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Bill Thayer

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The Boiled Mess-Cloth

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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Aquatic Theatricals
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

The reader is reminded that the language on this page and the attitudes expressed, unacceptable today, are those of the source document; they reflect the author's time and background.

 p115  Auction on Shipboard

"What doth it cost? — Not much, upon my word.

How much, pray? — Why two‑pence. Two‑pence? O Lord."

A sojourner on terra firma can form but a small idea of the curious and laughable scenes that take place almost daily on board of a man-of‑war; for from the time the light-hearted tar first springs from his hammock, at the boatswain's shrill summons, until the watchful sentinel responds to the clang of one bell at night, he is on the qui vive, and hails with rapturous delight any little incident, however frivolous in itself, that may help to add variety to his monotonous occupation. There cannot be a more systematic creature than a thorough man-of‑war's‑man; the routine of his duty is the same day after day, week after week, month after month: you may see him before breakfast, with his broom in hand, indefatigably scrubbing the same spot of deck which he has scrubbed on every morning, incessantly for two or perhaps three years before; afterwards, you may observe him with his canvass rag and a moiety of Bristol brick, putting a gloss on some cutlass or screw, which articles, were they sensible to touch, would have tangible demonstration every morning at the same hour, that they were not forgotten by him; and save when the washing of clothes, or scrubbing of hammocks, occasionally intervene, he is similarly occupied day after day 'till the end of the cruise: — Such being the case, no wonder then poor Jack is half frantic with delight when he steps his foot on shore; no wonder his over-flowing heart carries him into excesses which the sage moralizer fearfully condemns; he is like a forest bird escaped from the cage, warbling his note of gratulation from place to place, looking on the sunny side of every object, little dreaming but what he will soon be again an inmate of the prison he has just vacated.

To beguile the monotony that hangs like an incubus upon him, the sailor has recourse to divers methods; the merry song, the romantic  p116 tale, the facetious anecdote, are all brought in force to kill this foul fiend ennui; and when a theatrical representation takes place, or a batch of six-months‑old newspapers go the round of the ship, they furnish a topic for conversation and discussion at least for a month. Among the many scenes on board a man-of‑war that appear to engross the attention of all, "an auction" holds a distinguished place; when the announcement is made, every one flies with eagerness and alacrity to join the scene, not so much for the purpose of purchasing, as to enjoy the racy and quaint remarks of the ship's wags, who on this occasion collect all their fund of witticism and bon mot, to be levelled indiscriminately at every one present: — The articles to be disposed of, consist of the clothes and bedding of some good fellows who have paid the debt of nature, or of those who may have thought proper, as our tars express it, "to give the ship a wide berth and go on their own hook." I have been present at several of these affairs, but will merely advert to one that took place whilst we lay in Callao.

It was a lovely afternoon in the month of July, our old frigate had just returned from a cruise, and save and except hoisting in occasionally a few casks of water, or our allowance of fresh beef and vegetables, our happy tars had nothing at all to do after the nine o'clock inspection; the yards were uniformly squared, and each piece of rigging systematically hauled taut, under the directions of our knowledgeable and efficient boatswain; the capacious awnings were ready spread fore and aft, imparting a refreshing coolness along the spar-deck; the belaying-pins, monkey-tails, screws, and all the other bright-work, wore an appearance that might compete with Rogers' most superior cutlery; in fact, every article about the deck was arranged with the neatest precision and accuracy, and "Old Ironsides," both inside and out, could present to the gaze of a stranger, as complete a floating structure of precise elegance and exact regularity, as any ship that ever danced over the bounding billow. Groups of light-hearted sailors might be observed scattered about the decks in glorious confusion, some killing time with the assistance of chequer or back-gammon boards; others (though in opposition  p117 to the strictest orders of the service) throwing the fatal and cursed dice with all a determined gambler's anxiety, and hazarding their last cent, or perhaps some indispensable article of their wardrobe on the chance of a single throw. — Further along you might perceive a bevy of quidnuncs, who, "all ear," are swallowing copious draughts of news from "Brother Jonathan" or "Bennett's Herald," six or eight months old, which one of the party reads aloud occasionally, setting pronunciation at defiance altogether: others of a thrifty disposition, you might observe with the contents of their bags spread before them, "o'erhauling each piece with scrupulous care," and laying those aside that "honoured age" might chance to have made inroads upon, to undergo an operation of the needle and thread as soon as convenient; and again, along the larboard gangway, or between the guns on the forecastle, the sons of Morpheus might be seen, stretched out at their full length, enjoying their tranquil slumbers upon the hard planks, with that seeming ease and relish denied to hundreds on costly and luxurious couches.

