Sinclair Extracts -This scene was almost entirely edited out of the final version of the book. I enjoyed writing it as I was developing the characters of Sinclair and Greenwood. In these scenes, the men emerged as they appear in the final novel. The scene is based very loosely on the events surrounding the sinking of the East Indiaman, Halsewell in 1786 which was one of Britain’s greatest maritime disasters. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Once again he made his excuses early and retired to his cabin and as he lay on his bed thinking about the other passengers his attention was suddenly aroused by voices coming from below. He strained to hear what was going on. He was sure something was not right. He put on his greatcoat and his hat and set out to find out what was happening. With his lantern in hand he climbed the narrow flight of steps to the Saloon and opened the door but there was no sign of the Captain or the ship’s officers so he went on to the upper deck. The light from the Saloon skylights illuminated the ship’s deck. All was quiet on deck as he knocked on the Captain’s door. He waited then knocked again but still, there was no reply. A passing midshipman came to his aid. “I’m looking for Captain Richards,” he said holding the lantern up to see the man’s face.
“He’s down below, Sir,” replied the seaman. “We’re taking on too much water, see. There’s five feet of water in the ‘old. T’aint good if you ask me, sir, t’aint good. Refitted, she’s supposed to be an’ as good as new; t’aint good,” he muttered blowing out clouds of white breath into the freezing night air.
“Thank you,” said Sinclair hesitating not knowing the man’s name.
“Franklin, sir; my name’s Franklin,” the man said removing his hat and bowing. “The captain will have everything ship shape when ‘es got the pumps going. No need to worry sir, no need to worry.”
“Aye, well, thank you, Franklin, thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome, sir,” replied the man as he disappeared into the shadows.
Unsure what to do next Sinclair returned to his cabin to find the commotion below replaced by the rhythmic thud of pumps and the unwelcome smell of stinking bilge water in the air. Above him, he could hear the muffled sounds of the women’s conversation as they prepared to settle down for the night. He lay in his cot thinking about what had happened and what Franklin had said and wondered if the ship was in danger. Then he heard the ship’s officers making their way to their beds. They made no mention of the commotion or the water in the hold so he told himself that everything was alright. He took out his pocket watch to check the hour; it was past 10 o’clock and time to be turning in for the night himself. As he lay in his cold and uncomfortable cot his thoughts began to wander as he recalled Franklin’s words. Taking on too much water was a serious thing, should he go back to the Captain and demand an explanation or should he leave things alone now that everything seemed to be under control? He held the thought in his mind for a moment then he decided on the latter course of action and pulled his coat over him to get warm. The lack of sleep from the previous night, the fresh sea air and the excitement of everything was taking its toll on him, he was exhausted. He closed his eyes and soon he was fast asleep.
He woke cold and to the sound of pumping in the hold. He washed and dressed quickly without shaving wondering if he should grow a beard then pulling his coat over his shoulders he made his way to the Saloon where his fellow passengers were already up and warming themselves on a barely adequate brass charcoal brazier. When he had taken tea and a bowl of porridge he made his way onto the deck again. The sunshine of the day before had been replaced with a blanket of thick grey cloud and a fine drizzle of snow was filling the crevices in the deck planking as he walked the length of the ship. Above him, the great sails were hanging stiff and motionless covered in a thick coat of ice and salt and the ship was motionless, becalmed in a flat grey sea that seamlessly merged with the sky in whatever direction he looked.
As the morning progressed the snow became heavier and Captain Richards was forced to order his men to clear the decks with brooms. In the Saloon, the women chatted and sewed while Sinclair read his book. The room was warm and steamy, the skylights, obscured by a lace of dense condensation that dripped intermittently onto the dining table provide a feeble grey light. As the snow fell on the outside it silently slid down the panes forming icy drifts at the bottom. The day’s light faded and the wind began to fill the sails again. This time it was coming from the south and much to everyone’s delight the ship began to move again.
