The publication of Death’s Bright Angel, the new Quinton novel, is getting ever closer, so here’s another ‘teaser trailer’ for the book! This describes the destruction of the Dutch merchant shipping in the Vlie anchorage on 9 and 10 August 1666 (Old Style; 19 and 20 August on the calendar used by the Dutch, so the publication of this blog post falls neatly between the two sets of dates). This action, now all but forgotten in Britain, certainly isn’t forgotten in the Frisian Islands, where the 350th anniversary is being commemorated this month. My description of events in Death’s Bright Angel is based closely on the actual accounts of the attack: the Dutch losses were colossal, totalling some 150 merchant ships and cargoes worth over £1 million. For a moment, it seemed as though the ‘consequences’ that Matthew Quinton refers to early in this extract might become a reality – the collapse of the Amsterdam stock exchange, and perhaps a political revolution which might lead to the Dutch suing for peace. Not surprisingly, many contemporaries looked back and wondered whether the Great Fire of London, which took place three weeks later, was revenge for what the Dutch still call ‘the English Fury’.
What’s that you say? Does the plot of Death’s Bright Angel have anything to do with those rumours?
To coin a phrase: you may very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.
SPOILER ALERT – the following extract contains an important spoiler for those who haven’t yet read the fifth Quinton book, The Battle of All the Ages. Otherwise, read on!
‘Make for the furthest line of ships!’ I ordered.
‘Aye, aye, Sir Matthew!’
We were passing between row after row of hulls, sometimes four or five deep, some lashed together, most at individual moorings. But I knew two things. First, there was no point starting with the nearest ships; the wind was south-westerly, so we needed to start setting fires at the far end of the fleet, then work back, so that the breeze would do much of our work for us. Second, the ships furthest away for us were the ones most likely to try and make a run for the open sea; and so it proved. We emerged from between two rows of flyboats to see Holmes signalling from the Fanfan, while beyond, what looked to be a Guineaman, three privateers, and five more flyboats, were putting on sail and starting to move away toward the south-east, into a narrow channel between the Vlie island itself and some small inlets that lay between it and the mainland.
I looked across toward the Fanfan. Holmes was pacing the deck, jumping up onto the wale, shaking his fist and screaming inaudible obscenities at the fleeing Dutchmen. But he was a good enough seaman to know the reality of the situation. Finally, he went back to the stern of the yacht, waved across to the water to me, raised his hands as if to say ‘it matters not a jot’, and pointed back towards the hulls behind us. Nine had got away, but that still left over one hundred and fifty ships to burn. And in one sense, it was good that some of the Dutch had escaped. They would carry the news to Amsterdam of what the English had done at the Vlie, and God willing, that news would bring the consequences we all hoped for. So we left the fleeing Dutchmen to their own devices, put over the helms of our boats, and made for the ranks of ships in the Vlie anchorage.
In truth, my order was nearly as redundant as the fireballs. Every seaman knew how to fire a ship, and how to extinguish such a fire: countless vessels were lost to accidental blazes, so fire was one of the most feared of all the many hazards of the sea-business. Thus it was simply a case of men doing what they were always specifically ordered not to do, such as igniting straw below decks, laying a powder fuse to a tar barrel, and so forth.
As we pushed off from the flyboat and the oarsmen took up their strokes, I saw the first flames spit from the upper deck of the ship. It is remarkable how quickly a hull burns; soon, the whole vessel was ablaze from stem to stern. The breeze carried the flames into the rigging and upperworks of the ship secured alongside it, and in short order, that, too, was a roaring conflagration. So onward, through the entire fleet. It was slow work, but with no resistance at all, it was easy work, too. My men moved from hull to hull, methodically placing setting fires wherever they would cause the most damage. I looked across to the other groups of ships in my view. On all of them, Englishmen were engaged in the same work, firing their fuses and fireballs, getting back into their longboats, and rowing to the next batch of vessels. We cut the cables of many of the Dutch ships – in some cases, their own crews had already done so – so that burning hulls drifted against others, firing them in turn. Some ships burned more readily and fulsomely than others, depending on the nature of the cargoes they carried, but burn they all did, sooner or later. By the early evening, the entire Vlie anchorage was a carpet of flame, the smells of burning wood and scores of cargoes, from spices to pinewood to saltfish, putting me in mind of a vast kitchen. Guinea ships, Turkey Company ships from Smyrna and Scanderoon, Russia traders from Archangel, Balticmen from Danzig and Riga, flyboats laden with French wines from La Rochelle or Bordeaux, timber cargoes from Norway – all of them blazed away, sending a vast pall of smoke into the air. Even on the quarterdeck of the Black Prince, at anchor in Schelling Road some considerable distance from the seat of the fire, the heat warmed the faces of Kit Farrell and I as we watched the great merchant fleet perish. Against the setting sun, it looked like Hell itself.
‘A fine day’s work, Sir Matthew,’ said Kit.
‘And would you say that in the hearing of your wife?’
I laughed. Until only very recently, Kit would never have dared to make such a quip at my expense. But in many respects, we were equals now, and he, who knew Cornelia very well, was finally starting to come to terms with the fact.
‘Sakes no, Kit. Even if she were on the point of giving birth, she would beat me black and blue for insulting her countrymen so.’
Little did I realise how prescient both Kit’s question and my mocking response to it would prove to be.
At length, with the flames still raging all across the Wadden Sea, we went below for a supper of salt beef and execrable claret. Kit then went back on deck to take the middle watch, while I retired to my pallet in his cabin. It would be an early start on the next morning, when we were to execute the second part of the attack.
Want to know what happens in ‘the second part of the attack’, and how the plot of Death’s Bright Angel connects ‘Sir Robert Holmes, his bonfire’ to the Great Fire of London? Pre-order the book now – not long to wait!