring mind. The only employment she could find, because of her lowly birth and limited education, was as scullery maid and assistant cook at the Mariners’ Arms, from where she would take home the jug of brown ale for her father after finishing her shift. In the meantime though, the rain had stopped and a watery sun was peeping out from the sullen clouds. She still had a half-hour before she had to start work and she walked to the docks to look at the ships. She liked to do that and often wondered to what wonderful romantic and warm countries they were bound. There were armed merchantmen and ships of war, as England was constantly at war with her neighbours. Rosie had heard that her country had also lost the American colonies so that was another blow to British pride.

Lost in thought and gazing at the ships and the figures that thronged the decks, she watched seamen and labourers, busily loading stores and victuals, a constant stream of busy, hurrying men. She didn’t hear the person who had stopped beside her to watch the scene with her. She gave a start and a little cry when he spoke, “Aye lass, ’tis a busy time those ships are having.”

She smiled; she knew him. He was an old seaman, too old to crew the ships again and was a regular at the inn where she worked. “Hello, Matt. Yes, it’s busy alright. How I wish I could sail on one of those ships, somewhere where the sun shines brightly and away from England’s rain and cold.”

“Not likely, young lady. They don’t take ‘wimmin’ on board as crew. Imagine what trouble that would make among the men.” He laughed and slapped his leg. “Anyway, what would you do on a ship?”

“Well, I could cook. Reckon I could whip up meals as good as any ship’s cook could do.”

 “Well, good job for you that you ain’t a lad and signing on to that ship, ’cause that’s the Bounty and she is off to Tahiti in the South Seas to load breadfruit plants I hear.”

“Why would she do that?”

“They say it’s to grow food for the slaves in the West Indies. She’s captained by Lieutenant William Bligh, toughest and meanest captain in the navy. I should know; sailed with him once before when he was master of the Resolution in ’77. That was with Captain Cook on his third voyage around the world. Mr Cook was a much different officer than was Bligh. My goodness, that Bligh would take the skin off yer back for the slightest thing. That’s beggin’ y’r pardon, Miss, ye wouldn’t want to ’ear such things. But Tahiti, Bligh or no Bligh, those sailors that’ve signed on will have a right good time, I’ll tell ye that. There’ll be many a married man will no doubt forget his marriage vows once he sights those lovely dark-skinned Indian girls.”

“Why do you call them Indians?” Rosie asked.

“Why, bless you, Miss, they’re all Indians, those with dark skins. That doesn’t mean to say that they aren’t as good or as lovely as our own girls. They are, or better. They’re called Vahines in the Indian language. You’ll note that the Bounty is well-armed so they might be expecting trouble. Never know who you’ll run into in the South Seas. Look at that, she’s got a pair of swivel guns mounted for’ard and it looks like three braces of swivels and two pairs of four-pounders aft on the upper deck. Means there’ll be at least two gunners in the crew. She’s not very big that Bounty. She’s not even a hundred feet long so there won’t be much room or comfort for the crew. Look, there’s some officers going aboard. You can tell they’re officers because of their smart-made uniforms – all colour and brass and long-tail coats. And, look ye, there’s Bligh himself marching up the gang plank and looking damned bad-tempered as usual. That tall man behind him is Fletcher Christian. I hear that he’s master’s mate on this voyage; the master being Mr Fryer. Aye lass, I knows them all, ’aving crewed with most of ’em over the years. And there’s Matt Quintal, knowed ’im man and boy in ships between ’ere and the American colonies.”

The old sailor saluted Rosie and wandered off. She stood, lost in thought, dreaming of warm blue seas, enchanted islands and laughing brown-skinned people, whom she thought would never know cold, persistent rain, scruffy public houses and having to work scrubbing large, iron cooking pots in dark kitchens. She noticed another ship moored behind the Bounty. It was the Britannica, according to her name spelt out in gold lettering. She was also an armed transport vessel but quite a bit larger than the Bounty, so Rosie thought in that case she would have more room for the crew and in her womanly way decided that they would be more comfortable than what the old sailor had said about the Bounty and its quarters for the men. She sighed, turned and left the docks and the ships and visions of faraway islands and trudged off to her job at the inn. Her thoughts about her job didn’t give her much pleasure. She longed to leave, sail away and see sights she had only heard about from sailors at the Mariners’ Arms. Why?           “Oh, why wasn’t I born a lad?” she grumbled to herself, “then I’d be off just as fast as my legs could carry me. Anyway, it’s a crying shame that girls have to stay at home and can’t get away and have adventures like their brothers. They could enlist in the army or the navy and get to go to all sorts of places. They could sign on to crew merchant ships and see countries that their sisters could only dream about.” Of course Rosie had no idea how hard life was really in ships of the line or in merchant vessels, often years away from home. “Well,” Rosie thought, “I wouldn’t care if I never saw Portsmouth again anyway, cold, miserable place.” With a heavy heart, Rosie entered the public house, made her way to the kitchen, put on an apron and got down to work.  

