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To my three sons:
CHURCHILL, BROOKS, AND HARRISON.
No father has a greater source of pride.
All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
Off the Barbary Coast, August 1786
HE LOOKOUT STATIONED ON the maintop was caught daydreaming. He was standing on the small oaken platform with arms folded, his back against the mainmast. His gaze was half taking in the white billow of topsail and cloud above, but his brain was seduced by the soporific combination of a hot Mediterranean sun, the comforting sway of the merchant brig as her cutwater sliced through the blood-warm turquoise sea, and, especially, the images of Neapolitan women dancing provocatively in his mind.
out of Boston, was fast approaching her Italian port of call, having traversed the Atlantic and passed through the Strait of Gibraltar. Gladly would he exchange the chaste austerity of shipboard life, along with every bottle of Cutler rum in the hold, for the wanton pleasures of physical abandonment with an untold number of ready, willing, and able accomplices, each endowed with the most beguiling of female adornments. Or so he fantasized.
Given the sailor's distracted state, it is not surprising that he failed to detect the red triangular sails hovering over the distant horizon to starboard. There were nine of them, three to a vessel, and a sharp eye would have observed that the corsairs were sailing in a straight line on a northward course, perhaps two or three cable lengths apart, and the one in the lead was already hauling her wind on a course of interception. But even from the height of the maintop few could have discerned, at this distance, the seven open gunports on the larboard side of the vessels. Or the pistols and wide-bladed scimitars lashed to the hips of their
swarthy crews. It was the profile of the xebecs themselves that the sailor had been warned to watch out for.
The angry shouting of John Dickerson, the ship's master, snapped the sailor out of his reverie. Befuddled and transfixed, he stared down slack-jawed at those staring up at him, then shifted his gaze ahead to where Captain Dickerson was furiously pointing. The corsairs were closing fast. They were now near enough for those on deck to clearly distinguish the foremast at the prow of each vessel and the huge lateen yard attached to it at a 45-degree angle. At any moment the long, low, galley-like hulls would surge into view.
Before Captain Dickerson had time to consider his options, the northernmost vessel veered slightly off the wind and opened fire with her forward battery, sending up two warning plumes directly ahead of the merchant brig. Her companions did not waver in their course, kept right on coming at
They would be alongside in a matter of minutes. Cursing with frustration and anguish, Captain Dickerson ordered his mate to heave to.
's weather deck was twice as high off the water as the xebec bumping up against her starboard side. Nonetheless, the heavily armed boarding party had no trouble clawing their way up on ropes tossed over the brig's bulwarks to secure the two vessels together. On the corsairs' flush decks, pirates brandishing muskets covered them on the ascent while others stood by the 6-pounder guns.
There were eight in the boarding party. All bore the physical attributes of Arabic pedigree except for one, who appeared GermanicâDutch perhaps, for he was blond and fair-skinned and totally at ease with the ways of the sea. By all indications he was a Christian sailor who, after his capture, had “turned Turk” to join the pirates and avoid prison. Their leader, distinguishable by the length of his jet-black beard, his menacing tone of authority, and the red sash he wore around the waist of his loose-fitting trousers, introduced himself to John Dickerson as
Ali bin Hassan. In broken English he announced that the Americans were now prisoners of Dey Baba Mohammad bin Osman, and would the captain please direct his crew to make sail for Algiers.
Allahu Akbar min kulli shay!
Among those reluctantly shuffling off to their stations to comply with their captain's order was a tall, sandy-haired, twenty-one-year-old foretopman from Hingham, Massachusetts, named Caleb Cutler.
Antigua, British West Indies, August 1786
T HAD BEEN A MEMORABLE reunion. Richard Cutler had not seen Robin and Julia Cutler, his English cousins, since April of 1782, when Richard and Katherine and baby Will had left Barbados to sail home to America. He had found the family compound much as he had left it on that occasion, tucked in amongst the rolling green fields northeast of Bridgetown, fully engaged in the production of sugar and its by-products. The only major addition to the compound had been a twenty-vat rum distillery, constructed in 1783 adjacent to the boiling house.
Though he considered himself more a sailor than a planter or merchant, Richard had surprised even himself in the joy he took reviewing the entire process with Robin, from the slashing of the cane by Creole slaves wielding machetes, to the collection of juice under great horizontal rollers driven by the sails of two giant windmills, to the boiling in the coppers, to the glorious transformation of cane juice into molasses and sugar, and, ultimately, pitch black rum. Just last month, the first shipments of Cutler rum, fermented for almost three years in thick casks of New Hampshire white pine, had been dispatched aboard the Cutler brig
from Long Wharf in Boston to the port of Naples.
