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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Twelve

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



East of Dominica

    Shortly after a skiff delivered Tromp to the Amelia, the first preliminary report of the engagement was handed to him.

    La Flota, as hoped and anticipated, had elected not to split into its two primary parts before making landfall in the New World. That was why it was still so large. The bigger of the two parts, the Tierra Firma Fleet, existed to collect the goods waiting along the Spanish Main, from Santa Margarita Island all the way to Cartagena. The route of the Nueva Espana fleet varied, but always crossed the Gulf of Mexico and wound up at Vera Cruz, where riches from most of New Spain accumulated.

    This year, the Tierra Firma fleet had been comprised of eight war galleons and twenty-one merchantmen: enough to send smaller detachments to various ports of call, each with their own security contingent. The Nueva Espana fleet had numbered seventeen merchantmen and only three war galleons; not many pirates ventured into the open waters of the Gulf, where the currents were unhelpful or weak and the wind was scarce and fickle. So in total, Tromp had intercepted no fewer than thirty-eight merchantmen and eleven war galleons. There had been either three or four pataches as well, but they had slipped away during the battle.

    So too had six of the rearmost naos, which were not dual-purpose ships like galleons. Built strictly for commerce, they had burthens of five hundred toneladas or more and rode out storms as well or better than galleons. However, they were even slower and so, were always kept at the rear of La Flota, where they were easiest to protect and least likely to be the first to encounter a threat.

    On this day, however, that rearmost position had enabled six of the naos’ captains to decide that discretion was the better part of valor. Three must have done so within the first quarter hour of sighting the allied fleet. Despite unpromising winds, they went south as close-hauled as their rigging allowed, frantically dumping their cargo as they went. That was known only because the jacht which briefly gave chase fished out some light crates that were still be floating in their vanished wake.

    The other three naos fled somewhat later. Judging from what Tower observed, their decision to do so occurred shortly after the thirteen ships of Anvil began maneuvering to cut off any chance of escape to the north. Perhaps one or more of the nao’s maintopmen had also caught sight of the jachts flying in from their picket positions as part of the detection net. That would have been more than enough evidence to convince any nao’s captain that the attackers meant to surround the entirety of La Flota. One of the merchantmen had fled southeast, another northeast, another perversely turned about and began the risky job of beating hard into what had been their strong eastern tailwind.

    In the end, that dubious plan of escape proved to be no worse than the others. Tromp still had a superabundance of enemy ships to commandeer or scuttle, as well as Spanish seamen and troops to transfer to temporary mass prisons in same holds that had carried the seamen who would now sail the many prize hulls back to St. Eustatia. As it was, he could barely spare the jacht he did send in pursuit, which left so late that he had every expectation that she’d lose the nao in the dark. As she did.

    The greater disappointment of the day was the need to scuttle six of the Spaniards. But first, the carpenters and bosuns among his boarding teams had to determine which ships were likely to remain afloat for at least a day or two, or had to be unloaded immediately.

    That presented a slew of immediate challenges. Firstly, the four ships which were safe enough to unload had to have their complements gotten off before they could be searched and adequately assessed. Only then could a salvage team be put aboard. Meanwhile, the Spanish crew had to be transferred under guard to the overcrowded holds of Tromp’s fluyts and the capacious USE merchantman Serendipity. But that could not be effected until these temporary prison ships came alongside the smoking hulks, assisted by overtaxed steam tugs during their final approaches. Meanwhile, courier skiffs were racing to and fro between the mostly radio-less Dutch ships, whose Aldis lamps were still being reserved for combat and emergency signals. All the movement and hurry made the battle seem serene, by comparison.

    Had the Dutch not had the unemployed manpower and months of training to prepare, it could not have been accomplished. And had the weather been poor or the seas too rough, all the preparation would have been for naught; salvage operations in those conditions were not merely difficult but terribly dangerous, particularly those involving cannon.

