Excerpt: Triangle: A Memoir of Black Caesar
Baie de la Viscaina, June, 1711
On the morning of the eighteenth day of the month of June, the air had early grown hot and thick with moisture. The tide was at high ebb when the watch called out from his place on the eastern point of La Roche. Without hurry or much concern, both Henri and Israel left their work constructing a bunker in which to store their accumulated cargo. They walked together to the point and looked out across the oily smooth surface of the sea where they saw a large, naval sloop, of perhaps three times the tonnage of Mary-Kate, and well armed.
The ship was making slow headway north, nearly becalmed, less than half a league from them and dangerously close to the reefs. In the listless southwesterly breeze, her sluggish motion and her low aspect in the smooth water made it clear that she was heavy with cargo. Israel ran back to the camp to get his glass and when he returned both he and Henri made a careful count of the becalmed ship’s crew and armament. Though it was difficult to tell through the poor optics, Henri had counted seventeen on deck and thought that most were Negro. The sight brought back vivid memories of his failed mutiny and the stormy life that has ensued.
“There will be more men than that, perhaps double for a ship that size.” Israel pointed out.
Henri looked again through the glass. It was more ship than they would normally risk attacking, but it was the perfect ship for their needs. Nervous about the risks, Israel said, “If she keeps up her present heading, she’ll be on the reef soon. She’ll be easy t’ take then.”
Henri thought for a moment before answering. “She’s the very ship we have dreamed of having. We should take her a prize before she’s ruined that way.”
Israel looked at him curiously and warned, “We’ll be sorely outnumbered an’ fer sure outgunned.”
Again Henri lifted the glass to his eye and studied their target. “Their slaves.” He said of the Negroes working the ship’s main deck and rigging. “As soon as they see us killing the white jackals, they’ll retreat, or join in.”
After Israel took a moment to think it over, the two of them hurried to the Mary-Kate to prepare for an attack. Using bird calls, Henri summoned the Naufrages to join them there where he briefly explained his plan to sail with a company of twenty seven men to board and take the vessel. Then, they would sail her into the deep water of the bay, around the western end of La Roche, into the creek. From there they would salvage her cargo and valuables and sort out any surviving crew. The Naufrages gathered their swords and flintlocks, then boarded Mary-Kate, at anchor in the creek, ready to sail as soon as her mast was free. Her deck was raked at an angle so severe that they had to stand on the starboard gunwale with their backs against the deck’s rough, wooden planking. It was a procedure they were all familiar with from years of practice.
On this day, however, nothing went according to plan, in fact these exercises seldom did, a reality that helped Mary-Kate’s crew to develop great skills of improvisation. Henri and his men waited for the prize to come into view from their sharply angled position in the creek. When, at last, it did, Henri pulled hard on the release line in his hand, thus signaling the others to action. Mary-Kate’s mast snapped free and she rolled upright, swaying back and forth until she settled at center, but she was not yet free. The knot holding the aft anchor line hadn’t been tied properly and refused to quick release, as planned. The responsible crewman struggled with the knot for several minutes before cutting the line with an ax, breaking the ship loose. Once released, she drifted up on her fore-anchor, floating free, making it easy to winch aboard.
Unfortunately the outgoing tidal currents exceeded the minimal wind, so, at the first turn in the tidal cut, with no steerage, Mary-Kate rammed, bow first, into the reef. At this point she’d been spotted by her quarry, who began to maneuver, as best they could, in order to avoid an eminent confrontation. The slack wind, however, made maneuvering difficult, if not impossible, for both ships. Mary-Kate, caught in the current of an outgoing tide, turned stern first and proceeded helplessly through the cut, while Henri and the rest of the crew struggled to keep her sails and rigging under control, their small ship bumping and dragging her keel along the shallow edges of the deep cut in the reef.
Once Mary-Kate had cleared the reef safely, Henri ordered more sail and the crew responded quickly, raising the topsail and her two jibs. The plan had been to intercept their prize just north of the cut where they could approach from her stern and on her windward side. In that manner they could cut off her wind and board her from their starboard rail. But now, forewarned, the larger, converted naval sloop had gone about and taken a southeast tack. In the light wind, her maneuver had left her completely becalmed, less than a quarter league from Henri’s position. He looked her over again, concerned about her guns. In his view through the glass, there was something familiar to him about this ship. But, even though she was turned stern to him, he could not read the faded lettering emblazoned across her transom.
Israel ordered the crew to trim sail and soon Mary-Kate was underway. Though it was slow going, she began to advance on their quarry. Henri remained at the bow, with the glass to his eye, trying to ascertain the name of the vessel. He was also concerned that their prey had gained much time to prepare a defense. With eight, twelve pound cannons visible, it was a defense that could be deadly for Mary-Kate and her crew.
When they had drawn within hailing distance of the prize, less than a hundred yards, the faded lettering on the ship’s transome caused Henri to smile with delight. It read, “Aventura“.
Henri called out to his partner, urging him to come forward. “Israel!”
Israel hurried to the bow, squeezing in next to Henri who handed over the glass without saying a word. When Israel read the name on the stern of their prize, he too smiled, understanding Henri’s excitement by the many stories he’d heard from the big man’s past. Henri spoke through a broad grin. “When we take this vessel a prize, I want her undamaged. She is heavily gunned both port and starboard and they have had time to prepare, but, even now, we will take her by surprise.”