An excerpt from Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollet.
A view to the 1741 siege of Cartagena, from the English perspective, written by one of the greatest writers of the 18th century.
This text was recovered by Gustavo Ibarra Merlano.
Fort of Bocachica
We arrive at Jamaica, from whence in a short time we beat up to Hispaniola, in conjunction with the West India squadron—we take in water, sail again, and arrive at Carthagena—Reflections on our conduct there
Our fleet, having joined another that waited for us, lay at anchor about a month in the harbour of Port Royal in Jamaica, during which time something of consequence was certainly transacted; notwithstanding the insinuations of some, who affirmed we had no business at all in that place; that, in order to take the advantage of the season proper for our enterprise, the West India squadron, which had previous notice of our coming, ought to have joined us at the west end of Hispaniola, with necessary stores and refreshments, from whence we could have sailed directly for Carthagena, before the enemy could put themselves in a good posture of defence, or, indeed, have an inkling of our design. Be this as it will, we sailed from Jamaica, and, in ten days or a fortnight, beat up against the wind as far as the Isle of Vache, with an intention, as was said, to attack the French fleet, then supposed to be lying near that place; but before we arrived, they had sailed for Europe, having first dispatched an advice-boat to Carthagena, with an account of our being in those seas, as also of our strength and destination. We loitered here some days longer, taking in wood and brackish water, in the use whereof, however, our admiral seemed to consult the health of the men, by restricting each to a quart a day.
At length we set sail, and arrived in a bay to the windward of Carthagena, where we came to an anchor, and lay at our ease ten days longer. Here, again, certain malicious people took occasion to blame the conduct of their superiors, by saying, that in so doing they not only unprofitably wasted time, which was very precious, considering the approach of the rainy season, but also allowed the Spaniards to recollect themselves from a terror occasioned by the approach of an English fleet, at least three times as numerous as ever appeared in that part of the world before. But if I might be allowed to give my opinion of the matter, I would ascribe this delay to the generosity of our chiefs, who scorned to take any advantage that fortune might give them even over an enemy. At last, however, we weighed, and anchored again somewhat nearer the harbour's mouth, where we made shift to land our marines, who encamped on the beach, in despite of the enemy's shot, which knocked a good many of them on the head. This piece of conduct, in choosing a camp under the walls of an enemy's fortification, which I believe never happened before, was practised, I presume, with a view of accustoming the soldiers to stand fire, who were not as yet much used to discipline, most of them having been taken from the plough-tail a few months before. This expedient, again, has furnished matter for censure against the ministry, for sending a few raw recruits on such an important enterprise, while so many veteran regiments lay inactive at home. But surely our governors had their reasons for so doing, which possibly may be disclosed with other secrets of the deep. Perhaps they were loth to risk their best troops on such desperate service, or the colonel and the field officers of the old corps, who, generally speaking, enjoyed their commissions as sinecures or pensions, for some domestic services rendered to the court, refused to embark in such a dangerous and precarious undertaking; for which refusal, no doubt, they are to be much commended.
Our Land Forces being disembarked, erect a fascine battery-our ship is ordered, with four more, to batter the port of Bocca Chica—Mackshane's cowardice-the Chaplain's frenzy—honest Rattlin loses one hand—his heroism and reflections on the battle—Crampley's behaviour to me during the heat of the Fight
Our forces being landed and stationed as I have already mentioned, set about erecting a fascine battery to cannonade the principal fort of the enemy; and in something more than three weeks, it was ready to open. That we might do the Spaniards as much honour as possible, it was determined, in a council of war, that five of our largest ships should attack the fort on one side, while the battery, strengthened by two mortars and twenty-four cohorns, should ply it on the other.
