Previous Page Next Page

Home Page Index Page

1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Sunday, October 25, 2020 09:39 EDT



East of Dominica

    Tromp involuntarily raised his left eyebrow in response to Sehested’s subtle prompt. “I see. Well, Master Stirke, I presume you come with news from leeward?

    “Bless me if there’s any news worth sayin’, sahr. Nary a ship with uncertain intents. Hardly a ship at all.”

    “Any hulls at all around Guadeloupe?”

    “Excepting your own jachts, bow into the wind and waiting, nothing.”

    “And did you meet as agreed with Admiral Jol?”

    “I did, sahr. Not two days ago. He’d little more to report than I ‘ave. Says he sank a pair of piraguas five days back. Would have taken them as prizes but the Spanish were not about to give over without a scuffle.”

    Simonszoon’s amusement was saturnine. “Piraguas? Against a Jol’s ship and the two yachts attached to him?”

    “Aye. Though they were too tired to row and the wind against them.” Stirke’s head bobbed like that of a pecking bird. “Peg-Le — er, Admiral Jol says they turned about, full of fight and with naught but two petereroes between ’em. He was hoping to take them as prizes, but two touches of shot and they were in pieces. Men and boats, alike.” He shrugged. “So naught but open seas behind ye’re fleet, sahr.”

    Simonszoon rolled his eyes; if Sehested hadn’t know to look for it, he wouldn’t have detected the faint hint of a grin. “Well, the news comes later than we hoped…but better late than never.”

    Stirke looked stricken. “We crowded sail and tacked as sharp and quick as the wind allowed, sahr! Maybe too much so. Nearly went turtle twice. But by the time we rounded the Cachacrou headland — your captains call it Scott’s Pointe — the aftermost of yer ships were already on the horizon. And well ye know that there’s no free runnin’ from there to here: your bow’d be right in the eye of the wind if you tried. We came on as fast as we could but it was dreadful long tacks just to keep speed enough, if’t please yer.”

    Simonszoon smiled, trying to show the Englishman — well, Bermudan, now, Sehested supposed — that he’d meant no harm by his comment.

    But whether it was Dirck’s long somber face or looming height, the fellow turned toward Tromp in a desperate appeal. “You were powerful hard to catch, as God’s me witness, sahr. We didn’t lolly-gag, me word on it! S’blood, it was as if ye were trying to flee us!”

    Tromp smiled faintly. “Not at all, but we could not tarry. Once our ship watching the eastern approaches signalled that she had spotted the Spanish, we had to weigh anchor immediately. Though we were beyond the windward mouth of the passage and had the wind in a broad reach, getting distance from Dominica meant beating and often tacking, too. And right across the current. Still, we made seven nautical miles by dawn.”

    Stirke frowned, glanced at the oncoming galleons, seemed to do some mental math. “Sahr, forgive me asking, but how’s it that they’re still so far a-sea? Even if your picket ship saw their lights at four, that’s what? Twenty or twenty two miles, at best? But they’ve had six and a half hours with the wind abaft. Even ’twere they making a whisker under three knots, they’d ha’ been at broadsides with you half an hour ago! But there they are, still shaping for battle, as if they’ve had but half that time. Which makes even less sense, since it were full dawn by six. So how’d they fail to spot ye and adjust? Crow’s nest to crow’s nest on your great ships, ye’d sure see each other at eighteen miles, seventeen at the least.”  

    Tromp shrugged. “We had Dominica behind us, and our topsails and gallants were reefed. At even fifteen miles, it’s work for an eagle’s eye to pick out thin, dark mastheads above a black horizon and against an island’s black outline.”

    “Ah! So you were slowed, yourselves, then.”

    “That was the price of remaining unseen,” Simonszoon drawled. “But until they saw us, they came on with both the wind and the sun behind them, so — with their sails as wide and white as a gull’s wings — we had the measure of them at fifteen miles.

    “It was near unto 8:00 when the Spanish sent out a pair of pataches to check the waters and ways around Dominica. Slightly before 8:30, they must have caught sight of us. They heeled over, beating for all they were worth — and those pataches are right-rigged for that kind of work.”

    “And since then?”

    “Since then,” Tromp answered, “La Flota slowed considerably. Most of their fighting ships — we count eleven galleons specifically constructed for combat — swung ahead into the van from their original screening formation on the north. But that evolution slowed the fleet. The cargo ships — about forty galleons and naos — had to give their protectors enough time to get well out in front.”

