Letter of Marque

1651, The commonwealth of England is gripped with war against many of the worlds greatest nations. With a scattered parliament and many colonies across the span of the earth, the defence of the seas lies with those referred to as "Privateers". With a letter of marque, Edmund Randolph sets out across the Atlantic with a small team of experienced sailors, hoping to secure his chances of a victory against the French, Dutch and Spanish pirates which plague the Americas. But a different cause grips him from inside, a chance to clear up a history which has his family torn apart.

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1. Calm before the storm

Prologue

 

“13th February 1659

My dearest Mother,

It is with great sadness, that on tomorrow’s emergence of noon, I will be setting off across the Atlantic. I am destined to halt at The Azores, on my way to the East Coast of the Americas.

I only hope that you are well, and do not need to pray for my safety every night. Give my love to all the family, especially Hannah and Nicholas.

I one day hope to find the true fate of Father, as the British Navy have done nothing to ease our pain and suffering.

The letter of marque has been received gratefully this morning, and I have a fine crew to accompany me on my travels.

Fear not, dearest mother, I am in good shape.

Your loyal son,

Edmund.”

***

The nib glided ironically smoothly across the rough parchment, until reaching the termination of the final sentence, before being lifted and placed adjacent to the paper.
   “Another rum, Edmund?” Mr Blakely – the bartender – hollered amidst the chaos which swamped ‘The Admirals Arms’.
   Edmund nodded back, daring not to raise his voice among the rowdy masses which lined the tavern’s walls. Such a crowd was common in this place, especially on a weekday night.
   The ragged men, either prowled for many of the female company which lingered amid the Inn, or sat in hordes, playing a game of “Spoil Five”, bellowing some untranslatable gibberish at one another.
   The wench, a thin, sharp-bodied brunette waltzed to his table, and placed a full tankard of rum on its surface, before claiming the empty one, and making her way back to the bar – not even raising an eye to the weary fellow.
   He fumbled a note, entitled “From the Courte of Admiralty” in his palms, before taking intervals to swig his beverage. The lantern’s light began to dwindle, but kept burning nevertheless.
   As the mug approached his lips once more, it froze. ‘What was he doing here?’ The thought tumbled in his brain. He was a privateer, not a drunkard, and in no longer than a day, he would be sailing across the Atlantic with his hundred-strong crew. He shouldn’t be squandering away his time in a tavern, drinking his sorrows. Ever since the death of his father’s, Edmund had turned to the demon drink. But now, he was a Captain, he had to set the standards for once, not someone else.
   “I can’t!” He boomed as he slammed the pewter flask onto the rotting wood surface, dust emitting from its beams. The whole atmosphere quietened into a hazy silence, faces staring at the neatly dressed man.
   This was not the life he wanted to live, nor his mother, nor anyone in his family. His mind, though blackened by the awful silence, focused on Hannah; his younger sister.

   At only twenty-three, Hannah was always looking out for him, always brightening his day with some witty remark. Just not today.
  
   The tavern’s atmosphere revived itself within a few seconds, and Edmund made his way to the bar, squeezing his figure through the crevasses of the multitudes, until reaching the wooden counter.
   “Ready to kip for the night?” Blakely questioned the tired gent, cleaning one of the many dirty glasses, littered along the surface.
   “How much for a room?” Edmund returned, scanning the area aimlessly.
   “A Shillin’ a night.”
   His gloved hand reached into his pocket, and placed two sixpence onto the timber. The barkeep shrugged, before plucking the pieces off the planks, and placed them in a draw below Edmund’s level of sight. A key, chosen from its respective place on the rack, was then handed to him.
“First door on the right.” He said before Edmund made haste up the stairs.

   Within one week, he had been able to conjure up a crew of exactly one-hundred and twenty-eight men, filling every job needed from Quarter Master to Swabbie. From four different nations, men flocked to sign up to sail the dreaded Atlantic whitecaps aboard the “Ocean’s Knave”, Edmund’s forty-four gun frigate, once known to many as the HMS Jupiter.
   He was proud to serve his country. In the midst of Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth, Britain was in turmoil. His elder brother, Nicholas, was already a General in the Navy, and had already served for three years or so, on a third-rate in the Mediterranean, so now it seemed to be Edmund’s turn. With Hannah staying home to care for their mother, as no father was present, he had to show the family he was capable of following in his father’s footsteps.

