Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana

Chapter 16

The next day being Sunday, after washing and clearing decks, and getting breakfast, the mate came forward with leave for one watch to go ashore, on liberty. We drew lots, and it fell to the larboard, which I was in. Instantly all was preparation. Buckets of fresh water (which we were allowed in port), and soap, were put in use; go-ashore jackets and trousers got out and brushed; pumps, neckerchiefs, and hats overhauled, one lending to another; so that among the whole each got a good fit-out. A boat was called to pull the “liberty-men” ashore, and we sat down in the stern sheets, “as big as pay-passengers,” and, jumping ashore, set out on our walk for the town, which was nearly three miles off.

It is a pity that some other arrangement is not made in merchant vessels with regard to the liberty-day. When in port, the crews are kept at work all the week, and the only day they are allowed for rest or pleasure is Sunday; and unless they go ashore on that day, they cannot go at all. I have heard of a religious captain who gave his crew liberty on Saturdays, after twelve o’clock. This would be a good plan, if shipmasters would bring themselves to give their crews so much time. For young sailors especially, many of whom have been brought up with a regard for the sacredness of the day, this strong temptation to break it is exceedingly injurious. As it is, it can hardly be expected that a crew, on a long and hard voyage, will refuse a few hours of freedom from toil and the restraints of a vessel, and an opportunity to tread the ground and see the sights of society and humanity, because it is a Sunday. They feel no objection to being drawn out of a pit on the Sabbath day.

I shall never forget the delightful sensation of being in the open air, with the birds singing around me, and escaped from the confinement, labor, and strict rule of a vessel — of being once more in my life, though only for a day, my own master. A sailor’s liberty is but for a day; yet while it lasts it is entire. He is under no one’s eye, and can do whatever, and go wherever, he pleases. This day, for the first time, I may truly say, in my whole life, I felt the meaning of a term which I had often heard — the sweets of liberty. Stimson was with me, and, turning our backs upon the vessels, we walked slowly along, talking of the pleasure of being our own masters, of the times past, when we were free and in the midst of friends, in America, and of the prospect of our return; and planning where we would go, and what we would do, when we reached home. It was wonderful how the prospect brightened, and how short and tolerable the voyage appeared, when viewed in this new light. Things looked differently from what they did when we talked them over in the little dark forecastle, the night after the flogging, at San Pedro. It is not the least of the advantages of allowing sailors occasionally a day of liberty, that it gives them a spring, and makes them feel cheerful and independent, and leads them insensibly to look on the bright side of everything for some time after.

Stimson and I determined to keep as much together as possible, though we knew that it would not do to cut our shipmates; for, knowing our birth and education, they were a little suspicious that we would try to put on the gentleman when we got ashore, and would be ashamed of their company; and this won’t do with Jack. When the voyage is at an end, you do as you please; but so long as you belong to the same vessel, you must be a shipmate to him on shore, or he will not be a shipmate to you on board. Being forewarned of this before I went to sea, I took no “long togs” with me; and being dressed like the rest, in white duck trousers, blue jacket, and straw hat, which would prevent my going into better company, and showing no disposition to avoid them, I set all suspicion at rest. Our crew fell in with some who belonged to the other vessels, and, sailor-like, steered for the first grog-shop. This was a small adobe building, of only one room, in which were liquors, “dry-goods,” West India goods, shoes, bread, fruits, and everything which is vendible in California. It was kept by a Yankee, a one-eyed man, who belonged formerly to Fall River, came out to the Pacific in a whale-ship, left her at the Sandwich Islands, and came to California and set up a pulpería. Stimson and I followed in our shipmates’ wake, knowing that to refuse to drink with them would be the highest affront, but determining to slip away at the first opportunity. It is the universal custom with sailors for each one, in his turn, to treat the whole, calling for a glass all round, and obliging every one who is present, even to the keeper of the shop, to take a glass with him. When we first came in, there was some dispute between our crew and the others, whether the newcomers or the old California rangers should treat first; but it being settled in favor of the latter, each of the crews of the other vessels treated all round in their turn, and as there were a good many present (including some “loafers” who had dropped in, knowing what was going on, to take advantage of Jack’s hospitality), and the liquor was a real (12 1/2 cents) a glass, it made somewhat of a hole in their lockers. It was now our ship’s turn, and Stimson and I, desirous to get away, stepped up to call for glasses; but we soon found that we must go in order — the oldest first, for the old sailors did not choose to be preceded by a couple of youngsters; and bon gré, mal gré, we had to wait our turn, with the twofold apprehension of being too late for our horses, and of getting too much; for drink you must, every time; and if you drink with one, and not with another, it is always taken as an insult.

