©Neville Goedhals 2007. Visit my site at: www.NevilleGoedhals.com

THE PROMISED LAND

 

By

 

Neville Goedhals

 

 

 

“Cuz! Come look here!” shouted Sir Humphrey Gilbert. His cry was directed at a middle-aged man sporting a neatly trimmed goatee, leaning against the deck’s port-gunnel. The gentleman, his half-brother, gazed longingly across the open ocean as if he could see England—and home. The roar of the waves rushing across the pinnace’s hull, and the snap of its square rigging, drowned out most of Sir Humphrey’s words, and Sir Walter Raleigh looked about uncertainly. “Back here cuz!” bellowed Sir Humphrey with a wave.

Sir Walter doffed his flat velvet hat and stepped lightly over coiled ropes and between lashed provisions, leaning into the small ship’s roll. After almost two months at sea, getting about Sir Humphrey’s ship, the Squirrel, was second nature. To be sure, it was a small vessel and lacked the luxuries of the Golden Hind, but on the pinnace was where Sir Humphrey—the Captain General—wanted to be. He ran up the few steps to the poop deck and stood alongside his brother who was peering intensely to the west.

“Well Gil, what is it?”

Sir Humphrey smiled. “Land old boy. I do believe it’s land.” Without taking his eyes off the horizon he slapped a telescope against Sir Walter’s chest. “Have a look.”

Sir Walter extended the telescope and pointed it at the horizon. The undulating deck made it difficult to keep his objective in view, but after a few moments he handed the telescope back with a grin that stretched from ear to ear. “About bloody time … The Americas for God’s sake.”

“Uh-uh,” said Sir Humphrey waving a cautionary finger. “You’re not here. You’re visiting the Earl of Berkeley in Gloucestershire … remember? I still think you’re taking a God-awful risk running away from Good Queen Bess like this.”

“I had to Gil. You know as well as I that I’m her favorite—‘virgin queen’ my … my … my life’s not my own when I’m at court.” Sir Walter nervously wiped his hands on his pantaloons. “I just had to get away!”

“And you’re doing it in fine style my boy.” Sir Humphrey spread his arms in an expansive gesture and almost fell as the pinnace dipped into the blue swells. “This is history in the making. Why, with my six-year charter to settle the Americas, I’ll gain valuable land for the crown, and a peerage for myself.”

“Better hope that the natives haven’t found God,” reminded Sir Walter. “The charter specifically states that you may only claim ‘heathen lands not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people.’”

“And where would they have acquired a Bible then?”

“The French, Portuguese, and Dutch—they all sent expeditions north.”

“Nonsense!” Sir Humphrey waved the idea down. “None of those expeditions ever returned … They were lost at sea.”

“Aha! But were they lost at sea before they landed, or after?” Sir Walter arched an eyebrow. “You know how pious those damn Dutch can be. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had a missionary or two on board.”

“You’re a pessimistic sod, aren’t you?”

 “The Spanish say that the natives live in tents made out of animal skins and sticks,” commented Sir Walter. “Do you think we’ll meet any?”

“This far north? Who knows? The weather’s certainly warm enough,” said Sir Humphrey opening his jerkin. “John Cabot never mentioned coming across any natives in his letters to King Henry VII.”

“Bah! That was a century ago.” Sir Walter gave a derisive snort. “Besides, his reports were always suspect … According to him he reached Asia!”

“His maps substantiate his claim, at least of reaching the Americas—so far. He called this area ‘Newfoundland.’”

Sir Walter stared thoughtfully at the thin line of land on the horizon. “Imagine coming ashore and being welcomed by a native Christian priest.”

“Now you’re making me depressed.” Sir Humphrey turned around and noted the position of his vessels. The ship, Delight, now their largest since the Raleigh had returned to England, was directly aft. Abeam on the port was the Golden Hind and the frigate, Swallow. He turned to the coxswain, “Signal the fleet to turn ten degrees to port. I’ll take the helm.”

“You’re not going straight in?” asked Sir Walter.

“No, it’s better that we start fresh. We’ll head south and ride at anchor for the night.”

 

w    w    w

 

“Ah! What a perfect day to extend the British Empire,” enthused Sir Humphrey as he clasped his hands behind his back and stretched his shoulders. The morning sun had just risen behind the anchored fleet, bathing the land in bright glory. The coastline glimmered in the green and brown of trees, interspersed with craggy black outcrops of rock. “I believe we’ll head into the inlet just ahead … Could make for a safe anchorage.”

“Dangerous,” muttered Sir Walter. “Could be hidden shallows. Better that your ship leads—it draws the least draft.”

“True. Mind arranging that cuz? I prefer to be at the helm in a situation like this.”

Sir Walter strode onto the main deck. “Who swings the lead?” he called.

“I, m’Lord,” answered a crusty looking sailor.

“I’ll make you a wager,” said Sir Walter to the old sea-dog. “A shilling if you guide us through unharmed.” He flicked a silver coin high into the air. The sailor watched mesmerized as it spun sparkling into the morning sun. Sir Walter caught it with practiced ease and gazed threateningly at the sailor. “Or … if we run aground … you have to pull us off single-handedly.”

The crew, to a man, burst into gales of laughter.

