All Stories, Historical, Story of the Week

Cold, hard iron blade of the sea by Shane Bolitho


For more than a month that horizontal plane, the cold, hard iron blade of the sea, has scythed around this lonely spite-filled ship, the Meeuwtje, the Seagull. Our only constant: that unwavering edge. If only we would come to it and tumble off into the void.

I am consumed with the vilest thoughts; acidic loathing, a derision that stoops my shoulders. This sinful, wind-blown bastard-mongrel pack with whom I share this stinking pile of creaking timber, rope and sailcloth!

There is little conversation. Whispers and mutterings as the men go about their labour. Occasional commands bellowed by the Captain; more an attempt at maintaining a semblance of normality than through necessity. I am spared his half-hearted wrath. As a paying passenger, a guest of the V.O.C., I was never expected to assist in the physical aspects of sailing, only to stay out of the way. He also knows I think he should be thrown overboard with the rest, with stones tied to his feet.


Ten days out of Bantam we encountered the most violent tempest. For two nights the Meeuwtje dodged piercing thunderbolts and giant whirlpools as she was thrashed about by screaming winds, hacked and sliced by towering waves.

On that first night I myself was nearly washed away as I scrambled on to the deck, hoping to witness for a moment God’s great fury. A great torrent came crashing down out of the dark, a wall of water half as tall as the mast, that threw me bodily over the side. I find it inexplicable still, that as I felt myself falling and flailing through all that water, I should think not of self-preservation, nor see images of the life I have lived, but of the grim, reproachful face of my grey-headed father as we stood, all those years ago, by the harbour.

And then, with just as much speed as the wave that knocked me over, I was saved at the last by a lunging sailor, who caught me by my fingertips. I could not have loved a fellow man more, and in that interminable roar of wind and water we sprawled on the bucking deck and I kissed his sweet, dripping face. Pieter was his name, and I pledged to him there my eternal gratitude, though we could hear nothing of one another’s words. Oh, what bitter irony, looking back on it now. Would that I had been speared into the deep and drowned, instead of being caught by that wolf in sheep’s clothing.

By some miracle the Meeuwtje survived the storm. Though one of her masts had been blown to splinters by lightning, the little Seagull stayed afloat! She could still fly on one wing, the Captain exclaimed, and although we had been carried south and some way off course, he believed Mauritius would be made by month’s end. Despite our battering we were upbeat and the men all embraced and cheered. Stores were plentiful, the cargo of pepper and cloves dry. All we needed was a fair wind to spirit us home.

But here we have remained for more than a month, no wind to speak of. The Seagull simply sits in the water, the sail hanging limp, crucified on her remaining mast and yard. I heard one of the men, Reynaerde I think it was, call this place we are in Paardenbreedten, ‘Horse latitude.’ It seems a most inelegant nautical term to me. The horse, to my mind brings an image of fluid, powerful motion, and most definitely of forward momentum; not this stagnant paralysis in which we find ourselves. Were a horse to suddenly find itself here, in the middle of the sea, I can only think it would quickly drown and be gone, and imagining this scene troubles me greatly. I inwardly curse the man anew for having used such a callous term.

Reynaerde will not be saved. None of them will. While Meeuwtje continues to gather algae and slime on her underside, those on board give themselves over to dishonourable passions, for the men of the Seagull are all wicked and sinners exceedingly before the Lord. If only there were a Pegasus breedtegraden, to carry me away from here!


I grow more and more tormented by an unquenchable thirst. The soft lapping of the sea drives me to distraction. Our foetid supply of water is now strictly rationed, the beer long gone. Cheese and hard-tack are all that remains of the food. That so much was wasted! The beer, peas, beans, butter and meat. So much that was spoiled, thrown overboard! The spices barely matter. Pepper and cloves do not make a meal.

A small sore opened up on my hand, in the meat of the webbing between left thumb and fore-finger. I have scratched, teased and worried at it until it has festered, become red and inflamed. So said Paul: “I bring my body into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”


My hand is very sore. I have a fever. Last night I dreamt I was cold and unable to hug myself for warmth any tighter. Naturally, I drew my arms inside my torso, inside the cage of my ribs, then wrapped myself around and within my steaming red innards. There I revelled in blood and heat and comfort, and slept the remainder of the night in blank, dreamless unconsciousness.

In the morning that excruciating slap and slosh of the water woke me. Pieter brought me water to drink, and he and Reynaerde watched on as I drank, but the noise soon grew too much. They look at me wantonly. God is not testing me. He is teasing me!


Becalmed. Oh, inappropriate word! Meeuwtje is at a standstill, the Captain unmoved by the sins of his men. Through inaction he is as guilty as those committing these abominations! They shall surely be struck blind in the least, though they by rights should all be put to death. Becalmed; it is stark in contrast to the turmoil inside my head.

I hear prayers and muttered exhortations, so the men are not completely Godless. But God has forsaken them and I fear I will soon be lost too. Once I found comfort in the words of Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” But, the casual nature of the sins on this ship, and the unrepentant delight that the men take in the sinning; I can see no way out. It pains me greatly that I no longer find solace in my religion.


I took a knife and gouged at the sore, to focus my mind on something other than that sickening sound, slosh of stagnant water, and those sickening thoughts, and it was not long before I had bored a hole all the way through my hand. When I looked up I realised all of the men were standing by, staring at me like a pack of mangy curs, and then I saw the dark puddle of blood I had dripped on to the deck. They might all be hungry, I thought, the smell of blood in their nostrils.

One of them, Pieter it was, made a move to come nearer and I stalked away, to find a quiet place to sit and tease and stretch the wound, despite (and to spite) the pain it caused me, trying all the while to ignore the urge to yell and scream, to hurl excoriating curses at them all. Just like I have ever since…


…Ever since Reynaerde went mad and poisoned our provisions, ruined so much of our precious food. He screamed that he did it for love. He was so afraid to see his sweetheart so beguiled by another. I cursed his name and shouted all manner of blasphemies, but he only screamed the louder. “You, Father! It is you!” he yelled. “My Pieter loves me not. He loves you!”

The Captain as usual stood by and did nothing, so stepping forward I calmly said, “There is no fear in love, Reynaerde. Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” I embraced the boy gently and whispering said, “The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Then I slit his throat and stabbed him, and stabbed him until, gurgling, coughing, he bled to death.


Shane Bolitho


Banner picture: Hendrik Cornelisz. Vroom (1562/1563–1640) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

6 thoughts on “Cold, hard iron blade of the sea by Shane Bolitho”

  1. Great atmosphere in this one – it flings you right back in history with the attitudes and opinions of a darker time. Gory and gruesome, just the thing!!


  2. There must have been plenty of people driven to the edge of sanity on ships becalmed in this way. A powerful and evocative story, Shane.
    All the best. Vic


  3. Hi Shane, all the words that I would use have already been expressed. This was an excellent piece of writing that was atmospheric and emphasised the questionable values and beliefs of the time.
    Dark and enjoyable.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.