Having at length gone through our turns and acquitted ourselves of all obligations, we slipped out, and went about among the houses, endeavoring to find horses for the day, so that we might ride round and see the country. At first we had but little success, all that we could get out of the lazy fellows, in reply to our questions, being the eternal drawling Quien sabe? (“Who knows?”) which is an answer to all questions. After several efforts, we at length fell in with a little Sandwich Island boy, who belonged to Captain Wilson, of the Ayacucho, and was well acquainted in the place; and he, knowing where to go, soon procured us two horses, ready saddled and bridled, each with a lasso coiled over the pommel. These we were to have all day, with the privilege of riding them down to the beach at night, for a dollar, which we had to pay in advance. Horses are the cheapest thing in California; very fair ones not being worth more than ten dollars apiece, and the poorer being often sold for three and four. In taking a day’s ride, you pay for the use of the saddle, and for the labor and trouble of catching the horses. If you bring the saddle back safe, they care but little what becomes of the horse. Mounted on our horses, which were spirited beasts (and which, by the way, in this country, are always steered in the cavalry fashion, by pressing the contrary rein against the neck, and not by pulling on the bit), we started off on a fine run over the country. The first place we went to was the old ruinous presidio, which stands on a rising ground near the village, which it overlooks. It is built in the form of an open square, like all the other presidios, and was in a most ruinous state, with the exception of one side, in which the commandant lived, with his family. There were only two guns, one of which was spiked, and the other had no carriage. Twelve half-clothed and half-starved looking fellows composed the garrison; and they, it was said, had not a musket apiece. The small settlement lay directly below the fort, composed of about forty dark brown looking huts, or houses, and three or four larger ones, whitewashed, which belonged to the “gente de razon.” This town is not more than half as large as Monterey, or Santa Barbara, and has little or no business. From the presidio, we rode off in the direction of the Mission, which we were told was three miles distant. The country was rather sandy, and there was nothing for miles which could be called a tree, but the grass grew green and rank, there were many bushes and thickets, and the soil is said to be good. After a pleasant ride of a couple of miles, we saw the white walls of the Mission, and, fording a small stream, we came directly before it. The Mission is built of adobe and plastered. There was something decidedly striking in its appearance: a number of irregular buildings, connected with one another, and, disposed in the form of a hollow square, with a church at one end, rising above the rest, with a tower containing five belfries, in each of which hung a large bell, and with very large rusty iron crosses at the tops. Just outside of the buildings, and under the walls, stood twenty or thirty small huts, built of straw and of the branches of trees, grouped together, in which a few Indians lived, under the protection and in the service of the Mission.

Entering a gateway, we drove into the open square, in which the stillness of death reigned. On one side was the church; on another, a range of high buildings with grated windows; a third was a range of smaller buildings, or offices, and the fourth seemed to be little more than a high connecting wall. Not a living creature could we see. We rode twice round the square, in the hope of waking up some one; and in one circuit saw a tall monk, with shaven head, sandals, and the dress of the Gray Friars, pass rapidly through a gallery, but he disappeared without noticing us. After two circuits, we stopped our horses, and at last a man showed himself in front of one of the small buildings. We rode up to him, and found him dressed in the common dress of the country, with a silver chain round his neck, supporting a large bunch of keys. From this, we took him to be the steward of the Mission, and, addressing him as “Mayor-domo,” received a low bow and an invitation to walk into his room. Making our horses fast, we went in. It was a plain room, containing a table, three or four chairs, a small picture or two of some saint, or miracle, or martyrdom, and a few dishes and glasses. “Hay alguna cosa de comer?” said I, from my grammar. “Si, Señor!” said he. “Que gusta usted?” Mentioning fríjoles, which I knew they must have if they had nothing else, and beef and bread, with a hint for wine, if they had any, he went off to another building across the court, and returned in a few minutes with a couple of Indian boys bearing dishes and a decanter of wine. The dishes contained baked meats, fríjoles stewed with peppers and onions, boiled eggs, and California flour baked into a kind of macaroni. These, together with the wine, made the most sumptuous meal we had eaten since we left Boston; and, compared with the fare we had lived upon for seven months, it was a regal banquet. After despatching it, we took out some money and asked him how much we were to pay. He shook his head, and crossed himself, saying that it was charity — that the Lord gave it to us. Knowing the amount of this to be that he did not sell, but was willing to receive a present, we gave him ten or twelve reals, which he pocketed with admirable nonchalance, saying, “Dios se lo pague.” Taking leave of him, we rode out to the Indians’ huts. The little children were running about among the huts, stark naked, and the men were not much more; but the women had generally coarse gowns of a sort of tow cloth. The men are employed, most of the time, in tending the cattle of the Mission, and in working in the garden, which is a very large one, including several acres, and filled, it is said, with the best fruits of the climate. The language of these people, which is spoken by all the Indians of California, is the most brutish, without any exception, that I ever heard, or that could well be conceived of. It is a complete slabber. The words fall off of the ends of their tongues, and a continual slabbering sound is made in the cheeks, outside of the teeth. It cannot have been the language of Montezuma and the independent Mexicans.

