Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana

Chapter 27

The only other vessel in the port was a Russian government bark from Sitka, mounting eight guns (four of which we found to be quakers), and having on board the exgovernor, who was going in her to Mazatlan, and thence overland to Vera Cruz. He offered to take letters, and deliver them to the American consul at Vera Cruz, whence they could be easily forwarded to the United States. We accordingly made up a packet of letters, almost every one writing, and dating them “January 1st, 1836.” The governor was true to his promise, and they all reached Boston before the middle of March; the shortest communication ever yet made across the country.

The brig Pilgrim had been lying in Monterey through the latter part of November, according to orders, waiting for us. Day after day Captain Faucon went up to the hill to look out for us, and at last gave us up, thinking we must have gone down in the gale which we experienced off Point Conception, and which had blown with great fury over the whole coast, driving ashore several vessels in the snuggest ports. An English brig, which had put into San Francisco, lost both her anchors, the Rosa was driven upon a mud bank in San Diego, and the Pilgrim, with great difficulty, rode out the gale in Monterey, with three anchors ahead. She sailed early in December for San Diego and intermedios.

As we were to be here over Sunday, and Monterey was the best place to go ashore on the whole coast, and we had had no liberty-day for nearly three months, every one was for going ashore. On Sunday morning as soon as the decks were washed, and we were through breakfast, those who had obtained liberty began to clean themselves, as it is called, to go ashore. Buckets of fresh water, cakes of soap, large coarse towels, and we went to work scrubbing one another, on the forecastle. Having gone through this, the next thing was to step into the head — one on each side — with a bucket apiece, and duck one another, by drawing up water and heaving over each other, while we were stripped to a pair of trousers. Then came the rigging up. The usual outfit of pumps, white stockings, loose white duck trousers, blue jackets, clean checked shirts, black kerchiefs, hats well varnished, with a fathom of black ribbon over the left eye, a silk handkerchief flying from the outside jacket pocket, and four or five dollars tied up in the back of the neckerchief, and we were “all right.” One of the quarter-boats pulled us ashore, and we streamed up to the town. I tried to find the church, in order to see the worship, but was told that there was no service, except a mass early in the morning; so we went about the town, visiting the Americans and English, and the Mexicans whom we had known when we were here before. Toward noon we procured horses, and rode out to the Carmel Mission, which is about a league from the town, where we got something in the way of a dinner — beef, eggs, fríjoles, tortillas, and some middling wine — from the mayor-domo, who, of course, refused to make any charge, as it was the Lord’s gift, yet received our present, as a gratuity, with a low bow, a touch of the hat, and “Dios se lo pague!”

After this repast we had a fine run, scouring the country on our fleet horses, and came into town soon after sundown. Here we found our companions, who had refused to go to ride with us, thinking that a sailor has no more business with a horse than a fish has with a balloon. They were moored, stem and stern, in a grog-shop, making a great noise, with a crowd of Indians and hungry half-breeds about them, and with a fair prospect of being stripped and dirked, or left to pass the night in the calabozo. With a great deal of trouble we managed to get them down to the boats, though not without many angry looks and interferences from the Mexicans, who had marked them out for their prey. The Diana’s crew — a set of worthless outcasts who had been picked up at the islands from the refuse of whale-ships — were all as drunk as beasts, and had a set-to on the beach with their captain, who was in no better state than themselves. They swore they would not go aboard, and went back to the town, were robbed and beaten, and lodged in the calabozo, until the next day, when the captain brought them out. Our forecastle, as usual after a liberty-day, was a scene of tumult all night long, from the drunken ones. They had just got to sleep toward morning, when they were turned-up with the rest, and kept at work all day in the water, carrying hides, their heads aching so that they could hardly stand. This is sailor’s pleasure.

