South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

The Seige Of Mozambique

And now we must bid farewell to these stout fidalgos of old Portugal; but by way of taking off our hats in parting, let me tell you one more story of the bravest of them all, Dom Stephen d'Ataide, the Captain-General of the Castle of Mozambique. You will remember that Mozambique is the little island to which Vasco da Gama came after he had sailed past the Cape and Natal and the River of Good Omens. It is only a little strip of coral reef drawn across a bay into which three rivers fall.

The surf of the Indian Ocean breaks on the white sand of its eastern shore, and in the centre of the little island is a cluster of square white houses, an old fort and a church and a hospital, always full of sailors sick of the scurvy from the sea and soldiers sick of fever from the land. The gardens round the houses are set with orange trees and pomegranates, and overhead wave the green balls of the palmheads loaded with dates and cocoanuts. Inside the bay is the harbour where the king's ships come to rest on their way to India, and guarding the little passage where they enter is our captain's castle, the great new fortress of San Sebastian.

Now Captain d'Ataide was a very gallant gentleman. I do not know how he really looked; but he had the bearing of a soldier we may be sure, and very likely he had fought the Dutch in the Low Countries. He wore a corselet of steel, made by the skilled armourers of Milan, all inlaid with traceries of gold, and a white ruff of point lace upon his neck with his black locks falling over it, and a Spanish morion embossed with figures of Hercules and Neptune and the dreadful Gorgon with the snaky hair, and under it his black eyes shone like a hawk's. And he had a long sword by his side and a strong hand on the hilt of it; but as he lived at Mozambique it is certain that he was sallow with fever. And a very anxious man was Captain d'Ataide. We are now a hundred years away from the time when Almeida and Albuquerque conquered the Indian Ocean for the King of Portugal. Portugal was a great country then; but at the time of which we write it had sunk into a province of Spain, and Dom Stephen was a subject of King Philip the Third. The Royal flag of Castile floated over the fort of San Sebastian.

And Spain herself was no longer the Queen of the Seas, for seventeen years had passed since our English sailors shattered the great Armada. The Dutch sea-beggars and the brave men of Devon were everywhere, and whenever they saw a Spaniard they fought him. Just as the Portuguese in the old days sailed round the Cape to find their enemies the Moors, so now the Dutch were sailing into the Indian Ocean "to cut the throats of the Spaniards." Their little galliots, bluff at the bows but light and small and fast, could far outsail the lofty, slow-moving, stately sea-castles of Spain. And they could outfight them too. They had followed the Portuguese to the ports where the silks and spices came from; they were fighting them at Diu and Goa and Ceylon and the Spice Islands and away as far as China itself, and many a great galleon had Heemskerk and van der Hagen robbed and scuttled among the scented islands and the palm-fringed harbours of the Indian Seas. It is easy, then, to understand why d'Ataide was an anxious man, for he could not send as much as a carrack to Sofala but it was robbed of its gold and ivory and ambergris by these wicked rebels and pirates as he called them; and he knew they meant to have Mozambique itself, for was not van der Hagen there only four years before blockading the island and cutting out the ships from under its very guns. Hardly a ship came from Spain; but the Dutch ships passed and repassed over the Indian Ocean as if it were the Zuider Zee. No wonder that d'Ataide was an anxious man.

And that was not the worst of it. In the whole island there were only a hundred and fifty men who could bear arms, while some of them were sick and some of them hardly knew a pike from an arquebus. The fort was strong, no doubt, with the sea lapping against its walls on three sides, and a moat to guard the fourth. But the captain knew its weak spots. The cannonesperas and camellos and culverins—no doubt they figured very bravely on paper in the Spanish War Office; but they were not even mounted on carriages, and could only point one way like a glass eye. Some were pointing towards heaven, and some were squinting down into the sea, for the embrasures in which they lay were rough and unpaved. And in some of the emplacements it was worse still, for they were empty. But if he had few guns, he had few gunners, that was how Dom Stephen consoled himself.

And now if one could follow the captain's gaze out to sea, away beyond the little palm-plumed island of Saint George—where Vasco da Gama built his altar—one would see eight little clouds of sail bearing in from the horizon. As they drew nearer they turned into tall ships bristling with cannon and crowded with sturdy Dutchmen. Men were working at their case-mates and buckling on their armour, and their hymn drifted over the water—

Voor Zee, voor Zand, voor vyer en brand

Voor de Helsche boose vyand,

Voor Alle quaed ons God bewaere.

