Friday, August 19, 2011

Flogging John and Peter in Ruschenberger's 1848 journal and Melville's White-Jacket

 Related posts at melvilliana: 

Now when you want to fight again, apply to me. -- Tom Gedney
I allow no man to fight on board here but myself.  I do the fighting. -- Captain Claret
 Earlier posts alerted Melville fans to
Today I want to transcribe another dramatic passage from Ruschenberger's 1848 journal, a flogging scene, which appears to have been used by Melville while writing White-Jacket (1850).

As mentioned previously, the belaying pin incident was censored and does not appear in the edited version of Ruschenberger's journal as printed in the April and May 1852 numbers of the Southern Literary Messenger.  But Ruschenberger's flogging narrative was published (with revisions and interpolations) in the May 1852 installment of "Notes and Commentaries on a Voyage to China," Southern Literary Messenger 16 (May 1852): 262-263.

Here is the scene as originally described by WSW Ruschenberger in his manuscript journal entry for April 12, 1848:
Wednesday April 12.  [18]48 Lat. 6. 17' N.  Long. 37. 58' W.  Therm - 81.
I am sorry to note that I am unwell today; but I hope that my indisposition will not pass over one or two days. I am really suffering from the heat, which you know my dear Mary is novel in me. You see we are advancing by the difference in the latitude and longitude between yesterday and to day. The crew has been exercised at "general quarters." Again, "all hands" were called to witness punishment. The subjects were negroes; two ward-room servants, one a stout athlete, remarkable for his strength, the other smaller, slender and in no respect above mediocrity in corporeal power. Peter, the smaller one, had been drawn into a dispute with John, the stout black, who struck Peter a blow, which was promptly returned—in short a fight came off between the two. John had been charged with stealing a pair of boots from one of the officers (or passenger Mr. Gibbs) and with selling them to one of the crew. The charge was admitted by the accused, who had admitted on a former occasion, he had stolen raisins &c. Several articles had been missed from the ward-room, & for this reason, the first Lt. suggested that John "should be made an example of."
When all hands were assembled, the two negroes were made to take off their shirts, and a cat o' nine tails was put in the hand of each. No reason for this proceeding was given to the assembled crew. The Capt. said "Now, you wanted to fight; go to work and lick each other." The big negro John used his cat pretty sharply, but Peter did not return the blows at first.  The Capt. cried, "Why the devil don't you use your cat," & then Peter returned the blows irregularly and without much effect. John held Peter's cat in one had and flogged him with the other. After two or three rounds to the great amusement of the spectators, who testified their approbation in shouts of laughter, the Capt. said "That will do: Now when you want to fight again, apply to me." — A grating was next placed on the deck, and John was seized up in the usual way, and the boatswain's mate struck him over the bare back twelve blows with the cat o' nine tails. Prior to the infliction the Capt. said "I suppose you know what you are to be licked for"— John replied affirmatively "Go on with him, Boatswain's mate." This is a specimen of the brutal, bestial, silly manner of controlling men. The scene was one of amusement; as much as a bull-bait to a Spanish audience. And the very worst passions were appealed to.  I did hope to find more common sense, & higher notions of justice in the popular "Tom Gedney" — heaven save us. 
Peter Peppinger, poor fellow, got the worst of the fight, and the worst in the punishment, although clearly the least culpable of the two. His sense of right and wrong is violated by the act of a man whom he is bound to regard as a superior in mind, morals, power, &c. If he thinks at all, it must be to regard contemptuously the commanding officer's notion of propriety. John, too, must think that however just it might be to flog him for stealing the boots, it was not fair to give him an opportunity to flog Peter in public, after he had already beaten him in private.
The flogging incident transcribed above from WSW Ruschenberger's 1848 journal seems to have supplied important details in Melville's treatment in White-Jacket of a flogging incident on board The Neversink. Below, compare select portions from Melville's account in chapter 33 ("A Flogging") of White-Jacket:
If You begin the day with a laugh, you may, nevertheless, end it with a sob and a sigh.
Among the many who were exceedingly diverted with the scene between the Down Easter and the lieutenant, none laughed more heartily than John, Peter, Mark, and Antone—four sailors of the starboard watch. The same evening these four found themselves prisoners in the 'brig,' with a sentry standing over them.
They were charged with violating a well-known law of the ship— having been engaged in one of those tangled, general fights sometimes occurring among sailors. They had nothing to anticipate but a flogging, at the captain's pleasure.
Toward evening of the next day, they were startled by the dread summons of the boatswain and his mates at the principal hatchway—a summons that ever sends a shudder through every manly heart in a frigate:  'All hands witness punishment, ahoy!'
* * *
At the summons the crew crowded round the mainmast; multitudes eager to obtain a good place on the booms, to overlook the scene; many laughing and chatting, others canvassing the case of the culprits; some maintaining sad, anxious countenances, or carrying a suppressed indignation in their eyes; a few purposely keeping behind to avoid looking on; in short, among five hundred men there was every possible shade of character.
* * *
'You John, you Peter, you Mark, you Antone,' said the captain, 'were yesterday found fighting on the gun-deck. Have you anything to say?'
* * *
John—a brutal bully, who, it seems, was the real author of the disturbance—was about entering into long extenuation, when he was cut short by being made to confess, irrespective of circumstances, that he had been in the fray.
* * *
Peter declared that he had been struck twice before he had returned a blow. 'No matter,' said the captain, 'you struck at last, instead of reporting the case to an officer. I allow no man to fight on board here but myself.  I do the fighting.'
'Now, men,'he added, 'you all admit the charge; you know the penalty. Strip! Quarter-masters, are the gratings rigged?'
 * * *
The fourth and last was Peter, the mizen-top lad. He had often boasted that he had never been degraded at the gangway. The day before his cheek had worn its usual red, but now no ghost was whiter. As he was being secured to the gratings, and the shudderings and creepings of his dazzlingly white back were revealed, he turned round his head imploringly; but his weeping entreaties and vows of contrition were of no avail. 'I would not forgive God Almighty!' cried the captain. The fourth boatswain's mate advanced, and at the first blow the boy, shouting 'My God! Oh! my God!' writhed and leaped so as to displace the gratings, and scatter the nine tails of the scourge all over his person. At the next blow he howled, leaped, and raged in unendurable torture.
'What are you stopping for, boatswain's mate?' cried the captain. 'Lay on!' and the whole dozen was applied.
'I don't care what happens to me now!' wept Peter, going among the crew, with blood-shot eyes, as he put on his shirt. 'I have been flogged once, and they may do it again if they will. Let them look out for me now!'
'Pipe down!' cried the captain; and the crew slowly dispersed.
Obviously Melville's treatment is far more elaborate. Melville powerfully renders the cruelty of corporal punishment--so powerfully that his passionate indictment in White-Jacket was widely credited with helping to bring about the abolition of flogging in the navy. As in the narrative of the belaying pin incident, again we see a doubling of Ruschenberger's details. Two belaying pins for Ruschenberger's one. Not two, but four flogged men, adding Mark and Antone to the company of Ruschenberger's John and Peter.