Nothing worthy of remark happened while we were here, except a little boxing-match on board our own ship, which gave us something to talk about. Our broad-backed, big-headed Cape Cod boy, about sixteen years old, had been playing the bully, for the whole voyage, over a slender, delicate-looking boy from one of the Boston schools, and over whom he had much the advantage in strength, age, and experience in the ship’s duty, for this was the first time the Boston boy had been on salt water. The latter, however, had “picked up his crumbs,” was learning his duty, and getting strength and confidence daily, and began to assert his rights against his oppressor. Still, the other was his master, and, by his superior strength, always tackled with him and threw him down. One afternoon, before we were turned-to, these boys got into a violent squabble in the between-decks, when George (the Boston boy) said he would fight Nat if he could have fair play. The chief mate heard the noise, dove down the hatchway, hauled them both up on deck, and told them to shake hands and have no more trouble for the voyage, or else they should fight till one gave in for beaten. Finding neither willing to make an offer of reconciliation, he called all hands up (for the captain was ashore, and he could do as he chose aboard), ranged the crew in the waist, marked a line on the deck, brought the two boys up to it, making them “toe the mark”; then made the bight of a rope fast to a belaying-pin, and stretched it across the deck, bringing it just above their waists. “No striking below the rope!” And there they stood, one on each side of it, face to face, and went at it like two game-cocks. The Cape Cod boy, Nat, put in his double-fisters, starting the blood, and bringing the black-and-blue spots all over the face and arms of the other, whom we expected to see give in every moment; but, the more he was hurt, the better he fought. Again and again he was knocked nearly down, but up he came again and faced the mark, as bold as a lion, again to take the heavy blows, which sounded so as to make one’s heart turn with pity for him. At length he came up to the mark the last time, his shirt torn from his body, his face covered with blood and bruises, and his eyes flashing fire, and swore he would stand there until one or the other was killed, and set-to like a young fury. “Hurrah in the bow!” said the men, cheering him on. “Never say die, while there’s a shot in the locker!” Nat tried to close with him, knowing his advantage, but the mate stopped that, saying there should be fair play, and no fingering. Nat then came up to the mark, but looked white about the mouth, and his blows were not given with half the spirit of his first. Something was the matter. I was not sure whether he was cowed, or, being good-natured, he did not care to beat the boy any more. At all events he faltered. He had always been master, and had nothing to gain and everything to lose; while the other fought for honor and freedom, and under a sense of wrong. It was soon over. Nat gave in — apparently not much hurt — and never afterwards tried to act the bully over the boy. We took George forward, washed him in the deck-tub, complimented his pluck, and from this time he became somebody on board, having fought himself into notice. Mr. Brown’s plan had a good effect, for there was no more quarrelling among the boys for the rest of the voyage.

Wednesday, January 6th, 1836. Set sail from Monterey, with a number of Mexicans as passengers, and shaped our course for Santa Barbara. The Diana went out of the bay in company with us, but parted from us off Point Pinos, being bound to the Sandwich Islands. We had a smacking breeze for several hours, and went along at a great rate until night, when it died away, as usual, and the land-breeze set in, which brought us upon a taut bowline. Among our passengers was a young man who was a good representation of a decayed gentleman. He reminded me much of some of the characters in Gil Blas. He was of the aristocracy of the country, his family being of pure Spanish blood, and once of considerable importance in Mexico. His father had been governor of the province, and, having amassed a large property, settled at San Diego, where he built a large house with a court-yard in front, kept a retinue of Indians, and set up for the grandee of that part of the country. His son was sent to Mexico, where he received an education, and went into the first society of the capital. Misfortune, extravagance, and the want of any manner of getting interest on money, soon ate the estate up, and Don Juan Bandini returned from Mexico accomplished, poor, and proud, and without any office or occupation, to lead the life of most young men of the better families — dissipated and extravagant when the means are at hand; ambitious at heart, and impotent in act; often pinched for bread; keeping up an appearance of style, when their poverty is known to each half-naked Indian boy in the street, and standing in dread of every small trader and shopkeeper in the place. He had a slight and elegant figure, moved gracefully, danced and waltzed beautifully, spoke good Castilian, with a pleasant and refined voice and accent, and had, throughout, the bearing of a man of birth and figure. Yet here he was, with his passage given him (as I afterwards learned), for he had not the means of paying for it, and living upon the charity of our agent. He was polite to every one, spoke to the sailors, and gave four reals — I dare say the last he had in his pocket — to the steward, who waited upon him. I could not but feel a pity for him, especially when I saw him by the side of his fellow-passenger and townsman, a fat, coarse, vulgar, pretentious fellow of a Yankee trader, who had made money in San Diego, and was eating out the vitals of the Bandinis, fattening upon their extravagance, grinding them in their poverty; having mortgages on their lands, forestalling their cattle, and already making an inroad upon their jewels, which were their last hope.

