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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1340

Tom Cringle, aged thirteen and four feet four inches tall, looked upon himself as a successor to Nelson. In pursuing his aim, he pestered his relative Sir Barnaby Blueblazes to such lengths that Tom was finally appointed midshipman aboard the frigate Breeze and ordered to report for foreign duty in four days.

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Poor Tom had envisioned a period of months ashore after his appointment; this would give him time to strut his uniform before all of his friends. Since his time was so short, he hardly knew whether he wanted to go to sea after all, and his widowed mother wept and begged him not to leave. On the appointed day, however, Tom went aboard his ship, bound for action.

He had a trip to the Bay of Biscay on the Breeze and a tour of duty on the Kraaken. Now an old hand, Tom boarded the Torch, an eighteen-gun sloop bound for the North Sea.

Near Cuxhaven, the ship’s boat was lowered, and Tom was put second in command of a party to enter the harbor. The captain was sure no French were near; consequently, the party shoved off with light hearts. To their astonishment, they were challenged by French sentries. In trying to regain the ship, Tom’s boat was hit by a shell from a shore battery, and subsequently he was taken prisoner.

A resident of Hamburg went surety for Tom and took him to his own country house. The next day, the Russians advanced and drove out the French. In the confusion, Tom and the Hamburg family escaped and safely boarded the Torch.

The Torch stood off Cork, where Tom played the part of a spy. By a clever tale, he induced a group of British seamen to rendezvous in a small tavern. There they were captured and pressed into service. Then with her full complement, the Torch left for Caribbean waters, where Tom was to spend many years. In the West Indies, the French, Spaniards, English, and Americans were all privateering, and there was much work for a British man-of-war, in escorting merchantmen, keeping a lookout for American marauders, and trying to keep slavery and smuggling within bounds.

Tom had an early introduction to the horrors of piracy the day a London merchantman was sighted behaving erratically. With great difficulty, a boarding party captured the ship after subduing a pirate crew. In the main cabin of the merchantman, the British found a terrifying situation. The captain had been tied on the table and his throat had been so savagely slashed that he was almost decapitated. A prosperous but nearly hysterical gentleman was tied in a chair. On the sofa was the man’s wife, violated by the pirates. The poor lady was mad with shame and fright and spent her last days in an asylum. The leader of the pirates, who subsequently escaped, was a tall, handsome Spaniard. Tom learned much later that his name was Francesco Cangrejo.

During a violent hurricane, the Torch went down, and Tom, believing himself the only survivor, spent three terrible days in an open boat. At last, thirst and privation overcame him. When he regained consciousness, he was on shore, tended by Lieutenant Splinter, the only other crew member to escape. Captain Deadeye, of the Torch, was stretched out under a canvas on the beach. Scarcely had Tom recovered his senses when they were taken prisoners by a Spanish platoon. When Tom and Splinter had satisfactorily established their identity, they were freed, but they were stranded in the tiny port of Cartagena, far from the British forces.

On the beach, Tom made the acquaintance of a black pilot, Peter Musgrave, who was wanted by the Admiralty for running a British ship aground. Tom agreed to act as Peter’s friend at court; in turn, Peter would procure passage to Jamaica.

Peter went aboard a suspiciously decrepit small craft in the harbor and returned with the American mate of the vessel. Obadiah, the mate, took them aboard, and the black captain consented to take the Englishman to Jamaica for a reasonable fee. As soon as they were at sea, however, some astonishing changes took place. Obadiah assumed the captaincy, and under his directions, the villainous but alert crew rerigged the worn sails and mounted guns on deck. Then the truth dawned on Tom; he was aboard a pirate ship.

Two British men-of-war bore down on the ship, but Captain Obadiah refused to heave to and held his course in the face of almost certain suicide. By clever seamanship, the pirate craft outran its pursuers, although many of the crew were killed or wounded. Making a landfall in Cuba, the pirates put in to a small river and after a narrow passage came to anchor in a secluded lagoon a mile in diameter. The lagoon was filled with armed craft of many types. Tom was in the secret den of the West Indian pirates.

When the Firebrand, an English warship, engaged a pirate felucca near the river’s mouth, Tom escaped with the help of Peter. Going aboard the Firebrand, to which he had been assigned by dispatch, Tom took part in the capture of the whole pirate band. Obadiah, who was a renegade Englishman, as Tom learned later, was shot as he tried to swim away. For his bravery in the engagement, Tom was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

Captain Transom of the Firebrand proved to be a genial commander with many friends in the islands. Tom spent much time ashore indulging in high jinks. One trip ashore, however, was a somber one. Tom served as interpreter at the trial of the pirates, who were all condemned to death. Tom discovered that one of the prisoners was Francesco Cangrejo, who cut a brave figure in the dock despite his confessed career of villainy. At the pirate’s request, Tom took his miniature and crucifix to deliver to the pirate’s betrothed.

Tom was cordially received in Kingston, where he called on his relatives, the Palmas. There he met and fell in love with Mary Palma, his cousin. When he was called away on duty, it was with the understanding that they would be married after his next promotion.

At Santiago, Tom went ashore to visit Ricardo Campana, a rich merchant. There a priest who met him and Ricardo on the street seemed upset. Tom could hear the name Cangrejo mentioned and learned that Maria, Francesco’s sweetheart, was dying. The party hastened to the Cangrejo house in time for Tom to have a few words with Maria before she died. Tom was saddened when he heard of Francesco’s early promise and reflected on the Spaniard’s later death for piracy.

On a trip out from Santiago, Tom was ordered to take command of the small schooner Wave. At age twenty-three, Tom Cringle, lieutenant, became master of his own ship. Sent to patrol for suspicious vessels, Tom sighted a large schooner that failed to heed his signals. After a two-day chase, the Wave closed with the heavily armed, larger ship. Displaying great courage at close quarters, the gallant crew of the Wave boarded the schooner, which proved to be a slaver. Unable to land the ship with a prize crew, Tom had the slaver shelled until it caught fire and sank. He then rescued as many slaves as the Wave could carry and put them ashore.

Afterward, Tom was trusted with many missions, including one to Panama. Since he was always diligent in performing his duty and since he had always displayed great courage in battle, he received his second epaulet. Tom Cringle, onetime midshipman, became Commander Cringle.

At dinner in Kingston, Tom wore his two epaulets. He was surprised that none of the Palmas remarked on his promotion. Mary herself was quite agitated and left the table. In his embarrassment, Tom had the misfortune to drink a glass of catsup. Despite his awkwardness, Tom managed to see Mary alone and win her consent to an immediate marriage.

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