Old Salt by Jeannette Holland Austin 2018

1777 Liberty County. The Occupation of Charleston and Savannah by the Redcoats


Mr. Salt walked the pier to its furtherest point and momentarily paused to view the narrow pier out ranging South Newport River. Not too many years hence had past since the hardwood trees were cut to lay a dock which would cross the creek and facilitate the wash of the neep tide for the uninterrupted navigation of his master’s three ocean-bearing sloops . It was an early October morning and he inhaled a deep breath of the fresh morning dew skirting off the river and drifting over the recently harvested rice paddies. His master was proud of his crop and eager to run it down to British-Florida.

It felt good that morning to be employed on the McGillivray plantation of some 3,000 acres of land, granted because Angus McGillivray had transported his family and some number of white indentured servants into the Georgia Colony from Scotland. Already, Mr. Trueheart was awakening the servants in preparation of breakfast and the loading of cargo.

And now, Angus prepared his scheme against the patriots by running supplies to the English post located in St. Augustine.

He gave Mr. Trueheart loading instructions before joining Salt on the pier. Once there, he focused his eyes steadfast upon the wide brick fireplaces which encapsulated the mansion and its thirteen fireplaces with open hearths in memory of the forgotten clan castle Dunmaglas lost somewhere in the Monadhliath Mountains of Scotland. Like so many other ancient family seats, the McGillivray clan had suffered for generations under the tenacious grip of the land lords who eventually assumed control of the lands once belonging to the impoverished families of the highlands. Their only recourse was to immigrate. The McGilliviray land was poor, but he had a goodly number of servants who wanted to immigrate. The new start in the Georgia colony tested his temper and patience, especially with the news crops of rice and indigo. But rice flourished in the fresh water swamps. The method of trapping water from swollen streams soaked his fields for up to seventeen days at a time and the laborous process required frequent weeding and hoeing from March until September. But the servants, remembering the arid soil of the Highland, made few complaints as the ruddy overseer, Mr. Trueheart, weighed and measured the burlap bags. Each sloop would tolerated 70 tons in the hull of the ship, and he ordered a tight packing.

Although Angus McGilliviray was quite pleased with himself for his raising such a lucrative crop, he was excited over the prospect of inflated prices of a war-time market. Yes siree, the inconvenience of the armies, especially the unexpected attacks of Patriots who might suddenly leap out and attack the Loyalist soldiers protecting the Savannah road. But alas, the Loyalist army occupied both Charleston and Savannah, having seized Savannah for a second time. With the battles concentrated around Ninety-Six, Angus felt fairly safe in his new adventure of running supplies to the British out post in St. Augustine.

Naturally, there were disadvantages, but he did not concern himself with the dangers of attack as he crossed the Newport River and made his way to the St. John’s River into Florida. The sight of three vessels simultaneously taken to the river so early in the morning would be a distraction to the fishermen at Darien and St. Marys, but he supposed that most of his Scottish compatriots preferred not to fight against their king. Already there were rumors that the Macintosh clan at Darien had sided with England and that their near-relative, General Lachlan Macintosh, surrounded by controversy and criticism, was on the wrong side. As they passed the fishing boats, Angus thought of old William MacIntosh, whom everyone knew was running supplies to the British. And then there was his uncle Alexander McGillivray, a delegate to the Colonial Georgia Assembly, who, just as the war broke out, abandoned his plantation of some 10,000 acres in Augusta and returned to Scotland. No doubt about it the McGillivrays were Loyalists.

Salt, knowing full well that they were running supplies to the British in St. Augustine God knows wha else, watched his master’s face for instructions as they passed a small outlying fort at St. Marys.

“There is cannon at St. Mary’s and on Amelia Island,” McGillivray said. “And I suspect there are pirate ships patroling on the St. John’s.”

Salt nodded. He knew the drill; avoid the shore and steer clear of merchant vessels.

“Once we arrive, do not forget, Mr. Salt, that I want two bags of rice delivered with my compliments to the Royal Governor.”

