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John Davis, the Hero of the Arctic and Pacific. page 3


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"I doubt, captain, whether we can weather Cape Pillar after all," said the master.

"There is no remedy, man," replied Davis; "either we must double it, or before noon we must die; therefore loose your sails and let us put it to God's mercy."

So the Desire was close-hauled and steered for the entrance; but when she was half a mile from the point, the vessel was so near the shore that the backwash, or counter-surf, jumped up against the ship's side. The wind and sea were raging beyond measure, and the black rock frowned above them.

As a last resource, seeing that the ship was rapidly drifting to leeward, on to the jagged teeth of the rocks, the master eased off the mainsheet; the Desire gathered way, leapt forward as she felt the wind coming aft (some flaw had struck back off the cliff), and in a few strokes of the pulse she had weathered the Cape.

Now they turned down the strait, and had the wind behind them; without a rag of sail they sped before the storm, and in six hours had been driven twenty-five leagues as if by magic. Then the ship being brought to inside a wooded cove, and moored securely to some trees, the exhausted crew flung themselves down and enjoyed a long, deep sleep.

How had Davis managed to pilot his ship in these unknown Abaters? Why, he tells us he had made a map in his mind's eye when he had passed through before in fair weather; and his men trusted him home, and swore Captain Davis could pilot his ship "even in the hell-dark night." When they arrived at Penguin Island, nine miles south of Port Desire, they sent boats ashore; the men found the penguins so closely packed on the little island that they could not move without treading on them.

It so happened that the two mutineers, Parker and Smith, were ordered to stay on Penguin Island and collect birds, but they refused to obey; for they believed that their captain was going to maroon them there out of revenge for their ill conduct. Davis called the crew together and made them a speech, thus addressing the ringleaders: "Parker and Smiths I understand that you are doubtful of your security, through the perverseness of your own guilty consciences. It is an extreme grief to me that you should judge me bloodthirsty, in whom you have seen nothing but kind conversation.... All the company knoweth that in this place you practised to the utmost of your powers to murder me and the master, without cause, as God knoweth; which evil we did remit you.... Now be void of these suspicions; for I call God to witness that revenge is no part of my thought."

Very few captains would have shown such leniency and patience as Davis did; and when a few days after Parker and Smith fell victims to an attack of savages, all the crew looked upon it as a judgment from heaven.

The fresh food of penguins and young seals, together with the herb which the sailors called "scurvy-grass," soon effected an improvement in health.

On the 22nd of December the Desire sailed for home, carrying, as they believed, provisions for six months. It was in a melancholy and desponding spirit that Davis looked forward to returning. There would be no enthusiastic welcome for a seaman who came with no prizes and no discovery of gold. Who cared for his log-book and surveys of strait and island? only the initiated few, the scientific sailors. He was coming home a ruined man, having lost more than a thousand pounds in this venture. But as yet he did not know one half of his misfortunes and disgrace.

His great faith in the goodness of God was to be still more sorely tried.

In January they landed at Placentia, an island off the Brazilian coast, and worked hard for many days, making new casks for water and gathering roots and herbs.

On the night of February 5th Davis and several of the crew dreamed of murder; they were all talking of it excitedly on deck when their captain said, "Boys, when you land this morning, see ye go armed."

About noon, as the working party were resting in the shade, or bathing in the quiet pools, there was a sudden whoop - an Indian yell - and a body of Portuguese and Indians rushed upon them and killed all but two, who escaped to the ship.

Davis rowed to the spot with an armed crew, but found only the dead bodies of his men, and saw in the distance two pinnaces making for Rio de Janeiro.

Now there were only twenty-seven men left out of seventy-six who started from England; but more trouble was yet in store for the survivors.

As they sailed over the hot ocean the penguin-flesh, which had been badly cured with insufficient salt, made them ill; loathsome worms an inch long were found in the meat. "This worm," says Janes, "did so mightily increase and devour our victuals that there was no hope how we should avoid famine. There was nothing the worms did not devour - iron only excepted - our clothes, hats, boots, shirts, and stockings; as for the ship, they did eat the timbers, so that we greatly feared they would undo us by eating through the ship's side. The more we laboured to kill them, the more they increased upon us, so that at last we could not sleep for them, for they would eat our flesh like mosquitoes."

