Read CHAPTER X - MORE CRUISING of A Sailor of King George , free online book, by Frederick Hoffman, on

On introducing myself to my new captain, who was a short, corpulent, open-countenanced man, he informed me he had conversed with my former captain respecting me. “We lost both the lieutenants by the yellow fever the latter part of last cruise,” said he, “and if you like to be first lieutenant, I will request the Admiralty to give me an acting officer.” I thanked him for his good opinion, but begged leave to decline being first. About a fortnight afterwards, during which time no other lieutenant had joined, the captain again asked me if I had altered my mind. “And,” added he, “the time you have been on board has given you some insight respecting a first lieutenant’s duty. Your early rising I much approve, and your regularity with the duty pleases me. Let me write for an acting lieutenant.” I made him due acknowledgments but still declined, pleading the want of experience. “Well,” said he, “if you will not, I must ask for a senior officer,” and soon afterwards he was appointed. Another fortnight expired, when we sailed for the Gulf of Mexico. I will now rest on my oars a little, and as I have the watch below, I will amuse myself by sketching the outline of the gun-room inmates.

The first lieutenant knew his duty, but was too fond of the contents of his case-bottles of rum, which made him at times very irritable and hasty; in other respects he was a sociable messmate. The second was a kind of nondescript; he was certainly sober, and I hope honest, fond of adventure, and always volunteered when the boats were sent on any expedition. He was sociable, and frequently rational, although too often sanguine where hope was almost hopeless. Three-and-twenty summers had passed over his head, but still there was much to correct. He was generous and open-hearted, and never could keep a secret, which often got him into a scrape with ladies of all colours. The value of money never entered his head, and when he received a cool hundred, he spent it coolly, but not without heartfelt enjoyment. The master comes next. He was a little, natty man; we presumed he had been rolled down Deal beach in his infancy, where pebbles without number must have come in rude contact with his face, for it was cruelly marred. He had made some trips in the East India Service, which had given him an air of consequence. He was not more than twenty-four years of age, and certainly clever in his profession. I will now bring forward the doctor, who appeared to doctor everybody but himself. He was every inch a son of Erin, could be agreeable or the reverse as the fit seized him, fond of argument, fond of rum, and sometimes fond of fighting. To see him put his hand to his mouth was painful; it was so tremulous that half the contents of what he eat or drank fell from it, yet he was never tipsy, although the contents of three bottles of port wine found their way very glibly down his throat at a sitting.

Now I will have a dead-set at the purser, who was generally purseless. He was the gayest of the gay, very tall, very expensive, and always in love. The first fiddle of the mess and caterer, fond of going on a boat expedition, very fond of prize-money, and as fond of getting rid of it. He used to say, “It was a terrible mistake making me a purser. I shall never be able to clear my accounts,” and this was literally the case. Some years afterwards he was appointed to a large frigate, but by the irregularity of his conduct, although his captain was his friend, he was by a court-martial dismissed the Service. When I heard this I was much concerned, as there were some good points about him. I have now handed up all the gun-room officers. Other characters in the ship I shall not describe; some were good, some bad, and some indifferent, but I am happy to remark the first-named preponderated. We made the Grand Cayman, and sent a cutter to the shore to purchase turtle and fruit. In about an hour and a half she came off with three turtle, some yams, plantains, cocoa-nuts, and a few half-starved fowls. I had cautioned the purser not to buy any grunters, as those poor animals blown out with water we had purchased from these honest islanders in days of yore, were still fresh in my memory.

The same evening we made Cape Antonio, and cruised between that cape and the Loggerhead Keys for some days without seeing anything but two American vessels from New Orleans. One of them gave us notice of a Mexican armed zebec ready to sail with treasure from Mexico for the Havannah. This news elated us. We were all lynx-eyed and on the alert. The youngsters were constantly at the masthead with glasses, in the sanguine hope of being the first to announce such good fortune. Alas! we cruised from the mouth of the Mississippi to the Bay of Campechy for five long weeks, at the period of which we saw a vessel we made certain was that which was to make our fortunes, and our heads were filled with keeping our kittereens and having famous champagne dinners at Spanish Town. After a chase of seven hours, we came up with her, but judge of our chagrin! She was the same rig as the American captain described. I was sent on board her, and expected to have returned with the boat laden with ingots, bars of gold and silver cobs. Oh, mortification! not easily to be effaced! On examining her, she proved, with the exception of four barrels of quicksilver, to have no cargo of any value. I really was so disappointed that I was ashamed to return on board, and when I did, and made my report, there was a complete metamorphosis of faces. Those that were naturally short became a fathom in length, and those that were long frightful to behold. The order was given to burn her and take out the seven Spaniards who composed her crew. On interrogating the patroon, or master, of her, he informed us that the vessel with the precious metal had sailed from Mexico two months before, and had arrived at the Havannah. The Yankee captain who had given us this false information, and made us for five weeks poissons d’Avril, was remembered in our prayers; whether they ascended or descended is a problem unsolved. We remained in the Gulf of Mexico jogging backwards and forwards, like an armadillo in an enclosure, for ten days longer, and then shaped our course for the coast of Cuba, looked into the Havannah, saw nothing which appeared ready for sailing, and made all sail for the Florida shore. The following morning it was very foggy, when about noon we had the felicity of finding that the ship had, without notice, placed herself very comfortably on a coral reef, where she rested as composedly as grandmamma in her large armchair. We lost no time in getting the boats and an anchor out in the direction from whence we came. Fortunately it was nearly calm, otherwise the ship must have been wrecked. The process of getting her off was much longer than that of getting her on. The mids, I understood, declared she was tired of the cruise and wished to rest. In the afternoon it became clear, when we saw an armed schooner close to us, which hoisted English colours and sent a boat to us. The captain of her came on board and informed us that his vessel was a Nassau privateer, and he tendered all the assistance in his power to get us afloat. As the ship appeared disinclined to detach herself from her resting-place, we sent most of the shot and some of the stores on board this vessel, when we began to lift, and in a short time she was again afloat, and as she did not make water we presumed her bottom was not injured. On examining the chart, we found it was the Carisford reef that had so abruptly checked the progress of His Majesty’s ship. Nothing dismayed, we cruised for a week between Capes Sable and Florida, until we were one night overtaken by a most tremendous thunderstorm, which split the fore and maintop-sails, carried away the jib-boom and maintop-sail yard, struck two of the men blind, and shook the ship fore and aft. It continued with unabated rage until daylight. We soon replaced the torn sails and got another yard across and jib-boom out.

