Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana

Chapter 28

Monday, February, 1st. After having been in port twenty-one days, we sailed for San Pedro, where we arrived on the following day, having gone “all fluking,” with the weather clew of the mainsail hauled up, the yards braced in a little, and the lower studding-sail just drawing; the wind hardly shifting a point during the passage. Here we found the Ayacucho and the Pilgrim, which last we had not seen since the 11th of September — nearly five months; and I really felt something like an affection for the old brig which had been my first home, and in which I had spent nearly a year, and got the first rough and tumble of a sea life. She, too, was associated in my mind with Boston, the wharf from which we sailed, anchorage in the stream, leave-taking, and all such matters, which were now to me like small links connecting me with another world, which I had once been in, and which, please God, I might yet see again. I went on board the first night, after supper; found the old cook in the galley, playing upon the fife which I had given him as a parting present; had a hearty shake of the hand from him; and dove down into the forecastle, where were my old shipmates, the same as ever, glad to see me; for they had nearly given us up as lost, especially when they did not find us in Santa Barbara. They had been at San Diego last, had been lying at San Pedro nearly a month, and had received three thousand hides from the pueblo. But —

“Sic vos non vobis”

these we took from her the next day, which filled us up, and we both got under way on the 4th, she bound to San Francisco again, and we to San Diego, where we arrived on the 6th.

We were always glad to see San Diego; it being the depot, and a snug little place, and seeming quite like home, especially to me, who had spent a summer there. There was no vessel in port, the Rosa having sailed for Valparaiso and Cadiz, and the Catalina for Callao, nearly a month before. We discharged our hides, and in four days were ready to sail again for the windward; and, to our great joy — for the last time! Over thirty thousand hides had been already collected, cured, and stowed away in the house, which, together with what we should collect, and the Pilgrim would bring down from San Francisco, would make out our cargo. The thought that we were actually going up for the last time, and that the next time we went round San Diego point it would be “homeward bound,” brought things so near a close that we felt as though we were just there, though it must still be the greater part of a year before we could see Boston.

I spent one evening, as had been my custom, at the oven with the Sandwich–Islanders; but it was far from being the usual noisy, laughing time. It has been said that the greatest curse to each of the South Sea Islands was the first man who discovered it; and every one who knows anything of the history of our commerce in those parts knows how much truth there is in this; and that the white men, with their vices, have brought in diseases before unknown to the islanders, which are now sweeping off the native population of the Sandwich Islands at the rate of one fortieth of the entire population annually. They seem to be a doomed people. The curse of a people calling themselves Christians seems to follow them everywhere; and even here, in this obscure place, lay two young islanders, whom I had left strong, active young men, in the vigor of health, wasting away under a disease which they would never have known but for their intercourse with people from Christian America and Europe. One of them was not so ill, and was moving about, smoking his pipe, and talking, and trying to keep up his spirits; but the other, who was my friend and aikane, Hope, was the most dreadful object I had ever seen in my life — his eyes sunken and dead, his cheeks fallen in against his teeth, his hands looking like claws; a dreadful cough, which seemed to rack his whole shattered system, a hollow, whispering voice, and an entire inability to move himself. There he lay, upon a mat, on the ground, which was the only floor of the oven, with no medicine, no comforts, and no one to care for or help him but a few Kanakas, who were willing enough, but could do nothing. The sight of him made me sick and faint. Poor fellow! During the four months that I lived upon the beach, we were continually together, in work, and in our excursions in the woods and upon the water. I felt a strong affection for him, and preferred him to any of my own countrymen there; and I believe there was nothing which he would not have done for me. When I came into the oven he looked at me, held out his hand, and said, in a low voice, but with a delightful smile, “Aloha, Aikane! Aloha nui!” I comforted him as well as I could, and promised to ask the captain to help him from the medicine-chest, and told him I had no doubt the captain would do what he could for him, as he had worked in our employ for several years, both on shore and aboard our vessels on the coast. I went aboard and turned into my hammock, but I could not sleep.