    There had been considerable debate whether the Spanish guns could even be claimed from those ships which ultimately required scuttling. The Dutch did have the portable tackle required; they’d brought some from Recife and had constructed more since. Additional operators had been trained in the prior months, and they now went about their business with singular fervor. In addition to their wages, each cannon carried a bonus which went up along with its weight of throw. Besides, the mere idea of turning so many Spanish guns back upon their makers had the special savor of revenge seasoned by irony.

    Even after being grounded near Dominica’s windward coast, the four ships that could be safely unloaded proved particularly treacherous when it came to disassembling and moving the largest guns, which were of course in the lower batteries. A quick consideration of the manpower available and time required decided Tromp; he would remain on Amelia and lead the rest of the fleet to rendezvous with Eddie off Guadeloupe. Meanwhile, Resolve and the remainder of Hammer would remain with the salvage teams as they undertook the careful extraction of the guns. The other stores and supplies of the four grounded hulks would be removed first and transferred to the rest of the fleet, however. Because, if the weather turned and the waves grew, the stricken ships might be floated off the bottom and driven onto rocks, or crushed down by high waves that could either roll them or break them up.

    The last two of the six ships to be scuttled were two war galleons that were so badly damaged, with so many lingering fires, and such full magazines, that salvage operations would have been suicidal. So, as soon as their crews had been ordered to put down their boats and abandon their ship, the Dutch went aboard with axes and hammers to work away at the hull, and left behind long-fused and carefully tamped powder charges.

    As the second scuttling charge went off with a dull crump, Tromp was watching the other one begin its death-roll. Two hours earlier it had been a scourge of the seas; now it was being taken to the benthic bosom of that same element. He sighed and glanced at the tally sheets that summarized what remained of La Flota, and hence, what his fleet had taken this day.

    Of eleven war galleons, three had been sunk, two scuttled by charges immediately, and two would meet a similar fate when salvage was complete. That left four as prizes, two of which were so badly damaged that it would be months before Oranjestad’s shipwrights made them seaworthy. The pair that would be ready for service sooner were the two survivors of the trio that had sped toward Resolve at the start of the battle. They were by far the most handsome prizes in terms of military use, but only modestly so in terms of cargo. Of course, they shouldn’t have had any cargo at all, since the warships of La Flota were officially restricted to carrying naval stores. However, as with so many other rules imposed by the Escorial, circumvention was routinely achieved via nepotism, bribes, and/or chicanery. So the war-galleons’ cargos, while modest, were also choice.



    Of the seventeen galleons that had been merchantmen, two had been sunk outright and two more would be scuttled as soon as their off-loading was completed. Of the thirteen that remained, five would require extensive repairs but eight were fit for immediate service.

    The twenty-one naos, an unusually high number for any Spanish fleet, had seen the least combat. Six had escaped. Three more had tried to flee but had been brought to heel by a several punishing broadsides. Twelve had been taken intact.

    Tromp held the sheet further away from his eyes, tried to take in the full implications all at once. Thirty-two ships taken out of forty-nine total. The cargos of an additional four would be salvaged before they were scuttled. About a third would need major repairs before they could be put into service.

    Dirck Simonszoon’s voice, just behind his shoulder, startled him. “Maarten, you look like Midas counting his gold. By the way, they found the Spanish admiral. He’ll be aboard soon.”

    “Good. One more thing we can get out of the way. Are the boardings complete?”

    Simonszoon stared sidelong at him. “That is yet another comment that makes me wonder about ‘impending dotage.'”

    “Captain, you are impudent.”

    “No, Admiral: you are delusional. There are thirty-two prizes that must have their crews transferred to our prison-ships, another four made safe for salvage teams prior to scuttling, and two more that had to be evacuated immediately. We’ve taken care of the ones that were sinking and that we’re scuttling. We’ve sorted out about half of the others, starting with the least damaged. It stands to reason they’d be the first to start thinking about trying to run.”

    Tromp nodded. “Still, we will not be done by dark.”

    “Maarten, we will be fortunate to be done by midnight. Or have you forgotten that we have to put our prize crew aboard the ones we’re taking?”