Accordingly, the signal for our ship to engage, among others, was hoisted, we being advertised, the night before, to make everything clear for that purpose; and, in so doing, a difference happened between Captain Oakum and his well-beloved cousin and counsellor Mackshane, which had well nigh terminated in an open rupture. The doctor, who had imagined there was no more danger of being hurt by the enemy's shot in the cockpit than in the centre of the earth, was lately informed that a surgeon's mate had been killed in that part of the ship by a cannon-ball from two small redoubts that were destroyed before the disembarkation of our soldiers; and therefore insisted upon having a platform raised for the convenience of the sick and wounded in the after-hold, where he deemed himself more secure than on the deck above. The captain, offended at this extraordinary proposal, accused him of pusillanimity, and told him, there was no room in the hold for such an occasion: or, if there was, he could not expect to be indulged more than the rest of the surgeons of the navy, who used the cockpit for that purpose. Fear rendering Mackshane obstinate, he persisted in his demand, and showed his instructions, by which it was authorised; the captain swore these instructions were dictated by a parcel of lazy poltroons who were never at sea; nevertheless he was obliged to comply, and sent for the carpenter to give him orders about it. But, before any such measure could be taken, our signal was thrown out, and the doctor compelled to trust his carcass in the cockpit, where Morgan and I were busy in putting our instruments and dressings in order.
Our ship, with others destined for this service, immediately weighed, and in less than half-an-hour came to an anchor before the castle of Bocca Chica, with a spring upon our cable, and the cannonading (which indeed was dreadful) began. The surgeon, after having crossed himself, fell flat on the deck; and the chaplain and purser, who were stationed with us in quality of assistants, followed his example, while the Welshman and I sat upon a chest looking at one another with great discomposure, scarce able to refrain from the like prostration. And that the reader may know it was not a common occasion that alarmed us thus, I must inform him of the particulars of this dreadful din that astonished us. The fire of the Spaniards proceeded from eighty-four great guns, besides a mortar and small arms, in Bocca Chica; thirty-six in Fort St. Joseph; twenty in two fascine batteries, and four men-of-war, mounting sixty-four guns each. This was answered by our land-battery mounted with twenty-one cannon, two mortars, and twenty-four cohorns, and five great ships of seventy or eighty guns, that fired without intermission.
We had not been many minutes engaged, when one of the sailors brought another on his back to the cockpit, where he tossed him down like a bag of oats, and pulling out his pouch, put a large chew of tobacco in his mouth without speaking a word. Morgan immediately examined the condition of the wounded man, and cried out, "As I shall answer now, the man is as dead as my great grandfather." "Dead," said his comrade; "he may be dead now, for aught I know, but I'll be d—d if he was not alive when I took him up." So saying, he was about to return to his quarters, when I bade him carry the body along with him, and throw it overboard. "D—n the body!" said he, "I think 'tis fair enough if I take care of my own." My fellow mate, snatching up the amputation knife, pursued him half-way up the cock-pit ladder, crying, "You lousy rascal, is this the churchyard, or the charnel-house, or the sepulchre, or the golgotha, of the ship?"—but was stopped in his career by one calling, "Yo he, avast there—scaldings!" "Scaldings!" answered Morgan; "Cot knows 'tis hot enough indeed: who are you?" "Here's one!" replied the voice; and I immediately knew it to be that of my honest friend Jack Rattlin, who coming towards me, told me, with great deliberation, he was come to be docked at last, and discovered the remains of one hand, which had been shattered to pieces with a grape shot. I lamented with unfeigned sorrow his misfortune, which he bore with heroic courage, observing, that every shot had its commission: "It was well it did not take him in the head! or if it had, what then? he should have died bravely, fighting for his king and country. Death was a debt which every man owed, and must pay; and that now was as well as another time." I was much pleased and edified with the maxims of this sea-philosopher, who endured the amputation of his left hand without shrinking, the operation being performed (at his request) by me, after Mackshane, who was with difficulty prevailed to lift his head from the deck, had declared there was a necessity for his losing the limb.
