Chapter 1: The Black Corsair
THE ROAR OF the sea was deafening. Mountainous waves crashed against the docks of Puerto Limon and the shores of Nicaragua and Costa Rica as the approaching hurricane raged across the Caribbean. The air was heavy with the scent of coming rain; the sun, a disk of copper red, had almost set, its waning light, bursting sporadically through rents in the thick black clouds darkening the heavens.
Only a few fishermen and a handful of soldiers from the small Spanish garrison had dared remain on the beach, stubbornly ignoring the elements. Curiosity had kept them outdoors. A few hours earlier a ship had been spotted on the horizon and, judging by her sails, she appeared intent on sheltering in the small bay.
In those days, towards the end of the 17th century, each approaching vessel created a stir among the Spanish colonists who lived along the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatan, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and the Antilles. Their fear was spying a fleet of vessels manned by the dreaded pirates of Tortuga, a sight to sew panic among the industrious townspeople of the New World.
If an approaching ship looked suspicious, women and children rushed into their houses as men quickly took up arms. If she flew Spanish colours, she was greeted with a thunderous hurrah; if, however, she bore a different flag, terror would spread among the colonists and soldiers; even battle hardened officers would turn pale with dread.
The looting and slaughter wrought by Pierre le Grand, Alexandre Bras-de-Fer, John Davis, Montbars, the Black Corsair, his brothers the Red and the Green Corsairs, and by L’Ollonais had sewn fear throughout the Spanish Main, for in those times people believed that those fearless buccaneers were no less than the sons of Satan himself.
At the sight of that ship, the few townspeople who had lingered to watch the approaching storm, decided to remain a while longer to see if a friend or foe was drawing nearer to their shore. None could hide their unease.
“May the Madonna of Pilar protect us!” said an old man with bronzed skin and a long thick beard. “She isn’t one of ours, my friends. No captain would ever venture out on a night like this. Mark my words, they’re pirates.”
“Are you certain she’s headed here?” asked a sergeant, standing among a small group of soldiers.
“Absolutely, Señor Vasco. Look! She’s tacked toward Capo Blanco and pointed her bow right towards us.”
“She looks like a brik. What do you make of her, Alonzo?”
“As you say, Señor Vasco, a brik. A nice ship, by God; she’s holding her own against the waves. I’d wager she’ll drop anchor in Puerto Limon within the hour.”
“And what makes you think she isn’t one of ours?”
“A Spanish ship would have sheltered at Chiriquí; she’d be better protected there than in our bay.”
“You’re right, I suppose, but I doubt she’s a pirate ship. Why would they attack Puerto Limon? We have nothing of value here.”
“May I venture my opinion, Señor Vasco?” said a young man as he stepped forth from the group of fishermen.
“By all means, Diego.”
“That’s the Thunder, the Black Corsair’s ship.”
The men shuddered in terror. Even the sergeant, who had earned his stripes in battle, turned pale.
“The Black Corsair!” he exclaimed, his voice trembling slightly. “Nonsense.”
“Two days ago, while I was fishing for manatee off the islands of Chiriquí, a ship passed within a musket shot from my boat. I glimpsed her name, it was the Thunder and I’m certain that’s the same ship.”
“Caramba!” the sergeant exclaimed angrily. “And this is the first you speak of it!”
“I didn’t want to alarm the townspeople,” replied the young man.
“If you had warned us, we could have sent for reinforcements from San Juan.”
“Reinforcements?” the fishermen said mockingly. “What would they have done?”
“Helped us fend off those spawn of Satan,” replied the sergeant.
“Hmph!” added another fisherman, who was as tall as a grenadier and as strong as a bull. “I’ve fought those men and I know their worth. I was in Gibraltar when L’Ollonais and the Black Corsair attacked the city. Carrai! What a battle! Believe me, Sergeant, they’re invincible.”
He turned away and walked off toward the hamlet. The remaining fishermen were about to follow, when an old weather-beaten man who until then had remained silent, stayed them with a gesture. He had been scanning the waters and had just drawn his spyglass from his eye.
“There’s no need to hide,” he said. “The Black Corsair does not harm those who pose no threat to him.”
“And what do you know of it?” asked the sergeant.
“I know the Black Corsair.”
“Is that his ship?”
“Yes, that’s the Thunder.”
Fear swelled up in them once more; even the sergeant had lost his usual sangfroid and appeared rooted to the ground.
