Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana

Chapter 12

The next day being Sunday, which is the liberty-day among merchantmen, when it is usual to let a part of the crew go ashore, the sailors had depended upon a holiday, and were already disputing who should ask to go, when, upon being called in the morning, we were turned-to upon the rigging, and found that the top-mast, which had been sprung, was to come down, and a new one to go up, with top-gallant and royal masts, and the rigging to be set. This was too bad. If there is anything that irritates sailors, and makes them feel hardly used, it is being deprived of their Sunday. Not that they would always, or indeed generally, spend it improvingly, but it is their only day of rest. Then, too, they are so often necessarily deprived of it by storms, and unavoidable duties of all kinds, that to take it from them when lying quietly and safely in port, without any urgent reason, bears the more hardly. The only reason in this case was, that the captain had determined to have the custom-house officers on board on Monday, and wished to have his brig in order. Jack is a slave aboard ship; but still he has many opportunities of thwarting and balking his master. When there is danger or necessity, or when he is well used, no one can work faster than he; but the instant he feels that he is kept at work for nothing, or, as the nautical phrase is, “humbugged,” no sloth could make less headway. He must not refuse his duty, or be in any way disobedient, but all the work that an officer gets out of him, he may be welcome to. Every man who has been three months at sea knows how to “work Tom Cox’s traverse”— “three turns round the long-boat, and a pull at the scuttled butt.” This morning everything went in this way. “Sogering” was the order of the day. Send a man below to get a block, and he would capsize everything before finding it, then not bring it up till an officer had called him twice, and take as much time to put things in order again. Marline-spikes were not to be found; knives wanted a prodigious deal of sharpening, and, generally, three or four were waiting round the grindstone at a time. When a man got to the mast-head, he would come slowly down again for something he had left; and after the tackles were got up, six men would pull less than three who pulled “with a will.” When the mate was out of sight, nothing was done. It was all up-hill work; and at eight o’clock, when we went to breakfast, things were nearly where they were when we began.

During our short meal the matter was discussed. One proposed refusing to work; but that was mutiny, and of course was rejected at once. I remember, too, that one of the men quoted “Father Taylor” (as they call the seamen’s preacher at Boston), who told them that, if they were ordered to work on Sunday, they must not refuse their duty, and the blame would not come upon them. After breakfast, it leaked out, through the officers, that, if we would get through work soon, we might have a boat in the afternoon and go a-fishing. This bait was well thrown, and took with several who were fond of fishing; and all began to find that as we had one thing to do, and were not to be kept at work for the day, the sooner we did it the better. Accordingly, things took a new aspect; and before two o’clock, this work, which was in a fair way to last two days, was done; and five of us went a-fishing in the jolly-boat, in the direction of Point Pinos; but leave to go ashore was refused. Here we saw the Loriotte, which sailed with us from Santa Barbara, coming slowly in with a light sea-breeze, which sets in towards afternoon, having been becalmed off the point all the first part of the day. We took several fish of various kinds, among which cod and perch abounded, and Foster (the ci-devant second mate), who was of our number, brought up with his hook a large and beautiful pearl-oyster shell. We afterwards learned that this place was celebrated for shells, and that a small schooner had made a good voyage by carrying a cargo of them to the United States.

We returned by sundown, and found the Loriotte at anchor within a cable’s length of the Pilgrim. The next day we were “turned-to” early, and began taking off the hatches, overhauling the cargo, and getting everything ready for inspection. At eight, the officers of the customs, five in number, came on board, and began examining the cargo, manifest, &c. The Mexican revenue laws are very strict, and require the whole cargo to be landed, examined, and taken on board again; but our agent had succeeded in compounding for the last two vessels, and saving the trouble of taking the cargo ashore. The officers were dressed in the costume which we found prevailed through the country — broad-brimmed hat, usually of a black or dark brown color, with a gilt or figured band round the crown, and lined under the rim with silk; a short jacket of silk, or figured calico (the European skirted body-coat is never worn); the shirt open in the neck; rich waistcoat, if any; pantaloons open at the sides below the knee, laced with gilt, usually of velveteen or broadcloth; or else short breeches and white stockings. They wear the deer-skin shoe, which is of a dark brown color, and (being made by Indians) usually a good deal ornamented. They have no suspenders, but always wear a sash round the waist, which is generally red, and varying in quality with the means of the wearer. Add to this the never-failing poncho, or the serapa, and you have the dress of the Californian. This last garment is always a mark of the rank and wealth of the owner. The gente de razon, or better sort of people, wear cloaks of black or dark blue broadcloth, with as much velvet and trimmings as may be; and from this they go down to the blanket of the Indian, the middle classes wearing a poncho, something like a large square cloth, with a hole in the middle for the head to go through. This is often as coarse as a blanket, but being beautifully woven with various colors, is quite showy at a distance. Among the Mexicans there is no working class (the Indians being practically serfs, and doing all the hard work); and every rich man looks like a grandee, and every poor scamp like a broken-down gentleman. I have often seen a man with a fine figure and courteous manners, dressed in broadcloth and velvet, with a noble horse completely covered with trappings, without a real in his pockets, and absolutely suffering for something to eat.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:53