While I was employed in dressing the stump, I asked Jack's opinion of the battle, who, shaking his head, frankly told me, he believed we should do no good: "For why? because, instead of dropping anchor close under shore, where we should have to deal with one corner of Bocca Chica only, we had opened the harbour, and exposed ourselves to the whole fire of the enemy from their shipping and Fort St. Joseph, as well as from the castle we intended to cannonade; that, besides, we lay at too great a distance to damage the walls, and three parts in four of our shot did not take place; for there was scarce anybody on board who understood the pointing of a gun. Ah! God help us!" continued he, "If your kinsman, Lieutenant Bowling, had been here, we should have had other guess work." By this time, our patients had increased to such a number, that we did not know which to begin with; and the first mate plainly told the surgeon, that if he did not get up immediately and perform his duty, he would complain of his behaviour to the admiral, and make application for his warrant. This remonstrance effectually roused Mackshane, who was never deaf to an argument in which he thought his interest was concerned; he therefore rose up, and in order to strengthen his resolution, had recourse more than once to a case-bottle of rum, which he freely communicated to the chaplain, and purser, who had as much need of such extraordinary inspiration as himself. Being thus supported, he went to work, and arms and legs were hewed down without mercy. The fumes of the liquor mounting into the parson's brain, conspired, with his former agitation of spirits, to make him quite delirious; he stripped himself to the skin; and, besmearing his body with blood, could scarce be withheld from running upon deck in that condition. Jack Rattlin, scandalised at this deportment, endeavoured to allay his transports with reason; but finding all he said ineffectual, and great confusion occasioned by his frolics, he knocked him down with his right hand, and by threats kept him quiet in that state of humiliation. But it was not in the power of rum to elevate the purser, who sat on the floor wringing his hands, and cursing the hour in which he left his peaceable profession of a brewer in Rochester, to engage in such a life of terror and disquiet.
While we diverted ourselves at the expense of this poor devil, a shot happened to take us between wind and water, and (its course being through the purser's store room) made a terrible havoc and noise among the jars and bottles in its way, and disconcerted Mackshane so much, that he dropped his scalpel, and falling down on his knees, pronounced his Pater-noster aloud: the purser fell backward, and lay without sense or motion; and the chaplain grew so outrageous, that Rattlin with one hand could not keep him under; so that we were obliged to confine him in the surgeon's cabin, where he was no doubt guilty of a thousand extravagancies. Much about this time, my old antagonist, Crampley, came down, with express orders, as he said, to bring me up to the quarter-deck, to dress a slight wound the captain had received by a splinter: his reason for honouring me in particular with this piece of service, being, that in case I should be killed or disabled by the way, my death or mutilation would be of less consequence to the ship's company than that of the doctor or his first mate. At another time, perhaps, I might have disputed this order, to which I was not bound to pay the least regard; but as I thought my reputation depended upon my compliance, I was resolved to convince my rival that I was no more afraid than he of exposing myself to danger. With this view I provided myself with dressings, and followed him immediately to the quarter-deck, through a most infernal scene of slaughter, fire, smoke, and uproar. Captain Oakum, who leaned against the mizen-mast, no sooner saw me approach in my shirt, with the sleeves tucked up to my armpits, and my hands dyed with blood, than he signified his displeasure by a frown, and asked why the doctor himself did not come? I told him that Crampley had singled me out, as if by express command; at which reply he seemed surprised, and threatened to punish the midshipman for his presumption, after the engagement. In the meantime, I was sent back to my station, and ordered to tell Mackshane, that the captain expected him immediately. I got safe back, and delivered my commission to the doctor, who flatly refused to quit the post assigned to him by his instructions; whereupon Morgan, who I believe, was jealous of my reputation for courage, undertook the affair, and ascended with great intrepidity. The captain, finding the surgeon obstinate, suffered himself to be dressed, and swore he would confine Mackshane as soon as the service should be over.
Castle of San Felipe.