“With respect m’Lord,” growled the old sailor just as menacingly, “you’ve jus lost y’self a silver piece.” He turned and ran to the bow of the ship, where he removed a tightly coiled lanyard from beneath the gunnel. While he checked the pre-knotted rope and tugged at the nine-pound lead weight, Sir Walter made his way back aft. “Signal the fleet to follow the Admiral!” he ordered. “Weigh anchor! Storm-sails only … we want to take this slow.” 

Six men, one to each of the capstan bars, began winching the anchor’s hemp cable aboard. Other sailors returned from the sail-lockers with storm-sails, which they began aft-rigging to the two masts.

Sir Humphrey used his telescope to check on the other ships. They had obviously observed his ship in likewise manner, and were hoisting minimal sail.

“Do you want to wait and give extra time to the Golden Hind?” asked Sir Walter. “Those anchors of hers take an age to raise.”

“No, she has the deepest draft. I rather that she came last in line—that way we can warn her in advance that she may bottom out. She’ll be ready by the time the rest of us are underway—Captain Hayes knows what he’s doing.”

Slowly the Squirrel made headway between the arms of the inlet. Fortunately the sea was calm, and the flattened blue-gray waves showed no caps. On the starboard the land was covered in a vast forest that came right to the edge of the bay, while on the port the ground was more barren, with few trees and shrubs.

“By the mark five!” shouted the old sailor as he hauled in the lead as quickly as possible. As soon as he’d pulled the lead above the gunnel he examined its concave underside. “Speckled shell!” he bellowed as he armed the lead with fresh tallow. Then, bracing himself against the gunnel, he began twirling the lead—letting it gain momentum. When cast, the lead arced out in front of the pinnace, landing about thirty feet ahead. The sailor gathered in the slack line as the ship moved forward. “By the deep four!”

“Shell and a rising bottom … Not good,” muttered Sir Humphrey.

“I’ll have a man standby to signal the fleet if we hit three fathoms,” called Sir Walter over his shoulder as he made his way forward.

“Shell and red mud!” called the lead-swinger.

The crew had little to distract their tension, and the ship glided silently forward, passing into the small bay.

“Mark underwater, five!” came the lead-swinger’s relieved cry, and shortly afterwards, “Red Mud!”

 

w    w    w

 

The Squirrel dropped anchor at three fathoms, about a hundred feet from the stony beach. At anchor behind her rode the rest of the fleet, their longboats already launched and waiting only for the Captain General to take the lead. Sir Walter gave his brother a supporting arm as he dropped into the Squirrel’s skiff.

Sir Humphrey had dressed for the occasion with clean silk stockings, an embroidered jerkin with mother-of-pearl buttons, a tall crown hat covered in feathers, and padded loose-fitting pants that fastened above the knees.

“Ah Gil, if only the Queen could see you now,” said Sir Walter wistfully, “… she’d finally leave me alone and chase you.”

“Did you bring it?” asked Sir Humphrey as he made himself comfortable.

“Indeed,” confirmed Sir Walter patting a large sack at his side.

“Then pull away.”

The men in the skiff leaned into their oars and all the tenders began arrowing towards the shore.

The rocky bottom soon grated against the keel, and the crew braced themselves as the boat beached. The sailors leapt from the skiff and held it steady, ensuring that their feet were still in the water—it was the Captain General’s prerogative to first set foot on land.

Sir Humphrey sprang from the prow of the boat, managing to land on the dry beach, saving his round-toed pumps from a soaking. He was followed by Sir Walter, and soon after by the other Captains and sailors who grouped together, forming a sizable audience for what was to follow.

Facing his fellow explorers with an air of solemn dignity, Sir Humphrey harrumphed and held aloft the scroll bearing his royal commission. “Today, on the fifth of August, in the year of our Lord fifteen hundred and eighty-three, I hereby take possession of this country, for two hundred leagues north, south, east and west, in the name of England's Queen, and by the Grace of God.”

He nodded to Sir Walter who stepped up beside him and removed a wooden marker from the sack he’d brought from the ship. Affixed near the top of the marker was a piece of lead engraved with the arms of England. Sir Walter jabbed the marker’s pointed end into the beach, and using a mallet, began driving the wooden pillar into the soil.

With the dull thuds of Sir Walter’s hammering in the background, Sir Humphrey continued with his litany. Many of the men fidgeted, more interested in exploring, and eager to savor dry land after so long at sea.

“…and if any person shall utter words sounding to the dishonor of her Majesty, he shall lose his ears, and have his ship and goods confiscate.” Sir Humphrey beamed at his audience. “Well, it’s done, and I’m sure that you are keen to enjoy the Crown’s new territory. You have an hour, after which you will fetch the tents from the ships and strike a camp—”

“Sor!” exclaimed the lead-swinger, who had come ashore on the skiff.

“I’m not finished sailor,” barked Sir Humphrey. “Hold your peace—”

“But Sor!” The sailor pointed inland, behind Sir Humphrey. “Betwixt the trees and the hill, m’Lord.”

Sir Humphrey and Sir Walter turned to follow the old sailor’s trembling finger. Behind the stand of trees adjoining the beach, only a stone’s throw away, rose three spirals of smoke, curling up in the still morning air.

“Cooking fires,” muttered Sir Walter.