Salt nodded, but his attention was on the fort distinctly visible across the broad spance of the Cumberland river. Four cannon were raised over a single rampart of earth capped with a stone parapet. The make-shift wooden small fort on the tip of the river protected against the British. As the British occupied both Charleston and Savannah at this point in the war, the militia companies proceeded to protect the rivers and creeks. The appearance of the McGillivray sloops drew immediate suspicion from the patriots who fired a warning short.

“Dunmaghlas!” McGillivray shouted the clan war cry.

The old salt commander of the McGillivray fleet sprang into action, trimming the sails for maximum speed across the wind before taking control of the helm, all the while ordering another sailor to assume his position forward for signalling a windward maneuver to the other sloops. This was not the first time that this old sailor had engineered a narrow escape amiss the fire of patriot cannon.

Angus, who had gone aft to prevent his large body from blocking activity, worried that the hull of the ship had taken on water. But the old salt was already below, inspecting the vessel for leakage. Then he opened one of the sacks and delivered a sample of dry rice to his master and assured him that the fine quality of the grain would bring top dollar at auction. Angus was breathless with excitement. “And for this risk, nary a crown is to be trifled at the auction!”

As the fore and aft sails of the fleet spread their wings across the open sea, the vision was but tiny dots cast against the great blue of the sinuous St. John’s River. The second day at sea, with 300 miles yet ahead, the hefty wind which had carried them thus far, vanished, and was replaced by a tapering tail spin. Angus seized the opportunity to shave the heavy black beard which had reached his ears and throat. His wife always reminded him that his large bulky figure and wide brown eyes could not accommodate the wiry appearance of a beard, should be wish to be respected by his peers. He thought of the unintelligible tongue of auctioneers and the speed at which he called the bids. The eye of the auctioneer must recognize the austere peerage, she declared. As this was his first visit to the St. Augustine markets, it was true that the auctioneers would not recognize him. He must be circumspectly accurate in his personal calculations.

Plaza St. Augustine

The McGillivray sloops entered the Matanzas river on the third day. As soon as old salt spotted the customs officer on the pier collecting his fees from anchoring merchant ships, he cautioned Angus to leave two sloops anchored three miles out to sea, so as to avoid paying a full tariff for the cargo.

After McGillivray paid his fees, he made his way through a maze of sailors carrying cargo up the river bank. The open air market place was crowded with people preparing for an early afternoon auction inside a central green plaza surrounded by the most important government buildings and the old bishop’s house commandeered as the British State House and facing the bay. McGillivray spotted the auctioneer in the center of the green and introduced himself.

The busy auctioneer carried a leather valise under his arm and a number of loose notes in his pocket. McGillivray’s thick brogue caused him to pause andy observe the large scotsman with a red and green plaid tam situated upon a full head of naturally curly hair.

“I am Angus McGillivrary,” he said loudly, “with a cargo of rice.”

While waiting for the auctioneer’s response, Angus impatiently scratched his head and shifted uncomfortably in his damp sea-mist kilt. “Harvested on me Georgia plantation only a few days hence.”

“Sir, I am quite occupied at present, however, before accepting your rice for market require to see a sample of the crop, to determine its quality,” he said pertly as he quickened his step. McGillivray kept the pace, while insisted: “Upon my word, sir, tis prime quality unspoilt rice recently harvested on my Georgia plantation!”

The old salt, carrying the first bag of rice on his back, caught up with them and dumped it on the floor in front of the auctioneer. “The first load, sir!”

Salt hastened to loosened the bag and taking a fist full of the rice, dribbled it into the auctioneers unwilliing hand. “Other farmers are ahead of you in priority”, he said angrily. “I hath nought to know a Georgia planter!”

McGillivray stood erect, poised to impose his intimiddating height well above that of the auctioneer. “I stand upon my word, sir!”

Salt recognized the mood of his master. Although he sometimes committed a solecism he was no makebate or stirrer up of quarrels. But he stood firm upon his word as a gentleman.

“A fine quality indeed,” the auctioneer reluctantly admitted. “Well, we shall see what it brings at auction,” the auctioneer answered as his eye turned on the scuffy sea clothes of the old salt. With that, Salt signalled his crew to unload the remaining cargo into row boats and bring ashore. This gesture did not meet the approval of the auctioneer, who recognized that all of the lower classes did what they could to avoid paying the tariff.

