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Bill Thayer

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Burial at Sea

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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Life in Peru
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p80  Revels on San Lorenzo

"What ho! my jolly mates come on, we'll frolic it

Like fairies frisking in the merry moonshine."

On the second of November we arrived at Valparaiso where we perceived the sloop-of‑war at anchor, having arrived two days previous, although contrary to our expectations, for our lads were quite sanguine we would be the first to reach the Chilian shores; but by some freak of wind or weather it was not ordained so, although she can nothing like compete with us in speed. The different messes now procured from the bum‑boats a supply of the good things of this life, which were sought after with intense eagerness by all on board, for the gales of the cape and our tedious passage, which obliged us for such a length of time to masticate salt beef and pork, gave our stomachs quite a gusto for the delicacies of terra firma.

We remained at Valparaiso thirteen days, and after taking in a supply of provision and water, shaped our course for Callao the rendezvous of our ship on this station, where we arrived after an easy passage of eleven days. On the second day after our arrival we hauled over to the Island of San Lorenzo, to give our ship a thorough cleansing and painting; and to effect this the better, tents were erected ashore, and at least two‑thirds of the healthy portion of the ship's company, including all the mechanics, a small party of marines, as well as the invalids of the sick‑bay, took up their residence there pro tem; and in a little time this solitary and unprepossessing spot wore the appearance of an active, bustling village; the scene ashore was one of considerable interest — in one place you could perceive the brilliant glow of the armourer's furnace, whilst him and his mates made the caverned shores of Lorenzo ring with the sharp clang of their hammers. Further along was the cooper, surrounded by all the different apparatus of his trade, repairing whatever inroads time or accident might have made upon our water or provision  p81 casks. The harsh sound of the saw from the confines of yonder tent, plainly tell that the carpenters are there domiciled. — How do our jolly tars contrive to while away the interval between meals? Glance your eye along the beach and you will soon ascertain; — yonder are some ten or a dozen with hook and line, endeavouring, with all an angler's patience, to raise from amongst the numerous shoals of fish, that are everywhere observable, sufficient to satisfy the appetites of their several messmates. — On that shelve of flat rocks to the left, behold the busy crowd there assembled; how sonorously the coir-brushes grate upon the ear as they bring them in collision with the hammocks that are spread before them. See that good-natured looking fellow, with such an enormous pile of dirty clothes near him, which he is just commencing to wash. My eyes! are all those his own? No, no indeed; he is aware that liberty will soon commence, and wishing to replenish his pockets for that occasion, and being of an industrious nature, he takes in washing for cash; and perhaps those articles are the property of some son of ease, who is either engaged at a game of chequers, or spread out on the sand basking himself in the sun's effulgent rays.

Sentries were stationed at one or two particular spots to keep our lads within a certain compass; they not being allowed the privilege of exploring the pinnacles of sand that frowned down upon our little colony at every turn. The wild shout — the cheerful laugh — the sonorous hallo! — could be heard in every direction; and as the sharp sound of the bell on board the frigate would proclaim the meal time arrived, every thing was dropped instantaneously, and all were urging their way along with precipitate haste towards the remains of the tottering wharf, to endeavour to procure a seat in one or other of the boats that were in readiness to take them on board, and, save one or two attendants of the sick, the Island was completely deserted during the meal hour, and appeared as still and noiseless as a sick chamber.

Amongst the marines on duty at the Island was a son of the Emerald Isle, a careless, happy-go‑lucky fellow, though of considerable information and some talent, styled Ned Hodnose. —  p82 Ned was respectably connected in the "old country," and ever since his arrival in the United States, he had, himself, filled more than one situation of respectability; but, the "invisible spirit of rum" intervened — the fickle jade Fortune began to lower; he turned his "gray goose-quill" into a bayonet, and joined the marine corps. Now, one night our tight Irish lad was on post, and not a very agreeable one either, when I inform you that he was perched upon the pinnacle of a projecting rock; the bitter night wind assailing him at every turn. — When he was relieved, about four o'clock, he bent his steps in double quick-time towards the tent in which was slung that solace to both sailor and marine, his hammock; and turned in with the pleasing hope of soon "steeping his senses in forgetfulness;" but the evil genius that, for aught I know presided at his birth, and seemed through life to dog his footsteps, assailed him even now; and at this particular time hovered around him in the shape of a full-grown rooster, and tried every method to break his repose. As our marine was dropping slowly into the arms of Morpheus, this ill‑omened bird (ill‑omened to poor Hodnose at all events,) jumped upon the clew of his hammock, flapped his wings, opened his musical throat, and commenced crowing with all his might; the sound acted like magic, and in a moment Ned was sitting upright in his swinging-couch, cursing in his wrath every species of the feathered tribe, from a bird of Paradise to the cursed cock that had thus so unceremoniously broke his rest; but this was not sufficient; the intruder but enlarged the distance between them a few feet, and again commenced warbling his melodious notes. Hodnose at this arose, armed himself with a cudgel, and drove his annoyer outside the tent, regained his hammock, and once more commenced "wooing the gentle goddess;" but he had scarcely closed his eyes ere the infernal rooster was again at his ear, crowing, if possible, louder than before; this was not to be endured. "Very well my fine fellow," cried the marine, jumping from his hammock, every limb quivering with anger, and searching amongst his clothes for some article or another, perhaps a knife or a razor, "I'll fix your flint for you to your heart's content; I'll now put you from troubling me again this  p83 blessed night;" and seizing the bird with a fiendish grip, he hurried with him outside the tent. In a few moments he returned: — "now my fine fellow," he broke forth, as he laid himself once more upon his mattress, "I'll bet a small trifle your pretty song won't be heard again to‑night;" he was right, he slept undisturbed.

