Richard I - Jacob Abbott

Voyage to Acre

The great landing-point for expeditions of Crusaders to the Holy Land was Acre, or Akka, as it is often written. The town was originally known as Ptolemais, and the situation of it may be found designated on ancient maps under that name. The Turks called it Akka, which name the French call Acre. It was also, after a certain time, called St. Jean d'Acre. It received this name from a famous military order that was founded in the Holy Land in the Middle Ages, called the Knights of St. John.

The origin of the order was as follows: About a hundred years before the time of Richard's crusade, a company of pious merchants from Naples, who went to Jerusalem, took pity, while they were there, on the pilgrims who came there to visit the Holy Sepulchre, and who, being poor, and very insufficiently provided for the journey, suffered a great many privations and hardships. These merchants accordingly built and endowed a monastery, and made it the duty of the monks to receive and take care of a certain number of these pilgrims.

They named the establishment the Monastery of St. John, and the monks themselves were called Hospitalers, their business being to receive and show hospitality to the pilgrims. So the monks were sometimes designated as the Hospitalers and sometimes the Brothers of St. John.

Other travelers, who came to Jerusalem from time to time, seeing this monastery, and observing the good which it was the means of effecting for the poor pilgrims, became interested in its welfare, and made grants and donations to it, by which, in the course of fifty years, it became much enlarged. At length, in process of time, a military  order was connected with it. The pilgrims needed protection in going to and fro, as well as food, shelter, and rest at the end of their journey, and the military order was formed to furnish this protection. The knights of this order were called Knights Hospitalers, and sometimes Knights of St. John. The institution continued to grow, and finally the seat of it was transferred to Acre, which was a much more convenient place for giving succor to the pilgrims, and also for fighting the Saracens, who were the great enemies that the pilgrims had to fear. From this time the institution was called St. John of Acre, as it was before St. John of Jerusalem, and finally its power and influence became so predominant in the town that the town itself was generally designated by the name of the institution, and it has been called St. Jean d'Acre to this day.

The order became at last very numerous. Great numbers of persons joined it from all the nations of Europe. They organized a regular government. They held fortresses and towns, and other territorial possessions of considerable value. They had a fleet, and an army, and a rich treasury. In a word, they became, as it were, a government and a nation.

The persons belonging to the order were divided into three classes:

1. Knights.—These were the armed men. They fought the battles, defended the pilgrims, managed the government, and performed all other similar functions.

2. Chaplains.—These were the priests and monks. They conducted worship, and attended, in general, to all the duties of devotion. They were the scholars, too, and acted as secretaries and readers, whenever such duties were required.

3. Servitors.—The duty of the servitors was, as their name imports, to take charge of the buildings and grounds belonging to the order, to wait upon the sick, and accompany pilgrims, and to perform, in general, all other duties pertaining to their station.



The town of Acre stood on the shore of the sea, and was very strongly fortified. The walls and ramparts were very massive—altogether too thick and high to be demolished or scaled by any means of attack known in those days. The place had been in possession of the Knights of St. John, but in the course of the wars between the Saracens and the Crusaders that had prevailed before Richard came, it had fallen into the hands of the Saracens, and now the Crusaders were besieging it, in hopes to recover possession. They were encamped in thousands on a plain outside the town, in a beautiful situation overlooking the sea. Still farther back among the mountains were immense hordes of Saracens, watching an opportunity to come down upon the plain and overwhelm the Christian armies, while they, on the other hand, were making continued assaults upon the town, in hopes of carrying it by storm, before their enemies on the mountains could attack them. Of course, the Crusaders were extremely anxious to have Richard arrive; for they knew that he was bringing with him an immense re-enforcement.

Philip, the French king, had already arrived, and he exerted himself to the utmost to take the town before Richard should come. But he could not succeed. The town resisted all the attempts he could make to storm it, and, in the mean time, his position and that of the other Crusaders in the camp was becoming very critical, on account of the immense numbers of Saracens in the mountains behind them, who were gradually advancing their posts and threatening to surround the Christians entirely. Philip, therefore, and the forces joined with him, were beginning to feel very anxious to see Richard's ships drawing near, and from their encampment on the plain they looked out over the sea, and watched day after day, earnestly in hopes that they might see the advanced ships of Richard's fleet coming into view in the offing.

