By Mark Keating
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An injured French officer struggles along a desolate stretch of West African coastline, desperate to hold on to a secret.
His tale soon ends—violently—but a young pirate recruit, Patrick Devlin, leaves that same beach unscathed, with a new pair of boots and a treasure map in his possession. Now, the adventures of the pirate Devlin, his shipmates, and those who wish them all dead move forward without restraint, through broadside barrages and subterfuge and brutal encounters on land and at sea, where nothing is as it seems.
In these pages, readers will meet Blackbeard and his cohorts, Portuguese colonial governors and French commandants, officials of the East India Company and Royal Naval officers, fresh-faced midshipmen and gnarly, scarred, and drunken pirate crewmen. But none is as impressive and memorable as the former servant and newly minted pirate Captain Devlin—unless it's the one man he once served on board a British man-of-war, a man now sworn to kill him.
Pride, envy and avarice
Are the three sparks
That have set on fire
The hearts of man.
The Divine Comedy, 'Inferno': VI, 74–5
Stepping from the damp closeness of the jungle to the blinding brightness of the beach took a moment of adjustment. Devlin shielded his eyes from the glare of the sand. He had been given no order other than to assure the death of the Frenchman, so he took the time to ponder the significance of the parchment hidden in the dead man's boots.
He moved down to a rocky vantage along the edge of the jungle, every step reminding him of the folded secret rubbing against his calf.
He sat on the volcanic outcrop and squinted out to sea. They had landed on the east of the island, which had provided them the best sounding, and now, as Devlin stared out, he could just make out the coast of Africa herself, stretching like a line of black ink drawn across the horizon, an enormous blanket of thunderous dark clouds threatening to swallow her. The archipelago the Frenchman had led them to was more than thirty leagues distant, yet as far as Devlin's gaze panned, his view was the dark shore of an enormous other world. He had never walked upon the land of nightmarish beasts and black backs that shouldered the wealth of the New World, but had seen the remnants of men who had found disease Africa's only promise. Still, what point a sailor, if home were all he craved?
In the offing, the Lucy sat. A black-and-white two-mast brigantine. Square-rigged on the foremast, gaff-rigged on the main, with a full set of jibs and staysails for speed and agility. A young ship, fourteen years out of Chatham, although most of her spars and yards had been cannibalised from older souls. She had the extravagance of both capstan over windlass and wheel over tiller, and a quarterdeck that made every sloop of war look twice upon her.
Eighty feet long with only eight six-pounders, she was a baby compared to the French and English frigates that Devlin was used to, but she could move as swiftly as running your finger across a map.
Stern and bow, the pirates' stanchion mounted three pairs of swivel guns along the rails. These half-pound falconets, loaded with grape, could devastate an opposing crew, peppering the shrouds and decks, pulling at flesh like fish hooks. Two further six-pounders, one placed as a chaser, the other aft, peeped out of the Lucy's hull through crudely cut ports, but by far the pirates' most deadly weapons were the men themselves.
Fully armed, weapons kept immaculately clean and dry through wax and tallow strip, each man was formidable with a musket; even Devlin, a poacher in his youth, an old matchlock his bedside companion, was denied a musket until he came up to their standard.
In a 'surprisal' at sea, groups of them stood in the rigging, firing off rounds, as casually as shelling nuts, down into the prize, and every shot killed or maimed. Two shots could splice a sheet. Four could bring down a yard. Six men aloft were worth more than one twelve-pounder, and each man could fire three to the gun's pitiful one, his only pause to wipe the stinging powder from his red-rimmed eyes.
The Lucy. Overmanned fit to bursting. The sheer numbers of men sealed most of their victories, with a merchant often shy to defend his trade against a comparative army of drunken, cursing maniacs bearing down upon him.
