A short story based on historical events
For an alternate fictional account, read the novel:
Katherine, dear Katherine, I am at the end of the world, the end of my voyage, and near the end of my wits. No majestic bark with canvas fluttering in the wind proclaims my triumphant return to England, rich with tales of new lands, gold and glory. My command has been reduced to a small, frail shallop and my crew to eight sickly men, huddled against the wind under these grey skies.
Yester morn Discovery was finally freed from the ice that had bound us all winter and through most of the spring. The sun on my face again after those dark, terrible months made me yearn to continue our search. The northern route to the Japans has thwarted me twice before, I would not have it do so a third. I would now be sailing towards those fabled lands, had I not been cast down by mutineers and my ship taken from me.
They'll see justice for their act, if they manage to return. Robert Bylot is a competent pilot, but I feel the others with him lack the skills to sail the Furious Overfall unscathed. In these calm waters Robert Juet may have given them the backbone to stand against me like cocks in a barnyard, but he cannot give them the talents to man my ship on troubled seas. Not without me. If they come to grief in those treacherous waters, it will be a fitting end for treacherous men.
The Company will outfit an expedition to find us, of course. It will be a long wait in a hard clime, but don't fear for me, Kate. I'll return to your arms. Mayhap before winter next I'll again be master of a new ship, and one day sail home to you wrapped in Japan cloths, reeking of Oriental spices, holds filled with gifts for His Majesty. Men will pass me on the street, point and say "There is the man who gave England the Orient."
Henry Hudson pauses and looks at the men stranded on the rocky shore with him. He cannot help but a feeling twinge of despair for these remnants of his crew and the tiny boat that lies beached nearby. He dips his quill in the remaining ink and continues.
True, it will be a difficult time for us all. We are Englishmen, not easily bowed by adversity. Those of solid body will survive, no doubt. They can meet the challenge of these rough lands. Yet many among us fare ill and I see the Dark Angel hovering in their shadow. Their vitality waned greatly during the awful winter past. Too weak to resist their captors, they now lie on this shore racked with cough, gums blackened with scurvy.
Adam Moore is the worst, sick since we left Gravesend more than a year ago. I should have put him ashore with Coleburne last April. Michael Butt, too, fares poorly. Syrack Fanner is lame, his leg broken from a fall on the ice. Though it was set by the surgeon, he still favours it heavily. He complains incessantly of the pain, but I sometimes think he does it merely to shirk his meagre duties.
John, our youngest son, sits in brooding silence, his hopeful eyes on the horizon seeking some sign of the ship that cast us adrift. They will not return for us, I know it in my heart, though I cannot bring myself to snuff out his tiny flame of hope. John has suffered with me through three long voyages. What must he think of me now? Am I still a captain in his sight? Or just an old man failed of his mission?
You'd have been proud of him, Kate. When I was taken, the mutineers pinioned my arms behind my back and shoved me roughly into the shallop. John stood free of the mutineers and climbed down beside me without a word. He untied me and demanded clothes and comfort, for I was still in my nightshirt. Of respect for him, the villains threw us an armful of clothes from my trunk and several pieces of bedding. On my next voyage, I'll make sure he sees better service than mere ship's boy, I promise.
Philip Staffe, that gentle ship's carpenter, joined me of his own choice, the only other man to do so. That surprised me. Though he has served loyally on prior voyages, bad words passed between us this time. We have spoken of nought but the ship's business since November last. Yet seeing me cast down, he asked to be put in the shallop, though the cowards aboard begged him to stay. He brought his trunk and fowling piece with him, as well as an iron pot. He spoke strong words to those who abandoned us, but they paid him no heed.
Thomas Woodhouse, the mathematician, was put among us, although he turned against me and pleaded mightily not to be left behind. They turned out Arnold Ludlow and John King, too, mayhap more because they would have consumed a share of the remaining rations, than any love these two held for me.
When we were cut loose from Discovery, one man leaned over the forecastle and pointed a musket at us. He made as if to fire, but Juet removed him from the stern. I could not see the face of the other, but I recognized Juet by his grey hair and his strong, angry voice that carried across the still bay. I hardly expected from him any courtesy, for he drove the others to their deed, he and Henry Greene.
Yes, Katherine, Greene, that ungrateful wretch we put up in our small home and bade him make it his own. The man I whisked from the claws of his creditors and saved from a debtor's prison. But from the time we paused to replenish our stores in Iceland, he was trouble, even though I defended him from the others and made him my favourite. Sometimes a man overlooks the faults of others he believes have still some good in their souls. Many times I caught him at dinner looking at you with lusting eyes, you my wife and twenty years his elder! Yet he gazed on you like on a seaman's whore. I pretended not to see, hoping one day to turn his debauchery into good. Never have I ill-judged a man so thoroughly. I have paid dearly for it, Kate.