 The Britannica 

 

I

t was all bustle and go on the good ship Britannica. Her captain had come on board – Captain James Hampton Blythe, oddly enough, a very similar surname to that of Lieutenant Bligh, captain of the Bounty. Captain Blythe called for his quartermaster to go over the manifest with him and check stores and victuals being loaded on board. He had his orders from the Admiralty but would go over them later with the master and master’s mate. In the meantime, he checked columns of figures showing the barrels of salt pork and beef, casks of cheese, sacks of flour and sugar, bottles of wine for the officers’ mess, fresh vegetables (that wouldn’t last long) barrels of rum for the crews’ daily rum ration, live fowls, pigs and goats to provide fresh meat, poultry and eggs for the long voyage ahead. Everything seemed to be in order. He sent for the gunner to check the inventory of arms, muskets, powder, ball, cutlasses and pistols. The heavy armament, the swivel guns and four-pounders, he had already checked himself. She carried a total of six swivel guns and six four-pounders mounted on the top and after decks. “Most satisfactory,” the captain mused.

Next job was to confer with the master and the master’s mate about the ship’s orders. He called for Mr Prior, the master, and Mr Tristram, the master’s mate. They quickly came to the captain’s quarters. “Well now, gentlemen, this is what we’ll be doing. Lords of the Admiralty, on the advice of the government, have ordered us to proceed to the Navigator Islands, which lie nor-east of New Holland, with two objectives in mind. First is to forestall any attempts by the Germans to plant their flag (Damn their eyes anyway. Who do they think they are?) on the Navigator Islands or any adjacent island groups. Secondly, the government is interested on the future use of edible oils which can be obtained from the coconut palm which grows everywhere in the islands of the South Seas. We’ll be taking a botanist with us on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks. You’ve both heard of Sir Joseph, no doubt? Sir Joseph’s man will be obtaining sketches of native flora and pickling specimens of plantain, yams and other tropical food plants for scientific purposes. We have to return with a large shipment of coconuts so that scientists can investigate the usage and possibilities of coconut oil. Incidentally, Captain Cook tells us that the natives of the Navigator Islands call the place Samoa. That’s the savages’ name for their country; we’ll still use the more civilized name of Navigator Islands. Now, any questions?”

“How long do we plan to be away, sir?” asked Mr Tristram. “You see, I’m newly married and my wife would like to have some idea how long we’ll be away.”

“May the saints preserve us,” replied the captain. “She shouldn’t have married a seafaring man, should she, Tristram? We’ll be as quick as we can but you know as well as anybody else it all depends on winds, tides, the savages and God knows what else. Tell her a year or maybe two and, ha ha, let’s hope she’s still there waiting for you when you return.”

Tristram scowled. He didn’t think the captain’s comment was funny at all. “Now,” said the captain, “let’s go up on the quarterdeck and see what’s going on.”

The captain and Tristram made their way to the quarterdeck. What was going on was a farewell gathering on the upper decks of the Bounty. The ship was aswarm with petticoats and poke bonnets and carousing seamen, having their good times before the ship left under the harsh rule of her captain. One who was having a good look around above and below decks was Rosie O’Dwyer. She was amazed; there was very little space for the seamen. Most of the great cabin had been taken over by the botanist, turned into a plant nursery to accommodate many hundreds of young breadfruit plants. Even the officers’ quarters were very sparse. “Wouldn’t like to travel on this ship,” thought Rosie. “It’s far too small and cramped. I feel sorry for all those men jammed together.”

“Will you just look at that?” said Blythe. “Have you ever seen such a gathering of tarts and floosies in one place? I’d say there’s every loose woman from the waterfront aboard the Bounty. I’ll bet old Bligh is in his cabin red-faced with anger and just waiting to clear the ship and get underway. Nothing he can do about the last day in port for the crew; it’s a long established tradition of the navy. The married men, of course, would say goodbye to their wives on shore. Respectable wives wouldn’t come aboard with all that carousing, drinking and God knows what else. What do you say to that, Tristram?”

