Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, lays his knife and fork onto the plate before settling back in his chair. What seemed like tight quarters when he first set foot on the frigate HMS Fowey some months back, his cabin has now become quite comfortable like an old hunting frock. Accepting his second glass of Madera from his servant, he eyes Captain Leslie laying his knife to what is left of his meat. He glances over to the cabin’s far wall. He cannot help but appreciate the tranquil heat that radiates from the small coal stove he had specially imported from England some years before while he was governor of New York. The stove that helped to stave off the northern city’s cold, clammy nights now warms the frigid sea air that seeps through the damp and aging timbers.
Captain Leslie lays his fork down and leans back in his chair. A servant immediately clears the portable table. Moments later he returns carrying a small end table. Folding the dinner table’s legs, he sets up the other stand before slipping out through the narrow doorway, closing the door behind him without a sound.
“Those black faces amongst us. The Negroes. They fled from bondage after my proclamation offering freedom to any rebel slave who shed his shackles and escaped to take up arms for the crown. Their owners now petition me, clamoring for their return, demanding they be carted back and chained to eternal servitude.”
Dunmore and Leslie flinch after an unexpected blast from above deck scatters a flock of gulls that had landed on the anchored vessel’s foremast yardarm. They hear the sudden commotion as men gather around the marine officer, new escapees clothed in ragged and patched threads supplied by their former masters. Most, if not all, have never been allowed to touch a weapon. They pore over the spent musket.
“Captain Leslie,” Dunmore says, stepping over to the open port window. He latches it shut and turns to the captain. “The poor souls of Africa who flock to my banner are actuated by the love of freedom. Is it the same love of freedom ardently proclaimed by their colonial owners as reason to break with their mother nation? Are the lives of whites and darks so similar that so too become their passions? Is it possible that these colonists can be so fervent about freedom while failing to acknowledge the liberty denied to those who are forced to live amongst them?”
Dunmore paces before his smallish desk before finding his pipe tucked beneath the corner of a small stack of papers. Lifting it along with a tin containing his tinder, he returns to his seat. “Why, in Virginia the Negro outnumber whites more than two to one,” he says, reaching into his waistcoat pocket and drawing a petite leather sack containing his tobacco. “Colonists shout their rights to freedom with their mouths full. The victuals provided by the arduous toil of men from whom they claim ownership; black flesh driven by the brutal arm of white skin.”
Dunmore waves his hands out towards the port window that looks out over the bay towards the mainland. “Do you think those hypocritical gentlemen in their illustrious House of Burgesses see the paradigm of such flawed reasoning?”
“I imagine they do, Your Lordship,” Leslie says, sharing His Lordship’s brief view of the misty, shrouded shore.
“You are damned right they do,” Dunmore says, patting the arm of the chair with a closed fist. “But they chose to ignore it. They can readily do so because freedom has absolutely nothing to do with any of this. As I’ve unveiled on deck, it is but a convenient ruse to stir the passions of the masses so they become mere cannon fodder. Captain, there are only two reasons men go to war: religion and wealth. This,” he says, slapping the chair’s arm, “all the talk, the rhetoric, the vomited arrogance of revolution, all of it, it is to keep the accumulated wealth neatly in a small minority’s coffers and thus the slaves offering free labor in exchange for measly clothing and pitiful substance.”
Dunmore waves his arm towards the shore. “Virginia’s planters, each of them, are in debt to some extent, many well beyond their means. Deep in liability to Scottish merchants and the financial houses of England. Many of their estates hover precariously on foreclosure. How does one dissolve such debt?”
“Pay what you can and sell what is necessary,” Leslie offers. “If need be the entire estate and begin afresh.”
Dunmore eyes the captain, pipe-smoke seeping from the corners of his mouth. “My dear captain,” he sneers, “why bother when all that is needed is a war? A war of convenience. Think of it. Decades of arrears gone with one simple proclamation. All current and inherited debt erased – the books wiped clean.”
Dunmore removes a handkerchief and wipes his face. Feeling the cabin too warm, he reaches with his cane and taps the wall. Within moments the servant opens the door.
“I desire more wine,” Dunmore says, tapping out the spent tobacco on the side of the chair. “Bring the whole bottle. And before leaving, kindly open the port window.”
Captain Leslie sits quietly watching his superior fill his glass and tapping out his spent tobacco on a small plate. Sipping the wine between filling his pipe’s bowl, Dunmore ignites the tobacco before standing and crossing the small cabin to the port window. Now left wide open, he leans out slightly, breathing in deeply. Pulling back in, he wipes the fine spray from his his forehead. Pocketing the fine linen handkerchief, his gaze remains trained on the mist filled shoreline.
Dunmore speaks, his voice soft on the cool silken vapor, “No, Captain Leslie, these people wish to eradicate all responsibilities and keep every damn pence in the offing. As to the welfare of their fellow man, especially the blacks, they care more for their ample supply of spirits. As such their wish is for them to remain docile, snug in a lifestyle that keeps them warm and well fed, with enough left over for to pay for a good whore to fill the needs insupportable by their wives. But expect anything more, say, accountability, equality, and compassion and they congregate into nothing more than a rabble of blasphemous hypocrites.”