In the mean time, Richard, having sailed from Cyprus, was coming on, though he was delayed on his way by an occurrence which he greatly gloried in, deeming it doubtless a very brilliant exploit. The case was this:

In sailing along with his squadron between Cyprus and the main land, he suddenly fell in with a ship of very large size. At first Richard and his men wondered what ship it could be. It was soon evident that, whatever she was, she was endeavoring to escape. Richard ordered his galleys to press on, and he soon found that the strange ship was full of Saracens. He immediately ordered his men to advance and board her, and he declared to his seamen that if they allowed her to escape he would crucify them.

The Saracens, seeing that there was no possibility of escape, and having no hope of mercy if they fell into Richard's hands, determined to scuttle the ship, and to sink themselves and the vessel together. They accordingly cut holes through the bottom as well as they could with hatchets, and the water began to pour in. In the mean time, Richard's galleys had surrounded the vessel, and a dreadful combat ensued. Both parties fought like tigers. The Crusaders were furious to get on board before the ship should go down, and the Saracens, though they had no expectation of finally defending themselves against their enemies, still hoped to keep them back until it should be too late for them to obtain any advantage from their victory.

For a time they were quite successful in their resistance, chiefly by means of what was called Greek fire. This Greek fire was a celebrated means of warfare in those days, and was very terrible in its nature and effects. It is not known precisely what it was, or how it was made. It was an exceedingly combustible substance, and was to be thrown, on fire, at the enemy; and such was its nature, that when once in flames nothing could extinguish it; and, besides the heat and burning that it produced, it threw out great volumes of poisonous and stifling vapors, which suffocated all that came near. The men threw it sometimes in balls, sometimes on the ends of darts and arrows, where it was enveloped in flax or tow to keep it in its place. It burned fiercely and furiously wherever it fell. Even water did not extinguish it, and it was said that in this combat the sea all around the Saracens' ship seemed on fire, and the decks of the galleys that attacked them were blazing with it in every direction. Great numbers of Richard's men were killed by it.

But the superiority of numbers on Richard's side was too great, and after a time the Saracens were subdued, before the ship had admitted water enough through the scuttlings to carry her down. Richard's men poured in on board of her in great numbers. They immediately proceeded to massacre or throw overboard the men as fast as possible, and to seize the stores and transfer them to their own ships. They also did all they could to stop the leaks, so as to delay the sinking of the ship as long as possible. They had time to transfer to their own vessels nearly all the valuable part of the cargo, and to kill and drown all the men. Out of twelve or fifteen hundred, only about thirty-five were spared.

When, afterward, public sentiment seemed inclined to condemn this terrible and inexcusable massacre, Richard defended himself by saying that he found on board the vessel a number of jars containing certain poisonous reptiles, which he alleged the Saracens were going to take to Acre, and there let them loose near the Crusaders' camp to bite the soldiers, and that men who could resort to so barbarous a mode of warfare as this deserved no quarter. However this may be, the poor Saracens received no quarter. It might be supposed that Richard deserved some credit for his humanity in saving the thirty-five. But his object in saving these was not to show mercy, but to gain ransom-money. These thirty-five were the emirs, or other officers of the Saracens, or persons who looked as if they might be rich or have rich friends. When they reached the shore, Richard fixed upon a certain sum of money for each of them, and allowed them to send word to their friends that if they would raise that money and send it to Richard, he would set them at liberty. A great proportion of them were thus afterward ransomed, and Richard realized from this source quite a large sum.

When Richard's soldiers found that the time for the captured ship to sink was drawing nigh, they abandoned her, leaving on board every thing that they had not been able to save, and, withdrawing to a safe distance, they saw her go down. The sea all around her was covered with the bodies of the dead and dying, and also with bales of merchandise, broken weapons, fragments of the wreck, and with the flickering and exhausted remnants of the Greek fire.

The fleet then got under way again, and pursued its course to Acre.