Tour Of The Caribbean - The Bocas
( Originally Published 1925 )
WHO has not heard of the famous Bocas of Trinidad, of those wild sea-passes which lead into the Gulf of Paria ? One gate-way guards the approach by the north, another that by the south. It was by the southern Boca, the Serpent's Mouth, that Columbus came, but it is not notably picturesque. The northern passage, on the other hand, the Boca del Drago or Dragon's Mouth, is magnificent to behold. At this end of the bay Trinidad comes nearest to the mainland, while the strait is further narrowed by three islands which stretch in a line across the dividing sea. The belt of water is thus broken into four channels ; that to the west is the Boca Grande, then come the Boca de Navios (the Way of Ships), the Boca de Huevos or Egg Passage, and finally the Boca de Monos or Monkey's Channel.
Of these the Boca de Monos is the most imposing. It is a narrow, echoing channel, some three cables wide, hemmed in between forbidding precipices, which rise on one side to the height of a thousand feet. Down this ocean defile a great tide rushes, circling in mad eddies. The mighty flood as it lifts itself over a hidden reef shows a huge curved back above the stream as if it were some glistening sea monster. A grey rock with a dead tree on it stands alone in the fairway, where the rollers fall upon it with the force of a battering-ram. The Boca de Monos is best seen from the open sea about the time of sun-down. The cliffs, sheer and ominous, are then in shade. They stand upon either side of the defile, flanking it like pylons at the entrance to a temple avenue. It is a solemn and majestic portal, and the first trembling ship that was whirled down the pass might well have wondered if beyond was the Sea of Death.
It was through this Boca that Columbus went out when he sailed away from Trinidad. The pass is a place for baffling winds, but his ungainly, unmanageable ships were hurried through, like driftwood, rolling to this side and that, the sails flapping, the yards swinging until the braces snapped, the helmsmen powerless, and each man crossing himself and muttering prayers. Many and many a buccaneer has crept through this sea alley, hoping to find a fat merchantman dozing in the sun in the bay. Many a tempest-chased craft has been swept through this channel as helpless as a child's boat in a mill sluice, to be dashed to pieces on the rocks, or to find peace in the land-locked gulf beyond. Through the southern Boca came Raleigh in the small boats which were to carry him to El Dorado ; he in an old galley with benches to row upon, the others in two wherries, a barge and a ship's boat—one hundred men all told.
Of the many remarkable craft that have passed through the Dragon's Mouth the most remarkable appeared off the entrance to the channel on June 7, 1805. It was no small company that hove in sight that day, for it was made up of thirteen battleships—viz. ten sail of the line and three frigates. They approached the Boca with every stitch of sail set. It was evident that they were in hot haste. At every masthead flew the British flag. Most curious, however, was the fact that every ship was cleared for action, every gunner was standing by his piece, the magazines were open and piles of arms for boarding were heaped upon the decks. This was the more strange because the Gulf of Paria, save for a few fishing boats, a trader or two and many pelicans, was empty and the picture of confiding peace.
The first ship to pass the Boca had on her stern the name Victory and on her quarter-deck a British admiral, a spare man of middle age who had but one arm and one eye—Horatio Nelson. Never did any adventurer show such an eagerness as he did to get a glimpse of the shipping in the Gulf of Paria ; never was a man so disappointed when he found the great haven empty.
The tale of that surprising voyage, told already many times, may be told again, for it is never to be forgotten.
In the spring of 1805 Nelson had been long watching the French fleet around the southern coasts of Europe. On March 31 the entire French squadron under Admiral Villeneuve slipped out of Toulon harbour and vanished. Nelson, although much hampered by bad weather, searched every bay on the French and Spanish seaboard, and scoured the Mediterranean from one end to the other.
Early in May the conviction seized him that the French had gone to the West Indies. On May 11 he set off on the chase. Villeneuve had forty days' start of him. He reached Madeira in four bustling days—no news. With every sail drawing he pressed on to Barbados, made Carlisle Bay on June 4, only to hear that the French were at Trinidad.
Away he flew to the south. The scent was hot. He would catch them in the Gulf of Paria. No better place could be wished for : the battle that was ever in his mind would be the battle of Port of Spain. It was in this spirit that, three days later, he came foaming through the Bocas, cleared for action. He found the anchorage deserted. A despatch boat sent into the harbour of the town came back with the news that the fleet was at Grenada.
Round swung the English ships in a twinkling and before the town folk had ceased to marvel they were through the Bocas again, heading north and leaving the quiet gulf once more to the fisher-men and the pelicans. Grenada was sighted on the 9th and every eye was strained to catch a glimpse of the crowd of masts. The roads were empty, but the news bellowed from the quay was good —the French were off to Antigua.
A fierce English cheer rang through the little harbour and Nelson, like a hound who had met a check, was away again and heading for Antigua ; for Antigua was near to Nevis where he first met his wife and where, indeed, he was married. Breathless and savage the ships luffed up off the island on June 12, but Villeneuve was not there. He had gone to Europe, so the people at the port told the pursuers.
Never for a moment had the chase flagged, yet never so far had the sea-dogs a sight of their quarry. Hot-foot they had come from Europe to the West Indies ; now they were on their way back to Europe again ; eight thousand good sea miles, out and home, and a heavy pressure of canvas all the way.
Nelson left Antigua on June 13. On June 21 he writes in his diary : " Saw three planks which, I think, came from the French fleet." On July 19 the Victory and her companions dropped anchor in the harbour of Gibraltar. On July 20 there is this entry in the admiral's book : " I went on shore for the first time since June i6, 18o3, and from having my foot out of the Victory two years wanting two days."
The chase that commenced on May 11 ended on October 21 off Cape Trafalgar, where the great battle, that had been for half a year in Nelson's thoughts, was won. So the chase ended well. The honour of England was upheld and the weary sea-rover was at last " home from the sea."
The Victory is still afloat in Portsmouth Harbour, the very same Victory that came roaring through the Boca on that day in June. There in the simple cabin are the windows from which Nelson took his last look of England, lying dim in the wake of his ship. There is the deck he paced for so many harassing days. Over these very bulwarks he leaned, looking out for the hunted fleet. There, last of all, is the dingy corner in the cockpit where, propped up against the good old vessel's beams, the most gallant of British admirals drifted out into the Unruffled Haven.