A master in hell before a minion in Heaven. I'll be a prince in China, and lord over these
heathen beggars, or I'll make a great many of them wish they'd better joss – better luck –
than to cross my bow. But first, we have to sail this lazy hooker through these islands
without losing our precious heads to pirates, into the Yangtze without bestowing her
name on some uncharted rock, and up the Whangpoo to the walls of Shanghai without
sticking her into mud.
Fletcher Thorson Wood leaned against a rail of Essex and gazed along the channel
between the cloistered islands. He stood with one booted foot upon the larboard cathead
timber beam that hoisted her best bower anchor, and listened to the spasmodic snap of
the canvas staysail. He savored the feel of the old hooker rolling beneath him, and
inhaled deeply the salt-water aromas wafted up from where the yellowed ocean held
quiet parley with the cutwater of the ship. While his eyes surveyed the water ahead, his
mind raced north some seven hundred miles toward the glory and riches of Peking.
He was short and stocky, with a powerful body more suited to swinging a sledge in a
mine than climbing in the rigging of a sailing ship, but he was tall enough, said many who
knew, to crack a sailor's jaw with his fist. His dark-blue eyes, shoulder-length black hair,
and black frock coat buttoned tightly from collar to waist acquired for him the look of a
smoke-blackened iron spike driven into the wood of the deck.
Yankee clipper Essex was three days out of Hong Kong on 19 April 1860, bound for
Shanghai, her position 30° 16' North, 121° 59' East. She was a three-masted square-
rigged ship, a medium clipper 185 feet long from her figurehead of the nymph Galatea to
the gleaming teakwood tafferel – the railing around her stern. Her beam measured thirty-
five feet, her hold was twenty feet deep, she displaced eleven hundred tons, and atop her
main mast flew an ensign with a white “AF” on a green field – the house flag of
Augustus Fitch & Company. Her fore and main topsails billowed out above her main and
mizzen staysails, her spanker was set over her stern, and her speed was eight knots –
nautical miles per hour. She was sailing large across Hangchow Bay under a capful of
southwest soldier's wind over her larboard – or port – quarter, mincing her way north
from a call at the treaty port of Ningpo, through the treacherous shoals and shallows of
the islands of the Chushan Archipelago.
All around Essex, the wild green islets of the archipelago lay scattered in profusion across
the East China Sea, like jade gemstones strewn over yellow silk. Silk, he thought, of the
yellow reserved by ancient sumptuary law for the emperor alone, the yellow of the great
Huang Ho River, of the shifting Gobi sands, and of the opium addict's jaundiced skin.
Ahead loomed the Volcanos and Taishan Island, calm and clear in the mid-morning sun,
and between them lay the northeast channel, its surface rippled by soft cat’s-paws. High
over the channel a pair of fishing eagles backed and filled in languid circles, their white-
plumed tail feathers glistening in the sunlight, their piercing kree echoing across the
waves. Far in the distance, a solitary nun buoy floated in the shallows under the four
silent peaks of East Volcano Island. Fletcher stared into the turbid swash running under
the bow of Essex and wondered about the water's depth.
These narrows shroud submerged rocks like rivers conceal sunken snags, and the water
shallows without warning. Deep-water sailors have no more business poking about the
Hangchow tidal flats than a damselfly's got inside the mouth of a snoring drunk. The
captain is the owner's nephew, that's clear, because no sailor’d take 135 days around
Cape Horn on a voyage needing only ninety-five in decent weather. The Oriental ran it
in eighty-one days way back in 1850. And no real sailor’d risk taking a big old brawler
like Essex through these islands. With too little ballast for the weight of her cargo, heavy
yards, and tons of cannon along her rails, she’s a crank ship, has a tipsy sway even
becalmed – in a heavy swell she’d stagger like a drunken sailor. Loaded light, she'd have
about a fathom less draft and could skip over the Hangchow Bay mud like a pebble over
a pond. With a near-full load of commercial goods, and women passengers to boot, we'd
do better to round the Saddles, or at least head for deeper water at Bonham Strait.
Around here, fifteen-foot tides and four-knot tidal currents give the water more bump
and grind than a Turkish belly dancer, even at this time of year in the lull between the
monsoons, when the winds and tides are tame. Watch that damned wind, though. If it
drops, the current will suck her around and spit her up on some beach.
From her home port of Salem, Massachusetts, Essex brought American cotton shirtings,
sundries, and iron bar and nail rod for sale on consignment at the godowns – warehouses
– of Augustus Fitch & Company in Shanghai. There also were contraband field guns –
four brass 6-pounders with fifty chests of ammunition packed with fifty rounds each of
shot and canister, covertly purchased as a favor to the Shanghai taotai.
Fletcher knew all about that highbinder. In times of peace, the taotai, or Intendant of
Circuit, was the highest-ranking Chinese official in Shanghai. His rice-bowl included the
precarious management of what he would doubtless consider the unpredictable,
avaricious foreigners, and the imposition of tonnage dues and customs duties sanctioned
by treaty on the cargoes of their ships. Every taotai in office since trade began under the
1842 Treaty of Nanking furtively filched from customs duties extraordinary riches never
remitted to the imperial treasury at Peking. The present incumbent of this lucrative office
was anxious to have a private arsenal of modern Western weapons ready for the day
when the Taiping rebels would come to Shanghai to plunder from the taotai the wealth
he had pilfered from the emperor.
