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Bill Thayer

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Revels on San Lorenzo

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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Description of a Man-of‑War
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p86  Life in Peru

"On burning courts or frozen seas,

Alike in each extreme,

The gallant sailor's e'er at home,

And floats with fortune's stream."

It often becomes a matter of wonder to the sojourners on the dull tame shore, why the sailor is so wild and reckless when freed from the confinement of his ship; the reason is obvious enough; 'tis his close confinement on ship-board, for months together, that makes him so elate when his trammels are for a temporary space laid aside; as the above motto implies, he is in all places, and upon all occasions, at home: as long as he is possession of the glittering dross, Jack little cares on what soil or in what climate his liberty is granted him; he is the same light-hearted, careless individual still, whatever corner of the globe he may be performing his peregrinations in. He will join in the lascivious fandango with the dark eyed Spanish brunette, or set his head reeling in the giddy waltz with the plump maiden of Holland. — He will embrace the thick lips of the sable daughter of the West Indies, or clasp in rapture the delicate fairy-hand of some beauteous female of Italy's sunny clime. — He will puff the delicate cherot with the abstemious Portuguese, or smoke the opium-charged pipe with the haughty Turk. — He will sip the delicious chicha to compliment the swarthy native of golden Peru, or swallow whole bumpers of whiskey to please the humour of the hospitable son of the green Isle of Erin; in fact he suits himself to the different dispositions of the inhabitants of whatever country he may chance to wander in; and his face smiles as joyous, his eye glistens as bright, and his laugh is as careless and happy beneath the scorching rays of a tropical sun, or under the biting influence of the frozen north, as if pursuing his round of pleasure in his own native village, surrounded by the friends and companions of his infancy.

After undergoing a thorough cleansing, from the keelson to the booms on the spar-deck, the painter's gang went to work, giving our  p87 old ship a due proportion of black and white, and in a little time (her rigging aloft having been previously put to rights,) she began to look herself again; and without vanity I must say that no craft in port presented to the gaze a neater hull, nicer symmetry of spars, or a more exact arrangement of standing and running rigging, than did ours when lying in the harbour of Callao after our refit. Liberty was now the all‑engrossing theme of conversation, and the anticipated pleasures of Callao and Lima were talked of in every group. — The wished for day at length arrived; the ship's company were called to muster on the quarter-deck, and after salutary advice from our captain, requesting us to be a little circumspect in our conduct while mingling with the inhabitants, they commenced to call forth the names of those who were to compose the first draft: by quarter watches or divisions, is the general method of sending men on shore; but the plan adopted by our first lieutenant, was I imagine, one of the best that could possibly be resorted to in order to satisfy all parties; slips of paper, containing the names of every person in the ship, were put into a box and well shaken, and the thirty individuals first drawn commenced the liberty, and so on day after day until the box became empty. This plan was an impartial one, giving every one a chance alike, and though many looked blank and discomfited when they found their cognomens were not re‑echoed by the boatswain's mate at the first onset, yet they satisfied themselves with the pleasing reflection that their turn was yet to come, and that the pleasures and enjoyments of Peru were yet in store for them.

