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Bill Thayer

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The Nigger Pugilists

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

by
a Fore‑top-man


published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York
1927

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 Rowing Match
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p215  Soiree on the Forecastle

"The storm once o'er, the gallant tar

Lets fancy freely roam,

And tho' from many a friend afar,

He sings of those at home."

Well, say what you will, a Yankee man-of‑war is a curious place. Some writers expatiate in glowing terms upon the scenes to be met with in a small watering-place, amongst itinerant violin-players, broken down dancing-masters, hard‑run black-legs, and pert little misses in their teens — pshaw! take a tight Yankee frigate such as "Old Ironsides," place her on a foreign station, and you will see more diversity of character develope itself — you will see more real scenes enacted to the life amongst the curious medley by which she is manned, in one short week, than the naval novelists, Marryatt or Chamier, could dish up for the public palate in a twelvemonth. We have here on board our old craft, our pugilistic encounters, our theatrical representations, our political squabbles, our literary arguments, our bacchanalian revels, our quadrille and galopade parties, and last not least, our soirees on the forecastle and in both gangways, where all those who have the least pretensions to harmony pour forth their mellifluous strains nocturnally, to the no small discomfiture and mortification of many old salts, who in the wane of life, the current of their blood having become somewhat stagnant, and their tempers like to a well-worn pump-bolt, being considerably chafed from constant friction, condemn such amusements as anything but pleasing, and who turn‑in the moment their hammocks are down, to put a finishing stroke to the snoose they have probably, since the nine o'clock inspection, been enjoying in some snug nook between the guns.

"Music hath charms," saith the Poet, "to soften rocks and bend the knotted oak;" but I never found that our lads' vocal performances could even soften those old Tritons I have just spoken of,  p216 much less our holy-stones, and their bosoms are of as adamantine a nature as any rock, or our bitts, and they are composed of as good and solid oak as ever stood the chafe of a bower chain in the heaviest and most tumultuous sea; nay, even the touching strains of "Home sweet home," thrilled forth with true nautical effect, but brought a malediction upon their heads for ever leaving that much hallowed spot to seek comfort on board a man-of‑war; and the elegant song of "They have given her to another," as it re‑echoed along the decks, but called forth a little bit of wit from one of those old sea‑dogs, "that if he had his will he'd give him (the singer) to another, and that precious quick too," finishing his remark by alluding to a certain gentleman in black; who, folks say, is graced with the appendages of horns and tail; but all their innuendoes, all their grumbling, would not deter our sons of harmony from congregating together of evenings, to lighten their hearts with a merry song; and upon such occasions, if there chanced to be any of the precious liquid so reverenced and loved by the tar, ycleped rum, in the course of circulation, the ship's bell would often proclaim the hours of ten or eleven ere those worthies would seek their several hammocks.

It was one beautiful night, (pshaw! I believe I have used that same hackneyed, worn‑out phrase half a dozen times in these little Sketches; but what can a poor devil do when he's at his wit's end) I'm only an author in embryo, and of course a little tautology is pardonable;) well then, it was in the night, about eight o'clock, and I remember perfectly it was beautifully clear and cloudless; and 'twas in the month of April too — if my memory serves me just at this moment; — thus I've got over that much: well, the old frigate Constitution lay at Callao, presenting to the gaze of every eye her usual beautiful warlike appearance; we had but just arrived from Valparaiso, after consigning to the grave with all the honours due to his rank, the remains of our late, lamented commander-in‑chief; and had just finished giving our ship a thorough homeward-bound refit; and every bosom was panting for an arrival from the United States that would serve to strengthen the yarns that were already  p217 afloat concerning the exact time of our final departure for home. The hammocks were down, and the sons of ease were endeavouring as best they could, to "woo the gentle goddess;" which was a matter of some little difficulty; for directly abaft the bitts on the main-deck, a couple of musical novitiates were drawing forth a succession of sounds from their flutes, which of itself were sufficient to put sleep to flight, so delightfully harsh and discordant did they grate upon the ear. On the forecastle, behold a little coterie assembled, reclining with as much seeming ease upon the hard planks of which the trunk is composed, as if the luxury of an ottoman bore the weight of their limbs; amongst them were the well-known characters, Flukes, Garnet, Bradley, Bowser, &c.; and from the brilliant flashing of their eyes, and the occasional cheerful, careless laugh, which ever and anon broke upon the ear, it was reasonable to suppose they had been imbibing something of a more exhilarating nature than draughts from the clear crystal stream.