It saddens me greatly, the likes of those men who wronged me. Had they been but crew hired in London whose names I only learned when they stepped aboard, it would not have cut so deeply. But they were handpicked, the best men who stood in line to serve me. And Henry Greene broke bread at my table, slept in my house, shared bottles of port in my study, listening to me tell him of my dreams. That he should throw me down so ungraciously wounds me to the quick. Beware, my love, he does not slide back into our house and between the bedclothes while I am gone.
Juet, I know, has long been my nemesis. A born seaman, aye, and good at his trade, but his soul is as gnarled as his hands. Three times I made him mate on my journeys and thus he rewards me. After he first served under me, I swore I would not suffer him on my ship again. But twice he came back, hat in hand, asking for a berth. Twice again I took him on. Yet each time he caused me troubles beyond imagining.
The first time was near those rocky islands Barents named Goose Land, Orange and Willem's Island, and which the Muscovy traders call Nova Zembla. Those hard treeless shores, with their sharp, lonely mountains frightened the crew. At Cape Comfort I walked the fields of yellow poppies and blue palemones that dappled the hillsides, but the men remained aboard the Hopewell and muttered darkly among themselves. They voiced their grievances openly when I tried to force passage through to the Kara Sea. In a deep bay, the water was so full of ice, we had to fend off the floes with spars to keep from being crushed. Even as I turned west, Juet lead them in mutiny, demanding I return home, away from that awful land of ice and a sun that never sets in summer.
Years before, Sir Hugh Willoughby, a luckless captain if ever there was one, sailed off to find a North East Passage to Cathay. He wintered in Lapland and died there, frozen at the table, food still on his plate. I told Juet of that ill-fated expedition, hoping to steel him for the rigours to come. Instead, in the retelling he cunningly made the crew fear they would suffer a similar fate, frozen and far from home, driving them to their act of disobedience. So there would be no retribution against them when we returned home, the crew forced me to write that I had by my own free will turned the ship around. Back in London, I could scarce argue against a whole crew, once I had written that.
I vowed then I would never hire Juet again, but he presented himself in Amsterdam when I was later hired by the Dutch company. Juet begged forgiveness and I relented. He was, sweet wife, an able seaman when the fashion took him to be so. I weighed that better than his actions against me.
A blind fool was I then, my eyes too clouded by the bright promise of success to see the makings of failure at my feet.
In that flimsy yacht, the Half Moon, we reached for the shores of Novaya Zemlya, but long before we got there, Juet's hand again stopped me from going further. The crew refused me service a day more if we continued north. Juet had another tale on his lips. He told them how Barents and his ship, The Greyhound, had wintered on those harsh islands that lay ahead. Barents himself died there, with others of the crew. Juet asked what man among them was eager to give his life merely to prove snow and ice may kill him. No man was, and the crew refused to serve.
In the end they gave me no choice. I turned the ship around and made for the warmer shores of the New World - a compromise, aye, but better than returning to port like a whipped dog, tail betwixt my legs. There we uncovered a wonderful rich land, heavily wooded and well populated with all manner of game. We took sport and spoil among the savages, who were not Christians. But although we sailed many days up the course of a most promising river, we did not find the passage to the Orient. I returned home bitter and disappointed.
Would I had seen the back of Robert Juet for the last time as he stepped ashore in London. But as I readied for this trip, again he approached and again I took him on. It is a rare man who has braved the Arctic waters and survived not once, but twice. And fewer still are those who like he can write their tales or read a journal. I was too busy to pay close heed to my feelings. There were stores to order, maps to obtain, crew to hire, meetings with our outfitters Smith, Wolstenholme and Digges. Juet took part of the load onto his broad shoulders when I most needed such help. How he must have laughed at night, by himself, at my simple gullibility.
Barely a month from England, he started trouble. In Iceland Henry Greene took Edward Wilson, the surgeon, into the fields. There he thrashed him so badly the crew had to beg the surgeon to return to the ship with promises to keep Greene away from him. Juet wanted to put Greene ashore to catch a fishing boat home, but I blamed the matter on Wilson's sharp tongue. The surgeon could utter words that scraped against your marrow. Greene took a comment worse than was generally warranted, true, but I couldn't have the mate act the master, could I? I threatened instead to have Juet put ashore in his place. That quieted him for a bit, or so I thought, and I relented.
