“Diego, listen to me. You must listen to me!” Bowman hissed, trying to get through the seething anger of his assistant. Diego paced the inner confines of the cabin like an angry tiger. The supercargo had seen some of the wild cats during his trips to India and he felt that Diego could match any one of the beasts in ferocity right now. The young man’s anger and frustration had been building up for almost two weeks since their departure from the Sandwich Islands, until it was barely contained, and that frightened Bowman. “You are right. It isn’t fair. And Cavanaugh’s punishments are excessive. But you are not on the Sandwich Islands and if you cross the first mate now, there will not be a lady involved who will stand as your witness. And I won’t be able to help you either. You must calm down, Diego. For your own sake, you must bury your anger.”
“He is a pig, treating the men like that,”
Diego said, remembering the scene earlier in the day when the first mate
had become angry with a sailor and beaten him with a belaying pin. The sailor’s offence had been that of spitting on the deck.
The day before that there had been the flogging of the sailor who
had cursed him. Twenty
lashes with a cat o’ nine tails.
The sailor was still barely able to move around.
Diego stopped pacing and stood before his mentor.
“How can even the captain tolerate that kind of behavior?”
“The captain has reined Mr. Cavanaugh in on
more than one occasion. But
it would not be seemly for a captain and his mate to be arguing in front
of the men. To be honest
with you, I believe that Captain Beatty has as little use for him as we
do. He has to tolerate him and so do we, at least until we get to
Singapore,” Bowman tried to explain.
Diego sighed and shook his head.
The next day, a sailor, cleaning out the slop buckets from the roundhouse cabins, stumbled and fell. The buckets landed on the deck, their contents splattering the bottom of the first mate’s trousers and his boots, and spreading all over the deck. Diego, taking a message to the carpenter, stopped and watched Cavanaugh’s face as the stench of the feces rose to hit the mate in the face. Diego recognized the sailor, an ailing young man named Stephens, who was often in sickbay with bouts of what he assumed was consumption.
With a roar, the mate kicked the sailor in the
ribs, causing Stephens to roll on his side, gasping for breath and
sobbing in pain. “Get me
a cat!” Cavanaugh roared. Instead
of waiting for the whip, he grabbed another sailor, jerking the thin
leather strap from around the man’s waist, throwing him to the deck in
his haste and anger. “You will regret that, sailor!” he growled at the
cowering young man. As
Stephens tried to scramble away, crying and trying to cover his head
with arms as skinny as sticks, Cavanaugh began beating him with the
strap. The thin leather was
every bit as effective as any whip could be, except a cat o’nine
tails, and the young man was howling even before the strap connected
with his back. After
only four strokes the boy stopped screaming for mercy and began crying
for help from God.
Diego could stand no more.
Rushing across the deck to the scene, he demanded in a loud,
authoritarian voice, “Sir, what is the punishment?”
Cavanaugh paused in mid stroke. “What?” he asked, surprised that the voice belonged to
another sailor. “How dare
you?” he added, when he recognized Diego.
“What is the punishment?” another voice asked, one that was as frigid as ice. It was Captain Beatty. “I exact swift punishment, but I also announce what it is before I carry it out.”
“Twelve lashes, Captain.”
Beatty gazed at the deck and then at the
cowering young man. He
looked up at Cavanaugh, his eyes showing thinly veiled contempt.
“You feel this was deliberate?”
“Yes, sir,” Cavanaugh said. “There is nothing here to trip on. It was deliberate.”
“Very well, continue,” Beatty said.
“It was not deliberate, Captain,” Diego
corrected, his anger seething, his sense of justice provoked past any
measure of restraint.
Beatty turned and studied him carefully.
“Are you calling my officer a liar, sailor?”
“I only speak the truth of what I saw.
Stephens is not well and he stumbled under the weight of what he
“Sailor, despite anything else, you have
contradicted one of my officers and myself.
I cannot tolerate that,” Beatty said quietly.
The only sounds were that of the snapping of the ship’s sails,
the waves slapping against the side, and the creaking of the timbers.
All talking had ceased, all activity at a temporary halt.
Diego stood quietly as well, knowing that he had gone beyond all
sense of ship’s propriety, but not regretting his words for a moment.
The two men gazed at each other for a few seconds.
Then Diego lowered his eyes.
He knew he could go no further.
“Perhaps you would wish to take the sailor’s place if you feel him to be so sick,” Beatty finally suggested after several minutes pause. His voice held a note of curiosity, as though he was wondering what Diego would do next. “Plus there will be twelve lashes for your own indiscretion. Otherwise, we will finish Stephens’ punishment and then you will take yours,” said the captain evenly. Diego looked up again. The two men’s eyes were locked on each other. Neither could read what was in the mind of the other.
Diego hesitated for a few seconds. He saw in his mind’s eye the poor ranchero, Franco
Barbarosa tied to the grinding wheel, turning the heavy mill stone
around and around like a beast, the soldier following behind, plying his
whip against the man’s shoulders and back every few paces.
He saw humiliation and hopelessness in the face of the man.
We are all beasts on this ship, Diego thought.