McGillivray later scolded Salt for embarrassiing him by signalling the tariff maneuver to the crew in front of the arrogant auctioneer. “I did it before he could change his mind,” he said. “Tis an old sailor’s trick.”

“He shall soon know of my Dunmaghlas! See that home across the street? That is the home of the Royal Governor,” he said pointing to a three-story vernacular building having a Mediterranean flavor, clay tile cornices, ornamental iron work, decorative brick work and jigsawn raffers encompassing the porches. The two-story wrap around the porch with its decorative friezes afforded a full view of the plaza. “Take this note to His Honor.”

Salt accepted a note which was sealed with an indistinctive version of the Dunmaghlas family crest and grinned as he walked leisurely across the street.

The Prisoner

It was mid-afternoon before the auctioneer began his auction. His clothes were wet and his hands sweaty from handling merchandise amid the hot afternoon sun of St. Augustine. Determined to get things going, he pounded his mallett onto a wooden platform. The crowd included some Cubans wearing broad-brim hats and others from the West Indies who did not speak English. They seemed keenly interested in his rice and when the time came, bid enthusiastically against the locals. McGillivray counted himself fortunate that the British occupation was preventing planters from delivering their rice to the ports of Charleston and Savannah.

He left the auction with a complacent smile upon his face. The auctioneer had driven up the price of rice admirably and given him a promissory note addressed to Mcgillivray’s factoring house in Savannah. He decided upon a brisk walk while awaiting Salt to return with the Governor’s response.

As he entered the path which surrounded the church, some retail stores, and the office of the Commandant in charge of prisoners, a bell sounded and a flow of American officers commenced their afternoon unsupervised stroll around the square. He was told that the British had delivered the prisoners after the first battle of Savannah. He heard the jingle of coins in his pocket as he walked and remembered that battle as being the cause of the old Salt found a hiding place on his sloop.

He stared at the officers as they passed, the awful state of home-spun uniforms and the dispairing faces. Their thin bodies were staunchly rigid as they moved almost in unison, consumed in deep thought and introspection. What were they thinking? Did they regret the demand for freedom from a king? He stared intently upon one particular blue-eyed officer whose burden pained him greatly, moreso than the others. Suddenly he recognized his neighbor, John Barton.

“John Barton, er, Major, is that you?” He asked.

The soldier stopped dead in his tracks but stayed his distance. “Mr. McGillivray, sir! What are you doing here at this prison camp?”

“I just sold my rice crop,” McGilliviray said proudly, before considering the state of affairs of his neighbor.

The Major frowned a full face of wrinkles. McGilliviray quickly accessed the situation. The agony which the Major bore was indeed insurmountable. “I apologize, Major, for my giddy pride. Aye, I was too pleased with myself to realize your diminishing position. What can I do to help you, sir?”

Barton struggled to find a neatly folded letter in his britches.

“Sir, I would ask a favor of you and owe you everything is you would only deliver this letter to my wife.”

“Of course, sir, what was her name again?”

“Margaret. Before I was captured, she was expecting a child, and I am so desperately anxious to learn whether it be a boy or girl.”

McGillivray accepted the crumbled unsealed letter which must have occupied the Major’s pocket for many months.

His footsteps took him away from the square where eventually Salt found him, bearing the expected invitation from the Governor.

The Royal Residence

As he passed through the royal residence, McGillivray smelled a duck roasting in the yard and the makings of a lavish dinner being prepared for thirty guests that evening. A spanish speaking servant informed him that he was to be the guest of the governor and led him through a wide vaulted hall displaying suits of armor of ancient Spanish Cavaliers during an era when the city was occupied by the Spanish Armada.