With his usual flair for efficiency, Robin had redesigned and retooled the process until every last ounce of juice was squeezed from the cane. Julia's connections to the local families that produced Mount Gay rum had played their role as well in generating tidy Cutler profits, today at their highest level since before the Revolutionary War. The question
was, could the Cutler familyâwith expenses and contractual obligations in England, America, and the West Indiesâsustain such profitability now that Whitehall seemed determined to enforce its despised Navigation Acts. It was such concerns that had brought Richard to Bridgetown for a family conference.
During the week he was on the island, that topic had received much attention with no clear resolution. The declaration that America and American ships were off limits to both importers and exporters on the British-controlled islands of the West Indies brought with it a blessing as well as a curse. New business opportunities were there for the taking, and the Cutler family now had the clear incentive to exploit those opportunities. The family's business concerns already extended to Europe, and Richard had much to relate to his cousin about Boston and Salem sea captains who had ventured around the Cape of Good Hope, past the Isle of France, and into Far Eastern waters in search of teas and exotic fabrics. Sugar and rum production would remain at the heart of Cutler commerce, Richard had maintained, but expediency dictated that other untapped markets must now be considered. Total reliance on the old Atlantic trade routes no longer served. In Europe, demand for sugar products was far outpacing supply, forcing prices sharply upward; farther east, the opulence of Calcutta and Canton beckoned.
As lengthy and portentous as those discussions had been, there remained ample time during that week for Richard to become reacquainted with Robin and Julia, always among his favorite relatives, as well as the island that embraced a wealth of blissful memories for him. It was here, on Barbados, that he and his bride had spent the waning months of the war as guests of John Cutler, Robin's brother. John no longer lived on Barbados, having returned to England with his wife, Cynthia, in 1784 to assist with the family's operations there.
Despite his keen frustration at having to withdraw from a conflict in which he had served as a midshipman and then as an acting lieutenant under the command of Captain John Paul Jones, Richard would forever count those months as among his happiest. On this latest visit he had been up early each morning, before the demands of the day could intrude, and had strolled along the white sandy beach where he and his bride had walked and laughed and loved. On those occasions he had talked to her as though she were there beside him, as if by doing so he could magically transport her from their home in Massachusetts and once again be soothed by her melodious English accent and be enraptured
by her touch, as gentle and inviting as the lush tropical breezes caressing his sunburned skin . . .
“MR. CUTLER! MR. CUTLER, SIR!” The loud rap on the door of his stern cabin jolted him fully alert.
“Yes, Mr. Bryant,” Richard replied, recognizing his mate's voice. Quickly he straightened himself in his chair, using both hands to coax back his shoulder-length blond hair. “Come in. What is it?”
The broad-faced and muscular seaman ducked as he entered the small but snug space that defined a captain's privilege. “Good morning, Captain. Cates reports a vessel three points on our starboard bow. Single mast, flying a royal,” he added meaningfully. “It's a king's ship, sir. Cates believes she's a naval cutter.”
Richard considered that. Matt Cates, the lookout on duty, was a man whose eyesight was normally as sharp as his observationsâwhich was why, in these sensitive waters, Richard had ordered him sent up to the mainmast crosstrees at the first inkling of dawn. Like nearly everyone aboard, Cates had served either in the Continental Navy or aboard a privateer during the war, and was thus well acquainted with British ship design and sail plans. If he believed this ship was a naval cutter, she most likely was.
“What's our course?”
“North by east, sir. Nevis is off to larboard. Clear water lies ahead.”
“We're still flying the Jack?”
“We are, sir.”
“Very well. I shall be up presently, Mr. Bryant. Please tell the helmsman to hold her course steady.”
“Steady as she goes, aye, Captain.”
With Bryant gone, Richard cursed under his breath. Every sailor worth his salt knew that what dawn might reveal should be of primary concern to a ship's master, especially when sailing in coastal waters patrolled by overly inquisitive foreigners and erstwhile enemies. That was why he had awoken so early: to update the ship's log at his writing desk and to be ready, just in case. But he had allowed self-discipline to lapse into daydreaming, and the naval officer he once was would not easily forgive himself.
As he tucked the hem of his loose-fitting cotton shirt into his white breeches and tightened the strings at the waist, Richard considered the
possibilities. If this was a British warship, why was she bearing down on them from the north? The British naval base on Antigua lay to the east, and he had purposely steered clear of that island, on a wide arc around Guadeloupe and Montserrat. To the north lay the island of Saint-BarthÃ©lemy, recently acquired by the Swedes, and the Dutch island of Sint Maarten. Why was a Britisher patrolling those waters, at night, and why did she seem so intent on intercepting a vessel flying the Union Jack, the nationality of which her lookout should already have confirmed? It was as if she had been lying in wait for
in full knowledge of her pedigree.