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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Sea Duty

Yates Stirling

published by
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p16  Chapter II

The Launching

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In my day a cadet upon graduation was not commissioned an ensign. First it was necessary for him to serve two years at sea on probation to show that he was suitable on the practical side. At the end of this two‑year cruise as a "past midshipman," as they were called, a final examination of the class at the Naval Academy was taken to decide the final standing in the competition for commissions. Today, midshipmen after graduating are given their commissions as ensigns when they receive their diplomas.

Soon after graduation from the Academy in 1892, I started for Honolulu, Hawaiian Islands, or the Sandwich Islands as our geographies then called them, to join the cruiser San Francisco. Together with four classmates, I sailed to San Francisco in a British liner, stopping at Honolulu on its run to Australia.

Being ordered to the Hawaiian Islands seemed to me a most romantic adventure. The Islands were not so well known as they are today. I had learned about them from my father, who had been there many times. The Navy for years had been identified with Hawaii, and many of our admirals and captains had been friends of the reigning sovereigns. The picture in my mind of Hawaii was more or less vague, but included the beauties of the tropics and sand beaches where the pleasure-loving natives spent most of their lives swimming, fishing, and surf riding. I suppose we were all a little disappointed to find we had arrived in a place little different from home as far as civilization went. There were  p17 many Hawaiians in evidence on the streets of Honolulu, also other races, particularly Chinese and Japanese; but there was nothing really different from home except the setting: the tropical trees and flowers in the greatest profusion, the white coral sand beaches, the rolling surf incessantly pounding on the barrier reefs around the Islands, the land sloping back from the narrow fringe on the sea where civilization maintained its existence to the high mountains in the interior.

Hawaiian life even then had merged into Western civilization or Oriental. There were no truly Hawaiian villages. One saw the natives fishing and gathering edible seaweed. Fishing was by means of the spear, with which they were most expert. The natives, especially the women, wore western clothes; the women wore the mother hubbard or Holaku. This garb was not picturesque but, from the standpoint of the missionary, was more appropriate for a Christian people. The scanty attire of the native Hawaiian was tabu. These civilized clothes did not benefit the health of the race. Being naturally strong, they were unaware of the danger to health when wet clothes were allowed to dry on them. Colds and lung troubles developed. Coconut oil, with which it had been the custom to smear their bodies, no longer was used, and omitting this precaution caused many deaths from pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Honolulu was a pleasant change of scene after four years of restraint at Annapolis. Life on board ship was not arduous. There were few drills, and in the afternoon all except those on watch went ashore. The San Francisco had been in Honolulu for many months, and the officers had met many friends. I soon found myself invited to riding and swimming parties and picnics where I met many women of dark skin with British and American fathers and Hawaiian mothers. The women had mostly been educated in England. They were all expert horsewomen and perfect swimmers. I found them most wholesome companions, although I had the feeling that I must be careful not to fall in love. It seemed strange to see a dignified white official surrounded by children with skins as dark as a mulatto.

There was an undercurrent of politics everywhere one turned. The most important subject in all minds then was what nation eventually would succeed in annexing Hawaii. The late King Kalakaua had been partial to America, and we had gone to considerable lengths to retain his favor. The present Queen, Liliuokalani,  p18 was believed to favor Great Britain. The Royal Princess was being educated in England. The Japanese, with the subtlety of the Orient, were waiting a favorable opportunity. They too coveted Hawaii.

All three nations were watching each other to be sure no one would obtain advantage over another and become too powerful in Court circles. Hawaii was known to be an important strategical location with great commercial prospects. The United States would not have permitted any other nation to seize the Islands, yet at that time, the Administration in Washington, under President Cleveland, did not feel itself strong enough to take them for this country. Our method, therefore, was one of watchful waiting and maintaining friendly relations with the Hawaiian Queen and her government.

Our Admiral, George Brown, was a favorite with the Queen. She gave a great ball in his honor. The Admiral and all his officers attended in special full-dress uniform. We marched past the dusky Queen on her throne, making a colorful sight. By taking part in such ceremonies and through the cultivation of friendly relations, the Navy performed its mite in helping diplomatic objectives to be realized.

