Excerpt: Triangle: A Memoir of Black Caesar

Baie de la Viscaina, 1709


In late November of 1709, Henri was making the journey to the mainland for trade, when he spotted a small sloop, careened on the mud flats that lay just north of the route between his island and the mainland. It was early morning, difficult to see through the lifting mist, but the ship appeared to be abandoned. Henri was sailing in a longboat he’d retrieved from a recent wreck. Three men and a woman of the Naufrages were with him, escorting two newly captive women, Spaniards, for trade with the Viscaynos. Henri forced the two women to lay in the bottom of the longboat, where they were bound and gagged. He lowered his sail and, taking the bow line in his teeth, jumped overboard and swam the longboat to the flats where he beached it near the grounded ship.

Drawing sword, Henri and his three men stealthily approached the careened sloop. He slipped around to the rudder, aft and peered over the transom into the cockpit and through the opened hatchway that led down into the cabin. He could see no signs of life aboard the ship so, he set his two men to guard the sloop while he continued his journey to the mainland.

When he arrived ashore, with the captive women in tow, he found the Viscaynos village in a great stir. It seems the natives had also spied the sloop, very early in the morning and had sent a small trading party out to meet its crew. The Englishmen aboard the sloop, however, having nothing to trade and not understanding the Viscaynos language, thought to defend themselves from what they viewed as an attack by savages. Using flintlocks, they killed two of the Viscaynos and wounded a third, but all the thunder of the flintlocks was heard ashore, and the village sent a war party in response. The war party easily overcame the Englishmen and now, for their offense, they were condemned to die horrible deaths, slowly roasting over a fire, at the hands of their captors.

Because he was able to speak their language, Henri interviewed the men asking, among other things, what they knew of such mysteries as, “Havana” and “St. Augustine”. One among them named Israel Hands, owner and captain of the grounded sloop, had once been an officer in the Royal Navy. He was educated, cordial, calm, and sincere in explaining to Henri that these were the names of cities in the white man’s world. In addition the man spoke French which made communicating a bit easier. Being a former officer, he knew sail, charts and navigation. Using his knowledge of French, the man put forth a convincing argument for his own value as a member of the crew aboard, what he allowed was, Henri’s new ship. He offered to indenture himself in exchange for Henri’s help. Henri couldn’t help taking a liking to the fellow, who resembled a young ‘Richy’, so he stood before the council of Viscaynos elders and offered a trade in exchange for the man’s life.

Once his appeal was made Henri sat among his Viscaynos friends, waiting for the decision of the elders. While he waited the village prepared for a great feast and celebration, whose main entertainment would be the torture and execution of the English sailors. In the late afternoon, when it was time for the celebration to begin, the chief among the elders sent the Englishman, Israel Hands, still bound, to Henri in exchange for the two women he’d brought with him.

Once the exchange had been made, the two of them, Henri and Israel Hands, hurried away from the mainland village and sailed back to the careened sloop. Together, with Henri’s men, they spent the rest of the day extracting the ship from the sandy bottom of the flats. As they worked through the long night, the tortured screams of the Englishmen they had left behind drifted to them across the water. By the coming of dawn the sloop, Mary-Kate by name, was floating free in the bay, while ashore, the early morning quiet told Israel that the tortured souls of his men were also, at last, free.


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