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First episode taken from The Hotspur issue: 864 May 30th 1953.





Flies buzzed lazily in the little schoolroom under the trees on the edge of Morant Bay, in Jamaica. It was a hot sleepy afternoon, and Dirk Hawkins, the teacher, found it hard to keep his boys awake. Hawkins was getting them to read aloud from Robinson Crusoe. At that time, the middle of the eighteenth century, the book was still a thrilling novelty. There was only one copy, and the much-thumbed book was being passed from boy to boy. Some read well, some stumbled over the words. There had been no school at Morant Bay until Hawkins had started it a year before. The boys were mostly the sons of planters, or of merchants in the nearby town. Hawkins had little of the teacher in his appearance. Tall, broad of shoulder, he walked with a nautical gait, and his long face was weathered by wind and sun. When angry his voice would make the windows rattle, but he had patience and was well liked by his pupils, who behind his back called him Captain. Hawkins always wore a sword, hanging it on the side of his desk when in class. “Take over, Jim Honeywell!” he ordered, and Charlie Polk gratefully passed the book to his neighbour. Jim, a boy afflicted with a stammer, rose to his feet. He did not glance at the book in his hand. Instead, he looked straight out of the window behind the teacher. “P-p-p—” he spluttered. “Please what?” asked Hawkins, frowning. “Go on reading, and don’t get nervous.” “P-p-pirates!” suddenly burst from the boy. Shadows fell across the window. The water’s edge was no more than twenty yards distant, and the boy had seen the men streaming ashore from the boat which had just beached. Dirk Hawkins swung round, just as the open window was filled by the head and shoulders of a huge man, a man who wore a black beard, and who had blackened the rest of his face with charcoal. He held a large pistol in one hand. Behind him a dozen other men were surrounding the school. The boys sat frozen in their seats. For about three seconds the man at the window and the teacher remained silent, no more than six feet apart. Then the pirate burst out—“Hawkins, by all that’s certain—” He pulled the trigger, and Hawkins ducked. The heavy ball buried itself in the opposite wall. Then the door was kicked open, and the pirates streamed in, dressed in garish colours, most of them bare-footed, all flourishing swords or cutlasses. Immediately upon firing the shot, the pirate leader had leapt for the doorway. He thrust his way through his men. “What do you want, Black Jack Strake?” demanded Hawkins, and the boys trembled, for Strake was known all over the Caribbean Sea as the most ruthless pirate afloat. “This is a school. Do you make war on boys, now?”

The pirate captain drew a second pistol from his belt and cocked it. His white teeth gleamed in his blackened face. There was a tricorn hat upon his head, glittering with jewels, and rings sparkled on his fingers. “No, Cap’n Hawkins,” he sneered. “I do not war on children. We came here to make sure no word of our landing reaches the town before we get there. Tis a fine time to attack the town while all those fat merchants take their nap. There was no school here when last we landed in the bay. We came here to lock up the pupils, and what do I find? My old friend, Captain Dirk Hawkins, of the brig Petronella.” Which you sank, you scum!” grated Hawkins, and behind cover of the desk he reached for his sword. “Which I sank, but after such a fight that I lost fifty men and was dismasted!” bellowed Black Jack Strake. “I believe you scuttled the brig to avoid her falling into my hands when you saw she could sail no more. When you and most of your men escaped me, I swore that if ever I clapped eyes on you again, Hawkins, I would kill you with my own hands.” His pistol jerked, and the room rang with the heavy report. But the teacher had ducked again behind the desk, and as he straightened, his sword was in his hand. Dropping his pistol, the pirate snatched out his own sword, at the same time bounding back. Then, in the clear space before the class, the two men fought. The board floor rang to the clatter of the fighters’ feet. Sparks flew from the blades as they clashed, and one swift flick of the teacher’s sword knocked the hat from the pirate’s head. Three of the pirates darted in to retrieve it, leaving one window unguarded. Hawkins did not glance round, but he snapped—“Clapper, out, warn the town!” Owen Clapper was one of the smallest boys in the school, and one of the sharpest. He sat at the desk nearest the unguarded window, and spurred by Hawkins’ voice he nipped over the sill and ran for the trees. “Shoot him down!” roared Strake.

