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Bill Thayer

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Capturing a Whale

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.
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French Polish
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p166  The Unexpected Seizure

"Dearest of distillation, last and best,

— How art thou lost."

Smuggling liquor is a crime rarely forgiven on board an armed ship, and why? Because it is the source from which emanates every breach of discipline, every act of insubordination, every crime; and though in many instances the individual who should chance to be arraigned at the mainmast for intoxication, might possibly escape with a slight reprimand, yet should suspicion but point its finger at the luckless wight who sold him the liquor, no pleading can palliate his offence, no excuse can save his back from the lacerating cats. Severe and doubly certain though the punishment of this crime is, still there is none so prevalent, nor any prosecuted with greater vigour; and however strict they may be in their search after this prohibited article, they will smuggle it, despite all their injunctions, all their watchfulness, all their precautions.

How often have I seen some case-hardened, determined boatman, after receiving his quantum at the gangway for being guilty of bringing the ardent on board, in the short space of half an hour, when his boat would reach the shore again, and with his back even then smarting from the effects of his late castigation, return to the ship with another load of the ill‑fated, prohibited liquid! The individuals who come under the denomination of "smugglers," are not, as may be supposed, inveterate drunkards; it is not to satisfy the cravings of their own appetites that they so fearfully risk corporal punishment. No; — 'tis to replenish their pockets with the needful — 'tis to gain for themselves the glittering dross —- that they deal so indefatigably in this contraband business; and that more enormous profit accrues from it than can be well imagined, I have only to mention that the quantity of liquor which on shore would cost but twenty-five cents, is here quickly sold to hundreds, quite elate at their bargain, for two and three dollars; and when a scarcity takes place, five, six, and even  p167 ten dollars, in money or its value, have often been given without a moment's hesitation for a bottle of the deleterious stuff.

What contrivances will not the smuggler of liquor have recourse to, in order to get his cargo on board in safety? I have seen a fine, tempting roasting pig or plump turkey, the property of one or other of the messes, brought on board upon some festival day, pass by the master-at‑arms without the slightest suspicion, which savoury articles as soon as they reached their destination on the lower deck, were quickly embowelled, with the help of a sharp knife, the interior presenting to the gaze of the delighted owners, a couple of bladders well filled with the inebriating nectar. — The old frigate that I was an inmate of last cruise, came to anchor one morning at the Island of Madeira; as is customary the bum‑boats came alongside with fruit, bread, eggs, &c., and amongst other things they offered for sale some very handsome covered straw baskets; — it was astonishing to see how great was the demand for these articles, although the price was a dollar each; but straw baskets were the rage from the mizen‑top to the berth-deck; three times a day would the boats come alongside, half-full of those fragile things, and as quick as lightning would they be all disposed of; for know, gentle reader, half a gallon of liquor was stowed securely in the inside; — and we left the Island without an officer on board having the slightest suspicion how well those baskets were lined.

One fine afternoon, lying in the harbour of Callao, our master-at‑arms was seen to emerge from his sanctorum on the lower deck, fly up the ladder with precipitate haste, and with a countenance betokening information of the greatest magnitude and importance, whisper something confidentially to the officer of the deck; at the same time looking around him with the air of one who is fearful some eavesdropper is on the alert to endeavour to catch his secret. As soon as the little affair was perceived, curiosity was excited to the highest pitch to know what could possibly be the cause of this colloquy; for they were well aware when this individual made his appearance at the mainmast, it was to make some report or other, which generally had the effect of consigning some poor devil to "durance  p168 vile;" all those therefore, who had been bowsing their jibs up during the morning began to arrange their disordered appearance somewhat, fearing the information might in some measure affect themselves.