“I’m sure you’re right, sir,” said the officer dutifully, but surely they can’t all be tarts and floosies. Maybe there’s some good women on board such as the men’s mothers or sisters.”

“Ha ha, not likely, Tristram, same as the wives, they’d say their goodbyes at home, I’d warrant. Now let’s go below. I want to go over the list of the crew. Has everyone signed on?”

“Still a couple of places to fill, sir.”

“Very well, send for my clerk will you and I’ll see what’s to be done. You can go, Tristram, and you too, Prior. I’ll go over the papers with Perkins; he should have written them up by now. You can see if any of the midshipmen have come on board.”

Tristram and Prior nodded and left, glad to be away from Blythe whom they didn’t much care for. In many ways he resembled his namesake on the Bounty, they thought.

 

Below in his cabin, Blythe and Perkins scanned the list of officers and seamen who had signed on for the voyage. It read:

 

      OFFICERS AND CREW OF H.M.S. BRITANNICA

 

William Blythe, Captain; John Prior, Master; Lester Tristram, Master’s Mate; Charles Burchill, Master-at-arms; Thomas Flagstone, Master-at-arms’ Mate; Frederick Horler, Surgeon; Joseph Lentil, Assistant Surgeon; Harold Wilson, Botanist; Samuel Fullerton, Assistant Botanist; William Rackover, Gunner; Frank Wills, Gunner’s Mate; William Bale, Boatswain; James Hopper, Boatswain’s Mate; Wallace Powell, Carpenter; Harold Dorman, Carpenter’s Mate; Thomas McIvor, Carpenter’s Crew; Joseph Galeman, Armourer; Benjamin Bowman, Armourer’s Mate; Roger Bracewell, Thomas Holden, James Millet, Robert Trusler, Henry Talbot, Edward France, George Mason, Michael Brown, Midshipmen; James Norman & Peter Loosely, Quartermasters; George Sampson, Quartermaster’s Mate; Lesley Brogan, Sailmaker; Blacksmith (unfilled); John Perkins, Ship’s Clerk; Richard Lunt, Butcher; Wallace Green, Baker; John Cramb & Thomas Fielder, Cooks; Assistant Cook (unfilled); Arnold Davey, Jack Christiansen, Leonard Baker, Edward Fairhurst, Frederick Thompson, Bryan Register, Leonard Cross, William Beatty, Robert Symonds, George Parr-Whalley, Horace Gleeson, Raymond Brown, Maurice Edwards, John Evans, William Timmins, Alec Streeter, Mervyn Jones, Able Seamen.

“So, what’s this?” cried the captain. “Two places unfilled. Get onto it at once, Perkins. I want every man jack that I’m entitled to ship and I won’t be leaving until every post is filled.”

“Very well, sir, I’ll get onto it at once, sir.”

“Send Midshipman Bracewell up here, Perkins. I’m dining tonight on the Bounty with Mr Bligh and he knew Bracewell’s father very well. Farewell dinner before he sets sail for the South Seas. Bracewell can accompany me. Perkins nodded, touched his cap and left. After alerting Mr Bracewell, he had to get onto the job of finding a blacksmith and an assistant or junior cook as fast as he could or he would have the captain’s wrath on his head and that wasn’t to be borne at all. He’d scour the waterfront pubs, quite likely find what he was looking for in those sorts of places, particularly a blacksmith, most likely slaking his thirst after a hard day at the anvil.

 

Bracewell knocked at the captain’s door and was bade enter. “We’re dining tonight with Mr Bligh on the Bounty; believe he knew your father very well.”

“Yes, sir, my father sailed with Mr Bligh on one of Captain Cook’s voyages and on several ships of the line during the wars in Europe. They knew each other well.”

“That’s so? Then I believe you and Captain Bligh will have plenty to talk about, eh Bracewell? Well, let’s go, can’t keep the good captain waiting can we, Bracewell?”

 

On board the Bounty, all visitors had been sent ashore, much to Lieutenant Bligh’s satisfaction. His foul mood about all the frivolity on board had finally abated as he welcomed his visitors. “Glad to see you, Blythe, you too, Bracewell; knew your father; sailed with him many times; dashed fine officer, proper gentleman, good navigator, but a bit too easy on the crew, lazy dogs that most of them are.”

