‘Of all the pirates I’ve heard and seen
The basest and the bloodiest is Captain Green’
My Country men who do intend
on Pirrating to go,
Be sure what e’re ye may pretend
The certain end is wo,
I know’t to sad Experience .
The better may I tell,
I thought my self in sure defence,
But suddenly I fell.’
The Ballad of Captain Thomas Green 1705
New Forest, England 1697
Tom leaned forward and risked a kiss on Beatrice’s cheek.
She blushed scarlet and drew away. ‘Tom, Father will see.’
‘I don’t care if he does. I love you, Beatrice, and I intend to ask your father for your hand.’
Her blush deepened. ‘I’m too young to wed, Thomas.’
‘Not for much longer, and I won’t have him promise you to another.’
She bridled and flung back her head, standing there like a skinny, long-legged colt in spring with her tawny hair flying. ‘I shall marry a man I love, not one of Father’s business acquaintances. I won’t be a pawn.’
He smiled at the independent spirit he loved, but Beatrice would have no choice in who she married if John Turner chose a husband for his daughter.
‘Tom Rowe!’ The voice was brusque, impatient. ‘Come along here. We’ve work to do.’
He stole another kiss. ‘Coming, Mr Turner.’ Beatrice returned to her chores, and he ran to his employer, eager to impress.
John Turner checked the harness of the horse nearest to him and gestured towards the cart. ‘Get yer bones up there, boy. We’ve baulks of green oak to cart to the naval shipyard in Southampton.’
‘Not Buckler’s Hard?’
‘Not this time. They want this load taking directly to Southampton. Be grateful we don’t have to haul it to the docks at Deptford. Move yerself, boy.’
‘Yes, sir.’ He climbed onto the seat and unhooked the reins, ready to pass them to the older man.
Mr Turner settled onto the seat beside him and drew a clay pipe and a tiny tobacco pouch from his waistcoat pocket. ‘You can drive, son. Time you made yourself useful.’
He’d thought he’d been making himself useful for the last five years, but with more important matters on his mind, he held his peace. He clicked his tongue and the four horses walked forward along the track into the forest. ‘Can I ask you something personal, Mr Turner, sir?’
‘Best save your breath, boy.’
‘Young Beatrice isn’t for you. She’s of an age to be courted and betrothed, and a woman needs a man who can provide for her, not a boy with no prospects.’
‘But I work hard, Mr Turner.’
‘You do, son, and were you mine, I’d be proud to have you carry on my business, but I have sons of my own to provide a future for. I’m afeared there’s nothing here for you but a labourer’s wage.’
Mr Turner silenced him with a dismissive wave of his pipe and blew a smoke ring. ‘If the past seven ill years have taught me anything, Tom, it’s that a man needs a nest egg behind him if he’s to keep a family from starvation in hard times. A pig may be able to live on pannage and a cow on grass, but a man can’t.’
And enough had died for want of a bellyful of vittles these last years. ‘But no family of mine will go hungry while I have traps and snares.’ He looked into grey eyes so like Beatrice’s. ‘You’ve eaten enough of the king’s venison this last twelvemonth.’
‘I have, and been glad of it, but the laws of the forest are harsh, and it ain’t me who’ll be before the forest court and dangling on a rope from the King’s Oak if you’re caught taking his majesty’s deer. If you’re not careful, you’ll come to a bad end, Tom Rowe – you mark my words, and where would my Beatrice be then?’
‘But I love Beatrice, and she loves me.’
Mr Turner put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Will she still love you when she lays her firstborn in the ground because you can’t put meat on her table? I shan’t live forever, Tom, and it’ll be her husband’s place to care for her and my grandchildren. I’m sorry, Tom, but I won’t give her to a man who can’t support her and support her well.’
He fell silent as the horses picked their way to the clearing where lengths of oak felled the previous winter lay stacked. The leaves on the standing oaks proclaimed autumn, the ground smelled of dank mould, and all too soon, winter would be on them again.
His employer’s sons, William and Robert, were already there with a stout timber hoist erected. He turned the horses in a tight circle and pulled on the reins. ‘Whoa up, my beauties. Back up. Back up. Whoa.’
‘That’ll do, boy. Well done.’
