“Damme, but I do despise the bloody French!”
“Understandably, sir,” the First Lieutenant softly agreed.
“Their bloody general, Rochambeau,” Captain Alan Lewrie, RN, further gravelled, “he’d surrender t’that murderous General Dessalines and his Black rebel army, but he’s too damned proud t’strike to us?”
“Well, Dessalines did give them ten days’ truce to make an orderly exit, sir,” Lt. Westcott pointed out. “Else, it would have been a massacre. Another, really.”
“If they don’t come out and surrender to us, soon, it’ll be all ‘Frogs Legs Flambé,’ and Dessalines’ truce be-damned,” Captain Lewrie said with a mirthless laugh as he extended his telescope to its full length for another peek into the harbour of Cap François … and at the ships anchored inside, on which the French now huddled, driven from the last fingernail grasp of their West Indies colony.
Evidently, the Black victors of the long, savage insurrection were getting anxious over when the French would depart, too, for those solid stone forts which had guarded the port from sea assault showed thin skeins of smoke, rising not from cook-fires but from forges where iron shot could be heated red-hot, amber-hot, to set afire those ships and all the beaten French survivors aboard them—soldiers, civilians, sailors, women, and children. Root and branch, damn their eyes, Lewrie thought; burn ’em all, root and branch!
He lowered his glass and grimaced as he turned to face his First Officer, Lt. Geoffrey Westcott. “Is it askin’ too much, d’ye imagine, sir, that the Frogs could face facts? Which is the greater failure or shame … admittin’ the rebel slaves beat ’em like a rug, and surrenderin’ t’them … or strikin’ to a civilised foe, like us? They’ve done the first, so … what matters the second?”
“Perhaps it’s the matter of Commodore Loring’s terms, sir,” Lt. Westcott supplied, inclining his head towards their senior officer’s flagship, idling under reduced sail further out to seaward. “He will not let them dis-arm and sail for France on their parole.”
“Be a fool if he did,” Lewrie said with a dismissive snort, “and Admiralty’d never forgive him for it if he did. We’d, escort them to Jamaica, intern their civilians … make the women and kiddies comfortable … Rochambeau and all his officers’d be offered parole, quarters, and funds ’til they’re exchanged.…”
“Of course, we’d sling all their sailors and soldiers into the prisoner hulks,” Lt. Westcott added with a touch of whimsy, then, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, said, “And surely some of those French jeunes filles, or fetching young widows … surely some of them are, sir … might find themselves in need of a British officer’s ‘protection’?”
“Hmm, well…,” Capt. Lewrie allowed, rocking on the balls of his feet, making his Hessian boots creak; they were new from a cobbler at Kingston, still in need of breaking in. “I expect you’d be one to make such an offer, Mister Westcott? I warrant you’re a generous soul,” he said with a leer. Since their first acquaintance fitting-out their new frigate at the renewal of the war with France a little after Easter, Lewrie had discovered that Geoffrey Westcott was a Buck-of-The-First-Head when it came to putting the leg over biddable young ladies … almost himself to the Tee, in his younger, frivolous days.
“Well … I hope to be, sir,” Lt. Westcott replied, shrugging in false modesty, or piety (it was hard to tell which), and flashing a brief, teeth-baring grin before turning sober and “salty” once more.
“Wish ye joy of it,” Lewrie said, turning to probe the harbour with his telescope once more.
Cap François, casually known as “Le Cap” in better days, had at one time been the richest entrepôt on the French colony of Saint Domingue, rivalling Jacmel, Mole St. Nicholas, or Port-Au-Prince itself. Nigh a thousand ships had put in there each year with all the luxuries of Europe and the Orient, and had cleared laden deep with sugar, rice, molasses, and rum, making Saint Domingue the richest prize of all the Sugar Islands, richer than all the British possessions put together.
Cap François and Mole St. Nicholas further west out towards the extreme Nor’western cape of Saint Domingue were well placed for trade—on the North side of the colony, accessible to the passages out into the broad Atlantic, which made for shorter voyages to American or European markets.
Give the Frogs a little credit, Lewrie thought; at least they made something of their half of Hispaniola.
The eastern half of Hispaniola was held by the Spanish, but San Domingo had never produced a pittance of wealth compared to the French half; cattle herding, sheep and pigs, subsistence farming … along with the boucaniers who dressed in hides, and had become the dreaded buccaneers of pirate lore.
Now, though … it was all lost, to both France and any other nation which might try to possess it; as Great Britain had in those early days of the French Revolution, when they’d landed an army ashore, and had been fought back to the beaches and piers by the rebel slaves … when they weren’t fighting their former grands blancs masters, or the petits blancs and half-bloods, or each other, for dominance.
That brute General Dessalines had once been an aide to the former house slave Toussaint L’Ouverture, who’d turned out to be a much more brilliant general than any that the French had sent to fight and die here. Over thirty generals, Lewrie had heard tell, and over fourty thousand French soldiers had perished, including Napoleon’s brother-in-law, General LeClerc. Oh, LeClerc had managed to lure L’Ouverture to a parley and had enchained him, then shipped him to die in an alpine prison in France—dead of cold, hunger, and heart-break that Napoleon Bonaparte would betray him, the “Napoleon of The West,” and break all the promises of the French Revolution, of Liberté, Fraternité, and Egalité, of the heady vows of abolishing slavery anywhere in every French colony, in hopes that without L’Ouverture, the rebellion would end.
