Linkin the Law Cat gave us newes from London. His master had heard that a gentleman writ to Lord Purrlie from Fence [Venice] where many say that Siffrans [Sir Francis Drake], having offended the Queen, goes no more to sea.
This frees the King of Spain from keeping his war ships close to his treasure ships. He can come against us. Some say he’s made a pact with the Scots. Others say his soldiers have been landed in Ireland.
“Alehouse talk,” sayt Linkin. “Do not believe it.”
(A King is a Man-Queen. I knew that, but some arrkst.)
Nero gave out a tale to cheer us. He told it plain, no versifying. I will set it down as best I can.
“In Constantinople I friended an English merchant, and sailed with him. Our ship came safe past the Barbary Coast, for we had fair winds and outran the corsairs’ galleys.
“In London I joined a crew that set sail for the Spanish Main in hopes of trade.”
“The Spanish King has forbid trade with us,” sayt Linkin.
“True,” sayt Nero. “But there’s trade and then there’s trade, if you take my meaning. We flew French colours, so none should think us pirates. There was a Guinea man with us, black and handsome like me, and I friended him.
“First we came upon a Spanish merchant ship, and made haste to greet her. When we was within pistol shot (which at sea is best for cannon) we hoist our proper colours and called: England and Saint George! Strike sail or we will sink you!
“They called: Lads, we be but poor mariners like your good selves. We brought household stuff and tools from Spain, and carry home nowt but wood and hides. If you rob us, our kits will go hungry. The treasure fleet is loading now, and will sail soon. Make haste, and you may take a straggler.
“The Spanish are tricksie. They deceive honest folk, and send us in pursuit of shadows. So when a Spanish cat showed his ugly face I arrkst if all were true. He swore it was.
“We accepted a cask or two of wine from them. The Guinea man (his name was Frank) and I took none of it, because the taste misliked us, but we drank a little ale. All were merry.
“Soon we fell in with not one treasure ship but ten, bound for Seville. ’Twas then that Frank cried: O hell! Damnation!
“The cross of Saint George was still a-flutter. They would know we was not French.
“We flew to change our colours, but Spanish ships gave fire. They hurt our mainmast, then we was holed, next we was ablaze.
“Our men threw anything that could float into the water, and leapt in to cling it.
“I balanced on the rail. My friends thought I was afeared to jump, and called to me. Sailors believe that if they lose their cats to the sea, we’ll make waves against them.”
“By lashing our tails,” sayt Nero.
“Not you, then,” called another.
“True,” answered Nero. “For ’twas then my tail caught fire. I leapt into the sea to dowse it before I was consumed entire.”
A screech went up. I think Nero loses his tail in every tale he tells.
He sayt, “ The Spanish were coming with a boat. Most of our men had no choice but to wait for them. They couldn’t swim. They planned to say they was poor mariners and now they’d lost their ship their kits would starve.
“Frank and another had hold of a plank. They swore they’d be damned before they was took as pirates and chained to the oars of a Spanish galley. Or worse. So I swam to them.
“We made for the shore of Darien [Panama]. I rode the plank while they kicked mightily. Frank sayt he had friends there who would help us. Enemies to Spain, they kept theirselves well hid.
“I guessed we would have a long walk to find them. Sailors may hate to lose us cats to the sea, but when they’ve no vittles they’ll eat us! And my tail was fresh roasted.”
Then Nero sayt he would conclude his tale when next we met at our Field.
“How is it,” I arrkst him, “that your Guinea friend had an English name?” For I believed Nero had planned to tell this tale in verse. Frank rhymes with plank.
Nero told me Frank had courted a London girl. He came home from a voyage and saw she’d waxed fat with a kit in her belly, so they ran to get the paper that says you can be wed. As men and women must, else they are shamed.
When he gave his Guinea name, the clerk arrkst, “Have you been baptised? What name was given you then?”
Frank, guessing that if he were not baptised he could not marry, cried, “Good sir, I’ll be frank. I been so long at sea in the service of the Queen’s Majestie that I’ve clean forgot it. I’ll be damned if I haven’t! “
And the clerk, hearing him swear like a true Christian, writ Frank Mariner. An excellent name.
Nero has an answer for everything.
The letter from “Fence” was sent to Lord Burghley in early September 1587, but (depending on the weather) it would have taken a while to get to England, and a little longer before Linkin’s lawyer master sent the latest gossip to his mother. So Gib probably wrote this late October.
The Spanish Main was the stretch of coast bordering the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish treasure fleet put in twice a year, primarily to Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Darien to pick up silver, gold, jewels and less glamorous items from Peru, which included modern Bolivia. No Panama Canal back then, so getting the treasure cross-country by mule trains from Panama city for shipping to Spain was slow work and a target for English raiders.
Nero has obviously heard of the Cimarrones, whom the English called Maroons. (Frank’s “friends…who would help us.”) They were African slaves who’d escaped from the coastal townships, settled inland, and harassed the Spanish when they could. That included playing the English off against them by helping with attacks on the mule trains.