Then the scurvy broke out again, bodies began to swell and minds to give way. Davis went from one to another, bidding them bear God's chastisement in patience; but it must have wounded his kind heart to see how many of the crew suffered and died. At last there were only sixteen left alive, and of these eleven were unable to move, but lay moaning on the deck.

Captain Cotton and Mr. Janes, Davis, and a boy and one sailor - these alone had health to work the ship, and took turns at the helm; as for the sails, they were mostly blown away, and needed little managing.

It must have been a weary time, and they wondered if they would ever see land before their food and water gave out.

But they sighted Ireland at last, and ran the old ship on shore near Berehaven on the 11th of June 1593. From Berehaven Captain Davis sailed in a fishing-boat to Padstow in Cornwall - thinking, no doubt, of wife and children, and the silver Dart, and the comforts of a happy home, ruined man though he was.

As he drew near the familiar groves and fields, was it fancy? or did his neighbours shrink from his approach? Could they have heard the news of his ill success, and were they ashamed of him already?

"Ah! there is Adrian, old friend and true! he will welcome me home!"

"John - John Davis! how thou art changed, lad! Hast heard the heavy news?"

"No - surely my dear wife be not taken by the pestilence?"

"Better an she were, John. A scoundrel named Milburne has been here while you were on the seas, and has run away with her - robbed you of your beloved Faith."

The shock was so great, the explorer could not speak for some minutes. Then, in a faltering voice: "The children, Adrian? be they in the old home?"

"Yea, lad, under the care of a good soul. God help you, John!"

The two friends grasped hands, and Davis said low to himself:

"Robbed me of my Faith! Dear Lord in heaven, I have yet faith - faith in Thee; and that shall be my last anchor, blow what gales there may in a naughty night!"

So the brave, God-fearing seaman tried to take comfort in his heavy hour, tried to laugh and be merry with his boys, and tried to make excuses for the woman who had deserted him for a handsome coiner of false money.

But the neighbours shook their heads as they saw him pace along the river in the gloaming, with downcast eyes and slow stride. "I doubt Master John will never command another ship!" - that was the general opinion.

Captain Davis was recovering health and good spirits at Sandridge when, one afternoon in March 1594, the postman came, blowing his horn, and delivered him a letter from his good friend, Sir Walter Raleigh, from Sherborne Castle. A letter in those days asked some careful reading, handwriting was so varied and spelling so abnormal. So John sat in an arbour from which he could look over the shining reaches of the Dart, and straightened out the paper.

What was this strange news? "A warrant is out against thee, John, for some illegal practices which a man named Milburne has accused thee of. I would thou shouldst hasten up to London, calling here on thy way."

Illegal practices! John Davis knew nought of any such; but he packed his travelling satchel, and ordered his man to bring round the bay gelding.

In vain! he had hardly ridden a hundred yards when a pursuivant intercepted him and carried him in custody to Dartmouth.

The charge was investigated by the best gentlemen in Devon: it did not take long to prove the accusation false. The chairman shook hands with Captain Davis, and made a complimentary speech: "He was sure they all recognised the diligence, fidelity, and intelligence of their distinguished neighbour in the Queen's service. They had heard from others of his loyalty to his leader in the late voyage, of his great kindness to his men, and of a moral courage shown in the last few months under circumstances which might have overwhelmed a weaker man. This it was to be a hero indeed, and the men of Devon were passing proud of so excellent a friend and neighbour."

We can imagine how the tortured seaman went home with gratitude in his heart, first to God, and then to his kind acquaintance. Once more he could meet Judith Havard, the lady who was in charge of his children, without a sense of shame. And if he had lost all the money he had saved up, yet he still had the little home and farm at Sandridge, and leisure to read and write.

Yes, he would write a treatise on the art of navigation! So two years sped swiftly and happily by, while he wrote "The Seaman's Secrets," dedicated to Lord Howard of Effingham. His charts were valued by British pilots for many years. He possessed deep scientific knowledge, with unrivalled experience as a seaman, and in these quiet hours of study he was saving many a life in the future.