To make room amongst the cramped decks, any spare bit of wood that was not necessary to float went overboard. Bulkheads were ripped out, cabins, doors and tables removed. Men slept on the open deck or close together below, often 'matelot' style, sharing hammocks and blankets and eating meals in the open air upon rugs and sailcloth. Such closeness mocked the fourteen inches allotted to a sailor upon a king's ship, and it was for the good of all that you got on with the man you slept, ate and fought beside. Ever since the old Tortuga buccaneers, this notion of brotherhood had marked the pirates' success. The 'Brethren of the Coast' both in name and most certainly in number.
Out of Devlin's long waistcoat came a muslin bag of tobacco. He placed it on the rock, first checking for dampness. Taking his clay pipe from his pocket, he blew out any lint and filled it with the Virginian blend introduced to a drop of port some months before.
Lifting his head to check for eyes upon him, aware that his mates could appear at any moment, Devlin pulled out the possession most prized before Philippe Ducos's gift.
A small, narrow tube. Hardly four inches long. Silver. A laughing devil engraved on the top. At the slip of a thumbnail, the devil could be prised up to reveal a dozen narrow pinewood sticks coated in an awful-smelling substance.
Inside the lid, a roughened glassy surface sparked the wood into life, and before Devlin had shaken out the flame and tossed the wood to the sea, the silver tube was back in his pocket. The tube was a gift from his former master from the Noble, John Coxon. At the time, Captain Coxon was dying of dysentery in Cape Coast Castle and was unaware of making the 'gift'.
He sucked on his pipe, drawing it into life, avoiding the urge to study the paper that Ducos's fate had given him. From the Frenchman's final, desperate outburst he had only gathered the promise of a map to a king's fortune, guarded and hidden. A fortune in gold, stored as a stronghold for the French forces in the Antilles.
Until he looked at the paper he would not know what hand it would deal him. But his worst fate would be to be found studying a map taken from a dead prisoner for some unknown personal gain. In his contemplation, his eyes had carried back out to sea. He noticed, reflective, amused, that his exhalations of smoke matched the crashing of the afternoon surf.
'Did you not think that you should declare those boots to your quartermaster, then, Patrick?' He turned with a start to see Peter Sam standing by his side. The others were following across the white sand, William Magnes carrying a lifeless goat across his shoulders.
Devlin cursed himself. He had not heard a distant shot to explain for the goat, and coming across the sand the party should have sounded like carts on cobblestones to his poacher's ears.
Peter Sam, one eye closed against the glare of the sun, spied Devlin's new footwear. 'Pretty nice boots that Frenchman had, eh? Did you not want to share them?'
Devlin's composure returned as five pairs of envious and greedy eyes, including Fletcher's, were turned to his boots.
'Now be fair, Peter: we'd look pretty foolish wearing a boot between us.'
All, apart from the fiery quartermaster, cackled in agreement, Fletcher, in his ignorance, the loudest.
'Get that meat to the boat!' Peter Sam growled with his Bristol drawl through his red beard, glaring at them all as they grumbled past him. He turned back to Devlin.
He had disliked Devlin from the moment they had relieved him from his duty aboard the Noble. Although clearly a servant, he had been unwilling to join his pirate rescuers who had so easily mauled the English sixth-rate. Now, Devlin sat before him, grinning behind his pipe, perched on a rock, blood speckled on his linen shirt, the boots in question similarly dappled.
'Suppose I want those boots for myself, Patrick? And what else did you gets from that Frog?'
'If you go back there' – Devlin indicated to the jungle with his pipe – 'you'll find a thimble, a flint and a broken pipe.' With a flourish he pulled out the handkerchief, also covered in blood. 'But you're welcome to this if you want, Peter.'
Peter Sam leaned towards Devlin's face. 'I wouldn't mind trying those boots, Patrick.'
Devlin dropped off the rock, his face levelled to Peter Sam's, and he passed a look up and down the brute. Unlike most of the crew, who wore the finest linen and waistcoats, albeit tallow- and pitch-stained, motley as harlequins, Peter Sam wore goat-leather breeches and a leather jerkin. Gracing his chest was a deadly bandoleer of cartouche boxes and generations of pistols holstered with leather straps. He was the image of an old-time 'boucanier'.
