Linkin the Law Cat gave more newes. His master heard that a gentleman had writ to Lord Purrlie from Fence [Venice] where many say that Siffrans [Sir Francis Drake], having offended the Queen, goes no more to sea.
Which frees the King of Spain from keeping his war ships close to his treasure ships. He can send them here. Some say he’s made a pact with the Scots to molest us. Others say Spanish soldiers have been landed in Ireland.
“Gossips’ talk,” sayt Linkin. “Do not believe it.”
Item: A King is a Man-Queen. I knew that, but some arrkst.
Many also arrkst if the Spanish eat cats.
Nero leapt up and 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 to London. Our ship came safe past the Barbary Coast, for we had fair winds and could outrun the corsairs’ galleys.
“In London I joined a crew that set sail for the Spanish Main in hopes of trade.”
“Their King has forbid trade with us,” sayt Linkin the Know All.
“True,” sayt Nero. “But there’s trade, and there’s trade, if you take my meaning. We flew French colours, so none should think us pirates.
“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 English colours and called: England and Saint George! Strike sail or we will sink you.
“They called: Lads, we be but poor mariners like yourselves. We brought household stuff and tools here from Spain, and carry home nowt but wood and hides. If you rob us, our kits will go hungry. But the treasure fleet is loading now, and will soon set sail. Make haste, and you might take a straggler.
“All know that the Spanish are tricksie. They seek to 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. There was a Guinea man who sailed with us, black and handsome like me, and I had friended him. He and I took no wine. The taste misliked us, but we drank a little ale. All were merry.
“Soon we saw not one treasure ship but ten, bound for Seville. ’Twas then that the Guinea man (all called him Frank) cried: Hell!
“The cross of Saint George was still a-flutter. They would know we was not French. We ran to change our colours, but a Spanish ship gave fire. They took away our mainmast, then we saw we was holed, next we was ablaze.
“Our men threw anything that could float into the water, and leapt in to cling it. I arrkst myself: Should I join with the Spanish?
“They was coming with a boat.
“My friends thought I was afeared to jump, and called that I must swim to them. 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.”
A screech went up. I think Nero loses his tail in every tale he tells.
He sayt, “I leapt to dowse the flames in the sea. Most men had no choice but the Spanish boat. They couldn’t swim. They planned to say they was poor mariners, and now they’d lost their ship their kits would starve.
“A few sayt they’d be damned before they was took as pirates and chained to the oars of a Spanish galley. Or worse.
“Frank and another was clinging to a plank. 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 aid us, but I knew we had nowt to offer them in return for food. And though sailors may hate to lose cats to the sea, when there’s no vittals they’ll eat us. My tail was fresh roasted.”
Then Nero sayt he would conclude his tale when next we met at the Cats’ Field.
“How is it,” I arrkst him, “that the Guinea man had an English name?” For I believed Nero had planned to tell this tale in verse. Frank rhymes with plank.
Nero sayt the Guinea man had courted a good London girl. He came home from a voyage and saw she’d waxed fat, so they ran to get the piece of paper that says you can be wedded in haste. As men and women do, else they are shamed.
When he gave his Guinea name, the clerk arrkst, “How must I write that?” And then, sarcastical, “Have you been baptised?”
He, not knowing his letters but fearing that if his name could not be writ he could not marry, sayt, “Damn me, I been so long at sea in the service of the Queen’s Majestie that I’ve forgot.”
The clerk, hearing him swear like a true Christian, was assuaged and 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 passed the latest gossip on to family and friends. So Gib probably wrote this sometime in 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 (plus less glamorous items) carried there by mule trains. No Panama Canal in those days, so getting the wealth of Peru and modern Bolivia to where it could be shipped across to Spain was hard work. And a temptation to pirates.
Nero has obviously heard of the Cimarrones, whom the English called Maroons. (Frank’s “friends…who would aid us.”) They were African slaves who’d escaped from the coastal townships, set up their own settlements inland, and harassed the Spanish whenever possible. That included playing the English off against them.
Incidentally, “damn” and its derivatives were strong words in Elizabethan times. (We’re talking sailors here.) People tend to swear by what they fear, or so I’ve heard. Another of the differences between them and us.