In the fall of 1553 in a small room at the back of a sailmaker’s shop in Plymouth, Devon, England, the cries of a newborn baby reached the crowded workshop. “You seem distracted, John,” an important customer said to the proprietor. “Begging your pardon, Mr. Hawkins, but I believe I am hearing the cries of my firstborn. “For God’s sake, man, go and see to your wife! My business can wait.”
John rushed to the back room and saw his firstborn cradled in his wife’s arms. She smiled and with a tired voice whispered, “John, meet John.” Both father and son shared given names, it was a family tradition. The adventures this wailing infant would live were unimaginable to his parents.
Young John Crispin’s youth coincided with a time of monumental change in England. During his earliest years, Mary Queen of Scots earned the name Bloody Mary for burning hundreds of Protestants at the stake in an effort to bring England back into the arms of the Catholic Church. By the time John was eleven, Elizabeth I had re-established the Act of Supremacy, once again making the reigning monarch the official head of the Church of England. It was the beginning of an amazing period in English history known as the Golden Age of Elizabeth and would last some forty-five years, touching the lives of John Crispin and his younger brother James in ways neither could imagine.
John and his brother grew up in a town that had in the first half of the century changed from a simple fishing village to a prosperous port with all the hustle and bustle of trading ships. It was an exciting time for two young boys and stirred in both a desire for adventure.
Their father’s wish was they become sailmakers, and indeed the boys learned this craft well, making and mending sails for all manner of vessels. While working, John was always bending his ear to the stories of adventure shared by customers. They were a mixed lot—traders, whalers, fishermen, and naval officers who had sailed up and down the coast of Africa, fished off the stormy waters of North America, or traded in the blue waters of the Mediterranean and the West Indies. They often spoke of treasure, Asian spices, and Spanish silver and gold.
The young boy’s desire was not to measure, sew, and mend those great sails but to stand beneath them, the wind against his face, the salt air teasing his nostrils, pushing the vessel under his feet to places undiscovered. By the age of ten he was begging his parents leave that he might serve on a sailing ship going on some great voyage.
His father would hear none of it, for he was familiar with the harsh realities of a life at sea. Unlike a young boy’s dreams, it involved a great deal of suffering and quite often a short life. He was himself the victim of a lead ball now permanently lodged in his hip, courtesy of a French captain whose vessel he had boarded.
The Frenchman was about to finish him off with a short sword when another fellow stepped in, driving his blade into the startled man’s heart. His rescuer in turn had his leg shattered by a well-aimed shot from the rigging above. The wounded men helped each other back to the safety of the English ship. The incident ended there, leaving him with a permanent limp, indebted to the Spaniard he only knew as Fernand.
To appease his son’s wanderlust and provide fresh fish for the table, his parents purchased a small skiff from a friendly captain. It was not in the best condition, but in short order John had it patched, painted and ingeniously converted into an efficient little sailing vessel. He used every spare minute to maneuver his tiny craft around the inner harbor. The fishing suffered, for he preferred to just sail, challenging currents and swells around St. Nicholas Island and the mouth of the Tamar River.
On more than one occasion he encountered a mighty English warship and would race them toward the harbor. The crews would laugh and wave and often applaud his skills. One day he raced a trading vessel returning from the West Indies. A young man stood at the helm of that ship, laughing and cheering on the boy in his sailboat. He waved as they parted and he said to a crewman, “Someday that lad will become a great captain.” The man making these comments was none other than Francis Drake. Neither could know how their paths would cross again.
His younger brother James would often join him and demonstrate that he too was a natural sailor when it came to catching the wind and having the small craft do his bidding. The brothers would pretend the chapel on St. Nicholas Island was a Spanish fort and attempt to capture it for Queen Elizabeth and England, only to be chased away by the attending clergy.
The gift his parents had provided was meant to appease his wanderlust but it convinced him more than ever that he was meant to go to sea. He yearned for a life of adventure, as did many boys of that time, and he felt the only way to achieve this was to get aboard some great sailing vessel. At the age of sixteen he could bear it no longer and made a decision that would change his life and the lives of many others.