'I took these boots off a dead man. You'll have to do the same.' Devlin brushed past and walked to the boat, Peter Sam's eyes at his back.
The row back to the Lucy was a quiet one. Thomas Deakins, the young lad whom Peter Sam had led away into the jungle, and never strayed far from, now wore Philippe Ducos's blue tunic.
Devlin had become accustomed to the closeness of some of the pirate brethren to each other, and when Peter took the arm of Thomas on the island, no one had raised a head. In many ways the closeness was of benefit to a ship. Some of the men worked in pairs like twins, and worked gladly. Every man seemed to be a 'bosun' rather than just a mate, running the shrouds and ratlines as smoothly as painting a wall.
Despite the drunken nature of their days, there was no job neglected or position lacking. That which could not be spliced or repaired could soon be stolen or bartered, and every sheet hauled or rope reeved was done for the purpose of filling the coffers of all. Their songs were sung for the joy of the life and not just to bolster the rhythm of the work. They had an envious camaraderie that Devlin had not seen since his days out of the close-knit ports of St Malo. Peter Sam's dark gaze from across the boat, however, suggested there were exceptions.
The boat was belayed to the Lucy, left to loll alongside as the lads all clambered up the tumblehome with a rampant thirst.
The lack of the cochon-marron, the marooned brown pig that the Frenchman had promised with his drawings and mime, was disappointing, but there were goats, most probably landed by some long-dead Portuguese adventurer as a larder for the world, and an oasis of fruit that might inspire the captain to stay and supply.
Not that food seemed to be a concern in the company that Devlin now kept. On his first day, the afternoon the Noble had been lost, Devlin and Alastair Lewis, the only prisoners from the English frigate, ate a pork and mango stew with cobbles of fresh bread and a shilling's worth of butter, whilst being questioned by the charismatic captain, Seth Toombs, who sliced corners of cheese and wedges of apples straight into his mouth off the back of an ivory-hilted blade.
Now, Captain Toombs lay sprawled on the deck in front of his open cabin, all limbs outstretched across a red and gold Indian carpet that, back in London, would have graciously filled any gentleman's hall, but perhaps not in its current frayed and rent condition.
It was hours past noon. No course to go for. Every soul on board had supped a draught or two whilst waiting for the longboat's return. The captain's burgundy tricorne lay across his eyes, and he lifted a corner of it to watch Peter Sam as he approached.
'Ah, Peter,' Toombs yawned, 'I gather there be no pig farm on that there island? Seeing as we are now absent of our French lubber?' Toombs's dialect was as far westbound as Peter's.
'Aye, Cap'n. No pig farm. But there be plenty of goat if we want to stay. Fruit too. Mangoes, plantains.'
'Not plantains, please, Peter. Say not plantains! Mate, my guts will turn blue for another!' He lay back down with a belch.
'Aye, Cap'n.' Peter bent down, swooped up the captain's leather mug and idled over to the half-hog of punch that was permanently on deck.
Devlin watched the party from the longboat dissipate amidships. The dead goat, his sorry head hanging, was carried below. The quartermaster had his back to him and was on his second draught. Toombs appeared to be asleep; then the glint of a catlike eye beneath the cock of his hat betrayed otherwise. A hand beckoned to Devlin.
Devlin came across the wet deck towards Seth Toombs, who was now raised on an elbow and smiling him closer, quite gentrified in his brown twill coat and scarlet brocade waistcoat. He was as young as Devlin maybe – not yet thirty; but rough drink and Newfoundland winds had weathered his face and made coarse his blond hair. Toombs, Peter Sam and old William Magnes were the original three who had stolen a sloop out of Newfoundland two years before.
They were codmen, pressed into freezing their youth away along the harsh North American coast. One winter had been enough, and the three Bristol men slipped away in the night, just after Peter had slipped away the life of the sloop's master. The first man he had killed for Seth Toombs.