“Yes, sir, he really cared for the well-being of the men. He always said that, particularly their health,” replied Bracewell.

“A bit soft on them I would say. Apart from that, he was one of the best officers I ever served with,” said Bligh and then asked, “Did you see the flogging on the fleet yesterday, when a rogue who had the temerity to strike an officer got his just deserts?”

“Yes, I did, but the man was dead when the flogging vessel came abaft the Britannica.”

“Well, young Bracewell, that can’t be helped. Discipline must be enforced at all times in His Majesty’s Navy; otherwise all we’d have would be a rabble. Always remember that.” He turned towards his other guest. “Let’s talk about more pleasant things, eh Blythe?” As the three men talked, a servant was busy preparing the table. He poured each a measure of wine and handed the glasses around. The three settled into their chairs and savoured the wine.

 

On shore, Perkins was busily going about his task of adding a blacksmith and junior cook to the crew’s list. He wasn’t having much luck until finally he came to the Mariners’ Arms. Rosie, up to her elbows in mucky water, scrubbing the iron cooking pots, could hear the loud voices coming from the alehouse parlour and heard the Britannica mentioned. She pricked up her ears and stole a look around a corner to hear Perkins proclaiming the wonder and enticement of sailing to the South Seas in store for a couple lucky enough to be a blacksmith or a junior cook. “Aargh, mister, you’d be better off looking in the baker’s and pudding shops along the quay for yer cook and at iron works down’t near navy shipyards or t’ pubs nearby there instead of wetting yer whistle ’ere, ha ha.”

Rosie, all ears, listened to the talk and discussion going on among the drinkers in the room. Some had been to the South Seas but not many as it was still a little known entity and, apart from the three around-the-world voyages of Captain Cook and the charts and writings he had left along with the writing, sketches and research of Sir Joseph Banks, very little else was known about the vast ocean, its lands and inhabitants. Rosie knew nothing of this; she only knew the many islands were warm and inhabited by brown-skinned people who didn’t have to endure ice-cold winters. As she listened, a daring plan formed in her mind. She asked herself, “Do I have the courage to do it?” She thought she would go home in the evening and think about it. Perkins, meanwhile, headed off towards more likely recruiting grounds looking for his two crewmen. Little did he know that his words in the Mariners’ Arms would spark an adventure and a scandal that he would never have imagined.

 

Next day, a young lad hardly old enough to shave, presented himself aboard the Britannica, applying for the junior cook’s post. Interviewed initially by Master’s Mate, Mr Tristram, who looked doubtfully at the recruit, “You say that you heard about the post at the Mariners’ Arms. What would you be doing there then?”

“I was working in the kitchen as assistant cook sir,” said the young man huskily.

“Have you got a cold or something?” asked Mr Tristram.

“No sir, it’s just a gurgly throat brought on by the heat of the kitchen and then going out into the cold weather.”

“Very well, then. Do your parents know that you are applying for the job?”

“Oh yes, sir.”

“That’s all from me. I’ll send you down to the galley and you can have a word with the head cook. What did you say your name was?”

“Robbie O’Dwyer, sir.”

“Saints preserve us! You aren’t a popish Catholic are you?”

“Certainly not, sir. Brought up a Presbyterian, sir.”

 

The head cook, who was also the baker, looked doubtfully in turn at very young, fresh-faced Robbie O’Dwyer. “You understand, young fellow, we don’t usually carry four cooks; manifest is usually for just three, but our crew is larger than is usually carried by an armed transport so captain insisted on an extra cook. Had to be junior because pay’s not much. You mind that you’ll ’ave to do a lot of pot scrubbing.”

“I’m used to that,” said Robbie O’Dwyer, somewhat ruefully.

“Best part,” continued the cook, “our quarters are a little better and apart from rest of crew. That’s because we ’ave to be up and working at odd hours, preparing so many meals. Officers too have to be looked after special, you understand otherwise it’s a rope’s end round yer backside.”

