On the night of October 6, 1669, in the teeth of black northwesterly gale, four men left their shelter and struggled down the face of the bluff toward the stony beach. One dragged a dog writhing on a rope. Another carried a covered birdcage that glowed like a lantern. The third man stumbled along shouldering a small keg, and the last rolled an iron pot to the edge of the bluff and shoved it off, watching it clang down dolefully to the shore below. It was too dark to tell whether the men were Indians or English, nor did their grunts and complaints reveal their purpose. But when they reached the water they stepped quickly to canoes hidden among the rocks. The keg was unplugged and the dense perfume of whale oil was poured out onto a pile of storm-soaked brush. The cover was lifted from the birdcage and the fire within was thrown onto the oil. And as the sooty flames leaped up into the darkness, someone kicked the dog and it began to howl.
Along the jagged New England coastline, such storms were a common danger, conjuring the wind and rain to lure even the most skillful master to destruction on hidden shoals. A safe harbor, however strange, was often the desperate mariner’s last hope. The men heaped trees onto their signal fire and yanked on the dog again. They struck the iron pot with a stone and the dull tones pushed their way out into the night as the sea roared and mounted into the air. The rain beat upon them and the wind tore at their cloaks, but nothing appeared, and after a moment they rang the pot again.
Suddenly the black breast of a three-masted bark rose above them in the darkness, leaning hard over on its rails and turning urgently toward the light, its lines tangled and twisted, its shredded mainsail flying out gray and helpless in the howling gale.
“Halloo.” A lantern swung back and forth on the deck.
One of the figures onshore grabbed a log from the fire and waved it back and forth over his head. Then he circled the torch in the air and swung it toward shore.
“What harbor is this?”
He swung the torch again.
Strange. But there was no chance now of turning back; the trick had been played and before the master could correct his course the hull heaved up onto the shoals with a hollow groan, the masts raked over and the sails collapsed into the water. As the storm pounded against the seaward side, the dark figures of doomed men fell across the deck, solemnly recommending their souls to God. The mainmast shattered and the rigging dropped down upon them like a sprung trap.
Now a second wave of pirates emerged at the top of the bluff, a dozen men or more, and they scrambled down to the beach and into the canoes, long knives at the ready, rowing out through the heavy surf to finish their murderous business.
News of the shipwreck traveled slowly down to New York. The owner sent word to every port offering a reward for information that would help him find his ship, recover his 40 barrels of good Barbados rum, and avenge the deaths of his crew. But no news came back. After months of frustration and defeat he delivered a formal complaint to Fort James at the foot of Manhattan, pleading with Lord Lovelace, the new Colonial Governor, to redress this grievous loss. Was there no law? Was there no defense against such treachery? How were the colonies to prosper in the New World if the Governor could not ensure safe pas-sage along his own coast?
“Where did this happen?” Lord Lovelace asked.
“The owner says the ship was traveling up the Sound among the little islands off the Massachusetts shore.”
“Show me the map.”
“Here, your Lordship.” The two men were sitting alone: Colonel Francis Lovelace, Governor General of the colonies and his counselor Matthias Nicolls. It was February, more than a year later, and in the lovely gloom of the Governor’s study Nicolls’ long white finger tapped the table. The Elizabeth Islands. Possibly Martha’s Vineyard. The ship was passing between them.
“He doesn’t know. He still cannot find any trace of the ship, or get an accounting of its cargo.”
“The attackers were English?”
“Or Indians. We have had more and more of this lately. Since the wars ended these pirates have become steadily more daring and re-sourceful. The heathen is armed with muskets now; there will soon come a time when we must respond.”
“They are on both sides of the Sound?”
“Apparently. Our ships run this gauntlet every week. Every trip from New York to Boston and back has to negotiate these shoals. If we are to consolidate the colonies we need control over the whole channel. And when the time comes—“
“When it comes we will be ready.”
“We could station a detachment on the island, sir. This one here, billeted with the local farmers. A good place for resupply. A bit of country business for the men. With warships and cannon, they could watch up and down the way and intervene when necessary.”
“What about the local government?”
“An old merchant bought the islands years ago; a self-proclaimed Governor with forty families raising sheep, corn, and provisioning the passing ships.”
“And how does he explain the shipwreck?”
“He doesn’t, sir.”
“You wrote to him?”
“Over your signature, many months ago.”
“And his response?”
Colonel Lovelace was a courtier and a royster, a Catholic and the son of an English baron who had grown up battling Cromwell’s brutal forces. In the candlelight the knuckles of his hands were scarred and knotted with arthritis; his fine face was composed in thought. Lovelace was a gentleman these days, floating above whatever event he attended, whether a dinner or an execution, with an apparent indifference that was often mocked. As an old soldier, though, he had not forgotten the risk of abiding insolence. “Write to him again. In the politest terms. Tell him we would like his presence here at Fort James, that I may send his Royal Highness a more exact account of him, the greatest stranger to me in the whole government. We want him closer to our heart.”
“I’ll send a ship immediately.”
“No, give him time. Let him choose the summer when he may be better disposed to travel.”
“We must replace him, sir. These old Puritans are a danger to our objective.”
“Patience, Nicolls. Let’s take a lesson from the pirates. Let him come toward us peacefully. Tell him it is a problem with the patents he bought. Something like that.”
“And in the meantime?”
“Find out more about this man who thinks he is beyond the King’s reach. And about this little island that sits like a mouse in the middle of our ambition.” Lovelace let his fingers linger for a second over the candle flame, and then pinched it out.
“Quietly, Nicolls.” He snuffed the second candle out and pushed his chair back. “Like Indians,” he said as they headed downstairs to dinner.