Plymouth was a busy port, but was losing ground to the thriving port of London on the Thames. London was now where all the trade and growth was happening, and the city had grown immensely over the past twenty years. London was by now a city of nearly 200,000 souls, and it continued to grow. People in abject poverty were signing on as indentured servants to ships going to America. Shipments were coming regularly from America, the Far East, Africa, and Italy, and the city was sprawling outward into the countryside. Plymouth, on the other hand, was a port on the wane, beautiful in its own way, but already a symbol of the changing times.
Departures of people from Plymouth to the New World seemed to epitomize the excitement of places other than Plymouth. In a few days, the Mayflower would be departing Plymouth for the New World carrying religious pilgrims to freedoms now no longer found in England. Political and religious foment, formulated in London, could be felt in Plymouth. It was to Plymouth that people gathered to flee the oppression of the crown in London. The destination, America, would receive these pilgrims and give them the chance to start a literal New World.
A lookout in the lighthouse high above the port spotted a ragged ship several miles out at sea heading home for rest from a difficult voyage. He had been alerted by Alvin Toll that such a ship could be coming in the next few days, and that he should be notified immediately of the first sighting of it. The Intrepid was heading into Plymouth.
Toll ordered that a sloop be dispatched to meet the Intrepid to let her know that Plymouth would not accept her. The Intrepid was labeled as a ship with plague, and, if she could not prove otherwise, she would be denied entry. Several royal dragoons were sent with a crew of eight sailors to intercept the Intrepid and to inform her of the situation. Toll also ordered the shore batteries to prepare to fire at the Intrepid should she try to gain entry to the port without permission.
Aboard the Intrepid, the exhausted crew was exhilarated upon seeing the welcome sight of port. Food and water were depleted, and port was to be reached with no time to spare. They expected no reception upon arrival, but when people became aware of the exploits of this voyage, there would be adulation, women, wine, and rewards. They were more than ready for all of those benefits.
Mr. North was still quite dreamy from his ordeal, and he was in no shape to command the ship. This task fell to Swailes, who led a crew wary of his command in the final leg of the journey. Shepherd and I were tending to Mr. North, ensuring that he got regular, ample doses of tincture of opium mixed in brandy or rum to aid his sleep and recovery.
Swailes met the boat loaded with dragoons and sailors by hailing them, “Come to meet the heroes, have ya?”
David Marks, sergeant of the dragoons, grimly replied, “I am here to order you to return to sea, or the shore batteries will commence firing upon your ship.”
Swailes was stunned at this retort. Marks continued, “Your ship has the plague aboard and will be denied entry into the port of Plymouth.”
Swailes screamed at the dragoons, “There is no plague on this ship! We shall proceed into port; your guns be damned!”
Mr. Marks had no need to argue with the doomed vessel, and he turned away, ordering his small crew to return to Plymouth. By now, word was spreading through the Intrepid that they were being denied entry into Plymouth. Anger and disbelief were mixed among the crew, but none had the presence of mind to think beyond fighting their way into port. Swailes, fool that he was, seemed unable to take control of the crew. He merely fed off the raw emotions being displayed by his men, and was caught up in the plan to blast his way into Plymouth.
I looked at Joseph Shepherd and Mr. Kelley and asked their thoughts. Joseph Shepherd suggested that we try to reason with Swailes, offering ideas that had not come quickly to his simple mind.
“As the ship’s surgeon, I can offer to attest to the health of the crew,” I said. “Producing a few healthy sailors free of disease might convince a reasonable person that we have no plague. We can offer to be quarantined offshore as long as they provide fresh food and water for a week or two.”
Shepherd agreed with the idea, but his agreement was probably not enough to convince Swailes of the good sense of the plan.
It appeared that Alvin Toll had no interest in such an idea either, or he would have suggested it to begin with. There seemed to be other reasons why this ship was being denied entry to Plymouth of which we were unaware. Meanwhile, the mood on the Intrepid was turning very ugly. Desperate men were ready to plunge ahead into Plymouth to challenge the threat of force that Toll had promised. The crew began to prepare the last of the shot and powder for battle against Plymouth. This crew was now in the grip of fear, coupled with lack of leadership. They had tasted the blood of battle on the sea, and now that seemed to be the only course they trusted.
Swailes ordered the sails to be fully raised, and the Intrepid sailed for Plymouth.
William Bradford was studying his Bible before settling down for the night to sleep. Bradford was the leader of the Puritan separatists who were preparing for a trip to the New World. Bradford had been reading the book of Exodus, chapter 3, verses 11-12. There he read a conversation between God and Moses at the burning bush. God had told Moses to lead His people out of bondage in Egypt. Moses replied, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
And God replied, “I will be with you…”
Bradford was feeling very much like Moses this night. He had taken on the responsibility of leading a group of religious separatists, known as Pilgrims, to the New World. He was to be the religious leader on a ship called the Mayflower, which would be departing in the next few weeks for America.
“Who am I,” he thought, “to be leading a group of believers across the world? Has God prepared me for such a duty?”