Thinking, from my education, that I must have some knowledge of medicine, the Kanakas had insisted upon my examining him carefully; and it was not a sight to be forgotten. One of our crew, an old man-of-war’s-man of twenty years’ standing, who had seen sin and suffering in every shape, and whom I afterwards took to see Hope, said it was dreadfully worse than anything he had ever seen, or even dreamed of. He was horror-struck, as his countenance showed; yet he had been among the worst cases in our naval hospitals. I could not get the thought of the poor fellow out of my head all night — his dreadful suffering, and his apparently inevitable horrible end.

The next day I told Captain Thompson of Hope’s state, and asked him if he would be so kind as to go and see him.

“What? a d —— d Kanaka?”

“Yes, sir,” said I; “but he has worked four years for our vessels, and has been in the employ of our owners, both on shore and aboard.”

“Oh! he be d —— d!” said the captain, and walked off.

This man died afterwards of a fever on the deadly coast of Sumatra; and God grant he had better care taken of him in his sufferings than he ever gave to any one else.

Finding nothing was to be got from the captain, I consulted an old shipmate, who had much experience in these matters, and got a recipe from him, which he kept by him. With this I went to the mate, and told him the case. Mr. Brown had been intrusted with the general care of the medicine-chest, and although a driving fellow, and a taut hand in a watch, he had good feelings, and was inclined to be kind to the sick. He said that Hope was not strictly one of the crew, but, as he was in our employ when taken sick, he should have the medicines; and he got them and gave them to me, with leave to go ashore at night. Nothing could exceed the delight of the Kanakas, when I came, bringing the medicines. All their terms of affection and gratitude were spent upon me, and in a sense wasted (for I could not understand half of them), yet they made all known by their manner. Poor Hope was so much revived at the bare thought of anything being done for him that he seemed already stronger and better. I knew he must die as he was, and he could but die under the medicines, and any chance was worth running. An oven exposed to every wind and change of weather is no place to take calomel; but nothing else would do, and strong remedies must be used, or he was gone. The applications, internal and external, were powerful, and I gave him strict directions to keep warm and sheltered, telling him it was his only chance for life. Twice after this, I visited him, having only time to run up, while waiting in the boat. He promised to take his medicines regularly while we were up the coast, until we returned, and insisted upon it that he was doing better.

We got under way on the 10th, bound up to San Pedro, and had three days of calm and head winds, making but little progress. On the fourth, we took a stiff southeaster, which obliged us to reef our topsails. While on the yard, we saw a sail on the weather bow, and in about half an hour passed the Ayacucho, under double-reefed topsails, beating down to San Diego. Arrived at San Pedro on the fourth day, and came-to in the old place, a league from shore, with no other vessel in port, and the prospect of three weeks or more of dull life, rolling goods up a slippery hill, carrying hides on our heads over sharp stones, and, perhaps, slipping for a southeaster.

