The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII


THE CLIPPER SHIP CREWS


THE history of men before the mast on board American merchant ships is not a history of American sailors, for strictly speaking there have never been any American merchant sailors as a class; that is, no American merchant ship of considerable tonnage was ever manned by native-born Americans in the sense that French, British, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, or Danish ships are manned by men born in the country under whose flag they sail. Neither have Americans ever followed the sea all their lives before the mast, as do men of the nations named. Some of the small Salem ships and perhaps a few of the Nantucket whalers of a century ago may possibly have carried entirely American crews, but if so, the men did not remain long in the forecastle.

The ship George, 328 tons, built at Salem in 1812 and owned by Joseph Peabody, is a case in point. She was known as the "Salem frigate," and made many successful voyages to Calcutta. Of this ship's sailors, during her long and prosperous career, forty-five became captains, twenty chief mates, and six second mates. One of her Salem crew, Thomas M. Saunders, served as boy, ordinary seaman, able seaman, third, second, and chief mate on board of her, and finally, after twelve East India voyages, became her captain. This ship was a fair sample of many American vessels of that period, but probably no ship of similar or greater tonnage in the merchant service of any other nation can show such a brilliant record for her men before the mast.

The demand for crews for the California clippers brought together a miscellaneous lot of men, some good and some bad, some accustomed to deep-water voyages to India and China, and some only to European ports, while others were not sailors at all, and only shipped as such for the sake of getting to California. The majority were of course from the general merchant service of the time.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, American ships trading upon long voyages to China and India carried crews composed chiefly of Scandinavians—splendid sailormen who could do any kind of rigging work or sail-making required on board of a ship at sea and took pride in doing it well, and who also had sufficient sense to know that discipline is necessary on shipboard. These Scandinavians, who were as a rule fine seamen, clean, willing, and obedient, were the first and best class among the men of whom the clipper ship crews were composed. A vessel with a whole crew of these strong, honest sailors was a little heaven afloat.

Then there were the packet sailors, a different class altogether, mostly "Liverpool Irishmen," a species of wild men, strong, coarse-built, thick-set; their hairy bodies and limbs tattooed with grotesque and often obscene devices in red and blue India ink; men wallowing in the slush of depravity, who could be ruled only with a hand of iron. Among themselves they had a rough-and-ready code of ethics, which deprived them of the pleasure of stealing from each other, though it permitted them to rob and plunder shipmates of other nationalities, or the ship and passengers. So, too, they might not draw knives on each other, being obliged to settle disputes with their fists, but to cut and stab an officer or shipmate not of their own gang was regarded as an heroic exploit.

With all their moral rottenness, these rascals were splendid fellows to make or shorten sail in heavy weather on the Western Ocean, and to go aloft in a coat or monkey jacket in any kind of weather was regarded by them with derision and contempt. But making and taking in sail was about all that they could do, being useless for the hundred and one things on shipboard which a deepwater sailor was supposed to know, such as rigging work, sail-making, scraping, painting, and keeping a vessel clean and shipshape. The packets had all this work done in port, and never looked so well as when hauling out of dock outward bound; whereas, the China and California clippers looked their best after a long voyage, coming in from sea with every ratline and seizing square, the sheer poles coach-whipped, brass caps on the rigging ends and lanyard knots, and the man-ropes marvels of cross pointing, Turks' heads, and double rose knots.

The packet sailors showed up at their best when laying out on a topsail yardarm, passing a weather reef-earing, with their Black Ball caps, red shirts, and trousers stowed in the legs of their sea boots along with their cotton hooks and sheath knives, a snow squall whistling about their ears, the rigging a mass of ice, and the old packet jumping into the big Atlantic seas up to her knightheads. These ruffians did not much care for India and China voyages, but preferred to navigate between the dance-halls of Cherry Street and the grog-shops of Waterloo Road and Ratcliffe Highway. As has often been said, they worked like horses at sea and spent their money like asses ashore.

When the California clippers came out, these packet rats, as they came to be called aboard the deep-water ships—men who had never before had the slightest idea of crossing the equator if they could help it,—were suddenly possessed with the desire to get to the California gold mines. They, with other adventurers and blacklegs of the vilest sort, who were not sailors but who shipped as able seamen for the same reason, partly composed the crews of the clipper ships. The packet rats were tough, roustabout sailormen and difficult to handle, so that it was sometimes a toss-up whether they or the captain and officers would have charge of the ship; yet to see these fellows laying out on an eighty-foot main-yard in a whistling gale off Cape Horn, fisting hold of a big No. 1 Colt's cotton canvas mainsail, heavy and stiff with sleet and snow, bellying, slatting, and thundering in the gear, and then to hear the wild, cheery shouts of these rugged, brawny sailormen, amid the fury of the storm, as inch by inch they fought on till the last double gasket was
122-Clipper-Ship Captains Josiah P. Creesy and H. W. Johnson.jpg

Clipper-Ship Captains

Josiah P. Creesy
H. W. Johnson
 


fast, made it easy to forget their sins in admiration of their splendid courage.