There being no other applications for the junior cook’s job, Robbie O’Dwyer was duly signed on as a legitimate crew member of His Majesty’s armed transport, Britannica. Meanwhile, Isaac Fenton was recruited as blacksmith. He was drunk when recruited and his wife often wondered what had happened to him when he didn’t return home that night or any other night for nigh on two years. Luckily, she managed to find work as housekeeper at a large house owned by a lawyer and in that way survived. Meanwhile, there was increasing hustle and bustle as Britannica made ready for her voyage. A cable’s length away, Captain Bligh stood on the bridge of the Bounty, cursing at his crew as they made ready for their departure. The crew of Britannica lined the deck as a gesture of farewell. A launch rowed by eight husky sailors towed the Bounty out onto the road where her sails could catch the wind and she could set sail south-west and start her long journey from the English Channel to the ends of the earth. The year was 1787.

 

“Won’t be long now and we’ll be following her, eh Tristram?” said Captain Blythe from his post on the quarterdeck. “Will you just listen to old Bligh, cursing fit to cause his head to explode. Can hear him from leagues away.” Tristram gave a tight smile. He knew he would be hearing much the same from Britannica’s captain in a few days. Down in the galley, Robbie had met his other workmate, young 21-year-old, Thomas Fielder. He had learnt the other cook was John Cramb and head cook and baker was Wallace Green, whose job each day was to bake the many loaves of bread. Bread was a staple on the long voyages. Many times there wasn’t much else to eat. Robbie O’Dwyer was filled with wonder with all that was going on around him. But, on the other hand, was worried about his alter ego, young, ambitious Rosie O’Dwyer. Bit of luck she didn’t have to bunk down with the rough seamen. She daren’t think what might have happened if that had been the case. “I’ll be Robbie O’Dwyer just as long as I can,” she thought. “After that we’ll be too far away from any port where they could put me ashore and they’ll just have to put up with having a woman on board for the whole voyage.”

 

The time came for Britannica’s last day in port and the usual festivities for the sailors’ farewell were taking place above and below decks. From a safe vantage place, Robbie looked on, observing everything. He had seen it all happen previously on board the Bounty but it amazed him nevertheless. “Rosie would be shocked!” he thought to himself, wryly. His workmate, Thomas Fielder, joined him watching the dancing, drinking and carousing. Every now and then a sailor would disappear below with a giggling companion, all poke bonnet and petticoats, only to reappear a little later red-faced and tousled. So it went on all day and into the early evening when the ship was cleared of visitors.

 

Sailing day came at last. Rosie had said her goodbyes to her family earlier. None of them could understand why their daughter and sister had become a man just to sail on a ship. Nevertheless, tearfully they embraced her and wished her well on her foolhardy (to them) adventure. They wondered if they would ever see her again. Her father even gave her some of his garments, even though they were a mite too big, so she’d have a change of clothing. The sailor’s garb she had been wearing she had swiped from clothes lines in neighbour’s backyards.

The galley crew of cooks and a baker were fortunate to have their own quarters adjacent to their work – two small cabins with Robbie and Thomas Fielder assigned to one, Cramb and Green to the other. The captain had decided to segregate the cooks so that their very early risings and activities in preparing the food would not disturb the rest of the crew, many of whom would have come off night-watch.

 

“What a situation,” thought Robbie. “I must have been mad to think I could get away with it. “But I’m right in the stew now, so I’ll just have to do the best I can.” She thought of giving up the whole idea and scampering off the ship and becoming Rosie again but the idea of returning to the scullery at the Mariners’ Arms put that idea right out of her head. She ran her hand over her cropped head, regretting for a moment the loss of her shining curls. “What’s done is done,” she told herself. “From now on I’m Robbie, a young lad at sea. I’ll have to practise to walk like a man – big strides, no small lady steps. I’ll have to keep my voice as low as possible – no high pitches. I’ll have to practise speaking as gruff as I can. What about my cabin mate, Thomas? How long can I fool him? He seems decent and a god-fearing man. He didn’t take part in any of the festivities aboard. I might be able to trust him to keep his hands and any desires he might have to himself, once he finds out that I am actually Rosie and not Robbie.”

From above she could hear shouted commands, the piping of the bosun’s whistle, the creak of ropes, the patter of footsteps as seamen ran to and fro, loosening hawsers and carrying out the many tasks needed to take a ship out to sea. On the quarterdeck, stood Captain Blythe, Tristram and the master, Mr Prior. The rest of the officers were all intent about their allotted tasks. She could feel the ship move as it was towed away from the shore.

“Good easterly blow, eh Mr Prior?” said Captain Blythe jovially. He was in a right good humour as the chancy winds could have delayed their departure for days. “With that wind we’ll soon be off and should make good time on our first day.”

