Thomas takes El Gamo

Captain Lord Cochrane, thrust his head through the skylight of his cabin to allow him to stand upright, placed the open hatch on the quarterdeck, set his shaving gear on a towel on the teak planks, and began his morning shave.

Lieutenant Parker and Midshipman Cochrane, on watch, moved aside on hearing the hatch open and said in unison, “Good morning, my Lord.”

Thomas nodded, grunted his reply and scanned the horizon, reading the wind’s strength and direction on his nose. He glanced at the set of the sails. The Speedy’s current disguise, as a Norwegian Snow, had transformed his ship’s rigging yet again and he smiled at Mr. Wool’s snow-mast, a heavy hawser hanging about a foot behind the main mast.

His morning ablutions completed, he packed his shaving kit into the locker which served as a seat for the curved cabin window and for the table that he now writhed around. The table occupied most of his cabin and he bent over double to clear his hammock, walked in a stooped crouch through the doorway and out on deck.

“Mr. Parker, be so good as to lend me your glass.”

He climbed the mainmast, leaned out to go around the top, despite the lubber’s hole that afforded it easy access from the mast, and stood in the top. ‘Yes,’ he thought, ‘there the gun boats are again. Same dance as yesterday. Egging us on, but they won’t come out and fight. I wonder what they are hiding around the headland. A Frigate, perhaps?’

He studied the flow of the tide, the wind’s strength and direction and the lie of the land, remembering the shoals from his chart. After some time, he looked down. From this position, seventy-five feet above Speedy’s deck, he took in the length of his ship in a single glance: most of the hands were on deck. They knew their captain. When he spent a great deal of time in the maintop, with a glass, in view of an enemy port, something was up. They would be clearing for action soon and they went about their duties with a smile. Speedy had sent in so many prizes recently, that only fifty-five men were on board this morning, counting himself and the doctor, but still the small deck was relatively crowded.

He smiled as he looked down on their uplifted faces; the deck gleaming brilliantly, the ropes coiled and flemished just so, the guns bowsed tightly, the rammers, sponges and buckets ready to hand, the sails drawing well. But these attributes were not the source of the Captain’s smile. Speedy was now able to hurl her broadsides at the rate of one a minute for extended periods of time, with most shots hitting their targets, and her crew raised or furled her sails at a speed that dismayed their enemy. ‘She has become a potent wasp,’ thought Thomas, ‘it is time to see what we can accomplish.’

He slid down the backstay and on reaching the deck, said, “Mr. Parker. You may pipe the hands to breakfast. After that, we will clear for action. We will run into the harbour and see what those Spaniards believe will put a stop to our game.”

The pipes shrilled, feet thudded and mess kits banged and rattled. The men were in high spirits at their mess tables and one of them cried out ‘we’re is going to wallop them Spaniards, right on their greasy arses.
The Speedy ran in under courses alone and, just at they did yesterday, the gunboats threatened, but never engaged, always showing their stern, trying to pull Speedy around the headland. But today Speedy followed. They approached the shoreline. A large xebec-frigate rounded the headland. Her Captain, Don Francisco de Torres, immediately altered course to intercept them. She was armed with twenty-two, long 12 pounders, eight 9 pounders and two heavy carronades. Xebecs were high in the prow and stern, with raised fore and quarterdecks and carried a large crew to allow her to change her rig from fore and aft to square, depending on the wind. They were fast, powerful ships.

Thomas looked at the approaching ship, eyed the gunboats still hanging back, and paced his tiny quarterdeck. He gazed intently at the frigate, now throwing a small white bow wave as it came on under steering sails only. ‘Her gun decks are ten feet above our deck,’ he realised, an idea coming to mind. He mulled it over quickly, for her heavy guns would soon be in range.

“Mr. Parker,” said Thomas. “Continue on with this course. Run up the American colours as soon as she fires her warning shot. Mr. Andrews,” he said to a midshipman, “Cut along and ask the Doctor if he would mind stepping on deck.”

“Aye, Aye, my Lord.”

“Good Doctor,” said Thomas a moment later. “You see her,” pointing at the frigate two miles away. “She is faster than us so we cannot run away. Not that we would, this time,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling. “The Gunboats are unable to close when the action heats up, for fear of either hitting her or being hit by her. We will have her to ourselves,” he said with a grim smile. “There are more than three hundred men aboard and so I need every man when we board her. For I mean to capture her. Aware of your preference for healing, I will not ask you to board with us. But could I have the use your loblolly boy?”

