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Chapter 14

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 16
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p67  Chapter 15

In Canton to Canton

When Captain Truxtun laid down his course for Cape Town, his first port of call, seven thousand miles of open sea lay before him. He steered east-southeast from the Delaware capes, sailing clear across the Atlantic to the Cape Verde Islands, just off the western bulge of Africa, where he expected to find the northeast trades that would carry him down into the Ethiopic — South Atlantic — Sea.

Just north of the Equator, the Canton ran into calms, squalls, and baffling winds. For days on end the ship moved so slowly that she could scarcely be steered; then suddenly there would come "deluges of rain, and the most tremendous thunder and lightning known in any part of the globe; strong currents, and of violent tornadoes, in which a ship cannot show a rag of canvas for an hour or two; after which it falls of a sudden calm." The currents in these waters, the Captain thought, were strong and variable; sometimes they set to the west, sometimes to the east, "and frequently in all other directions."  p68 Here, said he, "I experienced the most disagreeable fortnight of my life."1

The calms gave the crew an opportunity to catch fresh food, since their ship was surrounded by an abundance of albacore, dolphins, skipjacks, and kingfish; and the heavy rains were not all wasted. Fresh water was caught in pieces of canvas that were rigged to lead it into water-casks; thus the ship's water supply was replenished while she was yet at sea.

Here, in the tropics, the Captain carefully avoided exposing his men to the hot sun that rode high overhead, because he believed that "by proper precautions in this tract of sea, the scurvy may be avoided perhaps during the whole voyage, as it is here frequently that the seeds of it are generated." He paid particular attention to his crew's food, and he tried to keep their quarters dry, clean, and free from mildew by "frequently washing with hot vinegar, burning powder and fumigating below," and by building fires to dry out the living spaces.2

While the Canton rolled slowly southward through the doldrums, Captain Truxtun entered for the first time into Neptune's kingdom. The boisterous ritual of plunging the uninitiated "over head and ears in a tub of water" as they crossed the line was a long established custom. In some vessels, the ceremony was observed at the Tropic of Cancer; the Old Man of the Tropic came aboard with his face blacked and painted and crowned by a swab whose long coarse strands hung down about his shoulders. The neophytes were daubed with tar and grease and then shaved with a notched wooden razor. A boat, filled with water, was used for the inevitable ducking. Whether the ritual took place at the Tropic or at the Equator, all of the gentlemen on board could buy their way, dry and unmolested, into the kingdom by furnishing a round of grog for the sailors.3

After leaving the doldrums, the Canton sailed southward through the Ethiopic Sea with gentle swells and pleasant breezes, to the Tropic of Capricorn and beyond. Continuing south to the latitude of the Cape of Good Hope, the ship met the southern trades and then headed east toward Cape Town. On the fifth of April, 1786, after three months at sea, the Captain sighted a strange sail on the horizon. He steered for the stranger and in a short while spoke her, finding her to be the Empress of China, just two months out of New York  p69 and bound also for Canton.​4 The Empress was inherently a faster sailer than the Canton, and in addition she had by luck avoided that dreadful tract of sea where the latter ship had spent two miserable weeks.5

Finally, after three more weeks of sailing eastward, Captain Truxtun brought his ship to anchor in Table Bay, just off the Dutch settlement of Cape Town, which was nestled at the foot of mesa-like Table Mountain.​6 Established by the Dutch East India Company more than a century before, this outpost provided a welcome break in the long voyage from America to China. Here was an opportunity to refit, to fill up water-casks, and to obtain fresh provisions. In addition, as the Captain learned when he went ashore, the Dutch would buy miscellaneous merchandise such as Philadelphia Windsor chairs; pine lumber, any wood being very scarce in Cape Town; and such wines and liquors as caught their fancy.​7 He made a mental note to bring along, on his next voyage, a suitable cargo for Cape Town, since his ship now was largely in ballast while she carried only ginseng and lead for the Chinese market.

Looking about the town, he found evidence of the heavy hand of Dutch authority on all sides. The British, whose East India Company ships called at St. Helena for refreshment, looked on Cape Town with a covetous eye because of its superior location. The Dutch settlement was well fortified, and a large body of troops was stationed there. Lookouts were maintained high on the towering mountains — Sugar Loaf and the Lion's Rump — and on Robben Island at the entrance to the harbor. Every approaching vessel was carefully scrutinized long before she dropped her anchor before the fort. On Robben Island, also, were "three gibbets for the sailors, one for the Soldiers & one for the Slaves" in sight of vessels sailing into and out of the harbor.​8 From these gallows, the bodies of luckless transgressors against the Dutch East India Company were left swinging in the breeze as a warning to all who might pass that way.