    Stirke nodded at all the explanations, but maintained a side-glancing skepticism throughout. There was still something off about the numbers and causes he’d been given.

    “You still seem puzzled,” Tromp commented, looking over his shoulder at the approaching galleons.

    Stirke’s gaze went there as well, then connected with his. “Well, just — just why here, Admiral?”

    Tromp made sure his smile, if small, was kind. “You have a better location in mind?”

    “Not as such, sir. I mean, one place on the globe is as good — or bad — as another fer men to make mince of their fellow men. But men usually ‘ave something to gain by fighting where they do, if you follow me. Such as yer own Piet Hein, sahr. Back in ’28, at the Battle of Manzantas Bay. Defeated La Flota, he did, just like you mean to do today.

    “But Hein were there to take hold of a true treasure fleet, Admiral — so loaded with silver that the ships were near unto sinking without his help, as they tell it.” Stirke shifted his feet, sent his arm in a wide motion that took in the bright sky, sun, and sea. “Meanin’ no disrespect, sahr, but what’s the point o’ being here, where there’s no silver to be had at all?”

    Tromp smiled. “And that is precisely what the Spanish have thought as well, every year before their ships weigh anchor for the New World. That they are not only invulnerable because of their strength and numbers, but because they carry nothing to stir interest, much less avarice. A habit of thought which has now worked to our advantage.”

    Stirke scratched his head. “Well, I see how they’d be surprised. But –“

    “But you think we are — what is that English word? — ‘daft’ for attacking a fleet without treasure. Yes?”

    “Well…apologies, but yes, Admiral. Utterly daft, if I mus’ say.”

    Tromp’s smile became a bit feral. “And what if I was to tell you that the Flota out there, racing towards us, is in fact filled with treasure? So loaded with valuables that even from here, you can see how low their nao’s ride in the water?”

    “I’d say that’s not because they are loaded with silver, sahr, but because they’re freighting no end of goods from Spain — all heavy, too. Tools and nails and cannons and shot and every ‘tuther needful thing that Spaniards don’t make for themselves here in the New World.”

    “Yes,” Tromp murmured. “All priceless treasure. Every bit of it.” He nodded as Stirke’s responding frown began to clear like clouds giving way to sunlight. “You see, now.”

    “Aye, an’ it’s genius, it is!” He nodded as he unfolded the logic for himself. “For more’n two years, none of us have had ships from home. Us because King Charles forsook every one of his subjects here in the Caribbean, and you because the Spaniards sunk your great fleet off Dunkirk and then blockaded ever’ one of yer ports. And so we’ve made do with what we had on hand where we could and did without where we couldn’t. And it’s showed: in our ships, our shops, our houses. And everything so dear that nary a one of us could buy any of it.”

    Tromp nodded once in return. “As it has been in Oranjestad, and all the other English and Dutch colonies. Merchants are almost without stock and yet have no use for coin. Barter for goods or services kept us all alive, but did not answer the crucial shortages for finished goods. Now: see those ships?” He pointed back at broad array of small dark blots upon the water, topped by cream-white wings. “They are the answer to those troubles. As you yourself said, Master Stirke, they are brim-full with needful things. And the men on those ships are confident — as only a century and a half of unexceptioned experience can make them — that we not only lack the capacity to stand in a full-blown battle, but haven’t the belly for it either. Because, after all, they have nothing that we would truly want, let alone need.” He stood straight.

    “And they are so terribly wrong.” He looked out over Resolve and the ships to either side of her. “About both our need and our capacity to win this battle.”

    He took a step closer to the small man, pointed behind at a small cluster of ships only a mile off Dominica’s eastern coast, the ones he had detailed to maintain observation during the coming battle. “You are welcome to remain with those ships, especially the one now lofting a balloon. For reasons I no longer have time to explain, that ship will come to no harm and cannot be caught. If, however, you still feel threatened, you will be able to leave at any time. Of this I assure you.”

    Stirke turned his hat slowly in his hands; one full, fretful revolution. “With all respect, Admiral, it’s hard to put faith in so sweeping an oath as that. It’s the kind that only God Hisself could make.”

    Tromp’s eyes were calm, almost detached. “Reason with me, Master Stirke. Why would I mislead you regarding your safety? For what possible reason, malign or malfeasant, would I want your destruction?”



