England, June to August 1768
The boy knew danger was coming.
He could hear it, sitting at the prow of his ferryboat on the broad River Thames . . . a deep growl of angry water that grew louder as they neared London Bridge.
He could feel it, for the boat began to kick and strain as it caught the edges of the rip, where the pent-up river gushed into narrow channels between the piers.
And then he could see it. A white, foaming cascade as the water swirled through the arches, like a rapids.
Danger. And the boy Isaac knew what he would do.
‘Will you get out and walk round, young sir, as I shoot the bridge?’ asked the ferryman, rowing towards the riverbank stairs. ‘I’ll pick ye up on the other side.’
Young Isaac Manley shook his head. ‘I’m shooting the bridge with you.’
‘Most unwise.’ The man squinted. ‘Your father wouldn’t like it.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘He give me a silver half-crown to deliver you safe down river, to the ship Endeavour what’s being fitted out for the South Seas. He won’t want you drowned before you’ve even reached Deptford.’
‘My father’s not here. He’ll never know.’
‘He’s a lawyer, matey. And lawyers know everything.’
‘Please!’ The boy turned to the waterman, seeking his own justice. ‘I’ve never been allowed. It’s the first time. Before I board that ship, I must know if I dare . . .’
‘You know what they say: London Bridge is for wise men to cross and fools to go under.’
‘I can add a sixpence to your fare.’ Isaac felt for his purse. ‘When we get there.’
‘Ah, so that’s where the wind lies. How old are ye?’
The man bared his yellow teeth and blinked at Isaac’s coin.
‘Then I’ll be a wise fool and take the young master’s money, too.’ He spat on his hands. ‘I’ve been a seafaring man myself. Let’s see what sort of sailor you’ll make.’
And bracing his feet on the boards, he pulled the boat into midstream.
Isaac shivered a little, spray wet on his face, and drew his cloak around him. He hoped he’d be a good sailor and do his father proud, but he didn’t know . . .
He looked up river, crowded with boats and barges as it flowed through the great city in the summer morning. Past the towers of Westminster, and the Temple where his father John practised law. He’d just been made a Bencher, and the ancient Manley crest of a black hand on a white shield would be mounted proudly in the Great Hall.
Past the looming dome of Saint Paul’s. If Isaac peered hard enough he could see the steeples near Hatton Garden, where lived the family he’d known all his life: Papa and mother Ann, his two brothers and two sisters – and Isaac, in the middle, was the first to leave home. He hoped they’d all think well of him . . .
Then he turned to the bridge. Young Master Manley knew it would take more than this to make a seaman of him. But it was a start: a fair beginning to his first voyage.
The Thames moved placidly enough on its own journey to the sea, until it met the barrier of London Bridge. The nineteen piers, protected by massive stone and timber piles, blocked two-thirds of the river. With each tidal change water banked up behind, as if the bridge were a dam wall, and the Thames hurled itself through the narrow arches in violent cataracts. Although they’d widened the middle arch and the bridge itself a few years ago, it still took courage to pass beneath it on a running tide. When the boatman spoke of drownings, he wasn’t exaggerating.
‘At least they took down the houses on London Bridge!’ he called above the torrent. ‘We won’t have the excitement of people emptying piss pots over us as well, ha ha! Hang on to your cocked hat, matey!’
Isaac removed his hat altogether and clamped it between his knees. He needed both hands to hang on to the boat.
For suddenly they were in the grip of the current. The man had charge of his ferry thus far: now he could only use his oars to steady it as the river swept them into the middle arch. Closer and closer. Like entering a spillway.
Isaac could hear the roar of water as it fell into the whirlpool below. He wished he’d had second thoughts and walked around the bridge as wise men like his father did. But it was too late for that. The river had seized them and was rushing them forward. Thank God his sea chest was safely roped in the stern!
The sun disappeared. They were under the bridge. Isaac noticed the ferryman had shipped his oars for safety and, looking up, he saw the pointed ribs of the old bridge as they’d been built five hundred years ago. He was about to shout something, when all at once he felt himself tipped backwards and forwards as the boat plunged ten feet down the waterfall and into the white, boiling spume.
Vomit rose in Isaac’s throat. Thoughts of drowning, and of the dead found on river mud, flooded his mind. He wished to his gut he’d never wanted to go to sea . . .
There was light. The noise receded. And opening his grey, stinging eyes, Isaac saw the man righting his oars and grinning at him.
‘Ye’re as green as seaweed, mate. But you’ll not reach Deptford floating face down.’
He began to row once more, smooth and easy, for the tide was ebbing and the river carried them quickly downstream. Isaac might not be dead – but he felt half-drowned all the same! A tall, well-built lad, his face and long sandy hair, tied with a ribbon, were by now sopping wet and his cloak was drenched. But they’d soon dry in the morning sun. And having survived the danger, Isaac laughed at it.
