By Dave Wisker
Dawn was a dangerous time for a King’s ship. Here in the Mediterranean, the cool, delicate first light usually revealed nothing more than tranquil, open water all the way to the horizon. But these days, with Napoleon’s fleet now loose in the Med, it could just as easily unveil the guns of an enemy ship. So Commander James Falconer of His Majesty’s Sloop-of-War Salmacis began his day before sunrise, pacing the tiny quarter deck alone, awaiting the lookout’s cry. He had the ship cleared for action, just in case: all of the guns were manned, primed and loaded, galley fires extinguished, powder monkeys ready at the magazine, the decks cleared of obstacles and strewn with sand. He ignored the crew’s chafing under his strict order of silence. No Frenchman was going to catch him unprepared, by God. It was too dark to see anything from the deck; the lookout, high atop the mainmast, would see the light before he did. He stopped pacing for a moment to savor his coffee.
Salmacis had been anchored since the day before in a shallow bay off the Tunisian coast, awaiting the arrival of a small party returning from an inland mission. His orders, written by Admiral Nelson himself, were characteristically terse: pick up the five men, led by a Coldstream Guards captain named Jensen, on July 25th, 1798 and bring them to England—at all costs, and under the strictest secrecy.
Thinking about those orders set him pacing again. They had been chasing the French for weeks now, with no luck; Nelson’s lack of light, fast ships for reconnaissance– he had only two frigates and Salmacis at his disposal– limited the area of ocean he could effectively search at any given time. Then came the news that Napoleon had taken Malta, and Nelson, convinced now that the French were ultimately headed for Egypt, ordered his squadron to Alexandria. But the French weren’t there, so the British turned west, hoping to to catch the French in transit, only to end up in Sicily, without having seen a single enemy ship. It was there, in Syracuse, that Falconer was issued his orders.
Falconer received an additional ten marines to assist with the extraction in case of trouble, along with an extra longboat for them, much to his relief. Salmacis was a very small ship—only eighteen guns–with a regular complement of only five marines and an officer. She was designed for speed, used for Fleet reconnaissance and raids on enemy merchant shipping, not heavy fighting or amphibious operations.
He had anchored Salmacis at the mouth of the bay to give her room to maneuver if approached by sea. A seaman with mirrors and a lantern signal was stationed atop the hill on the headland at the eastern end. That hill blocked his view of anyone who might try surprising him by hugging the coast. Falconer counted on getting enough warning to bring the party aboard before having to escape to sea, or, if only absolutely necessary, engage. He felt badly about the long row they would have to make to get to the ship, but there was no real choice. His position was vulnerable, and Falconer wondered what the importance of Jensen’s mission was to justify such secrecy and the risking of precious naval resources. The professional in him, however, refused to dwell too long on that unproductive line of thought.
“Deck there!” a voice called from the maintop. “All clear.”
Falconer relaxed somewhat and finished his coffee.
“Mr. Samuel,” he said to his second lieutenant, who had been discreetly hovering nearby but out of his way as he paced, “Send the hands to breakfast, if you please, but keep the ship cleared for action.” Martin, his first lieutenant, was supervising the shore party.
“Aye, aye, sir.” Samuel gave the order for the galley fires to be re-lit. The unnatural silence that had gripped the ship dissolved into the normal sounds of orders being given, the shuffling of bare feet, and the banter among the hands. Everything seemed in order and going to plan, so Falconer decided to go below and have his own breakfast.
It was light when he came back up on deck. Samuel was filling him in on a couple of routine details when the midshipman Crowell cried, “Signal from shore”.
Finally. Falconer trained his spyglass on the beach, and saw the flashing mirror. “You may translate the signal for us any time now, Mr. Crowell.”
“Sorry, sir,” said young Crowell. “It says, ‘Party approaching…three men…being pursued…twenty strong’.”
That wasn’t good. He wondered who was following them. There were no French troops here, and no organized tribal support for them either, as far as he knew, so this Jensen fellow must have upset the locals for some damned reason. Falconer was confident his marines could handle them, though. He watched the two lines of red coats on the shore, bright against the dull brown hills beyond. Smoke rose from a musket volley as its crackling sound echoed over the bay. There was another volley and then silence, followed by a signal.