Then there were Spaniards, Portuguese, China-men, Frenchmen, Africans, Russians, and Italians from the general merchant service, many of whom were excellent seamen and some of whom were not; and lastly came the men of various nationalities who were not sailors at all nor the stuff out of which sailors could be made, and who had no business to be before the mast on board of a ship. Many of these men had served their time in the penitentiary and some should have remained there. These impostors increased the labor of able seamen who were compelled to do their work, and endangered the safety of the ship so unfortunate as to have them among her crew.

With such barbarians the New England captains from the yellow sands of Cape Cod and the little seaports along the Sound, and from the rocky headlands of Cape Ann and the coast of Maine, were often called upon to handle the clipper ships. There were, as has been said, a large number of respectable, hard-working, Scandinavian sailors, some of whom became captains and mates, as well as from four to eight smart American boys aboard each ship who looked forward to becoming officers and captains.

The clipper ship captains had the reputation of being severe men with their crews, but considering the kind of human beings with whom they had to deal, it is difficult to see how they could have been anything else, and still retain command of their ships. Taken as a class, American sea-captains and mates half a century ago were perhaps the finest body of real sailors that the world has ever seen, and by this is meant captains and officers who had themselves sailed before the mast. They enforced their authority by sheer power of character and will against overwhelming odds of brute force, often among cut-throats and desperadoes. They were the first to establish discipline in the merchant service, and their ships were the envy and despair of merchants and captains of other nations. Intrepid and self-reliant sailors, they are justly entitled to the gratitude of mankind. No doubt there were instances of unnecessary severity on board the American clipper ships; they were exceptional, and the provocation was great; but it would be difficult to cite a case of a sailor being ill-used who knew and performed the duties for which he had shipped, for captains and officers appreciated the value of good seamen, and took the best care of them.

The abuses from which sailors in those days suffered, were not when at sea or on board ship. It was the harpies of the land who lay in wait like vultures, to pollute and destroy their bodies and souls—male and female land-sharks, who would plunder and rob a sailor of his pay and his three months' advance, and then turn him adrift without money or clothes. It made no difference to these brazen-hearted thieves—and the women, if possible, were worse than the men—whether a sailor was bound round the Horn in midwinter or to the East Indies in midsummer; they saw to it that he took nothing away with him but the ragged clothes he stood in, and perhaps a ramshackle old sea chest with a shabby suit of oilskins, a pair of leaky sea boots, a bottle or two of Jersey lightning, and two or three plugs of tobacco chucked into it. These vice-hardened men and women of various nationalities were permitted to work their abominable trade unmolested, almost within the shadow of church spires and Courts of Justice in the chief seaports of the United States. The destitute condition in which men were put on board of American ships became so common that clothing and other necessaries were provided for them in what was known as the slop chest, in charge of the steward, with which all ships bound upon distant voyages were supplied, and from which the crew received whatever they required at about one half the cost extorted by the slop shops on shore. This arrangement was necessary, as otherwise, in many instances, the men would not have had sufficient clothing to stand a watch in cold or stormy weather.

American sea-captains were often compelled to take these outcasts as they found them, because they could get no other men. They provided them with better food than they had ever seen or heard of on board vessels of their own countries, supplied them with clothes, sea boots, sou'westers, oilskins, and tobacco, restored them to health, paid them money which many of them never earned, and for the time being, at least, did their utmost to make men of them. If any one imagines that this class of sailors ever felt or expressed the least gratitude toward their benefactors, he is much mistaken. Let him picture to himself these creatures in their watch below, laying off in their frowzy berths or sitting around their dirty, unkempt forecastle on their chests—those who happen to own them—smoking their filthy clay pipes, amid clouds of foul tobacco smoke, reeking in the stench of musty underclothing, mouldy sea boots, and rancid oilskins, rank enough to turn the stomach of a camel, or any other animal than man. The noxious air is too much for the sooty slush lamp that swings uneasily against the grimy bulkhead; it burns a sickly blue flame with a halo of fetid vapor; while the big fat-witted samples of humanity in the bunks and on the sea chests cheerfully curse their captain up-hill and down dale as their natural enemy, but are never tired of yarning about their "shore friends." They recall the attractive qualities of such characters as Dutch Pete, One-thumbed Jerry, and Limerick Mike—sleek, smooth-tongued boarding-house runners who have practiced upon the vices of these same men, robbed them of their advance wages, drugged and shanghaied them without clothing or tobacco. Then these stupid fellows will yarn about the enticing charms of such "real ladies" as Big Moll, Swivel-eyed Sue, or French Kate, and the comfort and hospitality of the establishments over which these hussies preside. But let the boatswain come along and knock three times on the forecastle door with his brawny fist, and sing out, "Now then, get out here and put the stun'sails on her," and these bulky brutes will tumble over each other to get on deck, for they know that they will be beaten and booted if there is any hanging back.