The following day we were joined by a frigate, and proceeded off the Bay of Matanzas. Towards evening we perceived three dark-looking schooners enter the bay. As it was nearly calm, we manned and armed four boats, two from the frigate, under the direction of her first lieutenant and my senior officer, and two from our ship, under my orders. We muffled our oars and pulled quietly in. The night was very dark and the navigation difficult, owing to the numerous coral reefs and small mangrove islands. At length we discovered them anchored in a triangle to support each other. We gave way for the largest, and when within about half pistol-shot they opened their fire on us. Two of the boats were struck and my commanding officer knocked overboard, but he was soon afterwards picked up, and, except a slight wound in the knee, unhurt. We persevered and got alongside the one we had singled out. She received us as warmly as if she had known us for years. I took the liberty of shooting a man in her main rigging who was inclined to do me the same kind office, had I not saved him the trouble. We attempted cutting away her boarding netting, and in so doing three men were severely wounded. Her decks appeared well filled with men: some of their voices were, I am certain, English. After a struggle of some minutes, in which one of the boats had not joined, my senior officer, who had five of his men wounded, ordered the boats to pull off. Shall I say I was disappointed? I most assuredly was, and my boat’s crew murmured. I desired them to be silent. The boat which had lost her way now came up, and received a broadside from the vessel we were retreating from, which almost sank her, and killed and wounded four of her crew. The order was again given to pull off as fast as possible. As the senior officer neared me in his boat, I asked him, as we had found the large schooner so strong, if it were not desirable to attempt the others. His answer was yes, were they not so well armed and so close to each other. “But,” said he, “it is my orders that the boats repair on board their own ships, as my wounded men are dying, and I am suffering the devil’s own torments.” “So much for a broken-down expedition,” thinks I to myself. “If the bull had not been taken by the horns, something might have been effected.”

On joining my ship I reported the wounded men, who were sent to their hammocks, after having been dressed by the doctor, who declared their wounds, though severe, not to be serious. “Well,” said the captain, “what have you done?” “Worse than nothing,” replied I. “I never was on so sorry or so badly planned an expedition. The enemy’s armed vessels were on the alert, whilst we were half asleep, and they were anchored so close under the land that we were nearly on the broadside of the largest before we perceived her, and she gave it us most handsomely, and I give her credit for her spirited conduct.” “You are a generous enemy,” said my skipper. “Not at all,” returned I; “it is my opinion that the man who commands that vessel, who has given us such a good trimming, deserves well of his country.” I then made him acquainted with all the particulars. “My opinion of the officer who had the management of this boat affair has been hitherto favourable,” said the captain. “He is certainly a young man, but his captain is perfectly satisfied with his method of carrying on the duty in the ship.” “Yes,” said I; “but ship duty and boat duty are different.” Here the conversation, which was irksome to my feelings, terminated. A few days floated away, when the first lieutenant had a dispute with the captain, and he was suspended from his duty. I was sent for into the cabin, when the captain told me he was happy in the opportunity of again offering me the situation of first lieutenant. “For,” added he, “Mr. G. and I shall never accord after what has happened, and if he does not effect an exchange with a junior officer to yourself, I will try him by a court-martial.”