In the midst of this scene which I have endeavoured, but feebly, to describe, the purser's steward ascended one of the ladders leading to the spar-deck, followed by two or three of his deputies bearing on their shoulders four or five bags and hammocks, which were to be disposed of at public sale, for the benefit of whom it might concern; and close behind came our master-at‑arms, the pro tem auctioneer, smirking and sideling like a boarding-school Miss about to be led to the altar, "nothing loath." The boatswain's mate now loudly vociferated that an auction was about to take place — the sound was electric; — the literary character who was reading the columns of the Herald to his attentive auditors, hastily stowed the journal away in his hat (that receptacle of a sailor for almost every thing,) and joined the crowd that was now every moment augmenting around the main-mast; the chequer players left their kings to govern the subjects on the board until their return; the barber left the last occupier of his chair with a face bedaubed with lather, either to wait patiently until he would again condescend to take him by the nose, or else join the throng again despite the soap-suds; — the  p118 sleepers (and nothing else in creation save the roll for grog could rouse them from their lethargy,) started on their feet, rubbed their eyes, and with a smile of approbation wended their way to the scene of business; even those of the doctor's patients who were anything like convalescent — the grim and curly-headed knights of the gridiron and fryingpan, ycleped galley-cooks — the old veteran tar of sixty winters, with the tinge of eastern suns upon his rough countenance — the rigid and precise marine fully accoutred, and the interesting apprentice boy with his youthful countenance glowing with the rosy tint of health, and his eye sparkling with roguish delight, were all elbowing their way along to join this motley assemblage; in fact, it was a scene which the pencil of Cruikshank or the pen of Marryatt could alone adequately pourtray.

Silence being "had and obtained," the contents of one of the bags were displayed before the eager eyes of the impatient crowd; and as the different articles met their view, they called forth the praise or condemnation of our tars, as they appeared to suit their several tastes. The temporary salesman now held up between his finger and thum,º a couple of duck frocks, which no doubt were once white, but which in the present instance for want of occasional ablutions, appeared of a complete dingy hue. "Now then to begin with," broke forth the man of sales, "here I present to this discriminating assemblage those two frocks; they are an elegant article, certainly a little scrubbing to be sure would'nt hurt them much; come give me a bid." — "Faith you're out of your latitude there, master-at‑arms," remarked Pat Bradley, the main-topman, and an unsophisticated son of the land of potatoes, and the oracle of the starboard gangway — "You're out of your latitude there I tell you when you say a little scrubbing would'nt hurt 'em, for by the looks of them, one touch of the softest brush in the ship would put them in such a condition that you would'nt know which hole your head went through." "Oh never mind that," continued the auctioneer; "give us a bid." "If you'll put three pound of soap up with them," chimed in a mizen-topman; "I'll give you twenty-five cents to begin with." "If you want to get them off to advantage," remarked Bill Garnet, who, to give greater  p119 force to his observations, had perched himself on the main-topsail-sheet bitts, high above the heads of the crowd; and with an eye twinkling with fun and mischief, looked down on the scene with perfect nonchalance — "If you want to get them off to advantage," proceeded the wag, "you'd better sell them by weight, they'll fetch something handsome then I imagine, if you get but a cent a pound — for to my thinking there's seventy weight of dirt on each of them;" thus were those two duck frocks made the theme of witticism and remark, until they were at last knocked down to an old forecastle‑man for forty-five cents.