1.1 The Plan
His strategy was simple: He would wait for a customer to arrive in the shop and divulge his route. When the right one came along he would stow away aboard the vessel and make good his escape.
Some weeks later a Captain Diego, who commanded a Portuguese caravel, dropped by the shop to request a new sail. His own sailmaker had taken ill and died on their voyage to the Netherlands. John overheard that he wished to be on his way back to the Indies in two days’ time.
While in Holland Diego had seen an English caravel and was struck by the arrangement of the bowsprit. He had his carpenter study and duplicate the construction, but now he was in need of a proper sail to complete the project. He wished to have this spritsail installed before returning to the Canary Islands and the Indies.
John volunteered to accompany the captain to take measurements for the requested sail but his real agenda was to reconnoiter the vessel. By the time he was finished with his measurements, he felt his best chance would be to hide into the longboat, which was located next to the dock. He determined that under cover of darkness he could squeeze under the sailcloth that covered it and with luck remain unseen by the crew.
On the night of this great adventure he felt some remorse at leaving his father to shoulder the business but his younger brother James and an older cousin were also working in the shop, and that assuaged his guilt. He cut pork, cheese, and bread and filled a flask with water—enough, he calculated, to last two days in hiding. In a duffle bag he packed a linen shirt, pair of trousers, toque, tin cup, and comb. He drafted a note to his parents that simply read:
Dear Mother and Father,
I could wait no longer. I know you would not give me permission so I have decided to embark on this adventure in secrecy. Please believe l love thee dearly. I leave my skiff to James.
Your loving son John
He carefully placed the note inside his bedside bible and was about to leave when his brother woke. “John, are you going sailing without me?” He sat down on the bed and whispered to James, “Sailing, yes, but not in our little boat. I am stealing away to the Indies, and you must not tell Mother and Father for at least a day. Can you keep that secret?”
James sat up, rubbing his eyes, and studied his brother in the faint light. “I can, and will someday join you, brother.” John retrieved the note from the bible and gave it to James.
“Someday, my little brother, I will be the scourge of the Spanish and come home with riches beyond belief.” He gave James a tickle and then looked serious and said, “I will miss you.”
James reached into the breeches that hung on a hook beside his bed and removed a small, round stone. It was smooth and speckled with flecks of iron pyrite. It had been a gift from his brother as a good luck piece. “Take it back, John, for you will need its luck now. You can return it when we meet again.” A tear rolled down his cheek as he turned his head to the wall. “I shall miss you, brother…now go.”
John could hear his father snoring as he crept by his parents’ open door, through the family kitchen, and out into the shop. As he stepped into the narrow alleyway, his heart pounding, he hesitated. A large rat scurried past him on its own mission, and John followed it toward the docks.
Rounding the last corner, he tripped over the leg of a drunken sailor propped against a pub wall. The man swore at him and made a grab at his pant leg before slumping facedown on the cold stone. John peered out toward the vessel and all seemed quiet. Slowly he eased his way over to the longboat. He scanned the deck and spotted two men talking in the stern with their backs to him while another slept on the far side of the ship.
He loosened a tie near the stern of the longboat, pushed his duffle inside, and quielty climbed in himself. He squeezed under the oars that straddled the middle of the small craft. Curled up and using his duffle as a pillow, John fell asleep, too exhausted to even dream of adventure.
He awoke to much shouting in Portuguese and realized they were preparing the ship for sailing. Someone was retying the tarp on his refuge, cursing, but thankfully not looking inside. He sipped water from his flask and lay still, listening to the captain shouting orders, imagining the activity onboard. With mooring lines untied and men clambering about, he sensed they were moving out of the harbor.
A great advantage of the caravel design was its ability to tack with the wind, and on this day the captain and pilot of this small vessel did just that. Soon his heart pounded, for he could feel the large swells of the ocean beneath him. With the first leg of his adventure underway, John Crispin was at last truly at sea.
