I was just sixteen when I ran away to sea.
I did not do so because I had been treated unkindly at home. On the contrary, I left behind me a fond and indulgent father, a kind and gentle mother, sisters and brothers who loved me, and who lamented for me long after I was gone.
But no one had more cause to regret this act of filial disobedience than I myself. I soon repented of what I had done, and often, in after life, did it give me pain, when I reflected upon the pain I had caused to my kindred and friends.
From my earliest years I had a longing for the sea—perhaps not so much to be a sailor, as to travel over the great ocean, and behold its wonders. This longing seemed to be part of my nature, for my parents gave no encouragement to such a disposition. On the contrary, they did all in their power to beget within me a dislike for a sea life, as my father had designed for me a far different profession. But the counsels of my father, and the entreaties of my mother all proved unavailing. Indeed—and I feel shame in acknowledging it—they produced an effect directly opposite to that which was intended; and, instead of lessening my inclination to wander abroad, they only rendered me more eager to carry out that design! It is often so with obstinate natures, and I fear that, when a boy, mine was too much of this character. Most to desire that which is most forbidden, is a common failing of mankind; and in doing this, I was perhaps not so unlike others.
Certain it is, that the thing which my parents least desired me to feel an interest in—the great salt sea—was the very object upon which my mind constantly dwelt—the object of all my longings and aspirations.
I cannot tell what first imbued me with a liking for the sea, for I had such a liking almost from the years of childhood. I was born upon the sea-shore, and this fact might explain it; for, during my early life, when I was still but a mere child, I used to sit at the window and look with admiring eyes on the boats with their white sails, and the beautiful ships with their tall tapering masts, that were constantly passing and repassing. How could I do otherwise than admire these grand and glorious structures—so strong and so graceful? How could it be otherwise, than that I should imbibe a longing to be on board of them, and be carried afar over yonder bright blue water?
As I grew older, certain books had chanced to fall into my hands, and these related to the sea—they told of lovely lands that lay upon its shores—of strange races of men and animals—of singular plants and trees—of palms and broad-leaved figs—of the banyan and the baobab—of many things beautiful and wonderful. These books strengthened the inclination I already felt to wander abroad over the ocean.
Another circumstance aided in bringing about the climax. I had an uncle who had been an old skipper—that is, the master of a merchant-ship—and it was the delight of this old gentleman to assemble his nephews around him—there was a goodly number of us—and tell us tales of the sea, to which all were ever eager to listen. Many a budget did he deliver by the winter fireside—for, like the storyteller of the “Arabian Nights,” a thousand and one tales could he tell—stories of desperate adventures by flood and field—of storms, hurricanes, and shipwrecks—long voyages in open boats—encounters with pirates and Indians—battles with sharks, and seals, and whales bigger than houses—terrible conflicts with wild beasts—as bears, wolves, lions, and tigers! All these adventures had our old uncle encountered, or said he had, which to his admiring audience was pretty much the same thing.
After listening to such thrilling narrations, no wonder I became tired of home, no wonder my natural inclination grew into a passion I could no longer resist. No wonder I ran away to sea.
And I did so at the age of sixteen—the wonder is I did not go sooner, but it was no fault of mine that I did not; for from the time I was able to talk I had been constantly importuning my parents for leave to go. I knew they could easily have found a situation for me, had they been so minded. They could have bound me as an apprentice on board some of the great merchant vessels sailing for India, or they could have entered me in the Royal Navy as a midshipman, for they were not without high interest; but neither father nor mother would lend an ear to my entreaties.
At length, convinced they would never consent, I resolved upon running away; and, from the age of fourteen, had repeatedly offered myself on board the ships that traded to the neighbouring seaport, but I was too small a boy, and none of them would take me. Some of the captains refused because they knew I had not the consent of my parents; and these were the very kind with whom I should have preferred going; since the fact of their being such conscientious men, would have ensured me good treatment. But as these refused to take me I had no other resource but to try elsewhere, and I at length succeeded in striking a bargain with a skipper who had no scruples about the matter, and I was booked as an apprentice. He knew I was about to run away; and more than this, assisted in the design by letting me know the exact day and hour he was to take his departure from the port.
And I was aboard at the time specified; and before any search could have been made for me, or even before I could have been missed, the vessel had tripped her anchor, spread her sails, and carried me off beyond the possibility of pursuit.
I was not twelve hours on board—twelve minutes I might almost say—before I was completely cured of my sea fever; and I would have parted with the best tooth in my head to have set my legs once more on land again. Almost on embarking I was overhauled by sea-sickness, and in another hour it became so bad that I thought it would have turned me inside out.