"Come, come, Dobbs," cried out Bill Garnet, addressing himself to one of the party who had been for twenty or thirty minutes desperately engaged in drawling forth a song to which there appeared to be no end, the burden of which was the capture of a whale after a severe and bloody struggle: — "Belay all that, matie, and take a severe turn; pawl your capstan now as quick as you please, for I see you are almost out of breath; confound such a long-winded concern; —- why, damme man, whilst you have been lowering the boats away in that song of yours, a good smart Nantucketer would have three whales turned‑up." "Oh! you'd better let me finish it, Bill," requested the modest ex‑whaler; "the marrow of the ditty is to come yet — when we get the fish alongside." "I think when you get her alongside, Nathan, 'twill be all blubber, and precious little marrow," remarked Bowser; but spello say I; — come Flukes, let us have that little song Harry Albatross put together the other day, I know 'twill please the company." "Aye! that it will," repeated half a dozen voices; "let's have it Flukes, by all means." The importunities came so furiously upon our maintop‑man to favour them with the song Bowser had made mention of, that he scarcely knew in which  p218 manner to back out; and, as a dernier resort,º said that his throat was out of order, having caught a severe cold the last fishing scrape he had went on. "Oh! if that's the case, my honey," cried Pat Bradley, from the land of potatoes; "I've got one of the finest medicines in the four corners of the globe for a sore throat; pass me that tin pot there, and I'll apply a little of that same remedy." So saying, Bradley drew forth from the bosom of his dungaree frock, a large, long, embrowned snake; nay! start not, gentle reader, I don't mean to say 'twas a cobra de cabello, or a boa constrictor, or an anaconda, or any of those venomous or terrific reptiles; no! no! 'twas no more nor less than the moiety of an ox's intestines, about two feet long, tied at both ends, and to which our lads have given the name of snakes; applicable enough to my thinking, for often their bite is severe and venomous in the extreme; this snake then that Bradley produced contained perhaps a quart of as poisonous and disgusting liquor as ever gave a sailor the delirium tremens; the article in question was forthwith cut, and its contents poured into the tin pot; and as they were anxious to hear a display of Flukes' vocal abilities, the precious liquid was first put into his hands, allowing him the honour of the first drink, (which, let me tell you, in a man-of‑war is of great manage.) "Flukes," remarked Garnet, as the maintop‑man brought the tin‑pot in contact with his lips, "touch her light, and let her go round, there are four or five of us to drink you know." "Oh never be the least afraid to trust me with the first drink," responded the main‑top wag; "I never take more than two swallows, and my mouth exactly holds a gill." "Never mind boys," cried Bradley; "go the whole figure on it if you like, I've got a shot or two left in the locker yet," pointing at the same time to a protuberance in the front of his frock; which led all present to suppose that another venomous reptile or two lay quietly reposing there. After the tin‑pot had made its circuit amongst the group, and the last man having proved its emptiness by turning it bottom side up, together with a few preliminaries generally attending the singing of a song in almost every company, Flukes broke forth with the following:

 p219  The Sailor's Farewell to his Mistress

"Farewell! dear girl, I now must go

On board yon gallant ship,

Her canvass flutters in the breeze,

Her anchor is atrip;

But tho' to distant climes I'm bound,

My heart I leave with you,

I never will forget you, love,

When on the waters blue.

When first, a stranger in your land,

I met your witching smile,

And gazed upon your piercing orbs,

I felt entranced the while;

And listening to thy silvery voice,

Each moment swiftly flew —

Those pleasures I will ne'er forget

When on the waters blue.

Although your parents censured you

With cruel, angry voice,

And disapproved in bitter terms

Your low‑born, humble choice;

Yet your fond heart, despite each frown,

Unshrinking still proved true,

And can I ever this forget

When on the waters blue?

Full soon, alas! my bonny bark

Will leave your shores behind,

And track the boundless ocean o'er

Her destined port to find;

And though, amongst the noisy mirth

Of our wild, reckless crew,

Thy form will ever haunt my sight

When on the waters blue.

When wandering on the trackless main

Should storms my bark assail,

And vivid lightnings' awful gleam

Add terror to the gale,

This fearful clash of elements

Will arm my breast anew

 p220 

With hope, as I lisp forth thy name

Upon on the waters blue.

In other climes should I behold

Each beauteous dazzling fair,

Spreading their syren wiles around

Their victims to ensnare;

Their smiles will be of no avail;

In vain to me they'll sue,

For I will still remember thee

When on the waters blue.

