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Bill Thayer

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Lines on the Death of Commodore Claxton

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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Soiree on the Forecastle
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.

 p207  The Nigger Pugilists

"He who fights and runs away

Will live to fight another day."

On board a man-of‑war a pugilistic encounter is contrary to the rules and regulations of the Navy; and when one of those affairs comes directly under the gaze of an officer, ten chances to one but what the gangway, the grating and the cats bring it to a conclusion; still such things will take place, despite the after-claps, for scarcely a week passes but what some hot‑brained tars will come in collision for a mere trifle; in these instances two or three blows only are interchanged, ere an officer heaves in sight, at which intimation from one of the by‑standers, the combatants make themselves scarce, not knowing which is the best man; and perhaps here the matter will rest till they meet on terra firma, and then, their brain fired with the delicious nectar so loved by the sailor, they renew the fight until one or the other is declared conqueror. Sometimes a difficulty will arise between a couple of worthies, stationed perhaps in a different part of the ship from each other, respecting their pre‑eminence in some nautical evolution; mayhap reefing, loosing or furling, and for the honour of the top he belongs to, each will spit forth all his spleen; — words follow words, contradiction brings on contradiction, until overwhelming passion usurps the place of reason; — the lie direct is given, together with an epithet or two quite common in sailor phraseology, and like to our fire-eaters on shore, the consequence is a challenge is given to meet each other after the hammocks have been piped down, and thus that point is settled. The forecastle is generally the field of combat, and here with a due proportion of topmates on each side, together with a few on the qui vive to give notice of an officer's approach, does this encounter commence. It is only nine cases out of ten in question one of those pitched battles is sufficiently prolonged to ascertain who is the conqueror; for the crowd assembled on the occasion, together with the encouraging words by  p208 which the combatants are urged on, spoken in anything but a low tone of voice, such as "Go it, Ben, my hearty;" "Give it to him, Sam;" "That's your sort, Jack;" "Touch him there again, Bill;" &c., quickly attract the attention of the officer of the deck, who arrives at the scene of combat very often too late to ascertain who the parties may be; for upon the first intimation, the pugilists disappear, and not one of the crowd will let a word drop that may lead to their detection. I have seen several of these conflicts on board our ship, but will merely take notice of one which, from its bloodless and laughable nature, is the best adapted to eke out my random sketches.

It was a lovely night in February, we were lying at Valparaiso; one of those nights so dear to the sons of poetry and romance; the chaste moon threw her silvery beams upon the face of the tranquil waters, with such a dazzling brilliancy, as to bring plainly to view every object that floated upon the undulating waves within the compass of the harbour; from the huge frowning hull of the ship of war with her bristling ordnance peering through the dark port holes, to the long, low sharp-built schooner, with tapering spars and slight tracery of rigging, that sat on the surface of the glassy sea with swan-like grace and buoyancy. Scarcely a sound was heard to break the calm stillness that reigned around, save occasionally the loud baying of a dog from one of the adjacent hills; or the noise of a boat, passing to or from the shore, as her crew with their vigorous and uniform strokes made their oars rattle with one simultaneous movement. Our hammocks had been piped down some time, and the tormentors of cat‑gut, who together with the tambarinist, had been "softening rocks," and "bending knotted oaks," with the variety of dulcet and mellifluous sounds which they sent floating upon the balmy breeze, had just unscrewed their instruments, and were preparing to seek their swinging couches, much to the chagrin and mortification of many of our tars, who considered they had not "tripped it on the light fantastic toe," half to their satisfaction. Here and there might be seen a straggling couple pacing either side of the forecastle in deep and seemingly mysterious conversation, forming, perhaps, plans for their future guidance, or entering into  p209 arrangements with serious reality respecting a co‑partnership in some grog-shop or oyster-cellar, which they contemplated to start conjointly when they obtained their discharge.

