The Express and Telegraph Saturday, September 16, 1905
This article is titled: A SEA HORROR A Thrilling Story.
There were ten of them. They were the men who had become known from one end of Britain to the other during the last weeks preceding their trial, ever since the awful story of their- deeds had found its way into the newspapers, as "The Spanish Pirates." Situated on a river and a lagoon on the slave coast, in the Bight of Benin, Lagos, was one of the most evil-reputed slave-trade stations in West Africa (writes a contributor to a London weekly). It was excellently situated for the purpose of the horrible traffic. The vessels engaged in the evil business were immensely favored from pursuit by the irregular nature of the shore and by the dangers that attached to going too close to it. The crews of these ships were mostly Spanish and natives of Brazil. Beneath, in the hold of the vessels, lay the cargo—human beings packed like herrings in a barrel, slaves!
Two Prizes or One?
To assist in putting down this traffic the British Government had dispatched several cruisers to the neighborhood of the Bight of Benin. One of these—the Wasp, commanded by Captain Usherwood—espying a suspicious-looking sail, went in pursuit of it, and, after a lengthy chase, ran it down at eight in the evening. The ship was a Brazilian schooner called the Felicidade. The captain, a man named Cerquiera, finding that escape was impossible, allowed a body of sailors to board her and made the best of matters. The lieutenant in command of the unwelcome visitors had little difficulty in arriving at the Felicidade's business.
There were no slaves on board, but she was fitted with everything ready to receive them. Lieutenant Stupart took command of her in the name of the British Government, and the crew was sent off in boats to remain under guard as prisoners on the Wasp. The next day, with 16 seamen from the Wasp, and a midshipman named Palmer, Lieutenant Stupart set off to convey the captured vessel to port. The man Cerquiera and one other of the Felicidade's crew were also on hoard. Lieutenant Stupart was an active officer, who could not reconcile himself to being satisfied with one capture when a second was possible.
While the Felicidade was on its way to Sierra Leone the look-out sighted a strange and suspicious-looking vessel to windward. Clapping on every stitch of canvas, Stupart rushed down on her in the Feucidade. The schooner was light and a good sailer and the stranger seemed heavily burdened. Bearing down on her, Stupart called on the ship to stand by and allow a search-party to board her.
Four Hundred Slaves.
Tall, lithe, brown-faced, Lieutenant Stupart in the witness-box looked an excellent specimen of the British officer — alert ready, ignorant of the sensation of fear—as he told his adventures. "The vessel we had chased down," he said, "was a Brazilian schooner named the Echo, and I found it - had a cargo of 430 slaves on board." The Echo had given the commander- of the Wasp trouble before, and Stupart had boarded her on other occasions. He was known to her captain— Serva—and to the crew of 28 men, and the capture of her gave the lieutenant considerable satisfaction as that of a troublesome customer. But he had now, in the homely phrase, "got his hands full." How was he to get the two vessels to port with only his little force of 16 sailors from the Wasp? Placing nine men under the command of Mr. Palmer, Stupart, with the others, took the Echo in charge. With his cargo of four hundred human beings to look after, Lieutenant, Stupart found himself fully occupied. Most of the slaves were hovering between life and death from want of air and water. Unconscious of the awful danger that threatened him, the midshipman Palmer was busied in ordering things on the Felicidale. He appeared to have dismissed from his mind any idea that Serva and the scoundrels composing his crew might make a struggle for freedom.
Which was the Coward?
Joachim Antonio Cerquiera, the captain of the Felicidale, as he lounged about the deck and watched matters, and smoked his cigars, could have spoken words that would have placed the doomed midshipman and his men upon their guard. That morning, while he and Serva, the commander of the Echo, had been sipping their coffee together and smoking their cigars, Serva had broached a terrible scheme to him. "I have among my crew men on whom I can rely," he had whispered to him, with a glance round to see that there was no danger of their being overheard. "We will kill the Englishmen and take possession of the ship. After that, we will bear down on the Echo and regain her." Cerquiera shook his head. He knew British methods better than Serva did. "If you recaptured your ship you would not escape," he objected. "There are other British cruisers close to the bight, and one of them would fall in with you." "You are a coward.," cried Serva, with a contemptuous shrug of his shoulders. "If you speak like that and think of such things, I shall tell the Englishman," retorted Cerquiera. "I give the plan up," said Serva, and then the matter dropped.
