The Spences and the Ship
One windwhipped summer day in the year 1735, a blackhulled ship came storming in from seaward toward the mountain walls which guard the southern coast of Newfoundland. All the canvas she could carry was bent to her tall spars, and she was closing on the rockribbed coast at such a furious pace it seemed inevitable she must meet destruction in the surf that boiled and spouted at the foot of the sea-cliffs.
Just over the horizon astern of her a squadron of French men-ofwar was straining to overhaul the fleeing ship. Aboard the Frenchmen a hundred cannon were primed and loaded, waiting for the moment when the massed fire of the squadron could rip the black ship into fragments.
The fleeing vessel, sardonically named Black Joke
by her master, John Phillip, was one of the most notorious privateers in Atlantic waters, and for two years French merchant shipping bound for Canada had suffered her plundering. But on this summer day the vengeful French naval squadron had almost trapped her off the island of St. Pierre, and now she was running for her life.
In the waist of the privateer stood a young man named Jonathan Spence. Two months earlier he had been an ordinary seaman on an English ship which had crossed the Atlantic to fish on the codrich grounds of the eastern Newfoundland coast. Spence’s ship had been lying anchored in Acquaforte Harbour one day when the dawn light revealed the presence of a newcomer, a slim black vessel, lying across the narrow harbor entrance and commanding the anchored fishermen with her long brass cannon.
There was consternation in the fishing fleet as the officers recognized the infamous Black Joke
. The captains had no alternative but to obey Phillip’s “request” that their crews be mustered on the decks. And they could do nothing but look on miserably as he addressed the crews, promising good wages and high adventure in his service.
Phillip’s audience was attentive. In those days the crews of fishing ships were little better than slaves. And so, when Phillip’s bullyboat rowed away from the fleet, it carried the pick of the young and able fishermen; and amongst them was young Spence.
Jonathan Spence enjoyed his service with Phillip even though it was a life of hard sailing and occasionally of hard fighting. But Jonathan had a great desire to be his own master. He had already fallen in love with Newfoundland, wild and formidable as it was with its great inland mountains, searacked shores, and dark spruce forests. And he had made up his mind to settle on the island, never to return to England where starvation and a serf’s lot awaited him.
But a settler’s life on the muchfrequented eastern shores was a precarious business at best, for the owners and officers of the English fishing ships considered the settlers to be intruders into their fishing preserves and the conflict between the two groups was often bloody.
Things were different on the south coast of Newfoundland. Here the deep fords and coves were so well protected by offlying reefs and shoals that fishing vessels seldom ventured near them. Only a few men knew the secrets of that coast — and Captain John Phillip was one of them.
His knowledge served him well on the day Black Joke
fled from the French squadron. He held Black Joke
upon her course even though the green hands in his crew were sure he was taking them all to their deaths. The massive seacliffs seemed close enough to touch, when suddenly a cleft opened in the rock wall ahead. It was a mere slit in the face of the mountains, but the black ship drove unhesitatingly into it and in an instant had vanished from the face of the gray ocean.
The slit, no more than a hundred yards wide, twisted and turned between thousandfoot walls until it ended abruptly in an almost circular harbor, half a mile in diameter. The harbor looked rather like the crater of an extinct volcano, except that its floor was sunk under deep water and the steep surrounding slopes were clothed in forests. Tumbling down from the high rim were several bright rivers, and, almost in the center of the crater, were two small islets between which ships could moor in perfect safety from any wind that blew.
Even before Black Joke
had dropped anchor, Jonathan Spence had decided that this secret place was where he would make his home.
Jonathan had worked well during his time with Phillip and so, after vainly trying to persuade the young man to stay with the ship, the pirate skipper granted his request that he be set ashore. Phillip also provided Jonathan with tools, arms, and ammunition, and with sufficient stores to support him through his first winter. Three days later Black Joke
sailed, and Jonathan was left alone in the harbor which Phillip had named Ship Hole.
returned in the following spring to find a wellbuilt cabin on the shore of Ship Hole and a healthy but exceedingly lonely Jonathan Spence rowing anxiously out to greet the pirate ship.