There was but one man in the only house here, and him I shall always remember as a good specimen of a California ranger. He had been a tailor in Philadelphia, and, getting intemperate and in debt, joined a trapping party, and went to the Columbia River, and thence down to Monterey, where he spent everything, left his party, and came to the Pueblo de los Angeles to work at his trade. Here he went dead to leeward among the pulperías, gambling-rooms, &c., and came down to San Pedro to be moral by being out of temptation. He had been in the house several weeks, working hard at his trade, upon orders which he had brought with him, and talked much of his resolution, and opened his heart to us about his past life. After we had been here some time, he started off one morning, in fine spirits, well dressed, to carry the clothes which he had been making to the pueblo, and saying that he would bring back his money and some fresh orders the next day. The next day came, and a week passed, and nearly a fortnight, when one day, going ashore, we saw a tall man, who looked like our friend the tailor, getting out of the back of an Indian’s cart, which had just come down from the pueblo. He stood for the house, but we bore up after him; when, finding that we were overhauling him, he hove-to and spoke us. Such a sight! Barefooted, with an old pair of trousers tied round his waist by a piece of green hide, a soiled cotton shirt, and a torn Indian hat; “cleaned out” to the last real, and completely “used up.” He confessed the whole matter; acknowledged that he was on his back; and now he had a prospect of a fit of the horrors for a week, and of being worse than useless for months. This is a specimen of the life of half of the Americans and English who are adrift along the coasts of the Pacific and its islands — commonly called “beach-combers.” One of the same stamp was Russell, who was master of the hide-house at San Diego while I was there, but had been afterwards dismissed for his misconduct. He spent his own money, and nearly all the stores among the half-bloods upon the beach, and went up to the presidio, where he lived the life of a desperate “loafer,” until some rascally deed sent him off “between two days,” with men on horseback, dogs, and Indians in full cry after him, among the hills. One night he burst into our room at the hide-house, breathless, pale as a ghost, covered with mud, and torn by thorns and briers, nearly naked, and begged for a crust of bread, saying he had neither eaten nor slept for three days. Here was the great Mr. Russell, who a month before was “Don Tomas,” “Capitan de la playa,” “Maestro de la casa,” &c., &c., begging food and shelter of Kanakas and sailors. He stayed with us till he had given himself up, and was dragged off to the calabozo.

Another, and a more amusing, specimen was one whom we saw at San Francisco. He had been a lad on board the ship California, in one of her first voyages, and ran away and commenced Ranchero, gambling, stealing horses, &c. He worked along up to San Francisco, and was living on a rancho near there while we were in port. One morning, when we went ashore in the boat, we found him at the landing-place, dressed in California style — a wide hat, faded velveteen trousers, and a blanket thrown over his shoulders — and wishing to go off in the boat, saying he was going to pasear with our captain a little. We had many doubts of the reception he would meet with; but he seemed to think himself company for any one. We took him aboard, landed him at the gangway, and went about our work, keeping an eye upon the quarter-deck, where the captain was walking. The lad went up to him with complete assurance, and, raising his hat, wished him a good afternoon. Captain Thompson turned round, looked at him from head to foot, and, saying coolly, “Hallo! who the hell are you?” kept on his walk. This was a rebuff not to be mistaken, and the joke passed about among the crew by winks and signs at different parts of the ship. Finding himself disappointed at head-quarters, he edged along forward to the mate, who was overseeing some work upon the forecastle, and tried to begin a yarn; but it would not do. The mate had seen the reception he had met with aft, and would have no cast-off company. The second mate was aloft, and the third mate and myself were painting the quarter-boat, which hung by the davits, so he betook himself to us; but we looked at each other, and the officer was too busy to say a word. From us, he went to one and another of the crew, but the joke had got before him, and he found everybody busy and silent. Looking over the rail a few moments afterward, we saw him at the galley-door talking with the cook. This was indeed a come-down, from the highest seat in the synagogue to a seat in the galley with the black cook. At night, too, when supper was called, he stood in the waist for some time, hoping to be asked down with the officers, but they went below, one after another, and left him. His next chance was with the carpenter and sailmaker, and he lounged round the after hatchway until the last had gone down. We had now had fun enough out of him, and, taking pity on him, offered him a pot of tea, and a cut at the kid, with the rest, in the forecastle. He was hungry, and it was growing dark, and he began to see that there was no use in playing the caballero any longer, and came down into the forecastle, put into the “grub” in sailor’s style, threw off all his airs, and enjoyed the joke as much as any one; for a man must take a joke among sailors. He gave us an account of his adventures in the country — roguery and all — and was very entertaining. He was a smart, unprincipled fellow, was in many of the rascally doings of the country, and gave us a great deal of interesting information as to the ways of the world we were in.

Saturday, February 13th. Were called up at midnight to slip for a violent northeaster; for this miserable hole of San Pedro is thought unsafe in almost every wind. We went off with a flowing sheet, and hove-to under the lee of Catalina Island, where we lay three days, and then returned to our anchorage.