Dr. James Guthrie looked at the immense topsides of the Frigate bearing down on them and then at his own little ship. His friend was not a rash man, but even for so formidable a captain, were these odds not suicide? He looked at his friend again and seeing the quiet confidence and calm demeanour, he said, “Of course. Call him when needed. I will take the helm when boarders are called, if it would serve? It would give me great pleasure to be of use.”

“A capital notion. You will be called when it is time. Thank you Doctor. Now, Mr. Parker. Tell the men to come aft.”

They assembled in a loose pack, those in front kneeling to allow their mates a clear view of their Captain standing on the slightly raised quarterdeck. He smiled and said, “Men. Some of you felt we should have taken that Frigate we scared off with the plague, six months ago.”

He scanned the semicircle of heads: a few nodding, the remainder smiling grimly. “Aye, I know – perhaps we should have at that. But today, my lads, today is our day. For do you see, there is her sister. You see her sailing casually towards us, looking down at us, like we were some helpless gnat to snap up? Her Captain must be thinking that he will eat us for breakfast soon. And why shouldn’t he? A thirty-two gun ship with six times our number, that fires ten times our weight in metal. And she can begin firing six or seven minutes before we do, so why indeed should he not feel we are his, to do with as he pleases?”

At that moment the Frigate fired a gun, hoisted Spanish colours and turned a little westerly, to bring her larboard broadside to bear. Her gun-port lids flew up in a crash of wood and the bow turned a fraction more to reveal a fine gold scrip: El Gamo.

“Mr. Andrews, note down the date and time: 6th of May, 1801, 09:30,” said Thomas. He looked up to see the American flag break out from Speedy’s foremast. ‘That ought to confuse them for a while, one less broadside, perhaps,’ he thought, and turned his attention back to the men.

“The Spanish Captain should be a nervous Nelly right now, not so my lads? He is not aware of the punch we pack, is he? He is about to find out though, for we will sail his ship, and any of her crew left standing, to Port Mahon this afternoon!”

A rousing cheer from the men and Thomas carried on, “Now listen up. We will work our way close enough to her, to strike with our guns where we can do some damage. Before we get there, she will have the opportunity of showing us her broadside two, perhaps three times. We will have to see how good their gunnery is. But you are not to fire back, you are to wait for my order, do you hear? You will double-shot your guns. Load with canister. Off you go now. Let’s show these Spanish gents that one British Tar is worth ten of them, any day!”

The men returned to their stations leaving Thomas with his officers on the quarterdeck.

“Mr. Parker,” said Thomas quietly. “We will tack soon. You may hoist our own colours at that time, and you may run out the guns. On my order to fire we will sweep her decks with grape – the three guns forward will aim at the foredeck, Sudden Death will take the deck mid-ships, the aft three guns her quarterdeck. As soon as we touch alongside you will begin firing up, into her hull. Double-shot, balls, not grape, maximum elevation, as rapid a fire as you can bring to bear.”

“Aye, my Lord,” said Parker and moved swiftly to relay these orders to the gun captains. Thomas turned and said, “Mr. Seele. Your marine sharpshooters in the tops as usual, but they must join us when we board.”

“Aye, Aye, my Lord,” said the Sergeant of Marines and hastened away to give his orders.
Thomas waited a moment and quietly called out Tack. The master repeated the order. The helmsmen spun the wheel and as Speedy began her turn, the crew released the leeward tacks and sheets and hauled the windward lines taught. The English Flag broke out at the masthead with a flourish, fourteen gun ports flew up in unison and Speedy changed course so abruptly, that the men lining El Gamo’s rail stepped back a pace.

The Spaniards, recovering their poise with bluster, pointed at Speedy‘s seven small guns poking from her larboard side and laughed. A moment later, the Frigate opened fire with a full broadside. But their aim was high and the shots howled harmlessly overhead.

“Men,” roared Thomas, “We will return their fire with three cheers!”

“Huzzay, Huzzay, Huzzay” rang out from Speedy’s gun ports, the men slapping each other on the shoulders and grinning.

A full three minutes went by and the Frigate fired another broadside, once again too high. Again three cheers rang out from the Speedy.

“Mr. Majors,” said Thomas to the master, “on my order we will tack to bring us half a cable off.”