It wasn’t even Saint Domingue anymore, either. Now, the rebel slaves had begun to call it Haiti, or Hayti, which—so far as Lewrie could tell from the many battles-to-the-death, the ambushes of whole battalions at a whack, the massacres of masters, mistresses, and overseers, and pretty-much anyone else of the former ruling castes, and the betrayals that had taken place here—translated from Creole patois as “Hell On Earth.”
The last desperate refuges for the surviving French of Saint Domingue were the ships in harbour, anchored as far out as they could from the shore guns, but still be in the port proper; to venture out further would put them at risk of being raided and boarded at night by the blockading British squadron.
“One’d hope that Rochambeau had wits enough t’spike his coast artillery, before he abandoned the forts, Mister Westcott,” Captain Lewrie said to his waiting First Lieutenant.
“Well … he is French, sir, so there’s no telling.”
Their frigate, HMS Reliant, along with the rest of the squadron that had sailed from Portsmouth in May on an independent mission, lay three miles to seaward of the coast, right at the edge of what had come to be accepted as the limits of a nation’s, or island’s, sovereignty, the Three Mile Limit. Three miles because that was the Range-To-Random Shot of the largest fortress gun then in use, the 42-pounder. Had the French ever had 42-pounders emplaced on Saint Domingue? Lewrie didn’t know, but, just to err on the side of caution, that was how far out Commodore Loring had decided they would come to anchor.
“He couldn’t be that huge a fool as t’leave ’em in place, then anchor right under ’em,” Lewrie commented.
“As I said, sir … he is French, after all,” Westcott said.
“Most-like, the rebels have only field guns … regimental guns of six-, eight-, or twelve-pound shot,” Lewrie speculated.
“Twelve-pounders firing heated shot would more than suffice, at that range from the shore to the anchored French, sir,” Lt. Westcott opined as he briefly doffed his hat to swab his forehead with a faded handkerchief; almost the last day of November in the Year of Our Lord 1803 or not, it was a bright, sunny, and almost windless day.
“Mmm-hmm,” Lewrie agreed, intent again on the ships yonder.
There appeared to be at least two large Compagnie des Indies three-masted ships, as big as East Indiamen, perhaps another brace of similarly-sized French National ships of the line that seemed to be crammed from bilges to poop decks with humanity.
En flute, or completely dis-armed, Lewrie judged them. Else, they’d be completely elbows t’arseholes if they’re still armed, and of a mind t’resist us, he told himself with a wry grin. With no place t’put the women and children if they tried.
There were a couple of frigates, one of them a very handsome and big one of at least 38 guns or better. There were some lighter, smaller two-masted brigs, even some locally-built schooners. Did the French see the sense of it and strike to Loring’s squadron, there’d be a nice pot of prize-money due … even if it had to be shared by every British warship then “in sight” at the moment of their striking their colours.
Don’t half mind the French perishin’ in flames, but … we all could use some “tin,” Lewrie thought; be a shame t’lose those ships.
Beyond the ships, ashore … Lewrie had seen Cap François back in 1783, at the tail-end of the American Revolution when he had had his brief, acting-command of the Shrike brig for a few weeks. It had looked prosperous then. He had trailed his colours before it in the 1790s in HMS Proteus, his first frigate, during his first Post-Captaincy, when the slave rebellion had burst aflame, and Cap François had even then seemed safe, secure, and ordered, as if the French had kept the uprising and slaughter at bay, deep inland, and well away from the port.
Now … it was dowdy, charred, and filthy, the looted mansions and goods warehouses broken and gaping, and the harbourside streets and piers teeming with taunting, jeering ex-slaves. What possessions the French had abandoned in their haste to flee made a colourful sea of silks and satins being haggled or fought over by the victors, and draped the native women. There was street dancing, some very faint snatches of music, making Lewrie think that he was watching some feral Carnivale. And, when the gentle sea-breeze faltered, he could almost make out the dread, rhythmic thud of voudoun drumming, the sort that had made him prickle with fear his one night ashore long ago at Port-Au-Prince, the drumming that had presaged the evacuation of the British Army to cut their losses to battle, poisonings, small-party ambushes, and the ever-present Malaria and Yellow Jack.
If there were any French left ashore for lack of room aboard the anchored ships, then God help them; they’d have been hunted down, torn from even the deepest hidings, then butchered, raped, and tortured, or burned alive or beheaded—perhaps guillotined in proper French fashion?—as the last to atone for centuries of slavery and all of the cruelties that came with it.
Or, he imagined, for the vindictive, victorious fun of it!
One more day, and, upon the 30th of November, the French would sail and surrender, or burn in Hell, and Haiti (or Hayti) would become an independent Black republic, the only one of its kind in the world, born in a decade or more of blood-rain monsoons.
“Signal from the flag!” Midshipman Entwhistle piped up from the taffrails aft of Lewrie and the First Lieutenant. “Our number, sir … ‘Captain Repair On Board,’ sir!”
“What the Devil?” Lewrie wondered aloud.
“I’ll pass word for your Cox’n and boat crew, sir,” Lt. Westcott said in a crisper tone, with a doff of his hat.
“Aye, but … whatever for?” Lewrie muttered to himself.
Copyright © 2010 by Dewey Lambdin