“Party Retrieved” reported Crowell. Falconer ordered a signal to the shore party to return aboard. He leaned on the port side taffrail and looked out to sea. So far everything had gone well, but he felt uneasy. What was Jensen’s mission, and why did the locals want his party dead? Nothing made sense to him, and he hated that. Nelson must have suspected something when he gave him the marines.
No matter. Falconer wasn’t one to over-analyze. Besides, even if he had the answers to his questions, he wouldn’t begin to relax until Salmacis was under sail for England on the open ocean, where she could easily outrun any trouble. He ordered another cup of coffee to be brought up to him, thinking it might brighten his mood.
Salmacis rolled in the gentle swell, and soon Falconer was lost in the familiar sounds of a King’s ship at anchor: the faint creaking of the timbers, rattling of the blocks, officer’s voices barking orders, the breeze in the rigging.
His reverie was interrupted by the lookout’s cry.
“Deck there! Sail ho! Eastern headland!”
What? Falconer grabbed a spyglass. The bow of a ship was poking out from behind the headland, and Falconer recognized its distinctive shape, that of a large, old-fashioned Barbary corsair galley, with a large, ragged red sail. He watched its port side row of oars moving in sync, raising creamy foam from the glittering blue water. He’d heard old salts tell tales about galleys when he was a midshipman, but had never actually seen one.
It moved quickly for such an unwieldy-looking vessel. His body tensed, throat dry, when the galley turned towards Salmacis after clearing the headland. Falconer silently cursed Jensen: these were no ordinary local tribesmen. No sane local government would openly attack a King’s ship carrying out its duty. The reach—and the wrath–of the Royal Navy were considerable. These people had to be fanatics of some sort. They also must have surprised and killed his lookout. And how did they get hold of a galley? He turned the glass on the shore party. The galley would reach him before they did. This gave him some relief, strangely enough, by narrowing his options. He had no choice but to stand and fight at anchor: “at all costs”, his orders read. Samuel and Crowell were hurrying over and he already knew what to do. He was glad he had kept the ship cleared for action. He was also glad the enemy chose to attack him and not the helpless boats. Salmacis’s small size probably emboldened them to start with her; with the sloop neutralized they could then pick off the others with ease.
“Mr. Crowell”, he said, as calmly as he could, “have the starboard bow six-pounder loaded with grape, then go to the cable tier and tell the Bosun to control the spring so that we face the enemy with a starboard broadside at all times.” Crowell looked pale—he was only thirteen–but resolute. “Aye aye, sir.” He beckoned to a gunner to help him. Grapeshot—forty to fifty metal slugs wrapped in a canvas sack and loaded into a gun – was devastating against boarders, sweeping the enemy deck like a giant shotgun. The “spring” was an extra cable attached to the anchor cable. When pulled by a few seamen, Salmacis would rotate about the anchor cable, able to face an enemy coming from any direction.
“See, Mr. Samuel, the enemy is coming straight at us.” Falconer pointed. The oars beat to the rhythm of a loud drum whose sound traveled menacingly over the water. “He wants to ram us, and then board. You’ll hear the beat pick up speed when he’s ready to do that. In the meantime, rig anti-boarding nets and issue the port gun crews pistols, pikes and cutlasses. Also send a signal to the shore party to approach us from the port side.” He tried keeping his outward appearance composed, as if facing nothing more challenging than ordering his dinner. He had never fought a galley before, but had listened to the old hands tell stories about fighting them. So far, this galley’s behavior had been predictable. And he knew his ship and crew. Samuel nodded and hurried off.
Within minutes Salmacis began rotating, stopping when she presented her starboard broadside to the galley. Samuel and Crowell joined Falconer on the quarterdeck. The sun was higher in the sky and the heat was becoming oppressive, even with the breeze. Falconer felt a maddening trickle of sweat on his neck, under his coat. The men were quiet and anxious, spooked by the ominous beat of the slave drum as the galley loomed closer.
He realized he couldn’t beat the galley if it came alongside—it was almost twice his little ship’s size and crew. A ramming would severely damage Salmacis and insure her being boarded and her crew overwhelmed. Nor could he pound her into submission from afar—sloops-of-war were not armed with long-range cannon. Instead, they carried sixteen squat carronades, designed for close fighting. What the carronades lacked in range, however, they more than made up in firepower: each spat a massive thirty-two-pound shot, unlike the twenty-four-pounders the frigates carried. Falconer was determined to wring every advantage out of that. If he could blunt the galley’s forward momentum somehow and prevent it from grappling his ship, Salmacis could batter the galley to pieces at close range.
“Mr Samuel, I want your aft gun crews to concentrate on the galley’s port side oars only. Catch them about half-way into their stroke, when the oars are in the water and at their slowest. Try to cripple her port side oars suddenly, and as simultaneously as you can.”
Samuel nodded in understanding, but Crowell looked confused. “Why just the port side oars, sir?”
Falconer allowed himself a smile. “You’ll see.”
As he had predicted, the drum beat soon quickened, the oars churning faster in response. Along with the beat, the breeze now carried the signature foul stench of a slave galley. The hands wrinkled their noses at it and began to complain. He ordered silence, then watched Samuel carefully explaining what he wanted from each of the aft gun captains. The boats of the shore party were almost here. It was going to be close.
Falconer stood tall, hands clasped behind him, watching the galley gather speed. If he couldn’t stop the damned thing’s momentum, it would be over soon.
“Three-hundred yards,” Crowell reported from the bow gun.
“Very good, Mr Crowell. Call out at two-hundred yards, then again at one-hundred yards, if you please. Mr Samuel, you may open fire at one-hundred yards.” By now the rapid beat of the drum boomed, and the smell was almost overpowering.
Falconer nodded to Samuel, and the gun captains began taking careful aim. Falconer had drilled them incessantly since he took command a year ago, and trusted them to do what he asked.
“Fire!” roared Samuel, and Salmacis reared as the aft four carronades went off together in a single roar. Smoke obscured everything, including the stench.
A puff of breeze eventually whipped away the smoke, and he could see the galley was no longer coming straight at them. The carronades had sheared off most of the port side oars in the middle of their stroke, while the starboard rowers continued pulling. This dragged the galley violently about—it was now parallel to Salmacis, about seventy-five yards away. Falconer heard screaming inside the hull—he couldn’t imagine what damage the ends of the suddenly-snapped oars had done to the poor devils chained to the benches. He ordered a full broadside: Samuel roared again and all eight starboard carronades went off, splintering the galley’s starboard oars now, crippling it completely. Within minutes it was almost adrift, its crew desperately trying to work the single sail. One more broadside tore at the galley’s hull just above the waterline.
The enemy was helpless, now, and his crew was cheering the boats of the shore party, which had finally reached the ship. Samuel looked to him for further orders. Did he want to sink the galley? It was certainly tempting. The enemy crew wasn’t going to surrender– he could hear and see them screaming curses and shaking their fists. He might even be doing the miserable slaves on board a favor by drowning them. But he was a King’s officer and a decent man, and his orders were to get Jensen and his men to England, not sink a ship which was no longer a threat.
“Cease fire for now, Mr. Samuel,” he ordered. “If the enemy gets any closer, however, sink her.” The crew cheered again.
He unclasped his hands, and barely had time to stop them from trembling before having to greet his passengers as they were brought aboard. The incongruous sight of a captain in the Coldstream Guards dressed in a filthy robe and Arab headdress reminded Falconer just how strange his job was: minutes after fighting off a galley full of fanatics, he was following the ritual of welcoming guests aboard his ship, guests whose mission he would never know, and for whom he had risked everything to bring aboard. The strangeness would be forgotten, of course, once Salmacis was running with the wind for home under a full press of sail, in fair weather. Until then, protocol would do.
“Welcome aboard,” he said.
Dave Wisker lives in the Kansas City area of Missouri with his wife, Margaret, and works at a local university. His work has appeared in the The Mulberry Fork Review.