The next morning before breakfast, the first draft of our jolly lads, with bosoms palpitating with delight, spirits as buoyant as air, and hearts devoid of care or trouble, vacated our frigate and stepped upon the beach, their own lords and masters, and at their own command for twenty-four hours; nobody but he who has been cooped up on board a vessel of war for months and months together, with nothing but the same dull routine of ship's duty day after day to enliven the scene, can tell the pleasurable sensations that swell the breast of the tar, when he plants his foot upon terra firma and can say — "I am free for a short time at least;" who will  p88 blame him if he o'er‑steps the bounds of modesty in his excesses! After Jack lands in Callao, and a libation or two poured down in the first pulpería that heaves in sight, the livery stable is the place that he next bends his step towards, and a horse is soon engaged to carry our light-hearted liberty‑man to the famed city of Lima.​a I don't know how it is, but in every part of the world, horse riding appears to be a favourite amusement with the son of Neptune, particularly when a little in the wind. I am sure it is not that he is master of any great amount of horseman­ship, which he is anxious to display, for he generally bites the dust half a dozen times before his ride is completed; but he is intent on a ride, and who dare prevent him as long as his pockets can meet the expense. Fancy, therefore, to yourself, twenty or twenty-five hard-weather customers, mounted on their sorry steeds, cutting and slashing pell mell, and leaving a cloud of dust behind as they urge their way onward towards the gate of Lima. — Here you may behold a fellow considerably in the rear of the rest of the party, cursing with bitter volubility the stable keeper, who had the assurance to shove such a nag on him, for a thorough pacer; and giving the poor half-starved Rozinante, from a cudgel which he winds triumphant, tangible demonstration that as long as he's got command he expects him to go at the rate of his wishes. A little further along you may observe another one (to use a vulgar expression) "picking himself up," his clothes completely covered with sand, his patient and sagacious beast standing quite still, looking our disconcerted horseman in the face as much as to say — " 'twas all your own fault, not mine." Yonder is a liquor-loving customer, who has already dipped so deep into the intoxicating bowl, that a slight siesta which he is now enjoying, despite the clouds of sand that seem to be attracted towards the spot, appears to be more suitable to him than a ride on horseback; but of course he thought steering a horse wasn't a circumstance to a fellow who could steer "Old Ironsides" with studding-sails alow and aloft, and so mounted — but alas! he was completely out of his latitude, for as he came thus far, he endeavoured to heave‑to, to pick up a shipmate's jacket that lay on the road, but (as he himself expressed it next day)  p89 "the old nag wouldn't luff round for all he put the helm a‑port, and as he went to haul flat aft both jib‑sheets (the reins) so as to deaden his headway a little, the lubberly beast brought up all standing, and pitched him completely over the bows." There he lies, comfortably asleep; the poor jaded animal awaiting patiently until he will again resume his journey.

When our equestrians reached the half‑way house, the only place of entertainment on the road, of course it could not be passed without freshening the nip; they quickly alighted from their horses and seated themselves at their ease on the large benches in front of the establishment, and poured down potations of the inspiring liquid and trolled forth their merry songs, forgetting in their mirth that such a place as Lima ever existed. The horses when freed from their uncomfortable riders appeared to be quite at home — huddling themselves together in one corner of the shed, ready to accommodate whoever might think proper to take possession of them for the time being. Some of our happy lads, by dint of hard struggling, did reach the city they had set out to visit; but the majority of them, ere the sun sunk in the western horizon, might be seen making all the headway the effects of their numerous libations and jaded animals would admit of, towards Callao; the amusements there being on a cheaper scale and more suited to their curious tastes than the aristocratic pleasures of the city of Lima.​b

It is not an unfrequent occurrence for several of them to "pick themselves up" at the half‑way house the next morning; their accommodations however cost them but little, for their dormitory is in the open air, under the blue canopy of Heaven; their couch perhaps some rude bench, and their pillow their tarpaulin hat or jacket, (if these articles happen to be left unstolen, which is not often the case) and thus they pass the night. As soon as they overhaul the range of their recollection they find that they have but a few hours to remain on shore, and after swallowing a dose or two of pisco by the way of cutting the cobwebs, they start for Callao instanter, and soon join their shipmates on the beach, where the parting glass is taken over and over again, until at last when the boat arrives our jolly  p90 liberty man is completely sowed up. When he awakes from this second debauch he perhaps finds himself between the guns on the main-deck, or behind some mess-chest below, and wonders how he got on board, enquires for his clothes, finds they are all safe, and blesses his stars for being so careful; he now ascends to the gangway, gathers a crowd around him, and gives a brilliant description, with no few embellishments, of his cruise in Callao, and the disasters and difficulties he met with on the road to Lima.

Thayer's Notes:

a Lima is only about 20 km from the port of Callao.

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b Among them, gentlemen's clubs with good libraries. It was on such an excursion from Callao to Lima in 1883 that Alfred Thayer Mahan stumbled on what would inspire him to his career as a seminal naval historian (in his own words, quoted by Alden and Earle, Makers of Naval Tradition, p234 f.).

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Page updated: 15 Sep 21