In the small harbor of Honolulu there were usually at least three warships. An American, a British, and a Japanese were always there to watch their nations' interests. They reminded one of carrion crows, as they awaited the demise of the tottering monarchy. The Japanese made no secret of their desire to obtain sovereignty over the Islands. Their naval strategists, as well as others, fully realized the future value of this location for commercial usage and as a base for their expanding war fleet in the Pacific. Their easy victory on the sea over the Chinese navy a few years later was then being planned, and their conceit made them certain they could intimidate our country and obtain Hawaii. Japan was building up her navy very rapidly at that time, with the object, as it turned out, of fighting China. Her naval ambitions in the Pacific are thus seen to be of long standing. Even as early as this, war between the United States and Japan was being prophesied by certain writers, among them General Homer Lea.

Great Britain also believed she had a claim to the Islands and would have gladly received them within her empire. Both Japan and Great Britain must have foreseen that some day America  p19 would awaken to the necessity of owning the Islands lying so close to its California shores, but hoped that somehow they might beat us to it.

The fear of the American residents of Hawaii that the Islands might be seized by a nation other than the United States was an important reason for the revolution of 1893. Consul General Sewell did hoist the American flag; but Cleveland disavowed it, and the flag was hauled down.

The secret correspondence between Japan and the United States over this incident would make interesting reading. As yet it has not been published to the world. My belief is that Japan's demand that the United States must not annex the Islands caused Cleveland to postpone annexation until a more propitious date. After Dewey had won the battle of Manila Bay in 1898, that date seemed to have arrived, and we annexed the Islands. Japan made a most decided protest, but that time it had no effect: the nation was at war, and the Islands were needed in our overseas plans of campaign.

I was sorry to leave Hawaii. I have returned several times but never found it as pleasant. Particularly because of the slow change of atmosphere toward that of the Orient. It has thus lost most of is charm for me.

The San Francisco was relieved by the Boston in the fall of 1892 and sailed for Mare Island Navy Yard for repairs. Then we joined the squadron commanded by Admiral Bancroft Gherardi, consisting of the Baltimore, San Francisco, Charleston, and the gunboat Bennington. We were bound for the great Naval Review in connection with the World's Fair at Chicago. On our way around South America and through the Straits of Magellan we made stops for the purpose of cementing more firmly the good relations between the United States and other countries.

In the Bay of Mazatlan I witnessed the first target practice of our warships that I had ever seen. It was not particularly inspiring for me. I sat all day in an uncovered whaleboat under a blistering sun, using a graduated T‑square to record the angular distance of the fall of shots from a small pyramid target.

After Mazatlan we anchored at Acapulco, a small land-locked bay, intensely hot and celebrated for its man‑eating sharks. The evening of our arrival I was visiting the steerage of the Charleston when Father Rainnie, the Catholic chaplain, burst into the  p20 steerage and challenged any of us to go in swimming with him. I took his challenge seriously and said that I was willing.

We donned our bathing trunks. The chaplain dove first off the gangway, and I followed him. When I struck the water, all the ghastly stories I had ever heard of sharks came into my mind. I swam swiftly back to the gangway, getting there just as Rainnie reached it. He said, breathlessly: "I don't think we should put too much confidence in the Lord's being able to protect us from our own stupidity."

We both had had enough and scrambled out of the water. The officer of the deck pointed out several big black fins where we had been swimming a moment ago.

At Panama we saw the abandoned canal with valuable machinery left to rust and become useless. Before the ditch could be built, the savage, death-dealing mosquitoes had to be exterminated. De Lesseps had failed because medical science in his time was not far enough advanced.

In all ports at which the squadron stopped: Callao, Valparaiso, and Montevideo, the Admiral and his officers were lavishly entertained by the officials there. These periodic visits, where considerable American gold was spent, were supposed to benefit friendly relations. The year before, Chile and the United States very nearly drifted into a war over the killing of a United States man-of‑war sailor by a Chilean mob.​a Our visit to Valparaiso seemed to smooth out some of the hard feeling against the Yankees. The people of South America seemed to me not at all similar to our people. They were more like Europeans. As nations they mistrusted our intentions and were jealous of our wealth and power. They resented our interference in their affairs. The South Americans of the governing class, being Latins, are intensely proud but suffer from an inferiority complex. This may be because the race from which they sprang, once conquerors, is now low in the scale of importance in world politics.