Juet wandered the ship afterwards in a black humour. He said I had put Greene aboard to crack his credit with me. He warned every man to keep his sword ready and his musket charged for trouble. Young Thomas Woodhouse overheard and warned me of the threat, but when we reached Greenland the men were too busy to take any untoward action, awatch as they were for danger or for fair landfall.
We plied the eastern coast of Greenland, detoured from safe harbour by the ice packs and white-blue mountains of ice that plough those cold waters. We were forced south, around the edge of the land, where I discovered Greenland was one, not two land masses, as Davis had written. No one else, save perhaps Woodhouse, shared my elation in the knowledge. I wonder how that memory serves him now, sitting wrapped in his cloak nearby me.
Would I had been more alert for the trouble brewing below decks instead of measuring the heavens with my astrolabe. I can gauge the way of the weather, but not the way of men. I was too full of wonder at each new land we encountered; the men's rumblings were no more to me than a swell on the water. When we braved the torrent Davis named the Furious Overfall, the men wept and prayed for their very lives. I heard only the sails creaking in the wind.
We were stuck fast in the ice that July, near the land I named Desire Provoketh, a champagne land that held such promise. But the crew claimed the hand of God was against them. Juet, a cur whenever trouble threatened, tried to raise them against me, but God worked against Juet this once. We broke free of the ice and the men rallied to my side, made eager by my tales of gold to continue. I held a trial against Juet then, thinking by demoting him and making Bylot the mate, I might end Juet's easy influence over the others. How wrong I was!
Weeks of ice and rough water battered us, but I pressed on. We provisioned at an island I named Cape Digges, and removed numerous fowl hung in cairns by the savages who dwell there. We feasted but did not celebrate, for the men wanted for their homes, not for these foreign shores. I turned south into smoother waters, sure the passage I sought was near. A hundred leagues of sailing brought us only to a shallow bay and a forlorn horizon of stunted trees. By Michaelmasse we could go no further and we hauled the ship ashore to winter there.
The crew despaired of ever leaving that awful, haggard land. During our hard winter, the gunner, Williams, died of the cold, and half the crew were laid lame. A savage came once to trade skins in the spring, but disliked the exchange I offered. He never returned. Desperate for food, I took the shallop to look for his people, who call themselves Kenistenoag. But they set the woods afire and fled before I could approach. I returned disheartened.
In our camp we quarrelled amongst ourselves like bickering children, too closely quartered in the tiny hut Staffe built onshore. Woodhouse made a potion of pine tree buds to help staunch the scurvy that plagued many of us, and it helped. I divided the last of the ship's stores in May, but was accused of hoarding more for myself, which put me and everyone else in a foul mood. For some imagined slight, I became so angry with Bylot that I demoted him and replaced him with John King, an unlearned and coarse man. This, I fear, cost me the last of the pilot's loyalty, for he sided with the mutineers later.
We stayed ashore until mid-June, when the ice at last loosed its hold on the bay.
Our renewed voyage began inauspiciously. I made Syms, the cabin boy, search the ship. He found the crew was hoarding bread, as I had believed. His search produced thirty cakes, which I distributed among the men, along with the remaining cheese from the stores, even those rotted by mould. But even so we had only a fortnight of victuals left. I steered for Digges' Island, hoping to again find supplies there before continuing on my quest to the west.
Before we arrived, Juet, Greene and the boatswain William Wilson conspired to overthrow me. With them sided Motter, Thomas and Perse, seamen; Matheus the cook; Bond, the cooper; Syms; and Clements, the former boatswain I demoted for defending Juet at his trial. Wilson the surgeon joined them, and sadly too did the landsman Abacuck Prickett, whom I had trusted as a man of good faith. I am undone by my faith in them.
The rest of the tale you know from the start of this narrative.
I will bring the truth against the mutineers with my return. Until then, we must await for our rescue. I have seen plumes of smoke above the trees; perhaps an encampment of savages is nearby. We place ourselves in God's mercy and hope these natives are friendly and will aid us. Until we meet again, my love, do not fail me in your heart. Despite all, I remain steadfast and faithful in my quest. I am not like our Rev. Purchas; my library is not big enough a world to contain me. Katherine, the Orient will not be denied me.
I write these words on my last sheets of parchment.
The copyright and all rights belong to me, Ian Chadwick, © 1993-2007, but you may reproduce the story one time in any non-commercial or not-for-profit publication as long as you email me first, at firstname.lastname@example.org for my permission and indicate where and when it will be reproduced. Teachers are welcome to use it in their classrooms if you believe it is appropriate.
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