Preserve us, Lord, from shoal and sea

And fire and the hellish enemy.

And just in the same way in the convent which lay opposite the fort, the Dominican fathers were chanting a Latin prayer to very much the same effect. But the captain did not wait to make out the colours of the Republic before he ordered every fighting man into the fortress, and a strange garrison they must have been—clerks and traders, Dominican friars from the convent, sailors from the hospital, every one who could handle a sword or fire a musket.

The sea-beggars came in double line, their high white sails dipping to the breeze, like the palms bending on the island. They were racing for the harbour mouth, the Bande and the Bantam, the Ter Veer and the Zieriksee and all the rest of them; they sailed in as if they were making their own port of Amsterdam. They were under the fort and over the bar with a roar of cannon and a cloud of smoke and round into the harbour before d'Ataide could screw and twist his guns to bear upon them; but he gave them a volley, all the same, for the honour of old PortugaL

And so the siege began, as tough a fight as ever was fought in the Low Countries. For though van Caerden had a thousand men and d'Ataide but a hundred and fifty, there were the moat and the high walls of the fort to get over. Three of the walls looked over the sea, and the fourth looked down the island, over a little open plain of coral and sand with the great convent opposite, and in the centre, over the harbour, stood the little chapel of Saint Gabriel Van Caerden landed his men at the convent and turned it into another fortress. Van Caerden came of a good school; he had learnt siege work from Prince Maurice, and he did everything that man could do. He dragged the guns out of his ships and threw up batteries; he filled bags and boxes with earth to guard his men, and he sewed up his guns in khaki-coloured calico so that the Portuguese could not tell them from the earth round about He cut trenches and zigzags and parallels till the little plain looked like a ploughed field. He burrowed nearer and nearer to the wall like a mole, never letting his men be seen, and at last he reached the little chapel, and there he mounted more guns and threw out more zigzags, until he was at last under the walls of the fort. And then his sailors got ropes and spars from the ships and rigged up a platform, floor above floor, all faced with bags and boxes of earth until at last they got on the level of the ramparts. And now they could fire into the fort with muskets and little cannon, and they were as close as if they had been looking through windows on opposite sides of a street. D'Ataide all this time had been doing everything in his power, encouraging the men and comforting the women and labouring to get his guns pointed in the right direction. But this platform was a terrible business. Still he was equal to it. From the parapets he pushed out long poles and laid planks across so as to make scaffolds that jutted far out from the walls on either side of the platform. He protected them as the Dutchman had done with sacks of earth, and his men crept along till they could fire into the Dutchmen on both sides. Is it not strange to think of them in their helmets and breastplates hanging between coral strand and African sky and fighting away on scaffold and platform like cats on a roof?

To tell all that happened in this great siege would be too long a story—how van Caerden fought and threatened, and threatened and fought; how he told d'Ataide that he could get no help from Spain, where all the king's ships were blockaded inside the bar of Lisbon; nor from the Indies, where the Viceroy was fighting for his life in the Spice Islands, and how scornfully d'Ataide replied; and of how the Dutch built a house against the wall, and worked under it with pick and crowbar; and how the Portuguese sallied out one dark and rainy night; and of the fight under the walls with the Dutchmen on a narrow bridge, and the Portuguese, with their backs against the stonework, thrusting at them with their spears, with a flare of torches on the parapet above glinting on helmet and sword below, and fireballs bursting and hissing in the dark waters of the moat. But this was the end of the siege, for van Caerden's men were dying fast of the fever, and they were all sick of Fort San Sebastian and its fighting captain. Van Caerden had only one more card to play, and it was this. He sent d'Ataide a letter: it was borne to him in state by six Dutchmen in Spanish dress, and the Portuguese from the parapet pulled it up on a string as if it were a fish at the end of a line. Unless he surrendered, said the letter, the churches and the monastery, the hospital and the houses and the gardens, everything on the island, would be destroyed. But d'Ataide only laughed scornfully. "I have no other orders from my king," he wrote back, "nor any other wish than to carry on the war with all my might." So they cut down every palm tree and burned down every house, and then sailed away, with Mozambique blazing like Kilwa and Mombasa a hundred years before. But as they went over the bar d'Ataide, with a mighty effort, tilted his guns so as to reach them, and mishandled the Zieriksee so grievously that she was left flaming to the skies like the town on the island. And we may imagine d'Ataide leaning over his ramparts and smiling grimly at the sight.