Fighting is the grounds for punishment in both narratives. Fighting is also the punishment for fighting in Ruschenberger's account, as captain Thomas R. Gedney makes the offenders fight each other again before having them flogged.

Melville makes sailors of Ruschenberger's wardroom servants. Fascinatingly, however, the basic characters and roles of John and Peter as described by Ruschenberger persist throughout Melville's embellishment. Just as in Ruschenberger's narrative, John is portrayed as the stronger man, and the instigator of the trouble.  Melville goes ahead and calls John the "bully" he seems in Ruschenberger's account. Also as in Ruschenberger's narrative, Peter suffers the most, as if Melville took to heart Ruschenberger's remark that
"Peter Peppinger, poor fellow, got the worst of the fight, and the worst in the punishment, although clearly the least culpable of the two."
Ruschenberger emphasizes the amusement of the assembled sailors, calling attention to their laughter. The audience's unfeeling laughter compounds the brutality of the scene. But where Ruschenberger perceives only laughter and amusement, Melville takes pains to describe the variety of human responses to the flogging. As if offended by Ruschenberger's exclusive focus on the brutal laughter of common sailors, Melville makes a point of noticing far different expressions, indicative of sadness, anxiety, and suppressed outrage:
"...among five hundred men there was every possible shade of character."  

-- White-Jacket chapter 33 

As elsewhere in White-Jacket, Melville's long elaborate description of a flogging borrows heavily from Samuel Leech's book Thirty Years from Home, as Howard P. Vincent shows in The Tailoring of Melville's White-Jacket (see especially pages 90-97). The passage in Leech from which Melville borrowed describes the punishment of one unnamed "poor fellow" who was flogged for "the very sailor-like offence of getting drunk."  (Vincent, 90).

Leech gives the gruesome details that Ruschenberger leaves out. Melville appropriated many of these details as well as the outrage, the indignation driving Leech's indictment of "the brutal practice of flogging." (Vincent, 90).

But Leech lacks John and Peter, and lacks the backstory of fighting which Ruschenberger seems to have provided Melville, along with the complicated portrait of a loud and lame, intractable and troubled captain, the still popular Tom Gedney.

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