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The ancient road began at the Tower and ran east to west along a terrace of gravel. To the east it disappeared into the flat treeless horizon of the estuary, merging into the earth just as the earth merged into the sea at the muddy edge of England.
As it left London, this road, which in only a few years would become a highway, formed the northern boundary of a dreary region of swampy land. The great river, as it bent south then north again, formed the southern edge of this semicircle of marshland. It had been drained and flooded, drained and flooded half a dozen times in the previous fifty years, while England burned Protestants then Catholics and then Protestants again. This place could not seem to decide if it was of the river or of the earth. The ancient name for the misbegotten half-land was Wapping. No one could remember where the name came from.
In recent years small wharves and little clusters of houses had appeared along the riverbank at Wapping. The rich men who funded the buildings decided that houses and wharves would do a better job of keeping out the river than the sea walls they’d been building for decades in their vain attempts to reclaim the land from the waters. And, more to the point, a wharf generated more profit than a wall.
During the days men made themselves busy around the dozens of boats that moored up along the wharves, the vessels settling down into the riverbed when the tide went out and rising again as it flooded back in, washing up against the wood-and-brick pilings. The pickings were not rich. London’s most lucrative trade still headed further upstream toward the wharves that operated within the city walls, but a new gray economy was emerging here downstream at Wapping.
Beyond this sliver of moneymaking and building, back behind the wharves, between the river and the road, were the marshes. The occasional flood still occurred, sweeping away families and livelihoods as well as the property of the men of business. This dank, oozing landscape, unpromising and undeveloped, was the result of the river’s inundations. The ground was low, lower than sea level in some places, rising up to the bluff along which the road ran to the north. A man could stand there in the marshes, his feet sinking into the mud, and look to the backs of the wharves and warehouses along the river and imagine that they were floating on water.
There was a gap in the riverside development, and in this gap stood a group of gallows. The gallows lived on borrowed time—already there were complaints that this place of execution was dragging down the land value of investments. Could it not be moved downstream a bit, perhaps to Ratcliffe, somewhere benighted and undeveloped where men of business were not trying to attract custom? But for now the gallows still stood. On this midsummer’s eve there were six river pirates hanging there.
The gallows were right at the water’s edge, set in among the wharves. The six unfortunates hanging from the ropes had been caught after leaping aboard a barge in the river. It had been their sixth attack in four weeks and it was to be their last. The local lightermen and watermen had banded together to bait a trap for them, putting out stories that a barge with wool intended for France and Spain would be traveling downstream that day. When the pirates had clambered onboard, a group of twenty river men hidden beneath sails had emerged and captured them, but sadly not before the pirates, or at least, reported most of the ambushers, the apparent captain of the pirates, whose knife had flashed more quickly and more viciously than those of his crew, had sent three of the Wapping lightermen into the embrace of the old river, their throats slashed and their eyes empty. Eventually the men overcame the pirates and after some cursory discussions with what passed for the authorities in this new outpost they decided upon a customary punishment. The pirates were hanged at Execution Dock, where they would be left for three tides as a signal to others (and perhaps an offering to the river) before being cut down and disposed of.
The river was already rising for the first of these three tides when the leader of the pirates heard a clatter of hoofs on the mixture of mud and stones that constituted the main street here in Wapping, running along the curve of the river behind the wharves. A mighty carriage, it sounded like. The clatter stopped, and he heard the sound of a carriage door slamming. A few minutes later, some squelching footsteps as a man approached. The pirate kept his eyes prudently closed as the footsteps stopped, perhaps directly in front of him. Within two hours, the river would be up to the chins of the men on the gallows, before falling back again.
Carefully, the pirate opened one eye halfway. He saw the swaying feet of his dead shipmates on either side of him, and opened the eye a little further. His visitor was standing on the foreshore, dressed in the Dutch style, all somber black and white, the clothes effortlessly wealthier than the new gay and gaudy fashions that were rippling out from the English Queen’s court.
The visitor cleared his throat and spat. The pirate heard a small splash in the water, and his careful eyes caught the sun as it glittered on a thick lump of green phlegm which appeared and spun around in the water as it commenced its journey down to Tilbury. The visitor glanced up and behind at the gallows, and the pirate closed his eyes quickly. He resolved to keep his eyes that way as the visitor started to speak, in rich aristocratic tones with just the hint of a clammy Dutch accent.
“Quite a view they’ve given you. Desirable waterfront property, I’d say.”
The pirate said nothing, obviously. The creaking of the gallows was the only sound as he and his men swung gently in the soft summer breeze. Miles and miles upstream, it was a beautiful evening among the willow trees and reeds at Runnymede and Richmond, where the aristocrats played at court and love and wrote poetry to each other. The sun was setting in the opulent west. But here, to the east of the metropolis, the dominant colors were grays and browns. Mud and water, not trees and flowers.
The thought seemed to make the visitor positively cheerful. He put his hands behind his back and actually rose up on his toes at the vista before him. “Someday all this will be very desirable property, captain. When my father built his wall here, he had a vision of a new suburb, with the river kept out and the land turned into meadows and orchards. He wanted this to be the prettiest part of London. And all within sight of that dreadful Tower.”
It occurred to the pirate to wonder why the Dutchman was speaking when, as far as the man knew, there was no one there alive to listen to him.
The visitor spoke again, and even with his eyes closed the pirate captain had the impression that the Dutchman had turned his back on the river and was facing him. Almost as if he were speaking to him. Perhaps he was practicing an address.
“You’ll be the last, captain. The last crew to be hanged on this so-called Execution Dock. It’s keeping the developers away, this grisly habit, and this land is valuable. A hundred years, maybe two hundred, this’ll be the busiest port in the world. Trade is coming, captain. Trade. Not petty thievery or the ridiculous swapping of bits of unmade cloth for bits of food ’n’ drink. The world’s wealth is out there waiting to be bought and sold, and unlike most of my countrymen I predict that the buying and selling will happen here, in London, not in Antwerp or Rotterdam. Wapping’s going to flourish. It’s going to become the hub on which the world turns. You’ll go down in history, captain. The last pirate to be hanged at Wapping. My congratulations.”
Another movement, and then the sound of the visitor walking back to his carriage. The slamming door, the “hai!” of the coachman, and the snap of hoofs and wheels on the road back into London. And then only the sound of the creaking gallows again.
The tide rose, and later it fell. It rose and it fell three times. When the locals came to cut them down, they were disconcerted to find only five pirates hanging from the gallows. The sixth—the captain—had gone.
As I was a-walking down Ratcliffe Highway
A flash-looking packet I chanced for to see
I hailed her in English, she answered me clear
I’m from the Blue Anchor bound for the Black Bear
Sing too relye addie, sing too relye ay.
She had up her colours, her masthead was low
She was round in the counter and bluff in the bow
She was blowing along with the wind blowing free
She clewed up her courses and waited for me
I tipped up my flipper, I took her in tow
And yardarm to yardarm away we did go
She lowered her topsail, t’gansail and all
Her lily-white hand on my reef-tackle fall
I said, “My fair maiden, it’s time to give o’er
For twixt wind and water you’ve run me ashore
My shot locker’s empty, my powder’s all spent
I can’t fire a shot for it’s choked round the vent”
Here’s luck to the girl with the black curly locks
Here’s luck to the girl who run Jack on the rocks
Here’s luck to the doctor who eased all his pain
He’s squared his mainyards, he’s a-cruising again.
(TRADITIONAL, NINETEENTH CENTURY)