Tuesday, February 23d. This afternoon a signal was made from the shore, and we went off in the gig, and found the agent’s clerk, who had been up to the pueblo, waiting at the landing-place, with a package under his arm, covered with brown paper and tied carefully with twine. No sooner had we shoved off than he told us there was good news from Santa Barbara. “What’s that?” said one of the crew; “has the bloody agent slipped off the hooks? Has the old bundle of bones got him at last?”— “No; better than that. The California has arrived.” Letters, papers, news, and, perhaps — friends, on board! Our hearts were all up in our mouths, and we pulled away like good fellows, for the precious packet could not be opened except by the captain. As we pulled under the stern, the clerk held up the package, and called out to the mate, who was leaning over the taffrail; that the California had arrived.

“Hurrah!” said the mate, so as to be heard fore and aft; “California come, and news from Boston!”

Instantly there was a confusion on board which no one would understand who had not been in the same situation. All discipline seemed for a moment relaxed.

“What’s that, Mr. Brown?” said the cook, putting his head out of the galley; “California come?”

“Aye, aye! you angel of darkness, and there’s a letter for you from Bullknop ‘treet, number two-two-five — green door and brass knocker!”

The packet was sent down into the cabin, and every one waited to hear of the result. As nothing came up, the officers began to feel that they were acting rather a child’s part, and turned the crew to again; and the same strict discipline was restored, which prohibits speech between man and man while at work on deck; so that, when the steward came forward with letters for the crew, each man took his letters, carried them below to his chest, and came up again immediately, and not a letter was read until we had cleared up decks for the night.

An overstrained sense of manliness is the characteristic of sea-faring men. This often gives an appearance of want of feeling, and even of cruelty. From this, if a man comes within an ace of breaking his neck and escapes, it is made a joke of; and no notice must be taken of a bruise or a cut; and any expression of pity, or any show of attention, would look sisterly, and unbecoming a man who has to face the rough and tumble of such a life. From this cause, too, the sick are neglected at sea, and, whatever sailors may be ashore, a sick man finds little sympathy or attention, forward or aft. A man, too, can have nothing peculiar or sacred on board ship; for all the nicer feelings they take pride in disregarding, both in themselves and others. A thin-skinned man could hardly live on shipboard. One would be torn raw unless he had the hide of an ox. A moment of natural feeling for home and friends, and then the frigid routine of sea life returned. Jokes were made upon those who showed any interest in the expected news, and everything near and dear was made common stock for rude jokes and unfeeling coarseness, to which no exception could be taken by any one.

Supper, too, must be eaten before the letters were read; and when, at last, they were brought out, they all got round any one who had a letter, and expected to hear it read aloud, and have it all in common. If any one went by himself to read, it was — “Fair play, there, and no skulking!” I took mine and went into the sailmaker’s berth where I could read it without interruption. It was dated August, just a year from the time I had sailed from home, and every one was well, and no great change had taken place. Thus, for one year, my mind was set at ease, yet it was already six months from the date of the letter, and what another year would bring to pass who could tell? Every one away from home thinks that some great thing must have happened, while to those at home there seems to be a continued monotony and lack of incident.

As much as my feelings were taken up by my own news from home, I could not but be amused by a scene in the steerage. The carpenter had been married just before leaving Boston, and during the voyage had talked much about his wife, and had to bear and forbear, as every man, known to be married, must, aboard ship; yet the certainty of hearing from his wife by the first ship seemed to keep up his spirits. The California came, the packet was brought on board, no one was in higher spirits than he; but when the letters came forward, there was none for him. The captain looked again, but there was no mistake. Poor “Chips” could eat no supper. He was completely down in the mouth. “Sails” (the sailmaker) tried to comfort him, and told him he was a bloody fool to give up his grub for any woman’s daughter, and reminded him that he had told him a dozen times that he’d never see or hear from his wife again.