At this juncture, as I strolled listlessly in the larboard gangway, enjoying the balmy serenity of the night, I perceived a little crowd collecting on the forecastle; and from a few words of defiance that reached my ears, I had not the least doubt but what a pugilistic encounter was about to take place, and I accordingly bent my steps towards the scene of action; — and here was an affair sufficiently humorous in its nature to distort the risible muscles of the most austere. Caleb Chuffy, a pert, saucy, chouder-headed mulatto; and Sam Grubbings, a slovenly, half dead‑and-alive mortal of somewhat darker hue, both ward-room boys, had a serious war of words that morning; — the cause of dispute was as follows: Grubbings, since our arrival at this place, had been paying his devoirs to a plump, round-faced, wicked-eyed, red‑haired Cyprian, proprietor and inmate of one of those little one story mud edifices situated in that part of Valparaiso, termed by the sailors the foretop; and he had every reason to believe from the glances which she shot on him from her keen eyes, as he spent without a murmur his pesos in her company, that his love was returned. Now chance, or Cupid, or Old Nick for aught I know, led Mr. Chuffy to the same house; and as soon as he beheld the lovely Joppa, the first glance of her eye done his business; and he returned on board, a love-sick swain. The next day, Chuffy was an altered man; he conducted himself in a manner that proved he was either head over ears in love, or right down crazy. I don't know whether he attempted to stow himself in the netting instead of his hammock, or whether he poured down any libation of brandy from the ward-room decanters, mistaking it for water, but he was continually drawling forth the mellifluous name of Joppa; and the boots and shoes he operated on that morning, had not half their lustrous appearance, in consequence of his love-sick despondency. Whilst he and Mr. Grubbings were amusing themselves with the innocent pastime of bringing sundry knives and forks in contact with a long narrow strip of board, well besprinkled  p210 with soft brick, Chuffy gave a deep-drawn sigh, and once more pronounced the name of Joppa. "What's dat?" cried Grubbings, discontinuing his operations on the knife-board — "what name is dat, Chuffy?" "Why Joppa, to be sure; what udder name should it be?" returned the love-sick mulatto — "a name, de pronuncification ob which, makes de interior of my bosom like to de burning Wesuvius! Oh you hab no idear how I lubs dat gal, Grubbings." "What's dat, you black warmant?" cried the now enraged Grubbings, brandishing the fork he had just been scouring, — "do you purtend to insert dat de lubliest, de sublimest, de beautifulest critter in all Valparaiso, would allow you to purfane her sweet name, by habing it bellowed forth from dem tick lips ob yours upon the gun‑deck ob a man-of‑war; neber, I tell you, she tinks too much ob herself." "Ha! ha! ha! Grubbings, you can't come in dat shop, no how you can fix it!" cried Chuffy, with a malicious laugh, showing his ivory; "not while dis here gentleman is about at all events; I've eclipsed you in dat quarter like a knife!" "You lie, you mush and molasses looking scorpion!" responded Grubbings, almost choked with rage, — "if you hab de blood ob de gentleman in your veins, you will gib me satisfaction for dis insult." "I will do dat ting," returned Chuffy, "dis evening, on de spar-deck, when de hammocks are down; and de lubly Joppa, be de conqueror's prize." At this they separated, and it was this redoubtable pair that was now about to settle their love quarrel on the forecastle.