Essex had dropped some of the cottons at Hong Kong and picked up a cargo of English
woolens and broken putchuck root, called mu-hsiang by the Chinese, who used it to
make joss sticks – temple incense. Essex carried no opium; Augustus Lowell Fitch did
not allow his ships to traffic in the Poison Trade, even while they smuggled arms for
Chinese mandarins. In Municipal Council meetings and letters to the editor of Shanghai’s
British weekly, the North China Herald, “Uncle” Fitch gave such violent vent to his
prejudices about opium that Augustus Fitch & Company was known by the sobriquet
“New Jerusalem” among traders less particular about their cargoes.
The helmsman struck seven bells of the morning watch – 7:30am – and Fletcher
surfaced from his imaginary soundings. The water was too roiled with silt and sediment
ever to see the bottom – too muddied by glacial tillites from the Tibetan highlands, and
iron-laden red sandstone from the Szechwan Basin, and dissolved carbonate scoured
from the limestone bedrock of the Yangtze Gorges. The sea was laden with alluvium
swept up from twelve Chinese provinces, spewed out of the mouth of the Yangtze, and
shoved south into Hangchow Bay by the East China Cold Current.
Again he gazed far ahead, sighting over the jib boom the distant nun buoy that marked
shallow water in the channel, a ten-foot high, truncated cone striped red and white, like
blood and bandages, gently rising and falling at anchor. The calm began to unsettle him –
it was too calm. There were no fishermen casting their nets from junks and sampans.
The ocean was empty – gloomy as a played out gold camp.
Alone on a wide, rough, rude sea. With no chart and only Chinese constellations and
compass for navigation. Queen of heaven and dragon kings instead of Orion and
Cassiopeia. Heavens crowded with all the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian pantheons of
China, instead of Greeks and Romans. They’ll have to move over, make room for me.
Fletcher frowned at the four iron 24-pounders trussed to the clipper’s main deck,
underfoot of the crew working the ship. Try to bring those to bear on a moving target –
half the length of the ship apart, traverse’s so narrow a target’d have to be right under
the muzzle. Those’re the notion of some landsman who's never fired pivoted bow and
stern guns at pirates in the China Sea, from a ship run aground and unable to maneuver
waist guns into position. Unless they make enough noise to scare off pirates, they'll be of
little more help than a mortar to a milkmaid. Essex's only real hope against marauders is
to trice up her skirts, bare her fantail, and run for her life.
On the main deck below, the larboard watch of many nations, predominantly British
seamen, stumped up out of the forecastle – their bellies full of sourdough biscuits and
spiced oatmeal skillagalee – found their duty stations, and began fumbling about the
Sisyphean tasks essential to maintain a sailing vessel.
Ordinary seamen scraped at rust, chipped away corrosion, puttied cracks and painted
bulwarks. Sailors were forever slapping smelly Stockholm tar onto shrouds and lines to
replace worn weatherproofing. Experienced hands mended sennit, spliced new rope into
chafed lines, and wormed, parceled, and served old lines – seaman’s language for
repairing worn, plaited rope by winding strands of twine into the grooves and wrapping
rope with tarred canvas.
Able-bodied seamen – the ABs – roamed the decks between lines and lanyards, heaved
taut with Norwegian steam – muscle power – on four strand tarred Manila hemp slack
with age, and resized cow tailed rope ends where broken seizing allowed hempen strands
to unravel and splay. The ABs clambered up rope ladders into the rigging, testing their
weight on the hempen lines tied between the shrouds of the standing rigging that held the
masts erect, and scoured the running rigging that squared the yards and trimmed the sails
for signs of chafing and decay. Old hands searched among the shrouds for sun-rotted
ratlines, buntlines and clew lines further up among the sails, and greased pulley block
sheaves or sent blocks down for overhaul and painting.
The worn vertical grain of each length of 3¾ inch Douglas fir deck planking suffered
ceaseless scrutiny for splitting and dry rot. Here caulking was ordered and there pitch
was paid, wherever the packing between the hardwood deck planks chafed away and
sprouted grimy blossoms of blackened oakum.
The decks and rigging came alive with the movement and activity of a full watch of
eighteen men and boys swarming over their charge, smoothing, grooming and polishing
her, preening and primping with all the fuss of the Queen's own couturier and coiffeuse.
The first mate crossed the main deck yelling and kicking at the crew, then stomped aft
and mounted grimly to the poop deck. He nodded to the helmsman and took the officer’
s station at the weather rail beside the companionway, the quarterdeck on a clipper ship.
At sea, he might have scrutinized the helmsman’s course and ordered a correction but,
while the ship was under the nominal command of the pilot, he let the Chinese give the
helmsman her course and generally left them alone.