A bad end? Determined to show Mr Turner he was wrong in his prediction, he looped the reins over the hook and jumped down to help hoist the timber onto the cart. He would prove he could be a fit husband for Beatrice, whatever it took. He just had to make sure that when he broke the king’s law, he didn’t get caught.
Edinburgh, Scotland 1697
Andrew Ramsay walked the short distance to the row of mean dwellings to the north of his Edinburgh home. Smoke from chimneys blew across the street in front of him, making him cough.
‘Are you all right, Andrew?’ His older sister, Elisabeth, worried about him like an old mother hen.
‘Just the smoke in my lungs. This damned wind doesn’t help.’
‘And cursing won’t mend it.’
He laughed despite his worry. He’d lost two stones in weight over the last year, and he wasn’t the only one. He was sure Iona, his wife, went without food, so he could stay strong to work, and their son, Rory, could eat. Elisabeth looked thinner than she should.
‘This is the house.’ Elisabeth knocked on the door. ‘Mrs Carnegie is due to birth, and she has four little ones. The youngest has a fever.’’
A child of about four opened the door. He looked sickly and undernourished. His feet were bare, and his trouser legs only reached halfway down his shins. ‘You the doctor?’
‘Yes. Might we come in?’
‘Mam says to go up.’
A narrow stair led up to a loft. Blankets covered straw, and a child lay prone, taking harsh gulping breaths, sweat beaded on her brow.
‘How long has she been like this, Mrs Carnegie?’
‘Three days, doctor, but much worse today. I’d have called you before, but…’ The woman’s voice trailed off. He knew the story too well. She couldn’t afford to pay him.
She has a fever.’ He loosened the child’s clothing. ‘And a rash. Can you open your mouth, sweetheart?’
‘Is it scarlet fever, doctor?’
‘It’s possibly diphtheria.’
The woman’s face blanched. ‘Will she live, doctor?’
He avoided the question by rummaging in his bag. By the child’s difficulty in breathing, it could be diphtheria. Her throat was swollen closed, and she’d suffocate unless he acted quickly. ‘Elisabeth, I need to perform a tracheotomy. Can you hold the child still for me?’
Elisabeth looked up at him in concern. ‘Have you done one before?’
He shook his head. ‘I’ve read about them. It’s that or this child dies.’
Elisabeth took Mrs Carnegie aside. ‘Mrs Carnegie, we need hot water if you can manage it, and a clean cloth.’
He nodded his approval. It would give the poor woman something to do while he performed the procedure. He unwrapped a short metal curved cannular and a selection of scalpels. He smiled reassuringly at the child. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Well, Ava, I want you to keep very still, so I can help you to breathe. Can you do that for me?’
Ava nodded and gasped another breath.
‘Good. Elisabeth, are you ready?’
Elisabeth held the child with one hand beneath her neck and one on her forehead, extending the neck. She nodded.
‘God guide my hand. Very still, now.’ He felt for the correct place with his fingertips and made a vertical incision in her throat. Blood oozed and he clamped the vessels with forceps to stem the flow. With a metal hook, he sought the windpipe, pulled it forward, and made a hole, quickly inserting the cannular.
Ava’s ragged breathing eased. ‘That’s better, sweetheart. Keep still now. Almost done.’ He sutured the blood vessels and the skin around the tube and prayed.
Ava’s mother returned with a jug of hot water and a cloth. ‘Oh, my Lord, what have you done?’
‘The tube in her neck will help her breathe while her throat is swollen. I’ll use leeches to bleed her, and honey and water will ease her throat. Hopefully, if the swelling goes down, I can remove the tube.’
‘You think she’ll live?’
Few children survived diphtheria. He moved away and lowered his voice. ‘I don’t know. I’ve done my best for her.’
‘Thank you, doctor. Thank you so much.’ The woman bit her knuckle. ‘Doctor, I have no money. I have little food to offer you in payment. My husband is a shoemaker. Perhaps –’
‘If he mends a pair of boots for me, Mrs Carnegie, that will be payment enough.’
The woman smiled her relief, and satisfied his patient was as comfortable as he could make her, he and Elisabeth left.
‘Andrew, we can’t go on like this. Iona and I have few stocks in our pantries, and wee Rory can’t eat boots.’
