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Bill Thayer

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Description of a Man-of‑War

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 Boiled Mess-Cloth
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p107  The Literary Tars

"Ships are but boards, sailors but men —

There be land rats and water rats."

Reader! don't spoil your pretty countenance with a sneer, nor turn up your nose with disgust, at the title of this sketch. — Methinks I hear you with a pish exclaim, "Literary Tars — quotha, upon my word the Belles Lettres are becoming fearfully defiled, when the wild, reckless sailor, ruffles the leaves with his clumsy and tar‑besmeared fingers." But the bard of Avon says, in the above motto, that "there are water rats as well as land rats;" why then should it be considered a strange or unaccountable coincidence if we had our book-worms on the forecastle of a tight Yankee frigate, as well as in the boudoir or the drawing-room. — The "march of mind" is abroad, and making rapid strides in both the hemispheres; why then should it not on its journey take a sly peep among the worthies of a man-of‑war? why should not the wanderer on the mighty deep, as well as the sojourner on terra firma, hail with feelings of delight, the appearance of a sheet filled with the soul-thrilling poetry of the inestimable Moore, or the quaint, racy prose of the inimitable Dickens.

When sailing on the boundless Ocean for weeks and weeks together, each day bringing forth the same dull, unvaried round of employment; the same tiresome monotony still pervading the scene; what can be a greater resource to help to dispel the foul fiend ennui, than the interesting or amusing volume; it is at a time like this, the unsophisticated tar pores over with pleasurable feelings the pages of history, or imbibes, with heated imagination, the melting pathos of some of our beauti­ful modern poets. Who will say then, that some of the inmates of a vessel-of‑war do not thirst after literature? To illustrate the fact, just glance your eye along our ships' decks when lying in port; under the break of the poop you may observe a group of mizen-topmen, eagerly listening to some more talented shipmate,  p108 who, with voice and effect worthy the subject, is reading aloud passages from one of the splendid and romantic poems of the celebrated Byron: — In the larboard gangway a crowd are assemble, distorting their risible muscles at the trying though ludicrous scenes in Marryatt's Jacob Faithful or Midshipman Easy: — Again, on the starboard side amongst main-topmen, a little coterie are gathered together, wrapped in profound silence, every ear intent, with open mouth, swallowing some of Cooper's thrilling descriptions of nautical life, or digesting the eccentricities of Scott's liquor-loving Peter Peebles, or the original and trite remarks of Boz's inimitable Sam Weller; and even the hard old salts on the forecastle, with the bronze of every climate upon their furrowed cheeks, are huddled together around the trunk, hearing, with enthusiastic imagination and eyes beaming with delight, some lettered "sheet-anchor‑man" describe the glorious exploits and brilliant achievements of Columbia's ships in the last war.

Whilst we lay in New York, three or four hundred volumes were purchased, comprising the whole of the Family Library; the works of Scott, Marryatt, Cooper, Irving, Bulwer, &c.; and when the circumstance was made known throughout the ship, the greater part of our jolly tars came forward with avidity and subscribed their mites towards repaying the purchase money, and felt pleased to think that they had now in their possession a stock of intellectual food to beguile the heavy tediousness of the cruise, or to refresh their thirst for mental acquirements. The little collection of books was put under charge of the ship's Yeoman, in the fore-passage, and there remained until the multiplied duties generally attending a vessel-of‑war upon the commencement of a foreign cruise, had in some measure subsided, — and the first Sunday the news flew through the ship that books were about to be issued, an all‑impatient crowd immediately surrounded the ladders leading to the fore-passage, and a scene of uproar and confusion, laughable in the extreme, took place. The several volumes had been numbered, and the titles placed on a catalogue, which was forcibly dragged from one to the other, the weakest going to the wall, to ascertain what books  p109 were below that might suit their several tastes; and if the Yeoman hadn't his hands full, to try and keep peace and endeavour to satisfy the clamorous demands of all parties, I wonder at it.

There was a soft-pated "Johnny Raw," a steady cook on the berth-deck, with scarcely sense enough to know which was banyan day, loudly vociferating for number one hundred and sixty, which, as soon as presented, proved to be an essay on conchology; he carried it off at all events, triumphantly, though whether he could read the title page or not, I have my doubts. Next came a light-hearted harum-scarum fore-topman, up to all manner of mischief, with an eye even at this time seeking for a fit object amongst the crowd to play his intolerable pranks upon; he called for anything at all to pass the time away, number two hundred and four would answer as well as any, 'twas his ship's number, and therefore he chose it: the number in question was brought up, and our fore-topman stalked off with Mason Good's Book of Nature under his arm, to edify himself and the worthies of the larboard gangway.

