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Bill Thayer

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The Fatal Prediction

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

a Fore‑top-man

published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and 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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The Disappointed Tars
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p58  The Grog Expended

"For grog is our starboard, our larboard,

Our mainmast, our mizen, our log —

At all times sea, or ashore, or when harbour'd,

The mariner's compass is grog."

That liquor is a sailor's idol, who will for a moment doubt? What shifts will he not have recourse to — what difficulties will he not surmount — what dangers will he not risk, to possess himself of this ill‑fated but eagerly sought poison? On bord a vessel of war, "stopping grog" is the most severe and heartfelt punishment that can possibly be inflicted upon a man of Neptune. What a piti­ful countenance will the poor wight put on who happens to be struck off the grog-list for a time, when he hears the roll of the drum proclaim that the inspiring beverage is about to be served out; and what a wishful, all‑absorbing glance will he cast towards the light-hearted crowd assembled around the grog‑tub, awaiting their turn to drink; and as he observes those who have just imbibed the precious liquid, smack their lips with all the gusto of an epicure, after lining his inside with a plate or two of rich turtle soup, it but adds to his chagrin and makes his situation appear doubly distressing. The indefatigable labourers in the cause of temperance, I very much fear will never accomplish their object of bringing the sons of Ocean within the pale of total abstinence, although I know some who follow the sea for a livelihood that do not touch the pernicious stuff; yet to the generality of sailor'sº their glass of grog is as indispensable as their chew of tobacco; and they may talk as they will, but liquor distributed moderately amongst this hardy and fearless class of men, when in danger or difficulty, will arm them with double vigour, and their spirits will never flag, however perilous the obstacles that surround them.

I remember a yarn once afloat in our ship that the wages of seamen were raised, but that the ration of grog was done away with — what a sensation this news produced; the subject was discussed amongst the smokers at the galley, and again brought on the carpet  p59  by the old sheet anchor‑men on the forecastle; and many of them who had grown gray in the service, condemned it as the very worst of policy, and predicted that Uncle Sam's ships would many a time and oft lack hands in consequence. We had a continuance of delightful weather after we left Rio for several days, and every one laboured under the most sanguine expectations that we would double the Cape with studding-sails set, an occurrence not very common, particularly at this season of the year; — after we passed the Falkland Islands, the weather began to grow gradually colder, and all the several articles of warm clothing that had been systematically patched, and securely stowed away as a stand‑by to ward off the cutting blasts of Cape Horn, were now brought into re­quisition. One morning just after the watch's hammocks were piped up, as a crowd of our light-hearted lads belonging to different parts of the ship were assembled in the weather gangway, making their toilet with the assistance of a bucket of the briny element and an almost toothless comb; the captain of the hold came along, and every person could tell by his countenance, that he had some information of great magnitude and importance to communicate. "Well, Old Shakings," cried a main-topman, "what sort of weather is it below in the cable-tier? — damme you're quite a stranger on the spar-deck." "I don't know how it is with the cable-tier, but I can tell you the news from the spirit-room is none of the best," responded Shakings. "Why, what's the matter there?" eagerly enquired a dozen voices at the same time. "I'm very much afraid," continued the captain of the hold, "that you'll fall short of whiskey before you double the Cape." "What," cried old Bowser, "fall short of whiskey? I'd sooner the bread-room or water-tanks would give out; the very thoughts of such a thing gives me a pain in the stomach; but what reason have you got for setting this yarn about?" "Why," cried Shakings, "I've been bulling the casks these two days; when we left Rio, they thought there was some full ones in the ground-tier, but we had a breaking‑out match yesterday, and not a drop could we discover." "Oh, you're only poking fun at us, Mr. Shakings," cried Pat Bradley, "you know we are fellows that love this  p60 stuff as we do our mother's milk, and you're trying to make our hearts pant a little with this infernal news." "Believe me or believe me not," answered Shakings, "it's a case with the whiskey, and you'll find it so, I imagine, before night; I'm going below now to see if I can possibly raise enough amongst the drawings of all the casks, to serve out at breakfast time." This announcement, I can assure you, electrified not a few; and the little group in the weather gangway was augmenting every moment, as this unwelcome intelligence spread through the ship; and many were the earnest glances that were cast down the cockpit, to try if they could perceive any signs of the captain of the spirit-room with his bull. Breakfast was now piped, and all our topers stood in breathless silence, listening with attentive ear to catch the inspiring roll of the drum, a prelude to grog — at length the joyful sound reached them, and with a murmur of approbation, and faces beaming with joy, they repaired with all the speed imaginable to the grog‑tub.