He abruptly spins around. “Come Captain. After such a fine dinner, I require exercise. Please, let us continue our conversation up on the quarter deck.”
Stepping out onto the worn planking reserved for ship’s captain and his officers, Dunmore glances skyward before pacing the starboard railing.
“Your Lordship,” Leslie ventures, walking to the windward of his governor, “what of the rites of English law that these rebels insist has been denied them?” While speaking, Leslie’s attention is brought to a small skiff. Artfully cutting through the freshening waves, it is but a pistol shot off the frigate’s bow.
Dunmore smiles and veers away from the railing. “Oh, I provided them with English Law,” he snickers. “As I wrote Lord Dartmouth, if it is English Law for which the colonists clamor, I say give it to them. Somerset and all.”
“Ah, the bondsman who sued his owner,” Leslie acknowledges, “thereby leading to the emancipation of all slaves residing in England.”
“Exactly,” Dunmore chuckles. “Lord Mansfield, our Chief Justice of the Court of the King’s Bench, claimed slavery to be too odious for the English to bear. Within one rap of the gavel, every Negro residing within the shores of England was freed.”
Dunmore resumes his exercise. “However, our American brethren have no such problems breathing such fouled stench,” he states, gravely. “Therefore, I will continue to ram this bit of Common Law down their throats. I will emancipate any and all slaves who run the gauntlet to Norfolk and my ships. Do you know what the ultimate twist of fate will be if this rabble wins their cause and eventually form a new nation?”
“I fail to see my Lordship.”
“The anti-slavery forces are strong in England. I believe before this century ends there will be complete emancipation of all those of color. Slavery will no longer exist within all His Majesty’s realms. If order is restored and these colonists continue to live within the jurisdiction of the crown, it will mean true equality for all. No matter the pigment of one’s skin.”
“And if these colonists are successful in breaking from England?”
“If this rabble are allowed to obtain a government of their own design, then freedom within these shores will remain a mockery. Liberty will be sacrificed upon the altar of slavery. While the rest of Europe abhors the reek of forced bondage and the wanton abuse of the rights of men, the people who reside in this land will turn a deaf ear to the clamors of criticism. And with mulish arrogance, they will allow the squalor of slavery to flourish for decades to come. Years beyond England’s scourge of such insufferable debauchery. Do you not recall what our illustrious Patrick Henry said as he stood before that defiant body of balested gentlemen in the House of Burgesses?”
“I fear I do not,” Leslie said.
“I will not bore you with the trivial bantering that is the usual rhetoric Mr. Henry spews. However there is one utterance I do find interesting. ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’”
His Lordship tosses his head back and laughs. “This I imagine his own and most favorite slave Ralph took to heart. How do I know this? Why no sooner did that noble gentleman say those immortal words than Ralph fled his master’s loving bosom to us. Now Mr. Henry’s former slave carries a musket and has expressed his willingness to forfeit his life in support of his liberty. He has informed me personally that he would gladly put a bullet through the thick skull of his master if by doing so the path to freedom were assured.”
Dunmore holds the railing and stares out into the mist. He stands rigid, as if drawn to images of one’s mind cast on the swirling clouds. Shivering, he closes his eyes to the dusk of a deadening afternoon.
“Captain Leslie, seems we are in for a bit of a squall.” Dunmore says, turning to Leslie. “Perhaps it is best you delay your return to shore, at least until the seas are a bit more quiet. The Madera we sampled is but a portion of that which had arrived on the last packet. Perhaps the ship’s captain will entertain us with his presence.”
“Thank you Your Lordship for the generous offer, but I must look in on Fort Murray. If I leave now, I may arrive there ahead of what may be a developing tempest streaming up the coast.”
“Very well, but all the same, I will have Ensign Stewart bring you a bottle of wine.”
“I thank my lord for his thoughtfulness,” Leslie says, bowing deeply.
Minutes later Dunmore sees his captain to the ship’s stern. He stands watching the jolly boat as it is slowly lowered. Whipped up by the increasing wind, the choppy waters lick at the hull before the drenched keel smacks the surface.
“Captain,” Dunmore calls down, peering down over the stern as Leslie gingerly steps into the bowls of the boat. “Please do reconsider a stockade on the far side of Great Bridge.”
“My Lord,” Leslie shouts, leaning forward and grabbing a mast line to steady himself, “I will note your esteemed advice. But for the time being, as to Great Bridge, my men are positioned to spot any activity on the far side of the river. Rest assured that we will readily storm whatever stockade the Americans may attempt to construct.”
“I hope that is the case Captain Leslie… for all our sakes,” the last said in a hushed whisper. Dunmore raises an arm in farewell. “Good evening to you Captain.”
“And to you Your Lordship.”
Dunmore lifts his heavy eyes to the shrouded shore and an invisible foe. “May the souls of your African slaves sit heavily on your swords,” he says in a shallow whisper. “And thus allow me to rip the spirits from your contemptuous hearts.”
A blast of frigid air cuts across the stern. Pulling his great coat tightly around his frame, the proud Scotsman cuts a direct path towards the nearest hatch and rapidly descends into the bowls of the frigate.