At supper, Sinclair fell into conversation with the handsome Captain Greenwood a young man like himself intent on forging a successful career in the East. He was a retired British Army officer who like so many others had been let go after the defeat in America. Greenwood, much to Sinclair’s chagrin, was admired by both the men and the women on board. His good looks and easy temperament seemed to smooth all his social interactions. He was gracious, charming and good company. He spoke eloquently of his experience in the American War telling Sinclair that he had had a mainly diplomatic role and had not seen much in the way of fighting. His main role had been in organising the evacuation of New York in 1783; he told Sinclair that he had sailed from Nova Scotia up the mighty Hudson River with his commanding officer Sir Guy Carleton the last British Army and Royal Navy commander in British North America to a conference with General Washington at Orangetown to discuss how what was left of the British Army and the thousands of ordinary people who had remained loyal to the Crown were to be removed from the new and Independent country of America.
Greenwood recalled the animated discussion between Washington and his commander of the subject of Negroes, a subject he understood well as his family owned a good many of them on what he called their small Jamaican plantation, and how Carleton had refused to return those men of colour he considered to be free saying that they could go anywhere they wanted which had incensed Washington and the Americans much to Carlton’s delight but that it was something his father would have been furious about too because slaves were a man’s property and jolly expensive too. Then he told him how he and a group of fellow officers had removed the cleats and greased the flagpole of the fort in New York so that the victorious Americans could not remove the Union Jack without chopping the flagpole down as their parting gift to the victors. How they had howled with laughter he said. They drank a bottle of claret and played a game of chess after supper and Sinclair found himself feeling quite jealous of this man of easy conversation and conscience. Greenwood it seemed had no moral qualms about slavery and seemed to accept the world as he found it. For him what was moral was what most people accepted as normal, he was comfortable in the world and saw no reason to change it. After their game, they made their way to their cabins and said good night both feeling happy and relaxed for the first time.
The next morning Sinclair was woken abruptly by the sound of his books falling on the floor. The ship’s rafters were creaking and the wind was whistling through the leaky wooden hatch covering his porthole. The ship was listing at a good 20 degrees making it difficult to get about and impossible to shave so he dressed quickly and headed to the Saloon for breakfast. This was the first time he had really needed his sea legs. The ship was being buffeted by the wind and ploughing at speed through wall after wall of white-topped waves. He made his usual sortie onto the deck and met Mr. Hodge doing the same.
“Bracing isn’t it?” said Hodge holding onto his hat.
“Aye, you could say that,” replied Sinclair. “It’s a wee bit rough for my liking,” he said looking out at the rows of white horses prancing on top of the ocean.
“Ah, this is nothing laddie, wait till we get to the Cape. You’ll know what a rough sea is when you’ve been through that.”
“I look forward to it,” he shouted against the wind. His teeth were already chattering and he was holding onto his hat. “I don’t think I’ll be out here long.”
“Come on then laddie, once round the deck then back inside,” Hodge shouted back and headed off towards the bow. Sinclair followed but when Hodge suggested that they do it again he declined and went below to lash his furniture to the floor and walls with a strong rope given to him by Franklin. He did the same for Greenwood but found that the ship’s officers had already done their own. By lunchtime, the wind was gusting into a gale and the ship was pitching and crashing through a battery of ten-foot waves.
Like the other passengers, he felt sick; he craved distraction from the fear that was welling up in his belly. The usually chatty women and girls were quiet. In one corner of the room Miss Morris was trying to sew, in the other, the Richards girls were trying to read, and perched on the lockers he could see Mrs. Evans and her daughters who were trying to distract themselves by knitting but they were physically shuddering at every creak and crack in the ship’s wooden hull as it lumbered through the barrage of waves. Sinclair was unable to read so he spent the afternoon playing whist with his fellow Scot, Mrs. Campbell. From his position at the table, he noticed that the wind now contained squalls of snow. With each gust, the skylights were covered with a thick layer of it which then slid down the panes forming little drifts that were washed away each time a wave broke over the gunwales. Mrs. Campbell looked over the top of her half-moon spectacles and tapped the table. “I can’t go. It’s your turn, Dr. Sinclair.” He looked at his cards, his hand was all hearts, he was going to win without much effort but he knew that he would not enjoy his victory.
