From Thomas Cheke:
This book is dedicated to:
Sir Edward Hamilton, Knight of the Order of St John
and to the memory of:
Ibrahim Ali, Grand Treasurer of Algiers
From DJ Munro:
To my family, with thanks.
‘We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold and wide, while that of another is short and rusty… Apply reason to difficulties; harsh circumstances can be softened, narrow limits can be widened, and burdensome things can be made to press less severely on those who bear them cleverly.’
Seneca (4 BC – AD 65)
Chapter 1: Kidnapped
I was asleep when they came; we all were. They came in the dead of night.
A splintering crash woke me. For a dazed moment I thought I had dreamt that dreadful sound but a chilling draught confirmed the truth: our front door had been forced open. Downstairs I heard voices, furniture being overturned, crockery shattering, tankards and pans clattering to the flag-stoned floor. From out of this tumult came the thud of footsteps upon the stairs. They were coming up to the bedrooms. They were coming for us.
I was now wide awake but I lay stock-still beneath my blanket, my breath held, my heart pounding. I heard the footsteps cross the short landing towards my bedroom. For a second the world stopped. Then the door to my bedroom was kicked open and two burly figures burst in. I remember those men, strange and terrifying: their faces half-lit by a lantern in the doorway; their voices foreign and savage.
‘Get out,’ I shouted as I struggled to sit up.
One of the men grabbed my shoulder. I raised an arm to defend myself but he landed a punch in my face so hard that it sent me reeling backwards. Together they dragged me from my bed, across the floor and out of the room.
I remember the screaming next – though it may have started before – piercing, desperate cries that scar my memory. The screams came from my ten-year-old sister, Elizabeth, who slept beside my mother in the room next to mine. As I was shoved down the stairs, powerless to help them, I saw a man with a lantern at their bedroom door. The top of his head was wrapped in white cloth. I knew this to be a turban. I knew what it meant.
Moments later my mother and sister were being hauled down the stairs. They were both sobbing. Elizabeth was struggling to wrench herself free. Between her sobs, my mother was begging for mercy. ‘In God’s name, leave us alone,’ she pleaded. I saw that she clutched the remnants of her rosary, which had hung over a bedpost. She must have grasped it as she was pulled from her bed; amber beads rolled down the wooden stairs.
The room downstairs was dark and crowded with the strange men. I was pushed face-down over a table. Strong hands clamped my arms behind my back. My hands were bound, the rope biting into the skin at my wrists. I made no move, my bruised cheek pressed upon the cold table top, blood trickling from the corner of my mouth.
From this skewed position I was able to make some sense of the nightmare before me. I counted eight men including the one I had seen with the turban who was coming back down the stairs. He held the lantern in one hand and a clutch of my mother’s jewellery in the other. He was tall, his height exaggerated by his turban, with blue eyes set in a face of creased leather. His clothes were extravagant: a crimson jerkin; blue pantaloons; and around his waist a broad, silk sash in which he carried a pistol and a long dagger.
Most of the other men were bald or shaven-headed. They were armed with pistols, daggers and cruel, curving swords. All had moustaches on their sun-beaten faces. They wore coloured pantaloons and short-sleeved jerkins that left their muscular arms free to ransack our possessions: trinkets; lace; cutlery; even cheese and cured meat; fruit and vegetables – all were being stashed into pockets. The wreckage of plates, bowls, bottles and jars was strewn across the floor.
This looting was interrupted by the man with the lantern when he reached the bottom stair. He spoke in Dutch or Flemish of which I understood barely a word, except that he seemed to say ‘no’ as he gestured towards my mother and sister. In any event, my mother and Elizabeth were forced down upon two chairs that had been pushed against a wall. My sister buried her face in her shaking hands. My mother beseeched the man with the lantern to spare us.
‘In the Lord’s name, have mercy,’ she cried. ‘We’ve done you no harm.’ Her eyes were imploring, her fingers grasping at his clothes.
He ignored her as he placed her jewellery in the pocket of his jerkin and motioned to the two men standing over me to take me out of the house.
At this point I recall feeling terror; until then all had been confusion. Now the reality struck me: I was being separated from my family. If truth be told, I thought I was about to meet my death but I had neither the wits nor the courage to offer the least resistance. Instead I cried out like a small boy: ‘Mother, help me.’