    “I have forgotten nothing.” And indeed, Tromp recalled the matter of the prize crews in great detail, simply because it had been one of the most hotly contested parts of their plan. They had counted on taking, maybe, thirty ships maximum. Unfortunately, the Spanish did not make ships that were labor efficient. Even for the short cruise back to St. Eustatia, each hull should have had thirty-man prize crews, which meant they needed nine hundred such men.

    They had maybe a third that number of persons who had maritime skills and were not fully employed. Besides, as Tromp’s fleet had no way of being sure when La Flota would arrive, they had to turn the holds of the fluyts and Serendipity into cramped quarters as the whole fleet waited on station. Even by putting four hundred men into those holds, and by distributing more into whatever berths remained on the warships, Tromp and Simonszoon were barely able to scrape together and sustain six hundred to serve as prize crews.

    But with today’s results, that meant they had less than twenty men per prize hull. Tromp had been thinking about possible solutions to the unanticipated problems of too much success, and did not like the one he decided upon. Unfortunately the rest were even worse. “We will need five Spaniards to remain on each ship. Sail-handlers and deck hands, only. No officers, gunners –“

    “Yes, Maarten; I see where you are steering.” Dirck’s grin became sly. “I don’t suppose it would interest you to know that several of the ships had a smattering of slaves on board. Not field hands: craftsmen. Well, mostly men. Some women, too.”

    Tromp was staring at Dirck by the time he finished. “Free them! At once! And put them in charge of the Spaniards!”

    Dirck actually chuckled. “I was waiting for you to say that. It shall be done. Has Eddie sent word, yet?”

     Tromp frowned. “No. But whatever the outcome of his mission, we have no choice but to deposit the prisoners on Petit-Terre. If only for a few days while we make other arrangements.”

    “You don’t mean to bring them to Oranjestad!”

    “Of course not!”

    “But then where — ?”

    “Dirck, we have our hands quite full now. Let us cross further bridges when and if we come to them.” Coronets pealed. “The Spanish admiral, no doubt.”

    Simonszoon craned his neck. “Seems to be.” He cocked an eyebrow at Tromp. “You ordered formal flourishes for a Spanish dog?”

    Tromp straightened. “Captain, I shall not judge the character of an officer I have not met, any more than I shall judge the soul of a man I do not know.”

    Simonszoon shrugged. “Well, you’re a more generous fellow than I am, Deacon Tromp. But we knew that already.” He nodded toward Adriaen Banckert, XO of Amelia, who was leading the admiral and two other Spanish officers up the stairs to the poop deck. “You don’t want to do this in the great cabin?”

    “No need. While I mean to be civil, I have no desire to suggest to our visitor that we intend to entertain him.”

    Simonszoon patted his shoulder and stood beside him. “There’s the steely Tromp I know!”

    Young Banckert gestured for the guards to keep the fierce-looking hidalgo back a step. “Admiral, the Spanish commander, Almirante Antonio de Curco y San Joan de Olacabal has come to surrender his sword and his fleet.”

    There was some distempered grumbling behind Banckert.

    “What was that?” Tromp asked, raising one eyebrow.

    “My Spanish is rusty, Admiral, but I believe the Spanish admiral was correcting my assertion that this was his fleet. He seems to feel the Capitan-General in command, now presumed dead, should keep that title since it was his incompetence that led to their defeat. Or words to that effect.”

    As Adriaen finished, Simonszoon was grinning. “Your Spanish is just fine, Banckert.”

    Tromp nodded. “Ask the Admiral to join us.”

    De Curco y San Joan did so, sword proffered across both palms, one of which showed the remains of dried blood. Whether the admiral’s or someone else’s, Tromp could not tell. “I do not require your sword, Admiral, any more than I wish to diminish the honor it signifies.”

    If anything, that seemed to make the Spanish admiral even more quietly furious, as though he would have preferred Tromp to be a gloating ogre. “You are most kind,” he muttered in a tone that said, “I would happily eat your liver.” He rebuckled the sword, straightened his neck. “I, Almirante Antonio de Curco y San Joan de Olacabal, surrender the remains of His Majesty Philip IV’s fleet to the New World to you, and ask for Christian restraint and care in addressing the fate of its survivors.”