The mate was a weathered, whiskered sea-hulk in duck trousers, checked shirt, and
tarpaulin cap, named Ptolemy Reese. A foot taller than Fletcher, Reese was the bull in
John Bull if any man was. His proud name was the gift of his Cockney father, a corporal
of engineers who served in 1801 with British troops landed in Egypt, at Abu Qir, to join
the Ottoman Turks in a drive on Napoleon’s Army of Egypt. The father thought it no
burden for his son to bear the name of an ancient line of Egyptian kings. What the boy
learned defending his name, kicking and biting in schoolyard brawls, taught him enough
to fight his way out of the squalor and disease of the Liverpool slums and go to sea
where, accustomed to brutality and privation, he found a home.
Passengers tentatively emerged from the companionway onto the poop deck. One by
one, they glanced about, discerned little welcome in the unflinching scowl of the somber
mate, then turned away and clustered together at the leeward rail: Hubert Gabriel Wood,
Fletcher's younger brother; Hannah Eliot Fitch, wife of China trader Augustus Fitch and
part owner of Essex; and her daughter Elizabeth Glenna Fitch. Their elegant attire,
appropriate for morning dress in any household of the Western world, contrasted vividly
with the drab rigging of the sailors, decked out in work clothes of canvas drill milled –
like the ship's sails – from cotton raised below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Fletcher descended the forecastle ladder and walked the length of the main deck. A
couple of the seasoned hands, Chips and Old Burgoo, glanced at the grim trespasser as
he crossed through their domain and noted his rolling gait. Fletcher saw them watching.
I must have the look of an escaped felon, fled from Joppa and bound for Tarshish.
In an era of disease and disaster that killed early, Fletcher was already an old man at the
age of twenty-eight, and impressed his contemporaries as solemn and careworn. He had
served long in both the forecastle and quarterdeck of sailing ships, and rounded the Horn
many times. He had driven desperate men with fist and club, thwarted mutiny with
powder keg and burning brand, and survived keelhauling, knife-blade, and musket ball.
By now, his experience had aged his appearance well beyond his years.
A cabin boy, a slender, quick, blond-haired lad of maybe fifteen years, sallied forth from
the saloon struggling with a wooden trunk on his shoulder and, his view obscured,
collided with Fletcher.
“Ho, come about there matey!” Fletcher said, laughing. The trunk started for the deck
but he caught it up, and helped balance the load on the lad’s shoulder.
“Oh, beggin’ your pardon, sir! Didn’t see you there.”
“Watch where you’re goin’ you clumsy halfwit!” yelled the mate from the poop deck.
“Ya hafta be watchin’ out fer passengers wanderin’ around on the deck where they got
no business to be.”
“No ha’m done boy,” Fletcher said, ignoring the mate. “Have you got it now?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you sir. Good morning sir.”
Fletcher watched the boy weave forward on his way. He remembered thinking, when he
first set eyes on this boy in Hong Kong, that the lad was no older than he was himself
when first sent to sea aboard the Hamilton. A hard school, the sea, but with Uncle
William as captain, I probably had an easier berth than this ship’s boy. Second mate on
my first voyage out, to Hong Kong and Canton. My watch didn’t know whether to laugh
at me or throw me overboard, but that changed when they saw I was a better sailor than
all of them put together, showing the younger ones how to worm and parcel, scamper
aloft, and go over all the standing rigging. Tone Cabot was a brutal first mate, especially
to crewman who lagged, and I felt his fist or foot often enough until I hardened up,
wised up, and learned instant obedience. A mate is an officer, and an officer’s a leader,
boy, Tone would growl at me, and that means you’re the first one into the rigging and
you see your watch safely down. How many times did Tone get that lecture about
leaders from Uncle William? You’re always out front, showing how, the first to do what’
s wanted. That’s why we calls ‘em leaders, boy, because they lead. Outward bound I
was hated, but by the time Hamilton returned around the Horn, men older than my
father respected me. This boy could do with a mate like Tone.
Fletcher mounted the ladder to the poop deck, nodded to the mate, and joined the three
passengers beside the skylight over the saloon. The skylight was a long, barrel-shaped
dome of frosted glass panes protected by thin wire rods and set between two long,
polished mahogany benches. Aft of the companionway, perched upon a wooden pedestal
of more shiny brown mahogany, was the burnished copper housing of the binnacle;
through its large, round glass window the man at the helm conned the ship's compass.
The helmsman stood behind a six-foot tall wheel so big it might have come off the axle
of a Conestoga wagon tracking the Oregon Trail. Elegant in construction and finish, its
spokes were crafted from lustrous teakwood, its felloe faced with shining brass. The
wheel turned an immense steering gear inside a wood housing set before the tafferel. The
ship’s name was carved into one of the benches:
Crammed under each bench was a row of smelly wooden coops holding the last of the
scrawny chickens for the passengers' meals. Further aft was a small, waist-high
hatchway – the companionway – constructed of mahogany panels, with doors that
opened toward the stern. Inside, a ladder descended directly into the saloon.
The cabin boy appeared at the top of the ladder, ran across the poop deck to the helm,
took up an oily rag, and genuflected beside the companionway. Under the blessing of the
helmsman, he rubbed devoutly on the panels with the anointed rag to beseech a brighter