The first day proved uneventful as the caravel worked its way southward through the Atlantic swells. He could hear the crew chatting but understood little, for they spoke Portuguese and Spanish. His biggest problem was where to urinate, and he finally had to relieve himself into the tin cup he had packed. Later when darkness set in, he managed to loosen one corner of the tarp and toss the cups contents into the Atlantic.
His second day at sea proved more troublesome. The ocean swells were large and he couldn’t counter the nausea by focusing on the horizon, as he did in his small skiff. As he heaved the contents of his stomach into the bottom of the longboat, a crewmember standing nearby heard him.
The burly Spaniard unlashed the tarp and grabbed the boy by his collar, hauling him in one quick sweep onto the heaving deck. John fell on all fours and tried to get his bearings as a group of sailors gathered around.
“What’s the commotion down there?” the captain yelled in Portuguese. “Stowaway,” the burly seaman replied. “English spy.” The man had pulled a dagger and hovered threateningly over the ashen-faced youth.
“Bring him here,” the captain yelled. They manhandled John up to the quarterdeck and deposited him at the captain’s feet. He grasped the boy’s chin and tilted his head back. John looked up, squinting into the bright sunlight. “You!” he exclaimed. “Are you not the sailmaker’s son?” He said it in perfect English. “Yes,” John replied. “I wish to join your crew and sail with you to the New World.” “You think you can become a member of my crew by stowing away like a common criminal?” the captain yelled.
The quartermaster interjected while winking at the captain, “Shall we do with him as we did with the last English spy we encountered, Captain?” “Ah, yes.” The captain reflected, stoking his beard as if in deep thought. “The one we keelhauled and fed what was left to the sharks.”
John’s eyes opened wide. “But Captain, I am no spy. I shall work my way by mending sails and anything else I can help with. I understand you lost your best sailmaker and I would happily take his place to pay my passage.” “You! Replace Rodriguez? He didn’t just mend sails, boy; he was a master of the cutlass and in a pinch could act as a pilot for this vessel. Do not sully his name by suggesting you could replace such a man.” “I’m sorry, Captain, I didn’t mean—” “Enough!” Diego looked at John disdainfully.
“Shall I slit this English spy’s throat and throw him to the fish, Captain?” “Sheath your blade, Alvarez,” the captain responded. “He is no spy, just an English boy seeking adventure.” The man did so but John could see in his eyes he would gladly have completed the task if allowed. He made a mental note to watch out for this man Alvarez.
“Does your family know of your whereabouts?” the captain asked. “I left a note telling them,” John said. “Please, señor Diego, I will earn my keep.” “Yes, you will, my young friend, and you will soon realize adventure on the high seas is not what you think. Furthermore, should an English merchantman cross our bows, you will be put on board and returned to your home.”
The captain turned to his quartermaster. “Francisco, he is your charge, and listen, all of you! Let it be understood that no harm is to come to this boy, especially nothing of a perverse nature.” The crew laughed at that last remark, knowing it was added to make John uneasy.
Francisco took John’s sleeve and directed him to a small space beneath the quarterdeck and pointed to a cramped corner. He gave him a leather bag for sleeping and told him to clean up the mess he had made in the longboat. John moved quickly to complete that task, realizing he was lucky these men were in control and not the man called Alvarez. After he had cleaned up the longboat, Francisco brought him some salted cod and biscuits. He was then told to lie down and rest. “Tomorrow, English, we will see what you are made of,” Francisco said, smiling.
1.4 Life Aboard a Caravel
The vessel John had chosen to stow away on was named the Gabriel, and she was a true workhorse of the ocean. Since the 1450s, caravels had become the principle vessels for Portuguese explorers. It was in such a vessel that Columbus had sailed to the West Indies and Ferdinand Magellan, a son of Portugal, had circumnavigated the globe.
Now John experienced firsthand the harsh realities of a life at sea: the endless menial tasks and a bland diet consisting of maggoty biscuits, stale water, beans, rice, cheese, and salted pork. That combined with the foul smells that accompanied twenty men squeezed into the confined deck space was enough to dissuade many young men from a life at sea.