‘I can’t let a child die because her parents can’t pay, Elisabeth. Seven bad harvests have affected us all, but things will get better, you’ll see.’
‘I hope so, Andrew. I do hope so.’
Southampton, England 1697
Tom had never been to Southampton before. He’d been to Bucklers Hard and listened to the tales of the old seadogs there, but the forest was his home; he knew its tracks and trees like the veins on the back of his hand, and he seldom ventured beyond its bounds. The fifteen-mile journey took them all morning, but by noon, the docks at Southampton stretched before him. Masts and rigging towered like hundreds of straight, young trunks cobwebbed with fine branches. He’d never envisaged such a sight.
‘You going to stand gawping all day or help me unload, Tom?’
He tore his attention from the sea of ships and the glittering water that stung eyes more accustomed to the cool, green shade of his home. ‘Sorry, Mr Turner.’
He grabbed an iron log-lever, and together they rolled the baulks of quartered timber off the flatbed cart onto the ground where a team of strong men stacked them ready for use. The cart emptied, Mr Turner mopped his brow. ‘I have to settle this account, Tom. Why don’t you have a look around while you wait? Be back within the hour.’
‘Yes, Mr Turner.’ He strolled along the quayside past boats and ships of all sizes. There were enormous ships that must belong to the navy and smaller ships belonging to shipping lines or private owners. The names were inviting – Charlotte, Renown, Bright Star, Dependable, Wyvern, Swallow. Some had painted figureheads in the form of maids or birds, or fantastical sea creatures. Many flew flags that fluttered in the breeze. He filled his lungs with the smell of the sea and something else – tar. Or was it the lure of adventure?
‘You looking for a ship, son?’
He turned and almost bumped into a mooring post. ‘No, not one in particular.’
‘Captain Price of the Northern Star is taking on.’
‘Sail a ship?’ The thought had never occurred to him, but now that it had… ‘Where would I find Captain Price?’
The man pointed. ‘See that schooner?’
‘The one fore-and-aft rigged with the foremast shorter than the mainmast.’ The man sighed at his obvious lack of understanding. ‘Just go over there and ask. Someone will know where he is.’
‘Thank you, sir. I will.’
He found the Northern Star before he found its captain. Taking his courage in both hands, he walked up the gangplank and onto the deck. ‘Imagine sailing the ocean on such a fine ship.’
‘Aye, she is a fine ship.’
He wheeled around, conscious he’d spoken aloud. ‘I was looking for the captain.’
‘You’ve found him.’
‘I was told you might be taking on, sir.’
‘You look strong. How old are you?’
‘Seventeen, sir.’ Well, he would be next birthday.
‘You running away from home?’
‘So, you fancy spending the winter somewhere warm, a taste of adventure, or a share of the booty? Which is it, lad?’
‘Any ship sailing to the Indies is likely to tangle with pirates or foreign ships. The Star can outrun most ships and can defend herself. We have eight four-pound cannons, fifty muskets, twenty pistols, thirty cutlasses, some half-pikes, and more knives than you can count, and pirate booty becomes our bounty. If we can take a pirate ship, or a Portuguese or Spanish ship, instead of it taking us, every man aboard gets a share as well as his pay.’
He looked closer at the cannons on the deck. They must be big enough to blow a gaping hole in the side of any ship. What would it be like to fight a pirate or foreign ship in the Indies? To wield a cutlass or knife instead of a woodman’s axe or bodger’s froe? The forest seemed dull and restricting by comparison. He could go to sea and come home rich. Mr Turner couldn’t refuse him Beatrice’s hand in marriage then.
‘Swordfish cut your tongue out, lad?’
‘I’d have to tell my mother I was leaving, and Mr Turner and Beatrice.’
‘We sail a week on Monday on the tide. Be here, and I’ll take you on. Be late, and I sail without you. The tide waits for no man.’
‘I’ll be here.’ He moved aside as a sailor carried a barrel onto the deck and down into the hold, followed by another carrying a long wooden box.
Captain Price laughed. ‘You answer “aye aye, Captain”, lad.’
‘My name’s Tom, Captain. Thomas Rowe, at your service.’
‘A week Monday, then, Tom.’ The captain’s eyes closed to a slit, as if calculating something. ‘It’ll be about noon. Yes, we shall sail on the noon tide.’