A breach being made in the walls, our soldiers give the assault, and take the place without opposition—our sailors at the same time, become masters of all the other strengths near Bocca Chica, and take possession of the harbour—the good consequence of this success—we move nearer the town—find two forts deserted, and the Channel blocked up with sunk vessels; which however we find means to clear—land our soldiers at La Quinta—repulse a body of militia—attack the castle of St. Lazar, and are forced to retreat with great loss—the remains of our army are re-embarked—an effort of the Admiral to take the town—the economy of our expedition described
Having cannonaded the fort during the space of four hours, we were all ordered to slip our cables, and sheer off; but next day the engagement was renewed, and continued from the morning till the afternoon, when the enemy's fire from Bocca Chica slackened, and towards evening was quite silenced. A breach being made on the other side, by our land battery, large enough to admit a middle-sized baboon, provided he could find means to climb up to it, our general proposed to give the assault that very night, and actually ordered a detachment on that duty. Providence stood our friend upon this occasion, and put it into the hearts of the Spaniards to abandon the fort, which might have been maintained by resolute men till the day of judgment against all the force we could exert in the attack. And while our soldiers took possession of the enemy's ramparts without resistance, the same good luck attended a body of sailors, who made themselves masters of Fort St. Joseph, the fascine batteries, and one Spanish man-of-war; the other three being burnt or sunk by the foe, that they might not fall into our hands. The taking of these forts, in the strength of which the Spaniards chiefly confided, made us masters of the outward harbour, and occasioned great joy among us, as we laid our accounts at finding little or no opposition from the town: and indeed, if a few great ships had sailed up immediately, before they had recovered from the confusion and despair that our unexpected success had produced among them, it is not impossible that we might have finished the affair to our satisfaction, without any more bloodshed; but this step our heroes disdained as a barbarous insult over the enemy's distress, and gave them all the respite they could desire, in order to recollect themselves. In the meantime, Mackshane, taking the advantage of this general exultation, waited on our captain, and pleaded his own cause so effectually that he was re-established in his good graces; and as for Crampley, there was no more notice taken of his behaviour towards me during the action. But of all the consequences of the victory, none was more grateful than plenty of fresh water, after we had languished five weeks on the allowance of a purser's quart per day for each man in the Torrid Zone, where the sun was vertical, and the expense of bodily fluid so great, that a gallon of liquor could scarce supply the waste of twenty-four hours; especially as our provision consisted of putrid salt beef, to which the sailors gave the name of Irish horse; salt pork, of New England, which, though neither fish nor flesh, savoured of both; bread from the same country, every biscuit whereof, like a piece of clockwork, moved by its own internal impulse, occasioned by the myriads of insects that dwelt within it; and butter served out by the gill, that tasted like train oil thickened with salt. Instead of small beer, each man was allowed three half-quarterns of brandy or rum, which were distributed every morning, diluted with a certain quantity of his water, without either sugar or fruit to render it palatable, for which reason, this composition was by the sailors not ineptly styled Necessity. Nor was this limitation of simple element owing to a scarcity of it on board, for there was at this time water enough in the ship for a voyage of six months, at the rate of half-a-gallon per day to each man: but this fast must, I suppose, have been enjoined by way of penance on the ship's company for their sins; or rather with a view to mortify them into a contempt of life, that they might thereby become more resolute and regardless of danger. How simply then do those people argue, who ascribe the great mortality among us, to our bad provision and want of water; and affirm, that a great many valuable lives might have been saved, if the useless transports had been employed in fetching fresh stock, turtle, fruit, and other refreshments from Jamaica and other adjacent islands, for the use of the army and fleet! seeing it is to be hoped, that those who died went to a better place, and those who survived were the more easily maintained. After all, a sufficient number remained to fall before the walls of St. Lazar, where they behaved like their own country mastiffs, which shut their eyes, run into the jaws of a bear, and have their heads crushed for their valour.