Sea-sickness is a malady not pleasant under any circumstances—even to a first-cabin passenger, with a steward to wait upon him, and administer soothing prescriptions and consoling sympathy. How much more painful to a poor friendless boy treated as I was—sworn at by the surly captain—cursed and cuffed by the brutal mate—jeered and laughed at by the ruffian crew. Oh! it was horrid, and had the ship been sinking under me at that moment I verily believe I should not have made the slightest effort to save myself!
Forty-eight hours, however, gave me relief from the nauseous ailing, for this like many other diseases is often short-lived where it is most violent. In about two days I was able to stand up and move about the decks, and I was made to move about them with a vengeance.
I have above characterised the captain as “surly,” the mate “brutal,” and the crew a set of “ruffians”: I have spoken without exaggeration. With an exception or two, a more villainous gang I never encountered—of course not before that time—for that was not likely; but never since either, and it has several times been the fortune of my life to mix in very questionable and miscellaneous company.
The captain was not only surly, but positively ferocious when drunk or angry, and one or both he generally was. It was dangerous to go near him—at least for me, or any one that was weak and helpless—for it was chiefly upon the unresisting that he ventured his ill-humour.
I was not long on board before I incurred his displeasure by some mistake I could not possibly help—I had a taste of his temper then, and many a one afterwards, for his spite once kindled against anyone was implacable as the hate of a Corsican, and never became allayed.
He was a short, stout, “bluffy” man, with features perfectly regular, but with fat round cheeks, bullet eyes, and nose slightly upturned—a face which is often employed in pictures to typify good-nature, jollity, and an honest heart; but with little propriety is it so employed in my opinion, since under just such smiling faces have I, during a long life’s experience, encountered the greatest amount of dishonesty combined with dispositions most cruel and brutal. Such a man was the skipper into whose tender care I had so recklessly thrown myself.
The mate was an echo of his captain. When the one said “no” the other said “no,” and when either said “yes,” the other affirmed it. The principal difference between them was that the mate did not drink, and perhaps this lengthened, if it did not strengthen, the bond of friendship that existed between them. Had both been drinkers they must have quarrelled at times; but the mate never “tasted” as he affirmed, and when his superior was in his cups this enabled him to bear the abuse which not unfrequently the captain treated him to. In all matters of discipline, or of anything else, he was with the captain, for though brutal he was but a cowardly fellow and ever ready to fawn upon his master, “boot-lick” him as the sailors termed it.
There was a second mate, but this was a very secondary kind of a character, not worth description, and scarcely to be distinguished from the common “hands” over whom he exercised only a very limited control.
There was a carpenter, an old man with a large swollen rum-reddened nose, another crony of the captain’s; and a huge and very ugly negro, who was both cook and steward, and who was vile enough to have held office in the kitchen of Pluto. These were the officers of the ship, and for the men, they were, as already stated, as villainous a crew as I ever encountered. There were exceptions—only one or two,—but it was some time before I discovered them.
In such companionship then did I find myself—I just fresh from the tender protection of parents—from the company of kind friends, and associates. Oh! I was well cured of the sea fever, and would have given half my life to be on land again! How I reproached myself for my folly! How I reproached that friend of the family—the old salt—whose visionary adventures had no doubt been the cause of my sea longings! how in my heart I now execrated both him, and his fanciful stories! Would I had never heard them! would that I had never run away to sea!
Repentance had arrived too late to be of any use. I could no longer return—I must go on, and how long? merciful heaven, the prospect was horrible! Months of my painful life were to be endured. Months! nay years,—for I now remembered that the wretch of a captain had caused me to sign some agreement—I had not even read it, but I knew it was an article of indenture; and I was told afterwards that it bound me for years—for five long years—bound me not an apprentice but in reality a slave. A slave for five years to this hideous brute, who might scold me at will, cuff me at will, kick me at will, have me flogged or put in irons whenever the fancy crossed his mind.
There was no retreating from these hard conditions. Filled with bright visions of “life on the ocean wave,” I had subscribed to them without pause or thought. My name was down, and I was legally bound. So they told me both captain and mate, and I believed it.
I could not escape, no matter how severe the treatment. Should I attempt to run away from the ship, it would be desertion. I could be brought back and punished for it. Even in a foreign port the chances of desertion would be no better, but worse, since there the sailor finds it more difficult to conceal himself. I had no hope then of escaping from the cruel thrall in which I now found myself, but by putting an end to my existence, either by jumping into the sea or hanging myself from the yard-arm—a purpose which on more than one occasion I seriously entertained; but from which I was diverted by the religious teachings of my youth, now remembered in the midst of my misery.
