THE SHIP'S COMPANY
TO fit out and store a vessel for a lengthy expedition may be a somewhat arduous task, but it is an interesting and pleasant one, which is more than can be said with regard to that equally important work, the choice of one's companions. One cannot make any very serious mistake in the selection of one's provisions, but to take the wrong man with one on a voyage that involves a complete severance from all the influences of civilization for months at a time may bring exceedingly unpleasant consequences.
I determined to ship as few paid hands as possible, and to outnumber them with a chosen body of what, in the parlance of the old privateering days, may be termed gentlemen-adventurers, volunteers who would contribute to the cost of the expedition, would work as sailors on board and as navvies on the island, and who would each be entitled to receive a considerable share of the proceeds of the venture, should anything be discovered. The officers of the vessel would be selected from this body, and I myself would act as captain. In this way the causes which led to the failure of some of the previous expeditions would be wanting. The professional sailors would be unable — in their disinclination to face the difficulties of the island — to insist on the adventurers abandoning the project. There would be no paid captain to lay down the law to his employers.
I knew that by the time we should reach Trinidad even those gentlemen who had never been to sea before would have learnt a good deal, so that in the case of our paid hands proving mutinous we could dispense with them altogether. I was well aware that if I undertook such an expedition with a paid crew of the ordinary type, far outnumbering the gentlemen aft, the value of the treasure, if discovered would not improbably tempt them to murder their officers and employers and seize it for themselves. With a majority of volunteers on board, each entitled to a large share in the find, all risk of this description would be avoided.
I decided that our complement should be thirteen all told, consisting of nine gentlemen-adventurers myself included, and four paid hands.
The following are extracts from some of the clauses of the agreement which was entered into between myself and the volunteers:
"Mr. E. F. Knight undertakes to provide a vessel, stores, etc., suitable for the expedition, and to provide at least sufficient provisions for the voyage out and home and six months besides.The paid hands received good wages and were entitled to no share of the treasure, though they, of course, knew well that, should our search prove successful and their conduct have been satisfactory, they would receive a substantial present.
It would, of course, have been very pleasant for me to have selected my volunteers from among my own friends, especially those who had been at sea with me before; but this I found to be impossible, at any rate at such short notice. I knew dozens of men who would have liked nothing better than to have joined me, but all were engaged in some profession or other which it would have been folly to have neglected for so problematic a gain. The type of man who is willing to toil hard, endure discomfort and peril, and abandon every luxury for nine months on the remote chance of discovering treasure, and is, moreover, willing to pay £100 for the privileges of doing so, is not to be found easily, either in the professional or wealthy classes.
There are, doubtless, thousands of Englishmen willing to embark on a venture of this description, but it is obvious that there is a likelihood of a fair percentage of these volunteers being adventurers in the unfavourable sense of the term — men anxious to get away from England for reasons not creditable to themselves, men, too, of the rolling-stone description and more or less worthless in a variety of ways, and who would be more likely than the paid sailors to wax discontented and foment mutiny. I realised that the selection of my men should be made with great care.
Of volunteers I had no lack. An article in the St. James's Gazette describing my project brought me applications to join from something like 150 men.
Some of the letters I received were great curiosities in their way, and would cause much amusement could I publish them. I interviewed some sixty of the applicants, and this was certainly far the most arduous and difficult work connected with the undertaking, so far as I was concerned. I shall never forget how weary I became of the repetition to each fresh visitor of the conditions and object of the voyage, and with what dread I looked forward to my visits to the little club at which these interviews were held.
All manner of men made appointments to meet me — the sanguine young spirits eager for adventure, the cautious and suspicious who would not risk their £100 unless they were guaranteed a return of £50,000 or so. There were also those who wasted my time out of mere curiosity, never having entertained any intention of joining me, and others who hoped to pump enough information out of me to enable them to earn a few guineas by writing an article for the newspapers.
But the majority of my applicants were in earnest, and I will here take the opportunity of expressing my regret if, in the midst of all the hurry and worry of that time, I omitted to reply to some of my correspondents. All the preparations for the voyage had to be carried out in a very limited space of time, in order that we should get away from England before the autumnal equinox, I was fitting out the vessel and selecting gentlemen-adventurers simultaneously, constantly travelling backwards and forwards between London and Southampton, and by the time we were ready for sea I was pretty well worn out with anxious work.
One by one I selected my men, and those who saw them congratulated me on having got together a most promising-looking crew. Some, it is true, proved themselves to be quite unsuitable for the purpose; but at the end of the expedition, when we were at Port of Spain, I had on board seven men at least who were ready to go anywhere and do anything with me, all of them more cheerful, fit, and capable in every respect than they were on leaving Southampton.
