Captain Pat O’Connor, Lieutenant Duncan Macleod and Doctor Simon Ferguson return from half-pay to command the frigate HMS Surprise, returned to service after long years ‘in ordinary’ at Plymouth Dock.
HMS Surprise escorts Lord Byron to Cephalonia and then aids the fledgling Greek navy against the crushing Ottoman fleet superiority. Fighting for the cause of Greek independence amidst the destruction and massacres of the sackings of Kasos and Psara, this fictional tale is based on the actual historical events of 1823 and 1824.
Struggling to retain their sanity and humanity as initial jubilation with their return to sea is replaced by doubt and anxiety as crew losses mount, O’Connor, Macleod and Ferguson bring HMS Surprise to action in the thrilling and climactic battle to defend Samos from Turk invasion.
Adding to the treasure trove of actual events that the historical novelist is blessed with are the real people of those times, many of whom grace this book. It is particularly pleasing to develop this rich mother lode into brief but colourful appearances within the story, the places and timing of which, if not the actualité, accord with the known detail of their lives. Lord Byron is one such person, and the author has taken the liberty of including a few words (in Chapter 5, for 22nd November 1823) of simple yet sublime prose which Byron himself wrote within his journal for the 17th October 1823 describing his quietude in Cephalonia some weeks before he departed for his destiny in Missolonghi.
A selected verse of Byron’s famous poem (within a poem) The Isles of Greece (within Canto III of Don Juan) precedes each chapter, the first verse being on the front title page. Lord Milton’s stirring address to the formative London Greek Committee on 3rd May 1823 is similarly reproduced verbatim. The reader may also perceive the influence of that engaging wit Mark Twain gracing a few of these pages.
Notwithstanding that this is a work of fiction the author has strived for the inclusion of many real historical events throughout the story. It is little realised, for example, that the phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, now in commonplace use, actually originated from Lord Byron. The capture of Byron’s companion, Count Gamba, by the Turks, which is described in Chapter Six of this book, was a real event, and there surely cannot be anything stranger in fiction than the true tale of the Turk captain fortuitously recognising his Greek captive counterpart, his own former rescuer, after an interval of fully fifteen years.
This first book is dedicated to all those who have served in the Royal Navy, past and present: to whom; lest we forget, our debt is immeasurable.
Friday 16th May 1823 Falmouth, Cornwall
Early on the Friday morning before Whit, the sun emerging, weak and low in the sky, Pat, Duncan and Simon were at Falmouth with their dunnage already loaded aboard Eleanor, a Garmouth, Geddie-built, two-masted topsail schooner belonging to Pat. Bought on Duncan’s personal recommendation, and fast, even when sailing close-hauled; she had served as tender to Tenedos in her latter years under Pat’s command. With Eleanor’s small crew were a forty-strong nucleus of old Tenedos veterans, many of whom were members of the Wesleyans of Falmouth, an ecclesiastical movement, recent in origin but not the only one in the town, which was also home to many other nonconformist chapels. Men from most of these chapels had been represented in the crew of Tenedos on prior voyages.
Whilst the last of Eleanor’s stores were loading, Simon engaged the master in conversation, a scrupulous man and a Wesleyan elder. They sat on small kegs along the Custom House Quay, water butts for the boats. ‘Mr Prosser, good morning to you; the crew seem to be in prodigious fine spirits this morning, very pleased to be serving again and with Captain O’Connor too, I venture?’
Jeremiah Prosser was old in comparison to the average seaman: a veteran of many voyages aboard Tenedos, his face and arms were burned brown by long years of exposure to the sun, deep wrinkles covered every visible area of his skin, his hands were large and muscular, yet from his eyes, still bright blue, shone an energy, a spirit, which radiated confidence to all aboard the ships in which he had served. ‘Why to be sure, Doctor, there is no doubt. We have all of us given thanks to Our Lord every day in our chapel since Murphy brought news of the Captain returning and Surprise coming out of ordinary at Plymouth to go to sea again. These past four years have brought hard times to this town. After the French were beaten most of us were turned ashore: even our kin working away in far Pompey dockyards have been laid off, precious little work to be had, and our families all long since on short commons. Little or no fishing left anymore… no privateering anymore, no money hardly at all, and no brandy smuggling worth a candle this past year since them new Revenue cutters were built in Poole: very swift indeed they be, Doctor, and the rumour in the town which all have long feared was that the packets will all be handed over to the navy. No, we all gave praise to Our Lord when we heard that the barky was coming out again, to Falmouth, and the Captain seeking a crew for a year or two; ‘tis a chance again for pay and to put some bread on the table.’
