Excerpt: Triangle: A Memoir of Black Caesar
Cabo de la Florida, 1715
Admiral Don Francisco Salmon stood on the highest point of the dune at a place they now called, Bara de Ays, a narrow strip of merciless sand that lay between two bodies of water, divided, between by the thickest, most unforgiving underbrush he had ever encountered. He studied the approaching ship, a lumbering barkalonga approaching their camp through a mild sea. Through his glass he could see Clemente, his man in charge of the salvage divers, pausing from his work, and shading his eyes to inspect the approaching barge. The Admiral sighed with relief at espying the flag of Spain flying from the barge’s mizzen. Not that such a barge would have been much of a threat, but given present conditions at the camp and the number of interlopers who had already come and challenged him for the king’s treasure, he was relieved for the help and exhausted from this long sustained effort. Word of the disaster had spread broadly among their enemies before he had been able to get an official report to Havana and, from there, to Spain. He assumed, correctly, that the barge had been sent from Havana to assist in the rescue of his passengers and to return salvaged treasure to the port in Havana where it would be better protected.
Daniel Carnes dropped anchor in five fathoms of water and came ashore in a dory. He had sailed from Havana with a minimum crew in order to provide maximum space for survivors and whatever treasure had by now been salvaged from the sunken fleet. The voyage to this mid-point on the coast of Cabo de la Florida had taken nearly three times as long in the barka as it would have in his own ship, but when he’d volunteered to come he’d been told that his own ship did not offer adequate space for the large number of survivors that needed rescue. Daniel had no idea what to expect until he arrived. His benefactors also had no idea of the dimensions of this disaster. As he landed on the beach, he was overwhelmed by the numbers of desperate, starving people who took hold of him, offering gold, silver and jewelry if he would take them with him. He’d been offered the barca by a wealthy merchant who’s wife and children had sailed with the fleet and whom, he hoped, would be among the throngs of survivors. In the interest of being heroic in the eyes of Havana’s wealthy and, also, pursuing the reward that would surely be offered for their safe return and also the return of the dowry jewels, Daniel accepted the larger, unwieldy ship without question. Now he worried if it would be enough. He knew that it wouldn’t, there were perhaps a thousand despairing people needing rescue.
He had, from the beginning, rejected the idea of partnering with Black Caesar and the Englishman, Collin Aldworth, in a plot to steal the queen’s jewels. He never trusted Caesar, but sincerely feared him. He felt sympathy for Collin, who implied that he was a virtual prisoner to the man, at his brutal camp on La Creek. Daniel had only hatched the plot about the Queen’s Dowry as a way of getting his ship back and returning to his life in Havana. With regard to the dowry itself, he had no need of Henri’s help, nor of anyone else. The storm had changed his plans, but only in a minor and, perhaps beneficial way. Now he bore official authority, at least in secret, to possess the jewels, if he could find them. The door was opened to a substantial reward and recognition at the royal court in Spain. There was no further need to plot and plan, the reward and recognition would sustain him for a very long time.
On his way ashore, he made a careful inspection of the scene of the wrecks. The divers were concentrating on the smashed and sunken holds of two wrecked galleons, where the bulk of the treasure would have been stored for the voyage. He ordered his men to row behind the stern castle of a first rate ship that remained, in tact, above the waves, so that he could see the ship’s name. His heart fluttered with excitement when he saw it, Nuestra Senora de la Regla. Daniel couldn’t believe his luck. This was General Ubilla’s chosen Almiranta. Ubilla had chosen the Regla while they were stil loading raw treasure In Porta Bella. When the ship arrived in Havana, General Ubilla, along with a certain army Lieutenant named, Armondo de la Villa and the jeweler, Senior Guillermo Fuentes went aboard the ship in the night and hid the dowry chest in a secret location in Ubilla’s cabin. No one else but the governor even knew that the chest of jewels was among the treasures of the fleet. For reasons of security, the chest was not listed among the Flota’s manifests. That meant that Admiral Salmon and his divers were not searching for it, nor even aware of it.