The town itself was a pleasant place, built of brick and stone, neat and clean as the cities of Holland. Surrounding the governor's palace was a beauti­fully kept garden, laid out in large squares with walks in between. Some day, these walks would be shaded by the young oak trees planted around each square. Now, however, the garden served a more utilitarian purpose, vegetables for the troops  p70 being grown there. Adjoining the garden there was a zoo, where the visitor might see ostriches, baboons, zebras, tigers, buffaloes, hart springbucks, and many kinds of birds.9

The Company provided a convenient watering place, water being piped to the end of a long pier, where ships' boats could fill their casks without having to take them ashore.​10 When Captain Truxtun had filled up every tier of water-casks and had his ship once more ready for sea, he weighed anchor, sheeted home the jibs and topsails, and with a favoring breeze stood out to sea. Skirting the high booming surf that exploded on a rocky ledge a few miles south of the pitch of the cape,​11 the Canton filled away to eastward, sailing into seas that were navigated by dhows, proas, and junks and, in the opinion of many sailors, still peopled by mermaids and sea monsters.

He steered his ship due east for several weeks. In that long lonesome waste of sea eastward from Africa, stretching all the way to the shores of New Holland (Australia), only two tiny islands break the monotony of the ceaseless curving horizons. After nearly three thousand miles of the heave and run of long hurrying swells, after wearisome weeks of running his easting down, Captain Truxtun raised a desolate bit of barren land, volcanic Amsterdam Island. He had no intention of pausing there nor at St. Paul Island nearby. These islands did, however, provide him with a check on his navigation thus far. He sailed on, making another few days of easting; then he steered away to northward, toward the Strait of Sunda, gateway to the China seas.

His next landfall was on the southern coast of Java, a hundred miles east of the Strait.​12 Having come more than two thousand miles since his last sight of land, it would not be surprising to find that his reckoning was in error by a hundred miles. On closer investigation, one finds that the British Tables Requisite, which he used, fixed the position of Java Head a hundred miles east of its true position at the entrance to the Strait of Sunda.​13 Had the Strait been where the Tables Requisite said it was, we would have made almost a perfect landfall. Next voyage, when he knew the true position of the Strait, he had no difficulty steering directly to its entrance. He demonstrated great skill as a navigator at a time when few mariners understood the intricacies of celestial navigation and when the methods in use were both cumbersome and inherently inaccurate.

Having made this landfall on the southern coast of Java, he followed  p71 the coast, trending to the northwest until he rounded Java Head. After passing through the Strait of Sunda, he threaded his way cautiously past countless islands in waters that teemed with reefs and banks and shoals. Through the China Sea to his destination, to Canton in China, he took his ship.

Sailing past the Ladrones, which lie across the mouth of the Canton River, he entered into a strange river in a strange land. Here was an ancient people, disdain­ful of the barbarians who inhabited the rest of the world. With great condescension they had opened to foreign vessels this one port in all the Empire; here they had developed an elaborate mummery to which all foreign traders were forced to submit. When he dropped his anchor in the mud of the Canton River off Macao, Captain Truxtun was already within the celestial precincts. For the next six months he could neither buy nor sell, come nor go without the permission of some representative of the Celestial Emperor.

The Author's Notes:

1 Thomas Truxtun, Remarks, Instructions, and Examples, Relating to the Latitude and Longitude (Philadelphia, 1794), pp72 ff.

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2 Ibid.

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3 George Dixon, A Voyage Round the World (London, 1789), p30; Josiah Quincy, ed., Journals of Major Samuel Shaw (Boston, 1847), Journal of first voyage.

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4 Pennsylvania Journal, Philadelphia, August 2, 1786.

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5 Compare the passage of London Packet from Europe to America, 93 miles per day (note 24, Chap. 13, above), with the first passage of Empress to Canton, 134 miles per day (Quincy, op. cit., p211).

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6 Samuel Dunn, A New Directory for the East-Indies (5th ed., London, 1780), pp348‑49; Pennsylvania Journal, Philadelphia, August 2, 1786.

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7 NYPL: Constable-Pierrepoint Collection, William Constable Shipping Papers, Box 2, Truxtun to Isaac Hazelhurst, March 30, 1790.

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8 Hepburn Collection Transcripts: Barry Papers, Patrick Hayes' Journal of the China Voyage.

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9 Ibid.

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10 Dunn, op. cit., p348.

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11 Ibid., p347.

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12 By plotting fixes given in Truxtun, op. cit., passim, the separate tracks for Truxtun's four Eastern voyages can be clearly established.

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13 Truxtun, op. cit., "Lunar Observations," p3; Quincy, op. cit., p154.

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