‘Mr Prosser, did Murphy explain to you and the lads that this was not to be another surveying voyage? Surprise is no longer a Royal Navy ship, and we are to be privateers, mercenaries, in the service of the new Greece,’ Simon enquired, cautiously.
The master’s smile stretched all the way from one luxuriant sideburn to the other, unkempt sideburns being common to the Wesleyan seafarers of Falmouth. ‘Oh, yes, sir, ’tis clear, and nobody cared, nobody cared at all. Even were we to be sailing agin the French, agin the Yankees, or even the Spanish, sir, just as long as we could get back to sea. The same pay as our brothers still serving on His Majesty’s ships and the prospect of some prize monies as well: it seemed too good to be true. We thanked Our Lord.’ There were nods all round from the hands coiling away Eleanor’s cords, and Prosser continued. ‘We all hurried to make our preparations, to tell our wives, mothers and fathers. Off to sea again, praise Our Lord and be thankful.’
‘We are all thankful of that, Mr Prosser,’ Simon said, warmly.
‘When the Captain himself arrived, sir, it was all that many of us had hoped for, and for a very long time; and then Eleanor came into the harbour. When she came alongside the quay there were already more than a score of us to help tie her up, and a goodly cheer was raised when the job was done. Mr Reeve, her skipper, is a Falmouth lad, sir, born and bred. A grand day it was, indeed. Plentiful ale was drunk in the King’s Arms later, and the chapel was full that evening, Doctor, I can tell you.’
‘I am sure of it,’ Simon replied, heartily pleased to hear of the good spirits pervading Pat’s new crew.
At last Eleanor was ready; the tide was high, just past slack water, and she was set fair for the ebb current. Pat was perfectly at ease leaving master’s mate William Reeve, a native of Falmouth, to take her out. The lines were cast off, and with just her topsail and jibs to drive her, the schooner’s men standing ready to hoist her fore and main sails, with only the faintest of north-westerly zephyr acting upon her, Eleanor slipped gracefully away from the quay, moving slowly out from the inner harbour towards the Carrick Roads. The Falmouth men were all waving to their families, a happy multitude still thronging the quay, all of them still waving back to Eleanor as she receded a mile distant into the Roads, many anxious hearts left far astern in her wake.
The master hovered at Reeve’s elbow in a schoolmasterly fashion, not wanting to utter a single word of guidance unless it became absolutely necessary; not that he thought it would be. The Falmouth men, the Surprises, some forty or so now aboard, lined Eleanor’s sides, as if in a kind of wonder, all striving to savour the realisation, that fleeting moment of joy, that they were at sea again, on a respectable venture and departing in the full glare of daylight. Several still gazed back for long, thoughtful minutes to their now distant family and friends; most simply savoured the moment, basking in the pleasurable realisation that they were going to sea once more. Once Eleanor was in mid-channel, and Pendennis Castle off her starboard beam, Reeve ordered the fore and main to be hoisted, the Eleanors aided by the Surprises and making light work of the sail handling: Eleanor was now sailing for Falmouth Bay.
Pat was watching events with the utmost delight, and not a word passed his lips until he spoke to Duncan as they passed the Black Rock to starboard, ‘William is a splendid man to have with us, Duncan. Ne’er a better master could we ever have for Eleanor.’
‘Nae doot at all, Pat,’ said Duncan, pleasantly engrossed with the spectacle of their departure.
‘I should take it very kindly if you will join me for dinner, Mr Reeve,’ said Pat, ‘when she is set fair on her course.’
‘Oh, with great pleasure, sir, thank you.’
Both fore and main sails were now full, and Eleanor swiftly picked up speed. ‘Nicely done, William, most uncommon neat indeed,’ said Pat as she passed St Anthony Head. With a strengthening north-westerly wind behind her, and a very pleasant sea state Eleanor made short shrift of the bay crossing to Plymouth. By early afternoon Eleanor approached the emerging new breakwater, and sailed on past Saint Nicholas’s Island, Devil’s Point, and so to the shelter of Mutton Cove; Eleanor tying alongside there, neither Reeve and the master being greatly familiar with the Hamoaze, and both anxious not to foul any ship’s cables by approaching the anchorage.
