Change of Scenery
As Jorge walked toward
the comandante’s office, the prisoner was untied from his horse
and jerked out of the saddle. Carried
to the large cell where eleven other prisoners were being held, Diego
was unceremoniously shoved in where he fell across his fellow captives.
They shoved him off in turn, scowling and cursing.
He was pushed aside to a corner where he lay oblivious to the
mechanisms of his fate. As
the sky darkened into the velvety black of the night, the prisoner
stirred, slowly coming to painful awareness.
With a muffled groan, Diego woke further, feeling the rough hemp
that constricted his wrists, the cloying presence of the noxious gag.
One of his fellow prisoners crawled over to him and removed the
gag. Then the younger man pulled and worked the knots loose on the
ropes binding his hands. “Gracias,
señor,” Diego murmured, as he rubbed his swollen wrists.
His throat felt dry and scratchy, and he tried to bring up enough
saliva to swallow and relieve the roughness, but was unsuccessful.
He looked around in the dim interior of the cell for something to
drink, but he could only see his friend and the scowling countenances of
those prisoners closest to him.
“I am Roberto,” the young man said.
“I do not have any water or I would give you some.”
He pointed to the scowling man next to him.
“That is José,” Roberto added.
And then he proceeded to introduce the remaining men in the cell
with him. They were twelve altogether.
“I am Diego de la Vega, son of Alejandro de la
Vega, a ranchero from Los Angeles.
I have been abducted by the men who brought me here.” Roberto
just stared at him. José
laughed, along with several other prisoners, which confirmed Diego’s
fears that by this time, there would be no one left who would believe
him. Those of any
importance who might take note of his story would be kept away from him
and anyone else would either be a conspirator or think that he was just
trying a ploy to get out of his sentence.
Diego sighed and leaned against the rough adobe of the cell wall.
Captain John Beatty finished the last of the
sweet California wine in his glass and leaned back in his chair.
“I want to thank you, Capitán Diaz, for the
refreshments, your hospitality while we have been in your harbor, and
the arrangements for the men. That
accursed storm was devil sent.”
“The seas can become very dangerous this time
of year. Storms blow in
quickly and cause much damage. It
is very fortunate that you were near a port as large as ours,” the comandante
said. “I am most curious,
though, and would like to ask you a question.”
Both men had been speaking English, although the comandante’s
was a bit halting at times.
“I am wondering why you came around Tierra del
Fuego instead of the normal London to China route around the Cape of
Good Hope,” the garrison commander inquired.
“You are aware that Mexico has been working
toward independence, are you not?” Beatty asked.
“Yes, for over ten years.
I hear rumors that they are close to getting it.”
Diaz gazed meaningfully at the British captain.
“Yes, that is my understanding as well,” Beatty replied. “My backers in the British East India Company were desirous to see if there was any profit in trade with the various former colonies of Spain. A westerly route to China, so to speak,” the captain explained. “Instead of an easterly one.”
The comandante nodded. “And have you found any of that profit?”
“I wasn’t doing too badly until I ran into
those storms after our port o’ call in Mexico,” Beatty admitted. He paused and looked around the candlelit room.
His eyes took in the leather backed chairs and the silver swords
hanging on the wall. If the
commander of a garrison was able to afford such amenities, then perhaps
California might also be of use to his company . . . and to himself, he
thought hopefully. “I
have found your supplies of wonderful wines and liqueurs to be most
pleasing. The beef has been
very adequate as well. Perhaps
California would wish to become trade partners with my company?”
Beatty asked hopefully. “There
could be much profit.”
“Under normal circumstances, your ship, along
with you and your crew could have been seized and held as spoils of
war,” Diaz explained.
“But we are not at war,” Beatty said
quickly. He was a bit
nervous at the pronouncement, but not overly so.
Diaz had profited by the China Star’s presence in San
Diego, just as some of her other citizens did.
Under strict regulation, the crew and passengers had been into
port and bought many goods, the ship had been stocked well from locally
grown foodstuffs, such as oranges, lemons, corn and other fruits and
vegetables, and he had filled the aft hold with a great variety of
wines. They would sell well
in Singapore, after which he would take on the real cash cargo of his
“That makes no difference to Spain, who
considers England an enemy. But
your ship was in need, we are a friendly people and all has gone
smoothly in our relations,” the comandante said, smiling.
Beatty nodded, relieved. “And I thank you for your gracious hospitality while we were here.”
“Despite the differences between our
countries, I would not want it said that we are not congenial hosts here
in San Diego.” Diaz
Beatty stood up.
“Again I thank you, comandante, but I must return to my
ship now. We sail on
the morning tide and there is still much to do.