Poor d'Ataide! his town was in ashes, the convent in ruins; but he had made a good fight; he had beaten the sea-beggars, and that was a great consolation. And if I am not mistaken, he was more glad than sorry that they had come and gone, for he was a fighter born. And now the convent ruins were cleared away, and van Caerden's trenches were filled up, and the castle was revictualled from some ships that came from Spain, and everything was put in order to give the Dutch a hearty welcome when they cared to call again.

And they did call again, only a year afterwards. And this time it was that terrible fellow, Pieter Willemzoon Verhoeff, with thirteen ships and near two thousand men. He was a truculent old sea-dog was Verhoeff, and he hated the Spaniards as he hated the devil. When he met a Spanish galleon it was stand and deliver with him, and, as like as not, when he had taken their cruzados out of their pockets, over went the Spaniards sewn up in their own sails. For those were the days when quarter was neither given nor asked. When the Spaniards caught the Dutchmen they hanged them on the mast-end**, or stretched them on the rack, or chained them in the galleys, as it pleased their pleasant fancies; and when the Dutchmen caught the Spaniards there was short shrift and a long rope very often. And this Verhoeff was one of Heemskerk's fighting captains, along with Pretty Lambert and Long Harry. He had waded in blood up to the scuppers, and killed more Spaniards than one could reckon without a slate. Only the year before he had sailed into Gibraltar Bay side by side with Heemskerk to fight Dom Juan Alvarez d' Avila, the great Spanish admiral. And it was Verhoeff s hand that Heemskerk pressed when his leg was shot away by the sternpiece of the Saint Augustine. And it was Verhoeff who killed the Spanish admiral when the great galleons were blowing up like fireworks all round him. And Verhoeff, you may be sure, had a hand in the massacre afterwards when the Dutch cock-boats** darted about after the Spaniards who jumped into the sea from their burning galleons, and speared them as if they were seals or porpoises. Yes, he was a terrible fellow, Verhoeff, a burly Dutchman, with a fiery face, an orange plume in his helmet, and an orange scarf across his breastplate. And now he was breathing fire and slaughter against all Spaniards, and swearing he would bring d'Ataide's castle about his ears.

He was in and over the bar before our captain could get his drawbridge up, and he started the ball by taking a carrack that lay under the guns of the fort, with thirty-six men in her. But d'Ataide, just to show his mettle, made a sortie, and retook the ship and burnt her to the water's edge, and went back into his fortress again. Then another siege began, more furious than the last. All that van Caerden had done Verhoeff did and more. He brought great guns out of his ship—whole batteries of them—and he threw up banks of earth, and cut trenches and zigzags, and battered away at the wall, till he blew a breach in it. But d'Ataide built it up again as fast as it was thrown down, and gave as good as he got, and made such a bold show that the enemy dared not storm. To show you the sort of man he was, when a careless soldier dropped a fuse into some gunpowder it was d'Ataide himself who put out the fire and saved the fort. And when Verhoeff demanded a surrender, and said he would starve the garrison out unless they pulled down the flag, d'Ataide said nothing at all, but gave the Dutch trumpeter a splendid dinner, and drove a flock of sheep and goats out of the gateway to show Verhoeff how much he thought of his threat. The Dutchman stormed and fumed, and swore in his beard, and threatened all sorts of vengeance; but Dom Stephen only smiled at him from his ramparts, and said he had driven one rebel away, and hoped to send another about his business.

Now, one day it happened that a soldier came running from the trenches, and shouted to the men on the parapet that he was a Catholic and a Frenchman, so the captain let down a rope and pulled him up, and he was made one of the garrison. Then four Dutchmen came along, and they also said they were Catholics, and d'Ataide treated them as he had treated the Frenchman. And in return for his protection the deserters told him how the enemy was placed, and all the secrets of the camp, so that d'Ataide's gunnery and the sorties of his men grew more formidable than before. Now Verhoeff was beside himself with fury. He did not mind about the Frenchman so much; but to think that four of his own Dutchmen should be helping the Spaniards: it was more than he could stand. Then he bethought himself of the Portuguese he had taken from the carrack, and he sent word to the captain that unless his men were given back he would shoot every man of his prisoners. Poor d'Ataide: he did not love Dutchmen any more than Verhoeff loved Spaniards, and you may be sure he did not love deserters. But he had given his word—the king's word—to protect them, and now he would not give them up. Then Verhoeff, as he tells us in his own diary, had out his thirty-four prisoners, with their hands bound behind their backs, and shot them every one. But I like to think he was not quite so black as he paints himself, for the Spanish chronicler says that he only shot six. But whether it was six or thirty-four, we may be sure that d'Ataide had a sore heart as he saw his friends fall before the firing party.