She thrust out an arm towards me and shouted: ‘Leave him, I beg you. He’s just a boy.’ She made a vain attempt to stand but the brute standing over her pushed her back down. One of his comrades threw him a length of rope and he began to tie her to the chair. I did not see that cruel work finished as I was bundled out of the house.
‘Tom,’ I heard her cry, ‘no, please, no; not my Tom.’
Outside the air was cool and still. It was a late summer night; autumn was close at hand. A crescent moon had shone brightly earlier that evening but a band of clouds had since rolled in and smothered the land in oppressive darkness. I could not tell the hour: I sensed it was well after midnight but there was as yet no hint of dawn.
A strong hand gripped my arm and pushed me forward so that I struggled to keep my balance. I cast a forlorn glance up the lane towards the village, Mottistone: little more than a church, a manor and a dusting of old stone cottages, blanketed with thatch and huddled around a small green. All seemed quiet. There was no bark from an unsettled dog, no peal of the church bell to signal the alarm.
The knowledge that the village lay undisturbed removed any hope of immediate rescue from that quarter, not that there were sufficient local men to take on my well-armed captors. A few old muskets, pikes and swords were kept in the manor but they would be no match for this mob. As my eyes grew used to the darkness, I picked out a dozen more men loitering in the shadows of the hedges in the lane. It was for this reason that I did not cry out for help. I knew that any honest soul coming to assist me and stumbling into that crew would pay dearly for his efforts. Nor did I seek to run, fast runner as I was, for my bound hands would have encumbered me. Rather I accepted, perhaps rather meekly, that my fate now lay in the hands of my captors.
I was forced to kneel in the dried mud at the side of the lane, pressed against the hedgerow so that its brambles scratched my cheek and tore at my nightshirt. I remember the smell of the wild garlic rising up from the undergrowth, the song of a lone grasshopper. I knelt there, firm fingers gripping the back of my neck, until all the men had left the cottage. The man with the lantern came last, extinguishing the flame within it before he closed the broken door behind him, muffling the heart-rending cries within. Then I was pulled up by my hair and pushed bare-foot down the dusty lane, away from the village and towards the sea.
The lane where we lived runs in a zigzag fashion along the edges of the patchwork of fields separating Mottistone from the sea. It leads to a narrow gully, which we islanders call a chine, that spills out into the sea in a broad bay. We processed down the lane in file, myself in between two of the brutes. As we walked we picked up more of their comrades, who had been stationed at intervals along the lane. We approached two cottages, where the lane altered its course at a right angle, but we filed past them in silence – they were either undisturbed or already ransacked, I could not tell which. All was quiet. Even the branches of the trees and the leaves in the hedgerows seemed to cease their rustling as we passed.
Further down the lane, a little set back from the wayside, lay one of the manor barns. I was surprised to see activity outside it. Half a dozen men were waiting there with their spoils, which appeared to consist of a score of small barrels. Following a brief discussion with the man with the lantern, the men from our file picked up a barrel each before falling back into line. In different circumstances I daresay that I would have paid more attention to this intriguing scene than I did at the time. It was only when I had cause to reflect later that I recalled that this barn, to my knowledge, had only ever been used to store hay for the livestock in winter, nothing more. As I was shoved onwards I paid scant attention to those curious little barrels. My thoughts were consumed by my plight.
Beyond the barn, a fair distance further down the lane, one more isolated farmhouse lay between us and the beach. This was the home of the Leigh family, yeomen farmers in these parts for generations. A dozen more members of the sinister crew were positioned at the entrance to the farmyard. As I approached I could make out two little figures crouching in the darkness at the side of the lane. Like me, I could tell that they were in their nightshirts, their whiteness emitting a faint luminescence. My group filed past on the opposite side of the lane from them and I saw their small bodies, shivering or sobbing, side by side. I knew who they were – the farmer’s children – George and Catherine. They were some years younger than me but I knew them well. Some quick words were exchanged between the men in my group and those waiting at the farmyard. Then the children were hauled to their feet, though less harshly than I had been. They must have fallen into our grim procession some way behind me.
