89: Nero Sees Action

Head of a ginger, black and white cat, looking stern.
Gib’s Niece

My uncle was wearie so I, from the generosity in my heart, offered to set down the last of Nero’s lies.

I told him no more sailors’ talk that none else can comprehend.

Nero knows outlandish words.  My poor uncle had to pause his pen to seek their meaning.  He wisht to make all plain for ease of reading.

I have not the patience.

And I told Nero to make a brisk end, for we were not like to find ink and cut quills on the morrow.  He believed me.

“We made haste toward the sound of shot.  At dawn we saw the Rainbow.  But nearer was a Spanish frigget [frigate] that did not know we was English.  When we put out our flags she, hoping to escape, sprang her luff.”

(Here Nero brake off and scratched hisself.  I sayt nowt.)

“We seized her,” sayt Nero.  “She carried no silver, but we rejoyced to find kitchen eel.”

An 18th century watercoloured sketch of a a man brushing cochineal scale from a cactus.
Collecting what Gib’s niece heard as ‘kitchen eel’ from a prickly pear cactus. Cochineal was much in demand as a dye.  Via Wikimedia Commons.

(I did not enquire why eels were a matter for joy.)

“While our men were rummaging her, a boat came from the Rainbow to say the treasure fleet was but two or three miles ahead, and we must follow.

“Then through the mist we glimpsed two sail astern.  My nose told me they was ours.  I begged that we pursue the fleet.

“Our prisoners from the frigget swore they ships were Spanish.  Proof that they were not.  So came our Mary Rose and Dreadnowt.

“Then all gave chase with wet canvas.  The fleet ran to Tercera.  None of our ships was standing in their way.

“The port’s great guns gave fire when we of the Garland and the Rainbow sought to enter – first under sail, then sly by boat to cut a few ships’ cables.

“My friend on the Rainbow told me that yesternight they’d come upon more ships than she had claws.  She knowed by their stinks they was Spanish. 

“Her captain thought they may be ours.  The sea was calm.  He ordered the boat to be lowered and went to hail them.  They told him they were of Civil [Seville].  When they learnt he was of the Queen’s navy, they was most uncivil and made mock of him.  The Rainbow hung out her lights and fired her ordnance to show the treasure fleet was found.

“We harked you (sayt I).  But how was we to know their ships were all ahead of us, and none astern?  And to leave that frigget unmolested would have caused great heart-burnings among our company.

“My friend marvelled that so few English ships were nigh.  Certes, she and I were not at fault.  

“’Twas a day or more before Essicks and some others joined us.  Along the way they’d took a great ship coming late with two more friggets.  Enough to pay the costs of this voyage.

“And we learnt that after we’d sailed westward, Essicks had newes that the sail sighted there was ours, not Spanish.  He sent word that we didn’t receive, and he and the rest of our ships left their places near Tercera to go to Saint Mikel [San Miguel].

“Had they stayed, the King of Spain’s treasure were ours.

A modern drawing of the map in the previous post, showing Essex’ route to and from the Azores. From ‘The Successors of Drake’ by J. S. Corbett – Internet Archive.

“Frustrate in our hopes, all sailed for Saint Mikel.  I did not go ashore, but I heard that Essicks, going in a boat, was armed only with his sword and a collar to protect his throat.

“When our Rear-Admiral called that he should wear back and breast plates, Essicks answered that he would not go so advantaged above the men who rowed him.  Who could not love Essicks?  Though some sayt a General should not be so careless of hisself.

“I also heared that in one town (I know not where) some women were slow to flee.  Essicks sayt he would punish any man who insulted them.  He put them in a house well-guarded, and sent them food from his table.

“We set sail for home.  The Spanish navy, knowing we came weak and weatherbeaten, was waiting to have at us.  We readied ourselves for fight, but the Queen Cat of Heaven punished them for their insolencie. 

“In harbour all sailors’ fingers are limed twigs – there’s nowt that doesn’t stick to them.  And who would part with goods so hard-gotten?  Sir Water Rawly sold sugar to pay hisself and all his company.  What more was kept from Her Majestie’s cold claws, I cannot tell.”

My uncle arrkst Nero, “What of the question to the learned doctor that touched upon our Earl?  Was it a matter of kitchen eel?”

“It was,” sayt Nero, “put by a lady on the matter of his marriage.”

A black and white photo of the portrait of a young Elizabethan woman, formally dressed and holding a fan.
A very young and anxious-looking Puss Fur-None, better known as Elizabeth (Bess) Vernon (1573-1655).  From Charlotte Carmichael Stopes’ biography of the Earl of Southampton, via the Internet Archive.

“To Puss Fur-None?” arrkst my uncle.

“No,” sayt Nero. “I believe this lady has hopes of her own.”

I scented scandal, but my uncle sayt he would write what Nero told us next.

He fears I may set down something slanderous of His Harryship.

My uncle may be old, but he is cute [sharp].

 Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorNero and the Rainbow’s cat were eager to declare they weren’t to blame for anything.

So was the Rainbow’s captain, Sir William Monson.  He claims he sought to delay the treasure fleet by inviting them to try and capture his ship.  That sounds foolhardy, but at the time he wouldn’t have known that almost all the English fleet were elsewhere.

Sir William then faults the Earl of Southampton for the Garland’s staying to take the Spanish frigate and identify the Mary Rose and Dreadnought.  And also Sir Francis Vere (on the Mary Rose) for bringing a soldier’s caution to the pursuit of the fleet into the port of Angra.  But mainly the Earl of Essex, for taking advice from the wrong people.

Had the English fleet maintained its position in the vicinity of Graciosa and Terceira, the treasure would have been theirs.  Hindsight, of course.

The “great ship” escorted by two frigates that was taken belonged to the Governor of Havana.  She was unloaded at Dartmouth and reported to be carrying cochineal and indigo.  A good haul, though there are hints in letters to Sir Robert Cecil that sticky fingers may have been busy before she reached Dartmouth.