Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
The Unexpected Seizure

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!


[image ALT: link to next section]
The Galley Marauders
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p166  French Polish

"They order those things much better in France."

In the course of a vessel-of‑war's sojourn on a foreign station, there is no scarcity of matter to constitute sketches such as the foregoing: for not a day passes over the heads of the devotees of Ocean, but what some occurrence or another takes place of sufficient moment, and amusing enough, to be worthy of preservation; and were I to note all the several incidents, "from grave to gay — from lively to severe," that have daily come under my observation; I would swell our "sayings and doings" to a much greater magnitude than my arrangements would sanction.

When up the Mediterranean in the "last ship," cruising with us was all the go, and the different ports that we visited were numerous in the extreme; but on this station the case is materially altered, for from Callao to Payta or Talcahuana,º and occasionally to Valparaiso and back to Callao again, constitute the sum‑total of our ramblings. Callao being our rendezvous, of course our tarry there is of longer duration than at any of the other mentioned harbours; and like Port Mahon to the tars of the Mediterranean squadron, so is this place to our jolly lads; it is their second home, endeared to them by some tie or another, in such a manner as to cause their hearts to pant with gladness when San Lorenzo presents its sandy pinnacles to their sight.

There is no part of the equipment of a man-of‑war that greater pains are taken with to have its appearance strike the beholder with delight, or that the first lieutenant is so particularly anxious about, as the battery; those ponderous thirty‑two and twenty-four pounders daily, aye hourly, receive the fostering attentions of the quarter-gunner, to endeavour to give their huge bodies a smooth ebony gloss, to catch the eye and rivet the attention of transient visitors. Our guns in my humble opinion, when we got our ship to rights upon our arrival on this coast, looked as well as any person could wish  p172 such ponderous engines to look, particularly when we run them in and out in the way of exercise so often; well, then, they did present a fine warlike appearance to the stranger, who would walk fore and aft the main deck; and such is the appearance they should present, on board of such a time-honoured, war‑worn craft as "Old Ironsides;" the first lieutenant was proud of them, and no doubt thought them the ne plus ultra of ordnance, until, (oh! unlucky day,) he chanced to step on board the French frigate Thetis, lying adjacent to us in the harbour of Callao, when, horror of horrors, he found to his chagrin the glittering lustre of her battery o'er‑shadowed ours, as the high polish of a modern exquisite's boot would the embrowned sapata of a tavern loafer.

Here was a damper! the guns we had taken such pains with, and which we viewed with such pleasure and delight, to be thus in one moment eclipsed by the infernal polish of "Johnny Crapeau!" What was to be done? why we must endeavour to outshine them without a doubt, and so thought our first lieutenant; he at first imagined the high polish on the Frenchman's guns was accomplished by the application of some novel composition, for which the inventor had perhaps received a medal of the order of St. Louis; but no, he was informed that it was caused by nothing more than black paint, laid on by hand; this was the whole and sole secret. Rumor, with her hundred tongues, soon spread through the ship the superiority of the Frenchman's battery in lustrous appearance, with a slight hint at the same time, that we were about to adopt their mode of proceeding, to endeavour if possible to bring ours to the like glossy condition. This discomfited our tars not a little, and many condemned such a mode of proceedure as foolish and nonsensical in the extreme; for it was well known, were we to rub ours till our hands were laid bare to the muscles, we could not make them look anything like the Frenchman's, for the surface of their center guns was as smooth as glass, whereas on the contrary ours were in their original rough state as they came from the hands of the caster; still they were determined to try the experiment; and fearing our lads were not sufficiently initiated in the peculiar movement of the hand, requisite  p173 for laying the paint on the proper style, Française, and imagining that any bungling on their part at the first onset, would counteract the delightful effects so anxiously anticipated, they engaged the services of a couple of quarter-gunners belonging to the French frigate, to commence operations upon two or three of our quarter-deck carronades. To work they therefore went, and though at first the greater part of our crew darted at them glances significant of envy and disapprobation, yet when they had given the guns they were at work upon, two or three coats, they quickly perceived how different they were in appearance from the others adjacent, and they acknowledged the hand work was as effective as it was novel.

So pleased was the "fountain-head," at the jetty brilliancy of the guns that had been Frenchified, that our entire battery was ordered to undergo a similar operation; and they did not stop there, for match-tubs, shot-boxes, pump-gear, in fact every piece of wood or iron work in the ship, received diurnally their due proportion of this celebrated composition; in a word, "French polish" became the order of the day, and our wags let off their witticisms on the occasion in every corner. "I say Sam?" cried a rough old customer belonging to the third division, addressing a gun‑mate at his elbow, "what do you think of this here move? in my opinion, Johnny Crapeau must be confoundedly short of brushes, when he started this curious plan for putting on paint." "You may well call it a curious plan," replied the man addressed, "and a damn'd nonsensical one too; in my thinking we might rub on these here guns this fashion, for the standing part of a Dutch dog‑watch, every day in our three years' cruise, and we could'nt make them look like theirs." "A precious good reason, mates," cried old Flyblock, "their guns are smooth, and why should'nt they be? they are not left lying about a navy-yard when a ship goes home off her station, half buried in the sand as ours are; no, you'll see some twenty or thirty convicts around each of them, with a lump of holy-stone in his fist, and they don't give up the job till they grind them down as slick and as bright as one of our marine's ramrods; no wonder then, that paint laid on this fashion  p174 makes them look so stylish; we can't come it though on those rough customers of ours." "You've just called them by the right name, Flyblock," rejoined Bowser, the forecastle‑man; "rough customers they are without a doubt, our enemies found them so also, I imagine; and even now, though they don't shine as well as the Frenchman's guns, yet believe me they can bark and bite, too, in the proper Yankee style, without the aid of their foreign polish." "Still this plan is a good one, for all it works up a fellow's old iron," remarked one of the by‑standers — "it lays the paint on much smoother than a brush would." "Oh! damn all such outlandish compositions I say," chimed in Flukes; "our guns looked well enough before we ever heard of it, in all conscience. I've been handling the cursed stuff so much for the last week, that yesterday I undertook to scribble a note to the bumb-boat man ashore, for some washed clothes, and curse me mates, if I did'nt slap the three first words down in French." "Pshaw! that's nothing," rejoined the incorrigible Garnet, determined not to be outdone by the maintop‑man, "I tried some of this fancy composition on my new hat; I had scarcely given it the second coat, and had laid it on the booms to dry, before it took French leave, and I hav'nt set eyes on it since — what do you think of that?"

Thus every day, whilst engaged on the rubbing system, would our lads bandy their jokes about from gun to gun, until at length, like every other affair on board a man-of‑war, the "French polish" ceased to be a novelty.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 5 Oct 21