“Ah!” said Chips, “you don’t know what it is to have a wife, and — ”

“Don’t I?” said Sails; and then came, for the hundredth time, the story of his coming ashore at New York, from the Constellation frigate, after a cruise of four years round the Horn — being paid off with over five hundred dollars — marrying, and taking a couple of rooms in a four-story house — furnishing the rooms (with a particular account of the furniture, including a dozen flag-bottomed chairs, which he always dilated upon whenever the subject of furniture was alluded to) — going off to sea again, leaving his wife half-pay like a fool — coming home and finding her “off, like Bob’s horse, with nobody to pay the reckoning”; furniture gone, flag-bottomed chairs and all — and with it his “long togs,” the half-pay, his beaver hat, and white linen shirts. His wife he never saw or heard of from that day to this, and never wished to. Then followed a sweeping assertion, not much to the credit of the sex, in which he has Pope to back him. “Come, Chips, cheer up like a man, and take some hot grub! Don’t be made a fool of by anything in petticoats! As for your wife, you’ll never see her again; she was ‘up keeleg and off’ before you were outside of Cape Cod. You’ve hove your money away like a fool; but every man must learn once, just as I did; so you’d better square the yards with her, and make the best of it.”

This was the best consolation “Sails” had to offer, but it did not seem to be just the thing the carpenter wanted; for, during several days, he was very much dejected, and bore with difficulty the jokes of the sailors, and with still more difficulty their attempts at advice and consolation, of most of which the sailmaker’s was a good specimen.

Thursday, February 25th. Set sail for Santa Barbara, where we arrived on Sunday, the 28th. We just missed seeing the California, for she had sailed three days before, bound to Monterey, to enter her cargo and procure her license, and thence to San Francisco, &c. Captain Arthur left files of Boston papers for Captain Thompson, which, after they had been read and talked over in the cabin, I procured from my friend the third mate. One file was of all the Boston Transcripts for the month of August, 1835, and the rest were about a dozen Daily Advertisers and Couriers of different dates. After all, there is nothing in a strange land like a newspaper from home. Even a letter, in many respects, is nothing in comparison with it. It carries you back to the spot better than anything else. It is almost equal to clairvoyance. The names of the streets, with the things advertised, are almost as good as seeing the signs; and while reading “Boy lost!” one can almost hear the bell and well-known voice of “Old Wilson,” crying the boy as “strayed, stolen, or mislaid!” Then there was the Commencement at Cambridge, and the full account of the exercises at the graduating of my own class. A list of all those familiar names (beginning as usual with Abbot, and ending with W), which, as I read them over, one by one, brought up their faces and characters as I had known them in the various scenes of college life. Then I imagined them upon the stage, speaking their orations, dissertations, colloquies, &c., with the familiar gestures and tones of each, and tried to fancy the manner in which each would handle his subject. — — handsome, showy, and superficial; — — with his strong head, clear brain, cool self-possession; — — modest, sensitive, and underrated; — — the mouth-piece of the debating clubs, noisy, vaporous, and democratic; and, so, following. Then I could see them receiving their A.B.‘s from the dignified, feudal-looking President, with his “auctoritate mihi commissâ,” and walking off the stage with their diplomas in their hands; while upon the same day their classmate was walking up and down California beach with a hide upon his head.

Every watch below, for a week, I pored over these papers, until I was sure there could be nothing in them that had escaped my attention, and was ashamed to keep them any longer.

Saturday, March 5th. This was an important day in our almanac, for it was on this day that we were first assured that our voyage was really drawing to a close. The captain gave orders to have the ship ready for getting under way; and observed that there was a good breeze to take us down to San Pedro. Then we were not going up to windward. Thus much was certain, and was soon known fore and aft; and when we went in the gig to take him off, he shook hands with the people on the beach, and said that he did not expect to see Santa Barbara again. This settled the matter, and sent a thrill of pleasure through the heart of every one in the boat. We pulled off with a will, saying to ourselves (I can speak for myself at least), “Good by, Santa Barbara! This is the last pull here! No more duckings in your breakers, and slipping from your cursed southeasters!” The news was soon known aboard, and put life into everything when we were getting under way. Each one was taking his last look at the Mission, the town, the breakers on the beach, and swearing that no money would make him ship to see them again; and when all hands tallied on to the cat-fall, the chorus of “Time for us to go!” was raised for the first time, and joined in, with full swing, by everybody. One would have thought we were on our voyage home, so near did it seem to us, though there were yet three months for us on the coast.