Then he read the twelfth verse of chapter 3 in Exodus, “I will be with you…”
“Surely,” thought Bradford, “that is the only way I can lead people to a foreign land which promises freedom.”
Bradford had been told by his friend and mentor, John Ward, that he was the man for the job, the man God had appointed to the task. Now his friend was in the tower of London, a prisoner of King James for his religious beliefs.
While Bradford pondered these ideas, he heard a commotion in the street below. A town crier was warning people that a renegade English ship, the Intrepid, was heading for Plymouth, and that ships in the harbor were at risk. Bradford’s thoughts were for the Mayflower, which was the vessel to take his people to the Promised Land.
People began to scramble down to the harbor. Men with flintlocks were clambering out of their houses. Young men with torches were seen coming out of taverns, and women were closing the shutters on their seaside houses. In the distance, the silhouette of a ship could be seen against a large full moon still hovering near the horizon in the late evening. William Bradford sensed that he was to do something – to begin his mission from God, somehow – to help avert this coming confrontation.
Bradford made his way through now congested streets toward the port authority building on the docks. There he encountered a seething Alvin Toll. Toll’s round jowly face was beet red, contrasting with his white breech coat and white collar. He was short of breath from the short trip across the way from the tavern where he had been drinking and boasting that the damned ship Intrepid had better not test his shore batteries. Now that the test might actually take place, Toll seemed as much frightened as angry. As much as he would boast about his shore batteries, they had not been fired in years, and never in anger.
Toll blustered orders to a ragged crew of dockworkers who would now double as grenadiers. Toll ordered them to secure powder and shot from the armory. The small company of dragoons of the King’s Army was placed around the docks at various points. It was apparent that Toll had no idea how to defend against the attack of one lonely fighting ship – a crippled one at that.
In the midst of this emerging chaos, William Bradford approached Alvin Toll with an idea – an idea so very fresh in Bradford’s mind because he just that moment had come up with it.
“What do you want?” inquired Toll of Bradford.
“May I propose an idea to you, Commander Toll?” asked Bradford. Bradford’s disarming friendliness, his tone of voice, and his deferential reference to Toll as “Commander” seemed to soften Toll to hear out Bradford.
“Go on,” said Toll in a restrained tone of voice.
“Commander,” he said, “I am William Bradford. I will be sailing out in a few weeks on the Mayflower with my company of God’s people for America. It struck me that the men on the Intrepid may need to be heard, their story checked out. From what I have heard, they deny that there is any plague aboard the ship. Perhaps we need to verify that first hand. I offer to go to the ship to check out their situation. If there is any evidence of plague on that ship, I will stay on the Intrepid with the crew. May God be with me in that event. However, if there is no evidence of plague, I will notify those who row me out to the ship, and we can allow them entry to port in due time.”
Toll retorted quickly.
“Mr. Bradford, I have it on good authority that the Intrepid is a renegade ship, under the control of a mutinous crew. They have set their good captain Braden adrift, and he only survives by the grace of God Almighty. This ship is not just taken by the black plague, they have the plague of mutiny and murder as well!”
Bradford seemed unshaken.
“Commander Toll,” he continued, “I have reason to believe that God has prepared me for such an encounter. We have nothing to lose by sending a party out there to talk with them. We just gain the possibility that there will be no innocent blood shed if we try. If we fail, better that one man die than many. Besides, we could gain more time for a peaceful solution if we try to meet with them. As it stands now, there could be a blood bath.”
Toll considered Bradford’s brave, if foolhardy, offer. Toll could send another small crew to meet once again with the Intrepid. There would be great danger for such a mission, but it would buy Toll more time to plan a defense of Plymouth. Frankly, he had considered the possibility that the Intrepid would try to come into port violently. Marks and his dragoons had suggested that Swailes and the renegade crew might do anything, including blasting their way into port. Indeed, now that such a scenario was playing out, he was caught with too much bluster, and not enough firepower.
“Mr. Bradford,” said Toll, “if you can get other volunteers to go with you, you may try. I believe that we can send a few of His Majesty’s sailors to accompany you, but you will be without military support on your mission.”
“Commander Toll,” replied Bradford, “this is not a military mission. It is a mission of mercy and peace.”
Alvin Toll was not a religious man, nor did he have much respect for religious people. His brief encounter with William Bradford, however, had touched him in a way to which he was unaccustomed. Bradford’s simple faith, coupled with tremendous courage, was an amazing thing to Toll. He was hoping that Bradford would succeed, but he was more inclined to believe that the time bought by this foolish diversion would allow him to get some help, and to shore up his defense plans.
“I shall leave as soon as you can get me that crew of sailors to get out to the Intrepid,” said Bradford. “I have another member of my company who will go with me. James Mullins is a young man of great faith and courage. He is also a physician, and he will be able to determine the health of the crew. I do not even need to ask him, and I know his answer. He will come with me anywhere.”
It was nearly 2 a.m. by the time that the crew was assembled and a rowboat secured for the trip. The Intrepid was now within a half mile of port, and no gunfire had been exchanged. It was apparently Mr. Swailes’ plan to continue his advance toward Plymouth, and call the bluff of Alvin Toll. Evidently, the Intrepid would not fire unless fired upon. The water was very calm, and with the full moon rising higher in the sky, the night was well lit. A handful of inquisitive townspeople bearing torches gave a farewell to the crew in the tiny boat heading out of port. The scene was quite beautiful, yet there was tension in the air.
