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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 had now entered as it were upon a new life, was quite at home with one of the best of men whose greatest pleasure has ever been to make others happy. His excellent nephew, William Leach, Esq., was also a fine young gentleman, and as we were all Americans together the most perfect confidence reigned throughout this delightful family.
During my stay here I was exceedingly amused with a little incident that occurred while at dinner at Mr. Sprague’s table. A young English friend came over one Sunday to dine with Mr. S. During the dinner, Mr. S. asked the young man what was said in Gibraltar about the captain of the American letter-of-marque making his escape from the garrison. He said that it caused a great deal of excitement and speculation. Some said the lieutenant that had charge of him was very culpable and even insinuated that there must have been bribery connected with the business, that it was altogether a very strange affair that a man should be able in open daylight to make his escape from Gibraltar; and thus, after answering many questions on the subject, he wound up by saying that the captain must be a very clever man, and for his part he wished him God-speed. The young man had not the least suspicion that I was an American or had any connection with the business. During the conversation, whenever I caught the eye of Mr. Leach, it was with the greatest difficulty I could command my countenance. Everything, however, passed off very well, and we often joked on the subject of the honest simplicity of their young English friend.
I remained from day to day at Algeciras, anxiously waiting to hear from my two lieutenants, Messrs. de Peyster and Allen, in hopes by some means they would be able to make their escape and not be sent prisoners to England.
I used frequently to ride in the country with Mr. Sprague in the evening, and we frequently made up an agreeable whist party, and among other social enjoyments my young friend Leach introduced me to two or three respectable and very agreeable Spanish families. In these families I spent many pleasant evenings in the society of several young ladies and gentlemen, and had my officers and crew been at liberty, I should have been quite contented and happy. At length, after waiting here about ten days, I learned with pain and sincere regret that all my officers and men had been sent prisoners to England, and I now seriously began to think of leaving this place for Cadiz.
There are but two ways of travelling with safety in Spain: one way is genteel and expensive, namely, with a strong guard of soldiers. The other is in simple disguise, so that no robber can feel any interest in molesting you on the road. This mode I determined to adopt.
After remaining in Algeciras about a fortnight, I hired a mule and a guide (through Mr. Sprague) to Cadiz. My kind friends furnished me with provisions and stores for a journey of two days. I procured a dress such as the peasants wear in this part of Andalusia, and thus equipped, on the morning of the 25th of December, 1814, I bade adieu to my two excellent friends from whom I had received so many disinterested favors.
After leaving the town, we travelled about a league on a tolerable smooth road and then turned off into a winding footpath, myself on the mule, and my guide, a merry fellow, trudging along on foot, sometimes by my side, sometimes a few yards ahead, and when we came to a smooth path I allowed him to ride on the mule behind me. The distance from Algeciras to Cadiz is about 40 miles, and I soon found we had a very intricate and difficult journey to perform. The whole country had a most wild and desolate appearance. In fact it seemed to me that there could have been little or no change in this part of Spain for the last five or six centuries. There were no public roads, a very thin and scattered population, and these living in a wretched state of poverty. Sometimes we travelled through deep and dark ravines, overgrown with trees and bushes; and after passing through a deep and gloomy dell, where we lost sight of the sun at times for a space of half an hour, we would then commence ascending a high mountain. We generally found a time-worn footpath running in a zigzag direction up these dreary mountains. This mode of ascending would, in seaman’s phrase, be called “beating up.” It certainly is a slow and fatiguing mode of ascent, but the traveller is richly rewarded for all his toil when once on the top of one of these stupendous mountains. Here he has a splendid view of the Strait of Gibraltar and the broad Atlantic, on the south and east, while the wild and unbroken scenery of the surrounding country is truly magnificent.
I will here remark that the people of the United States can scarcely believe that an old country like Spain should be in such a wretched condition as I found this part of the country, without roads, the land generally uncultivated, no hotels or taverns to accommodate strangers, and infested with robbers and banditti. Even in the vicinity of cities and towns, there is no safety in travelling without a military guard. This is certainly a dark and gloomy picture of poor Spain, once so great and powerful, now distracted by factions and civil war, divested of the greatest part of her once rich colonies, her government weak, without money and without credit.
If asked what is the cause of her degradation and dreadful downfall, I answer, there are many, but the principal ones are ignorance, idleness, superstition, priestcraft and bad government. I here involuntarily exclaim, oh! happy America! how glorious art thou among the nations of the earth! Long may an all-wise Being shower His benign blessings upon thee!