From the window came the report of two pistols, but the boys saw that their classmate was already amongst the trees. He would surely reach the town, where he would warn the small garrison of English troops. Angry murmurs came from the pirates, and one in particular was furious. He was small, but immensely broad. His hairy arms hung almost to his knees; his bell bottomed, flaring trousers were scarlet, and his singlet was striped black and yellow. His face was framed in black, greasy ringlets of hair. His nose had been broken, while two of his top teeth protruded over his lower lip like the fangs of some wild beast. “Have finished with it, Black Jack!” he snarled. “Shall we take him in the back?” “Nay!” cried the pirate chief. “I said I would kill this man with my own hand, and I will!” His face was becoming streaked with white where the sweat ran down. At first Strake had done all the attacking, but Hawkins was proving too good a swordsman for him. Pride prevented Strake from asking aid. Then he discovered that the teacher was slackening his efforts. Strake pressed his attack once more. Hawkins gave ground, and the pirates grunted with satisfaction. By this time most of the boys had retreated to the wall at the back of the room. Five minutes passed—ten—and still the men fought furiously. The pirate was gasping for breath, but he knew he would lose prestige with his men if he had to call upon them to help. Sabre-tooth Burke, the ugly bo’sun, had been becoming impatient, and had kept glancing back through the window.

He suddenly shouted—“The redcoats! I see ‘em through the palms. The Redcoats are coming! To the boat! As though it was the signal for which he had been waiting, Hawkins suddenly leaped to the attack. His blade moved faster than the eye could follow, there was a faint, hoarse cry from Black Jack Strake, and he staggered back as Hawkins lunged through his guard. The sword dropped from Strake’s hand—his knees buckled under him. The teacher backed into a corner to defend himself against all comers.


As the wide-eyed pirates realised that their leader was dead, there came the sound of a musket shot outside, and the blast of a bugle. That started a stampede. The pirates turned and fled through the door. They were down the beach and into their boat before the Redcoats were clear of the trees. The soldiers had run all the way from town, and the weight and thickness of their uniforms in that heat had exhausted them. They fired a few shots after the boat as it pulled for the mouth of the bay, but they got no hits. When Hawkins appeared in the school doorway, flushed, bloodstained, with a red sword in his hand, the young lieutenant in charge of the soldiers raised his pistol, thinking he was dealing with one of the pirates. One of the boys shouted—“That’s our teacher, and he’s killed Black Jack Strake!”! The lieutenant gasped, and looked in through the window at the outstretched booted legs of the pirate. “In faith, sir, that is a good piece of work—” he began, but Hawkins broke in—“Why not rush some of your men to the headland, and rake the boat as it passes? The pirates’ ship is doubtless lying beyond the headland.” The lieutenant gave orders, but his men were in no condition for running. Hawkins and some of the older boys got to the vantage point first, and stood there helplessly watching the boat pull to the sleek, black craft which lay about a quarter mile out. Beyond the bowsprit there reached a massive ram, sharpened at the end. Hawkins’ lips tightened. “They still have the same craft, the Swordfish, they call her. She carries thirty guns, and is made to ram an opponent. They tried it on my ship once, but missed. It was then we brought down her mainmast. The boys gazed at Hawkins wide-eyed. “Then it was true, sir, what the pirate chief said?” gasped Jerry Stone, one of the boys. “You were a sea captain?” “I was captain and owner of the brig Petronella,” admitted the tall, flashing-eyed man as he watched the pirates clamber aboard their ship. “I traded between England and the Spanish Main.

They caught me off Negril Point at dusk one evening, when there was little wind. We fought as best we could with our ten guns, and when I saw we were bound to be taken. I scuttled my ship. Most of us got ashore. I have waited a long time for vengeance. That fight ruined me. The soldiers had now arrived, including an elderly captain on a white horse. “Hawkins, you have done a great piece of work today,” he said. “The seas have been searched for that scoundrel. You saved the town with your warning.” “The ship must have crept along the wooded shore from the west,” said Hawkins. “It would be well to send warning to Montego Bay, where I hear half a dozen ships are shortly due to sail for England with valuable cargoes.” Presently the pirate craft hoisted sail and moved slowly to the south-west. Hawkins frowned, for to his experienced eye it seemed that it was keeping a little too close in-shore to be clear of the Pedro Reefs. When Hawkins returned to the school with the admiring boys, the body of Black Jack Strake had been removed. The three cornered hat, with its jewels, was hung as a trophy on the classroom wall. When darkness came, all the day boys returned to the town. Hawkins was left with the half dozen boys who boarded with him. They had an extra fine supper that night, and afterwards their teacher gave them the full story of the epic fight between his brig and the swordfish. It was midnight when the excited youngsters went to their long sleeping room at the rear of the school. Hawkins slept in his own room, and for a time he lay thinking of the strange chance that had brought Strake within reach of his sword that day. Finally he slept…