Thomas watched the approaching ship, calculating the range for the grapeshot to carve a spreading cone of death amongst the men crowding her decks. He turned to the Master and said quietly, “Tack.” The master repeated the order and once again Speedy whipped round, her starboard gun captains immediately heaving their guns as far forward as they would point, but the sights revealed empty air, behind El Gamo.

“Wait for the order men,” roared Thomas again. He turned to the helmsman, “One point larboard,” he said softly, and then, as the Speedy lined up with the elevated decks a mere hundred yards away, he said to the helmsman, “Thus, just so.”

A second later, he shouted, “Fire as they bear!”

The seven guns went off in a quick ripple and the grapeshot flew across the short distance, ripped through the bulwarks and rails and cut a murderous swathe across the decks. The smoke from the guns, heavy with the scent of exploded powder, clung to the deck for a moment, and slid away, aft.
El Gamo’s quarterdeck, where the officers were standing moments before, was a scene of carnage. The captain and his boatswain were cut in half and several of the officers were badly wounded. The ship’s chain of command was destroyed by Speedy’s first broadside.

“Lay along side, there, Mr. Majors,” said Thomas, pointing, “and clap on to her like a leech. Like a leech, do you hear? Only alongside will their guns not be able to depress enough to hurt us.”

The Master nodded, issued instructions to hands to throw grappling-hooks forward and from the stern, and aimed for El Gamo’s side. Thomas watched as his gun crews furiously reloaded, this time with round-shot. The powder boys were running with three bags a piece and he realised that the gun captains had called for treble-shot and he laughed out loud. The steady routine of the fighting machine rolled on, not even noticing another broadside from El Gamo which passed through the sails and rigging leaving two perfect circles of blue sky in the mainsail.

“Mr. Andrews,” said Thomas, “find a man who speaks a little Spanish and position yourself near their quarterdeck. You are to warn me if they give an order to board.”

“Aye, aye my Lord. A Spanish speaking hand, warn of boarding.”

Speedy crunched into the towering side and the grappling-hooks locked on, taking a bite from the Spanish Oak. Thomas shouted “Fire!” A quick ripple of thunder rolled down the deck as all seven guns discharged into the Frigate’s hull from six inches away. Chunks of her hull splintered into shards, driving into El Gamo’s men attempting to depress their guns, to bring them to bear on this wasp with such a fatal sting. Every minute, another round of death was fired into her hull, and every minute the blood ran thicker from her scuppers. After several minutes of this hammering, Mr. Andrews’s high-pitched voice carried to Thomas, “They are preparing to board, my Lord.”

“Mr. Parker, sheer off. Quickly now,” and in a voice that carried to the bow above the roar of battle, he shouted, “Stand by to repel boarders.”

A few Spaniards made it across the slowly widening gap, and met a sword or pike and fell to the sea, a few others tried the leap but failed and the rest, lining the rail indecisively, were cut down as the Speedy’s guns fired again, with grape, from just below their feet. A volley of muskets fired by Speedy’s crew lining the rail cut down yet more of them. The effects of this devastating gunnery were taking their toll and El Gamo’s guns were firing sporadically now, the muzzle flash searing out over their heads. Speedy’s rigging was cut from stem to stern and strands of it hung down like tendrils.

“Mr. Majors, lay us alongside again. Prepare to hook on, right there,” he said, pointing at a relatively undamaged location.

The Speedy ground into El Gamo and opened fire with round-shot. The Spaniards were fighting furiously now, throwing pikes, discharged pistols and axes at Speedy’s crew below them, firing their muskets and the guns, but the fierce fire exploding through their decks did not slacken. Mr. Andrews’s voice came clearly to Thomas, warning of a second attempt to board. Speedy sheered off, again she let loose with guns and muskets from point blank range. After two such disastrous attempts, the Spanish crew wisely decided not to risk a third.

Thomas knew that each time Speedy sheered off, she could loose a mast to a lucky shot, ending their capers immediately, for she would not be able to sheer off again if the Spaniards chose to board. By the numbers against them, they would simply be overwhelmed. He glanced at the time and realised that they had been at it for an hour.

“Mr. Majors. Call for the doctor, if you please, and then prepare to board.”

“Aye, aye, my Lord,” said the Master hurrying away to call Dr. Guthrie from his station in the cockpit.

“Good Doctor,” said Thomas, “how is the butcher’s bill?