Mr Prior didn’t reply as Tristram’s voice rose. “Away land, sir.”

“Loose topsails!” shouted Prior and his command was passed on from man to man. In a flash, the men at the mizzentop had the coverings off and the small sail set. Soon the topsails were loosed and filled by the steadily blowing east wind. The Britannica was under way. A cheer broke out from the watchers on the shore and on the other ships as she started to heel to the wind.

Robbie, watching all the activity from a passageway, trembled with excitement. The noises were exciting – the rattling of the blocks, the pistol shot slap of the canvas, the shouted commands. “Loose the forecourse!” and soon, “Up mainsail!” Shortly, Britannica was racing before the wind, bound firstly for the island of St Helena and then Cape Town. Robbie breathed in the sharp, salt air and went below. “Remember, I’m Robbie from now on. Rosie has been left on shore,” the newest and youngest crew member said to himself.

 

“Where ’ave you been?” shouted chief cook, Mr Green. “Up on deck watching the goings-on there, I’ll be bound. Well, you’re supposed to be down ’ere; that’s where you’re supposed to be.” Robbie looked suitably chastened. “Now, young fellow, I’ve already told you that your job’l mainly be scrubbin’ and cleanin’ and runnin’ messages as well. Have to be another set of arms and legs for the cooks. Like as not, there’s always too much to do. Do a good job and we might let you cook porridge now and then. ’Nother job is to pick weevils out of the flour. Blasted weevils breed wors’n mice in the hot places. Men gripe long an’ loud if they finds weevils in their bread. Complain somethin’ awful to the officers. That might mean rope’s end from bosun. Wouldn’t want that to ’appen, would you, young Robbie, eh?”

 “Er, no sir, shouldn’t think so. Will keep my eyes open for weevils, certainly will, sir.”

 “You can go off now and stow yer gear. Not that you ’ad much I noticed. Don’t call me sir, that’s for the officers. Mister Green’l do. An’ you don’ ’ave to salute me either. Keep that for the officers as well. Off yer go.”

 

In the tiny cabin, cabin mate, Thomas Fielder, was stowing his gear. “There you are, Robbie. Where’ve you been?”

“I’ve been with Mr Green. He was showing me the ropes and telling me about weevils.”

“Oh, yes, the weevils; most important. Another thing you have to watch for is the stuff the officers pay for and bring aboard to supplement their rations. All sorts of things – potatoes, vegetables, fruits, cheeses, honey, sweetmeats. You have to make sure no grubs get into their special stuff and keep your own fingers out of it as well, if you know what’s good for you.”

“Oh, yes, I certainly will,” she said earnestly. “He’s uncommonly well spoken,” she thought, “just like a gentleman.”

She busied herself stowing away her pitifully slim kit of belongings. Fielder watched her critically. “You haven’t got much have you, Robbie? How old are you anyway?”

“Ar, just fourteen last month,” said Robbie, slicing two years of his age to help explain his absence of a beard. “Good job,” Robbie thought, “my clothes are real baggy and hide all my front bits. Washing oneself among a shipload of men will be a problem but I’ll keep to myself and just wash in a bucket. I think I’ll be able to get away with it for quite a long time.” The ship was rocking and heaving under the southerly blow and Robbie started to feel quite queasy. “Don’t want to be sick; that would never do. I’ll have to be just as tough as the rest of the old salts aboard.”

“Come on, Robbie, we’d best get back to the galley. Mr Green will want us to start preparing for the next round of meals. What happens is that certain of the crew pick up the pots of stew, bread and other items we might cook and take them to the men’s mess each mealtime. The officers’ servants pick up and serve their meals. Midshipmen eat together and senior officers eat with the captain if invited. Probably won’t see Mr Tristram eating with Captain Blythe very often. The two don’t seem to get on at all.”

In the galley, Robbie was set to cutting up a part carcase of beef, much of it going into a stew. The remainder would be kept as long as possible before it became too putrid to use. The cooks would fall back on to using salt beef or pork. Fresh supplies and water would be loaded at the port of St Helena, which would last much of the time until the ship reached Cape Town. “You’re making heavy weather of that, ain’t you Robbie?” said Mr Green. “Can’t ’ave grown much muscle yet, I’ll be bound.”

“Well, the lad’s only fourteen, Mr Green,” explained Thomas.

 

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