And when the mountains of my home

Shall glad my anxious sight,

And kindred ties hail my return

With rapturous delight,

Think not, dear girl, they can estrange

My heart and soul from you —

I never will forget you, love,

When on the waters blue.

And when some few short months fly o'er,

Heaven may perhaps ordain

That I may fix my eager gaze

Upon thy form again;

And should I find your guileless heart

Still constant and still true,

For your dear sake I'll roam no more

Upon the waters blue."

As Flukes concluded, a murmur of approbation ran through the little group, and Nathan Dobbs, whose brain the last drink had considerably disordered, and who, in consequence of which had then a much greater opinion of his vocal talents than he had before, or than any of the by‑standers ever had, could not be kept quiet; sing he must, and broke forth with a snatch or two from one of his favourite whaling songs:

"Overhaul, overhaul, your davit-tackle falls,

And launch your boats to sea, my brave boys,

And launch your boats to the sea."

"In the room of overhauling your davit-tackles, matie, you'd better  p221 choke the luff of your jaw‑tackle; you'll have the officer of the deck upon us in a moment," remarked Garnet, applying his hand to our whaleman's mouth; and this movement, together with the promise of a small drop when they would broach the next skin of liquor, had the effect of pacifying Dobbs in some measure, and caused him to defer the finishing of his song to some more fitting opportunity. "Now then, boys," broke forth Bradley, who acted as master of ceremonies, "who will follow in Flukes' wake, and give us another ditty, and then for some more of the precious stuff." "Oh, if nobody else will follow suit," responded Bowser, the forecastleman, the idea no doubt of freshening the nip, tickling his fancy, "why I'll try what I can do, so here you are;" — and so saying he chanted forth, with a voice considerably above mediocrity,

The Girl I left Behind

"Since I left the humble cottage

Where my grandsires dwelt of yore,

I have sailed the world all over,

I have braved the ocean's roar;

And tho' syrens in each foreign port

With all their wiles combined,

They never could estrange my heart

From her I left behind.

I've seen the Spanish maiden

With her piercing orbs of jet,

Who'd so entranced my senses

That I wished we'd never met;

But I snatched the film from my eyes

And brought before my mind

The parting words and promises

Of her I left behind.

The haughty dames of England

I have mingled too among,

And drank deep draughts of flattery

From every flippant tongue;

But their aristocratic smiles

My heart could never bind —

 p222 

My thoughts would wander spite of all

To her I left behind.

In beauteous, sunny Italy,

I've mingled with the throng,

And gazed on her fair daughters

As they poured the silvery song;

But in the midst of those delights,

My heart it inward pined,

To hear the unassuming notes

Of her I left behind.

In the giddy waltz I've whirled,

And I've trod the mazy dance

With the portly dame of Holland

And the dark brunette of France;

But this only to my memory brought

The time when I had joined

In the humble reel, with heart elate,

With her I left behind.

'Mongst all my many ramblings

My heart it still is pure,

The witchery of hundreds

It unchanging did endure;

For amidst the flash of foreign eyes

I never yet could find,

One who could my affections wean

From her I left behind."

Every one assembled on this occasion, gave their meed of praise to the songster, as the conclusion of the last stanzas was borne away upon the pinions of the light breeze; and to give him more solid proofs than their empty adulations, how much his performance pleased each and every one of the company, the tin pot was again had recourse to, and once more went its accustomed round; and at this juncture they were as comfortable and happy a little coterie as libations of ardent, good fellowship and friendly feelings towards each other, could possibly produce. "Is that song one of your own making, Bowser, or have you taken it out of some newspaper?" enquired Bradley; "I dont know that I ever heard it before." "I reckon  p223 you nor any other person on board has ever heard it before," returned the man addressed, it was only yesterday Harry Albatross composed it; he wrote it expressly for me, in consequence of a little yarn I spun about a girl I left in Boston; — I'm going to present it to her when I see her again."

"I calculate I'll get him to do something for me in that line," drawled forth Nathan Dobbs, with an occasional hiccough, each potation making more and more inroads upon his senses. "I left a little girl in Nantucket; I reckon I'll have a song or so written on her; and if she ain't prime cash herself, then I don't know a humpback from a mackerel; what do you say Flukes, ain't I about in the time of a flurry?" "Why when there's any rum on the board you're about, Dobbs," responded Flukes, "and I think your brain appears to be in a little bit of a flurry just now." "But I mean" cried Nathan, raising his voice to somewhat of a higher pitch than was at all pleasing to the company, or was prudent at the present silent hour of the night, "I mean that I guess I can sing as good a song as any one on board, and to prove it, I'll give you one right off the reel;" and here he broke out with

"The first stepped up was the captain of our ship,

And a fine little man was he."