It would be impossible for me to detail the number of cruelties and indignities to which I was forced to submit. My existence was a series of both.
Even my sleep, if sleep it could be called, I was not allowed to enjoy. I possessed neither mattress nor hammock, for I had come aboard in my common wearing clothes—in my school-jacket and cap—without either money in my pocket or luggage in my hands. I had not even the usual equipments of a runaway—the kerchief bundle and stick; I possessed absolutely nothing—much less a mattress or hammock. Such things a skipper does not find for his crew, and of course there was none for me. I was not even allowed a “bunk” to sleep in, for the forecastle was crowded and most of the bunks carried double. Those that were occupied by only one chanced to have for their tenants the most morose and ill-natured of the crew, and I was not permitted to share with them. Even still more inhospitable were these fiends—for I cannot help calling them so when I look back on what I suffered at their hands—I was not even allowed to lie upon their great chests, a row of which extended around the forecastle, in front of the respective bunks, and covered nearly the whole space of the floor. The floor itself did not leave room for me to lie down—besides it was often wet by dirty water being spilled upon it, or from the daily “swabbing” it usually received. The only place I could rest—with some slight chance of being left undisturbed—was in some corner upon the deck; but there it was at times so cold I could not endure it, for I had no blanket—no covering but my scanty clothes; and these were nearly always wet from washing the decks and the scud of the sea. The cold compelled me to seek shelter below, where if I stretched my weary limbs along the lid of a chest, and closed my eyes in sleep, I was sure to be aroused by its surly owner, who would push me rudely to the floor, and sometimes send me out of the forecastle altogether.
Add to this that I was almost constantly kept at work—by night as by day. I may say there was no drudgery—no “dirty work”—that was not mine. I was not only slave to captain, mates, and carpenter, but every man of the crew esteemed himself my master. Even “Snowball” in the “caboose”—as the cook was jocularly termed—ordered me about with a fierce exultation, that he had one white skin that he could command!
I was boot-black for the captain, mates, and carpenter, bottle-washer for the cook, and chamber-boy for the men—for it was mine to swab out the forecastle, and wait upon the sailors generally.
Oh! it was a terrible life. I was well punished for my one act of filial disobedience—well rewarded for my aspirations and longings for the sea. But it is just the rôle that many a poor sailor boy has to play—more especially if like me he has run away to sea.
For many long days and nights I endured this terrible oppression without complaining—not but that I could have complained and would, but to what purpose? and to whom? There was none to whom I might appeal—no one to listen to my tale of woe. All hands were equally indifferent to my sufferings, or at least seemed so, since no one offered either to take my part, or say a word in my favour.
At length, however, an incident occurred which seemed to make me in some measures the protégé of one of the sailors, who, though he could not shield me from the brutalities of the captain or mate, was at least able to protect me from the indignities I had hitherto suffered at the hands of the common men.
This sailor was named “Ben Brace,” but whether this was a real name or one which he had acquired at sea, I could never tell. It was the only name that I ever heard given him, and that by which he was entered in the ship’s books. It is quite possible that “Ben Brace” was his real name—for among seamen such appellations as “Tom Bowline,” “Bill Buntline,” and the like are not uncommon—having descended from father to son through a long line of sailor ancestry.
Ben Brace then was the name of my protector, and although the name is elsewhere famous, for the sake of truth I cannot alter it. How I came to secure the patronage of Ben was not through any merit of my own, nor indeed did it arise from any very delicate sympathy on his part. The companionship in which he had long lived had naturally hardened his feelings like the rest—though not by any means to so great an extent. He was only a little indifferent to human suffering—having witnessed much of it—and usage will make callous the most sensitive natures. Moreover, Ben had himself suffered ill-treatment, as I afterwards learnt from him—savage abuse had he suffered, and this had sunk into his spirit and rendered him somewhat morose. There was some apology for him if his manner was none of the gentlest. His natural disposition had been abused, for at bottom there was as much kindness in his nature as belongs to the average of men.
A rough, splendid seaman was Brace—the very best on board—and this point was generally conceded by the others—though he was not without one or two rivals.
