HMS SURPRISE, aiding the fledgling Greek navy as a letter-of-marque, is vastly outnumbered and flees before brutal Turk landings ravage the Greek islands of Kasos and Psara.
Doctor Simon Ferguson, left ashore, his fleeting study of island flora rudely shattered, runs for his life across the mountainous interior of Kasos pursued by Turk beserkers intent on his capture and death.
Captain Patrick O’Connor devises an ingenious ruse to draw Turk warships away from their transport charges and then fights to thwart the invasion of vulnerable Samos island.
The barky comes alive once more in a stirring tale of the Greek war of independence.
“Amazing, impressive writing… the next Patrick O’Brian… I wept… I laughed out loud” Steve Sutherland, Washington State
In March 1822 the Turkish fleet of Admiral Kara Ali sacked the island of Chios in the second year of the Greek war of independence in a swift and brutal act of suppression. That event provoked a European wave of revulsion which fostered support for the Greeks in many countries and individuals.
On 18th June* 1824 the Turks invaded the small island of Kasos, perhaps with the intentions of capturing much of the Kasiot fleet of many and diverse vessels. The island lay between the strategic assets of Rhodes and Crete (Candia in contemporary descriptions). For many years the privateers of Kasos had done very well astride the east-west sea routes, and undoubtedly they were an irritating thorn in the side of Ottoman sea-going traffic.
The tiny island of Psara, to the west of Chios, was the next Turkish victim, on 3rd July* 1824. It was insignificant save that it was one of the three islands which made the largest contribution to Greek naval forces; the others being Hydra and Spetses, both of which were far tougher targets to contemplate, being much closer to the Greek mainland and hence more mutually defensible.
Buoyed by their easy victories over tiny Kasos and Psara, the Sultan in Constantinople determined on a more substantial and valued prize in the form of Samos. The island is separated from the Turkish mainland by the narrowest of straits, and it surely presented the prospect of easy pickings, having no navy of its own and only one fort adjacent to the small town of modern day Pythagoras (Colones in contemporary descriptions) – until the combined Greek naval squadrons of Hydra, Spetses and Psara (much of its fleet having escaped the island’s capture) arrived in timely fashion to defend Samos against the far larger Turkish fleet.
Beginning with Psara, these events are the historical backcloth in this book to the fictional arrival of HMS Surprise. The English frigate was herself actually laid up at Pembroke Dock at that time, about to be converted to a prison ship.
Wednesday 16th June 1824 17:30 approaching Kasos Island
The weak north-westerly wind behind her, the frigate Surprise glided slowly across the rippling wavelets of the bay waters towards the port of Emborios in the feeble breeze as the fierce heat of the late afternoon ceded to the more tolerable warmth of early evening. Her tender, Eleanor, a Garmouth, Geddie-built, two-masted topsail schooner which had long belonged to her captain, followed closely in her wake. On the quarterdeck stood two of her officers, the nearest to the rail being Captain Patrick O’Connor. He was dressed very well, formally, in the dress uniform coat typical of the Royal Navy, though without any badge of rank or service. His hat was in his hand as he wiped the profuse sweat from his furrowed brow whilst gazing with searching scrutiny towards the island, his demeanour that of caution, of reservation. His face was a stark picture of enquiry, lined, grave anxieties plainly apparent upon it to any onlooker; the enduring, bright daylight illuminated the shock of his red hair, visibly tending towards grey.
Alongside him was a man of extremely modest build: Doctor Simon Ferguson, the ship’s surgeon and a Scot who hailed from Tobermory on the isle of Mull. A particularly ill-dressed man, possessing no uniform, his clothing shabby and patched, he was thin and wiry of stature. He was older-looking than his companions and aged perhaps in his mid or even late forties, though unshaven as he was that was difficult to determine.
Ferguson stared with interest at the island shore through Pat’s best Dollond telescope, borrowed surreptitiously, his possession of it, thus far, unnoticed by his friend. He was both an ardent botanist and a learned, much read ornithologist, a passionate student of every form of flora and fauna, and oft lamented his inability to study much of either whilst on long voyages, time ashore usually being the most rare of occurrence.
‘I venture this small and barren island will assuredly have great colonies of sea birds of every distinction,’ Ferguson’s voice was hesitant, tentative, as if his line of thought might be perceived as irrelevant, ridiculous even. ‘Would there be an opportunity to enjoy a day… half a day perhaps, Pat… in perambulations… in exploration… at all? That is to say… if time can possibly be found.’
Captain O’Connor was in a high state of concentration, one verging on agitation consequent to his rising awareness of several potential and very likely imminent dangers before his ship. He possessed interest in neither plant nor bird life, save for when he was eating it. He feigned not to hear. Retaining an absolute engrossment on the vista before him, the vessels within the harbour his particular focus, he ignored the enquiry, save that he glanced around momentarily in the instant of his distraction towards the interruption; he frowned, grunted something unintelligible and took back his precious telescope with a snatch of his hand and without a word. He turned back to gaze once more towards the small harbour, peering with keen curiosity through the retrieved glass.
‘Would you consider of that?’ Simon Ferguson persevered valiantly.
‘I dare say we will have to await where the wind and the stars lead us,’ grunted O’Connor, wishing to remain suitably non-committal.
‘Astra inclinant, sed non obligant!’
‘Eh? What was that?’
‘Latin, brother,’ this with a sigh of despond.
‘Latin is not a civilised tongue,’ O’Connor’s gaze remained on the harbour.
‘What things you tell me, Pat. That may be the case in Galway town, I dare say, or even in Dublin’s fair city, but I venture there are many who would disagree with you there.’
‘Astra indignant… said Ned who?’
‘I am, myself, inclining towards indignance, but what I said was “The stars lead us but do not oblige us”. I dare say that is true too of the wind, would you say?’
O’Connor reluctantly turned to his friend, ‘The wind, Simon, oft leaves us humble mariners with little choice as to our course or even, I venture, sometimes not the least choice at all, save to run with it… or perhaps to lie-to… in extremis – eh, what d’ye say to that? Are you impressed? I venture that is Latin too, though I was never much of a fist with it at school.’
‘I am indeed impressed,’ said Simon without the least conviction and, gazing up to the heavens, he declared, ‘Aut viam inveniam aut faciam.’
O’Connor scowled, ‘Latin is coming it rather high on the quarterdeck.’ He sighed, ‘And what might that signify, pray tell?’
‘Where there’s a will there’s a way… in the colloquial that is. Hannibal it was who said it: a military man you may be acquainted with?’
‘If my memory serves me, I collect he travelled on elephants…’ this in a voice of undisguised irritation, ‘… not ships… and it is fair to say that it was the Alps he crossed, not the oceans. I doubt he had much of a grasp of the winds; he was a soldier… no sailor.’