The Naval Review was assembled at Hampton Roads, where we arrived in due time. Such a review of course is a show, and a very impressive and beautiful one. All nations parade their best ships. The number sent by the nations depends upon the availability of anchorage space. A review is excellent advertisement for the shipbuilding art. Those nations who depend upon others to build their warships can compare the relative merits of foreign construction and choose where their ships will be built.

 p21  Warships at a review, of course, must be open to the public, and naval men of all nations will examine them most minutely. The review offered valuable opportunity to compare types and the individual ship efficiency of all nations. At New York, where the final review was held, there were warships from all the great naval powers as well as from the smaller nations. The great powers represented were Great Britain, Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, and France. It was a liberal education for naval men to inspect the different ships and observe how things are done in the navies of other countries.

I was much impressed by the smartness and cleanliness of the British warships. No others seemed as well kept, with the exception of our own. The peculiarities of the French construction and arrangement came in for considerable attention. The appearance of their ships seemed almost grotesque. The Italian ships seemed to be modeled after the British. The discipline of the German tars caused much comment. It seemed so unnecessarily strict.

Ashore, those who spoke a common language seemed to band together and stay together. We saw most of the British for that reason, although fights were often in order. Seeing these different nationalities on shore, ticketed by their characteristic uniforms and their attitude toward discipline, gave one a sudden insight into the reason why there was war. Each nation, as represented by its sailors, seemed to have a chip on its shoulder; each considered himself the better man. These uniformed men typified their nation, each feeling superior to all the others, else insanely jealous of the greater importance of others.

There was some evidence of cordial relations among the sailors because of diplomatic guidance from home. For instance the cordiality between the British and the Italians, the French and the Russians.

Shortly after the review was over I was sent to the cruiser Charleston, and soon thereafter we sailed to return to the Pacific coast. We got only as far as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where we remained because of a revolution that centered about that great seaport.​b

The revolution came about through political jealousies between the powerful leaders of the country. The President, General Peixoto, an army leader, had seized power. Admirals Mello and Da Gama were backing the opposition, claiming that their candidate had been elected.

 p22  Rio is the capital and the principal port, so pressure was being used there upon President Peixoto to force him to give up the presidency to the elected candidate. But the elected candidate did not have enough guns and soldiers. When we arrived, the two admirals were controlling the great bay and had closed the port to commerce. The Brazilian naval ships in Rio were the battle­ship Aquidaban,º the cruisers Republica, Trajano, and Tamandarey, and a large number of small launches.

At the narrow entrance to the port were two forts, and another was within the harbor but commanded the entrance with its guns. The outer forts were loyal to the government, the inner fort was with the navy. The navy held all the islands in the bay. The army held all the mainland of the bay. Almost every day we witnessed a bombardment between the forts or between warships and the outer forts. Occasionally the Aquidaban would run the forts at the entrance and be absent several days. The firing was fast and furious during these forays and gave us much excitement to witness.

When we arrived, there was a British gunboat and two Portuguese cruisers in the harbor. Our Captain, H. F. Picking, due to his rank, became senior of the foreign navies in port, and by international custom was regarded as the leader in concerted actions. One of the first things to be considered by the foreigners was the question of whether the city could be bombed by the rebel navy. The answer hinged upon whether or not the city was fortified. Captain Picking sent Ensign H. E. Smith and myself to find this out.

We went ashore on this rather difficult duty in civilian clothes, of course, because we could not be identified as American naval officers. If we could discover that there were large guns mounted on the city's hills, then the city was fortified, and therefore the navy could bombard it under the rules of war. Smith, being the senior, elected to explore the higher places on the hills back of the city, while I started in lower down. Smith was arrested and jailed, and our consul had to go in person to rescue him.

I pretended to be a tourist on board of one of the American schooners in the harbor and made friends with several Brazilian army men, who were most obliging. They openly showed me some fairly large-sized artillery in concealed emplacements, the largest being six‑inch Whitworths, firing shells weighing a hundred pounds. They kept me for lunch, and we drank many toasts in  p23 some very fair brandy. They were so openly cordial and trusting that my conscience pricked me when, from memory, I sketched for Captain Picking the positions of the guns I had seen. The foreign captains then removed the ban on bombardment, notifying both sides that they considered the city was fortified and therefore not a defenseless city as the government had been claiming. The Brazilian Navy, however, never used its authority to bombard. I was glad of this, for the city was so beautiful and belonged to the navy as well as to its defenders.