Jonathan’s loneliness did not last long. A few days earlier Black Joke
had captured a vessel bound for Quebec with a cargo of unwilling young women from France who were destined to become wives to the garrison soldiers in the citadel. The young women had begged Phillip to set them ashore in some free land and he had promised to take them to New England. But while the vessel lay in Ship Hole Jonathan caught the eye of one black-eyed lass who was ready and willing to join this sturdy young man in building a life in the Newfoundland wilderness. Phillip married the pair of them before he sailed, and from that day onward Ship Hole was never without the sound of human voices.
Two centuries after Ship Hole received its first inhabitants, a man who was Jonathan’s namesake stepped out into the spring sunshine from the doorway of a twostory frame house overlooking the harbor. This latter-day Jonathan Spence was a squarebuilt man in his forties, ruddyskinned, and with shaggy brown hair shadowing his deepset blue eyes. He looked what he was — a man of the sea.
On this spring day he gazed out over a familiar scene. The sun came streaming down over the surrounding cliffs and glinted from the white-painted walls of a dozen almost identical wooden homes which straggled along the south slopes. Ship Hole stood revealed as a typical Newfoundland fishing village, with its handful of houses facing the waterfront; its small square church, and the more imposing and concentrated cluster of buildings and wharves belonging to the local merchant. There were no roads in Ship Hole or vehicles either. Narrow, twisting paths connected the various parts of the settlement; but the sea was the real highway, and the whole life of the inhabitants depended on the sea. It was to the sea that the Ship Hole men went for their livelihood, for they were all fishermen, and it was by the sea that the only communications with the outside world were maintained. Inland lay hundreds of miles of mountain plateau and caribou barrens across which only the local Micmac Indians could make their way.
It was to the sea that Jonathan Spence’s thoughts turned as he looked out toward the twin islets, between which a cluster of five schooners lay closely moored. They were twomasted fishing vessels; “laid-up” now, as they had been all winter, with their sailing gear stowed away on shore, so that they looked sleepy and abandoned in the bright spring sun. But there was one amongst them which stood out from her sisters as a ballerina would stand out in a crowd of folk dancers. Her slim, blackpainted hull had a grace and delicacy which was unique amongst the roughbuilt, hard-working fishing ships. Although she was too far away for Jonathan to be able to read the name painted in gold along each bow, he knew it as well as his own. She was the Black Joke;
and she belonged to him.
A vessel called Black Joke
had belonged to each succeeding generation of Spences since the days when the first Jonathan came to Ship Hole in Phillip’s pirate ship, and into the present Black Joke
had gone all the experience and knowledge gained from generations of seamen and shipwrights.
Work on her had begun six years earlier, when Jonathan and his brother Kent had gone far back into the country to search out the trees destined for her timbers. It had taken weeks to find the right trees, to fell them and limb them, and to roll the logs down to the nearest rivers. In the spring the two men had rafted the chosen logs and towed them out to the coast where a trading schooner had picked them up and brought them on to Ship Hole.
Since there was no sawmill to do the work, Jonathan and Kent had to shape the timbers by hand, using axes and adzes exactly as the first Jonathan Spence had done. Planks to sheathe the timbers, two inches thick, ten to fifteen feet long, and often a foot wide, had to be whipsawed out of solid logs — also by hand.
All that summer the timbers and piles of planks were left to season, and the following autumn the ship began to build. She took shape on a piece of relatively level ground between the house and the beach. Day after day the two men worked with their shipwright’s tools, using only a hand-carved model of the ship for guide and plans.
They worked in any and every kind of weather; in bright sun, in snowstorms, and in blinding rain. By spring the frame was up and planked, and one fine day the ship was ready for the launch. The whole population of Ship Hole was on hand to watch and help as the wedges were knocked out from under her and she slid down wooden ways greased with rotted cod livers, and met the water with a mighty splash.
Among those who watched the launch, none was prouder than two small boys who shouted with enthusiasm when the vessel built by their two fathers ...