|Harper's New Monthly Magazine|
Herman Melville's youngest brother as a rebellious "Yankee beggar"? Aboard a British man-of-war? Reminds me of Israel Potter....
Writing as "The Kennebecker" for the Boston Journal, John H. Drew recalls meeting his old shipmate, now Governor of Sailors' Snug Harbor on Staten Island, and retells one of Tom Melville's youthful tales of adventure in the China Seas. Excerpt below is from number 31 of "From the Pine to the Palm, or, The Cruise of the Reward" in the Boston Journal
, Saturday, May 27, 1882.
The chief of the establishment, called by courtesy, I presume, the Governor, I made myself known to, and he met us at the office. We had been mates together, on the coast of China, years ago (he was a first-class one, too,) and was one of those mentioned in my “Libraries at Sea.” He had an excellent taste for literature and influenced me largely in my reading. As he received and dismissed his “habitats” here, I looked at him long and intently to see if there was anything of the crack mate about him.. There was not much. He bore his honors well, although I had wished to find more of my old officer. He handed me the entry book, in which was stated the particulars of each application. It was rather interesting. I noticed the remark often, “So-and-so has permission to attend the Catholic church.” And I wondered, if it were a Catholic institution, whether members would have permission to attend the Protestant church. I doubt it.
THE CHIEF MATE’S STORY.
It is well known that “the Governor” is the brother of the author “Herman Melville,” and the reader of the latter’s book “Redburn” will notice that he dedicates it to his young brother, then on his first voyage to China. It was on a voyage to and from China that the young brother stowed away many good stories to be related to his friends afterwards, and one he told me when he was “Chief” of a crack Boston clipper ship. (He sailed out of Boston ‘till the last.) I meant to have asked his permission to give this, but I forgot it, there was so much to say. And, begging his pardon (I really do not think he will care), I will give it here. He was adrift in China and looking for a ship. Now, it happened that an English ship, on board of which something had occurred—I do not recollect what just now—depriving her of her officers and crew, from captain down (perhaps it was mutiny), was recruiting a new ship’s company. An officer from a British man-‘o-war was detailed to navigate the ship to England, and the rest were, from the mates down, of the roughest sort. Our young sailor and his chum, another American, determined to try their fortunes under the British flag. There was no end of trouble and deviltry, want of discipline and everything that was good as a lark to these harum-scarum sailor boys, and the passage wore tediously on. One night in the dog watch, while the old tub of a teak-built Royal Briton was rolling along, my young friend was perched upon the poop, steering his trick at the wheel. He told me the light was a miserable slush lamp, with a wick of oakum. He could hardly see the compass, and much less the points. The noble commander was pacing the deck, and, with the aid of his eye-glass and a flicker of the rude light discovered that the ship was a point off her course. “This never’ll do, ye know,” said he; “can’t you steer the ship, you American beggar?” This stung our young sailor to the quick, and he adopted the British fashion of “cheeking” the master at once. “I can steer a ship, sir,” said he, “but not a box like this.” This caused the lord of creation to explode in fierce invectives upon all “blasted Yankees.” The consequence was, that at eight o’clock the greasy mate came aft, touched the knuckle of this forefinger to a lock of hair sticking out from under his cap, in token of respect, to await the master’s orders, who told him to turn the American for’rd and never allow him under any pretence to be seen abaft the booby hatch. The mate received his orders, and asked if he should “make it eight bells, as it was eight o’clock.” “Very well, sir, make it.” This, I believe, on board of an English ship is the rule. Eight bells in the evening is never struck, until the captain gives the order, as he may wish some other order executed first. Perhaps to tell the steward to give the men a glass of grog, and himself a “pint of half-and-half,” or a glass of wine.
THE PLUM DUFF.