To make things more uncomfortable, yellow fever now broke out, or rather became epidemic, and our liberty ashore was stopped. We had only one case, a yeoman who had been detailed for the consul to help him with his correspondence and who slept ashore often. The yellow-fever mosquito at that time had not been discovered. It was then the general belief that the disease was caught by contact with a patient or by inhaling the miasma from the swampy land at night. There was a general exodus from Rio to the mountains to escape the plague. I was often ashore on missions for the captain but never was allowed to stay after dark. The yellow-fever mosquito, it later was found, is a nocturnal hunter.

Our boats landed at the marine arsenal, which was in the hands of government troops. Just alongside, with a strip of water between, was the Ilha de Cobras, the Brazilian Naval Academy, which had joined the rebel navy. One day I was at this landing with a steam launch from our ship. I was about ready to shove off and return to the ship when my curiosity delayed me. On the sea wall alongside of which the boat lay there were many soldiers behind sandbags. They were firing at and being fired upon from Cobras Island. A well-dressed man came up to where I was standing, foolishly exposing myself to stray bullets, and said in perfect English: "I am a Brazilian naval officer, an ordnance expert, and have just returned from England. I landed outside the bay from a British merchant ship. I am afraid of being recognized, and if arrested I will be shot. Can you take me out to Admiral Saldanha da Gama at Enchades Island?" I was deeply moved. He seemed such a pleasant individual with charming manners. I gave no thought, apparently, of the consequences to myself. Youth is ever romantic and trusting. I said:

"I cannot offer you asylum, but if you should get into my boat, I could not put you out." He made a dive for the boat.

 p24  Enchades Island is a small island in the middle of the city. I had been there many times carrying messages between our Captain and Admiral da Gama. I knew the water was deep enough for the launch close to the sea wall there. When we approached the island, I told the coxswain to steer close. Our refugee produced a big wad of Brazilian money and wanted me to take it for the crew of the boat. Naturally I could not accept it.

By that time the launch was skirting the sea wall of the island of Enchades. "A word to the wise is sufficient," I said; "good luck." He showed his gratitude in his eyes. Then he turned and jumped. Upon steadying himself on the sea wall he waved his hand to us and then stood gazing at the boat for some time before turning away.

The following morning the guns of the new warship, Tamandarey, began to shell the marine arsenal and the Nictheroy battery. The enormity of my crime had been dawning upon me. I had given aid to a rebel. The rebel I had aided was now firing at the government my country recognized. I worried for a while afterward over this most unneutral service I had given, because, if it became known to our captain, he would have no other recourse than to order me before a court-martial. However, I have never regretted my action and have often wondered what became of my Brazilian. I did receive word from him once through one of our medical officers who had seen him on board the Tamandarey after an explosion on that vessel when we had sent medical aid.

The war was causing much inconvenience to foreign shipping. There were many merchant ships of all nationalities that had been lying idly at anchor there for months. The war was dragging on with no visible results accomplished by the navy rebels. Foreign nations, principally ours, were becoming restive. This stalemate in the revolution again exemplified the age‑old maxim that a navy cannot capture a city nor control it unless accompanied by troops. The navy had no troops. A navy can bombard and terrorize the inhabitants and close the port to shipping, but without troops it cannot secure a foothold on shore.

I have often told that I was under more dangerous gunfire in Rio Harbor during that revolution than during the whole of the Spanish War. One incident I remember most vividly. My launch from the Charleston had landed Spears, a war correspondent, alongside the Aquidaban to interview Admiral Mello, and we were  p25 waiting for him. The army had mounted two high-power six‑inch guns at Nictheroy, and, while we were stopped close to the side of the battle­ship, these guns began to fire at her. The battery fired every few minutes. I could see the people on board the Aquidaban take cover behind armor at every flash from the battery, but there was no armor for us to get behind. The shooting was not bad but the Aquidaban seemed miraculously to escape being hit. Many shells struck in the water near us, even throwing water over the boat and wetting us to our skins. I was too proud or foolhardy to move out of range, and we took the grilling for nearly an hour. Fortunately the shells did not explode. When Spears finally called us alongside, he told me that he and Admiral Mello were all the time in the Admiral's cabin, entirely unprotected, and that he had wanted to go when the battery began to shoot, but that the Admiral would not let him as he was most anxious for Spears to hear his side of the controversy. I said: "You didn't have anything on us. We even got splashed." The Aquidaban got underway as soon as we left and steamed out of range of the battery.