   He gripped the brass knob with his dry palms, twisting his head to the right, as he caught sight of movement down the corridor: A man, dressed from head to toe in a Royal Army uniform. This, however, was washed of colour, and then dyed with a dark brown, giving the impression of leather. Edmund nodded to the man.

“Cap’n.” The man nodded back orderly. This was Jonathan Lyle, The Ocean Knave’s soon-to-be doctor and carpenter.
   Lyle was a tall, stocky fellow, who, apart from being deemed the most “dignified” man on the ship, was also among the oldest. He was educated at Oxford University, studying both carpentry and Human Biology, and found work as a doctor, amputating wounded soldiers returning from wars – earning the title “The bloody carpenter”, due to his crude ways. Shortly after being dismissed, he worked in Newcastle docks, repairing old brigs as they came back from Britain’s many wars. It was from here that he first made for the Americas. He sailed along with four-hundred other sailors for the Canary Islands, but blockades of both Spanish and French ships prevented him from reaching his dream of exploring untamed lands.
   Edmund had met Lyle, also downing down his torments in “The Cat and Cauldron”, and within five days, Lyle was on the list.
   “How do?” Edmund gave a short salute, before entering the bedroom.

The room emanated dust from the open window and dingy floorboards. A bed, laden with a crimson blanket, lay propped up in the far right corner. A desk lay in the left, with a window separating the two. A wardrobe stood in fine English oak to the immediate left, next to a large standalone mirror, and a parlour chair – probably from downstairs – sat to the right.
   The aroma of tobacco smoke, infused with the sea air of Southampton mingled in the room, creating an invisible haze.
   Edmund removed his greatcoat, deprived of its original auburn colour – and settled to a tan shade - and placed it on the parlour chair, before settling on the bed. He removed his boots, and raised his legs to rest upon the frame of the mattress.
   He placed his hands on his chest, as he scanned the room for a clock.
   A small, aged bracket clock, with a pendulum swinging from its base, hung next to the door at a slightly crooked angle.
   Edmund adjusted his eyes to the dimly lit room, but it was no use. The tiredness had set in, and the clock was so caked in dust, it was impossible to even make out the ornate figures on it – if there were any. Instead, Edmund drifted off into a well-earned rest.

***

The sun gently crested on the sill, and the seagulls crowed around the port, lightly bringing Edmund to a weary awakening.
   With no hesitation, he slipped his boots on, taking care to tie the fastenings up in tight knots, before grasping his coat off its rest of the vertebral of the parlour chair, and with it slung under his arm, he set off.

   The jaunty band of the tavern was in full swing, playing one of their many shanties, as the locals sat down for another day of drinking, playing and fighting.

“Look ahead, look a stern,
Look the weather in the lee,
Blow high! Blow low! And so sailed we.
I see a wreck to the windward
And a lofty ship to lee,
A sailing down all on
the coasts of High Barbary”

   The words embedded themselves in his memory, causing him to stop in his tracks. That’s where Nicholas was: The Barbary Coast, fighting against the wretched pirates.
   But alas this was life. Everyone needed to go their own way. Edmund carried on towards the door, still listening to the words:

“O are you a pirate
or a man-o-war? Cried we.
Blow high! Blow low! And so sailed we.
O no! I'm not a pirate
But a man-o-war, cried he.
A sailing down all on
the coasts of High Barbary”

   He clutched the handle with his left palm, and gave a push, causing the door to roll open into the bright, spring atmosphere of Southampton Harbour.
   His black suede-like boots hit the hard, dry earth, as the sound of the bustling anchorage surrounded him. Men, women and children alike departed from the many ships around, speaking in their respective native tongue.
   The gulls continued to lark overhead as the combination of the morning fog and shimmering dew prevented their escape into the wilderness. A gentle breeze rustled the chimney smoke, casting eerie shapes across the skyline. 
   The morning sun cast long shadows from the masts of the various vessels which littered the anchorage, casting contortions of countless shapes and sizes onto the houses opposite.
   Edmund took a moment to survey the area, looking for the mast of the Ocean’s Knave, towering over the meagre brigs and sloops dotted around the port, but the fog – which hastened to thicken – caused much intervention.
   The barking of dogs and trotting of horses – their riders, all wearing frock coats and donning their tricornes – began to bring Edmund back to his senses. He inhaled a breath of salty, infusing sea air, before setting off, down the dusty, cobbled road.
   His ship was a few yards east, and so, meandering around the masses of immigrants would be tricky, made even more difficult with the day being Sunday.