This was a wretched ship, and there was very little to eat on board. But the steward pacified the grumbling crew with the fact that “Christmas was coming,” and the master had promised a plum duff for the hands. This kept the discontented, growling men quiet for the time. I will digress here a little to say, that I, once upon a time, spent a few months in England. I noticed that among the lower classes the last half of a week seemed to be spent in looking forward to the Sabbath, when they were to have the only real meal of the week, their “roast biff” and plum pudding, or “bit of pork and cabbidge,” and they dwelt on that for the first half of the week that followed, when they turned their longing appetites to the following Sunday. It seemed so to me. The captain of this ship probably was acquainted with this habit, and thought he could use Christmas the same as his countrymen did the Sabbath, i.e., life on it for a long passage. The duff was brought in to the forecastle (by the boys of course), and the eager crew gathered around it. It was a miserable batch of wormy, dirty flour, boiled in greasy water, and very few plums. One old Jack began by saying “it was like a piece of bloody putty, the bloody stuff.” The there was no end to the indignation. Was this what they had waited and wished for so long—borne with so much of want and hunger for? “I’ll tell you what it is,” said my young friend’s chum, the American, “if that was brought into an American ship’s forecastle we would not stand it a moment.” “No more will we” snorted an old barnacle back. “What say ye, mates, shall we carry it aft?” “Aye! aye! aft with it!” joined the savage chorus.
This carrying a complaint aft to the British lion’s den is a delicate business, and has to be arranged with a great deal of ceremony and etiquette. So it was performed in this case as follows. Two of the oldest hands headed the crew each with his tin pan and piece of duff. Another old “heart of oak” that looked in his whiskers like a rat peeping out of a bunch of oakum, carried the kid (a small wooden tub), with a half of the duff cut in the centre. The rest of the crew followed in order according to their age and rank. The steward, dodging about the cabin, saw the approaching “circus,” and went up the cabin steps in time to receive the request of the foremost delegation for an interview with the captain. That awful functionary leisurely and gravely made his appearance (I have read some English author who says if you wish to impress others with your greatness, make them wait for you), and haughtily demanded “the meaning of all this blasted row?”
The old men stated their case with their hats in their hands, each one with a lock of hair over his left eye, and wished to know if the master called that stuff (in their pans) fit for the people to eat. “I don’t see anything the matter with it.” “But taste it—taste it,” was the demand. “Steward, steward, fetch me a fork,” he pompously ordered. The steward brought the fork, whereupon he deliberately detached a morsel with a plum in it, put it in his mouth, and pronounced it excellent, most excellent duff, they had ought to be ashamed to complain of such fare, and grandly ordered the crew forward. This was too much. “You like it, do you, sir?” exclaimed one of the men. “Well, you can have mine, sir,” and he hove it at the captain as he would a snow ball. “Yes, yes,” said another, “take mine,” and he let fly. Then they all roared in chorus, “You like it? Eat mine and mine!” and they began to pelt him, ‘till the old man with the kid yelled, “Yes, sir! take it all, you are welcome to it,” and hove kid and all down the stairs. Then they let their pans go at him. And the “dirty mate,” as they called him, and our “Yankee beggar,” who was forbidden to come aft the booby-hatch, stood upon this coigne du vantage, took good aim over the heads of the rest and knocked the master’s gold braided hat off.
The discomfited commander beat a retreat, the sailors had their revenge and felt better, the result was that the “official log” was produced, I suppose the British horneur [?] noted the proceedings down “by act of Parliament,” etc., etc. It was read over to the ringleaders that they had insulted an officer in the Queen’s navee by pelting him with duff, etc., for all of which they would be fined a day’s pay or something like that sort, and they witnessed and signed it, exclaiming it was worth a day’s pay and they did not care a pinch of snuff for it.
I have added the last sentence, as I do not recollect the result; but this would be the lawful and usual one. I have seen such things more than once, being in contact so much with English ships, in their own ships at home and abroad. …
But to return. No one would think the “Yankee boy” that hove the last piece of duff at the English captain was now the reserved, dignified Governor before us. To appreciate the story one ought to have heard him, the dashing mate, afterward captain of the clipper ship Meteor, of Boston, relate it. Scenes like these have eminently fitted him to enter into all the troubles of a sailor’s life and to be their Governor. Long may he wave.
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