John, however, rose to each challenge with eagerness and determination. He never balked at any task given to him, and initially there were many, for the crew treated him like a lowly peasant pageon their vessel.
The captain and quartermaster of the Gabriel were both impressed with the way John pitched in with no hesitation and quite often without need of instruction. He was, of course, quite skilled at mending sails and made a serious effort to learn the language of his shipmates.
After John had spent two weeks aboard the Gabriel, the captain called him to the quarterdeck. “So, English, Francisco and I feel you have performed well, my young friend. You may consider yourself one of the crew, and if you keep up the good work when we reach Cuba I will award you a certificate stating you to be a crewmember of the Gabriel. From now on, Francisco will issue your specific duties. Do you have any questions, boy?” “No, Captain, and thank you.” He dismissed his young crewmember and smiled when John turned away. He liked this young English boy and saw in John a reflection of himself some forty years earlier.
Francisco spent much time with John, for he admired the boy’s determination. One day as they chewed on some salted pork and maggoty biscuits, he said, “We must change your name.” “What? Why?” John asked. “Because we will soon be sailing in Spanish waters and there are some who would love to get their hands on a young English spy such as yourself.” John looked at him, puzzled. “But, Francisco, I am no spy!” “I know that, but there are many who would murder you simply for being English. They would add the word spy to clear their conscience.”
“The captain and I have given it some thought. We think Juan Crispino would work. It is a Spanish version of your name.” “But I don’t speak Spanish well enough,” John protested. “That is because you are simpleminded.” John’s eyes widened. “I am not!” He protested as the quartermaster laughed. “No, but you must act the part for now. If a Spanish soldier approaches you, what would you say?” John was confused and then it dawned on him. “Nothing?” he replied, a smile crossing his face. “For I am simpleminded.” “Correct, Juan.”
“I will instruct the crew as to your new Spanish identity. They will be told your new name and that you are simpleminded. I’m sure they will laugh at this and give you a hard time.” John frowned and replied. “Especially Alvarez.”
The next day Diego called out to him in English, “What is your name?” John smiled and answered, “Juan Crispino.” “No, you are an English spy and you shall now die.” John looked at him, puzzled. “Grab him and bring him here,” Diego shouted.
Two burly Portuguese shipmates brought him before Diego. “I asked you your name in English. How is it you understand English so well?” he said with a frown. “You must be an English spy.” The crew who witnessed this laughed. Diego got nose to nose with the young man. “It is all fun for now, my boy; however, your life may very well depend on how you respond should some Spanish inquisitor speak to you in English as I just did.”
From that day on John Crispin was no longer. He was now Juan Crispino and practiced answering to his new name as if it were his own. Whenever anyone spoke to him in English, he responded with his dazed smile. Captain Diego and Quartermaster Francisco took their time to teach him the ways of a ship. He learned from other crewmembers as well, mastering skills and learning as much of their language as he could. Before long he was a well-trained seaman whom any captain would be proud to have in his crew.
1.5 The Galleon
Juan was impressed at Captain Diego’s ability to speak several languages. The crew of the Gabriel was predominantly Portuguese but also had Spanish-, Dutch-, and French-speaking members among them. The captain told Juan that knowing the language and customs of your friends and enemies could be very useful, especially when negotiating trade deals.
After three days of sailing from the islands, Juan experienced his first storm at sea. A small gale blew the Gabriel off course, and they had to tack back on an easterly course. It was a slow process for the caravel and cost them two extra days of travel.
On this leg of the journey his new identity was put to the test, for as they approached the Canary Islands a Spanish galleon interrupted their passage and signaled them to come alongside.
Diego seemed more than happy to oblige the huge vessel and pulled alongside as some of its crew proceeded to launch a longboat. Juan stared up at the massive galleon, for he had never seen a ship of this size. She was some three times the tonnage of the caravel and twice its length.