"My eyes!" cried old Bowser, joining a little group that was now assembled in the starboard-gangway, directing their keen glances towards the precincts of the quarter-deck, endeavouring by every means in their power to fathom the affair — "there's a move on the board, I tell you. Joe has scented rum somewhere; see what a nasty twinkle he's got in that weather eye of his; if there are any smugglers about, they had better look out for their cargoes; for, believe me, there will be a dead set made." "Pshaw! nonsense," rejoined Flukes; " 'tis nothing more than some berth-deck cook that he's reporting for not having his spit‑box in good order." " 'Tis something more serious than that," replied Bowser — "just mark my words now if there ain't a whack of rum somewhere about the borders; I know his manoeuvres like a book; many a good skin he has cut belonging to me before this cruise; he can ferret liquor out, where you'd never expect it to be stowed." A boat was ordered to haul up to the gangway, and into it stepped the master -at‑arms and an officer, and shoved off from the ship; and now indeed was the curiosity of our lads increased four-fold, and an anxiety pervaded every mind to ascertain where the boat was possibly bound to.

"Why, damme I don't know what to make of this move no how," cried Pat Bradley, addressing himself to the crowd, which had considerably augmented, in the maintop‑man's gangway — "the master-at‑arms can't possibly have gone ashore for French liberty men, for he has'nt his jacket on; be easy, I don't believe there are any ashore that fashion just now; it puzzles me altogether, I tell you." "Well mates, it don't puzzle me a mite," cried the all‑knowing pragmatical Garnet; "I can tell to a ravelling where he's bound to, and mark me if he don't bring a pretty cargo alongside; he'll go as far as our buoy and no farther; and he'll find enough there, I'm thinking, to give every one in this gangway a good tuck out." "As far as the buoy — what mean you?" enquired one of the crowd. "What do I  p169 mean?" retorted Garnet; "why, I mean that some two‑faced rascal — I can't call him sailor — has let the cat out of the bag and turned states' evidence; he'd never know it else." "Curse me if I know what you are driving at, Garnet," remarked Flukes; "you are speaking in problems altogether." "Well then," continued the loquacious foretop‑man, "the fact of the matter is (for it's no use keeping it a secret any longer, since the gaff is blown) old Tubbs has got a ditty‑bag chuck full of red‑eye moored to our starboard buoy, and that's what they are in chase of."

Before they had time to vent their imprecations upon the wretch who had turned informer, (a name odious to a sailor;) the boat came alongside, and in a few moments the master-at‑arms ascended the accommodation ladder, a glow of satisfaction illumining his features, bearing in his insatiate clutches a ship's bag, which he laid with a smile of triumph at the feet of the first lieutenant, who had just arrived on the spot to investigate the affair. Our lads flocked in crowds around the mainmast to hear the proceedings; and many of our topers no doubt sent forth desponding sighs, to think this unfortunate seizure should have taken place, thereby depriving them of the glorious guzzle they had so anxiously anticipated.

The bag was carefully overhauled, and twelve or fourteen large skins of liquor held up to the gaze of the crowd, which called forth many little remarks in an under-tone from some of the individuals present. "What a pity all that precious stuff must be started over the side," broke forth a liquor-loving forecastleman, with a look which spoke volumes and a sigh which plainly betokened how much he was interested — "It almost brings the tears in my eyes to think of it; — curse the fellow that gave the information say I; if I had my will with him, I'd feed him on the sweepings of the gangway and salt-water grog for a Greenland winter." "And good enough for him," reiterated a dozen voices; "damn a fellow that would inform on his shipmate; he'd let the guts out of your bag just as quick." "Aye! and swear your life away for a five dollar bill," chimed in Flukes. The bag was examined very scrutinously, to see if they could find any clue as to who might be the proprietor thereof; but  p170 without avail. It belonged to an adept at the business, however; so compact was every thing about it arranged, being provided with weights, &c., to prevent it from floating to the surface; and no doubt but what the enterprising individual, whoever he was, had profited pretty considerably by the contrivance prior to this unfortunate development.

As suspicion could not be fixed upon any one particularly, the affair was brought to an issue by the master-at‑arms taking possession of the skins and emptying them overboard; and as each one was perceived to belch forth its precious contents and mingle with the briny element, heartfelt ejaculations might be heard issuing from the lips of many of the by‑standers, for what they considered such an unprecedented waste of Heaven's choicest gifts; and the abject wretch whose information led to this seizure, received the maledictions of many a "hard old salt."

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21