Past the Customs House, where Isaac’s grandfather John had been a Commissioner and the family first came to know sea captains and navy men; beyond the grim turrets of the Tower, and frantic riverside wharves. Here, in the Pool of London, great ships were all day unloading their cargoes and fitting out for new voyages.
‘East Indiamen from Bengal,’ the waterman pointed to them. ‘Merchantmen from Americky, look ye. Newcastle colliers . . . channel packet boats . . . Gibraltar men-o-war. And crewmen from all parts of the known world – aye, and some parts barely discovered. There’s talk up and down river what Endeavour will carry men who sailed the South Seas with Captain Wallis and found the island of Tahiti.’
‘So my father says,’ replied Isaac, his voice kindling with the sounds of ships and such faraway places. Safely through the bridge, the boy’s imagination was catching fire again. ‘We’re supposed to be bound for there. Such an adventure! I was lucky he could get me a berth!’
‘And what berth is that?’ The man eased his oars and pulled out a pipe. ‘Have they made ye captain yet?’
‘No, Lieutenant James Cook is Captain. I’m . . .’ Isaac realised he was being teased, and his voice fell. ‘I’m just one of the officer’s servants . . . a cabin boy.’
‘No shame in that, not even for a young gentleman whose pa is a rich lawyer. Many an admiral has started just the same way, ’prentice to a officer and studyin’ to become a good seaman. It’s a hard life, matey. A strict life. But sometimes it’s a sweet one. And the sooner ye get started in it, the better. Come on!’
He bent to the oars again.
Swiftly they passed timber yards and shipwrights, bustling warehouses and riverside alehouses, where off-duty seamen caroused with their shore wives. Yes, and the gallows at Execution Dock where pirates hung in chains till their corpses rotted. For the sea could be a cruel life as well.
The river thronged with ships lying at anchor, and the ferryman told Isaac to keep his eyes peeled for loose cables and any other small craft as they threaded among them.
So the boy played lookout as they passed high gilded stern windows, weather-beaten hulls, and above them tall masts and spars swaying like a bare winter forest. Proud thrusting bowsprits supported by carved figureheads – mermaids, sea gods and painted heroes – keeping watch. Neptune. Admiral Pocock. The Rajah of Calicut. Such names! Such places they’d seen! Excitement stirred in him again. Soon Isaac would join them and he, too, would sail for Tahiti and parts barely known. If only they could reach his ship . . .
Then, rounding a bend in the river, he saw the domes of Greenwich, the Royal Observatory on its green hill. And before them, the brick clock tower, storehouses and all the swarming activity of the naval dockyard at Deptford.
They rowed about seeking directions for the vessel called Endeavour, and at last found her berthed beside the supply tender Surprize, getting her spars across. She was a modest little ship – small and tubby in comparison to the men-o-war they’d passed. But to Isaac she was beautiful, and he longed to get aboard.
‘She’s a coal carrier, no more’n a bark,’ remarked the boatman by the ship’s ladder. ‘Funny thing to take to the South Seas. Still, she’s got a good hold and sturdy round bottom, and I dare say her master knows what he’s doing.’
A head appeared over the ship’s side.
‘Permission to come aboard,’ cried the ferryman. ‘One young gentleman, name o’ Manley, with sea chest.’
And turning to Isaac he murmured, ‘Up you go, lad.’
Though as he stood, the boy’s doubts rose with him. ‘Do you think . . .?’
‘I reckon they might make something of ye. I’ll see to your trunk.’
Isaac gave his promised sixpence, and began to climb.
If ever the time came when Isaac had command of his own ship, he knew he’d be piped aboard with all due naval ceremony. But on that first morning there was no one to help him as he struggled up the side, not sure where to put his feet, until he sprawled gangling onto the deck. No one except an urchin-faced boy, younger and smaller than himself, lounging on the rigging and watching.
‘Landlubber!’ the boy laughed. And swinging down as lightly as any cat, he sauntered off to join the body of seamen hauling up the main topsail yard.
Isaac scrambled to join them. But they were far too busy to take notice of a city lad so clearly out of place. Besides, they were shouting a language he barely understood.
‘On halyards and tops’l yard lifts! Heave away! Haul away!’ And two dozen sweaty men responded.
When Isaac politely tried to ask, ‘Please, where’s the Captain?’ a seaman told him to get out from underfoot. And when he persisted, the sailor hissed that ‘Cap’n would nae wanna see ye. Go talk to yon one-handed cook.’
‘Now, Mr Sutherland, that’s none too mannerly,’ said a plain Yorkshire voice behind him. ‘This Captain’s always willing t’ oblige if he can, even on busiest days. What is it, lad?’
Isaac turned to a tall man in a blue naval frock coat with brass buttons, dark hair curled and tied behind. A raw, high-cheeked workman’s face, perhaps: but his deep brown eyes were shrewd, and he spoke with authority.
‘I must find Mr Cook. I’ve a letter from my father.’
‘You’ve found him. Let me see what he says . . .’
The Captain read quickly.
‘He thanks me for having you aboard, and hopes you’ll succeed in my service.’ Lieutenant Cook folded the letter. ‘Ye’ve already been recommended by the Lordships at t’ Admiralty – your father’s influence no doubt. And as for success, Mr Manley, that’s entirely up to thee. I can only repeat what my Master said when I started on a collier, just like this, out o’ Whitby. Show willing. Jump to thee orders. And never stop learning, for t’ sea teaches endless lessons.’
The Captain paused a moment, looking at the boy. ‘Ye’ll find us a strange school at first, with our own ways of doin’ things. But wi’ time and perseverance it might become your way as well.’
Then he snapped to attention. ‘Right. We’ve a ship to rig, man and store for a long voyage. I’ve assigned thee as servant to the Master, Mr Molineux. He was with Captain Wallis on the Dolphin when they discovered Tahiti. A very useful man. He’s just come aboard, and is down below. Seek him out, and follow his orders in all things – after my own orders, of course!’
‘I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t know the way . . .’
‘Nay, thou don’t. Hi – you – boy – Young Nick!’ Cook called to the scamp who’d laughed at the landlubber. ‘Show Isaac to his hammock space, and then take him to t’ Master.’
Lieutenant Cook turned to more urgent matters with the topsail yard.
‘It’s Nick Young really,’ muttered the boy, ‘though they all say me name stern abart, just because I’m eleven. Silly joke.’ Nimbly he skirted cables, barrels and spars, and shinned down the steep companion steps. Isaac, following awkwardly, almost fell headfirst through the hatch.
‘Come down backwards, lubber, and hang on to the knotted man-rope.’ It was the voice of experience. But Young Nick spoke more kindly as Isaac stepped from the sun into the half-light of the mess deck where the seamen ate, slept and passed their few hours off duty. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll soon get used to it.’
He sneaked a couple of apples from a barrel near the galley stove and tossed one to Isaac, as the cook – who indeed had only one hand – waved his stump and called them ‘a pair of young divils’.
‘Truth is, I’m not s’posed to be ’ere at all,’ Nick confided. ‘No place for me yet on the muster book. But blimey! I’m sailin’ anyways.’
Nick dodged mess tables hanging on ropes, with sea chests for benches, until he came to a low bulkhead.
‘They’ve put in a new deck and extra cabins for the scientific gents what are comin’ to the South Seas,’ he explained. ‘Everyfing’s a lot more cramped. So watch your ’ead – though I ’spect it will take a few bangs on the noggin afore you remember.’
There was only four and a half foot of headroom, and both boys had to stoop and scuttle crabwise aft to the officers’ quarters at the rear of the ship. Nick stopped short, however, and pointed up to a beam.
‘We lads sling our hammocks here. Fourteen inches of space between you and me, Issy, and that’s home for the next two or three years.’
‘It’s not very much . . .’ Isaac forgot. He stood upright. Whacked his head sharp on the timbers. And Nick Young, laughing at him again, observed that ‘At least it ain’t far to fall out o’ bed at night. Look to, now! Master’s cabin is starboard astern.’
‘Starboard?’ Isaac rubbed the first of many lumps he’d get on his noggin.
‘Right-hand side of ship looking for’ard. Larboard is opposite. And don’t confuse the two, or you’ll wreck your own ship one day.’
There was more headroom aft, where they found the Master, Robert Molineux, unpacking his gear and also complaining at his quarters.
‘Look at this, Dicky,’ he was saying in a faint Lancashire accent to his Mate, Richard Pickersgill. ‘My first day as Master with a brand new warrant in my pocket, expecting a berth up top, only to find meself squeezed out to make way for botanists and artists.’
Molineux spoke with a navy man’s disdain for such lubberly occupations. Pickersgill tried to look sympathetic, for the two were old companions, having sailed as Master’s Mates around the world on the Dolphin. ‘It’s not just you, Robert, down here on the half deck, but the two Lieutenants and surgeon as well. And Captain’s giving up his own cabin to the head man – name o’ Banks.’
‘First time I’ve heard of scientists on board a naval ship.’
Molineux spoke truly: for a new spirit of scientific enquiry – of reason and human enlightenment – was informing the educated world. Thus the novelty of Pickersgill’s response. ‘It’s a scientific expedition! To observe the Transit of Venus across the sun at Tahiti. That’s why we’re on board. We’ve been there. Mr Cook wants our advice. And then to make new discoveries in the South Seas.’