"Now then," continued the doubly obliging man of the hammer, "here's a comfortable pea‑jacket, well calculated to keep one warm of a night-watch at sea." "Why don't you call it a ventilator at once?" remarked Bradley — "I see it's already supplied with portholes to let the fresh air in; my eyes! it would be a comfortable thing, as you say, with two watches in the lee‑scuppers, on some night as we've had doubling the Cape; 'twould be almost as good as a herring‑net to keep the weather off; it would give me the fever and ague of a rainy night to look at it, much less to put it on." "Come," cried the auctioneer, "what shall I do with it?" "Chuck it overboard," responded Garnet; " 'twill make a good meal for the mackerel alongside; there's grease enough on it to fat down all our masts for a month to come." "Oh come!" continued the master-at‑arms, somewhat impatiently, "say something." "Weel then," vociferated an old mastman, "I say, heave that old jacket to h–––ll, and put up something worth looking at." This was a clincher, the article in question was thrown aside, and in a moment a dozen jack-knives were cutting it into all sort of shapes, for polishing rags, for hats, bright-work, &c. The auctioneer now produced a rusty looking pair of sea boots, which he held up to the gaze of the crowd with a smile of triumph! "Well," continued he, "I believe here's something will fetch a nice round price, those are the fellows to keep your feet warm and dry, on a winter's coast, — what ought I have on them?" "Why in my opinion," remarked Firehawk, the nigger songster, and the Joe Miller of the fore-topman's gangway — "You ought to have  p120 new soles and heels on them, before you'd attempt to shove them off." "Aye," chimed in Garnet, "and then with a new pair of uppers, they might pass amongst a crowd." These little witticisms caused a hearty laugh all round, but did not appear to disconcert the salesman in the least, for he joined in it himself, and by that means raised a bid on the boots. "Fifty cents," cried a main-holder; "seventy-five; eighty," cried four or five voices at once; "one dollar," cried Firehawk; "gone," cries the auctioneer, "they're yours;" and they were accordingly knocked down to the fore-topman. "What did you buy them precious old things for?" inquired a quarter-master of our Joe Miller, as he perceived him viewing the well-worn soles of the articles in question very attentively. "Why just to try an experiment in cold weather washing decks," answered Firehawk. "What? to see if they'll keep your feet dry?" interrupted three or four tars, with a hearty laugh; "no indeed," replied our nigger songster, "I've been thinking a long time how a fellow could possibly wash his feet of mornings, without the trouble of taking his shoes and stockings off; now you see I've only to put those boots on when I turn out, and before six buckets of water are thrown, I'll bet my supper-grog against a pan of scouse, that my feet will be as nicely washed as yours, that may be dabbling about with your legs bare to the knees." This explanation, given in his own peculiar ludicrous style, caused another roar of laughter, and our hero walked off triumphant with the old boots, saying that he would'nt take two dollars for his bargain. "Here's a nice uniform mustering joint, give me a bid." "What do you call that a uniform jacket for?" enquired a quarter-gunner; "Why!" replied Bradley, "don't you see, because it's got buttons on one side and none at all on the other:" "No it ain't," remarked our friend Garnet, from the bitts, " 'tis because its got a patch on each elbow, and each cuff is half torn off; that's uniform I'm sure; but come," he continued, "I'll give you thirty-seven and a half cents, and knock it down, I want some cleaning rags." It was accordingly knocked down to Garnet, for nobody would over‑bid him. Thus while the sale continued, was the bon mot and repartee bandied about, the auctioneer occasionally coming in for his share,  p121  until the empty bags and hammocks were all that remained of the articles brought upon deck. The pro tem salesman clapped a stopper on his polite garrulity, and repaired amongst the berth-deck cooks, once more to fawn them into subjection; the "coloured gemmen" of the galley hied them with speed to attend to the joints of meat that had all this time been cooking themselves for the young gentlemen's dinner; the gamblers started to rattle the fatal dice‑box in some snug corner again; the sleepers ran precipitately to try and regain a better and more comfortable billet for their slothful carcasses; and this busy scene was as if by a magician's wand in one moment dispersed, and the remainder of the afternoon was spent by the several purchasers in altering, repairing, trading away, or washing the articles that had been knocked down to them; and such is a slight description of "an auction on shipboard."

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21