During the forenoon our tars were congregated again on the forecastle, discussing with true nautical eloquence the distressing effects that would accrue should there be a probability of the whiskey's failure. "I can't believe it," cried old Bowser; "I've been in Uncle Sam's employ now steady for eighteen years, and such a thing as the whiskey's giving out, I never heard of before in my life — only think of it shipmates, having to double the Cape without our three tots, what would become of us?" "The sick list would be pretty full, I imagine," remarked Flukes, "if such a thing should occur; for my part, my messmates would be the gainers, for without my liquor I don't believe I could eat a morsel; they talk about stopping it too in the Navy altogether; — my eyes, I'd go for two dollars a month less in a ship where grog was allowed." At this moment Bill Garnet run up the ladder leading from the gun deck, and rushed into the centre of the throng — chagrin and disappointment plainly depicted on his countenance. "Well, mates," cried Garnet, " 'tis a case of the cholera with us now — we've all got to drink with the ducks at dinner time, — there ain't another drop of whiskey in the ship." "Where did you get your news from?" enquired Bradley. "Why,"  p61 continued Bill, "I went down in the spirit-room, to lend old Shakings a hand to have another search, for you know I'd willingly work all night when whiskey was in the question, and we capsized and roused out every thing in the shape of a cask, and not a toothful could we come at."

Garnet's distressing intelligence was corroborated by two or three others, who now made their appearances and affirmed that they saw the grog tub stowed below in the hold for a full due. The lovers of the inspiring beverage looked at each other for some moments with blank and rueful countenances, and shook their heads portentously. "I tell you what it is shipmates," cried Flukes, breaking the awful silence that prevailed, "mark my words, we'll not carry this studding-sail breeze long, believe me; Cape Horn ain't going to let us pass without spitting a little of its spite at us, if it was only to punish us for leaving port without a full supply of whiskey on board." "Who knows," chimed in a mizen-topman, "but what it's all fudge? — 'tis almost eight bells — have patience a little while, and if you don't hear the drum roll, why then we'll give it up for a bad job." This faint glimmer of hope cheered their drooping spirits in some measure and they waited impatiently until the bell's clang proclaimed it noon; — dinner was now piped, and minute after minute elapsed, but still the wished‑for sound greeted not their ears. At length some of them proceeded to the gun‑deck, and with unfeigned horror perceived a void and empty space, where the grog‑tub was wont to stand; and instead of the light-hearted, joyous crowd that generally flanked it on every side, awaiting their call, a few straggling tars were lounging listlessly about, their sorrow­ful faces betokening that they were bewailing the absence of a beloved and much valued friend.​a

Thayer's Note:

a How the ship's supply of whiskey came to fail is a mystery to me as well. Since there's no way such a large quantity could have been drunk up in advance by a small number of men without attracting notice, the most likely cause of the grog running out is an accounting error on loading the Constitution at her departure from the United States; but it's just possible that the missing amount was found to be vitiated and disposed of overboard by captain's orders, with the men doing the job sworn to secrecy. And in fact, the following pair of illustrations in our book is a record of spoiled whiskey being pitched overboard by order of Captain Turner:

Note that this is not the same whiskey — else we might suspect a transfer on the sly of some of the Constitution's supply to the Relief — since it occurred after the cruise had passed the Horn.

[In order to allow search engines to pick up the text of these two documents, as well as for the sight-impaired and those who might struggle with the 19c handwriting, I've transcribed them on a separate page.]

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Page updated: 4 Oct 21