Francisco told Juan if the galleon was heading to the Indies there was likely some two hundred souls on board. Her multiple decks made her seem even taller. A large number of the crew gazed down at them as Diego prepared to board the mighty ship. Unexpectedly he called back to them. “Francisco bring the boy and join us.” Before Francisco could decline Juan had scrambled onto the longboat. The quartermaster frowned as he followed and reminded Juan. “Do not forget you are simple. The stunned countenance you now display will do nicely.” Juan realized he had been standing there with his mouth wide open, staring at the mighty warship.
When they climbed aboard, a tall, handsome, and well-dressed man stepped forward and he and Diego embraced as two old friends would. “López, my friend! I thought it might be you.” “Diego, you blockade runner,” the galleon captain replied. Diego countered, “I see that no English pirate or French corsair has yet taken your head.” “Let them try, Diego. For if they dared to try at this moment they would find a hold not full of Spanish gold but filled to the brim with conquistadors headed for the New World”
Another Spaniard, a brute of a man with a dark demeanor but obviously of some importance, stood to the captain’s left. Diego also knew and acknowledged him. “Señor Cassius.” Juan immediately had the sense that the two did not like each other. “You have met?” The galleon captain asked. “Yes, in Cuba,” Cassius said. “I also know Francisco. We were comrades in arms many years ago. His lovely wife runs a fine kitchen in Santiago Which I frequent often, for the food is delicious and the company…shall we say….” He paused, and with a smirk finished his sentence. “Stimulating.” It was obviously meant as an insult, but the quartermaster kept his composure and did not rise to the bait.
“And who is this young man?” López asked, pointing to Juan. “He looks English,” Cassius interjected. “Perhaps an English spy?” Diego spoke up. “Gentlemen, he is the simpleminded son of a fisherman from the seaport of Vigo. Hardly a spy but possibly the bastard son of an English raider.” All but Cassius laughed. “The boy has never seen a galleon this close before and was so taken by it I decided to let him join us.”
“What is your name, boy?” Cassius asked in English. He wasn’t looking directly at Juan but down at the ring he was fingering on his left hand. No longer taken in by this trick, he smiled at him without answering. The galleons captain scowled at Cassius. “He does not speak English, or have you not heard a word Captain Diego said? My apologies, Diego, for I am sure Cassius has hung more than one innocent man accused of spying. The truth is he even thinks the rats on board our ship are English spies, sent by Elizabeth to steal our Spanish cheese. He has them tortured until they confess.”
All but Cassius laughed, his rising blood pressure making a scar that crossed over his eye and down his cheek turn crimson. The galleon captain took Diego by the arm. “Come, my friend, we have much catching up to do and little time. Francisco, you can show the young lad our fine galleon, for I doubt Cassius would be a gracious host.” The brooding Spaniard fixed his gaze upon Juan, making him uncomfortable. When he looked into the man’s eyes, he saw something evil, serpent like—dark and powerful, not human. He couldn’t name what he saw but he could feel it, and a chill ran down his spine.
Cassius smiled at him, revealing a row of tobacco-stained teeth. The only thing that shone about the man was his helmet, which partially hid the piercing eyes, eyes now focused on the young Englishman. Juan thought to himself, he has the eyes of a serpent.
After the two captains disappeared into López’s quarters, Francisco and Juan toured the mighty warship. Cassius watched them closely, Juan playing his role perfectly, staring wide-eyed and sometimes grinning at the hovering Spaniard for added effect.
Juan was admiring the huge stern lantern when he felt a small hand take his. Startled he looked down to see a pretty girl about ten years old, who smiled and said, “It is a magnificent light and I am told it helps those that follow us at night.” “My name is Lucia, and what is your name, señor?” “I am Juan Crispino.” He bowed to the young girl. “May I join you?” she asked. “Why certainly, young lady.” Francisco chirped in, “You must excuse Juan, for he does not say much.” He gave Juan a sideways scowl to remind him to act the fool.
The trio carried on, with Juan marveling at the great ship. Many soldiers were above deck playing cards and gambling with dice. Much of the crew worked at shipboard tasks. Juan took note of the massive sails and huge, thick masts of this impressive vessel.