    “I accept your surrender,” Tromp replied, “as well as responsibility for the restraint and care you request and which we fully intend to observe. Do you have other requests?”

    De Curco y San Joan’s frustrated fury barely allowed him to shake his head in the negative. Then, as if that had exhausted the last measure of his self-control, he almost spat, “I suppose you think this a great triumph. But it will be the end of you, Tromp. Yes, I know who you are. And you had best enjoy your . . . your ‘New World Dunkirk’ while you can. Philip will ensure that it is the last victory you ever know.”

    Trump folded his hands, considered. “‘The New World Dunkirk.'” He smiled. “I like that. I would not have thought of it, myself. I’m afraid I do not possess an Iberian flair for the dramatic. However, I am satisfied that we Dutch possessed whatever qualities helped us prevail, this day.”

    The Spaniard raised the point of his finely-groomed beard. “That was luck . . . and the Lord’s sharp reminder to any overly-proud Spaniard that it is through Him, and Him alone, that we may be victorious and reign supreme.”

    “Yes, I’m sure…although there is something to be said for the axiom that God helps those who help themselves. At least, that is what is preached in my church. Now, let discuss the matter of your parole.”



    De Curco y San Joan started as if struck. “P-parole? You are freeing us?”

    “In a manner of speaking. Forty miles north of here, just south of Guadeloupe, are a pair of small islands known as Petit-Terre. At least that is how they appear on up-time charts. Are you familiar with them?”

    “Vaguely.” It was obvious he had never heard of them.

    “They are sufficient for a short stay,” Tromp assured him. “Certainly long enough to allow you to fashion craft from what remains of those of your ships that will sail that far…before they are scuttled in the shallows around those islands.”

    “You are marooning us?”

    “If that word has the same meaning for us as it has for you, then we are not marooning you. We are explicitly leaving you with the means and tools to fashion smaller ships with which you may return to your lands.”

    “But I have seen your salvagers at work; you are taking all the spare canvas!”

    “There will still be smaller spans of cloth that you may secure from the riven sails that we leave behind.”

    “And what shall we eat?”

    “There are fish aplenty in the surrounding waters, and you shall have the long boats from the decks of the galleons. We shall also leave a supply of your own biscuits.”

    “Which are inedible!”

    “Which,” Simonszoon sneered, “is in no way a fault of ours, wouldn’t you agree?

    Tromp waved him to silence. “Admiral, the Spanish pride themselves on their history of overcoming great obstacles. This is hardly the greatest you have had to face.”

    “Perhaps not, but we have women and children with us.”

    Tromp nodded. “If the conditions on the islands are too harsh, I shall bring them to Montserrat.”

    “And what is on Montserrat, other than more Protestants who will revile and abuse them?”

    “In point of fact, Montserrat is now overwhelmingly populated by Irish Catholics, refugees who will certainly sympathize with the plight of your women and children. They have known similar travails, and will no doubt treat your dependents kindly until they may find their ways home.”

    De Curco had to cast around a moment to find yet another objection to fling at Tromp. “And the fathers of those women and children?”

    “From what we have been able to tell so far, there are but a few families on your ships. And frankly, given that the King of Spain does not trouble himself to assign tasks that allow fathers to remain with their families, the separation experienced by those wives and children will not be so very different than they would have suffered when they reached their destinations here in the New World. Indeed, they might be better off.” He lowered his brow. “And it will be infinitely better than the treatment you would have given our people, were our situations reversed.”

    “I do not know what you mean,” de Curco claimed defiantly.

    “Indeed? So Olivares did not send his message to your fleet? Even though it pertained to the New World?”

    “I tell you: I do not know this message of which you speak.”

    “Truly? About no longer taking any Dutch prisoners?” Tromp lowered his voice. “Deny that, if you can. On peril of your immortal soul.”

    The admiral looked away.