Two weeks more finished our unsuccessful cruise. We bore up for the Florida Stream, ran through the Turks’ Island passage, made St. Domingo and Cuba, passed over the Pismire shoal of the N.E. end of Jamaica, and anchored at Port Royal. The morning following we received letters from England. I must here relate an incident which was most feelingly trying to one of the youngsters. He had, among others, received a letter from his mother, and to be more retired had gone abaft the mizzen-mast to read it. The sea-breeze was blowing fresh, when, just as he had opened it and read the first words, it blew from his hands overboard. Poor little fellow! The agonised look he gave as it fell into the water is far beyond description. He was inclined to spring after it. Had he known how to swim he would not have hesitated a moment. Unfortunately all the boats were on duty, or it might have been recovered. Mr. G., the first lieutenant, effected his exchange, and a fine young man joined as second. I was now positively fixed as first. I was invited to dignity balls without number, and had partners as blooming as Munster potatoes.

My servant was of a shining jet colour, and a fiddler. I took lodgings on shore, and after the duty of the day was performed, about half after six o’clock in the evening, I went to my chateau, taking with me Black George and his fiddle, where my shipmates and a few friends of all colours amused themselves with an innocent hop and sangaree, for I had now grown too fine to admit the introduction of vulgar grog. Even the smell of it would have occasioned the ladies to blush like a blue tulip. After amusing ourselves on shore and performing our duty on board, we were ready for sea the fifth week after our arrival, and on the sixth we sailed for the south side of St. Domingo. We had been cruising a few days off the port of Jacmel, when the Nimrod cutter and the Abergavenny’s tender joined us. The lieutenants of both vessels came on board, and related the following fact in my hearing: The former vessel had detained an honest trading Yankee brig on suspicion, and had sent her to Jamaica to be examined. The latter vessel caught a large shark the morning after, and found in its maw the false papers of this said American brig, which she had thrown overboard when the Nimrod chased her.

“Will you oblige me by a relation of the circumstance?” said our skipper to Whiley, who commanded the cutter. “It happened in the following manner: I had information of this Charlestown vessel before I left Port Royal, and I was determined to look keenly after her. I had been off the Mosquito shore, where I understood she was bound with gunpowder and small arms. At length I fell in with her, but could not find any other papers than those which were regular, nor any powder or firearms; but as I had good information respecting her, I was determined to detain her, even if I burnt my fingers by so doing. The morning after I sent her for Jamaica I fell in with Lieutenant Fitton, who hailed me, and begged me to go on board him. When I got on the quarter-deck of the tender I saw several large sheets of paper spread out on the companion.

“‘Hulloa!’ said I; ‘Fitton, what have you here?’ ‘Why,’ said he, ’I have a very curious story to relate; for that reason I wished you to come on board me. This morning we caught a shark, and, singular to tell you, on cutting him up we found those papers (which you see drying) in his maw. He must have been preciously hard set, poor fellow. I have examined them, and find they belong to the Nancy, of Charlestown.’ ’The Nancy, of Charlestown,’ said I. ‘That is the very brig I have sent to Jamaica.’ ‘Well, then,’ said Fitton, ’they are yours, and I congratulate you on the discovery and your good fortune.’” “This is singularly remarkable,” said our captain; “I hope you have taken care of the jaw of the shark. It must be sent to the Vice-Court of Admiralty at Jamaica as a memento of the fact, and a remembrancer to all Yankee captains who are inclined to be dishonest.” “A good hint,” said Fitton; “it shall be done, sir.” And it was done, as I well recollect its being suspended over where the American masters of detained vessels stood when they desired to make oath.

In the evening these gentlemen, after having dined on board us, repaired to their respective vessels, and we soon after parted company. The following day we anchored off the Isle de Vache, near Port au Paix, St. Domingo, and sent the two cutters in shore on a cruise of speculation, under my orders. On quitting the ship we all blacked our faces with burnt cork and tied coloured handkerchiefs round our heads, in order to deceive the fishing canoes. On nearing the shore we discovered a schooner sailing along close to the beach. In a short time afterwards we boarded her, and found she was a French vessel in ballast from Port au Paix, bound to Jacmel. She was quite new, and not more than fifty tons burden. We took possession of her, but unfortunately, when we were in the act of securing the prisoners, the enemy fired at us from the shore. We had three men severely wounded and the schooner’s crew one. We lost no time in getting the boats ahead to tow her off, and although the enemy’s fire was frequent, it did no further mischief. On nearing the Isle de Vache we found the ship gone, and, notwithstanding we were without a compass, I was determined to bear up before the sea-breeze for Jamaica. Fortunately we fell in with the A. frigate, who took out the wounded men, and wished me to burn the prize. This proposal I rejected. The following evening we reached Port Royal, and I sold her for L140. In a fortnight afterwards the ship arrived. On joining her the captain informed me that three hours after we had quitted her two vessels hove in sight, and as they looked suspicious he got under weigh and chased, with the intention of again returning to his anchorage after having made them out. This he was not able to effect, as in point of sailing they were far superior to the Volage, and after a useless chase of a night and a day, they got into the port of St. Domingo. The ship regained the anchorage the day afterwards, and fired guns, hoping we were on the island; but after an interval of some hours, without seeing the boats, the captain despatched an officer with a flag of truce to Port au Paix, thinking it likely we had been in want of provisions, or overpowered by gunboats. The officer returned with the information of our having been on the coast, but that we had not been seen for two days. The ship again put to sea, and after a short cruise came to Port Royal, where happily they found us.