As we filed past, I saw that things were by no means quiet at the Leighs’ farmhouse. The horse in the stable was agitated, the cattle and oxen were stamping and lowing in the adjoining fields, and the farmer’s dog was yelping. The farmhouse was remote enough for this racket to disturb no neighbour’s sleep – neither in Mottistone nor in Brighstone, the next village along. I wondered what had become of the farmer and his wife and surmised that they had met a similar fate to my mother and sister, though I felt sure that the farmer, Henry Leigh, would have shown more spirited resistance than I had mustered.
I became aware at this time of the tears running down my cheeks. My mind was still in a state of disbelief and despair with no room yet for anger. I took little comfort from the gradual realisation that I was being kidnapped and was not about to be slaughtered. Every child in England had been told what it meant to fall into the hands of ‘the Turk’ – and how that was a fate far worse than a swift death. With my hands bound I could not wipe away my tears.
From the Leighs’ farm it was but a short walk down through the chine to the beach. We followed the sandy path beside the brook as it tumbled down to meet the sea. I recall the sobering taste of salt in the air and the sound of the waves breaking upon the shore. I felt cold grains of sand between my toes and sensed a newfound swing in the step of my captors.
When we reached the beach the tide was high, leaving only a thin strip of dark sand below the cliffs that edged the shore. Three large rowing boats had been pulled up on to the beach, alongside the brook. More men had been stationed here, I presumed to keep watch over the boats and to collect fresh water from the brook in casks. At the sight of our arrival these men began to haul the first of the boats down towards the water.
The men from our procession joined in this task, dragging the other boats down into the sea. They led me out into the cold water and helped me into one of the boats, my treatment now less rough than it had been earlier. George and Catherine were prised apart and placed in separate boats, their pitiable cries audible over the breaking waves.
The boats were laden with the casks of fresh water from the beach and the small barrels from the barn. Then men in each of the boats took up their oars. I crouched in the centre of my boat, jostled by the legs of the oarsmen and by the casks and barrels, my hands still bound behind my back. The oarsmen settled into a rhythm under the measured orders of the helmsman. We slipped through dark, lapping waves and out into the bay. The two other boats in our small flotilla were heading in the same direction. A glistening trail of moonlight spilled from a fissure in the clouds and stretched out across the water as far as the great white cliffs that arced around the bay to the north.
Ahead of us, half a mile offshore, I saw that a ship lay at anchor. The sight of her invoked both curiosity and dread. By the shifting light of the moon I could make out some of her features. She looked like a three-masted merchant vessel.
When we neared the ship the oarsmen began to talk more freely in their strange language – the odd word sounding familiar to my ear but the whole sense meaning nothing to me. As the other boats closed in I heard the despairing sobs of a child above the rhythmic creak and splash of the oars.
Two rope ladders were thrown down from the main deck of the ship as our boat and another drew alongside. The first of our crew clambered upwards, carrying one of the small barrels deftly upon his shoulder. I wondered how I would be able to climb the ladder with my hands tied but then strong hands pushed me forwards and untied my bonds. One of the oarsmen pointed up to the main deck far above, indicating that it was my turn to climb.
At this point you may wonder whether it had not crossed my mind to dive from the boat and attempt to swim to freedom. In truth, that thought engaged me for only a moment: the cold, black depths of the sea, the distance from the land and the likelihood of pursuit were sufficient to extinguish any courage that might have been kindled inside me. Instead, with a final glance back towards my benighted island, I placed my hands upon the ladder and climbed.
As I clambered over the bulwark on to the deck of the ship, one of the crew on board was waiting for me. He was young, perhaps a little older than myself, and was not one of the men that I recognised from the shore party. He laid his hand upon my shoulder. ‘This way,’ he said pulling me in the direction of a hatchway in the centre of deck, near the main mast. His English words caught me by surprise.
I followed him down a wooden ladder to the lower deck. This was lit by several swaying lanterns and was crowded with men, hammocks, cannon and various stores. Though the fresh sea air permeated through the port holes, the lower deck reeked with the odour of unwashed men, mixed with the smell of the timbers and the sickly scent of exotic perfume.
The English youth picked his way through the clutter on the lower deck to another hatchway. This was covered by a wooden grille and locked shut with an iron bolt. Peering down through the hatchway I could see the top of a ladder, its lower rungs disappearing into the impenetrable darkness of the hold. A damp, nauseating stench wafted upwards. The youth drew back the bolt and raised the grille. At this point I must admit that my troubled mind was almost overcome: I felt my legs weaken and there must have been such a look in my eyes, such a pallor in my face, that a firm hand gripped my arm to steady me.
