Posted by: Christine | April 11, 2014


Today is the anniversary of the death in 1705 of John Madder. I have written about this event before here and here. I am finding it even more relevant this year, in the run up to the vote on Scottish Independence.

You may be wondering what an event that happened so long ago had to do with a referendum this year. Well, if Scotland votes yes and becomes a separate country, it will be the end of the Union. And one of the many reasons for forming the Union in the first place, was the death of John Madder and the other two sailors from The Worcester. It was because of a dispute between two separate countries, with two separate parliaments, but the same Queen, that John Madder had to die.

I’m sure, if people vote Yes, that English sailors will not be hanged as pirates in Scotland, just because of some minor disagreement in trade. But what else might happen?

Enough of politics, since as a mere Englishwoman I have no say at all in whether this country of Great Britain is torn apart (perhaps England will do better without those grumps in the north).

Today’s post in memory of John Madder is a bit of fiction – an exercise from the writing class I attend. We were given a list of last lines from famous books and had to write something to finish with that line. I picked the final line from The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies. “Let your ship sail free.”

In the morning they took John from his cell for the last time. They loaded him into the cart with the two others and slowly they trundled their way from the security of Edinburgh Castle. The execution had already been delayed a week and Thomas still thought that a pardon was on the way, but John knew that this was his last day. As soon as they were out of the gates, he could tell by the noise of the assembled crowds that there would be no more delays. The Crowd wanted their deaths. As they moved down Castle Hill, to the High Street, the shouting, boxed in by the towering tenements on either side was almost overwhelming.
Soon they turned out of the town and onto the Leith Walk. Suddenly he could see and smell the sea again. Across the Firth was the harbour where they had taken his ship. Not that it was his ship, of course. It belonged to the owners back in London. He was not the Captain – that was the overly optimistic fool in the cart with him. But he was the mate. He was the person who had sailed the ship halfway round the world and back. Fighting the sea, the crew and the captain to arrive here. He had known that it wasn’t safe to enter a Scottish Port in an English ship, especially not one carrying such a valuable cargo. But it had been that or face the risk of French pirates. Now they had been accused of piracy, tried and convicted, although innocent.
He closed his eyes and tried to shut out the anger, and worse, directed at them. With a bit of imagination he could pretend the edge of the cart was a ship’s rail and the rough rope round his wrists, a ship’s rope. The swaying cart was a ship’s deck and the noise, the sound of the sea. He remembered the ships he had sailed on.
He had sailed to the frozen north to fetch wood for the Navy from the Baltic. Toured the Mediterranean trading fish for wine, drinking the wine and then trading some more. Then there was this last voyage. Over three years ago they had left London for the East Indies, now he would never return. Most of his life had been spent at sea, fighting the winds, enduring the lack of wind. Always looking forward to reaching land. And when he was on land, longing to return to the sea.
There was sudden lurch and the motion of the cart changed. He opened his eyes. They had reached the Leith Sands. Beyond the crowds he could see the waves breaking on the beach. The tide was out. Of course, they hanged pirates between high and low water, so the tide would wash for three days over their bodies on the gibbet. And there it was, the wooden posts and the crossbar, with the ropes swinging gently in the sea breeze.
James was first up the ladder. He was the gunner, in charge of the cannon that had attacked the hypothetical ship, so he had to die. A quick nod before the hood was put over his head, up the ladder and then he was swinging and jerking at the end of the rope.
Next was Thomas. He kept pushing up the hood as he climbed the ladder. Looking back up the road for a messenger from the Queen. Stupid man, she could do nothing, stuck in her dual position, as powerless as them.
Now it was his turn. He was the last because he was the most hated. Not English, but Scottish, born just along the coast from Leith. They considered him a traitor. He was a big man and decided to jump from the ladder; it would be quicker that way. He jumped. He couldn’t breath. He tried to struggle against the pressure of the rope around his neck and then he heard a voice in his head.
“Let your ship sail free”

R.I.P Captain John Madder died 11th April 1705

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