He was being roughly shaken when he wakened. There were torches in his room, and as he started up in surprise, a pistol was pressed to his forehead. Behind the pistol was the face of Sabre-tooth Burke, the bo’sun of the Swordfish. It was no use Hawkins reaching for the sword that hung on the wall, for it had been removed. There were three or four pirates in the room. “Keep still!” snarled Burke. “We have a job for ye, Cap’n Hawkins.” “A job, you scoundrel, what do you mean?” Hawkins was amazed that they had had the nerve to return ashore after what had happened that afternoon. “Are you mad? You’ll be taken by the troops.” The man’s narrow eyes leered at him. His two fangs gleamed viciously in the flickering light. “That won’t do, Cap’n Hawkins. We happen to know that the soldiers are all sleeping like hogs in their barracks after a celebration supper. We’ve got a job for you.” He screwed up one eye in a knowing wink. “What is this?” roared Hawkins. “Black Jack Strake was a good cap’n went on the bo’sun, “but he was jealous of his position, an’ would let none of us learn navigation. We put to sea just now, an’ found there’s not a navigator amongst us. The Pedro Reefs lie ahead, an’—” “And you’re afraid to pass through them!” Hawkins Laughed. “Then go and sink on the reefs, for all I care!” “Not so, Cap’n Hawkins,” sneered the bo’sun. “You’re a fine seaman, an’ we have need of ye. Unless ye consent to become our cap’n, an’ navigate the ship, we shall cut the throats of those six boys in the other room!” “You dirty scoundrels!” exploded the teacher. He could see that they meant what they said. Sabre-tooth Burke was obviously the leader of the men now, but he could not navigate. He needed someone to do that, and he had chosen the man who had killed his captain. By using the boys as hostages, the pirates could put pressure on Hawkins. He could not defy them and see his pupils killed. “Make up your mind swiftly, Cap’n.” purred Burke. “We do not intend to be here when the moon comes up. Join us, an’ you’ll make your fortune. The boys will be unharmed, we swear it on the Oath of the Brotherhood.” “Ay, ay!” chorused the others. Dirk Hawkins looked at the grim faces around his bed. The boys’ lives must be preserved. “I’ll do it,” he said. “I’ll captain you, on condition that the boys are in my care, and unharmed all the time.”

The French Privateer.

To the six boys who were carried off as hostages with Dirk Hawkins, the trip out to the pirate vessel was one of the most terrifying, and at the same time the most thrilling, of their lives. There they were hoisted aboard the Swordfish, and saw the rest of the pirates. There were about two hundred ruffians, armed to the teeth, black men, white men, and swarthy Spaniards, men wit scarred faces, men in every form and shape of costume. The decks were filthy. The boys were herded into a cabin under guard. It was the first time Hawkins had been aboard a vessel of this size for almost a year. The pirates were pressing round him, staring at him with frank curiosity. Sabre-tooth Burke beat them back. They were evidently in awe of him. Cunning, ruthless, he had more intelligence than most of this unwholesome gang, and he was clever enough to know they needed an experienced captain. As long as Hawkins played their game, he would be safe. Otherwise—Anchors were raised, and the sails rose on the three masts. Slowly the ship veered away from the shore. The charts were old and inaccurate, but Hawkins knew these waters well. Gradually gathering speed as they got away from the shelter of the land, Hawkins demanded back his sword, and ordered the boys be released. Some of the pirates objected, but Sabre-tooth Burke gave the orders, and very soon Jim Honeywell, Charlie Polk, Jerry Stone, Peter Tyne, Saul Hudson, and Ken Horne were crowding round Hawkins on the bridge.