Then he looked at the thin and emaciated sailor still whimpering
as he lay in the filth from the spilled buckets.
There was no hesitation. The
boy was dying. He must not be made to suffer more.
“Yes, Captain, I will take the boy’s
punishment and then my own,” Diego said quietly, resolutely.
He gazed at the captain, who nodded to him. Did he see relief there?
He couldn’t be sure.
“I demand the use of a cat,” Cavanaugh said.
“I sent someone after one.”
“No, you began the young man’s punishment
with the leather strap and that is how it will be finished,” Beatty
said in a soft, but deadly voice. “Do
not push me any further, sir.” Beatty then turned to Diego.
“Take off your shirt, sailor, and lean against the mast.”
Taking a deep breath, Diego did so, baring a
back that had only been abused lately by the excesses of the sun, and
had felt, but lightly, the sting of Monastario’s whip in what seemed
the very distant past. Walking
the short distance to the mizzenmast, he leaned against it, feeling the
smoothness of the wood against his cheek, the hardness against his chest
and belly. He wrapped his arms around the mast, glancing once at the
steersman, who was gazing at him, his face impassive. Then he looked down, trying to prepare himself for the first
blow. No wonder the sailors
talked about floggings as the kiss of a hard and vindictive woman.
This is, indeed a sadistic embrace, he thought.
A sailor, Uriah Woods, the sail maker’s assistant, took hold of
his wrists, in the event that he might try to pull away. The sailor’s
grasp held him even closer to the cold, smooth mast.
Diego readied himself for the blows, determined that he would
conduct himself with the bearing of a true caballero.
Despite the knowledge that it was coming, the
first blow of the leather strap caught Diego by surprise, it came so
suddenly and was so powerful. The
sting stretched across his back, just below his shoulder blades, a
burning sensation, harsher than anything he had ever felt in his life.
He jerked his head up and hissed in surprise, but did not move
from his place, nor did he cry out.
The next five blows came with slow deliberation,
as though Cavanaugh was calculating each blow, striking in almost the
same place, the harsh strap digging into his back and causing a burning
pain that felt like fire. Striking
as hard as he could. Diego
gasped and moaned softly, but held it in so that no one else heard.
He felt his muscles spasm and then he felt something trickling
down his back. Uriah’s
hands kept a tight grip on his wrists.
Remotely, Diego heard the protest of Mrs. Meachem, but he
concentrated on keeping his decorum.
I am a caballero!
In his mind, he kept seeing Barbarosa, he saw
the whippings of others. Another
blow. Now Diego remembered these scenes with new vividness for now
he felt their pain. He felt
the humiliation of harsh and callous punishments that were not deserved
and even those that were. Another
blow. Diego remembered
the time during his boyhood when he had ambushed old Juan while playing banditos
and soldiers. The
servant’s horse had spooked, throwing the old man into the dust and
spraining his ankle. Another blow.
His father’s punishment had been swift, but the humiliation had
been in the fact that he had caused someone hurt by his careless
actions. Diego had learned
a valuable lesson that day.
“The punishment for Stephens has been
completed. Someone get him
out of here,” Beatty said, tonelessly, bringing Diego out of his pain
and shame-filled reverie. Mister
Sharpe will administer the punishment for the insolence of de la
Slowly, Diego turned his head and saw the purser reach for the strap. It was slickly wet. He saw Cavanaugh begin to open his mouth in protest, but the mate saw something in the captain’s eyes and stopped, closing his mouth again and almost throwing the strap at Sharpe. Diego, himself, wondered at the captain’s reasoning. Cavanaugh usually carried out the captain’s punishments, seemingly with great enjoyment.
Beatty said, ignoring his mate.
“Carry out the flogging,” Beatty ordered.
As Sharpe approached, Diego turned his head and leaned once more against the mast. The first blow came high, almost wrapping itself around his neck. It, too, was painful, but not to the extent of Cavanaugh’s blows. As the second lash struck against another part of his back, Diego remembered the trip to this ship, his ankles manacled, his steps a confined shuffle. He remembered the humiliation of deferring to the loutish quartermaster’s assistant the third day of the voyage. He had been assigned to scrub down the decking and the assistant had continually paced up and down the quarterdeck, deliberately standing in his way, spitting wads of tobacco on just clean planks. Several times Diego had almost jumped up and shoved the holystone down the large man’s throat, but he restrained himself. Every submissive scene played itself in front of his eyes as the blows fell. He winced and bit his lip hard enough to draw blood as yet another blow fell across the lower part of his back, just above the waistline. Diego felt as though he had been thrown into a pit of coals, but he made no sound except for gasping intakes of breathe. His mind seethed with an inner fire, a determination to escape and return to where he belonged—his home.
“The punishment has been meted out, Captain,” Sharpe said loudly, so the entire assemblage could hear.
Already? Diego thought through the
fog of his misery and pain.
“Very good, Mr. Sharpe,” Beatty said.
“Everyone get back to your duties.
And have someone clean up this mess!”