The ship continued to approach, soaring over the tempestuous seas like a large black gull. She climbed every towering swell, rising to great heights, then plunged into the troughs, vanishing for an instant only to emerge moments later in the fading evening dusk. Lightning flashed above her masts, bathing her swollen sails in pale light. Waves attacked her from all sides, smashing against her bulwarks, and crashing down upon her deck, but she would not be deterred. Certain shelter was at hand, she headed straight for the small harbour. When at last she finally reached the tiny port, the fishermen and the soldiers exchanged nervous glances.
“They’re coming ashore!” a man exclaimed. “The crew are preparing the anchors!”
“Run!” shouted the others. “Spread the word: Pirates!”
The fishermen scattered, disappearing into the tiny hamlet. The sergeant and his soldiers hesitated for only a moment longer, then set off toward the small fort atop the cliff at the far end of the jetty that overlooked the bay.
Puerto Limon was protected by a garrison of a hundred and fifty men but with only two cannons, it could not expect to defeat a ship that was renowned for her powerful artillery. All the soldiers could do was shut themselves up in their fort and wait for the siege to begin.
In the meantime, the ship, despite the furious attacks of wind and waves, had entered the harbour and dropped anchor a hundred and fifty meters from the jetty. She was a magnificent brik, built for speed, with a narrow hull and tall masts, a true racer. Twelve cannons peered from her gun ports, six to port, six to starboard. Two large chasers were visible on her quarterdeck. A flag fluttered over her stern, a large black banner emblazoned with two gold letters and her captain’s coat of arms. Numerous men lined her bridge, forecastle, bulwarks and quarterdeck, while several gunners standing at the stern pointed her two large chasers at the fort, ready to shower it with iron at the first command.
The sails were clewed, two more anchors were cast, then a longboat was lowered down her leeward side and put into the water. It headed immediately toward the jetty. Fifteen men manned it, armed with muskets, pistols and short cutlasses, the favoured weapons of the pirates of Tortuga.
Despite the turbulent waters, the longboat, skillfully piloted by its helmsman, drew behind an old Spanish ship that rested at anchor by a sandbank. The ship’s bulk shielding it from the waves, the longboat advanced to a small reef and sailed alongside it until it reached the jetty. Some of the pirates planted their oars in the water to hold the longboat in place, then a man at the bow stood up and leapt onto the jetty.
That reckless individual, who had dared to go ashore alone in a town that counted two thousand enemies ready to rise against him, was a tall man about thirty-five years of age. His face was pale and framed by a curled black beard; his features were handsome: an elegant nose, small lips as red as coral and dark eyes that shone with a proud and fierce light. His high forehead, furrowed by a fine line, gave his face a melancholy air, yet one could tell by his aristocratic bearing, that he was a man accustomed to command.
His clothes were as sombre as his expression, for he was dressed entirely in black, but with elegance seldom seen amongst the rugged pirates of Tortuga. His cloak was of black silk trimmed with lace of the same colour; his trousers, his boots and the thick fringed sash that held his sword were also black. His hat too was black, as was the long feather that adorned it and curved down to his shoulder.
Once ashore, he quickly scanned the houses; the windows had all been shuttered, the streets and lanes deserted. He turned toward the longboat and said, “Carmaux, Van Stiller, Moko! Come!”
Moko, a tall African with a Herculean build, armed with an axe and a pair of pistols, leapt ashore, followed by Carmaux and Van Stiller, two Europeans, one a Biscayan the other a German, both in their forties, of stocky build, with bronzed skin, and sharp features made bolder by thick beards. They were armed with muskets and cutlasses and clad in simple wool shirts and breeches cut at the knee.
“At your service, Captain,” said Moko.
“What about the longboat?” asked Van Stiller.
“Send it back to the ship.”
“Begging your pardon, Cap’n,” said Carmaux, “It would be unwise for just the four of us to venture into Puerto Limon!”
“Are you afraid?” asked the captain.
“By the devil’s teeth!” exclaimed Carmaux. “Of course not, sir! I was merely thinking of your safety.”
“No need to worry, my friend, we will not remain here long.” He turned toward the longboat and shouted, “Return to the ship! Tell Morgan to stand ready to sail.”
He watched the longboat pull away, battling the waves that roared into the small bay, then turned toward his three friends and said, “Come, we must find the duke’s steward.”
“A word, Cap’n?” asked Carmaux.
“We don’t know where he lives, sir.”
“What of it? Someone will tell us.”
“There’s not a soul roaming about this hamlet. It looks like the townspeople fled at the sight of our ship.”
