After several weeks without seeing land the Ocean arrived at the dry island cluster. On the afternoon of 10th February they entered the harbour of Porto Praia on the island of Santiago, and the ship dropped anchor.
The sea was calm, tranquil and blue. The settlers crowded the deck to enjoy the weather, made perfect by a cool breeze. The children played and the adults chatted and there was laughter all around: it was an atmosphere of wellbeing. As they watched shiny colourful fruit, green vegetables and fresh water being brought on board it seemed as though all the fears, discomforts, and hunger of the voyage so far had been an illusion. They went to bed that night, snuggling down in dry bedding, something they had not done since leaving home.
At about one o’clock in the morning their sleep was shattered by a deafening bang and a large cannonball whizzed between the masts of the ship. The settlers were immediately wide awake. The passengers below joined those who had been sleeping on the cool deck, and watched as the lights on the fort where the battery of guns was placed flickered.
As they debated it - some hysterical, all afraid - ‘the sound of a large discharge from the fort rolled fearfully on our ears,’ William Howard related. ‘And the noise on board as the ball struck our ship was so tremendous that I considered the masts were certainly carried away (not supposing that it had entered the ship so near to me and my family as it really had.) In about a quarter of an hour afterwards, however, a third discharge was heard from the same quarter and the ball, I am confident, came in the same direction with the one previously alluded to, but it fell into the sea at a short distance from us for, as my cabin window was open, I distinctly heard it go down into the sea, making a noise resembling hot iron put into water.’
In the morning Howard asked the ship’s carpenter and its second mate for an assessment of the damage done: ‘The noise which I had supposed was made by the carrying away of masts, was the effect of a ball, weighing nine pounds, entering the side of the ship into the storeroom, about three feet only below the floor of the little cabin in which I then was, with part of my family.’
Howard went ashore. As he was rowed towards the fort he was concerned that he was going to have difficulty in communicating with the Portuguese officers who had been responsible for the attack. To his surprise though, he found that the officer in command of the fort was an Irishman.
The Irish commandant laughed and made some kind of an apology. It wasn’t his fault, he assured Howard– his men had acted in good faith. He explained that the cause of the trouble was a schooner which had entered the bay before the Ocean. When challenged it had refused to hoist its national colours or give any information. Three weeks before a similar vessel carrying eighteen guns had discharged a few balls into the town, put out to sea to recharge and returned to repeat the attack. The governor then ordered the military to be on their guard, and if they saw the schooner, to make a show of force. That night the sentinels had seen a well-manned ship approaching and had directed one of the guns to fire a warning shot. They had misdirected the shot and it had hit the Ocean. It was a simple error, the Irishman assured Howard. The other vessel was a smuggler ship: it had got the message and disappeared, so it had ended well, he concluded.
Ralph George Goldswain, 1 May 2018