Cerquiera was a witness at the trial and narrated this conversation from the witness-box. According to him, those last words of Serva led him to believe that there was really no danger. He was quickly to be undeceived. The English sailors were scattered on different parts of the deck, and the midshipman Palmer, who had been enjoying a swim in the sea, was abait, drying himself with a towel when Serva strode to the hatchway and addressed some words to the members of his crew below. Cerquiera rushed to him and caught his hand. "Don't be foolish!" he said. "Don't be foolish."
"I had heard him call upon his men to come up and murder the Englishmen!" declared Cerquiera to the court. "He threw me aside, his men rushed on deck, and the fight began." The pirates had knives concealed in their clothes, and the attack was so unlooked for that the British sailors were taken completely unprepared. Majaval, the cook of the Echo, running at Palmer, the midshipman, thrust the knife he carried into his heart, and as Palmer fell, caught him by the foot and threw him overboard. Another of the Englishmen, who had been sleeping on deck, was dispatched while he was yet asleep with a dexterous blow with one of the Spaniards' knives. The quartermaster made a desperate resistance. Snatching up a handspike, he stood at bay, and for nearly half an hour defied the- murderous crew that surrounded him, waiting for an opening to spring on him and dispatch him. In another part of the vessel, the boatswain was also fighting for dear life. But there could be no doubt as to the end of it. The odds were too great. Cerquiera, looking on, saw it all, and saw the brave man fall at last beneath a dozen murderous knives. They were at once thrown overboard. Serva and his men had won the Felicidade!
The Pirate in Plight.
Afar off on the sea could be yet distinguished the sails of the Echo. During the whole of the terrible work on board the Felicidade, not a gun had been discharged. No sound to give the alarm to the Englishmen on board the Echo could have reached them, and, elated with his work, Serva resolved to try and carry out the whole of the plan he had broached to Cerquiera.
There were guns on board the Felicidade. Serva ordered the British flag to be hauled down and the Brazilian flag to be once more hoisted at the masthead, and, bearing down upon the Echo, called on her to surrender. The astonished Lieutenant Stupart paid no heed, and Serva discharged the Felicidade's guns at her. Then his heart seemed to fail him and he ordered all sail to be set and fled. The Echo, with her living freight, was too heavily burdened to pursue her, and Lieutenant Stupart saw the Felicidade disappear in the distance, with rage and despair in his heart. Serva, when he hailed him, had caused one of the men on board, who could speak English, to shout to him that all the British sailors had been killed! But Serva's triumph was short-lived. The next day the Felicidade sighted a suspicious vessel. The Felicidade's course was at once altered by Serva's orders, but it was too late to escape.
Pursued by Fate.
The British cruiser Star bore down on her. Resistance was hopeless. Serva resolved to try what lies would do and concocted a story, which he hoped might satisfy the Star's officer that the ship was the Virginia engaged in innocent coasting trade.
The story was ingenious, but Serva was a villainous-looking fellow, and in the cabin the officer, while convincing with him chanced to espy a book in which was written the name of its captor, "B. D. stupart." The discovery made him curious, and he searched the cabin. There were some naval clothes, and on the deck were red marks as of blood. The lieutenant was suspicious, demanded explanations, and proceeded to question the crew. When he came to Cerquiera he told him all Serva and his crew, together with Cerquiera, were taken prisoners, placed on board the Star, and brought to England.
The ill-fate that pursued the Felicidade was not yet exhausted. A lieutenant and nine men from the Star were placed upon the accursed vessel to take her to Sierra Leone, and the Felicidade sank in a terrible squall she encountered, her crew escaping upon a raft, on which they floated two hundred miles away from land, without rudder, oar, compass, provisions, or water. Five survivors were picked up twenty-one days later. Condemned—Yet Free!
Chiefly upon the evidence of Cerquiera, the Spanish slave-traders were found guilty and were duly sentenced to death. But the scoundrels were, after all, to cheat the gallows they so well deserved to adorn. Their counsel raised questions of international law, which were submitted to a court composed of no fewer than 13 judges. In the end, the judges decided that the conviction of the prisoners was illegal; they were released and sent back to Brazil at the expense of the British Government! It was held that there being actually no slaves on board the Felicidade, the Wasp had no right to take possession of it and that the slavers had a right to try and regain possession of their vessel as they might. A barrister, who was present told me that never had he seen 13 judges decide a case so unwillingly as they did that in favor of Serva and his associates.