In the hold, Captain Greenwood was with his men. They were all young and inexperienced, boys from farms and small towns unaccustomed to the confines of a ship. The lack of air in the hold coupled with the motion of the ship and the stink from the bilge was making them fatigued, disoriented and now as the ship pitched up and down they were vomiting freely across the deck and in their hammocks. Anything not tied down slewed across the stinking planks rattling backward and forwards through the pools of vomit and piss. For Greenwood and his men, the ship’s hold was beginning to feel like a condemned cell, a prison from which the only escape route was death.
As the afternoon went on Greenwood found himself having to assert his authority in disputes between his frightened men. On the one hand, he found himself quietening down spats between the more aggressive men and on the other reassuring those who were whimpering for their mothers in their hammocks. He was doing his best to maintain morale and keep his men under control but he was as seasick and as frightened as they were.
The afternoon drifted into the evening and the atmosphere in the ship was as tight as a drum skin. The ship lurched to starboard with a mighty crack. In the Saloon Sinclair found himself being flung to the floor. The table stayed in place but the chairs slewed across the floor crashing into the women passengers as they piled into the wall lockers on the starboard side and the plates and glassware crashed and smashed around inside them. He looked up and saw the hot coals from the upturned brazier searing the wooden lockers at the far end of the room. He pulled himself up and staggered towards the brazier and kicked the hot coals back into the pan.
The women slowly steadied themselves; their faces dazed and white with fright. They looked at each other and at the room; the chandelier was hanging at forty-five degrees and above them, they could hear the waves smashing into the deck. As they silently wondered what would happen next the ship suddenly righted itself sending them and all furniture hurtling back to the other side of the room. It was dark, the candles had gone out but the women picked themselves up again and started to search for the lights.
Mrs. Evans was the first to light one of the fallen candles using the hot coals in the brazier. In the gloom, Sinclair could see the young girls rubbing their bruised limbs and holding each other while Mrs. Campbell was scrabbling around of the floor looking for her spectacles and Miss Morris was searching for her shoes. The Richards girls who were crying and Mrs. Evans was reassuring her daughters. Sinclair pulled himself up from the floor and finished scraping up the scattered coals with the dustpan and the sole of his boot. Then a strange calm came over him. He mentally moved from passenger to doctor and found himself attending to each little group of women asking them about their injuries, checking their bumps and bruises and assuring them that they were no longer in danger. Much to his surprise, the women seemed to accept his reassurances and once he was sure that they were calm enough to be left he went to find out what had happened.
He climbed the narrow steps up to the door that led onto the deck and forced it open. Immediately he was blinded by a blast of snow-laden wind that stung his eyes and face. He put his hand up to protect his eyes and was able to make out a party of men struggling to tie down what was left of the mizzen mast at the back of the ship, this was the short mast that helped with steering and it had snapped in two and that he thought accounted for the awful crack they had heard in the Saloon. He stepped forward to ask what was happening but was immediately told to get back inside by Mr. Allsop. Reluctantly Sinclair obeyed and returned to the Saloon where he told the women that a small mast had snapped and that everything was now under control. He did not mention that without this small mast steering the ship would be more difficult as there was absolutely no point in alarming them further.
He sat down and took out his pocket watch, he rolled it in his hand and flipped the case open to check the hour, it was six o’clock and the wind was still screaming like a demonic choir outside. He felt isolated and alone as the exhausted women huddled together to comfort each other. Mrs. Campbell pulled a small prayer book from her bag and began to pray, “Thou O Lord, who stillest the raging of the sea, hear us, and save us, that we perish not. O blessed Saviour, who didst save thy disciples ready to perish in a storm, hear us, and save us, we beseech thee. Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us. O Lord, hear us. O Christ, hear us.”