The boys were frightened, but at the same time they were thrilled. “The pirates have got the whip-hand over us, but we’ve also got a hold on them,” the teacher told them quietly. “They cannot do without a navigator. They know that, so I don’t think they’ll ill-treat us. If they do—” His long face hardened, and the boys remembered the duel in the classroom. They were given the same food as the pirates, and Hawkins ordered that the decks be cleaned. To his surprise, Sabre-tooth backed him up. It was difficult to understand the cunning workings of the man’s brain. Some hours later, the lookouts aloft bellowed the news that they could see a large frigate to the north-west. It was moving slowly, and appeared to be of the seventy gun type, with double decks. They closed in warily. It was Sabre-tooth who suddenly announced—“It’s a Frenchman—a French frigate. I wonder what she does in these waters?” Hawkins remembered the British ships that were to leave Montego Bay that morning. He knew why the Frenchman was there. Britain and France were at war. This would be a privateer preying on British shipping. Those six laden barques would fall easy victims to the lurking frigate. The Frenchmen must have had word that the convoy was leaving. Hawkins did some quick thinking. “Tis easy to guess why she is here,” he said to Burke. “She has been preying on our shipping. I have heard of three big barques attacked and taken recently. Sh will have transferred their treasure to her holds, and is now waiting for more prey. The boys looked at Hawkins in surprise, for they had not heard such news. Sabre-tooth looked at the distant vessel with new interest, and Hawkins winked to the boys. They understood. “She would be worth taking,” Hawkins said. “She would be worth three ordinary ships, for they will have only the pick of the treasure aboard. There were growls from the men about him. “She would be too much for us,” muttered someone. Hawkins laughed. “What are ye supposed to be, pirates or long shoremen? Are you a lot of lily livered rats, afraid of a fight.” Sabre-tooth Burke suddenly roared—“Stop! No one says the Sons of the Brotherhood are lily livered rats. Put us alongside, and we’ll take her. If we can rifle her holds it will save us the trouble of taking three other ships.” His stirring words struck a spark from the listeners, and there was a general rush to action quarters. Hawkins told the boys to go below for safety. It was Hawkins’ idea that they flew the English ensign. As they got near enough for the Frenchmen to see this, she deliberately altered course to intercept them. The ex-teacher grinned. The two ships closed, and at the last moment Hawkins sheered away to the east. The other ship followed. Some of the pirates shouted to ask why they were running away. “Let us get her to ourselves,” bawled Hawkins. “Do you want the English ships to come out and take the loot when we’ve crippled her?”

The crew were silent at that. Little did they know that Hawkins’ object was to draw the Frenchmen away from the course that the British barques would take. At last he decided they were a safe distance from the shore. He suddenly tacked, and passed the Frenchmen on the port side. The guns on the quarter deck of the privateer, and those on one side of the main deck, at once let loose. Cannonballs passed high overhead. A hole appeared in the topsail, but otherwise no damage was done. Down on the main deck of the Swordfish, the bo’sun was waving his cutlass and screaming orders. The foc’sle guns of the pirate began to bark. The frigate hurriedly nosed round to bring more of her own foc’sle guns to bear.

The Powder-Keg Ruse.