With your permission?”
We will send the prisoners out to your ship within two hours,”
the comandante said, also standing up.
“Have a safe voyage to the Orient.”
Beatty nodded and left.
Yes, he thought, I certainly hope it will be a safe
voyage. And profitable.
Jorge walked toward
the holding cell and stopped to talk to the guard whom he had bribed
earlier. Leaning toward the
soldier, he murmured, “It is not necessary to smuggle my prisoner in
with the indentured men. The
British captain snatched him up quickly.
He will go with them, making an even dozen.
But your money is still yours and your willingness to assist in
the cause well noted.” Jorge
then laughed quietly and the guard laughed with him.
They walked to the cell and Jorge noticed that de la Vega had
been untied and the gag removed. He
stared at all of the prisoners and then laughed again.
They were a pathetic bunch, a few a bit older, but most young,
one or two probably still teenagers.
The British captain had managed to get a fairly healthy lot, but
from what he heard, Jorge didn’t give great odds on but a few of them
making it to the end of their indentures.
Conscripted men lived very short lives on most ships that sailed
across the great oceans. The British took only slightly better care of their sailors
than the Dutch, or even the Spanish did.
He noticed de la Vega gazing at him.
“Just think what all of that sea air is going to do to
your constitutions, men,” Jorge said.
Then he stared hard at Diego.
“And I will knock you over the head, just as Pasqual did, and
you will have to be carried on board if you make any kind of a scene
tonight,” he warned. Diego
fully believed him, but could not resist one final act of defiance.
“Señor, if you believe that this is
going to keep my father from working with the other rancheros
to strengthen California, then you have sadly misjudged the de la
Vegas, as well as the other caballeros
in the Los Angeles area,” Diego told Jorge heatedly.
“You should pick another way to gain the support of California
to your cause, because without the hacendados
you will never succeed. It
takes everybody,” Diego added, “not just disgruntled peons and
“Shut up, pampered dog,” Jorge replied
angrily, coming closer and gripping the bars.
“You will be singing another tune to the British tomorrow, my
dear caballero. But
remember what I said and say no more, or I will come in and beat you
Roberto, for his part, stared open-mouthed at Diego, realizing that his fellow prisoner was exactly who he said he was.
Chained together by manacles that had been
clamped around their ankles, Diego and the other prisoners were brought
to a large rowboat at the dock.
It was very late, probably past midnight.
The chains were taken off, to prevent the drowning of all if one
of them should fall into the water.
Diego suspected that besides the flowing of the tide very early
in the morning, taking them to the ship this time of night would keep
contact between the prisoners and anyone from the area to a minimum.
Diego was silent. Jorge
had been as good as his word, staying with the group and watching him
carefully until he and his fellow prisoners had been loaded into the
large rowboat and rowed into the bay.
He felt an almost debilitating sense of loss as each stroke of
the oars took him further from the shore of his beloved homeland.
“Señor, there would be a healthy
reward for returning me to my home, since I have been kidnapped,”
Diego said to the sailor in charge of the boat.
“Quiet, you,” the Englishman growled in his
“I am not a….” Diego began in halting
English, but another warning look from the sailor, coupled by the
man’s fist being shook in his face made the Californiano
realize the futility of his attempts.
He sat back and watched the dark waters flow by the little craft.
At the side of the British ship, sleepy sailors,
cursing their lot at this midnight duty helped them climb rope ladders
onto the deck. It had to be
a coordinated effort, owing to the heavy manacles the prisoners still
wore, but they finally all made it onto the ship.
The chains were immediately drawn back through the rings of the
manacles and the prisoners were escorted to a clear space near the
railing. The shackles dragged sonorously against the planking and
Diego felt as though he was walking down a corridor to Hell.
With gestures and muttered commands he and his companions were
ordered to lie down on the deck.
After they had each found some semblance of
comfort on the hard wooden surface, José began to curse and berate
everybody in general. “Well,
Don Diego, it seems that you are no better than we are, now, are you?”
he sneered. “We are all
slaves to the British. I
have heard they hate the Spanish as much as we hate them,” he added, a
slight touch of fear creeping into the voice of bravado.
Hungry, cold and depressed, Diego wasn’t in
the mood to listen to any more of José’s incessant sarcastic remarks
and endless complaining. “Keep
quiet,” he growled ominously. “Or
chains or no chains, I will come over and throttle you. You have been complaining
since I woke up. Just be quiet and go to sleep. I am tired of
listening to you whine. We
had better get what sleep we can,” he admonished the others.
“I have a very strong feeling that tomorrow is not going to be
a pleasant day.”
“Why not, Don Diego?” Roberto asked, his
voice containing a note of anxiety.