   “Compassionate Lord, Your mercies have brought me to the dawn of another day. Vain will be its gift unless I grow in grace, increase in knowledge, and ripen for spiritual harvest!”
   Surely enough, a little down the paved track, Puritans massed at the base of the church steps, their leader shouting among the tolling of the bells:
   “Let me this day know you as you are, love you supremely, serve you wholly, admire you fully. Through grace let my will respond to you, knowing that power to obey is not in me, but that your free love alone enables me to serve you!”
   Edmund waited, watching the boats roll across the unprecedented panorama that was the English Channel, its waves rolling, creating white crests at the prows of the ships.
   The Pilgrims made their way onto a large fluyt, The Grand Reach, with its high castle like structures, fore and aft, which served to protect the crew and passengers from vulnerability. They huddled, in their group of about four-hundred, on the main deck, before peering over into the dazzling waters below, their bibles shut and clasped under their arms.
   Edmund moved quickly through the remainder of the crowds; dock workers, travellers and merchants all flocked to the many taverns and inns that “The Gateway to the World” had to offer. Traders stood with their handcarts, selling wine and other wares of favoured quality.

“Git ‘ya Sherry ‘ere!” A large, well-dressed man bellowed, a large green bottle in his hand, swinging it violently while trying to entice some of the many Europeans which passed him.
   Edmund stopped and thought for a moment. Sherry was his mother’s favourite drink. Christmas, Easter and even birthdays were celebrated with a strong bottle of “Jerez de la Frontera.”
   “Silverware for sale!” Another shouted across the way, “Finest Austrian silver, straight from the furnaces of Innsbruck to your table!”
   He started again, striding his heavy strides towards the dock where his ship would soon appear, out of the hazy mist. Another crowd assembled around the Town Hall, as a young boy – no younger than twelve – began shouting, holding a newsprint in his hand.
   “Sweden pushed back from Copenhagen! News just received of Danish victory at the capital!”
   Edmund barged through the troubled horde, clustering to receive their monthly dose of the outside world.
   “You sir!” The boy’s voice called, causing Edmund’s head to turn to the source of the noise. The lad pointed to him, as the cluster parted to watch.
   “Aye?” He replied calmly, keeping a watchful eye.
   “Forgive me if I’m rude,” The boy continued, “But would you care to give your stance on this conflict, good sir?”
   The crowd turned to him, as if beckoning him to speak eloquent words. In reality, Edmund knew nothing about the Second Northern War, other than its name, but turned to please the gathering.
   “Sweden are badly beaten,” He started, placing his hands in his pockets, “But there will be a time when they will rise.”
   The crowd nodded to one another, chattering about the comment.
   “That is all I can say.” Edmund concluded, before continuing his travels, allowing the mass to regroup.
   He knocked his loose hair to one side, as he crossed to the dockside of the track, still searching for the boat.

Then it appeared. The Ocean’s Knave, its flagstaff taller than any other in the port. Being the largest ship in Southampton, it required a large amount of upkeep. Chartering a double bay to store it in ironically cost more than the crew’s wages for the week, setting back the budget for the arms.
   Nevertheless, thirty cannons on the middle deck, and a further fourteen on the main, this vessel was fit for any sea, be it the Atlantic of Pacific. Grappling hooks, muskets and boarding axes gave it an edge against the torturous French and Spanish rivals of the time.

   The hard dirt terrain switched to the flat, timber jetty, as Edmund approached his superior Frigate. Swabbies were scrubbing the deck, Powder Monkeys were shifting the barrels of gunpowder to the stores, and others sat, lounging in the daybreak sun.
   “Captain Randolph, Sir!” An arm outstretched towards him, as he inspected the fine restoration of the boat.