A sudden thought struck him. ‘How long shall we be gone, Captain?’
‘Six months, God willing. Less if the winds hold, the trading is good, and the seas are kind. She’s a fast ship.’
‘Aye aye, Captain.’ Six months, maybe less. Beatrice would wait for him. Mr Turner would surely allow him that long to make his fortune and prove himself a worthy match for his daughter. He ran back to meet Mr Turner. Somehow, he had to find the words to tell him, Mother, and Beatrice that he was going to sea.
New Forest, England 1697
Beatrice Turner scattered grain for the chickens that scratched the muddy ground outside the cottage where she lived with her father and brothers. Father and Tom were hobbling the horses to graze the short grass under the eaves of the forest. Since an Act of Parliament had enclosed some of the forest for planting trees for the navy, pasture close to the cottage was scarce. Father needed navy permission to fell trees, though he could sell any timber not claimed by them.
As commoners, they had rights to gather turf and wood for fuel, dig clay, graze a cow, and pannage pigs in autumn, but the enclosing of heathland favoured the Crown at the expense of the commoners. The Crown saw them as thieves and vagabonds with no morals. Was the king squeezing them out of their ancestral homes?
She checked nest boxes for eggs, as she did twice a day, but looked up at the sound of raised voices.
Father strode towards her. ‘Beatrice, see if you can talk sense into this fool of a boy. Just as he’s getting useful.’ He waved his arms in a gesture of angry despair. ‘Damn fool plan.’
Tom’s cheeks were red. ‘I shall prove you wrong, Mr Turner.’
She placed three eggs into her basket and put the basket on the ground. ‘What’s Tom done that’s riled you so, Father?’
‘Ask the boy. See if he can explain. I’m damned sure I don’t understand.’
Hands on hips, she fixed Tom with the sort of glare her mother used to give Father. ‘Well, Tom? What’s this disagreement about?’
‘Your father won’t let me court you. He thinks I won’t be able to support a wife and family.’
She turned her glare onto her father. ‘What makes you think he won’t be able to support a family? He’s only sixteen. How old were you when you courted Mother? Could you have supported us at sixteen?’
‘But I had prospects, Beatrice. I worked for my grandfather and knew I would take over his business. My concerns must pass to your brothers. What prospect has Tom got?’
‘Which is why I intend to go to sea and make my fortune.’
She swivelled on one heel and stared open-mouthed at Tom. ‘You’re what?’
‘I’m going to sea aboard the Northern Star. Captain Price has taken me on, and we sail on Monday.’
‘Tom, you can’t!’
‘I shall go, Beatrice, and nothing you or your father say will dissuade me. I shall prove myself worthy of you.’
Tears stung her eyes. Tom was stubborn and proud, but she would marry him, however long she had to wait. She loved him. ‘Father?’
‘It’s no good appealing to me, Beatrice. I’ve had my say.’
‘But if he comes back a rich man, you’d change your mind?’
‘Huh. More likely, the boy won’t come back at all.’ Father’s gruff voice betrayed his fears for her heart and the affection he held for Tom.
She persisted. ‘But if he can prove he can support a family, you will agree to us marrying? How long would you be away, Tom?’
‘I’ll be back before the buds are breaking on the trees. Hopefully, before the primroses finish flowering.’
‘Won’t you grant him that long to prove himself, Father? I shan’t agree to another courting me while Tom’s away.’
Her father huffed. ‘And if he never returns?’
‘Captain Price says we shall be back in six months.’
‘I shall give him six months, Father. Won’t you do the same?’
‘Six months and not a day more, Tom Rowe. Come back able to support Beatrice, or don’t bother coming back at all.’ Her father stamped away, but she knew he was hurting. He loved Tom like his own.
‘Six months to the day, Mr Turner. I shan’t let you down.’ Tom turned to her and took both her hands in his. ‘I shan’t let you down, either, Beatrice. I love you. I shall return and marry you if you’ll wait for me.’
She couldn’t see for tears. ‘I shall count the days until your return, Tom. I shall miss you more than I can say, but if it means we can marry, I shall stay strong for you.’
‘And I for you, my love.’