Diego felt a slight movement in the grip of the
sailor and he looked up to see Uriah’s eyes gazing directly into his
own. There was only
concern. Diego had enough
experience communicating with Bernardo that he knew the sailor wanted
something. The eyes were
asking a question. ‘Are
you all right?’ Diego’s
knees felt as though they were corn porridge, but still he nodded.
His communication was as imperceptible as the sailor’s and no
one else saw it. The sailor
let go of his wrists. Slowly,
he pushed himself away from the mast and took his shirt from another
sailor, who was holding it out for him.
“De la Vega,” Beatty said.
Stiffly, Diego turned to face the captain, his shirt still in his
hands. “I want to see you
later, just before supper.”
Diego nodded and the captain turned away,
walking toward the poop deck.
Slowly, gingerly, Diego pulled the shirt over his lacerated back,
buttoning only the bottom two buttons.
He drew the note from his waistband and proceeded to the
carpenter’s shop below decks to deliver it.
Each step reminded him of his punishment and each flaming tongue
of pain increased his resolve. The
carpenter took one look at him and asked gently, “You part of the
He spoke quietly, his pride temporarily cowed.
“Well, the message is delivered. It is my understanding that the supercargo needs you,”
Halsey said. “And I
don’t think he wants you to dally.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Diego said, genuinely grateful for the carpenter’s consideration. He nodded slightly and left.
Shortly he was in the cabin he shared with
Bowman. It was none too
soon. He felt increasingly
weak and slightly dizzy. “Diego,”
the supercargo said, his eyes full of compassion.
“Sit down here.” Bowman
pointed to a chest.
Diego needed no further encouragement. He sat down, wincing as back muscles protested the change of activity.
“I heard what happened and saw what you did,
and while I applaud your integrity and sense of justice, you were
foolish to provoke Mr. Cavanaugh and the captain,” said Bowman.
“There are certain things that a man of honor cannot stand by and watch without taking some kind of action,” Diego replied. He began to unbutton the shirt, feeling even the light cloth to be too much of a weight on his abused back.
Bowman stopped him. “No, Diego, you sit quietly and let me do this,” Bowman said, gently pushing Diego’s hand out of the way. As the supercargo carefully peeled the shirt off his assistant’s back, Diego bit his lip, wincing. “Young man, you are not out on the quarterdeck, trying to hang on to the shreds of your honor,” Bowman said, finally getting the shirt off.
“Yessss,” Diego said, his breath hissing
through his teeth during the supercargo’s ministrations.
“You are very lucky, Diego,” Bowman murmured as he examined his assistant’s back.
Diego felt a touch of irritation. “Very.” He
didn’t consider himself very lucky.
“No, you really are.
By having the purser administer your punishment you were saved
from any serious infection and permanent scarring.
In fact, it may have saved your life, Diego. I watched him. Mr.
Sharpe deliberately whipped you where you had not been struck before.”
“Why did the captain do that?” asked Diego.
He was confused. “He does not like me.”
“No, he doesn’t.
You are aristocracy as far as he is concerned.
That is also one of the reasons that he hates Cavanaugh,”
“The rich younger son of one of the directors
of the East India Company. That
is the only reason Captain Beatty even tolerates him,” Bowman
“Do you think the Captain could be
Bowman laughed softly, but there was no humor in his voice. “Diego, the captain can’t be persuaded to do anything he doesn’t want to do. He knew you were right, but he made the only concession he could that would allow him to also save face.” Bowman began cleaning Diego’s lacerated back.
“Ahh!” the young man finally cried out.
He sucked in a deep breath and tried to hold as still as he
could. Fire; it was like
fire dancing on his back. He
concentrated on Bowman’s comments.
“Then you are saying that I cannot even consider sending a
letter to my father for the indenture money?”
“I wouldn’t.” Bowman sighed lustily. “But you can try.” Bowman paused and stepped around to face Diego. “You can trust the captain to be one thing—the absolute master of this ship. He is the king and the China Star is his kingdom. He is the judge, the jury and the executioner. Be careful. One thing else I think you can count on with our captain, and that is inconsistency.”
Diego took a deep breath and then let it out
slowly. “Thank you, Mr.
“You are welcome.”
The supercargo applied a soothing ointment to Diego’s back.
Except for several shuddering breaths, the young man made no
indication of his discomfort. Bowman realized that while there would be no serious
scarring, Diego would forever carry some reminders of this day.
Diego groaned softly in pain as the supercargo finished his ministrations. “What is in that salve you are putting on?”
“A combination of
things that work, my boy. Mr.
Sharpe put it together. He
brought it by just before you got back from your errand.”
Bowman paused. “He
didn’t enjoy having to do that to you.”
“I know he didn’t,” Diego replied. “Thank you,” he added as the initial tongues of fiery
pain subsided into something tolerable.
He dug a clean shirt out of his sea chest and started to put it
“Leave the shirt off for a bit. You will be with me this afternoon,” Bowman admonished. “This evening you might need a dose of laudanum to sleep. And you will not want to use your hammock.” Diego nodded in resignation and took his seat near Bowman’s desk, readying a pen to begin working on the manifests. The supercargo sighed, wishing he could take some of the hurt and despair away from this young man whom he had come to care for so deeply.