The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XXXIII

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.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00