    “None. Unless you fear you’ll lose this battle. Then ye might want to keep me from spreading word of such a defeat.”

    Tromp’s eyebrow raised. “I had not considered that.” He smiled. “I am doubly glad to have you here, then.”

    “But . . . why, M’lord?”

    “I am not your lord. I hold a rank I earned, not a title I was born to. It should be thus with all men, I think. But, to resolve this matter: I am especially glad for your presence because you think quickly and accurately. And I will want that quality in one who makes report to Bermuda and the Bahamas.”

    “What is it you wish me to report, then, sir?”

    “Everything you shall presently observe in the coming battle, so that you may relate it to your people, your community, your leaders.”

    “With all due respect, we’ve heard tell of the fine qualities of these ships of yours, Admiral.”

    “Yes. You’ve heard about outcomes. Fine outcomes. Improbable outcomes, actually….unless you see these ships in action. Then you will be not only be able to tell the story of this battle, but it will become clear, in hindsight, just how all the others were won so decisively.

    “You must see this so that your people understand. In the New World, we are not and never will be so numerous as the Spanish. They hold much territory and we hold little. They have many ships; we have few.

    “But their size has made them both complacent and reluctant to change, whereas we are bold and innovative. Today, you shall have a chance to observe Spain’s quantities confronted by our qualities. Knowing not just the outcome, but how it was attained, assures that your leaders will be better able to decide if it is truly in their best interests to remain evasive when it comes to making firm agreements and even alliances with us here in the Leeward Islands.”

    Stirke crumpled his hat in his hands. “Admiral, I’m a mastern of a ship, ‘at’s true enough. But it’s a little ship and, as captain’s go, I’m littler still. As even a blind man can see.” He cracked a smile. “But little or no, I’ve a wife and children to feed. So if I fail to leave this place now, and so, never do, it’s them that would be suffering not me. And it’s that suffering which is on me mind, what with a great battle looming before me eyes.”

    Tromps softened his tone. “I’m sorry not to have asked after your circumstances, captain. You must do as you think right. However, I must also point out that, by staying safe in the shadows of greater ships, quite distant from where the guns will thunder, you may also discover the means to accrue great wealth this day. Wealth so great that you and your family will never know want again.”

    The man’s eyes lit as if kindled. Tromp was glad to see the fear in them replaced by eagerness, but that did not make Stirke’s suddenly predatory expression pleasant to see. “I beg your pardon, Admiral?”

    Tromp gestured toward the east. “Today’s battle will have more ships in it than any since Dunkirk, three and a half years ago. I was the loser that day. If I am right, we shall not lose today. Indeed, I suspect there will be so many spoils that my forces shall not be able to secure them all.” He regarded the man levelly. “And there is no reason to abandon to the deep that which men might salvage for their benefit.”

    “And we’d have yer leave to take what you haven’t the time or burthen to carry off?”

    “To know I made my allies that much stronger would be a comfort to me and a blessing to our common cause. I bid you, ‘fare well’ — whatever you choose to do in the coming hours.” He glanced over the Bermudan’s shoulder and his eyes twinkled. “Oh, and by the way, that’s how we knew the Spanish were coming so many hours before they arrived.” He pointed back over the stern. Stirke turned to look.

    The great ball of an observation balloon rose slowly up from the deck of a large ship, well abaft Resolve and the other warships waiting in two groups: one large and to the north, the other small and to the south. Stirke’s mouth was as round as the sphere, but reshaped into a half-toothed grin as he turned back toward Tromp. “So it’s true! Ye’ve flying machines! Ye smite them from the air like God’s own angels!”

    Simonszoon rolled his eyes, but before the captain’s trademark sardonicism could rattle the Bermudan again, Sehested leaned forward. “Master Stirke, this balloon serves as an eye, not a weapon. The observer in it can tell us, almost instantly, the location of all our enemies, their respective courses, and their current conditions.”

    Stirke nodded, turned haltingly back toward Tromp. “I can’t say until I speak to me lads, but, if ‘t still please yeh, sahr, I think we might tarry to witness your great battle.”

    Tromp nodded, allowed a faint smile to bend his lips before turning back to the binnacle. 

    Once he heard Stirke heading down the stairs, the admiral leaned toward Evertsen. “Send word back to Tower: the observer is to use the gas burner to reach two hundred feet with all speed.”

    “Tower?” Sehested repeated uncertainly, frowning.