Dirk Hawkins deliberately went in to close quarters. He did not want the Swordfish sunk, for he saw no hope of getting off with the boys, but he did not mind what damage she suffered, so long as she inflicted similar damage to the Frenchmen. The pirates appreciated his tactics, and they manned their guns well, scoring hit after with ball and grapeshot. As the guns roared, a cloud of smoke drifted over the still waters. It was still very early in the morning. The wind was offshore, and the rumble of the guns would not reach the island. Thanks to his preliminary manoeuvres, Hawkins still had the wind, and he now sent the Swordfish driving in to ram. He knew that if he rammed amidships the two vessels would be locked together, and then the boarding parties would decide the issue. The Frenchmen had the numbers, and would win. When Hawkins steered to ram, he chose the bows of the frigate as his target. By the time the Frenchmen knew they were dealing with pirates and not with British seamen. The flag of the Swordfish had been run down and replaced by the skull-and-crossbones. A grapeshot and musket fire swept the deck and killed men right and left of him. Dirk Hawkins held the wheel and raced in to the attack. At the very last moment he swung off, and instead of ramming the bows, sent the long ram ripping through the jib and smashing the boom. That wrenched the frigate round, bringing down the sails and riggings on the foc’sle, and the gunners there were buried. The Swordfish slipped past without coming under fire, and Sabre-tooth and his men hurled pots of blazing sulphur and tar aboard the Frenchman. Without a jib the frigate was slow in steering, and the pirate craft sped past on the other side, raking her with all available guns. At that range they could not miss, and a cannonball tore through the base of the Frenchmen’s main mast. Down it came, to the cheers and shrieks of the pirates. The fires started in the foc’sle had been fanned by the breeze. The pirates had suffered fully fifty casualties, and the ship’s sails were in tatters, but as yet they suffered no hit that could prevent them from manoeuvring. “Let’s us go in an’ board them!” cried Sabre-tooth. A fierce rush of flames from amidships on the frigate gave Hawkins an excuse. “Wait!” he advised. “Their magazine might go sky-high. We don’t want to be blown up with it. Let us wait, and then go in and take them later.” “Let it be as you say,” Sabre-tooth growled. “They still have a dozen guns in action.” “Then stand off and pound ‘em to silence,” snapped Hawkins. “I’ll go and see how the boys are.” Before Sabre-tooth could object, Hawkins left the wheel and ran along the deck to the ladder leading down to the gun deck. Here with handkerchiefs tied around their heads, their bodies flecked with blood and scorched powder burns, the buccaneers looked more like demons than men. Several guns had come loose, and barrels of gunpowder were rolling around. Hawkins kept in the thick of the smoke, and none saw him as he retrieved a keg of powder and carried it swiftly aft. On his way he snatched up a slow match. Cannonballs from the Frenchmen were coming aboard still. The Swordfish was suffering damage. In a secluded bay of the lower deck, Hawkins removed the bung from the keg of powder, stuck in the slow match, blew it to make it glow, then rolled the keg down the sloping deck towards the stern. Then he backed away swiftly away. Thirty seconds later there came a tremendous explosion across the water, and fragments of planking and spars sailed sky high. It was the magazine aboard the French frigate which had gone up! Little but a smoking hulk would be left of what had once been a fine vessel. There would be no way to tell if the holds had been filled with treasure. Explosion followed explosion, and smoke drifted over the water, then the keg in the stern of the Swordfish blew up. In the general confusion none could tell how it had happened. It might have been a last chance hit by one of the French guns. Hawkins speedily gained the bridge. The frigate was a terrible sight, and was rapidly sinking. Snarling like a pack of hounds, baulked of their prey, the pirates watched the disappearance of their foe. As yet the pirates knew nothing of the damage done to their own craft, apart from a few holes on the waterline and the smashing of the rigging. When Hawkins swung the wheel he knew his ruse had worked. The rudder had been damaged. For the time being it was impossible to steer. He did not tell the bo’sun. The pirates watched the frigate sink beneath the waters, and cursed at having failed to gain any loot. They did not think of blaming their new skipper. An hour later the last of the smoke had cleared away, and the pirates launched boats to search amongst the floating debris for anything of value. It was then that their lookouts reported six heavily-laden ships approaching from the north-west, and summoned all hands back aboard. Hawkins had gone below to release the boys and tell them what had happened. It was Sabre-tooth who ordered all sail to be set, and who tried to head the Swordfish in chase of the newcomers. It was he who discovered that it was impossible to steer. “A chance shot must have done it,” declared Dirk Hawkins gravely, when he was called to the bridge. “There go those barques under our noses, and we can do nothing but limp for the nearest safe port to make repairs. Bad luck!” Groans arose from the pirates when it was known, but it was put down to the fortune of battle. Only the ex-teacher and the boys knew that Hawkins had planned this since he had seen the French frigate lying in wait for the convoy. The two ships which would have captured the convoy had been cleverly made to put each other out of action! Sabre-tooth and his pirates would have cause to rue the day they shanghaied Dirk Hawkins and his pupils!



OUR TEACHER’S A PIRATE! 10 Episodes in The Hotspur issues 864 – 873 (1953)


© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007