Omoo/Chapter XXIX

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Chapter XXIX. The Reine Blanche

I cannot forbear a brief reflection upon the scene ending the last chapter.

The ratanning of the young culprits, although significant of the imperfect discipline of a French man-of-war, may also be considered as in some measure characteristic of the nation.

In an American or English ship, a boy when flogged is either lashed to the breech of a gun, or brought right up to the gratings, the same way the men are. But as a general rule, he is never punished beyond his strength. You seldom or never draw a cry from the young rogue. He bites his tongue and stands up to it like a hero. If practicable (which is not always the case), he makes a point of smiling under the operation. And so far from his companions taking any compassion on him, they always make merry over his misfortunes. Should he turn baby and cry, they are pretty sure to give him afterward a sly pounding in some dark corner.

This tough training produces its legitimate results. The boy becomes, in time, a thoroughbred tar, equally ready to strip and take a dozen on board his own ship, or, cutlass in hand, dash pell-mell on board the enemy's. Whereas the young Frenchman, as all the world knows, makes but an indifferent seaman; and though, for the most part, he fights well enough, somehow or other he seldom fights well enough to beat.

How few sea-battles have the French ever won! But more: how few ships have they ever carried by the board--that true criterion of naval courage! But not a word against French bravery--there is plenty of it; but not of the right sort. A Yankee's, or an Englishman's, is the downright Waterloo "game." The French fight better on land; and not being essentially a maritime people, they ought to stay there. The best of shipwrights, they are no sailors.

And this carries me back to the Reine Blanche, as noble a specimen of what wood and iron can make as ever floated.

She was a new ship: the present her maiden cruise. The greatest pains having been taken in her construction, she was accounted the "crack" craft in the French navy. She is one of the heavy sixty-gun frigates now in vogue all over the world, and which we Yankees were the first to introduce. In action these are the most murderous vessels ever launched.

The model of the Reine Blanche has all that warlike comeliness only to be seen in a fine fighting ship. Still, there is a good deal of French flummery about her--brass plates and other gewgaws stuck on all over, like baubles on a handsome woman.

Among other things, she carries a stern gallery resting on the uplifted hands of two Caryatides, larger than life. You step out upon this from the commodore's cabin. To behold the rich hangings, and mirrors, and mahogany within, one is almost prepared to see a bevy of ladies trip forth on the balcony for an airing.

But come to tread the gun-deck, and all thoughts like these are put to flight. Such batteries of thunderbolt hurlers! with a sixty-eight-pounder or two thrown in as make-weights. On the spar-deck, also, are carronades of enormous calibre.

Recently built, this vessel, of course, had the benefit of the latest improvements. I was quite amazed to see on what high principles of art some exceedingly simple things were done. But your Gaul is scientific about everything; what other people accomplish by a few hard knocks, he delights in achieving by a complex arrangement of the pulley, lever, and screw.

What demi-semi-quavers in a French air! In exchanging naval courtesies, I have known a French band play "Yankee Doodle" with such a string of variations that no one but a "pretty 'cute" Yankee could tell what they were at.

In the French navy they have no marines; their men, taking turns at carrying the musket, are sailors one moment, and soldiers the next; a fellow running aloft in his line frock to-day, to-morrow stands sentry at the admiral's cabin door. This is fatal to anything like proper sailor pride. To make a man a seaman, he should be put to no other duty. Indeed, a thorough tar is unfit for anything else; and what is more, this fact is the best evidence of his being a true sailor.

On board the Reine Blanche, they did not have enough to eat; and what they did have was not of the right sort. Instead of letting the sailors file their teeth against the rim of a hard sea-biscuit, they baked their bread daily in pitiful little rolls. Then they had no "grog"; as a substitute, they drugged the poor fellows with a thin, sour wine--the juice of a few grapes, perhaps, to a pint of the juice of water-faucets. Moreover, the sailors asked for meat, and they gave them soup; a rascally substitute, as they well knew.

Ever since leaving home, they had been on "short allowance." At the present time, those belonging to the boats--and thus getting an occasional opportunity to run ashore--frequently sold their rations of bread to some less fortunate shipmate for sixfold its real value.

Another thing tending to promote dissatisfaction among the crew was their having such a devil of a fellow for a captain. He was one of those horrid naval bores--a great disciplinarian. In port, he kept them constantly exercising yards and sails, and maneuvering with the boats; and at sea, they were forever at quarters; running in and out the enormous guns, as if their arms were made for nothing else. Then there was the admiral aboard, also; and, no doubt, he too had a paternal eye over them.

In the ordinary routine of duty, we could not but be struck with the listless, slovenly behaviour of these men; there was nothing of the national vivacity in their movements; nothing of the quick precision perceptible on the deck of a thoroughly-disciplined armed vessel.

All this, however, when we came to know the reason, was no matter of surprise; three-fourths of them were pressed men. Some old merchant sailors had been seized the very day they landed from distant voyages; while the landsmen, of whom there were many, had been driven down from the country in herds, and so sent to sea.

At the time, I was quite amazed to hear of press-gangs in a day of comparative peace; but the anomaly is accounted for by the fact that, of late, the French have been building up a great military marine, to take the place of that which Nelson gave to the waves of the sea at Trafalgar. But it is to be hoped that they are not building their ships for the people across the channel to take. In case of a war, what a fluttering of French ensigns there would be!

Though I say the French are no sailors, I am far from seeking to underrate them as a people. They are an ingenious and right gallant nation. And, as an American, I take pride in asserting it.