It was a splendid sight to see Ben Brace, at the approach of a sudden squall, “swarming” up the shrouds to reef a topsail, his fine bushy curls blowing out behind, while upon his face sat that calm but daring expression, as if he defied the storm and could master it. He was a large man, but well proportioned—rather lithe and sinewy than robust, with a shock of dark-brown hair in their thick curls somewhat matted, covering the whole of his head; for he was still but a young man, and there were no signs of baldness. His face was good, rather darkish in complexion, and he wore neither beard nor whisker—which was rather odd for a sailor, whose opportunities for shaving are none of the best. But Ben liked a clean face, and always kept one. He was no sea dandy, however, and never exhibited himself, even on Sundays, with fine blue jacket and fancy collars as some others were wont to do. On the contrary, his wear was dark blue Guernsey shirt, fitting tight to his chest, and displaying the fine proportions of his arms and bust. His neck a sculptor would have admired from its bold regular outline, and his breast was full and well rounded, though, like that of all sailors, it was disfigured by tattooing, and over its surface when bare, and on his arms, you might have observed the usual hieroglyphics of the ship—the foul anchor, the pair of pierced hearts, with the B.B., and numerous other initials. A female figure upon the left breast, rudely punctured in deep-blue, was no doubt the presumed portrait of some black-eyed “Sal” or “Susan” of the Downs.
Such was Ben Brace, my new-found friend and protector.
How I came to secure his protection was by a chance incident, somewhat curious. It was thus:—
I had not been long on board before I made a discovery that somewhat astonished me, which was, that more than half the crew were foreigners. I was astonished at this, because I had hitherto been under the impression that an English ship was always manned by English sailors—including of course Scotch and Irish—either of whom make just as good sailors as Englishmen. Instead of being all English, or Scotch, or Irish, however, on board the Pandora (for that I had learnt was the name of the ship, and an appropriate name it was), I soon perceived that at least three-fourths of the men were from other countries. Were they Frenchmen? or Spaniards? or Portuguese? or Dutch? or Swedes? or Italians? No—but they were all these, and far more too, since the crew was a very large one for the size of the ship—quite two score of them in all. There seemed to be among them a representative of every maritime nation in the world, and, indeed, had every country in sending its quota selected the greatest scamp within its boundaries, they could hardly have produced a finer combination of ruffianism than was the crew of the Pandora! I have already hinted at exceptions, but when I came to know them all there were only two—my protector Brace, and another innocent but unfortunate fellow, who was by birth a Dutchman.
Among the mixed lot there were several Frenchmen, but one, named “Le Gros,” deserves particular notice. He was well named, for he was a stout, fat Frenchman, gross in body as in mind, with a face of ferocious aspect, more that half covered with a beard that a pirate might have envied—and indeed it was a pirate’s beard, as I afterwards learnt.
Le Gros was a bully. His great size and strength enabled him to enact the part of the bully, and upon all occasions he played it to perfection. He was a bold man, however, and a good seaman—one of the two or three who divided the championship with Ben Brace. I need hardly say that there was a rivalry between them, with national prejudices at the bottom of it. To this rivalry was I indebted for the friendship of Ben Brace.
It came about thus. By some trifling act I had offended the Frenchman, and ever after did he make it a point to insult and annoy me by every means in his power, until at length, on one occasion, he struck me a cruel blow on the face. That blow did the business. It touched the generous chord in the heart of the English sailor, that, despite the vile association in which he lived, still vibrated at the call of humanity. He was present, and saw the stroke given, and saw, moreover, that it was undeserved. He was lying in his hammock at the time, but instantly sprang out, and, without saying a word, he made a rush at Le Gros and pinned him with a John Bull hit upon the chin.
The bully staggered back against a chest, but in a moment recovered himself; and then both went on deck, where a ring was formed, and they went to work with the fists in right earnest. The officers of the ship did not interfere—in fact the mate drew near and looked on, rather as I thought with an interest in the combat, than with any desire to put an end to it, and the captain remained upon his quarter-deck, apparently not caring how it ended! I wondered at this want of discipline, but I had already begun to wonder at many other matters that occurred daily on board the Pandora, and I said nothing.
The fight lasted a good while, but ended as might be expected, when a fist combat occurs between an Englishman and Frenchman. The latter was badly thrashed, and that portion of his face that was not already black with hair was soon turned to a bluish-black by the rough, hard knuckles of his antagonist. He was at length felled to the deck like a great bullock, and obliged to acknowledge himself beaten.
“Now you danged parley voo!” cried Brace, as he gave the finishing blow, “don’t lay finger on that boy again, or I’ll give you just twice as much. The boy’s English after all, and gets enough, without being bullied by a frog-eatin’ Frenchman. So mind what I say, one and all of ye,” and as he said this he scowled round upon the crowd, “don’t lay a finger on him again ne’er one of you.”
Nor did they one or any of them from that time forth. Le Gros’s chastisement proved effectual in restraining him, and its example affected all the others.
From that time forth my existence became less miserable, though for many reasons it was sufficiently still hard enough to endure. My protector was strong to shield me from the crew, but I had still the captain, the carpenter, and the mate for my tormentors.
Categories: English Literature