Bill Garnet, in consideration of a bottle of rum to be forthcoming the next day, acted as friend and second to Mr. Grubbings: and the well-known, intermeddling Flukes, the maintopman, being promised a certain quantity of the like glorious nectar, led Mr. Chuffy to the field of action, and declared with sundry oaths, to see fair play on both sides. The combatants slowly dispossessed themselves of their jackets, vests and hats, tied their suspenders around their waists, and went through with several little preliminaries, not at all requisite in affairs of this kind; but the fact is, they wished to procrastinate the active part of the business as much as possible, for any one could perceive they were both afraid of coming to the scratch. "Come,  p211 come," cried Garnet, placing his man in a favourite position — "damme, I'm afraid this will all end in smoke; make a pass now, and let every blow tell." Grubbings at this reminder, flourished about his long arms, and did make a pass, but he was at an awful distance from his antagonist, and his blow only cut the air. "Does you give in," cried the warlike Grubbings, as he retreated to the head-door; "I reckon you'd better 'afore I smash you all to pieces." "What should I give in for?" answered Chuffy, "you hav'nt done me noting yet." "Ah, but I will directly, if you only comes dis way an inch or two," continued the cleaner of knives, bringing himself again to a guard á la Jem Ward. The rivals now stood viewing each other with threatening glances, and appearing to be not at all disposed to come in contact; whilst the two seconds were urging them onward to the conflict, by occasionally poking them in the neck, and by divers applications of their feet upon the seats of honour of those coloured heroes. "Don't hurry me whatever you do," cried the courageous Grubbings, addressing himself to Bill Garnet; who, with one hand, holding a severe grip upon the seat of his inexpressibles, and the other entangled in his wool, was endeavouring to bring him to the scratch, whether he would or not — "I want to take it cool, Garnet; I always take dese sort of tings as coolly as possible." "So it appears," returned Bill, "and I believe by the look of things, the further your enemy is from you, the more courageous you'd feel; damme, you've been squaring for one another almost half an hour, and not a blow struck yet; in my opinion, old bone-polisher, I think you'd sooner run a mile than fight a minute any time." Whilst Garnet was thus arguing the point with his champion, Chuffy, at the instigation of Flukes, made a rush at his opponent, and with one of those elegant and accomplished movements, so peculiarly adapted to the hard heads of the sable son's of Africa, vulgarly termed butting, planted his bump of knowledge, with terrific force, slap in the breast of the unprepared Grubbings. "Does you call dat dere fair, gentlemen?" enquired the irritated darkie, glancing his eye around and appealing to the by‑standers. — "Now, Chuffy, if dat's your play, I'se a‑coming for you; look out for yourself now. — I tell  p212 you I'll not spare you this time; for if I gets you into my clutches, I knocks you into de shape of a boot-jack." And suiting the action to the word, he made a rush forward, clinched his enemy, and in another moment they were both rolling on the deck, in a close, though no very loving embrace. "Go it Chuffy;" "That's your sort Grubbings;" cried the delighted crowd — for they were glad to find they had made some sort of a commencement, and to add the greater force to their words, they planted sundry kicks and blows upon the bodies of the prostrate pugilists. "Oh Lord! oh Lord!" bellowed forth the redoubtable Mr. Grubbings; "de damn'd black nigger has got my nose between his teeth." "Upon my conscience then, Mr. Snowball," remarked Pat Bradley, the Hibernian, who chanced to be one of the spectators, "he must have a strong stomach, and cursedly in want of a delicate tit‑bit, when he could find nothing else but that ugly plug nose of yours to operate upon." "Dere, just look at dat dere, now," squealed forth Chuffy, as Grubbings inserted one of his organs of hearing between his teeth; "does you call dat jonnock? I wont fight at all, if I does'nt get fair play." "Oh come, come," cried Flukes, dragging the combatants apart, and placing his man once more upon his feet — "drive ahead and settle the business at once." "This fight is something like the Florida war," cried Bradley, "precious little prospect of its coming to a finish."​a The two rivals by dint of pushing, thumping and kicking, were once more brought face to face; but from their quivering lips, and craven countenances, it could be perceived that they were neither of them particularly anxious to renew the combat. The by‑standers too began to grow impatient, and tried every means in their power to bring the coloured heroes once more in collision, but without avail; for Grubbings finding that his nasal organ had become somewhat of a larger quantity since it had felt the effects of Mr. Chuffy's grinders, and the said Chuffy, by occasionally applying the hand to his ear, drawing a conclusion therefrom, that one of those useful appendages was considerably the worse, since his friend Grubbings had tried the quality of it, they both felt inclined to call a truce. — "Is you satisfied to beg my pardon, and tink no more of  p213 Joppa, if I lets you off dis time," enquired the chivalrous Chuffy, looking towards his antagonist. "Dere now," returned Mr. Grubbings, "only hear dat, gentlemen, he tinks he's whipped me, but I reckon I'm de old ting yet. I can stand here by golly, till de hammocks are piped up, and not move an inch." "You're right enough there old fellow," responded Garnet, "I don't see that you've moved half an inch yet by way of approaching your enemy, except what pushing and shoving has done; damme, I've seen two old fish-women make a better fight of it." "Oh, we don't fight de common rough and tumble fight," responded one of the boot polishers, a little put out that his courage was called in question — "we take our time to explay the scientific moves, dat's what I calls fighting; it shows what men is." "Yes, it shows what you fellows are to a nicety," returned Flukes, "a pair of as complete chouder-headed, thick-lipped cowards as you could pick up along shore in a month — here, I've lost about an hour's snooze, expecting to see a bit of a set‑to, but there's no more likelihood of it now than there was when you first poked your pretty figure-heads upon the forecastle."

Once more did the two seconds, Garnet and Fluke, rally their champions, and once more, by numerous kicks and thumps from the impatient spectators, were the two love-sick rivals brought face to face. "Is you ready?" enquired the renowned Grubbings, glancing his eye at his enemy, who was surrounded by five or six of the by‑standers, busily employed putting somewhat in order the tattered remnant of his shirt, which now hung in shreds around him — "I does'nt want to punch you without you knows it, so you see I gives you all chances," continued the generous Grubbings. "I'se on hand, on hand honey, so now come and see me," answered Chuffy, putting himself into one of his favourite positions; but ere a blow was struck, one of the crowd gave intimation that an officer was coming, and the two pugilists, glad of any excuse to bring the affair to a conclusion, without having recourse to any more blows, were the first to make themselves scarce; though the groans and hisses of the crowd followed them as they disappeared amongst the hammocks on the other deck. Whether the affair was amicably adjusted or not the  p214 next day, I cannot possibly tell, but having perceived this pair of worthies some weeks afterwards in deep and friendly conversation, as they amused themselves putting a gloss upon some of Rodgers' superior cutlery, in the shape of ward-room knives and forks, I have every reason to believe they are once more upon terms of intimacy, and that the affections of the lovely Joppa are shared equally between them.

Thayer's Note:

a What is now termed the Second Seminole War, still in progress at the time. It was characterized by guerrilla warfare, false truces, and inconclusive actions.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21