Aboard Northern Star 1697
Tom swung in his hammock at one side of the captain’s cabin, wishing the ship would stop rolling, the bells wouldn’t ring every half hour, and the lantern suspended from the ceiling would stop swinging. Captain Price snored, not unlike the sounds wild boar made in the forest. How could anyone sleep? He tried to hold down vomit and failed, retching into a bowl. If he was sick much more, his bowl would overflow, and there’d be nothing left of him. He hadn’t kept anything down but water for three days.
The captain stirred, and moonlight through the diamond-leaded panes of the stern lights illuminated his movements. ‘You’ll get used to it, lad. First three days are the worst.’ Captain Price levered himself from his bed and ladled water from a small barrel into a cup. ‘Here, drink this. I need you fit and healthy if you’re to see to my needs. With no women aboard, you have to take the place of a wife.’
‘A wife?’ Did the captain mean what he thought he meant?
Captain Price roared with laughter. ‘You should see your face, young Tom. No, I’m not into buggery, though there’s some aboard as are, and a pretty boy like you wouldn’t have trouble catching the pox. Tomorrow, when you can keep something down, I shall instruct you in your duties.’
‘Yes, sir, thank you, sir. I mean aye aye, Captain.’ He swallowed the water. ‘I’m sorry to have let you down, Captain.’
Captain Price took the cup from him, half-filled it with rum from a bottle, and handed it back. ‘It takes most men this way until they get their sea legs. You’ll soon be up and about and running around like a Barbados green monkey. Don’t you worry. I shall get every shilling’s worth of work out of you before this voyage is over.’
‘A green monkey?’
‘Don’t know why they call them that. Came from the Gambia a few years back, I understand. Mischievous little devils.’ He took the empty cup. ‘Feeling better?’
‘A bit, thank you.’
‘Get some sleep, lad. I shall need you at four bells of the morning watch.’
‘Aye aye, Captain.’ He laid back down, letting the hammock encase him like the cocoon of an Emperor moth on the heath. The moon disappeared behind a cloud, plunging the cabin into darkness, and the warmth of the rum in his belly lulled him to sleep.
He woke to someone shaking his shoulder. ‘Four bells, Tom. There’s water in the barrel and food in the galley. Off with you and fetch my breakfast.’
It was still dark, but the captain had lit a candle on a sconce on the wall. He half-fell out of the hammock and stumbled, his legs weak. He took a cup of water and swallowed it before making his way to the galley. ‘I’m to take the captain his breakfast.’
A short fellow, who probably got his broad girth by finishing up every scrap left on the plates, grinned at him. ‘You look like a man who’s turned his guts out over the deck.’
He smiled weakly. ‘I have that.’
The man handed him a crust of bread. ‘This should stay down. Last fresh bread you’ll get this side of England, so make the most of it.’
‘Yes, sir. Thank you.’ He stuffed the crust in his pocket for later and took the proffered tankard of beer and a pewter plate with bread and cheese on it.
The man shook his head. ‘This is for the captain.’
He hurried back to the captain’s cabin and set the plate, tankard, and a knife on the table. Captain Price tore at the bread. ‘How’s your stomach this morning?’
‘Good. Have you eaten?’
He brought the crust from his pocket. ‘The cook gave me this.’
‘Set yourself down, then, and eat up.’ The captain wagged a broad finger. ‘Now, then. Duties. You’re not to touch my chart table or anything on it, on pain of becoming a powder monkey and having to carry the gunpowder, which might get you blown to bits. You will see my clothes are clean and dry, my boots are bees-waxed, my bed is aired, the night pails are emptied and washed, the candle wicks are trimmed and ready for lighting – melt down any stubs to make new candles – and see the cabin’s clean and tidy.’
‘Aye aye, Captain.’
‘I’m not done yet, lad. You will bring my vittles to wherever I happen to be at the end of each watch. When you are not performing those tasks, unless I need you close by to run errands or carry messages, you will be helping cook in the galley, delivering meals to the crew, or helping stow sails aloft. You will learn the names of the sails and the meaning of the signal flags, especially those used by the Royal Navy and the damned Frenchies. If you have nothing else to do, and I don’t need you, fill your time picking oakum for caulking or mending nets so we can fish. Do you understand?’