Now came pushing through the crowd an old veteran mastman of some fifty winters, enquiring for one of Marryatt's nautical novels; the work requested — a little pocket edition — was passed up, which the old Triton eagerly grabbed. "Po, po!" cried the pragmatical Bill Garnet, who, as a matter of course could not absent himself on this particular occasion: "That book is too small altogether for old Grummet; pass him up the largest bible you've got, he only wants it for a pillow to lay his head on between the guns this afternoon — don't you see the snatch-blocks that he's been used to this some time back have chafed all the hair off the top of his head." "I know how to keep a book as it ought to be, and that's more than you do, Mr. Garnet," replied the man of the mast, a little fretted at Bill's allusion to his somnolency — for which he was remarkable. "I have good reason to know that, old boy," cried Garnet with a knowing leer, "for them song books of mine I lent you three months ago, you are keeping so slick that I never expect you to see them again;" this remark of Garnet's caused a laugh all round the crowd, and Grummet took his departure without making a reply. One of the  p110 galley cooks now populated his curly head amongst the assemblage, and asked in quite a polite style for Moore's "Loves of the Angels." "Never mind," cried Flukes, the main-top wag — "I've got Sittin on a Rail and Gumbo Squash in my ditty‑bag I can let you have, they will answer you just the same; you will be more athome with them at all events." "I'd have you to understand," replied the "coloured gemman" — his lips thickening and his nose dilating with anger, "that I don't read such foolish stupid stuff as you have just mentioned — nothing less than Moore or Byron in the shape of poetry do I think palatable; and when I read prose, always give me a philosophical treatise; I always like something heavy to digest." "Then that duff that we had for dinner in our mess to‑day would just suit you to a ravelling," remarked Pat Bradley, "for in my opinion, it was as hard and as heavy as a thirty‑two pound shot — that would sit solid enough on your stomach, I tell you."

"I'd advise Snowball to get an essay on the rudiments of coffee-making," chimed in Garnet, "for the d–––––d stuff he sold me yesterday was like so much bilge-water; look out for yourself if you come that load over me again, I'll capsize your apple-cart for you;" this twittering on facts caused the darkie to disappear pretty quick, for he knew Garnet was a fellow not to be tampered with. A wild scamp of a mizen-topman now sung out lustily for some book or another; "you know what will suit me," he remarked to the Yeoman; "Yes! yes!" cried Flukes, "pass him up the Youth's easy road to the Gallows; that will fit him exactly. "Now in my opinion," cried Bradley, "he knows the course and distance there as well as our sailing-master does the course and distance from Callao to Valparaiso; I'm sure if he only follows his nose right ahead as he's steering now, he'll hit the mark before he is thirty." This caused a laugh at the expense of the mizen-topman, which was interrupted by the ships barber enquiring at a hazard for number one hundred and twenty; it was passed up to him and proved to be a Treatise on Physiology; "my gracious!" cried the man of soap-suds, "this is too dull altogether for me." — "Then it's exactly like your razors, Patterson," remarked Garnet; for he was determined to have a rap at  p111 the poor shaver some how or another. "Here's a first-rate work on Phlebotomy you can have," remarked Flukes, " 'twill answer you to a hair." "In what manner will that answer me" enquired the barber. "Why you know phlebotomy means blood-letting," continued the main‑top wag; "and I'm sure every time you take a razor in hand, you do plenty of that work; now this might teach you to scarify a man's countenance on quite a new principle." The poor barber couldn't stomach this innuendo at all; it cut him too close; and finding the main-topman was too keen a blade to handle — his wit having too sharp an edge, he quickly made himself scarce, fearing a second attack.

The crowd now began gradually to disappear from around the ladders, in fact the greater part of the books were served out; and in every part of the ship, from the old weather-beaten quarter-gunner to the youthful, interesting messenger boy, all might be perceived pouring over some volume, with a face as demure and lengthened as a well fed limb of the law when perusing a brief upon which great expectations rested; and on this evening in particular, our lads might well be called "literary tars."

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21