It was but a brief walk for the Surprises, a short half mile from Eleanor’s berth to where Surprise had previously been on the slip. She was now moored within the Hamoaze, still very near the New Basin. The men shuffled along the quay, and through the yard, chatting away in prime good humour, all eager to go aboard the frigate, so near identical to Tenedos which, for most of them, had been their home afloat for many a year. Their rising excitement was palpable as they were rowed out to Surprise in the yard’s boats, their jocular comments and good-natured banter so endemic. Pat could not bring himself to call them to order, feeling precisely the same himself. He was the first to climb aboard. There was no formal, welcoming guard of marines, nor would there be on this unofficial voyage, but he cared not a jot. He gazed slowly all about him, subsumed in his happiness, his mind swiftly registering the yard’s restorations. Her guns, masts, and spars were all restored; and half a dozen yard workers were still aboard, making small, final touches to deck caulking. The Master Shipwright himself, Edward Churchill, was aboard, keeping a wholly unnecessary eye on his team, of whose workmanship Pat had never seen the equal.
‘Upon my word, Mr Churchill, she does look prime!’ Pat gazed about him, noting the masts and spars all a-tanto, rigging restored, and the deck all freshly caulked, only in a very few places yet to be holystoned to remove the little surfeit of pitch – a task for the Surprises on the morrow. The new sails were for the most part all loosely hung and strapped from the yards – not in any ways that any other than a yard crew would be happy with, but hung nevertheless. The cordage was everywhere new, nicely coiled where it lay on the deck. Pat and the old Tenedos’s were immensely gratified to see that the yard – somehow knowing that Surprise was bound for Greece as her primary warship, the Royal Navy grapevine being what it was – had hung a fluttering long, blue pennant at the mizzen. Not a pennant that could be considered official of course, and one that Pat would swiftly strike down as soon as Surprise left the yard, but a visible and generous token of the esteem in which Pat was held in all the West Country ports.
‘I am infinitely obliged to you, Mr Churchill. A finer and faster refit no other yard could have accomplished in the time. Thank you kindly, sir, she is a beautiful sight to behold,’ said a delighted Pat.
‘The task has been a great pleasure for us all here in the yard, Captain O’Connor. Indeed my lads all think of her as their ship, since she has oft been in and out of this yard in the past. ’Twas my lads, bless ‘em, that fitted her new knees, and no other ship has ever given them so much pride in their work,’ offered a deeply moved Churchill, so obviously and genuinely pleased to see a ship returned to active service rather than the now far more customary work of his yard of hulking ships – ships that in many cases had many more years of useful life left in them, and Surprise now saved by his yard, by his own lads, from that ignominious fate.
‘Allow me to say that she is a credit to you and your lads, sir, no doubt, no doubt at all.’
The Surprises, for that is how they all immediately felt themselves to be, were now swarming over the quarterdeck, the gun deck, and the rigging. Some were already preparing to shave and holystone the new deck caulking, prominent in its seams. The cook had gone below to light the galley fire, others were checking the water butts, inspecting the bilges, testing the pumps, and generally busying themselves in every conceivable task: all to a man delighted to be aboard a ship once more.
It was gratifying to Pat to see all the activity happening, quite unbidden. ‘Simon, dear friend, ain’t it very like a homecoming?’ whispered an emotional Pat O’Connor.
‘You are of my way of thinking entirely, soul. I do not believe I had expected this … this deep satisfaction. Though Dr Tripe at the Dock is a fascinating man, and a member of the Royal College – I have oft enjoyed the most cordial of hours with him in examination of his collections, his stuffed birds most particularly – and his wife, Mary, is the most kindly treasure, I admit I have long tired of that place.’ He gazed all about him at the ship. ‘She is remarkably beautiful, for sure. Never afore did I have the same pleasure in simply stepping aboard ship. But is she not now an auld lady?’
‘Old?’ Pat stared at his friend, mildly affronted, ‘Old? She ain’t old Simon; only a scrub would say such a thing. You must never say that. Sure there are some who would say she may be old-fashioned, long past mark of mouth, and too puny to engage with her modern sisters, forty-fours and the like; that she is too small for the current age. These opinions have credence for the most part in those lubbers who have ne’er found themselves spitting out the salt air, wipin’ their eyes of the powder smoke when the shot is flying, or firing three broadsides in five minutes. She is but thirteen years old, and has been looked after tenderly, like a maiden aunt; handled gently like a risen pudding afore it reaches the table, since ever afore she was laid up for so long. No, she has a long life in her yet, our dear Surprise. I am cast down and mortified to hear you say such things, shame on you.’
Simon looked anxiously into Pat’s face. ‘I am so sorry, Pat, I use the term only as an endearment, akin to making the acquaintance of a long lost, auld friend, a dearly beloved, auld friend: one who perhaps had been thought lost and was found again, the pleasure being so much more in the finding, the return. Doubtless you are correct as to her longevity. Forgive me brother, I meant no other inference. I find I love the ship as much as you, and there you have my confession; coming from a mind of a generally scientific persuasion, though assuredly our dear Surprise now brings the nature of a philosopher to the fore. Give you joy of our homecoming, brother.’