Don Juan had with him a retainer, who was as much like many of the characters in Gil Blas as his master. He called himself a private secretary, though there was no writing for him to do, and he lived in the steerage with the carpenter and sailmaker. He was certainly a character; could read and write well; spoke good Spanish; had been over the greater part of Spanish America, and lived in every possible situation, and served in every conceivable capacity, though generally in that of confidential servant to some man of figure. I cultivated this man’s acquaintance, and during the five weeks that he was with us — for he remained on board until we arrived at San Diego — I gained a greater knowledge of the state of political parties in Mexico, and the habits and affairs of the different classes of society, than I could have learned from almost any one else. He took great pains in correcting my Spanish, and supplying me with colloquial phrases, and common terms and exclamations, in speaking. He lent me a file of late newspapers from the city of Mexico, which were full of the triumphal reception of Santa Ana, who had just returned from Tampico after a victory, and with the preparations for his expedition against the Texans. “Viva Santa Ana!” was the byword everywhere, and it had even reached California, though there were still many here, among whom was Don Juan Bandini, who were opposed to his government, and intriguing to bring in Bustamente. Santa Ana, they said, was for breaking down the Missions; or, as they termed it, “Santa Ana no quiere religion.” Yet I had no doubt that the office of administrador of San Diego would reconcile Don Juan to any dynasty, and any state of the church. In these papers, too, I found scraps of American and English news; but which was so unconnected, and I was so ignorant of everything preceding them for eighteen months past, that they only awakened a curiosity which they could not satisfy. One article spoke of Taney as Justicia Mayor de los Estados Unidos, (what had become of Marshall? was he dead, or banished?) and another made known, by news received from Vera Cruz, that “El Vizconde Melbourne” had returned to the office of “primer ministro,” in place of Sir Roberto Peel. (Sir Robert Peel had been minister, then? and where were Earl Grey and the Duke of Wellington?) Here were the outlines of grand political overturns, the filling up of which I was left to imagine at my leisure.

The second morning after leaving Monterey, we were off Point Conception. It was a bright, sunny day, and the wind, though strong, was fair; and everything was in striking contrast with our experience in the same place two months before, when we were drifting off from a northwester under a fore and main spencer. “Sail ho!” cried a man who was rigging out a top-gallant studding-sail boom. — “Where away?”— “Weather beam, sir!” and in a few minutes a full-rigged brig was seen standing out from under Point Conception. The studding-sail halyards were let go, and the yards boom-ended, the after yards braced aback, and we waited her coming down. She rounded to, backed her main topsail, and showed her decks full of men, four guns on a side, hammock nettings, and everything man-of-war fashion, except that there was no boatswain’s whistle, and no uniforms on the quarter-deck. A short, square-built man, in a rough gray jacket, with a speaking-trumpet in hand, stood in the weather hammock nettings. “Ship ahoy!”— “Hallo!”— “What ship is that, pray?”— “Alert.”— “Where are you from, pray?” &c., &c. She proved to be the brig Convoy, from the Sandwich Islands, engaged in otter-hunting among the islands which lie along the coast. Her armament was because of her being a contrabandista. The otter are very numerous among these islands, and, being of great value, the government require a heavy sum for a license to hunt them, and lay a high duty upon every one shot or carried out of the country. This vessel had no license, and paid no duty, besides being engaged in smuggling goods on board other vessels trading on the coast, and belonging to the same owners in Oahu. Our captain told him to look out for the Mexicans, but he said that they had not an armed vessel of his size in the whole Pacific. This was without doubt the same vessel that showed herself off Santa Barbara a few months before. These vessels frequently remain on the coast for years, without making port, except at the islands for wood and water, and an occasional visit to Oahu for a new outfit.