“Two men with splinter-wounds, not serious lacerations, two others with a musket ball which I have removed. They will all live, with the blessing. And two who no longer require any blessing.”

“Ah…” sighed Thomas. For such an action it was light, especially when compared to the bloodbath they had wrought on the decks above. “This kind of onslaught cannot last, James,” he said in a quiet aside, “our rigging is cut up, our sails riddled with shot. We must either take her or be ourselves taken, in which case the Spaniards will give us no quarter. A few minutes energetically employed on our part, and she is ours! Please be so kind as to lay us alongside and to ensure that you touch us against her when your head is forward of her mizzenmast.”

“Mr. Cochrane,” he said turning to Archibald and leading him forward. “You will lead the starboard watch when we board. You will go via the galley, use the soot on the bottom of the pans to blacken your hands and faces. The Spaniards are superstitious and are terrified of black men. Well may you smile, brother, but we will need all the help we can get and no device can be too minute, even if apparently absurd, provided it have the effect of diverting your enemy’s attention, whilst you are concentrating your own. If the good doctor steers us right, you will find that our bow offers you a purchase on her foremast chains. Fire the forward guns before you board, loaded with grape of course, and then while the smoke is blinding them, stand on our rail and use the chains to pull yourself aboard.”

“Aye, sir,” said Archibald walking quickly to gather his boarding party.
As Thomas later would write in his official version of the encounter: The Doctor, who I am happy to say, is still living to peruse this record of his gallantry, volunteered to take the helm; leaving him therefore for the time both commander and crew of the Speedy, the order was given to board, and in a few seconds every man was on the enemy’s deck – a feat rendered the more easy as the doctor placed the Speedy close alongside with admirable skill.

“Prepare to board, men!” shouted Thomas a few moments later and leaping to the rail, he grabbed hold of the mainchains and paused to look back, ensuring every man was ready. “Board,” he hailed as he hauled himself up, slashed at a pike with his heavy cavalry sabre and leapt to the deck with a ferocious cry, knocking a man over so hard, that he bowled over several others behind him.

The Spaniards were taken by surprise, for they never imagined so small a ship, carrying such few men, would attempt to board. They fell back towards the waist of their ship and just as they were rallying, Thomas shouted out in Spanish to the Doctor on board Speedy, “Send up another fifty men!”

Archibald’s blackened men appeared, like wraiths through the fog of white smoke from the forward guns. To free their hands, they held their cutlasses in their teeth as they climbed, and their red bandanas and dark glistening faces gave them a devilish air. The terrified Spanish crew fell back, only to be greeted by more men, attacking from the rear.

“Mr. Andrews,” said Thomas. “Haul down their colours.”

A cry went up from the Spaniards as they saw their colours coming down, assuming that it was by order of their own and an officer stepped forward and surrendered. Thomas raised his gleaming blue eyes to take in the scene and said in strong voice, “Avast fighting. She has struck,” and in a sudden quiet, the fighting ceased.

“Drop your weapons. Drop your weapons now,” he yelled at the Spaniards, hastening them along with a slash of his sword and they sullenly released their swords, pistols, pikes and muskets.

“Quickly now, men. Clear their weapons away. Smartly now, pile them in a heap on the forecastle. Pass the word for Mr. Parker.”

“He is badly wounded, my Lord,” said the master. “The doctor is seeing to him now.”

“Mr. Majors. Get the prisoners below. Handsomely now, before they realise just how few of us there are. Quickly now.”

He moved about swiftly, herding prisoners with his sword point and the dispirited Spaniards filed below, the last few realising that forty-two enemy were herding two hundred and sixty-three unhurt men below. But they had no weapons and no officers appeared to be in charge and they filed below wordlessly.

“Mr. Majors. Heave that gun around and point it down the hatchway. Load the gun with grape. Place a marine here, at the head of the companionway, and give him a slow match. Tell him to fire if one of those sods puts his nose out of the hatch.”

He turned to survey the deck: it was slippery with blood, wounded men lay groaning against the railings and the deck itself was severely damaged by the shots that had exploded upwards from his little ship. And slowly, as the heat of battle subsided, a steady beating of his heart took over and he laughed out loud and cried out, “She is ours! We have taken her!”

The Speedy lost one more man in boarding, bringing her total casualty list to three killed, eight wounded. El Gamo lost fifteen killed and forty-one wounded – more than the crew of the Speedy itself.

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