A dozen stories later, Toombs was the elected captain of a hundred men, but Devlin had summed him up as all swagger and stagger. A lucky, dirty soul.
'Now, Patrick. Mister Devlin, sir.' Still looking asleep, Toombs spoke on. 'I have had a wonderful conversation with Mister Lewis this fine morning.'
'Mister Lewis.' He rolled himself up to sit. 'Your former navigator on that burning frigate you frequented? Come closer, man!'
Devlin moved forward to within a step of the captain. All about them, men were laughing in cross-legged groups, sharing mugs of punch: their diet of rum, water and limes stirred with muscovado sugar.
'Who has my mug?' Toombs asked the air about him. 'Never mind. Sit down, Patrick, and listen to me.' He patted his carpet to motion Devlin to him. Devlin shifted his sword and crouched, one knee down, his left hand on the hilt.
'You have performed well, Patrick. I be proud of your schooling.' Toombs smiled. 'On that French sloop you fought like a true pirate. I'm shining of you, sir, so I am!' He slapped Devlin heartily. 'But,' he whispered, 'did you not think that those few men fought rather hard for what little they had to offer? Would you not be of a mind to think that now?'
'I don't know, Captain.'
'Shush, never mind, sir, never mind.' He patted Devlin's forearm patriarchally. 'However, as I say, Mister Lewis and I have been a-talking.'
Alastair Lewis was the navigator on board the Noble. Like Devlin he had resisted capture. But whereas Devlin gave defence to the ship when the dead no longer could or the living had fled to the boats, Lewis and Acting Captain Thorn had locked themselves in the Great Cabin. The pirates had broken through the door just as the blaze got beyond Thorn's control.
They had used Thorn for target, hanging by his arms across the main's yardarm, after they discovered he had burned all the charts, the cause of the fire, and thrown Lewis's tools to the sea. Then the fire had spread, assuring the pirate's half-victory, and the loss of the ship.
When they drank to the tale the day after, the more 'romantic' of them told how they had heard the beams of the old girl scream.
'Come and see what we were talking about.' He had stood up and gently tugged Devlin into the cabin, or rather the shell of one.
The doors were missing and every chair. The customary accoutrements that Devlin was used to were absent. There were no bookshelves, no desk nor cot, no personal effects. Everything that could be ripped out was gone. Only the hanging lanterns, the lockers beneath the windows and the large table remained as furniture. The austerity of the rest of the room made the table seem cluttered and chaotic, piled as it was with navigational instruments and towers of papers.
The three small paned bottle-glass windows were open but, even from this distance, Africa crept in with a dark humidity and Devlin's trailing hair clung to his neck, filtering a trickle of sweat down his back.
Toombs ambled forward, his hat brushing the overhead. He leaned on the far side of the table and waved Devlin closer; on its return his hand strayed over a bottle of Jerez wine and he took a swig.
Devlin stepped to the table. This was the first time he had been in the cabin, despite the truth that, unlike on a regulated ship, the pirate captain's cabin was not sacrosanct, merely a sleeping berth for the captain – a small reverence to title but a room that belonged to the whole.
The captain ate or drank no better than any other soul on board, and God forgive him if he did.
He rarely even fought in boardings but took two shares in all that was taken in deference to the fact that he would most surely hang when the day came to remove his hat and bow his head.
He had one overpowering responsibility that his leadership was based on: 'To where do we sail?' His was the plan. The luck. The path.
For this a good navigator was essential. On a pirate vessel, common sailors made up the ship. What often surprised their victims was not the pirates' interest in their gold and jewels but the ravenous search for medicines, tools and sea charts.
To many the navigator's skills were nothing short of necromancy and his capture mandatory. To this end Alastair Lewis was their prize on seizing the Noble, but Thorn's panic in burning everything he was able to had cost them dear.
'I have a problem, Patrick.' Toombs motioned a hand across the objects on the table. 'I have sailors and gentlemen of fortune up to my ears, but no dedicated soul to navigate.'