‘It’s down again for you,’ said the youth. ‘It ain’t as bad it looks.’
I took one step forward, to the brink of the void. I swallowed hard, bent down and placed my trembling hands on the top of the ladder.
‘Mind how you go,’ he said, ‘I’m sure you’ll find somewhere to make yourself comfortable.’
I put a first, tentative foot on to one of the rungs of the ladder.
‘Keep your fingers out of the stores,’ he added, ‘or the purser will chop ’em off. And don’t worry: you’ll have plenty of company.’
I wondered whether by ‘company’ he was referring to George and Catherine, or to some other desperate souls detained below, or to rats.
As I edged myself down into the void I heard the grille being shut and bolted above my head, imprisoning me. Rung by invisible rung, I climbed downwards. When I reached the foot of the ladder, the rocking of the ship and the blackness that enveloped me made me reluctant to let go of it. I must have stood there silent and still for a few minutes, trying to compose myself and to gain a sense of my surroundings, alternating my gaze between the grille above, through which only the faintest light passed, and the dark confines around me.
At length a man’s voice called out from the darkness: ‘Welcome aboard! Your hammock’s waiting for you over here.’ This sudden outburst prompted a snigger from elsewhere in the shadows.
‘That’ll be the one made of silk,’ another voice added, eliciting more laughter. I noticed that both men spoke with a strong, West Country accent.
I mustered all my courage, let go of the ladder and took a few, tentative steps in the direction of the bow, my hands groping ahead of me to detect any obstruction. As I edged along, almost blind, my fingers traced the shape of wooden barrels and felt bulging sacks of foodstuff. After a while I found a small gap among the sacks and reckoned it as good a place as any to stop.
I sat down and put my head in my hands. My mind swirled with emotions: fear, little short of abject terror; utter despair at the helplessness of my predicament; and bewilderment at what had just come to pass. Barely an hour earlier I had been fast asleep in my own bed, unaware of the bitter twist of fortune that was about to befall me.
Some moments later, the first man spoke again. ‘So who are you then, friend? And where is this place? We’ve been at anchor for several hours, so I daresay you weren’t captured at sea.’
I pondered for a moment how full and honest a response to give. I concluded that I had nothing to lose from telling the truth; my situation could hardly get worse.
‘My name is Tom, I mean Thomas Cheke,’ I replied. ‘And I was taken from my home. This ship now lies off the west coast of the Isle of Wight. Who are you, sir? And what is this ship?’
‘Pleased to meet you Master Tom. My name is Jacob, and over there you’ll find Silas.’
‘That’s me,’ said the other voice.
‘Somewhere yonder, over by that bulkhead,’ Jacob went on, ‘fast asleep I don’t doubt, you’ll find young Will and Adam. I’m afraid they didn’t wait up to greet you.’
‘No manners at all,’ laughed Silas.
‘And this here ship,’ Jacob continued, ‘is a corsair ship. Her name I could not tell you. But her captain is one of the most pitiless scoundrels that ever roamed the seven seas.’
‘What age are you, Tom?’ asked Silas.
‘Fourteen,’ I replied.
I sat for a minute or two, tears running down both cheeks. I did not speak lest my voice should falter, revealing my lack of fortitude. The stillness was broken by the dull clanking of metal against wood.
‘That’ll be the anchor,’ said Jacob, ‘they’ll have hoisted the boats aboard by now and must be ready to make sail.’
‘I’ll wager they’re putting out to open sea to avoid being spotted at dawn,’ said Silas.
‘Where do you think we’re heading?’ I asked.
‘Can’t say for sure,’ Jacob replied, ‘but the north coast of Africa is my reckoning.’
‘He means we’re heading to a slave market,’ added Silas.
‘Hush now, Silas,’ Jacob replied with a loud tut, ‘there’s no need to scare the lad out of his wits.’
‘How did you end up aboard?’ I asked, in a pretence at maintaining my nerve.
‘Taken at sea,’ replied Jacob. ‘Tried to out-run ’em but they were just too fast for us. And with all those guns up there pointing down at you, only a fool would resist ’em.’