But to return to my narration. After having put garrisons into the forts we had taken, and re-embarked our soldiers and artillery (a piece of service that detained us more than a week), we ventured up to the mouth of the inner harbour, guarded by a large fortification on one side, and a small redoubt on the other, both of which were deserted before our approach, and the entrance of the harbour blocked up by several old galleons, and two men-of-war that the enemy had sunk in the channel. We made shift, however, to open a passage for some ships, that favoured a second landing of our troops at a place called La Quinta, not far from the town, where, after a faint resistance from a body of Spaniards, who opposed their disembarkation, they encamped with a design of besieging the castle of St. Lazar, which overlooked and commanded the city. Whether our renowned general had nobody in his army who knew how to approach it in form, or that he trusted entirely to the fame of his arms, I shall not determine; but, certain it is, a resolution was taken in a council of war, to attack the place with musketry only. This was put in execution, and succeeded accordingly; the enemy giving them such a hearty reception, that the greatest part of their detachment took up their everlasting residence on the spot.
Our chief, not relishing this kind of complaisance in the Spaniard's, was wise enough to retreat on board with the remains of his army, which, from eight thousand able men landed on the beach near Bocca Chica, was now reduced to fifteen hundred fit for service. The sick and wounded were squeezed into certain vessels, which thence obtained the name of hospital ships, though methinks they scarce deserved such a creditable title, seeing few of them could boast of their surgeon, nurse, or cook; and the space between decks was so confined that the miserable patients had not room to sit upright in their beds. Their wounds and stumps, being neglected, contracted filth and putrefaction, and millions of maggots were hatched amidst the corruption of their sores. This inhuman disregard was imputed to the scarcity of surgeons; though it is well known that every great ship in the fleet could have spared one at least for this duty, an expedient which would have been more than sufficient to remove this shocking inconvenience. But perhaps our general was too much of a gentleman to ask a favour of this kind from his fellow chief, who, on the other hand, would not derogate so much from his own dignity, as to offer such assistance unasked; for, I may venture to affirm, that by this time the Demon of Discord, with her sooty wings, had breathed her influence upon our councils; and it might be said of these great men (I hope they will pardon the comparison) as of Cesar and Pompey, the one could not brook a superior, and the other was impatient of an equal; so that, between the pride of one and insolence of another, the enterprise miscarried, according to the proverb, "Between two stools the backside falls to the ground." Not that I would be thought to liken any public concern to that opprobrious part of the human body, though I might with truth assert, if I durst use such a vulgar idiom, that the nation did hang on arse at its disappointment on this occasion; neither would I presume to compare the capacity of our heroic leaders to any such wooden convenience as a joint-stool or a close-stool; but only to signify by this simile, the mistake the people committed in trusting to the union of two instruments that were never joined.
A day or two after the attempt on St. Lazar, the admiral ordered one of the Spanish men-of-war we had taken to be mounted with sixteen guns, and manned with detachments from our great ships, in order to batter the town; accordingly, she was towed into the inner harbour in the night, and moored within half a mile of the walls, against which she began to fire at daybreak; and continued about six hours exposed to the opposition of at least thirty pieces of cannon, which at length obliged our men to set her on fire, and get off as well as they could in their boats. This piece of conduct afforded matter of speculation to all the wits, either in the army or navy, who were at last fain to acknowledge it a stroke of policy above their comprehension. Some entertained such an irreverent opinion of the admiral's understanding, as to think he expected the town would surrender to his floating battery of sixteen guns: others imagined his sole intention was to try the enemy's strength, by which he should be able to compute the number of great ships that would be necessary to force the town to a capitulation. But this last conjecture soon appeared groundless, inasmuch as no ships of any kind whatever were afterwards employed on that service. A third sort swore, that no other cause could be assigned for this undertaking than that which induced Don Quixote to attack the windmill. A fourth class (and that the most numerous, though, without doubt, composed of the sanguine and malicious), plainly taxed this commander with want of honesty as well as sense; and alleged that he ought to