Devlin looked down at the charts and tools. A wooden Portuguese astrolabe, a Mercator world map, an African coastal chart that took in Madagascar, a map of the Antilles and the Florida coast weighted down by conch and stone, and an enormous French backstaff stretching across the table.
On one side were piles of papers and oilskin wallets holding more charts. The Lucy's original gimbal compass took pride of place in the centre with a couple of wooden dividers hovering near a crock inkwell.
Innocuous objects. The only keys one needed to unlock the heavens, but to the unfamiliar hand and eye they were as unreachable as the stars they divined.
The pirates' world was a small one. The hardest route Toombs had ever sailed was the capricious twelve hundred miles from Newfoundland to Providence on board the Cricket, the small sloop that the three old standers originally stole.
Now, with a hundred able men and a larger ship, they cruised the same paths month in, month out.
In summer, they sailed the Newfoundland coast, endeavouring to catch the cod merchants and other traders sailing to the Mediterranean or back home to England.
In winter, they would head southeast, following the trade winds to Africa, hoping to hit the Sixteenth Parallel, close to the Verdes, to pick off the traders who waited to spy the islands before heading west to the Indies.
Eventually the winds would carry them four degrees down to Africa's Guinea coast, where they could catch the fat galley slavers embarking on their second leg of the triangular trade that ruled the world, or the Dutch and English Indiamen on the trawl from the East, sailing low in the water, laden with spices and rich fabrics ripe for plunder.
If their sweet trade gathered too much attention, they would head west to spend the rest of the winter in the Caribbee islands, running as close as they could back up to the Sixteenth Parallel to catch the merchantmen heading back to Europe with their rum, sugar, tobacco, cotton and molasses purchased off the backs of slaves.
Then, as May appeared, they would sail back to Newfoundland or the inlets of the Carolinas, before the hurricanes, which wrecked unwary ships more than all the powder ever lit, came to visit the Caribbean.
So it went on. Months of pirating interspersed with times of careening on deserted spits of land and wild carousing in wicked forsaken holes, and all the while being hunted by all the navies of the world trying to protect the interests of obese investors and mentally affected kings and queens who had made theft, cruelty and exploitation their nations' proudest achievements.
Toombs enlightened Devlin that a pirate ship freed the men from the torturous labour of the navy watch.
A pirate led an idle life. No longer was he expected to turn a sand glass and ring a bell on every half-hour for every four hours of the day and night; thus the calculation of time and one of the aids to accurate longitude was lost. The longitude itself depended on the varied maps acquired from ransacked cabins, for each of the voyaging nations of the old world held their own meridian.
At local noon, the sun at its zenith, they took a latitude and a speed.
'From this I can plot where I'll be by the same time on the morrow. If we travel at five knots I'll gather two degrees of latitude by noon the next day, don't you see?'
Devlin saw. Any weathered salt let out of the waist of a ship could plot a course by dead reckoning, providing he knew where he set off from, his bearing and speed, and tried to maintain a constant.
The mystery, the lost leagues, came with the clouded sky, the starless night. The man before the mast needed a Pole Star reading, where the altitude of the star against the horizon would give the latitude.
For greater accuracy a skilled navigator, an 'artist', could measure the altitude of over fifty other stars and compare that to the astrolabe, the almost magical disc that showed the stars and their latitudes throughout the year. The Portuguese, the magicians of the sea, were its masters.
Without the stars to guide, a navigator would rely on the ship's 'waggoner', the eclectic collection of maps and charts, and his own dead reckoning. Lonely hours spent by tallow light hunched over a chart, a loupe sweeping over reef markers and soundings, making the jump of imagination to connect the scratches of ink, the veiled warnings of dead men, to the pitching and heaving beast outside the cabin door. That was the art. Toombs needed someone to turn the flat paper charts into a globe.
