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A Yankee Skipper Who Preyed On British Shipping Relates His Wartime Experiences
American sea captain George Coggeshall tells of his experiences evading the British navy during the War of 1812 and spending over half a century at sea.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
I walked deliberately down on the mole or quay, where I was accosted by a great number of watermen, offering to convey me on board of my vessel. I employed one, and after getting off in the bay, he said, “Captain, which is your vessel?” Here again I was at a loss to decide on an answer, but after gazing for a few moments on the different ships and the flags of different nations, my eye caught sight of a galliot with a Norwegian ensign flying, and I said to myself, “The Norwegians are a virtuous, honest people and I am not afraid to trust them.” I had been in Sweden and understood the character of these hardy, honest-hearted sons of the North; and thus, after a moment’s hesitation, I replied to the boatman, “That is my vessel,” pointing to the friendly galliot, and we were soon alongside.
I jumped on board and enquired for the captain, who soon made his appearance. I told him I had something to communicate to him. He told me to follow him into the cabin. I immediately asked him whether he was willing to befriend a man in distress. He said, “Tell me your story, and I will try to serve you.” I frankly told him I was the captain of the American letter-of-marque schooner lately sent into port by the frigate Granicus, and that I had made my escape from the garrison and desired to get over to Algeciras as soon as possible, that I had money enough, but still I wanted his friendship, confidence and protection.
The good old gentleman had scarcely waited to hear my story to the end, before he grasped me by the hand and said in a kind, feeling manner, “I will be your friend, I will protect you. I was once a prisoner in England, I know what it is to be a prisoner. Rest assured, my dear sir, I will do all I can to assist you.” I offered him a dollar to pay and discharge the boatman and remained myself below in the cabin. He said, “Put up your money, I have small change and will pay him what is just and right.”
After dispatching the boatman he returned below and said, “Now take off your coat—put on this large pea-jacket and fur cap.” In this costume, and with a large pipe in my mouth, I was in less than two minutes transformed into a regular Norwegian. Returning again on deck, I asked my good friend the captain whether I could rely on his mate and sailors not to betray me. He said, “They are honest and perfectly trustworthy, and you need be under no apprehension on their account.” We took a social dinner together, when he observed, “I will now go on shore for an hour or two and hear all I can about your escape, and will come back early in the evening and relate to you all I can collect.”
In the evening the old captain returned pleased and delighted. He said he never saw such a hubbub as there was about town: that the whole garrison seemed to be on the lookout—that the town major with the military and civil police were searching every hole and corner in Gibraltar for the captain of the American privateer—that both of my officers were put in confinement, and that the lieutenant of the frigate who had the charge of us had been arrested; in short, there was the devil to pay, all because the captain of the privateer could not be found.
The next morning I stated to my worthy friend how extremely anxious I was to go over to Algeciras, and how mortified I should be to be taken again on board the Granicus. He answered, “Leave that to me—I am well acquainted with a gang of smugglers that belong to Algeciras and often sell them gin, tobacco and other articles of trade. They will be here on board of my galliot at nine o’clock this evening and will probably start for Algeciras about midnight after they have made all their purchases. When they come, I will arrange with them to take you as a passenger.”
About nine o’clock that evening a long, fast-rowing boat came silently alongside filled with men, and certainly a more desperate, villainous looking set were never seen. Their leader and several of his men came on board the galliot, and, after having purchased several articles and taken a glass of gin all round, the old captain enquired of the patroon of the boat what hour he intended to start for Algeciras, and said that the reason of his asking the question was that his brother wanted to go to that place for a few days upon business, and wished to engage a passage for him, and that he should be glad if his brother could lodge for a few days with his family. He answered that he should return again about midnight and would willingly take his brother, and that if he would put up with common rough fare, he was welcome to stay at his house as long as he pleased.
I accordingly got ready my little bundle which consisted of a few little things such as a shirt or two (for I did not forget to wear three at the time I left the Granicus ) stowed away in my hat, and then tied up in a handkerchief, and this constituted the whole of my wardrobe. I agreed with my friend the Norwegian to leave the cap and pea-jacket with the American consul at Algeciras, to be returned to him by some safe conveyance in the course of a few days. Agreeable to promise, the boat came on board precisely at twelve o’clock, and after my friend the captain had again cautioned the patroon of the boat to take good care of his brother, we started.
The water in the bay was smooth, though the night was dark and favorable to the safe prosecution of the passage across the bay. The distance is about 8 or 10 miles from Gibraltar, and after rowing about two hours we arrived near the harbor, when we showed a light in a lantern for a minute or two and then covered it with a jacket. This signal was repeated two or three times until it was answered in the same way from the shore. We approached the port cautiously and landed in silence. The patroon took me by the arm and led me through many a dark winding passage.