Charles Thompson, Quartermaster to the ship greeted Edmund with a delightful smile reaching across from ear to ear. Nicknamed “Torch-Bearer” for his extraordinary service as Vice-Admiral on the HMS Dragon. Thompson was educated at Britannia Royal Naval College, and so became a hardy seafarer. People noted him as friendly, and forthcoming, and helping his dear friends in time of need. Losing partial sight in one eye due to a wood splinter in The Battle of Portland – a fearsome victory for the British – he collected his pay, and was disbanded from the British Navy, and so looked for work in the same line, before meeting Edmund.

“Charles,” He replied, “Nice morning, isn’t it?” He returned the greeting, before repeatedly watching over his vessel.
   “Aye, Sir.” He answered in short succession, using his hand to obstruct the gleaming rays of the sun as they bounced off the windows of the shops, “Tis a fine day to sail.”

   Edmund walked the narrow slat of timber onto the ship, his boots making heavy thuds along the thick beam. The sound of muttering surrounded the main deck. Crates were hauled into the hold, cannons were being polished, but all stopped as the figure stood still, watching over his predominantly dormant crew.
   An eerie silence fell over the deck, as one by one, the men assembled in a crowd around him. Thompson followed, and stood adjacent to Edmund, his hands crossed.
   “This be your crew, good Sir.” His assertive voice sounded around the deck. Edmund surveyed the men: ranging from teenagers to veterans, strong and weak, this crew was ready for anything.
   “Have them assemble in the gun deck for a briefing.” He commanded, his voice raised high enough to be asserted by his comrades. Thompson watched with apprehensive eyes before turning to the crew.
   “You heard the man.” He instructed, “Every man to the gun deck.”
   The crew dispersed, making their way down the three open hatches, descending to the lower deck as Edmund strutted along the deck of his magnificent vessel. He turned, catching once more the short glance of Thompson.
   “I trust everything is in order?” His words flowed like the waves, giving somewhat order to a once innocent personality.

   “Of course, Sir!” Thompson’s words rang true, like a coin when tested for legitimacy, “Cannons are primed, the deck is scrubbed, and the sails repaired. We’re ready to set off at midday.”
   “Very well.” Edmund maintained a strong voice over the growing crescendo of the crowd below deck, and beckoned his right arm to Thompson, and then the hatch, “After you, good friend.”
   Thompson nodded in thanks, before descending the timber ladder.

***

The volume of the jaunty crew began to lessen as Edmund and Thompson appeared. Edmund made for the base of the mainmast, under the watchful gaze of many a seaman, his companion following intently.
   “Good morning, my friends.” He called, the candles among the men fluttering in the morning breeze. The deck was predominantly dark, as the lappets for the cannons had not been open, and so the torches provided that much-needed peripheral aid.
   “Mornin’” Only one man, with a thickset, heavy voice responded, the others either lounging on crates, or still watching Edmund. There was no telling who had responded, as the darkness cast a shadow over the crew, so Edmund made no effort to respond.
   “Today,” He continued, now strutting from port to starboard, hands in pockets, “We face the most fearful enemy known to man: the sea.” The men nodded to one another, and the lowly tone of agreements was heard, “But, we must not forget why we are here. We are here to prove our worth to our families, our wives, and of course; The British Crown.”
   The crew cheered, brightening the morale of one another. Edmund turned to Thompson, and gave a hearty smile, of which his companion kindly returned with ease.
   Edmund picked a boarding axe from the brackets on the mast, and held it firmly in both hands. The crew halted all noise, and awaited his next order.
   “But should anyone disrespect me, Thompson or anyone on this ship, the Black Book awaits, and you’ll be hanging from the Royal Yard at dawn.” He plunged the axe into the top of one of the many barrels lying around the deck, almost startling everyone. “On a lighter note, every man shall receive their daily allowance of Brandy.” He picked up the small wooden cup which lay by his feet, and plunged it into the auburn liquid, pulling a full cup back out, before taking a large gulp, and wiping the excess from his chin. “To our wives and our sweethearts: may they never meet!” He rose the cup into the air, before taking another drink, and scanning the nearest of the crew, “Where is Francisco?”