    “Ah. So it is your forthrightness, not Olivares’ correspondence, that is wanting.” Tromp raised his chin. “I trust that you have no other fears regarding our presumed ‘inhuman’ treatment of your passengers and crew? Good.” He started away, then turned back. “I suppose I should remark that there are those among my fleet who feel that my terms of treatment are, in fact, too generous.” He paused, let both his tone and his brow drop again. “Entirely too generous. Now, I bid you safe travels from this place, Admiral de Curco y San Joan.”

    The Spaniard did not meet Tromp’s eyes before turning on his heel and striding away and down the quarterdeck’s stairs.

    Adriaen Banckert waved the senior trooper to see the Admiral and his officers back to the skiff that had brought them. The young XO looked after the Spaniards. “There’s a part of me that feels it would be better to have simply killed them. Well, the men, I mean.” When he saw Tromp’s look, he hastily added, “If they live, they will simply try to kill us again, you know.”

    Tromp shook his head. “If one behaves like one’s enemies, one becomes them. Besides, survivors are a benefit to us.”


    “We have left them most of their small boats. Some will try their luck in those. If they are good and careful sailors, they will survive. They will follow north along the Lesser Antilles, then skip from Saba to St. Croix and so reach Puerto Rico without hazarding the Anegada Passage.

    “If they are not fortunate or are too impatient, then their end will have been of their own choosing. And, even though they are arch-papists, I still commend their souls not only to the deep, but to the grace of God. But be assured, some survivors will arrive in Puerto Rico, and from thence, their report will be conveyed to Cuba and Spain.”

    “And so our enemies will have intelligence on us!”

    “Yes, to the extent that the survivors have reported accurately. And you may rest assured that, between the terror of this day and their desire to be held blameless for having failed against a numerically inferior opponent, they will exaggerate our capabilities and numbers. And so the Escorial will pause and debate and worry will ensue. In the meantime, one fact will resonate.”

    “Which is?”

    “Which is that the silver and gold that their forces gathered all over the New World last year cannot be collected, now. Not in time to prop up Madrid’s failing economy at the very moment when it most needs its next injection of specie. Olivares will be fortunate indeed if he can scratch together another fleet to fetch it before September.”

    Simonszoon smiled, amplified: “And even if Olivares hastened such a last-minute Flota into the dark waves of the late-year Atlantic to arrive here before winter, that is still too late. By the time it could collect and then return with the silver, that treasure would arrive ten months later than promised. But be assured, Adriaen Banckert, the real trouble for us will start the moment news of this day reaches Spain, whose ruler will be most discomfited.”

    Adriaen sounded far more worried than edified. “Who will see to it that we are most assiduously sought and pursued.”

    Tromp shrugged. “Undoubtedly so. But that was an inevitability. Now it might simply occur sooner rather than later.” He nodded toward the wheel. “Tell the pilot that when we get under way, I want to keep on as broad a reach as we can. We must adjust our sailing to these Spanish scows, so we’ll need to put every gust that we can in their sails. Otherwise, we shall not make Guadeloupe by noon tomorrow.”

    He turned toward the bows, felt the wind on his right cheek, then glanced left at the setting sun. It was limning Dominica’s high, dark profile in burnished gold. The perfect end for a day that just might find its way into history books . . .

    The senior telegrapher came up to the weather deck two steps at a time. “Report from Intrepid, Admiral. Shall I read it?”

    “A summary would be preferable, Jost.”

    “Very well, sir. Commodore Cantrell reports that his contact with the indigenous peoples of Guadeloupe went better than hoped, and that Petit-Terre is cleared for disembarking our prisoners.” Amelia‘s comm’s mate looked up from the sheet. “Wonderful news, ja, sir?”

    “Yes, Jost.” But with that worry resolved, another leaped up to take its place: “Any signal from Major Quinn or Courser, yet?”

    “Still nothing, sir.”

    “Well,” Tromp sighed, “let us hope that his attempt to befriend the native peoples of the mainland goes half so well as Eddie’s on Guadeloupe.”

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