We left here the young Englishman, George Marsh, of whom I have before spoken, who was wrecked upon the Pelew Islands. He left us to take the berth of second mate on board the Ayacucho, which was lying in port. He was well qualified for this post, and his education would enable him to rise to any situation on board ship. I felt really sorry to part from him. There was something about him which excited my curiosity; for I could not, for a moment, doubt that he was well born, and, in early life, well bred. There was the latent gentleman about him, and the sense of honor, and no little of the pride, of a young man of good family. The situation was offered him only a few hours before we sailed; and though he must give up returning to America, yet I have no doubt that the change from a dog’s berth to an officer’s was too agreeable to his feelings to be declined. We pulled him on board the Ayacucho, and when he left the boat he gave each of its crew a piece of money except myself, and shook hands with me, nodding his head, as much as to say “We understand each other,” and sprang on board. Had I known, an hour sooner, that he was to leave us, I would have made an effort to get from him the true history of his birth and early life. He knew that I had no faith in the story which he told the crew about them, and perhaps, in the moment of parting from me, probably forever, he would have given me the true account. Whether I shall ever meet him again, or whether his manuscript narrative of his adventures in the Pelew Islands, which would be creditable to him and interesting to the world, will ever see the light, I cannot tell. His is one of those cases which are more numerous than those suppose who have never lived anywhere but in their own homes, and never walked but in one line from their cradles to their graves. We must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths for the by-ways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles, and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought among our fellow-creatures by accident, hardship, or vice.

Two days brought us to San Pedro, and two days more (to our no small joy) gave us our last view of that place, which was universally called the hell of California, and seemed designed in every way for the wear and tear of sailors. Not even the last view could bring out one feeling of regret. No thanks, thought I, as we left the hated shores in the distance, for the hours I have walked over your stones barefooted, with hides on my head — for the burdens I have carried up your steep, muddy hill — for the duckings in your surf; and for the long days and longer nights passed on your desolate hill, watching piles of hides, hearing the sharp bark of your eternal coyotes, and the dismal hooting of your owls.

As I bade good by to each successive place, I felt as though one link after another were struck from the chain of my servitude. Having kept close in shore for the land-breeze, we passed the Mission of San Juan Capistrano the same night, and saw distinctly, by the bright moonlight, the cliff which I had gone down by a pair of halyards in search of a few paltry hides.

“Forsan et haec olim,”

thought I, and took my last look of that place too. And on the next morning we were under the high point of San Diego. The flood tide took us swiftly in, and we came-to opposite our hide-house, and prepared to get everything in trim for a long stay. This was our last port. Here we were to discharge everything from the ship, clean her out, smoke her, take in our hides, wood, and water, and set sail for Boston. While all this was doing, we were to lie still in one place, the port a safe one, and no fear of southeasters. Accordingly, having picked out a good berth in the stream, with a smooth beach opposite for a landing-place, and within two cables’ length of our hide-house, we moored ship, unbent the sails, sent down the top-gallant-yards and the studding-sail booms, and housed the top-gallant-masts. The boats were then hove out and all the sails, the spare spars, the stores, the rigging not rove, and, in fact, everything which was not in daily use, sent ashore, and stowed away in the house. Then went our hides and horns, and we left hardly anything in the ship but her ballast, and this we made preparations to heave out the next day. At night, after we had knocked off, and were sitting round in the forecastle, smoking and talking, and taking sailor’s pleasure, we congratulated ourselves upon being in that situation in which we had wished ourselves every time we had come into San Diego. “If we were only here for the last time,” we had often said, “with our top-gallant-masts housed and our sails unbent!”— and now we had our wish. Six weeks, or two months, of the hardest work we had yet seen, but not the most disagreeable or trying, was before us, and then — “Good by to California!”

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