He was sitting next to the hacendado. “Other than the obvious reason,” he said, holding up
a length of chain in his hands.
“Because from what little that I know of sailing ships, the old sailors like to haze the new ones,” he explained. “We have the double disadvantage of being in the hands of the British, many of whom hate Spaniards, as José said, and whose language we know little of. Go to sleep now, there is no need to worry about that which cannot be changed.” With that Diego arranged the chains and rolling over on his side, attempted to go to asleep. After what seemed to be an eternity, he finally fell into a restless sleep.
Victoria Meacham awoke to the darkness of her small cabin, the tracks of recently shed tears still evident on her cheeks. She had been dreaming about Thomas, wondering where he was as she began the journey from deep sleep to wakefulness. It was something that happened almost every night, something that she dreaded. Will I ever get used to not having him near me? Victoria asked herself, remembering the horrible time of his sickness as they journeyed around South America. She sighed, knowing that sleep would escape her for at least a little while. Little Martha Ann slept on peacefully, her soft wheezes and snores calming Victoria. Her child was her main solace on the interminable trip to the Orient, one that had begun as a simple business trip to Canton and ended as a time of mourning.
For a moment, Victoria thought she would light
the lantern near her bed and read for a short while, but that didn’t
appeal to her and she didn’t want to take the chance of waking Martha
Ann. She knew that this would be her last night in the warm, dry
climate of California. She
also had been told that the moon would be full tonight.
It would be the perfect opportunity to gaze upon this land from a
totally different perspective. Slipping
out of bed, Victoria drew on her ankle length robe, pulling the heavy
tie cord snugly around her waist. Sliding
her feet into her dainty soft-soled slippers, she silently made her way
out to the quarterdeck and then climbed the short stairs to the poop
deck. She made no sound as
she walked to the rail. To
anyone watching, she could have almost been mistaken for a ghost.
She waited for the watch to say something, but the expected
greeting never came. In
fact, he was not even there. Instead
she heard the swish, swish of oars slapping against the water, along
with the creaking of oarlocks.
The full moon slipped, yellow-white and bloated,
out from behind a cloud and bathed the entire bay in its light.
Coming toward her in a large long boat was a group of men.
Two sailors rowed, and one seemed to be keeping watch from the
bow of the little ship. As
the boat came closer, Victoria could see that the ten or so men sitting
in the middle were not part of the crew of the China Star.
Hmm, Captain Beatty had mentioned how desperately short handed
he was. Could this be a
group of conscriptees? she asked herself. Men to take the place
of the two-dozen who had died on the long voyage around South
leaned forward, trying by that advantage, to see how many unfortunate
wretches the good captain had paid for, how many poor men would never
see their homes again. She
had seen the same thing happen just before they had left London and she
wondered if these men really knew the full implications of their service
on the cargo ship. She
continued to watch as the oarsmen maneuvered the craft alongside.
Two sailors at the rail guided the men up the rope ladders as the
ship rocked up and down.
In horror, Victoria noticed that they had on manacles. One tried to pull back, crying out in Spanish, pleading with one of the oarsmen. He was cuffed into submission by the ship’s mate that had accompanied them from shore and then pulled onto the ship. Finally, they were all on board, chained back together and led to a corner of the quarterdeck where they were ordered to lay down. The boat was hauled on board and lashed once more to the extra spars that lay along the length of the space between the quarterdeck and forecastle deck. One of the sailors stood nearby the conscriptees while the other retired to the poop deck to begin his watch. The rest of the sailors went below to their hammocks.
A few of the Spaniards muttered and complained,
but were soon silenced by one of their companions.
Are these men convicts? Quietly, she made her way to the
watch. “Mister Morehouse?”
she asked softly.
The sailor jumped slightly.
“You startled me, Mrs. Meacham.
You walk like a veritable cat, mum.”
As usual I had trouble sleeping and stepped out of my cabin for a
bit of air.” She paused.
“Are those men prisoners?”
“They were, mum.
Now they’re sailors, or will be soon enough,” Morehouse
replied. “Couldn’t get
any volunteers amongst these people.
Had to buy off convicts,” he explained.
“Most of ‘em are just poor wretches what couldn’t pay their
taxes, except for the tall one.”
“And what did the tall one do,” she asked,
“Hear tell that he almost killed a man in the
town he came from,” Morehouse replied.
“But the captain will work any fire out of that one.
And quickly, too.”
Victoria felt her heart wrench in sympathy. At least she and her husband had the privilege of choosing whether they would make this long voyage or not. Although now Thomas was consigned to a watery grave and she was a widow heading for an uncertain future in Canton.