Nathan had got thus far, when the application of a large muscular hand over his mouth, precluded the possibility of his finishing the verse; and after a little reasoning, and a promise of some more stimulus, he was again partially mollified. "Now lads," remarked Garnet, "as it has got pretty far into the first watch, being gone five bells some time, I think the best thing we can do, is to turn‑in; but if you are all agreeable, I'll first strike up a verse or two of a song that I composed myself in the top the other day." "You're right, Bill," answered Bradley, "some of our company have boarded their sleeping-tacks already, I see; so let's have your song, afterwards make a finish of the little drop of stuff I have left, and then bear away for blanket bay; and to‑morrow we'll be as fresh by the time they roll breakfast-grog, as if nothing at all had happened;" accordingly,  p224 Garnet struck up the following to the tune of "Yankee Doodle:"

Every Inch a Yankee

"Talk as you like 'bout old Crapeau,

'Bout Portuguese, and Spaniards;

'Bout Danes, and Swedes, and Dutchmen too,

They know the lifts from laniards.

But take a true Columbian tar, —

The lad that loves his swankey;

You'll find him when he's gun to gun,

He's every inch a Yankee.

He's crazy, there is no mistake,

When he ashore is drifting;

He's mostly close-hauled on a wind,

His topsail often lifting;

But should distress heave in his sight,

Our tar though somewhat crankie

Pulls out his wallet, planks, and shows

He's every inch a Yankee.

Behold him 'board of Uncle Sam,

His frock it snowy white is;

For 'mongst his numerous duties there,

To keep clean his delight is;

And for to reef, or loose, or furl,

He's not behind I thank ye,

For at these little sailor moves,

He's every inch a Yankee.

I believe he knows a thing or two

When, 'Neath the 'spangled banner,'

He sees an enemy draw near

With all crack men to man her;

What does he do? he gives three cheers;

And whilst there's left one plank, he

Will show though fed on pumpkin pie,

He's every inch a Yankee.

Another thing, I guess you'll find

In time of greatest danger,

He's cool as tho' a catching clam's;

His heart to fear's a stranger.

 p225 

And neither shipwreck, gales, nor storms,

Can hurt his form so lanky;

For whilst one single hope is left,

He's every inch a Yankee.

Enough I've said, to prove to all

Columbia's tars are willing,

What'er turns up — to spree, or fight,

Or spend their last, lone shilling.

And better shipmates never sailed

Than those true sons of swankey;

For first or last, you'll find that still

They're every inch a Yankee.

The applause that Garnet's song drew down from his delighted auditors, was of such a noisy nature to awaken Nathan Dobbs, who, during its performance was stretched out on the trunk in a deep slumber, the mellifluous music of his nose acting ever and anon as an accompaniment. "Bravo! bravo!" shouted our ex‑whaleman, raising himself after divers efforts upon his nether parts; "that's what I call doing the thing as it ought to be; here barkeeper, fill up the glasses again, we've set out for a regular row‑de-row;" from these few sentences, hiccoughed forth by Dobbs, it was observable to all present that his brain was in a complete chaotic state, — he fancying himself no doubt in mother Gibson's bar‑room, at Callao; having but the day previous returned from liberty, and that hallowed spot on such occasions being his elysium. "Well lads, what say you for a break‑up?" enquired Bradley; "pass the pot, and let us put a finishing touch to the liquor, and then we'll try and get Dobbs to his hammock before he makes any more noise." The pot was accordingly replenished; but ere it had made half its circuit, Nathan's olfactory nerves scented the precious elixir, and he entreated pitifully for a small share of the beverage: "Come Pat, give me a little more, and I'll sing you as complete a song as you've heard this cruise, I reckon." "I'll give you some Nathan," returned the proprietor of the liquor, "if you promise to turn in your hammock as soon as you've drank it; and we'll have the song to‑morrow night." Dobbs agreed to all this, and a moiety was given him; but he had  p226  scarcely swallowed it, ere he gave vent to his musical powers in a voice so vociferous, as to attract the attention of the officer of the deck; and to save him from "durance vile," a couple of his companions lifted him into their athletic arms, and bore him to his hammock; and ere the officer reached the scene of festivity, the whole group had as if by magic appointed, and nought save the empty pot was left to tell the site of the nautical soiree.


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