    Tromp, still facing the plot instead of the Dane, indulged in a brief rueful smile. On the one hand, it was an annoyance having a civilian official — and a diplomat, no less! — on his bridge. On the other hand, Sehested was the direct conduit back to King Christian IV, who followed their progress in the New World with unusual avidity. So keeping Sehested well-informed — and impressed — was worth the minor nuisance of explaining the occasional operational detail to him. Although it didn’t particularly feel that way right now, with the Spanish ships so close.

    Tromp gestured behind at the balloon and then to the western edge of the tactical plot. “We have designated the balloon and the ships dedicated to its operation ‘Tower.’ For obvious reasons, I trust.”

    Sehested nodded, pointed at the two groups of blue marks that were arrayed between it and the oncoming red icons of the Spanish. “And they are?”

    “The larger, northern squadron is ‘Anvil.’ We are in this much smaller southern group ‘Hammer.’ Again, I presume those labels are also self-defining.”

    “Within certain broad margins of meaning, yes. I see that Hammer’s complement — this ship, Amelia, Salamander, Prince Hendrik, and Crown of Waves — is comprised of unusually fine sailers. Although I do not recognize this craft: SP One?”

    “One of our steam pinnaces,” Kees explained. “For towing. There to ensure that Prince Hendrik keeps up with the others.”

    “And now, Lord Sehested,” said Tromp, turning to face the Dane, “I must turn my full attention to the matter at hand. You are welcome, however, to stay and observe.”

    Sehested inclined his head, took a step back, did not make for the stairs.

    He is brave, curious, or both, Tromp decided as he compared the plot with the unfolding scene upon the sea.

    Before he could even ask for the latest range estimate to the closest war galleon, Bjelke delivered it as he lowered his telescope. “The Spanish vanguard is nearing fourteen hundred yards.”

    When Tromp did not speak immediately, Simonszoon glanced at him. “Maarten, are we still following plan Alpha?”

    Tromp, studying the sea, hardly heard the question. “We are.”

    Simonszoon turned toward Bjelke and nodded.

    Rik leaned toward his speaking tubes. ” Engineering, raise steam. Master Gunner, prepare to acquire targets and — “

    “Belay those orders,” Tromp instructed quietly.

    “Sir?” Bjelke asked, confused.

    “New orders, Rik.”

    “Maarten — ” began Simonszoon.

    “Yes, Dirck, I know the clock. The war galleons will be at fair range for ten minutes, alongside in eleven.”

    “Not a lot of time to shift to a different plan.”

    “We’re not doing so. I’m making just one adjustment: we shall no longer commence firing at 1,350 yards.”

    “What’s the new range, then?”

    “One thousand yards. Lieutenant Bielke, raise steam.”

    Simonszoon sidled closer. His voice had none of its usual dark jocularity. “Maarten, reducing the range to one thousand yards means we’ll have them under our guns for only seven and a half minutes, not eleven. We won’t even put two thirds of the rounds we planned on into the Spanish.”

    “Actually, barely half, since I am no longer presuming forty seconds between each pull of the lanyard but forty-five.” Seeing that Simonszoon was about to object yet again, he cut to the heart of the matter: “Captain, the sea is slightly choppy and we shall be firing into the wind. In these conditions, we will be fortunate to hit the enemy ten percent of the time at 1,350 yards. At one thousand, we will surely miss, too, but we shall correct more quickly and with less wasted ammunition. And if you have been counting the rounds left in your magazine, you will surely understand why that concerns me. Particularly now.”

    He pointed at the Spanish. “We know there are at least fifty galleons and naos in this treasure fleet. Probably more, given reports from some of our other ships. That means we will be relying on these two naval rifles more than we planned. More than we ever imagined.”

    “We needn’t take them all, sir,” Bjelke murmured.

    “Probably not, but we are going to try, Lieutenant. That is how we’re going to send the Spanish a message that they cannot fail to understand.”

    “And that is?” Simonszoon asked through a sigh.

    “That their dominance in the New World is at an end.”

    Dirck’s smile was part dark mirth and part rue. “And maybe that Maarten Tromp is returning the favor for Dunkirk?”

    Tromp looked past his old friend and straight at Bjelke. “Send to the Master Gunner; commence acquiring targets. Prepare to open fire at one thousand yards. Mr. Evertsen, pass the word to the fleet: follow orders for engagement plan Alpha at the sound of our guns. And God be with us all.”

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image