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“Merchant navigators” — a polite phrase for “smugglers” — William Shaler and Richard Cleveland agreed on almost everything. Both were New Englanders, born in 1773. Both went to sea as teenagers. Shaler, whose ancestor Thomas Shaler came from Stratford-on-Avon, got work as business manager on a ship transporting goods from the French West Indies to France. Cleveland’s first job was Captain’s clerk, which kept him, he boasted, “free from the vulgarity of the forecastle.”

Cleveland was seasick the entire tour. When he docked at Derby he was so glad to leave the “wearisome rolling and bad odor of the vessel,” he vowed to travel no more. But even the merchant trading mean “uncommon exposure” to “sullen sailors,” and “robbers and pirates,” the promise of profits lured him back to the open sea.

Cleveland and Shaler met on a voyage from Capetown to Copenhagen. Shaler’s ship, carrying a large cargo of wines, had been raided by privateers — a polite expression for “pirates.” Back from Calcutta (and dealing, among other things, in opium), Cleveland wanted a partner to sail to the Pacific, where the sea otter trade had begun to flourish. Merchant navigators could trade trinkets for pelts from friars and Indians, smuggle them to China, and sell them for up to $80 each (the equivalent of $1000 today). But there was a catch: Spain prohibited foreign trade along the California coast.

The New Englanders agreed to purchase a brigantine and try their luck. Brigs were small ships — 100 to 200 tons, 65 to 100 feet long — with square-rigged fore and mainmasts. They got their name from the sea brigands of the Mediterranean, galleys compact enough for tight maneuvers along coastlines and shallow bays — and ideal for smuggling. Shaler and Cleveland thought so much alike that when they purchased the 175-ton Lelia Byrd in Hamburg, Germany, each wanted the other to be Captain. They drew lots. Shaler won. Cleveland became business manager. But “these designations were only for form’s sake; the duties of each station were to be reciprocally performed.”

Rare for an occupation rife with suspicion and lethal hatreds, the pair remained lifelong friends. About the only thing they couldn’t agree on was the name of their brig. Cleveland called it the Lelia Byrd; Shaler, the Delia Byrd.”

The ship almost sunk at the refitting dock. A storm swelled the river near Gluckstadt. Debris flooded the channel and a cable snapped, prompting a sailor’s nightmare: the Lelia Byrd dragged anchor. The brig slid downstream toward a pier. To save lives, Shaler wanted to cut away the masts. “No,” shouted Cleveland, “the second cable holds!”

Held fast by a 200-yard-long rope of hemp, the brig waited out the deluge, It lost the stern boat and an anchor. After a month of repairs to the battered hull, the Lelia Byrd left Hamburg on November 8, 1801, a cargo of tin plates and utensils in its hold. It had a crew of 15, including two cabin boys and the Count de Rouissillon, a deposed Polish nobleman along for the ride. Twelve other large craft sailed west that day.

A voyage down the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and up the Pacific Coast took so long, says Richard Batman, “[sea] grass had time to grow on the bottom.” After many dull weeks, each day a replica of the day before, the Lelia Byrd came upon water churned muddy brown by fierce storms. They’d reached the Cape.

The brig was perfect for close maneuvers but not large enough to negotiate the Straits of Magellan without danger. Blasted by shifting squalls and spears of rain, Shaler ordered the foretopsail furled. Not enough. The boat still bounded like a bubble.

Close-reef the mainsail!

Several crewmen climbed to the yard, the wooden spar that crosses the mast. One of them, a Norwegian named John Green, slipped off, fell, cracked his head on the main-chains – a small platform on the ship’s side – and plunged into roiling foam. “He was seen but a moment, his head very bloody, and then disappeared.”

“Lower the launch!” someone shouted.

They couldn’t. Any sudden windshift would swamp the small craft.

“Thus perished in an instant,” writes Cleveland, “an excellent young man, in the prime of life, beloved by his shipmates. This distressing event cast a gloom on the spirits of all on board, which was not entirely effaced during the remainder of the passage.”

For protection from worms, barnacles, and sea growth, ships were “bottomed” with copper (and if they came from the Boston area, Paul Revere did the work). But when they refitted the Lelia Byrd, Shaler and Cleveland only bottomed to the “light-water mark.” By the time they navigated Cape Horn and reached Valparaiso, on February 24, 1802, the brig leaked aft.

Steep, green slopes rise from crescent-shaped Valparaiso Bay, where they stopped for provisions. But Shaler and Cleveland didn’t note patchworks of houses on the hillsides, a sandy plain, and a 15-foot wall surrounding a fortress. An odd sight struck them: four American vessels anchored in the harbor.

The ships were being detained, said a Spanish officer, because they aided English privateers or were smugglers. Shaler and Cleveland would need permission from the acting governor — since the real governor, Captain-General Muñoz, was at Santiago — to anchor.

“If we were surprised to meet so many of our countrymen here,” writes Cleveland, “we were equally mortified, and in some degree alarmed for our own safety, to find them under seizure.”

It took three letters to the Captain-General, each vowing they weren’t smugglers, before the Lelia Byrd got permission to anchor. During their fourth week in Valparaiso, the young New Englanders watched Muñoz and 30 troops, “drums beating, royal colors flying,” march from the fort to the seashore. They climbed into a launch and rowed beside the American ship, Hazard. Through a megaphone, Muñoz ordered the Captain to surrender 200 muskets known to be on board. The Captain, named Rowan, refused. Muñoz raised his voice. Towan still refused. Muñoz vowed vengeance.

The Battle of San Diego Bay, Part 2 | Part 3

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