Sunday, January 10th. Arrived at Santa Barbara, and on the following Wednesday slipped our cable and went to sea, on account of a southeaster. Returned to our anchorage the next day. We were the only vessel in the port. The Pilgrim had passed through the Canal and hove-to off the town, nearly six weeks before, on her passage down from Monterey, and was now at the leeward. She heard here of our safe arrival at San Francisco.

Great preparations were making on shore for the marriage of our agent, who was to marry Doña Anita de la Guerra de Noriego y Corillo, youngest daughter of Don Antonio Noriego, the grandee of the place, and the head of the first family in California. Our steward was ashore three days, making pastry and cake, and some of the best of our stores were sent off with him. On the day appointed for the wedding, we took the captain ashore in the gig, and had orders to come for him at night, with leave to go up to the house and see the fandango. Returning on board, we found preparations making for a salute. Our guns were loaded and run out, men appointed to each, cartridges served out, matches lighted, and all the flags ready to be run up. I took my place at the starboard after gun, and we all waited for the signal from on shore. At ten o’clock the bride went up with her sister to the confessional, dressed in deep black. Nearly an hour intervened, when the great doors of the Mission church opened, the bells rang out a loud, discordant peal, the private signal for us was run up by the captain ashore, the bride, dressed in complete white, came out of the church with the bridegroom, followed by a long procession. Just as she stepped from the church door, a small white cloud issued from the bows of our ship, which was full in sight, the loud report echoed among the surrounding hills and over the bay, and instantly the ship was dressed in flags and pennants from stem to stern. Twenty-three guns followed in regular succession, with an interval of fifteen seconds between each, when the cloud blew off, and our ship lay dressed in her colors all day. At sundown another salute of the same number of guns was fired, and all the flags run down. This we thought was pretty well — a gun every fifteen seconds — for a merchantman with only four guns and a dozen or twenty men.

After supper, the gig’s crew were called, and we rowed ashore, dressed in our uniform, beached the boat, and went up to the fandango. The bride’s father’s house was the principal one in the place, with a large court in front, upon which a tent was built, capable of containing several hundred people. As we drew near, we heard the accustomed sound of violins and guitars, and saw a great motion of the people within. Going in, we found nearly all the people of the town — men, women, and children — collected and crowded together, leaving barely room for the dancers; for on these occasions no invitations are given, but every one is expected to come, though there is always a private entertainment within the house for particular friends. The old women sat down in rows, clapping their hands to the music, and applauding the young ones. The music was lively, and among the tunes we recognized several of our popular airs, which we, without doubt, have taken from the Spanish. In the dancing I was much disappointed. The women stood upright, with their hands down by their sides, their eyes fixed upon the ground before them, and slided about without any perceptible means of motion; for their feet were invisible, the hem of their dresses forming a circle about them, reaching to the ground. They looked as grave as though they were going through some religious ceremony, their faces as little excited as their limbs; and on the whole, instead of the spirited, fascinating Spanish dances which I had expected, I found the Californian fandango, on the part of the women at least, a lifeless affair. The men did better. They danced with grace and spirit, moving in circles round their nearly stationary partners, and showing their figures to advantage.