The plan was to have William Bradford and James Mullins approach the Intrepid and ask for a meeting. If they were invited aboard the ship, they would ask to inspect the Intrepid for signs of plague among the crew. If they found signs of plague, they would signal to the crew in the small boat. The signal would be to jettison two rocks over the port side, one after another. The crew would then turn and head back to port without Bradford and Mullins. If there were no sign of plague, there would be one rock tossed over the starboard side. The absence of plague would be the good news needed for the Intrepid to safely gain entry to Plymouth. Bradford and Mullins assumed that if plague were on board, they would be held hostage, and indeed would have been exposed to it anyway, and their lives were in serious jeopardy. They chose to take this chance to secure peace.
The boat quickly covered the half-mile out to the Intrepid. As they pulled closer to the ship, crewman John Cates yelled to Mr. Swailes, “They’ve sent a boat – eight crew and two others. They do not appear to have weapons.”
Swailes called to Cates, “Find out what they want!”
“We come in peace,” yelled Bradford. His voice carried well in the still night, and the words seemed to calm Cates. “May we board to speak with you?”
Swailes was now with Cates, and the boat was right beside the Intrepid. Swailes responded, “No weapons. We check out whoever comes on board first. You will be covered by my sailors with guns the whole time you are here.”
“We agree,” said Bradford. “Only Dr. Mullins and I will be boarding.”
A rope was lowered to the small craft, and Bradford and Mullins climbed up with some difficulty. The Intrepid crew ended up hauling the two aboard. Bradford spoke directly to Mr. Swailes.
“Sir, we have requested to come aboard to determine if there is any sign of plague on this ship. If Dr. Mullins finds any sign, and he must be given access to every crewman here, you will be denied entry to Plymouth.”
“I agree to that,” said Mr. Swailes.
Bradford and Mullins were stunned by the immediate compliance, and Swailes’ respectful tone of voice. Swailes and the crew were tired, hungry, and ready to come home. Swailes also believed that there was no plague to be found on board, so he felt that he had nothing to lose. There were, however, other secrets, which may not be so easy to overcome. Those secrets should not keep them from coming into port, but they could be a problem later. But that was later.
Mr. North was coming back around from his shoulder injury. He, of course, had felt very little pain since our regimen of brandy, laced with tincture of opium. I had secured a fair amount of this substance from a merchant who had been to China. He told me of the qualities of the compound, but that many people smoked opium all day, staying in a kind of stupor much of the time. I found that, given the proper dosage, it had wonderful sedating qualities, although the aftereffects could be troublesome. I used it only with great caution. I must admit that I was not extremely careful when dosing Mr. North, and at times, I am certain that he received enough to restrain a man twice his size.
“Dr. Greene,” whispered Mr. North from his haze, “what time is it?”
“Mr. North,” I replied, “you might want to ask what day it is, not what hour.”
North in his confusion did not follow that little humor. He truly did not know what day it was, nor where we were, nor our rather strange circumstance of being within a thousand yards of port, but not allowed to enter. His shoulder was healing, but it was, I am sure, still quite painful. It was back in place, not broken, and he had more of his range of motion now available. We would need to back him down from his sedation, and reintroduce him to reality. That would cause another bit of a problem since Mr. Swailes had taken to leading the ship. Mr. North’s odd behavior the prior few days, and his violent temper, had alerted even the simplest of crew members that he was capable of harm. Their only real concern was now to get home, and perhaps to relay to their family and friends a great adventure. Leadership of a ship coming home was not a great concern now.
As Mr. Bradford and Dr. Mullins walked around the ship, they saw some of the ravages of pirate battles and storms. Below deck was a complete disaster, with swirling water, rotting food, fouled powder, and splinters of the main mast floating about. We had become accustomed to the odor on the ship, but Bradford and Mullins nearly retched several times from the smell. The crew was told to comply with medical examination from Dr. Mullins.
Dr. Mullins sought me out after Mr. Kelley directed him to me as the ship’s physician. Mullins told me of the plan, and I was relieved to hear that, somehow, reason seemed to prevail in this chaos we had been living in.
I spoke again to Mr. North.
“Captain North,” I began deferentially, “the crew will be given medical examinations by a doctor from Plymouth to determine if we can land there. They believe that there is plague on this ship, and if that is found in any crew member, we will be forced to remain at sea. I am asking of you that you order me to be part of the medical examination on your ship as your ship surgeon.”
I guided Mr. North in his order to Mr. Swailes. I made sure that Mr. Kelley was nearby when I brought North to see Mr. Swailes to give the order. Mr. North actually sounded plausible in his order to Swailes to have me assist Mullins and Bradford. Swailes agreed, since he did not want trouble in front of a crewmember, and in front of our visitors.
I now had the opportunity to get the aid and attention we desperately needed from Mr. Bradford, and Dr. Mullins.