Unfortunately, this was the only way to deal with this type of men on shipboard. They were amenable to discipline only in the form of force in heavy and frequent doses, the theories of those who have never commanded ships or had experience in handling degenerates at sea to the contrary notwithstanding. To talk about the exercise of kindness or moral suasion with such men, would be the limit of foolishness; one might as well propose a kindergarten for baby coyotes or young rattlesnakes.

One does not like to dwell upon these depressing phases of human nature in connection with the graceful, yacht-like clipper, perhaps the most beautiful and life-like thing ever fashioned by the hand of man. It is therefore pleasant to record that there were many American clipper ships with crews that were for the most part decent, self-respecting men, who kept themselves, their clothes, and their forecastles clean and sweet. Of course, these men would have their grog and sweethearts on shore, and their quiet growl at sea—the birthright of all good sailormen; but they required no urging beyond a word of encouragement to do their work on deck and aloft quickly and well. Such a crew would not live with men who were unclean in their speech and habits, and would compel such human nuisances to pick up their traps and take themselves out under the topgallant forecastle to get along as best they might; but it was a great hardship when good seamen found themselves among a crew composed chiefly of these poor enough sailors but proficient blackguards and bullies.

In those days there was a class of persons who did their utmost to degrade an honorable profession by calling themselves lawyers. The ports of New York and San Francisco were the scenes of their most lucrative exploits. When a ship arrived, these fellows would waylay the sailors and follow them to dance-halls, gin-mills, and other low resorts, worming their way into the confidence of the too easy mariners by fairy tales and glittering prospects of large sums of money to be recovered as damages from their late captains, until they succeeded in extracting a narrative of the last voyage, including alleged grievances. They would then libel the ship and commence legal proceedings against the captain and officers. These cases would be tried before juries of landsmen who, having no practical knowledge of sailors or of the usages of the sea, frequently awarded damages, though in many cases the captain and officers were able to disprove false complaints or to justify their actions upon the ground of necessity in maintaining proper discipline. It is perhaps needless to say that of the damages recovered not one penny was ever handled by the aggrieved sailor, for the guiding principle of the sea lawyer's career being the resolve never to part with his client's money, these fellows literally made their clients' interests their own. Sailors themselves used to laugh and joke about the bare-faced yarns which they had spun under oath in court and got greenhorn juries to listen to and believe; but they did not laugh and joke about their lawyers, whom they regarded with contempt. One of the most insulting epithets which a sailor could apply to another was to call him a "sea lawyer," and there
128-Clipper-Ship Captains David S. Babcock & George Lane.jpg

Clipper-Ship Captains

David S. Babcock
George Lane
 


was a particularly ravenous species of shark which used also to be known as the "sea lawyer."

At one time this abuse of the law became such a powerful instrument of extortion that captains and officers, innocent of any wrong, unless the protection of life and property be regarded as wrong, were compelled to leave their ships in the harbor of New York before they hauled alongside the wharf, in order to escape prosecution, and were made to appear like criminals fleeing from justice. This cannot be considered a very cheerful welcome home after a voyage round the globe. Yet it compares not unfavorably with the reception sometimes accorded the returning traveller nowadays—at the hands of officers of the law empowered to collect "protective" duties on personal effects.

After a while this nefarious trade, by which shipowners, captains, officers, and crews were alike defrauded, perished by its own rapacity; but the attitude of the United States Government of half a century ago in permitting her splendid American merchant captains and officers to be subjected to gross indignities, and the foreign seamen sailing under her flag to be robbed and shipped away without their knowledge or consent, must ever remain a blot upon the page of American maritime history.