He swallowed a bite of crust. ‘Aye aye, Captain. When do I get to eat and sleep, sir?’
‘When I do, lad. Now, finish that crust and jump to it.’
His cabin chores done, he went on deck. There was a barricade, some ten-feet high, built across the deck. It had doors in it with bolts. He couldn’t imagine what it was for. The horizon disappeared behind a wave, and his stomach dropped like a stone, but his bread stayed down. The sky and sea were leaden with brooding clouds. Captain Price was at the wheel. ‘Do you need me, Captain?’
‘Stay close by, Tom, and pay attention. You’re a bright lad, and one day, you may captain a ship of your own.’
‘Aye aye, Captain. Where are we?’
‘Off Biscay. Barometer’s dropping, which means we’re in for some weather. Run fore and tell Mr Forbes to haul to the wind. Wind’s to the north-west, so we’re using Rennel’s Current to try to avoid being driven into the bay.’
‘And if the wind changes?’
‘We’ll have to seek refuge in one of the ports.’
‘Aye aye, Captain.’ He ran forward to relay the message, and hands scrambled to haul on the sheets. The ship heeled slightly to what he assumed was west and away from land.
Spray pounded the decks, the wind whipped at his hair, and his lips tasted of salt. He ran back to the captain. ‘When will we see land again, sir?’
‘We’ll be off Cape Finisterre, God willing, on the morrow, and then it’s maybe another week to Madeira.’
‘Is that where we’ll dock, Captain?’
‘Nay, lad. We’ll pass Madeira to the west and then head south and east for Ajashe on the coast of Africa. We have trade there.’
Finisterre, Madeira, Ajashe – the names were magical, and he couldn’t wait to see Africa.
Captain Price frowned. ‘Barometer’s still falling. Looks like we’re in for a storm.’ He smiled. ‘Don’t look so worried, young Tom. I’ve been sailing this route for twenty years. I ain’t lost a ship yet.’ He winked. ‘Lost a few men, but never a ship.’
That was supposed to comfort him?
‘Yellow fever, lad. Took half my crew one voyage. Bad business.’ The captain fell silent and stared forward as if trying to escape the ghosts of his past.
John Turner’s voice rang warning bells in his head as loud as any that had tolled during the middle watch in the early hours before dawn. And if he never returns?
Edinburgh, Scotland 1697
Andrew Ramsay dressed the lesion on Roderick Mackenzie’s arm, the infected result of a bite from a stray dog. ‘That should be fine now, Mr Mackenzie.’
The older man grunted his thanks and rolled down his shirtsleeve. ‘Will you take a dram with me, Andrew?’
‘I will, sir. Thank you.’
‘Sit yourself by the fire, man. I have something I want to discuss with you.’
The chill autumn promised another cold winter. His curiosity piqued, he moved a chair closer to the blaze. He took the small glass of aquavitie his patient offered.
Mr Mackenzie took a sip from his own glass and rolled the liquid around his mouth. ‘Distilled at Ferintosh by Duncan Forbes of Culloden. A good man, Duncan.’
The liquid burned his throat. ‘What was it you wanted to discuss, sir?’
‘You know well enough the effect the crop failures and famine have had on Scotland.’
‘I see it every day, Mr Mackenzie. Few can afford to pay for my services. I don’t know how much longer I shall be able to afford to treat them for free.’
‘I shall send some wealthier patients your way, Andrew, and of course, I shall settle my bill with you at the end of the month.’
‘That would be appreciated, sir. Thank you. But it isn’t only Scotland who hungers, from what I hear.’
‘No indeed. Europe has been hit hard, but our failing economic position is leading some to call for a political union with England, damn their English eyes. What would that mean for our country? We would lose our independence and become a lackey to the English Parliament.’
‘But if Scotland is in such a bad position financially, wouldn’t an alliance be to our advantage?’
‘And sell ourselves to those English dogs? Not if we can find ways to trade that the English can’t stop. I’d only consider union as a last resort.’
‘So, what have you in mind, Mr Mackenzie?’
Mackenzie refilled their glasses. ‘You’ve heard of William Paterson?’
‘The same. And the Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies?’
He nodded. ‘I know nothing about it, other than we now are on the top floor of its headquarters.’