But he had not yet given up the dream of his youth, the discovery of the North-west Passage, and he addressed an appeal to the Privy Council on the subject. In this he reminds the lords of the achievements of his countrymen. "John Hawkins was the first to attempt a voyage to the West Indies, for before he made the attempt it was a matter doubtful, and reported the extremest limit of danger, to sail upon those coasts;... such is the slowness of our nation, for the most part of us rather joy at home like epicures, to sit and carp at other men's hazard, ourselves not daring to give any attempt."

The writer hoped that his eloquent appeal might stir the blood of courtiers; but no reply came, and he bowed his heap to another disappointment.

However, his three sons were growing up, and money must be found somehow; for his wife was dead, and all depended on him alone. So in 1595 John Davis went again to sea, captain of a ship trading to Roehelle; and then he served under Essex before Cadiz, and in a voyage to the Azores.

In the winter of 1598 Davis offered himself as pilot to the Dutch expedition to the East Indies, and was gladly accepted. At Table Bay in South Africa he noted the Kaffirs as a strong and active race - "In speaking they cluck with the tongue like a brood-hen." Wherever he went, he made notes of the exports and imports of each port, as well as writing on the tides, shoals, and rocks. On his return to England the new East India Company was fitting out its first fleet under James Lancaster, and Davis was asked to go as chief pilot. He was to receive 500 if the voyage yielded two for one, 1000 if three for one, and 2000 if five for one. His experience with the Dutch enabled him to give valuable advice in selecting the cargo for Eastern markets.

On the 2nd of April 1601 the fleet sailed from Tor Bay - this was one of the most momentous events in British history, the birth of an Indian Empire.

The crews suffered terribly from scurvy before they reached the Cape: the Red Dragon alone, on which Davis was embarked, escaped this disease, as Captain Lancaster, at Davis's suggestion, had given three spoonfuls of lime-juice to each man every morning. A five months' voyage without green food was always fatal to many, and in this case had carried off 105 men before the fleet came into Table Bay.

Seven weeks in tents made the sick all sound again. Davis advised Captain Lancaster how to avoid giving offence to the Kaffirs, and a brisk trade took place without any quarrels. It was the same at Madagascar; and when they reached the Coral Islands, and the intricate navigation made sailing dangerous, the services of the chief pilot were invaluable. For Davis was always now ahead in the pinnace, sounding and directing the ships, and so they all got safely through without mishap.

At Acken the king received Lancaster, and gave leave for the building of a factory and for permanent trading. Pepper and spices were taken on board, and after some adventures they brought home a cargo which more than satisfied the Company, and Lancaster was knighted for a success which was greatly due to the experience, energy, and care of the chief pilot.

There are some men who do great work quietly and without fuss, who, either from accident, or want of push, fail to receive public recognition.

However, Davis probably did not care for Court life and ambition; he preferred to be with his boys, sailing down to Dartmouth, or up to Totnes. His friend Adrian Gilbert was dead now, and Sir Walter Raleigh was beginning to fall under a cloud, seeing that James of Scotland had succeeded to Elizabeth.

For a year and three months Davis remained at home, then the sea began to call him again; but before he went he prepared a second edition of his "Seaman's Secrets," and he gave his troth to Judith Havard.

"When I come home from my next voyage, God helping, we will wed."

It was a wistful look that Judith gave her lover as he went forth to join Sir Edward Michelborne at Cowes for a third voyage to the East Indies. Davis had made his will, giving Judith, "my espoused love," a fourth part of his worldly goods. They never saw him again, for in December 1603 Sir Edward rescued some Japanese pirates off the Malay peninsula, who formed a plot to kill the English and seize their ships.

Davis had been directed by Michelborne to disarm the Japanese, but deceived by their apparent gentleness and humility, he neglected to do so; they repaid his generosity by giving him seven mortal wounds, and were with difficulty subdued after four hours' desperate fighting.

It was an unworthy end to the most scientific and the most God-fearing of all Elizabethan heroes! Davis had been devoted to his profession, and no love of gain entered into his thoughts. His charts of the English Channel, the Scilly Isles, the Arctic coasts, and the Straits of Magellan were of great use and value for many years. As he wrote, "it was not in respect of his pains, but of his love," that he wished to be judged. He cared tenderly for those under his charge, and he was beloved by his men. He laboured more to save men's lives than to destroy them: such a virtue did not in those times seem to merit any official distinction, but we hope we are wiser now.

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