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
On our way we passed by several sentinels and were frequently hailed with the shrill sound of “Quien viva?” To these salutations some friendly answer returned, and thus everything passed smoothly on, until at length we arrived at the humble dwelling of the smugglers.
In Spain the contrabandistas are a desperate class of men and often spread dread and fear through a wide region of the country. In many instances, they are so numerous and strong that they often put the whole power of the government at defiance. The gang that brought me to Algeciras was about twenty in number, all armed to the teeth with long knives, pistols, swords, etc., and had no doubt made their arrangements during the day with the officers and sentinels that were to mount guard that night. They, of course, made them a compensation in some way or other, in order that they should meet with nothing to interfere with or obstruct their nocturnal enterprises.
Early in life I had made several voyages to Spain and its colonies in America and had thus acquired a pretty good knowledge of the Spanish character. I had also picked up enough of the language to enable me to make my way among them without difficulty.
There is something about the Spaniard that immediately inspires confidence, so much so, that although surrounded by this desperate and daring gang of smugglers, I had not the smallest fear for my safety. It was now near three o’clock in the morning when we entered the small, low cabin of the patroon. The interior consisted of one tolerable size room with a mat hung up to serve as a partition to separate the different members of the family, which consisted of the patroon, Antonio, his wife and two children.
With this family I was soon placed upon the most friendly and intimate footing: a straw bed was prepared for me behind the neat screen. Before saying good night, Antonio told me he should leave the house very early in the morning to look after his boat and smuggled goods, and should not return until noon next day. He said his wife and little daughter would provide breakfast for me and would purchase whatever I wished at any time. After these preliminaries were settled, we all said “ Buenos noches ” and dropped asleep. About seven o’clock the next morning I furnished the smuggler’s wife with money to purchase bread, butter, eggs and coffee; and when breakfast was prepared we all ate our social meal together, that is to say, the mother, the two children and myself. I then took a stroll about the town of Algeciras in my Norwegian costume and silently observed what was going on, without conversing with any person; and when I entered a coffee house, I took a newspaper and, as I said nothing, no one appeared to notice me. I had broken the quarantine laws and therefore deemed it prudent to keep on my disguise for a few days and continue to live in perfect seclusion.
Antonio was absent almost all the time during the three days I remained in his family. I furnished money for every meal, and the good Maria purchased and prepared our frugal meals. When I returned from a stroll about the town I always took care to provide cakes and bonbons for the children, so that we soon became good friends and all lived very happily together and upon terms of the most perfect equality.
After remaining here for a period of three days, I began to tire of this mode of life and was now determined to ascertain how I should proceed to get to Cadiz, where I knew I should find friends and be farther removed from the mortifying scenes through which I had so lately passed. Accordingly, on the morning of the fourth day after my landing at Algeciras, I repaired to a café and enquired of one of the servants whether there was an American consul residing in the city. The boy seemed intelligent and instantly replied that Don Horatio Sprague, the former consul at Gibraltar, was residing here, and that he was “un hombre de bien.” I asked for his address when he called a boy to show me the house, so that in fifteen minutes after I was knocking on Mr. Sprague’s door.
He was of course surprised to see a man of my appearance walk boldly into his parlor. I soon however explained that I was not exactly what I appeared to be, that I was an American in distress, and throwing off my great fur cap and pea-jacket, looked somewhat more like an American. I told my story and was received and treated like a brother. He was just going to take breakfast and said, “You will breakfast with us, and then I will send my nephew, Mr. Leach, with you for your bundle, and you will then return and take up your abode with me during your stay at Algeciras.”
After a social breakfast, I doffed my cap and peajacket, and being supplied with a hat and other articles of dress to correspond, Mr. Leach kindly accompanied me to the humble dwelling of Maria. To my great surprise, on entering the cabin, the poor woman was very distant, curtseying with profound respect, and appeared altogether like another person. The children were shy and appeared to avoid me. At first, I felt hurt at the alteration, but a moment’s reflection convinced me that the scene was quite natural, and I loved them not the less for their distant behavior. While in my disguise they looked upon me as one of the family, and now that the scene was changed, they looked upon me in quite another light; and I felt for a moment that the artificial rules of society were chilling to a generous heart. Maria told Mr. Leach that she always thought I was a gentleman, and that she was quite happy to serve me. After making the family suitable presents I took my leave, promising that they should frequently see me while I remained in Algeciras, which promise I took care rigidly to fulfill.