References were brought to me by each volunteer for the expedition. I know how worthless references generally are, but never before did I so strongly realize this fact. The most undesirable person can often produce excellent testimonials from undoubtedly worthy people, who have met him in London Society, for instance, but who know absolutely nothing of the true nature of the man, least of all of how he would prove himself in such an undertaking as this was, when traits are revealed that do not generally declare themselves in a drawing-room.
The volunteer whom I made first mate turned out very badly. He was afraid himself, and he did his best to scare the other gentlemen and the paid hands. He came to the conclusion that the Alerte was a bad sea-boat, cranky, too heavily sparred, and generally too small and unsafe to be entrusted with his valuable life. I found out afterwards that a little conspiracy was hatching to compel me to sell the Alerte in the Cape Verde Islands for what she would fetch, and charter a large Yankee schooner. He endeavoured to disseminate discontent behind my back and to undermine my authority, with the sole result that he made himself detestable to his companions fore and aft, and ultimately, having made the vessel too warm to hold him, packed up his traps and deserted her at Bahia without giving me any reason for so doing.
Not content to desert himself, he did his best to persuade others to do likewise. He succeeded with one timid individual, who also went off at Bahia — luckily for us, as we did not want him. There was yet a third who had half a mind to desert with them, but who remained with us, a discontented young man to the end. Being the one man of the sort left on board, his opinions were a matter of indifference to us, but he was the sole cause of those "disagreements" of which he has since complained in print, and I have no doubt made his own life "disagreeable" enough. To do him justice, he was the ablest swimmer and the best judge of blue china on board.
I should not have alluded to our squabbles in this book had not the men who caused them spread all manner of false reports on their return, which have appeared in the newspapers and magazines. Therefore, instead of treating the whole matter with the contempt it deserves, I am justified, I think, in entering into this explanation on behalf of myself and of my loyal companions who stuck to the expedition to the end.
Only one other of my companions aft voluntarily left me, a very good fellow, who had undertaken a job the nature of which he had not fully realised; for the sea, at any rate as viewed from a yacht, had such terrors for him, and his health suffered to such an extent, that, under our doctor's advice, he left us at St. Vincent. I believe that a good deal of his nervousness was due to the insinuations of the first mate's evil tongue.
Having rid ourselves of these two people at Bahia, everything went on much better, all work was done more promptly and smoothly, the old friction disappeared, a cloud seemed to have been lifted from the vessel, cheerfulness prevailed, and when we sailed to Trinidad and the real business and difficulties commenced all was got through in a most satisfactory fashion.
Grumbling is the Englishman's privilege on land, still more so at sea, where some growling is absolutely necessary to relieve the monotony of ship-life; after leaving Bahia an unusually small amount of this privilege was enjoyed on the Alerte.
As I was taking a fair number of paid hands with me, I did not consider it necessary that all the gentlemen-adventurers should have a knowledge of seamanship. Indeed, I believe that only the first mate and the doctor had ever before handled a fore-and-after. However, most of the others were willing and soon learnt to take a trick at the tiller and haul at a rope in a satisfactory manner.
Some of the volunteers did not treat me quite fairly, for, after deciding to join me and so causing me to refuse other eligible candidates, they discovered at the very last moment that something prevented them from going. This naturally put me to great inconvenience, and obliged me to take others to replace them at the shortest notice. Thus I had to ship my last two men the day before we sailed.
Remembering how interesting was the scenery of Trinidad, I had intended to acquire some knowledge of photography and carry an apparatus with me. But one of my volunteers professed to be an excellent amateur photographer, and as he promised to take upon himself that part of the work I relied upon him to do so and left it to him. He was one of those who failed to turn up on the day of sailing, and we had to put to sea, to my great regret afterwards, without a camera.
We were equally unfortunate with our taxidermist. One of the volunteers had undertaken to take lessons in bird-skinning at my suggestion; for I knew that Trinidad was the principal breeding-place for sea-birds in the South Atlantic, and that very rare specimens can be collected there. He, too, never reached the desert island — more, I must allow, on account of illness than through any fault of his own. But it was very disappointing, for all that.
Fot such a voyage as the one contemplated the presence of a surgeopn was advisable. A young doctor was was therefore included among the gentlemen-adventurers — Mr. Cloete-Smith, who also occupied the post of mate after the desertion of the officers at Bahia.
Of the four paid hands, one, the boatswain, only accompanied us as far as Teneriffe.
Our cook, John Wright, had been with me on three previous voyages as sole hand. One of our A.B.'s was Arthur Cotton, who, as a boy nine years before, had been the only paid hand on the Falcon when we sailed from Southampton to South America. In the course of that voyage he had visited Trinidad with me, and was now able to spin to his shipmates long and more or less fantastic yarns concerning the place we were bound to. The strange island had evidently made a great impression on his imagination. Our other A.B. was Ted Milner, a lad from the North Sea fishing-smacks.