When Daniel volunteered in Havana to come and assist in the rescue efforts, Senior Fuentes and Lieutenant de la Villa came to him as a trusted confidant and shared the location of the chest they had hidden aboard the Regla. Now, nearly three weeks since the raging storm had so completely devastated the fleet, Daniel Carnes had come alone, commissioned to retrieve a vast, secret fortune that only he knew existed. He waited in the ramshackle headquarters of Admiral Salmon, at the top of a dune that overlooked the wrecks and the beach on one side and, on the other, the well organized camps, sloping down to the water of an estuary. The construction was crude at best, made from the pathetic supply of local, raw materials combined with flotsam from the wrecked ships. The occupants of the camps wandered and worked in a state of vacant numbness, starved, thirsty, covered with the festering sores left by swarms of biting insects.
After some time, Daniel was turned over to a junior officer, a young man who, in addition to being castaway, had the added misfortune of being assigned the duty of overseeing the selection of passengers and the loading of supplies along with salvaged treasure, to be returned to Havana. Around him, chaos swirled through the deplorable conditions of the camp. His morning began with breaking up a fight, among survivors, over the distribution of food and relief supplies that Daniel had brought with him aboard the barca. Later in the day an argument broke out with regard to the selection of passengers for rescue. It seemed that only the wealthy and influential among the survivors were being selected for the return voyage. The young officer, worn and hungry, a survivor himself, complained of the fighting among the survivors and of the looting that had, since the first day of the shipwreck, grown out of control. He confided to Daniel, as they wandered the camp, looking for the survivors whose names appeared on the list that Admiral Salmon had provided, thus constraining him from making selections based on need.
“May I see it?” Daniel inquired, refering to the list.
He looked for the name of his patron who had supplied the barcalonga. He had promised to rescue the man’s wife and children from among the survivors, however, their names did not appear on the admiral’s list.
After reviewing the list, Daniel said, “I seek Senora Francesca de la Campa and her children for my patron. Have they survived, and how can I find them?”
The young officer frowned. “I do not know if they have survived, but there is a complete list of survivors kept by General Escheverz, at camp headquarters, up there, on the dune. You may inquire there.”
Daniel thanked the lieutenant and headed off to the main camp, while the privileged among the survivors were loaded onto boats and rowed out to the anchored barca.
At the main camp, another of the exhausted, starving officers checked and double checked the official list of survivors for any of the de la Campa family, but none of their names appeared. Daniel left there deeply dispirited by the added burden of having to inform his patron of the loss of his family, upon his return to Havana. He wandered away, down the beach to spend the afternoon helping load and transport passengers and cargo to the barca, anchored just off shore. Once the ship was loaded, they would stay the night and sail for Havana early the next morning. Sleeping aboard the crowded barca, packed together, one nearly atop the other, was preferred by most of the survivors, over sleeping in the camps ashore, where a constant torture from clouds of mosquitoes, flies, and lice prevented rest of any kind.
Ashore that evening, Daniel waited for the men to draw together around the fires before he slipped away into the night. He walked south, along the beach, until he was out of sight of the camp. At the water’s edge, he stripped off his clothes, rolled them into a tight bundle, waded into the gentle waves and swam out to the darkened hulk of the Regla’s stern-castle. Taking care not to shred his feet, or hands on the barnacles that clung to the ships timbers, Daniel pulled his way up the ship’s tilted rudder to the broken aft-cabin windows and there, climbed inside.
Navigating the darkened interior of the Regla was extremely difficult. The deck was raked at a forty degree angle. Shards of broken glass and waterlogged furnishings were strewn about in the dark. Daniel slid down the inclined deck to the aft most corner of the cabin’s port side. Once there he counted the ships timbers, moving forward until he arrived at the fifth framing rib. There he felt around the deck planks, as he had been instructed, and, true to the description Senior Fuentes had given him, he found a latch-pull underneath the outboard edge of the deck plank lying between the fourth and fifth timbers. Daniel pulled the latch and felt the plank spring loose. He lifted out the short plank of wood and underneath he found the anticipated, small chest, hidden in a secret compartment beneath the deck. His heart beat faster as he removed the ossuary size chest. Pulling it to him, he began to make his way back to the broken windows at the ship’s stern.