Another time this same battery began firing at a large steam launch of the rebels, and the launch in desperation, for the shots were falling very close to her, headed directly toward the Charleston. Most of the time the rebel launch was between the battery and the Charleston, and all shots going over the launch endangered our ship. When the launch reached the Charleston, it dodged behind us. Then, when the launch was actually hidden behind the massive hull of our ship, the battery fired two shots. They both fell short but perfectly in line, and they splashed water on the boats secured to our lower boom. I have never seen our captain so angry. He even considered opening fire on the battery. Afterward he sent a letter to the government ashore saying if such a thing occurred again he would open fire on the battery. Those controlling the Nictheroy guns may have been using indirect fire, in which the target is not seen through the gun sight. If not, it was deliberate, for the army had been complaining that the foreign warships were in the way of their fire upon rebel ships.

As the months went by, the United States Government had sent one after another warship to augment our squadron in Rio. Finally we had the San Francisco, Charleston, Newark, Detroit, and the armored cruiser New York. This concentration, of  p26 course, was for the purpose of giving us sufficient force in case it became necessary to use our warships to put down the rebellion.

We now had a rear admiral in command of our squadron, Admiral A. E. K. Benham. Admiral Mello had left the scene, but the battle­ship Aquidaban remained in the bay. It was a very formidable ship, even stronger than our New York in a fight at such close action.

There had been many rumors. Admiral da Gama was in command of the rebel ships. He had been educated in England and was considered a royalist, anxious to bring back the monarchy to Brazil. I had seen the old royal flag of Dom Pedro hanging on the wall of his office.

One night our ships received the startling signal to be cleared for action at daylight. No one knew why. We knew that the rebel, da Gama, commanding in Mello's absence, had been in consultation with Admiral Benham for hours that day. There was a rumor even that the Brazilian Admiral had offered to surrender to Admiral Benham. There was a report that the foreign backers of the revolution had refused more money, and without money, the navy's cause was hopeless.

I am convinced that Benham persuaded da Gama that his cause was lost and that da Gama agreed to give in without a fight. Benham at all events decided that the shipping must move and the port be opened to world commerce.

The next sunrise saw the little Detroit, under Commander W. H. Brownson, steam in between two larger Brazilian cruisers, the Republica and the Trajano, and lie there with her guns trained on both warships. It looked as if there would be a battle, and the forces were fairly well matched.

Meanwhile a Navy steam launch, with a big United States flag flying conspicuously, began to tow one of our schooners loaded with flour towards the docks. Brownson called out to the rebel cruisers:

"If you fire at my launch, I'll fire into you. If you return my fire, I'll sink you."

The Republica fired a rifle shot in the direction of the launch. It struck in the water near the boat. Brownson then commanded the marine gun pointer at the six‑pounder on his forecastle:

"Hit her (pointing to the Republica) between wind and water, six feet abaft the stern." That order was far too technical for the "devil dog." He thought it the better part of valor for him  p27 to play safe. He did not want to be responsible for starting a war. So he fired, and the shell hit the water about six feet ahead of the cruiser. Both Brazilian warships then fired lee guns and hoisted large white flags, hauling down the ensign. They had surrendered to the Detroit.

Meanwhile the shell from the marine's gun was still going. It had ricocheted and passed close over the bridge of the New York. Captain Jack Philip was on the bridge. He thought the fight was on and headed his ship at full speed for the Aquidaban in the upper part of the bay. He was recalled by signal flags before anything serious had happened.

The defeated Brazilian naval personnel almost at once began to arrive alongside the Portuguese warships, where they were given asylum. The cruisers Tamandarey and Trajano were abandoned. The Portuguese warships left the bay before dark loaded to the guards with Brazilian sailors. The Aquidaban and the Republica fought their way out through the entrance during the night. Rio was open.