Those well-intentioned philanthropists who had an idea that sailors were being ill-treated on board American ships, and who wasted sympathy upon a class of men most of whom required severe discipline, might have been better employed had they exerted their energies toward purging the seaports of the country of the dens of vice and gangs of robbers that infested them, though this might not have been so romantic as a sentimental interest in the welfare of the sailor when encountering the supposed terrors of the deep. As a matter of fact, the lives, limbs, and morals of sailors at that period were very much safer at sea than they were on land.

It is refreshing to turn to one man, at least, who knew and understood sailors, and who in early life had himself been a sailor. This was the Rev. Edward Thompson Taylor, known upon every sea with respect and affection as "Father Taylor." In 1833 the Seaman's Bethel was erected in North Square, Boston, and there Father Taylor presided for some forty years. During that time he did an enormous amount of good, both among sailors themselves, to whom he spoke in language which they could understand and feel, and by drawing the attention of influential men and women to the lamentable condition of the life of sailors when on shore, not only in Boston, but in all the great seaports of the United States. For many years the Seaman's Bethel was one of the most interesting sights of Boston, and all classes were attracted there by the novel and picturesque earnestness and eloquence of Father Taylor. Distinguished visitors were usually taken there or went of their own accord, to listen to the words of this inspired seaman, and many of them have recorded their impressions. Harriet Martineau, J. S. Buckingham, M. P., Charles Dickens, Frederika Bremer, John Ross Dix, Mrs. Jameson, Catherine Sedgwick, and Walt Whitman all testified to the wonderful power of this homely, self-educated Baptist preacher.

130-Clipper-Ship Captains Lauchlan McKay & Philip Dumaresq.jpg

Clipper-Ship Captains

Lauchlan McKay
Philip Dumaresq
 

Father Taylor had little to say about the treatment of sailors on shipboard, for he knew that they were treated with humanity and according to their deserts, but he did have a great deal to say about their life and vile associations on shore; he once prayed with unconscious humor, "that Bacchus and Venus might be driven to the ends of the earth and off it." He possessed a marvellous power of description, and perhaps no poet or painter has more vividly portrayed the ever-changing moods of the ocean. He used these superb sea pictures as metaphors and illustrations. I have a clear remembrance of some of them and recall them with gratitude, but no words of mine can convey an adequate impression of their beauty and grandeur; his was a genius that eludes description.

It was once said of Father Taylor that he hated the devil more than he loved God, but I think whoever said this could not have understood him, for the affection, tenderness, and substantial help which Father Taylor lavished upon God's children, afflicted in body and mind, knew no bounds. At the same time he knew the men whom it was his mission to rescue, and often when denouncing their follies and vices his words fell hot as burning coals. He detested shams in any form, and was swift to detect them in sailors as well as in others.

In those days there was far too much ignorant sentimentality bestowed upon seamen and their affairs, too much

"Poor child of danger, nursling of the storm,

Sad are the woes that wreck thy manly form."

Sad enough, no doubt, to the captain of a clipper ship bound round Cape Horn, compelled to stand by and see his canvas slatting to pieces in the first bit of a blow outside Sandy Hook, because he was cursed with a crew unable or unwilling to handle it. But this seldom happened more than once aboard of an American clipper in the fifties, for such a crew was taken in hand and soon knocked into shape by the mates, carpenter, sailmaker, cook, steward, and boatswain. Belaying pins, capstanbars, and heavers began to fly about the deck, and when the next gale came along the crew found that they could get aloft and make some kind of show at stowing sails, and by the time the ship got down to the line, they were usually pretty smart at handling canvas. As the clipper winged her way southward, and the days grew shorter, and the nights colder, belaying pins, capstan bars, and heavers were all back in their places, for system, order, and discipline had been established. When the snow-squalls began to gather on the horizon, and the old-time clipper lifted her forefoot to the first long, gray Cape Horn roller, with albatross and Cape pigeons wheeling and screaming in her wake, the mate, as he stood at the break of the quarter-deck in his long pilot-cloth watch-coat, woollen mittens, sea boots, and sou'wester, and sung out to the boatswain to get his men along for a pull on the weather braces, felt with pride that he had something under him that the "old man" could handle in almost any kind of weather—a well-manned ship.

In those days of carrying canvas as long and sometimes longer than spars and rigging would stand, with only brawn, capstans and watch tackles to handle it, the crew was a far more important factor on board a sailing ship than in the present era of steel spars, wire rigging, double topsail, and topgallant yards, donkey engines and steam winches. Indeed, all the conditions were quite different from anything known at the present time and required a type of men, both forward and aft, that do not sail upon the ocean to-day.