His early arrival prompted his removal to a guest room where a wash basin and towel were provided. McGillivray opened a small bag containing his toiletries and commenced the arduous task of trimming his thick red beard. His attire for the evening would be the same waist coat and breeches he’d worn on the ship. He removed a fresh cotton cravat from the bag and tied it around his neck, adding a small silver pin for decoration. His coat had passed from fashion and would be conspiciously long that evening compared to the other guests. His black leather shoes were properly fit with plain buckles and stury for plantation use. Although he pretended to be descended from the peerage, his plainly inexpensive clothes spoke otherwise. Nevertheless, he was graciously received by the Governor who declared that he was thankful for the rice which his lips had not tasted since the war began.

McGillivray was placed between two distinguishable gentlemen at the far end of the dinner table. To his right sat a wealthy merchant, Ferdinand Cumos from Barbados whose gift to the governor was mango, golden apple, carambola and a stock of his finest well-fermented rum.

He wore a long curly wig which was tied at the name of his neck in a cord of fibers which matched a golden ring in one ear a number of ornate rings upon his fingers.

His egotistical nature was self-consumed by his wealth, was of considerable short statue and had an unpleasant view of McGillivray’s bushy beard and wrinkled neck, thus he direct most of his conversation to another gentleman.

The British gentleman Nelson Clements to his left wore a multi-colored satin waist-coat and all the accruements of the peerage. He expressed a great interest in gambling and arabian horses. And he was keenly curious as to how a gentlemen from a backwoods Georgia plantation fit into the occasion. The governor’s fellowship was open to peculiar visitors, particularly to wealthy planters and merchants. McGillivray struggled to impress Clements that his ancestors were heirs of the long lost Dunmaghlas castle.

“My uncle Alexander McGillivray built a vast estate on some 10,000 acres near Augusta,” he explained, “and when he left his estates and returned to Scotland, my plantation assumed the name of Dunmaghlas.”

“How doth Dunmaghlas fair during the rebel’s war?”

“Rice,” my lord “is a valuable commodity.”

“Yes, I heard that your rice was auctioned off today at a high premium, moreso than any other.”

McGillivray began a detailed commentary on how he dug out the marsh to plant his rice. The disinteresed Clements was bored, however, was somewhat interested in how the under classes earned money, so listened politely. Throughout, he would ask questions which encouraged McGillivrary to reveal more about himself. In the end, (name) was fully convinced that McGillivray had no armorial bearings whatsoever and was a simple -minded Scotsman whose rice crops had enriched him somewhat. Yet, he felt a strange attachment towards him.

“What about you, sir?” McGillivray asked.

Clements had a stock answer in his repertoire . “Like so many others, when my county delivered shiploads of redcoats to this country, I found it inconvenient to return home.”

If the truth be known, Clement’s family fortune was spent and he was reluctant to return to London to face crediors. His travels had brought him to Augustine where had been a guest of the governor since the war began. He found the weather pleasant and opportunities abundant. Perhaps there was a subdued opportunity in this fellow McGillivray.

After dinner they retired to the gentlemen’s drawing room to smoke cuban cigars. Clements doted on McGillivray for his rare, but clever gift of rice to the governor which resulted in his welcome at the mansion. And not to forget his recent acquisition of wealth at the auction. The flattery persuaded him to engage in a poker game with some of Clement’s friends.

Angus was awaken early the next morning. “Mr. Gillivray, there is someone asking for you.”

The rising of a resplendent sun filled the dark shadows of his room and kindled the fumes of an intoxicating evening on his breath. His head was aching and spinning from the taste of rum, but he arose and awkardly displaced his banyan. He had detained him well into the night playing cards with his new friend. Now as he washed his face, he remembered very little, except that his losses robbed his tiny purse of its contents. Luckily, the auctioneer had given him a promissory note for the rice else all would be lost. But he had a sneaking suspicion that Clements would have taken that also, had he known. He dressed quickly and packed his little bag.

The old Salt waited at the black iron gate with a horse and buggy. Preparations were underway to sail on the morning tide and he was agitated when he saw his master under the effects a rum-spun evening.

McGillivray suddenly remembered that he had not thanked the governor for his hospitality.

“No time for that sir! Hurry, the tide!”

McGillivray acknowledged that sailiing with the tide was more important and stepped giddily into the carriage. He did realize the sleazy deals which an old sailor could make, given an evening alone.

Jeannette Austin
30 min
10 cards

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