have sacrificed private pique to the interest of his country; that, where the lives of so many brave fellow-citizens were concerned, he ought to have concurred with the general without being solicited or even desired, towards their preservation and advantage, that, if his arguments could not dissuade him from a desperate enterprise, it was his duty to have rendered it as practicable as possible, without running extreme hazard; that this could have been done, with a good prospect of success, by ordering five or six large ships to batter the town, while the land forces stormed the castle; by these means a considerable diversion would have been made in favour of those troops, who, in their march to the assault and in the retreat, suffered much more from the town than from the castle! that the inhabitants, seeing themselves vigorously attacked on all hands, would have been divided, distracted, and confused, and in all probability, unable to resist the assailants. But all these suggestions surely proceeded from ignorance or malevolence, or else the admiral would not have found it such an easy matter, at his return to England, to justify his conduct to a ministry at once so upright and discerning. True it is, that those who undertook to vindicate him on the spot, asserted, that there was not water enough for our great ships near the town: though this was a little unfortunately urged, because there happened to be pilots in the fleet perfectly well acquainted with the soundings of the harbour, who affirmed there was water enough for five eighty-gun ships to lie abreast almost up to the very walls. The disappointments we suffered occasioned a universal dejection, which was not at all alleviated by the objects that daily and hourly entertained our eyes, nor by the prospect of what must have inevitably happened, had we remained much longer in this place. Such was the economy in some ships that, rather than be at the trouble of interring the dead, their commanders ordered their men to throw their bodies overboard, many without either ballast or winding-sheet; so that numbers of human carcases floated in the harbour, until they were devoured by sharks and carrion crows, which afforded no agreeable spectacle to those who survived. At the same time the wet season began, during which a deluge of rain falls, from the rising to the setting sun, without intermission, and that no sooner ceases than it begins to thunder, and lighten with such continued flashing, that one can see to read a very small print by the illumination.
An epidemic Fever rages among us—we abandon our Conquests—I am seized with Distemper—write a Petition to the Captain, which is rejected—I am in danger of Suffocation through the Malice of Crampley, and relieved by a Serjeant—my Fever increases—the Chaplain wants to confess me—I obtain a favourable Crisis-Morgan's Affection for me proved—the Behaviour of Mackshane and Crampley towards me—Captain Oakum is removed into another Ship with his beloved Doctor—our new Captain described—An Adventure of Morgan
The change of the atmosphere, occasioned by this phenomenon, conspired, with the stench that surrounded us, the heat of the climate, our own constitutions, impoverished by bad provisions, and our despair, to introduce the bilious fever among us, which raged with such violence, that three-fourths of those whom it invaded died in a deplorable manner; the colour of their skin being, by the extreme putrefaction of the juices, changed into that of soot.
Our conductors, finding things in this situation, perceived it was high to relinquish our conquests, and this we did, after having rendered their artillery useless, and blown up their walls with gunpowder. Just as we sailed from Bocca Chica, on our return to Jamaica, I found myself threatened with the symptoms of this terrible distemper; and knowing very well that I stood no chance for my life, if I should be obliged to be in the cockpit, which by this time was grown intolerable, even to people in health, by reason of the heat and unwholesome smell of decayed provision, I wrote a petition to the captain, representing my case, and humbly imploring his permission to be among the soldiers in the middle deck, for the benefit of the air: but I might have spared myself the trouble; for this humane commander refused my request, and ordered me to continue in the place allotted for the surgeon's mates, or else be contented to be in the hospital, which, by the by, was three degrees more offensive and more suffocating than our own berth below. Another, in my condition, perhaps, would have submitted to his fate, and died in a pet; but I could not brook the thought of perishing so pitifully, after I had weathered so many gales of hard fortune: I therefore, without minding Oakum's injunction, prevailed upon the soldiers (whose good-will I had acquired) to admit my hammock among them; and actually congratulated myself upon my comfortable situation; which Crampley no sooner understood, than he signified to the captain my contempt of his orders, and was invested with power to turn me down again into my proper habitation.