The morning after Benham's bloodless battle, an important New York newspaper, the Herald, published a news story praising Benham's timely action. I heard that the Navy Department tore up a cable of censure to the Admiral. American sentiment was behind Benham.

I am sure that Admiral Benham acted entirely on his own and with no instructions from Washington.

Of course there might have been a battle between the two squadrons, but Benham discounted that and knew that if it came to a fight he could not lose. What passed between Admiral Benham and his friend Admiral da Gama has gone to the grave with them as far as I know. This episode was a typical case of giving a naval officer full head. He was successful and received full credit for his work.

In those days high-ranking naval men were entrusted with considerable diplomatic responsibility. Today, with cable and radio so universally available, there is not the same need to invest such responsibility. In some cases it is still done, as for instance our admirals in China during the several undeclared wars between Japan and China in the vicinity of the Yangtze River; and the work done, I feel sure, was performed better than Washington could have accomplished at a distance of eight thousand miles.

I have always believed that our cadet experiences in Rio were  p28 most beneficial. It was our first glimpse of war, and although we had no active fighting part in it, we felt we were on the firing line and becoming veterans. It also gave the young men an object lesson as to how much better was our democracy, where the most important differences between factions were settled through the ballot instead of the bullet.

Today, our relations with South American countries are according to a, so‑called, good-neighbor policy and not along the lines of dollar diplomacy, which has been abolished. Such methods as described, in breaking an inconvenient revolution in Brazil, no longer would be countenanced. We do not now interfere in the heated Latin quarrels between factions but, instead, allow them to stew in their own juice, while watching results, and in the end pick up the pieces. Today, in the Latin countries to the south of us, if a nation seizes the property of American citizens without compensation or with promises to pay that are recognized as valueless, our Government registers a protest but does nothing more about it. Warships may be sent to troubled areas, but no marines with machine guns are landed. The United States no longer coerces these governments to pay their debts.

At the Naval Academy ball the year of our final graduation in 1894, I befriended the daughters of Admiral Richard W. Meade. He had been Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard when I lived on board the receiving ship Dale. The Admiral had brought his two younger daughters to the June Ball; they knew no one and were scared out of their wits, and so was the Admiral. I knew Admiral Meade to be a "sun downer" and that he could command the best vocabulary of condemnation in the Navy and often employed it on people he disliked. I could not therefore imagine that he could ever be scared, at least by a little thing like a cadet ball; but he was. He begged me to take his daughters off his hands. This I agreed readily to do, although it so happened I had a partner for the ball myself. I skirmished around and found a couple of "spoony" cadets who did not have partners and pressed them into service. The Admiral, like all his family a strikingly handsome man, entered the ballroom just to be seen in his gorgeous and brilliantly decorated uniform, whereupon he left and spent his time in the Naval Academy Club. Fortunately his daughters had a marvelous evening, and I came in for much praise. When I bade good‑by to the Admiral, he let me into a secret. He said he was to be the next Commander in  p29 Chief of the North Atlantic Squadron, in a few months, and that he wished to have me on his staff. My only disappointment was that I could not tell anyone about it until the Admiral's orders were published by the Navy Department. I had already made application for the New York, and two months later I reported on board that fine ship.

Thayer's Notes:

a The Baltimore Affair was nominally caused by an attack on American sailors from the U. S. S. Baltimore by a Chilean mob on October 16, 1891; but ultimately caused by Chilean rage at the Itata incident, May thru October of that year, in which in fact the United States forced the Chilean naval ship Itata to obey neutrality laws and surrender to a United States marshal — although the result was admittedly not achieved by American naval prowess, but by negotiation. The Baltimore Affair came to an end with Chile backing down to a threat of war by the United States (Galdames, History of Chile, tr. Cox, pp403‑404). The story of both incidents is told in detail in "The Itata Incident" (Hispanic American Historical Review, V.195‑226).

[decorative delimiter]

b A summary of the "Revolta da Armada" is given by Brazilian historian João Pandiá Calógeras in Formação Histórica do Brasil, § 203. Another American naval officer's brief account of the revolt is given in Holden A. Evans, One Man's Fight for a Better Navy, pp55‑56.

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