Francisco de la Hubré was the vessel’s cook. Originally from Toledo, he claimed to have sailed on many a Spanish vessel in his early life, and, approaching forty years of age, he told many stories of how he sailed with and cooked for the infamous Alfonso de Contreras, notorious buccaneer of the Mediterranean.
   “Si, Señor.” He stepped forward into the dwindling light. He was large, brutish but not fat, and had a red bandana covering his forehead, “What can I do?”
   “Share the brandy between the crew. The remaining can be used for tomorrow.” Edmund beckoned Francisco forward and he obeyed, taking over the role of dishing the liquid between the crew as they lined up, tankards in their hands.
   Edmund walked over to Thompson, out of visibility and audibility of the rest of the crew.
   “If we are to set off at midday, I need to consult the navigator. Have him come to my cabin.” And with that, he made his way up the timber ladder to the deck.

   The fog had cleared majorly by the time Edmund had ascended to the main level, and now a larger scale of the seaside setting was viewable, yet the mist still gave a hazy boundary to the sea.
   He made his way towards the cabin doors: two large ornate panelling’s with amber lattice windows on each, which glow under the light of the candles at night.
   His hand turned the large brass doorknob, and pushed the door ajar, before it swung the rest of the way.
   The cabin was the pride of the vessel. It was split into two different heights; the doors were located on the lower level, and the stern-most was raised by a few inches. Four high-arched windows rose up along the keel wall, and the daylight poured from the outside.
   The walls, floor and ceiling were all bare wood, showing its antiquity and adding to the originality. Edmund didn’t want to seem rich, big-headed. He never wanted flashy clothes, or silver rapiers, like many of the men of his line.
   A large round table sat on the heightened deck, with four chairs – for Captain, Navigator, Quarter Master and Boatswain – situated around it. Maps, letters and other documents were splayed across it, and a candle sat in the centre.
   A handful of chests sat to the immediate left of Edmund, next to the bed – a few hefty planks held at a right angle by two chains – which nestled nicely with the fence on the deck.
   The opposite side – the port – contained bookshelves and wine racks, towering from floor to ceiling, housing everything from encyclopaedias and codexes, to Merlots and Chardonnay.
   His boots emitted loud thuds as he walked across the timber floor, climbing the slight step to the deck. He meandered around the table to the windows, and gazed through the pristine glass at the other ships, departing and arriving in the port outside.
   “Captain?” A lowly voice emitted from behind him before the succession of three knocks were heard upon the doors.
   “Yes?” He turned, meeting the attention of a young fellow. This was James, the navigator. Little was known about him, other than his age. A humble cabin boy of sixteen he was, who knew his way around maps and course plotting like Christopher Columbus himself, “Ah, James. Do come in.”
   James obeyed his orders, and, under the shadow of his large tricorne, walked forward towards the table as Edmund perched himself on one of the chairs.
   He watched as James nervously laid his map – a most modern chart by João Teixeira Albernaz – and stated his course.
   “If we leave at midday – as ordered – we should make it to Praia da Vitória in about three days, at gods speed.
   There, we’ll restock for a few hours, and if all runs smoothly, we should be on track to arrive at Newfoundland within no more than a week from now.” His hand ran along the allotted course he detailed as Edmund still carefully watched, comprehending the directions he was making.
   “Sounds a plan.” Edmund mumbled, before the door opened once more. Charles stood, in a sturdy manner, in the entryway.
   “The crew are eager and ready. Shall I give the order to haul anchor, Captain?” His hand grasped the jamb as he stood, waiting for his commands.
   “Yes.” Edmund said happily as he rose from his seat. James gathered his map into a roll as the Captain made for the door.
   “I’ll be in my cabin.” He nodded, winding past the two as Charles turned to face the daylight. Edmund nodded as James disappeared below the hatch.
   “Haul anchor!” Charles exclaimed, walking out onto the deck and up the stairs, the crew watching him intently. “Today, we make for the Azores!”
   The crew cheered as the sails released, grabbing the wind.

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