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An Inciting Incident

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Personal Journal of Midshipman Alexander Ashton

Aboard HMS Sappho under Captain William White

August the 27th

1806

Having accomplished our refitting in the port of Antigua, we are once again under sail, making for the cape. Have taken on eight new sailors to replace men lost in our action against the Admiral Yawl, some volunteers and some pressed, though I know not which are which. One of them is an Englishman, a forecastle man called Egbert Shirley. I find him a very agreeable fellow. He has about him a manner which would make anyone wish to be his friend—anyone, that is, except for my cohort Midn. Fawks, who, upon being invited to dice with the gentlemen, turned up his nose and declared he had sooner spend the evening in the bilge. Myself, I took Mr. Shirley up on his offer and spent a most pleasant interval, though I of course did not gamble myself. Mr. Shirley amused us with an account of his adventures aboard a Spanish merchantman, which language he has learned most neatly and can speak with an uproarious accent which he assures us is the height of aristocratic fineness.

Alas, our festivity was cut short upon Midn. Fawks reporting it to Lt. Johns, who broke it up and asked me if I was looking for a flogging. Of course I assured him I Was Not, and that I had not been gambling nor even drinking. He allowed that he would overlook it this once, but reminded me that Capt. White is unlikely to be so lenient, should it happen again and he find out. I promised I would be vigilant of my behavior in the future, and, indeed, I now feel he was right to reprimand me. If I am to make lieutenant, I must cultivate an impression of respect among the crew.

 

September the 2nd

I have obtained permission from Lt. Johns to have Shirley tutor me in trigonometry, as Johns has no great facility with it himself, and in any case had rather not be burdened overmuch with supervising my studies. Thus Shirley and I have a good deal of time together. Besides my official studies (which in fact take no great amount of mental exertion), Mr. Shirley is teaching me ropework. It is very cunning how he can do it; he shewed me how to make a blackjack with half-hitches all down the handle, and further knotwork enclosing a bit of lead shot. It is a crude kind of weapon, I suppose, but it does swing most powerfully in the hand, and I should not like to be on the wrong end of it.

It has been most enlightening to receive Shirley's perspective on certain matters. I did not know until he began speaking to me of it that there is a lively trade in rations among the sailors, for the purser, Ms. Soames, has been extorting payments in exchange for food and in particular for rum! According to Shirley, Captain White knows of this and allows it to persist unchecked. He says, indeed, that it is not an uncommon situation on naval vessels, particularly when captained, as he says, by "nepotistic toffs". I am not sure I like this characterization of our commander, but I did find myself thinking on it as I dined by invitation at the Captain's table, and we had the best wines and good cuts of beef, and fruits and bread still rather fresh thanks to our recent provisioning. We finished with brandy! Meanwhile, to hear Shirley tell it, the sailors dined chiefly on weevils and water, unless they had something of value to trade to the purser for better. This situation seems to me untenable. I am resolved to speak to the Captain about it, as I am sure, despite what Shirley says, that he cannot realize the true extent of the problem.

September the 3rd

I obtained private audience with Captain White and complained to him of Mr. Soames' behaviour. He gave every sign of listening closely, then told me I had better not concern myself with the performance of other officers at their posts! I put it to him that hungry men were at best less able to perform their duties, and at worst could become mutinous. At that he asked sharply whether I had been privy to any stirrings of mutiny. I assured him I had not, but that I did perceive a problem of morale which seemed like to worsen. He thanked me for my diligence and sent me away.

I did not speak to Mr. Shirley of this conversation, though I suspect he will know soon enough, as he seems to have the pulse of nearly everything that goes on. Indeed, he has made fast friends with a great many of the men, though I perceive that he spends not half so much time with any of them as he does with me. I was amazed to learn that he is only two years older than I, though he has been at sea longer, since he was only nine years of age! It is remarkable the things he knows. It would not surprise me if he could captain an entire ship on his own, though of course he is unlikely to get such a chance in His Majesty's Navy. If I were captain I should promote him straight away.

September the 10th

There has been a change come over the atmosphere on board ship, and I am in some distress thinking that it may be due to my complaining to Captain White. Lt. Johns has changed from his ordinarily loaferish ways (if I may dare to characterize them as such) and has instead been prowling about abovedecks and below in search of misdemeanors. The bosun, Mr. Harris, whose task has been thus usurped, trails behind him in confusion. Three men flogged in the last four days for minor failings, a spectacle which I had not before witnessed and found distasteful. Shirley unusually reticent regarding these proceedings. Whole crew walking on eggshells except, evidently, the commissioned officers. On my watch yesterday evening I heard issuing from the Captain's cabin such merriment, such clinking of cutlery and glass! I caught the eye of the cook's boy who was passing in and out of that chamber of decadence, and a look passed between us. Before he calmed his expression, I saw more than mere dismay. I saw rebellion.

September the 15th

Matters worsening. Capt. White, Lt. Johns, and Mr. Soames' conduct is unbecoming of officers. It is evident that they are three kindred spirits. My own spirit sinks to think that such men may rise to authority in His Majesty's Navy. Nonetheless, they are the governors of our ship, without whose guidance all would descend into chaos and disaster. The crew cannot do without them any more than the opposite.

Mr. Shirley unusually distant toward me, perhaps because I have enjoyed the captain's good favor thus far.

September the 18th

What I now record I almost hesitate to set down. Mr. Shirley approached me today and, after first cautioning me to give no reaction which might excite notice, put to me his plans for overpowering the officers and taking control of the ship. Mutiny. He had, he said, more than half of the deck crew in hand, and wanted only some agent whom the captain trusted. By this, he meant a person such as myself.

