More conversations with the ghost of my great-great-great grandfather, Commodore 'Fighting Bob' Stockton.
©2011 Bob Stockton. Excerpted from 'Fighting Bob' (AuthorHouse) by Bob Stockton. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
“Alligator was following the wind on the morning of November 5th when we observed a vessel in the distance who was showing a closest point of approach at some 90 degrees crossing our bow and passing well ahead. An examination with my long glass determined that she was flying no flag. We continued our course which showed our bow on aspect to the as yet unidentified ship. As soon as she observed our approach, she shortened sail and ran up a distress flag, an international signal generally displayed by merchantmen in some sort of hardship. I gave orders to our purser to lay below and bring a barrel of pork and several caskets of water on deck to transfer to the supposed merchantman, believing them to be low on provisions. I then went below to my cabin to work up my current position of longitude.”
“Quite suddenly as I was laboring over my chart desk I heard what sounded like a cannon shot ripping through our mainsail! I returned to the deck to discover that our supposed merchantman was in fact a Portuguese twenty - two gun letter-of-marque, the Marianna Flora.”
“Arriving on deck the purser informed me of the true identification of the aggressor and remarked that shortly after I went below she struck her distress flag and ran up the Portuguese ensign. I gave orders that the pork and water caskets be sent below and had the ship’s gunner break out shot on deck for the battle that had begun.”
“The Portagee was raking our sails and rigging with shot from their long gun. I gave the order for our brave lads to lie flat on deck to await the engagement that was about to unfold. If by God they declared themselves hostile upon raising their ensign then we would see to it that they would strike that same flag and surrender.”
I could sense the excitement in the Commodore’s voice as he related the details of the battle.
“We had approached the attacker to the point where we were finally within range for our six pounders to rake the deck of the scoundrel who had so foolishly tried to engage us and take us as prize. I maneuvered Alligator into firing position and unleashed a withering broadside volley upon our larger adversary which decimated her upper deck. Those that were not killed or wounded abandoned their weapons straight away and hid below deck. I maneuvered again to fire a second broadside, then a third and a fourth. After twenty minutes Marianna Flora struck her flag and surrendered. She had suffered enough. The day was ours!”
“Bravo, Commodore! The Portuguese captain did not stand a snowball’s chance in Hell. If I may ask at this point, just what exactly is a ‘Letter-of-Marque?”
“Your abuse of the English language astounds me. To answer your question a Letter-of-Marque is a letter issued by a sovereign government to a private vessel which authorizes said vessel to attack and capture foreign vessels that are considered ‘enemy’ and bring them to port as prize. In my opinion it is nothing more that a legalization of piracy by a nation.”
“A license to steal, as it were.”
“Ha. Yes, exactly. To continue, I summoned the captain of the vanquished privateer and ordered him to explain his hostile action toward Alligator. His ridiculous reply was to the effect that he was under the impression that we were pirates. I replied that if that were the case why did he shorten sail and display a distress flag? To that the coward could not reply. I then informed him that I was assigning a prize crew to take his vessel, crew and himself to Boston. Having done this I proceeded on my way to my ultimate goal of the Port of Freetown in Africa where I was to meet a representative of the Colonization Society.”
“At least this time there was no question as to your actions. I mean, after all you were attacked - an act of hostility.”
“Not so, Grandson. Upon arriving at Boston the sniveling coward of a ship’s captain brought charges which were, in due course after numerous appeals of verdict dismissed on the grounds that Marianna Flora had acted in an extremely aggressive manner and such actions were an indignity to our national flag. The court did, however return the captured vessel to its owner.”