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Archive for the ‘creative nonfiction’ Category

I love the warm breezes on my cheek telling me it’s spring. Soon, soon we will be under way and cold winds will plow us through white-capped seas and ice mountains all the way to Cathay. Let Smith stay in his Virginia and Champlain in his wide dead-end river . . . Half Moon will light the way to the East.

Soon, but an old dispute has broken out about which calendar to use . . . our English calendar seems unacceptable to some of the Dutch. The Roman Pope Gregory 13 decided some years back to revise time-keeping itself! As for me, I’m an explorer whose destiny draws me to Cathay, not a man of religion. Let’s just sail . . . on Gregory’s calendar or ours—they call it Julian’s—be gone with stilo novo or stilo Julio.

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Soon we cast off. Watching Half Moon rock and strain in these breezes, I imagine the vessel eager like me, impatient to run her beak deep into blue water and then raise it upwards, washing its decks to the scupper holes with white foamy salt water, frothy as Dutch beer, as we speed our way to Cathay. I’ve dreamt of arriving in Cathay, with its palm trees, silks, spice, and gold. Soon I, like my ship, will be released. With the awesome power of the wind, Half Moon will race seaward with a spirited stallion. That lion on the bow . . . when we arrive in the East I’ll barter that feline for a horse’s head, equus maritimus.

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As the vernal equinox approaches, so grows my awareness that by this month’s end I hope to be at sea.  At sea and Cathay-bound!    My new crew seems more excited about this departure than my two previous commands.  Maybe it’s their chemistry, as we have some English, some Hollanders, even some Frisians, and possibly the Javanese Pernomo—who quickly became adept at skating—although by now the canals are free of their ice.  He’s eager to get past NordKap so he might there skate again.

Labors ongoing on the wharf have increased in frenzy, as there is much much to getting Half Moon shipshape.  Riggers reinforce the lines and stays.  Gunsmiths work out the most favorable array of cannon and other arms.  Carpenters attend to dozens of repairs and  modifications for the cold voyage.  And VOC wharfmen provision the ship with casks of flour, cheese, salted meats, and of course grog.  The crew with families spend as much time as possible with their loved ones while the crew with no families seek Amsterdammer fellowship in the drinkhouses.   My son John will again sail with me, and he has spent much time with his mother Katherine and siblings.

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It will thrill my soul to have him beside me as we sail into Cathay, for I know on this voyage we shall.  I’ve told him that as ship’s boy, he will do the honors of drawing the spirits from the juniper grog cask as we enter the port of Cathay.  He will offer drinks to the wealthy Cathaynese merchants there.

*Art modified above was by Jan Karel Donatus Van Beecq (1638-1722).

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So now I have a ship, and I’ve started working with VOC to hire a crew.  Yope, as usual, has been an enormous help, sending letters across the Channel up to Van Meteren in London, and we’ve started getting English sailors applying to sail.  Robert Juet from last year’s trip has responded already, for example.  A good sailor/mate he,  but I’ve never gotten along famously with him.

Then there’ve been the Dutch who applied, and one of those named Bram brought with him his  Javanese assistant Pernomo.

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But Pernomo seems wretched in the cold of Amsterdam putting on sarong after sarong and many turbans to seek warmth.  How would he get on if we sailed over the Nordkap looking past the icebergs for the Northeast Passage, I wondered.  And I’ve hit on hiring requirement:  I’ll list ice skating as an essential skill.   We are, after all,  sailing north to a place where ice and snow might bar our passage,  so if Pernomo can learn to iceskate, then surely I can hire him.  And now that I think further on this, Bram mentioned that from sailing the Eastern ports and transacting on those faraway docks, Pernomo can speak many languages of the East, including some words from Cathay!

Pernomo may be a valuable crewman even if he can’t skate well, for he can interpret once we arrive later this year in Cathay!

*Art modified above was by Bart van Hove (1856-1914).

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Yope took me to the docks on the Amstel, where wharf cats feasted on rats and herring.  Of course, none of these cats seemed so intelligent as my Cathay.  He had something to show me, he said.

A large ship called Batavia had just arrived from Java (“YA vah” as Yope pronounces it).  The crewmen tanned from the tropical sun, their hair bleached.  And Batavia , a heavy laden treasure vessel, its cargo a heady perfume of  cloves, nutmeg, and pepper.  And doing some of the work on deck were Javanese, small but powerful dark-skinned men shouting at each other in some musical language.  Some crew still on duty aboard ship  called out to friends on the dock, and in my best (cough!) Dutch writing, let me transcribe what I heard.

“Yope, hoe gat het?”  I guess that means “how are you?”

amsteldockAnd so a dialogue went on awhile, with Yope seeming as excited as the mariners, “Yope, wij zijn blij terug de komen.”
Then another sailor might see him, and being here now almost two months, I could recognize a repetition.  “Yope jongen, hoe is het?”

Yope had something to show me.  Beyond the great Batavia was a smaller ship, the Halve Maen, my ship he said.  Frankly, seeing its size, so dwarfed by Batavia disappointed me.  Rather than Half “Moon, I thought it should be called “last quarter,” as that would describe.  Still, a ship means that soon I might sail again, sail into Cathay.

*Art modified above was by Ludolf Backhuysen (1630-1708).

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