‘It was created by an act of the Parliament of Scotland two years ago to compete with the English East India Company. Investors have been subscribing for the last year, and despite the English trying to stop us, we have reached our target of four hundred thousand pounds sterling. We have a chance here to make Scotland the great mercantile country it should be.’
He frowned. ‘I don’t see how this affects me.’
‘There are two camps regarding the solution to our financial crisis. One camp wishes to concentrate on trading ships to the Indies and Africa, but Paterson has another, more lucrative, plan.’
‘I must bind you to secrecy here, Andrew. If the English were to discover our exact plans, the location, they could steal the idea from under us.’
‘No word of it will reach another’s ears from me, Mr Mackenzie.’
‘Good man. It’s Paterson’s vision to establish a colony on the Darien Isthmus and provide portage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean across the narrow neck of land that separates them. Portage would save ships from the long voyage around South America and the dangers of rounding Cape Horn. It will also be a trading point between Europe, the Americas, and the Far East and will make Scotland an important trading nation. It’s an exciting venture, don’t you think?’
‘I see this might interest the English, but I don’t see how this involves me, Mr Mackenzie.’
The man refilled their glasses again. ‘Call me Roderick, Andrew.’ He took a generous sip of his drink. ‘We need colonists. Men, women, and children to build New Edinburgh in New Caledonia. And men, women, and children will need a surgeon. This is an opportunity for you, Andrew. William – Mr Paterson – asked me to recommend a good man for his Darien scheme, and I’d like to tell him you will go.’
He was tempted. ‘What about Iona and Rory? What about my patients?’
‘Your wife and child can be among the colonists. No colony can thrive without women and children. And there are other surgeons in Edinburgh.’
‘How many souls do you envisage?’
‘A thousand, at least. Probably five ships, so you wouldn’t be the only surgeon. Angus Bruce, a capable surgeon, has already agreed to go, but you would sail on Paterson’s ship.’ Roderick downed the rest of his drink and beckoned to him. Crossing the room to his desk, he opened a drawer and unrolled a chart. ‘This is Darien.’ He pointed to the narrow isthmus that joined South America to North America. ‘And this bay is a natural harbour.’
‘I can see it would be advantageous for Scotland to have a colony there. How easy would it be to forge a route across the isthmus to the Pacific?’
‘It would take time, of course, but we will choose the right men for the job. First, we would need to build a settlement, a fort, and a trading post. Think about it, Andrew, but don’t take too long. There will be others eager to join this venture. It should prove lucrative for the investors.’
‘Will you be going, Roderick?’
‘Sadly, no. It’s a young man’s venture, and I can help it best by overseeing investment here. Also, the venture is not without its opponents. I have ruffled feathers still to smooth.’
‘English commercial interests feel threatened by any Scottish trading, which alone tells me this is a good venture. Also, King William is more interested in his war with France and doesn’t wish to offend Spain.’
‘You envisage trouble with the Spanish?’
‘Nothing we can’t handle – hence my mention of building a fort to defend New Caledonia. The Spanish are too busy fighting off buccaneers to worry about a small settlement. Also, England is under pressure from the London-based East India Company, which is keen to retain its monopoly over foreign trade.
‘The company is already threatening legal action on the grounds that Scots have no authority from the king to raise funds outside the English realm. English and Dutch investors have withdrawn, which has forced us to repay subscriptions. Nevertheless, we have raised the money we need from Scotland alone.’ Roderick paused. ‘There’ll be more colonists following, once the settlement is built, and now it will be the colonists and Scotland who reap all the rewards.’
And Scotland who took the risk, but those rewards could be great. ‘I’ll speak to Iona and let you know. I shall need to come back to check the wound.’
‘Good man.’ Roderick held out his hand, and he shook it. ‘Your wife will do as you bid, I’m sure, but no word of the destination to her. You know how women prattle.’
He nodded and took his leave, descending the stairs to the street, where he mounted his sturdy pony. Iona might take some convincing, but the talk of such an adventure already had his blood running hot. He was a young man, with a wife and baby son, the sort of family that would help build a colony. He could raise a loan, if necessary, to help Iona with provisions. With Scotland in the grip of a spate of the coldest winters he’d ever known, poor harvests that had caused starvation, and declining wealth, what had they to lose?
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