Here, among the huts, we saw the oldest man that I had ever met with; and, indeed, I never supposed that a person could retain life and exhibit such marks of age. He was sitting out in the sun, leaning against the side of a hut; and his legs and arms, which were bare, were of a dark red color, the skin withered and shrunk up like burnt leather, and the limbs not larger round than those of a boy of five years. He had a few gray hairs, which were tied together at the back of his head, and he was so feeble that, when we came up to him, he raised his hands slowly to his face, and, taking hold of his lids with his fingers, lifted them up to look at us; and, being satisfied, let them drop again. All command over the lids seemed to have gone. I asked his age, but could get no answer but “Quien sabe?” and they probably did not know it.

Leaving the Mission, we returned to the village, going nearly all the way on a full run. The California horses have no medium gait, which is pleasant, between walking and running; for as there are no streets and parades, they have no need of the genteel trot, and their riders usually keep them at the top of their speed until they are tired, and then let them rest themselves by walking. The fine air of the afternoon, the rapid gait of the animals, who seemed almost to fly over the ground, and the excitement and novelty of the motion to us, who had been so long confined on shipboard, were exhilarating beyond expression, and we felt willing to ride all day long. Coming into the village, we found things looking very lively. The Indians, who always have a holiday on Sunday, were engaged at playing a kind of running game of ball, on a level piece of ground, near the houses. The old ones sat down in a ring, looking on, while the young ones — men, boys, and girls — were chasing the ball, and throwing it with all their might. Some of the girls ran like greyhounds. At every accident, or remarkable feat, the old people set up a deafening screaming and clapping of hands. Several blue jackets were reeling about among the houses, which showed that the pulperías had been well patronized. One or two of the sailors had got on horseback, but being rather indifferent horsemen, and the Mexicans having given them vicious beasts, they were soon thrown, much to the amusement of the people. A half-dozen Sandwich–Islanders, from the hide-houses and the two brigs, bold riders, were dashing about on the full gallop, hallooing and laughing like so many wild men.

It was now nearly sundown, and Stimson and I went into a house and sat quietly down to rest ourselves before going to the beach. Several people soon collected to see “los marineros ingleses,” and one of them, a young woman, took a great fancy to my pocket-handkerchief, which was a large silk one that I had before going to sea, and a handsomer one than they had been in the habit of seeing. Of course, I gave it to her, which brought me into high favor; and we had a present of some pears and other fruits, which we took down to the beach with us. When we came to leave the house, we found that our horses, which we had tied at the door, were both gone. We had paid for them to ride down to the beach, but they were not to be found. We went to the man of whom we hired them, but he only shrugged his shoulders, and to our question, “Where are the horses?” only answered, “Quien sabe?” but as he was very easy, and made no inquiries for the saddles, we saw that he knew very well where they were. After a little trouble, determined not to walk to the beach — a distance of three miles — we procured two, at four reals more apiece, with two Indian boys to run behind and bring them back. Determined to have “the go” out of the horses, for our trouble, we went down at full speed, and were on the beach in a few minutes. Wishing to make our liberty last as long as possible, we rode up and down among the hide-houses, amusing ourselves with seeing the men as they arrived (it was now dusk), some on horseback and others on foot. The Sandwich–Islanders rode down, and were in “high snuff.” We inquired for our shipmates, and were told that two of them had started on horseback, and been thrown, or had fallen off, and were seen heading for the beach, but steering pretty wild, and, by the looks of things, would not be down much before midnight.

The Indian boys having arrived, we gave them our horses, and, having seen them safely off, hailed for a boat, and went aboard. Thus ended our first liberty-day on shore. We were well tired, but had had a good time, and were more willing to go back to our old duties. About midnight we were waked up by our two watch-mates, who had come aboard in high dispute. It seems they had started to come down on the same horse, double-backed; and each was accusing the other of being the cause of his fall. They soon, however, turned-in and fell asleep, and probably forgot all about it, for the next morning the dispute was not renewed.

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