“There’s a fort at the far end of the jetty,” replied the Black Corsair. “If need be, we’ll go ask the garrison.”
“By the horns of Beelzebub! Ask the garrison? Just the four of us?”
“The Thunder’s cannons will persuade them to assist us. Now load your muskets. Time is of the essence.”
While his men obeyed, the Corsair drew in his black cloak, pulled his hat down low and unsheathed his sword.
Night had fallen and the hurricane began to intensify. The wind howled through the hamlet’s narrow lanes as lightning flashed through the black storm clouds. Otherwise, all was dark. Not a light shone in the streets or from behind the mats that covered the windows. Every door had been locked and barred. The news that pirates had come ashore had spread quickly and the townspeople had rushed to barricade themselves in their homes.
The Black Corsair set off down the hamlet’s main street. At times bricks and stones came hurtling down, shattering against the walls or crashing against the ground as chimneys began to crumble in the wind. The four men, however, appeared not to notice. They had gone halfway down the street, when the Corsair stopped suddenly.
“Who goes there?” he shouted.
A figure had emerged from the corner of a lane, but at the sight of those four men, had scurried behind a wagon that stood near a wall.
“An ambush?” asked Carmaux, coming to the captain’s side.
“Or a spy?” replied the Corsair.
“It could be a scout, Cap’n. The villagers may be preparing to attack us.”
“Bring him here.”
“Leave it to me,” said Moko, clutching his heavy axe.
With three quick steps he crossed the street, pushed away the wagon, grabbed the man by the collar and lifted him in the air.
“Help! They’re killing me!” howled the wretch, writhing desperately.
Ignoring those cries, Moko carried him to the Corsair, and dropped him upon the ground before him.
He was a peasant, an elderly man with a large nose and a hunched back. The poor man was white with fear and trembled so intensely it seemed he would faint at any moment.
“A hunchback!” exclaimed Van Stiller, as another flash of lightning lit up the night. “He’ll bring us good luck!”
The Black Corsair placed a hand on the Spaniard’s shoulder.
“Where were you going?” he asked
“I’m a poor devil who’s never harmed a soul!” cried the hunchback.
“I asked where you were going,” said the Corsair.
“The old scoundrel was running to the fort to warn the garrison,” said Carmaux.
“No, Excellency!” shouted the hunchback. “I swear!”
“Sink me!” exclaimed Carmaux. “He takes me for a governor.”
“Silence!” thundered the Corsair. “Where were you going?”
“To fetch the doctor, sir,” stammered the hunchback. “My wife is ill.”
“If you’re lying, I’ll have you hung from the highest yard on my ship.”
“No, sir, I swear, I—”
“Answer my questions. Do you know Don Pablo de Ribeira?”
“Yes, sir! I know him personally, sir!”
“Take me to him.”
“But... sir... I—”
“Take me to him!” the Corsair thundered menacingly. “Where does he live?”
“Not far from here, sir, Excellency... I—”
“Silence! If you value your life, you will take us to him. Moko, make sure he doesn’t escape.”
The African grabbed the Spaniard and raised him into the air, ignoring his protests.
“Where to?” he asked.
“The.... the end of the street.”
The small squad set off. They advanced cautiously, halting at each intersection, afraid of falling into an ambush or being surprised by a volley of grapeshot.
Van Stiller kept his eyes trained on the shuttered and matted windows, ready to fire his pistol at the first suspicious movement; Carmaux watched the doors. When they reached the end of the lane, the hunchback turned toward the Corsair and pointed to a large brick house that was several stories high and had a small tower.
“That’s it, sir,” he said.
“Thank you,” replied the Corsair.
He studied the house, scanned the nearby lanes for enemies lurking in the shadows, then walked to the door, raised the heavy bronze knocker and brought it down with a thunderous crash.
The sound had not yet faded when they heard the shutters open above them and a voice call down from the top floor.
“Who is it?”
“The Black Corsair; open the door or we’ll set fire to the house!” shouted the captain, his sword shining menacingly as lightning flashed above him.
“What do you want?”
“To speak to Don Pablo de Ribeira, Duke Van Guld’s steward!”
They heard a rush of footsteps from within, then cries of fear, then silence.
“Carmaux,” said the Corsair. “Do you have the explosives?”
“Set them by the door. We’ll give them a few minutes; if they do not come, we’ll open it for them.”
He drew back to the curbstone a few paces from the door and waited, his fingers anxiously gripping the hilt of his sword.