"Have we your support?" he asked. I was almost too shocked to speak; I felt light-headed. Seeing my hesitation, he said:

"Have I judged you wrongly, then? Are you a man like the captain?"

"Never," I replied.

He smiled. "Then you'll stand with us?"

Something cold twisted in my guts. At last I said, "I cannot."

His expression grew hard. "I thought better of you, Alexander Ashton." He considered me for a moment, then said, "You'll not stand in our way. No, no, I would not credit it. You'll stand by and make your choice in the end." He grinned, crookedly, evidently certain of what my choice would be. He squeezed my shoulder, and departed, leaving me reeling.

I am in agony over Shirley's revelation. I cannot in good conscience keep silent, for if the deck hands carry out their plan, there will be fighting, deaths, and, soon or late, hangings. But if I go to the captain, Shirley will be hanged on the spot. To complicate my feelings still further, I find I am not without sympathy for the mutineers' position. Yet I am determined that law and order must prevail, or we might as well prostrate ourselves before the Tyrant. I am ashamed that my regard for Mr. Shirley—evidently misplaced!—has made me delay addressing the situation thus far. Though it be the doom of my one-time friend, I know what I must do. I lay down my pen now and go directly for the captain.

 

September the 20th (near dawn)

This evil day and night are finally ended, and the conflict within my breast can scarcely be described.

I went to Captain White to tell him what Shirley revealed to me. Lt. Johns was standing guard outside the captain's cabin, and refused, at first, to let me in. At last I was able to impress upon him the very dire and immediate necessity of the message I conveyed, but upon his finally letting me push past him, I saw what I had been intended not to observe: the captain and the purser, Soames, both exceedingly drunk on what appeared to be very fine claret, the remains of a sumptuous dinner spread obscenely before them, their faces red and fingers leaving greasy prints on their crystal glasses. They were laughing uproariously when I came in, and my appearance did little to dampen their spirits, until at length Soames took note of my and Lt. Johns' expressions, and got the captain to pay heed.

"Well?" asked the Captain, slurring. "Out with it, boy."

"There have been reports," I said. And, may God forgive me, I found that I could not go on.

"Yes?" he drawled, sarcastic. "Reports of what?"

"Of gambling," I said.

They burst out into peals of laughter, while Johns rolled his eyes.

"Mr. Ashton," the captain wheezed, when he had got hold of himself, "I appreciate your punctiliousness, but please don't concern yourself any further over the matter. I assure you, I have everything well in hand. Have I not, Lieutenant?"

"Of course, sir," Johns said, shooting me a venomous look.

"Now," the captain went on, "take this lad away and find him something useful to do."

"Immediately, sir," Johns replied and, with a hand between my shoulder blades, propelled me out of the room. Evidently disgusted, he strode off.

Should I then have gone straight back in and told the Captain all? Perhaps. But in his drunkenness, I feared that he would mishandle matters, that he would show his hand and let the mutineers catch him unprepared. But, no, I must be honest, at least here in these pages privy only to myself: it was also I could not bear to see my friend, Mr. Shirley, hanged by a man such as he.

Still, I could not let matters stand. Desperate for some sympathetic audience, I went in search of Midn. Fawks.

"Listen to me," I said. "We must get Mr. Shirley off of the ship."

He frowned. "I don't understand."

As I told him what Shirley had revealed to me, his expression grew more and more alarmed.

"We must go to the captain at once!" he cried.

"No," said I. I told him what I had already seen: the captain sloshed to the gills. "Listen. If he goes about it the wrong way, it'll only stir up the crew the more. Shirley is their animating spirit. It's he they look to for leadership. I think if we can take care of him quietly, the mutiny will fizzle out."

"What do you propose to do?"

We spoke a few moments more, and formed a simple plan, which we carried out after nightfall. I could sense that the mutineers were awaiting the signal to take action; men exchanged covert glances, quiet words, and were almost unnaturally silent in carrying out their duties.

We ambushed Shirley as he came down a ladder. Fawks stood lookout as I cudgeled him with my blackjack—the very one we had made together. The thought sent a shiver of feeling through me, though I am hard pressed to describe it. I struck him across the back of the head, and he went down like a sack of potatoes.

Under the Articles of War, a mutineer should have been hanged. It is possible that better justice would have been done had we simply thrown Shirley over the side. Fawks was in favor of that plan. As for myself, I found I could not stomach it, and so I convinced him to help me drag Shirley's inert body into one of the longboats. As we heaved him into the bottom of it, his groggy eyes opened and fixed on me.

"Alexander," he slurred. "It comes to this, then. You betray me."

"You betrayed your king," I said.

His mouth bent into a sneer. "F— the king," he said. "We'll meet again, you and I. Mark my words."

I made no answer. Johns and I lowered the boat on the winch, then cut the line. Looking over the side, I could see the little boat spinning dizzily in the wake, but it stayed upright, and soon trailed out of sight on the dark ocean.

The night is nearly done, now, and I have not slept an hour. There was a little disorganized scuffling; three men are in the brig, awaiting trial, and, I am sure, death. Had Shirley remained aboard, I am certain matters would have been much worse. I can hear Captain White shouting already; it gives me a little comfort to think of how his head must ache. When next we put into port, I shall send some letters, and I hope that by the time I return home, my reassignment to a different ship may be arranged.

I cannot stop turning over in my mind the question of whether Mr. Shirley will survive. There are sand bars in these waters, which he may land upon, and there are ships. It pains me to know that, should we ever meet again, there can be little hope that we will ever reach an understanding.