The Escape


The Escape by David Macfie

Joseph closed his journal and rubbed his eyes. He had been cataloging all the things that must be done for “the great escape”, as he and his friends called their audacious plans. He was the butler at Worthington Manor and every day was incredibly busy and stressful. It was his job to make sure that every aspect of the daily life of the manor ran like clock-work. And it was not just about a constant daily routine. The lord and lady of the manor had a wide circle of relatives, friends, business associates, members of parliament and many other people they wanted to influence in some way or the other. So Joseph was expected to organize all the dinners, parties, balls, hunting expeditions, holidays, and business trips at home and abroad. And it didn’t stop there. He also had to manage all the other activities needed to keep the lord and his lady in the top strata of society.

Joseph also had a secret, second life. He belonged to a radical religious group called the ‘Separatists’, who had started out as Puritans. The Puritans believed that the Church of England was corrupt and wanted to ‘purify’ it of all Catholic traditions that were not biblical, by their standards. Subsequently, the Puritans had decided to remain in the English Church, but the Separatists couldn’t live with that and broke away. In 1620, the Mayflower had departed from Plymouth, carrying a group of separatist ‘Pilgrims’. Joseph and his group had decided to follow suit and go to the new world in America. Thus began the planning for “the great escape”.

For two long years the group, under Joseph’s direction, had been saving money, hoarding supplies and gathering the basics needed to make a new life in a new world. Now they had tools, of all descriptions, for all uses. They had seeds and plants. They had cut timber for building their first houses. And they had livestock – oxen, cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks and geese, as well as horses for draft and riding. The group numbered fifty men and women all told and everyone had been involved in achieving the aspects of the plan.

Joseph’s second life was equally as stressful as his first. It was full of clandestine meetings in out-of-the-way places, mini-escapes from the enforcers of the Church of England, secrecy, lies and subterfuge, and even treason from within the group. As a result of that, two members of the group were found, hung from adjacent trees, in the woods that bordered the nearby village. The killers were never found, but, needless to say, Joseph was very closed- mouth about the event. Now, there was only one more challenge – finding a ship to carry them all to a new life.

This task had also fallen to Joseph, since he was, by far, the most-worldly member of the group. He’d researched everything he could find about the Mayflower and that had led him to its owners. He was leaving for Plymouth, on the morrow, ostensibly to fulfil an errand for his lord, but also to meet with the ship-owners to negotiate a contract. Joseph slept badly as a result of the stress he was feeling, but also through nerves at the responsibility placed upon him and fear of being found out. He left the manor by coach and found that his restless night had left him tired and listless. But, perhaps not surprisingly, the further he got away from the sources of his worry, the lighter he felt. By the time he got close to Plymouth he was excited and enthusiastic. In his new mood he concluded his master’s business before mid-morning and had some time to kill before his meeting.

He wandered to the harbor, located the offices where the meeting was to take place, and then passed the time by studying the moored vessels. There were several that appeared to be similar to the description of the Mayflower he’d found from his research, so he talked a sailor on the nearest, into a rapid guided tour. When he arrived for his meeting, he had a much better idea of what he needed than he’d had just one day ago.

The owners were cordial and, clearly had done this with similar people before. And not just from the one Mayflower voyage. They had as good an understanding of his needs as he did. So that part of the meeting only focused on numbers of men, of women and of the various types of livestock together with the cargo manifest. Joseph had guessed that this information would be required and had come prepared. Before long the discussion had turned to particular ships and the pros and cons of each. The smaller ones were typically faster, the larger more stable in heavy seas. Those with high castles fore and aft were more difficult in high winds, and so on. Joseph understood all of these refinements and felt that he didn’t need the speed as long as the group were well provisioned for the voyage. Finally, the discussion turned to departure date and price.

In the end they settled all the details around a typical British merchantman – square-rigged, beak-bowed and slightly smaller than the Mayflower. She was eighty five feet long, with three masts, fore, mid-ship, aft, and lower castles. She had three levels – a cargo hold, the gun deck and the main deck. But she had less provision for armaments than Mayflower. Her crew numbered twenty six and she could house up to ninety passengers, so Joseph’s group would sail in relative comfort. The passengers would be housed on the gun deck, while all the goods and livestock would travel in the hold. The ship’s name was Sunflower and the captain was Robert Glover. The departure date was settled on thirtieth June, just one month hence.

Joseph paid the deposit and signed the contract, a copy of which he took away with him. He had to have everything at the docks two days in advance so that all the loading could be done in good order. He left the meeting feeling much more relaxed. He was very happy with the ship and gratified that the price was a bit lower than he’d budgeted. And the timing couldn’t be better. All the winter storms would be over and the seas should be relatively benign. He returned to the manor and called a meeting of the group at which he fed back all that had transpired. He gave instructions as to the final preparations and discussed and clarified all of the questions, doubts, fears and the myriad of small details that were bothering the members of the travelling party.

Finally, the great escape began. The group arrived in Plymouth and, over two days, the hold was loaded and the passengers were settled into their berths on the gun deck. The process took time, but the crew were experienced and their cheerful energy had everything working like a well-oiled machine. The ship sailed with the tide the following morning, which was bright and clear and full of promise for the future. The good weather persisted as the ship sailed into the English Channel and headed south-west past Lizard Point, then they turned a little to starboard and entered the North Atlantic, where they set course for Virginia in the north east of America. The weather was kind and the sea calm and the voyage was very pleasant, so the passengers were able to spend a lot of time in the open air and they reached the mid-point of the journey without incident. Then, one day, the captain called Joseph to his cabin. He didn’t mince words.

“There’s a storm coming. It’s unseasonal so it’s likely to be severe. I need you to secure your animals and then the passengers must go to their berths. You may have to tie everything down if the seas get out of hand.”

Joseph and his people got busy and were mostly done when the storm hit. In moments the pleasant voyage turned into a fearful hell, of howling winds and high seas. The ship was tossed like a cork in a rapids and everything that wasn’t tied down was thrown this way and that way. A number of the passengers took minor injuries. Then there was a fearful crash on the port side. Clearly, something had hit the ship. Immediately, the ship listed to the left and started to take water. It seemed that the cargo had moved, but there was nothing that Joseph could do. The deck was heaving so much he couldn’t keep his feet. The list got worse. In a few horrifying minutes the ship tipped more and more until it capsized and started to sink. Everywhere was chaos. The passengers had been jostled violently and were now swimming.

Joseph’s last thoughts, as the water closed over his head, were wryly amused.

“I never expected to escape straight into the kind embrace of my maker!”