‘We’re fishermen,’ added Silas. ‘They sank our ketch once they’d taken what they wanted from our catch and our possessions, including our good selves.’
‘This is our second night on board,’ said Jacob.
I heard the timbers around me groan and felt the rolling movement of the ship through the water. I pushed my head back into the firm sack behind me, which wasn’t too uncomfortable. My body was drained but sleep did not consume me.
My thoughts continued to pitch and toss. I was fearful, of course, for the safety of my mother and sister, who I presumed were still tied up in the house. I tried to console myself that it would not be long before someone noticed the broken door and came to their aid. My fear was that they would not be found for days, by which time… I could not bear to think further on that prospect.
My thoughts turned back to my own plight. I recalled our parish vicar’s fiery sermons about the perils and depravities of ‘the Turks’ as he called them. For years they had been the terror of the southern coast of England: the bogeymen that parents threatened their naughty children with. The vicar had tormented us with tales of the torture of poor Christian slaves – men, women and children – who had been captured by the Turks. We had all duly given generous alms to raise money for ransoms in the hope of bringing some poor souls back home from slavery.
Based on these sermons, and on the circumstances of my own capture, I was left in little doubt about the barbarity that awaited me at the end of this voyage, were I to last that long. What had confused me was the presence of white men amongst their crew, but then I remembered the stories of ‘renegados’ – Christians who had ‘turned Turk’ during their captivity and, in the process, consigned their souls to eternal damnation – so said our vicar. I curtailed this depressing line of thought by telling myself that I should trust in God’s Providence, however hard that might seem.
Snoring from behind the ladder, towards the stern, reignited my curiosity about my new, unseen acquaintances. The first two seemed tolerable enough and in truth I was already glad of their company. I shuddered at the thought of being locked down here in the foul darkness all alone. I felt that I needed to find out more from them about the ship and her crew, like the morbid interest that a patient has to discover his ailments and how serious they might be. As I pondered how best to restart the conversation, wondering whether my fellow captives had fallen asleep, I was pre-empted by Silas.
‘So, how many others did they take tonight?’ he asked.
‘Just two that I saw,’ I replied, ‘two children.’
‘Only a meagre catch then,’ said Silas.
‘Hardly worth the effort,’ added Jacob.
‘They also broke into a barn – one of the manor barns – took away quite a few barrels.’
‘Sounds like they were taking on provisions,’ said Silas.
‘Well they didn’t bring them down into this part of the hold, did they?’ said Jacob. ‘What kind of barrels were they?’
‘They were small,’ I replied, remembering them jostling at my feet in the boat.
‘Remember anything else about ’em?’ asked Silas.
‘Well, they had a hole in the top with a bung in it, and some strips of wood, saplings I mean, wrapped around them in bands at each end.’
‘Did they have any kind of stamp on them?’ asked Jacob.
‘Not sure; a crown maybe. It was dark.’
‘They sound like powder kegs to me,’ said Silas.
‘Stolen from the navy, I don’t doubt. Lot of that goes on round here,’ added Jacob.
I blushed in the darkness at my ignorance; of course they were gunpowder kegs. That revelation sent my tired mind spinning off down a new line of thought: what were those kegs doing in a barn in Mottistone of all places? My village was not the kind of place that lends itself to danger and intrigue. And yet it seemed impossible to conceive that the corsairs had stumbled upon the gunpowder kegs by chance. The barn and, for that matter, all the manor estate now belonged to a gentleman named Robert Dillington, who had purchased them from my family after the untimely death of my father. My poor widowed mother had been obliged to sell up and Dillington had been good enough to buy at a fair price and to provide us with a decent cottage on the manor estate. Dillington, I reasoned, had no more use for gunpowder than we had, and certainly no need for a secret store of it in one of the manor barns.
As I tried to make sense of it all I concluded that my capture, and that of the Leigh children, were incidental to the prime target of the corsairs, which must have been the gunpowder store in the barn, howsoever it had arrived there. Little did this notion ease my mind; rather it gave me even more reason to curse my family’s fate, which – to compound our earlier woes – had seen us located by such ill-fortune in one of the cottages close to the barn; close enough to attract the attention of marauding corsairs.
With these troubled thoughts preying on my tired mind, I fell at last into a fitful sleep.