But worse was to come, for a great Spanish galleon, the Bom Jesus  by name, sailed into Mozambique, never dreaming what sort of welcome awaited her. And Verhoeff's little galliots were round the tall ship in a flash, like dogs round a deer, and raked her fore and aft till she hauled down her flag.

Then Verhoeff rubbed his hands. A hundred and sixty Portuguese on board! Now, said he, I shall get my Dutchmen back.

Then he ordered the prisoners before him, and we may imagine the great crowd trembling with the thought that their last hour had come.

Verhoeff spoke to them in a voice that rattled in their ears like a volley of musketry. He would shoot them, he said, every man, unless they persuaded d'Ataide to give him back his deserters. Let them choose a man who could write, and let him write well, for their lives would depend on it.

And we can imagine the poor scribe on the deck of the Bom Jesus, with his anxious friends crowding round him and the Dutch soldiers mounting guard.

An eloquent epistle, no doubt, for men are eloquent when they plead for their lives.

"Tell him of our wives," says one.

"And of our sweethearts," says another.

"Remind the captain how I fought by his side in the Low Countries."

"Tell him I played with him as a boy."

"Be sure you say there is one here of his own blood."

"Adjure him in the name of his country," says a soldier.

"And in the name of his king," says a courtier.

"In the name of God," says a priest.

And I can imagine also d'Ataide as he gets the letter, and reads its moving and impassioned appeals with anguish in his heart. How he must have groaned within himself as he paced up and down his ramparts, and looked over the water where the Bom Jesus  lay with the Dutch ships about her. One hundred and sixty of his own friends and countrymen against four beggarly Dutch deserters! If he gave them up who would say he was wrong? If he kept them, how many in all Spain would say he was right? Would his chief, the Viceroy of the Indies? would his king?

Poor d'Ataide, he had a sore struggle as he paced up and down his parapet. But he who had fought so good a fight with the enemy fought this last good fight with himself. "No," he said again, "I will stand by my word."

The Spanish chronicler says he was wrong, for, as he argues, the Dutchmen might have been liars and no Catholics after all. I, for one, am not going to judge between them; but of this at least I am sure, the captain did not trouble himself overmuch whether they were telling truth or lies. He had given his word—the king's word. That was truth enough for him.

All night he must have waited for the rattle of the muskets in the bay. But no sound came.

In the silence and darkness of the night, as the Spanish chronicler tells us, the Dutch ships hoisted sail and crept out over the bar, and as they passed the island of St. George, Verhoeff landed his prisoners every one, and there d'Ataide found them next morning under the palm-trees safe and sound, the gift of one brave man to another.

And here the story should end, if I had my will; but Truth is not so kind, for Dom Stephen was commanded by his king, who was more greedy than wise, to search for silver mines hundreds of miles up the Zambesi. Now d'Ataide had only a hundred and fifty men, so he left twenty-five in the fortress, and with the rest he set off, like Barreto, to conquer the Monomotapa. Then the king heard that the Dutch were sending out another great fleet to capture the fortress, so he wrote to d'Ataide again, and told him to strengthen his garrison. When the captain got this letter, he saw there were only two things to be done—to give up the silver mines or give up the fortress. So down the river he went again with all his men, and he waited in his castle until ships arrived with more soldiers. Then off he started once more, brave soul that he was, up that dreadful fever-haunted river, where so many Portuguese soldiers have laid down their lives. But the king was angry because d'Ataide was so slow in getting the silver. And he said the captain could have had soldiers enough for both conquest and garrison if he had used the king's money aright. So he disgraced d'Ataide, and sent out a judge to try him.

If he is found guilty, said the king, send him home to Portugal in chains.

But whether he was guilty or innocent I cannot tell, for when he got the king's message his brave heart broke, and he died upon his island; and there his bones lie still under the coral sand beneath the green waving palms of Mozambique.