Francisco explained she was a treasure galleon, designed and equipped to both carry and defend gold and silver from the New World. Her name was The San Ignacio, and she was on her way to Cuba after a quick stopover in the Canary Islands to exchange goods and passengers and much needed supplies. After Cuba she would carry on to Mexico to pick up gold and silver for King Phillip’s coffers. There she would likely reconnoiter with several other galleons to create a treasure convoy for protection against the likes of Drake, Hawkins, and a host of other privateers and pirates.
Their ship’s tour was short-lived, for the captains had returned. Young Lucia looked up to Juan, still holding his hand. “Will you be my friend in the Indies?” He smiled and nodded yes. She released his hand and ran to a boy about Juan’s age, leaping into his arms. “Mateo, I have found a friend for us, his name is Juan!” The young lad smiled as he hugged his sister nodding his acknowledgement of Juan.
Diego had a rolled parchment in hand as he climbed into the waiting longboat. He bid Captain de Canavas farewell. “I shall have your men return with a cask of Abuelo’s fine liquor,” They returned to the Gabriel and Diego noticed Juan staring at the parchment. He smiled as he unraveled the document and showed it to Juan. “It is a letter of passage bearing the signature of López. It guarantees us safe passage through Spanish waters. For even though we are a Portuguese ship, it never hurts to have such a document issued by a powerful Spanish captain such as López de Canavas.”
Juan looked at the document and then noticed Cassius staring at him from the bow of the galleon. “Now why would Diego bother showing a letter to a dimwitted boy?” the Spaniard wondered aloud. Juan caught his eye and waved with the same dumb smile, but had the uneasy feeling that Cassius was still suspicious of him. His gaze was then drawn to the Spaniard’s side, for Lucia was standing beside him holding Cassius’ hand while waving to her newfound friend.
Back on board the Gabriel and once underway, Juan asked Francisco how he knew so much about these mighty ships. “Because, my young friend, I served on one many years ago under Alonso de Arellano in the Pacific. Although it turned out to be an important voyage of discovery, I nearly died and many of my shipmates did. After landing in Panama I worked my way back to the Indies, where I met Diego, and the rest as they say is history.”
Diego called Juan to the stern. “My boy, we will be stopping at the Canary Islands only long enough to take on water, exchange cargo, and pick up some supplies. I feel that for your own safety you should stay on board. Your feet will touch land again once we reach Cuba.”
Juan was disappointed, but Francisco agreed it was in his best interest. Three days later, they set sail for the New World and he hoped a taste of the adventures he had dreamed of.
Later that day he asked Diego what was so special about the cask he had delivered to Captain López. “It is a fine liquor made from the sugarcane on Abuelo’s Island. In English you would of course call it Grandfather’s Island. The man we call Abuelo is Carlos Alvaro Esteban. He is old and very wise, and through the years has discovered a way to distill liquor similar to cachaça from Brazil. His drink doesn’t burn your gut like that Brazilian brew. What’s more, it fetches good value in trade and actually seems to improve with age.
We will visit his island to gather this magic elixir along with sugarcane, and cacaocakes. You will see a truly beautiful place, one I always look forward to returning to.” “What are cacao cakes Diego?” “My boy, you ask more questions than a five-year-old. When we get to Cuba I will prepare you a delicious drink made with cacao.”
The long trip to the New World was spent mastering a host of shipboard skills as well as learning Spanish and Portuguese. Diego, Francisco, and a number of other crewmembers delighted in teaching the boy. He got along well with almost everyone, the exception being Alvarez, the man who had discovered him. For whatever reason the Spaniard took a dislike to him.
Diego encouraged Juan, telling him he was “a natural sailor” and testing him. He asked the young man how certain maneuvers would be carried out with the caravel and was surprised, for nine times out of ten Juan was correct. He explained how he had learned much by sailing his small skiff around Plymouth.
Juan had won over Diego and Francisco with his work ethic and determination. Despite his age they already considered him an important part of their crew. He would show them just how important sooner than they could have imagined.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish