Adam Stevens hung on to the futtock shrouds for dear life as the grandly named Lord Anson was staggered by the next wave breaking over her starboard quarter. He was more frightened than he ever had in his seventeen years of hardscrabble life. The Atlantic gale had been battering the Anson for ten hours and now the boatswain reported they were taking on water.
The captain stood at the wheel, leaning into it with all his massive bulk, trying to keep the ship head on to the enormous waves. Adam had seen him relinquish his role only once since the storm began, to down a quick dram of rum and a slab of salt pork. His wide steady stance had been a marvel to the young man, not once knocked from his post despite the most massive of watery onslaughts.
But for all of the captain’s stoicism the ocean would not be denied a victim in its tempest. A twisting gust of wind, stronger than any previous squall ripped through the Anson’s rigging and, with a report louder than any cannon-shot, snapped the mainmast quite in two. As it fell it slewed in a semi-circle snapping stays and halyards, braces and sheets.
The crew abandoned the pumps and slid across the pitching, rain-lashed deck to grab axes to cut away the debris before the other masts joined their sister but the fatal damage was already done. With the sails in disarray the ship lurched into the wind despite the captain’s superhuman effort at the wheel. The bite of the rudder was no match for the gulp of the wind.
The next wave caught them abeam and the ship canted at a 45 degree angle before slowly righting. The onrush of water caught one man without a grip and carried him with a fading anguished wail off the deck and into the dark waters beyond. A grate was torn loose and the angry water poured down into the hold in a triumphant cascade raising cries from the cargo below.
Adam thought the captain was shouting something but his ears and eyes and mouth were full of water and all he could here was the roar of the gale, the ominous approach of the next wave and the terrified cries of the cargo. For Anson was a slaver and her cargo was ninety Africans bound for the plantations of Jamaica.
In horror he watched as the next gust snapped the mizzentop and a yard crashed to the deck between himself and the captain. Where the captain seemed not to notice Adam flinched. The wave then followed with an even more terrible fury. It was all Adam could do to hang on to his perch, the sea hungrily sucking him toward the open ocean. Even the captain was staggered and pulled away from the stalwart wheel.
The boatswain, hanging onto a halyard with one hand and the edge of the hold with the other shouted, “Two feet in th’ ‘old, Zur!”
The captain nodded then cast about, taking in the mounting disaster about him. The foremast was bent, the stress of the splintered main creating a tension that would soon make it succumb in a like manner. The pumps, unmanned, as the crew struggled mightily to clear the debris even as the precariousness of their perches became more evident with the increased fury of the sea beam on. Finally he caught the whaleboat, still intact. He knew it would be much more manageable in the gale than the battered Anson, as long as the crew’s strength held.
“Crew to the boat! Abandon ship!” The bellow cut below the fury of the storm and each crewman heard it as a rumble in his bones. As one they left axe and pump and made their way quickly toward the quarterdeck.
“What of the Africans?” Adam cried to the captain who was working on loosening the lashings of the boat even as the next wave, fortunately smaller than its immediate predecessors, swept over the Anson.
“God bless their heathen souls, Boy! No room for them here even if I wanted to save ‘em!”
Adam closed his eyes. A remembered vision flooded his memory. Flames leaped up the side of the workhouse. Piteous cries from the women and children inside played a soprano tragedy above the tenor of the fire. Adam, ten years old, watched with tears streaming down his eyes screaming “Do something!” to the aged vicar who restrained him. The vicar offered a prayer for their souls.
Me as a critic (be careful! the harshness will be well concealed!)