A great deal was said about our friend Don Juan Bandini, and when he did appear, which was toward the close of the evening, he certainly gave us the most graceful dancing that I had ever seen. He was dressed in white pantaloons, neatly made, a short jacket of dark silk, gayly figured, white stockings and thin morocco slippers upon his very small feet. His slight and graceful figure was well adapted to dancing, and he moved about with the grace and daintiness of a young fawn. An occasional touch of the toe to the ground seemed all that was necessary to give him a long interval of motion in the air. At the same time he was not fantastic or flourishing, but appeared to be rather repressing a strong tendency to motion. He was loudly applauded, and danced frequently toward the close of the evening. After the supper, the waltzing began, which was confined to a very few of the “gente de razon,” and was considered a high accomplishment, and a mark of aristocracy. Here, too, Don Juan figured greatly, waltzing with the sister of the bride (Doña Angustias, a handsome woman and a general favorite) in a variety of beautiful figures, which lasted as much as half an hour, no one else taking the floor. They were repeatedly and loudly applauded, the old men and women jumping out of their seats in admiration, and the young people waving their hats and handkerchiefs. The great amusement of the evening — owing to its being the Carnival — was the breaking of eggs filled with cologne, or other essences, upon the heads of the company. The women bring a great number of these secretly about them, and the amusement is to break one upon the head of a gentleman when his back is turned. He is bound in gallantry to find out the lady and return the compliment, though it must not be done if the person sees you. A tall, stately Don, with immense gray whiskers, and a look of great importance, was standing before me, when I felt a light hand on my shoulder, and, turning round, saw Doña Angustias (whom we all knew, as she had been up to Monterey, and down again, in the Alert), with her finger upon her lip, motioning me gently aside. I stepped back a little, when she went up behind the Don, and with one hand knocked off his huge sombrero, and at the same instant, with the other, broke the egg upon his head, and, springing behind me, was out of sight in a moment. The Don turned slowly round, the cologne running down his face and over his clothes, and a loud laugh breaking out from every quarter. He looked round in vain for some time, until the direction of so many laughing eyes showed him the fair offender. She was his niece, and a great favorite with him, so old Don Domingo had to join in the laugh. A great many such tricks were played, and many a war of sharp manoeuvring was carried on between couples of the younger people, and at every successful exploit a general laugh was raised.

Another of their games I was for some time at a loss about. A pretty young girl was dancing, named — after what would appear to us an almost sacrilegious custom of the country — Espíritu Santo, when a young man went behind her and placed his hat directly upon her head, letting it fall down over her eyes, and sprang back among the crowd. She danced for some time with the hat on, when she threw it off, which called forth a general shout, and the young man was obliged to go out upon the floor and pick it up. Some of the ladies, upon whose heads hats had been placed, threw them off at once, and a few kept them on throughout the dance, and took them off at the end, and held them out in their hands, when the owner stepped out, bowed, and took it from them. I soon began to suspect the meaning of the thing, and was afterwards told that it was a compliment, and an offer to become the lady’s gallant for the rest of the evening, and to wait upon her home. If the hat was thrown off, the offer was refused, and the gentleman was obliged to pick up his hat amid a general laugh. Much amusement was caused sometimes by gentlemen putting hats on the ladies’ heads, without permitting them to see whom it was done by. This obliged them to throw them off, or keep them on at a venture, and when they came to discover the owner the laugh was turned upon one or the other.

The captain sent for us about ten o’clock, and we went aboard in high spirits, having enjoyed the new scene much, and were of great importance among the crew, from having so much to tell, and from the prospect of going every night until it was over; for these fandangos generally last three days. The next day, two of us were sent up to the town, and took care to come back by way of Señor Noriego’s, and take a look into the booth. The musicians were again there, upon their platform, scraping and twanging away, and a few people, apparently of the lower classes, were dancing. The dancing is kept up, at intervals, throughout the day, but the crowd, the spirit, and the élite come in at night. The next night, which was the last, we went ashore in the same manner, until we got almost tired of the monotonous twang of the instruments, the drawling sounds which the women kept up, as an accompaniment, and the slapping of the hands in time with the music, in place of castanets. We found ourselves as great objects of attention as any persons or anything at the place. Our sailor dresses — and we took great pains to have them neat and ship-shape — were much admired, and we were invited, from every quarter, to give them an American dance; but after the ridiculous figure some of our countrymen cut in dancing after the Mexicans, we thought it best to leave it to their imaginations. Our agent, with a tight, black, swallow-tailed coat just imported from Boston, a high stiff cravat, looking as if he had been pinned and skewered, with only his feet and hands left free, took the floor just after Bandini, and we thought they had had enough of Yankee grace.

The last night they kept it up in great style, and were getting into a high-go, when the captain called us off to go aboard, for, it being southeaster season, he was afraid to remain on shore long; and it was well he did not, for that night we slipped our cables, as a crowner to our fun ashore, and stood off before a southeaster, which lasted twelve hours, and returned to our anchorage the next day.

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