The next morning his olfactory organ being regaled by the smell of some savoury morsel, which some of his tent-mates were getting in readiness for breakfast, he awoke, rubbed his eyes, found 'twas near eight bells, and prepared to turn out; but ere he got on his pantaloons, his ears were assailed by the loud crowing of a cock; he started as if an adder had stung him, and asked Jemmy Ducks who sojourned in the same tent, "whether that was the big rooster or not." "No!" returned Ducks, looking out, " 'tis the young one." "I thought indeed it couldn't be the old gentleman," responded Hodnose, with a chuckle, "I believe I put him from crowing last night." — Jemmy Ducks at this information thought, as very naturally he should, that honest Ned had made away with the bird in his wrath; and not wishing the blood of any of the stock should be shed by other hands than his own, he swore at the marine soundly. "Look here, Mr. Hodnose, have you actually murdered that noble rooster? If you have, I tell you I'll have satisfaction out of your gray jacket if you had fifty chickens to back you." "Faith," returned Ned quite coolly, "you may take your spite out of the jacket and welcome; the devil a hair I care as long as the body won't be in it; but my hands are clear of his blood, for I only done by him as they do by an unruly prisoner, gagged him." At this, Ducks ran out the tent, and returned with the cock in his arms; and all hands burst into a hearty fit of laughter, when they perceived a piece of tape in the bird's mouth, firmly tied at the back of his head; this gag having the effect Hodnose desired, viz. of preventing him from giving specimens of his truly mellifluous music.

The first Sunday we lay at the Island, a general permission was given to range this sandy spot all over, and nearly all the ship's company availed themselves of it. After dinner they landed, each one dressed in his worst suit; for climbing the hills of sand, which every  p84 one had in contemplation, would anything but add to the appearance of a good article of clothing; and now was the lonely Island of San Lorenzo peopled with a vengeance — its dreary stillness, which once no sound disturbed save the tide as it "trembling, murmured on the sandy shore," or the frightened sea‑bird as it moaned out its ominous plaint, now re‑echoed to the noisy mirth of our happy tars, as they pursued their wild gambols upon its arid soil. By some means or another information reached Callao that we were to have a bit of a run, and an adventurous individual, who had an eye to business, and who was aware of the shrine at which the sons of Neptune worshipped, made his appearance in a small boat in the course of the afternoon, well freighted with the glorious nectar which fires the brain and steals away the senses. Our tars anticipated falling in with some of the precious liquid, for they were all more or less supplied with the needful; and I need not add that this whole cargo was quickly disposed of at a price far exceeding his most sanguine expectations.

The effects of the stimulating beverage were very soon plainly perceptible; and they scattered themselves about the Island in various clusters, pursuing their orgies with true sailor vigor; in one place might be perceived a chosen few, sitting in a social circle on the sand, quaffing the fiery liquor from the interior of a well-worn shoe, (which one of the party had doffed for the occasion,) with as much relish as an exquisite would the contents of a bottle of sparkling champaign from a costly goblet, in the most splendid room of the Astor House. Here were a few of the sons of Harmony perched upon the projecting rocks, intermingling their Bacchanalian chorus with the hoarse sound of the dashing surge, that foamed in frothy anger at their feet. The solitude of the peaceful graveyard was also intruded upon; and here, amidst the solemn silence of death, and away from the noise and turmoil of life's chequered scenes, the hardy mariner reposed beneath his humble monument, far from the shores of fruitful Columbia or merry England; they pursued their wild revelry with unabated frenzy; seated on the mouldering graves, they pledged each other in the alcoholic infusion, and trolled their merry  p85 songs till this sanctuary of mortality re‑echoed with the outcry.

The revels terminated in a tragedy. The individual who supplied them with the intoxicating liquid, thinking he had made a pretty good afternoon's work, pocketing some sixty or seventy dollars on the occasion, gathered together what bottles he could find emptied of their precious contents, and embarked on board his boat in company with those who composed his party, consisting of three females and a small child, hoisted his little sail and shaped his course for Callao. — But oh! the uncertainty of human existence: he had scarcely got forty yards from the Island ere a squall struck them, and before they could take in the sail, the boat turned over, and they were all floundering in the water. Our boats from the frigate were on the alert, and though they reached the spot in a moment, yet one of the party had sunk to rise no more; the females and child were picked up and brought on board, and received all the attention their shivering and half-drowned situation required; but the proprietor of the boat, him who had drove such a thriving trade during the day, and was now returning to his family with a heart elate at his success, was thus, without a moment's warning, hurried into the presence of his Creator. Boats were now despatched to the Island to bring off our inebriated tars, who upon hearing of the accident, could be perceived staggering towards the beach, as if they, in their helpless, tottering condition, could be of the least service in rescuing those in the water from their unfortunate situation; and that night the ship was noisy enough, though it was all glossed over by the captain, who, with his usual good nature, considered that as he had given them permission to have a run, he could not in a great measure blame them for their revelry, when liquor was flowing in such profusion around.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21