As he watched the group of praying women his thoughts turned to Voltaire again. He could see that in the face of overwhelming fear a belief if a supernatural father who would rescue them was an undeniable comfort, indeed as Voltaire himself had written, “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” in other words “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” But for him, the act of prayer was one of self-delusion. How could the words of man alter the course of nature? His knowledge of science told him that it needed much more than words to do that. And then he thought about his own father and how he had spent his life attending to the needs of this tyrannical God trying to placate him with his prayers whilst ignoring or ridiculing his own child’s needs and fears and treating them as weaknesses that were to be beaten out of him. How could he believe in a god that would have such followers?
Just as he and the women passengers were beginning to get used to regular thumps of the vicious waves again, the ship rolled on its side again sending them and all the furniture flying like gaming counters against the cabin walls once more. The shock was just as great as the first time it had happened and they were all stunned into silence and fear seized their hearts and their tongues. They were in the dark again. He fumbled around in the pile of furniture and frocks searching for a candle. He found one and took a tinderbox from his pocket and lit it. When the ship had stopped moving Sinclair looked up to see the women sprawled across the lockers once again with their petticoats and stockings on full display and the saloon chairs jammed hard against them. They lay there waiting for the ship to right itself like it did before but this time there was no correcting movement, the ship simply sat in the water being battered by the waves listing at a horrifying 45 degrees.
He scrambled to his knees again steadying himself on the storage lockers while the women re-arranged their dresses and huddled together for comfort. A feeling of overwhelming loneliness flooded over him and he was unsure what to do. Fear was pulsing through his veins but he did not want to join the women in their prayers. He knew that if he was going to survive it would be due to Captain Richards’ seamanship or his own wits or a combination of both.
His suppressed panic was broken by the sound of an ear-splitting crack followed by a thunderous crash. His heart leaped and he let out a low groan, surely this was it, he was going to die! His mind was racing, the ship was breaking up and in moments he would be on his way to a cold watery grave. He felt the whole ship shudder from bow to stern then in one swift motion it righted itself again throwing him and the women around the Saloon. When the ship was the right way up again he scrambled to his feet. He was still holding the candle and found that by some miracle it was still alight. The Evans girls were screaming on the saloon floor refusing to stand up but before he could get to them the Captain’s daughters Eliza and Mary-Ann got to them and took them in their arms and started to comfort them. Their mother was helping Mrs. Campbell up to her feet and searching around on the floor for her spectacles again and Miss Morris was like Sinclair already on her feet and assessing the situation.
“What’s happening, Mr. Sinclair?” cried Mrs. Evans.
Sinclair looked to Miss Morris unsure what to say.
“I think the Captain has cut down the mast,” she replied for him.
“What!” exclaimed Mrs. Campbell smoothing down her clothes to regain some composure and putting her spectacles back on again.
“My uncle is trying to save the ship,” asserted the ashen-faced Miss Morris rubbing away the pain in her sprained wrist. “Now could you help me get these coals back in the brazier before we are on fire to boot?”
Sinclair was in the process of scooping up the coals with Miss Morris when Lieutenant Merrick opened the door to the saloon. “Good evening ladies, I know that you have had a dreadful fright but please be assured everything is under control now. The Captain will be along to see you shortly but as you can imagine he is somewhat occupied at the moment. Dr. Sinclair, would you please come with me, Mr. Hodge needs you.”
Sinclair looked around the room, “Is anyone injured?” he asked. The women shook their heads signalling that apart from more bumps and bruises they were well. “In that case, I will gladly come, Mr. Merrick,” he said and he followed the officer out of the room leaving the women to comfort each other.