'I can't navigate like that, Patrick. It's not in my soul! I can reckon with the best of 'em, but I needs someone with the mind for the whole manner of it!' His eyes gleamed. 'My thoughts are, Patrick, that if I can navigate well, the whole world could open up to us! The East, the South Seas! Cut away from these lanes! With good longitude, I could save weeks off a voyage and run rings round those navy boys!' He slapped the table passionately and swigged at his wine.
'To what end would this be my concern, Captain?' Devlin squinted as the sun lowered into the window.
Toombs began the account that Lewis had told him. How Devlin was the manservant to Captain John Coxon. How Coxon was a skilled navigator, one who could tell where he was in the world just by fathoms and the samples the soundings brought up, even by the colour of the sea and the yaw of the ship. How, when Coxon went to take his morning readings, Devlin was there with his coffee, and for every reading throughout the day. That Devlin was present whenever Lewis and Coxon compared readings, when courses were plotted and noted.
'I would begin to suspect, mate, that it would be not entirely unreasonable to assume that some of that knowledge might "soak" in, so to speak, you might say.'
Devlin could not disagree. The years with Coxon had been instructive. Coxon had shared his books with Devlin when he discovered with delight that his steward could read and read well. Devlin helped teach the young midshipmen the duty of the traverse board, the peg and wood diagram that kept the course and speed of the ship throughout the watch.
He could 'box' the compass in French, to Coxon's amusement, and Coxon would beam with pride when he slapped the backstaff into Devlin's hands and bade him read the correct latitude, if he would be so kind, after some lieutenant had fuddled his way through an incoherent attempt.
After too much Madeira and flank steak, Coxon would bemoan Devlin's Irish birth and his brief dalliance under the pavillion-blanc flag of the Marine Royale that would deny him a fine second or third lieutenant.
'But perhaps a sailing master you could be, Patrick? That could be done. It is only exams, after all, don't you know?' Then Devlin would clear the table, brush Coxon's hat and coat before returning with the last black coffee of the night.
Just how much Lewis had spoken of him, how much of his past, would need careful teasing out of Toombs.
He looked Toombs square in the eye. 'No more than anything else, Captain. But Lewis was Coxon's navigator. His is the skill.'
Toombs turned away to the stern window, which was glowing in the afternoon sun. 'Lewis disapproves of us… gentlemen.'
It was only then that Devlin had noticed Alastair Lewis's absence. Ever since they were both pressed into service, Lewis was either on the quarterdeck with the captain or occupied in the sparse cabin. He looked at Toombs's silhouetted back and watched his head lower.
Lewis was passionate about his loyalties, that had been obvious. He seemed to clash with Toombs every day, and Toombs, Devlin was sure, would ultimately distrust him to occupy such an important position on his quarterdeck.
Behind him, Devlin could hear the songs of the crew calling in the evening, songs of lubrication and bordellos, the friendly creaking of the boards beneath him and the slow lapping of the sea against the hull. He waited for Toombs to speak.
'If you knew him, and had any kinship with him, you may go and see him.' Toombs turned. 'But I'm afraid, Pat, he's been blinded by some of the mates.'
He elaborated that he had wanted Lewis to plot a course to St Nicholas, one of the Verde Islands. The course should be taken away from the coast to avoid patrols, and continue through the night for added safety, especially as it was only weeks since they had left a burning English frigate near the Straits of Gibraltar. Toombs's own weakness with navigation had required Lewis's skill. Lewis had refused and Toombs had taken him below, in the dark and heat, and forced him onto his knees. A thick, knotted oakum rope, coarse as broken glass, had been put round his head, across his eyes, and twisted over and over, tighter and tighter. Some sweet tongue had christened the act 'the rosary of pain'; most just called it 'wooldling'.
- "Keating's pirates are no mere escapees from a Disney thrill ride; they're bloodthirsty, cruel, and sadistic to a man. The author seems hell-bent on restoring the pirate to his formerly fearsome berserker glory. And in this rousing swashbuckler, he resoundingly succeeds."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Jul 27, 2010
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing