‘Of course, the Minister could have written to you himself,’ he said, ‘but he knew of my plans to pay you a courtesy call anyway. Milord, are you still planning to cruise the Bahamas in search of lost pirate vessels, come the summer?’
Lord Willingdon nodded vigorously. ‘Let me show you something, Captain Fletcher.’
He led his guest to an old chest of drawers in the corner of the library, next to a table bearing old maritime instruments and a terrestrial globe. Turning the key of the top drawer, after a brief search he produced an old yellow page of paper damaged by time, but on which characters were still fairly easy to decipher.
‘The problem with the history of pirates,’ the Earl went on, ‘is that apart from the writings of Captain Johnson and a few others like Esquemeling, we have very little evidence of what actually happened, and very few artefacts left to look at. Or rather, there are plenty of these artefacts; but they lie underneath the sea, where many of the pirate vessels or the ships they plundered are buried. But few people have bothered, or had enough money, to investigate these wreck sites seriously. Nobody, of course, except for some treasure hunters who may have looted a few coins; and, in general, do more damage than good to the sites they explore.’
‘That I grant you,’ Fletcher nodded.
‘Exactly – but this is where I could be helpful. I have enough money to finance some searches. Besides, there are friends and family willing to help me, provided I turn the search into an enjoyable cruise for them and their loved ones. And I’m not into the gold for its own sake, you know – just into providing our national museums with enough artefacts pertaining to that strange period of British Naval History.’
‘But this document, milord?’ Lord Willingdon held the old paper to his chest, not without some pride.
‘This document, Captain Fletcher, is something I stumbled upon by chance nine months ago in an antique fair. One of the curators at the Royal Maritime Museum, Dr James Barclay, has helped me identify it as a genuine letter from Governor Woodes Rogers of the Bahamas, dated September 1719, to Captain Joshua Pierce, on board HMS Formidable in Nassau Harbour. You remember the situation in the Bahamas at that time, Captain?’
‘If my memory is correct,’ replied the officer, ‘by early 1719 Governor Rogers had managed to re-establish some form of royal authority in the Bahamas; the pirate haven of New Providence had been destroyed, and the notorious Blackbeard had been killed in combat somewhere on the coast of North Carolina. This was more or less the end of the ‘golden age’ of piracy on the Spanish Main.’
‘Exactly. And this is when the remaining pirate captains, those who had rejected the royal pardon, decided to sail back to the Indian Ocean, where they continued to prosper for a few more years. There was even, historians report, a meeting of some of these captains – notorious ones like Cocklyn, Bellamy, or even that French scoundrel, La Buse, real name Olivier Levasseur. This is when they took the decision to sail away to the East.’
‘I do remember reading about it, milord,’ Fletcher concurred. ‘Well, my dear Captain, this letter speaks exactly about that infamous meeting – and furthermore, informs the then captain of HMS Formidable that following that meeting, a freak storm erupted and wrecked some of the ships from the pirate flotilla in the vicinity of Eleuthera, one of these flat coral islands of the Bahamas about seventy nautical miles from Nassau. The letter specifically instructed Captain Pierce to scour the islands near Eleuthera; and look for potential survivors of the wreckage. And to bring them back in irons to Nassau.’
He handed the old letter to the naval officer.
‘What I have been unable to ascertain, even after browsing through archives, is whether Governor Rogers succeeded in having some pirates brought back to Nassau. But here we at least have the evidence that he tried.’
John Fletcher read the document at length and held it for a minute or two between his fingers, as if to make sure it was genuine. A vague smile appeared on his lips. After all, he was a Navy man through and through, and holding a document pertaining to the naval history he knew so well could not but raise emotions in him. ‘So your plan, milord, is to cruise the Bahamas, especially round Eleuthera Island, and look for traces of these forgotten wrecks?’
The Earl nodded. ‘Absolutely. I already have the boat – the Nereid, a hundred-foot yacht built two years ago for charters in the Bahamas. Richard found it the last time he was down there. It is fully equipped for diving, and I have made sure that cabins have been upgraded to the luxury standards which befit my guests.’ ‘Which guests will those be, if I am not indiscreet?’
‘You’re not. First of all, my sister Rowena and my brother-in-law. We long planned to go sailing together, and they have agreed to contribute to the costs of the expedition.’
Fletcher knew both the Earl’s younger sibling and her husband, Count Hermann von Neuberg, a German nobleman from Württemberg. In fact, Lady Rowena chaired the charity that occupied most of the days of the officer’s own wife, Evelyn. ‘Then Mr and Mrs Simpson should be joining us too, as he is also funding the expedition. With Harriet and Richard.’
The officer winced. Richard was his wife’s nephew, son of the late Wing Commander Donald Crosby, a fellow prisoner in the Burmese PoW camp. It was through Commander Crosby that John Fletcher had met Evelyn and married her three years later. After the Air Force officer’s untimely death in 1954, Lord Willingdon had become unofficial ‘guardian’ to the young Richard and helped him become a commercial pilot. Richard had since remained close to the Earl, but his choice of lifestyle had gradually created a chill between him and his uncle John Fletcher. The men had not seen each other since Richard’s wedding, in late 1968, to the young socialite Harriet Simpson, the daughter of Albert Simpson, a wealthy shipowner and Conservative Member of Parliament for Dorking, Surrey.
‘Then,’ the Earl went on, ‘I have asked Dr Barclay to join us, for his expertise may be invaluable if we do indeed find wrecks. And finally, I would very much like to have Dr Phil Nemer with us on board. He’s an American, also an amateur expert on piracy, and a medical practitioner; always useful if one of us falls ill at sea. I am not a young man any more, Captain Fletcher, and you know I’ve had my share of ills over the years.’
The officer said nothing. He knew the ills his host referred to. Depression – followed by a lengthy battle with alcoholism. Of course, the Earl had eventually recovered. But the bad years had left their mark on him for ever. ‘But now that I’ve explained all to you, Captain Fletcher,’ the Earl went on, ‘it’s my turn to question you: What is the Minister’s message? Surely the government has not suddenly decided to frown upon my proposed expedition?’
‘Not at all, milord – it is simply a safety issue. The government is worried – for your own sake; and for that of the guests you propose to take on board.’ Lord Edmund looked at him for a few seconds, incredulity sketching itself increasingly on his face. ‘Safety? You mean they are worried in Whitehall that we shall be attacked by robbers if we get hold of some pirate treasure? Well, I can assure you that as long as I’m on board the Nereid, I intend to keep regular radio contact with the Bahamian authorities …’ Fletcher politely interrupted him. ‘I am not talking of robbers, Lord Willingdon. I’m talking of a potential terrorist threat.’[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]