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The Old Sea Life Post by :cyberbob Category :Short Stories Author :Louis Becke Date :April 2011 Read :1725

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The Old Sea Life

One Sunday morning--when I was about to leave the dear old city of Sydney for an unpremeditated and long, long absence in cold northern climes, I went for a farewell stroll around the Circular Quay, and, standing on some high ground on the east side, looked down on the mass of shipping below, flying the flags of all nations, and ranging from a few hundred to ten thousand tons. Mail steamers, deep sea tramps, "freezers," colliers--all crowded together, and among them but _one_ single sailing vessel--a Liverpool barque of 1,000 tons, loading wool. She looked lost, abandoned, out of place, and my heart went out to her as my eyes travelled from her shapely lines and graceful sheer, to her lofty spars, tapering yards, and curving jibboom, the end of the latter almost touching the stern rail of an ugly bloated-looking German tramp steamer of 8,000 tons. On that very spot where I stood I, when a boy, had played at the foot of lofty trees--now covered by hideous ill-smelling wool stores--and had seen lying at the Circular Quay fifty or sixty noble full-rigged ships and barques, many brigs and schooners, and but _one_ steamer, a handsome brig-rigged craft, the _Avoca_, the monthly P. and O. boat, which ran from Sydney to Melbourne to connect with a larger ship.

Round the point were certainly a few other steamers, old-fashioned heavily-rigged men-of-war, generally paddle-wheel craft; and, out of sight, in Darling Harbour, a mile away, were others--coasters--none of them reaching five hundred tons, and all either barque- or brig-rigged, as was then the fashion.

And they all, sailers as well as the few steamers, were manned by _sailor-men_, not by gangs of foreign paint-scrubbers, who generally form a steamer's crew of the present day--men who could no more handle a bit of canvas than a cow could play the Wedding March--in fact there are thousands of men nowadays earning wages on British ships as A.B.'s who have never touched canvas except in the shape of tarpaulin hatch covers, and whom it would be highly dangerous to put at the wheel of a sailing ship--they would make a wreck of her in any kind of a breeze in a few minutes.

In my boyhood days, nearly all the ships that came into Sydney Harbour flying British colours were manned by men of British blood. Foreigners, as a rule, were not liked by shipmasters, and their British shipmates in the fo'c'stle resented their presence. One reason of this was that they would always "ship" at a lower rate of wage than Englishmen, and were clannish. I have known of captains of favourite clipper passenger ships, trading between London and the colonies, declining to ship a foreigner, even an English-speaking Dane or Scandinavian, who make good sailor-men, and are quiet, sober, and hardworking. Nowadays it is difficult to find any English deep-sea ship or steamer, in which half of the hands for'ard are not foreigners of some sort. And now practically the whole coasting mercantile marine of the Australian colonies is manned by Germans, Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians.

When I was a young man I sailed in ships in the South Sea trade which had carried the same crew, voyage after voyage, for years, and there was a distinct feeling of comradeship existing between officers and crew that does not now exist. I well remember one gallant ship, the _All Serene_ (a happy name), which was for ten years in the Sydney-China trade. She was about the first colonial vessel to adopt double-top-gallant yards, and many wise-heads prophesied all sorts of dire mishaps from the innovation. On this ship (she was full rigged) was a crew of nineteen men, and the majority of them had sailed in her for eight years, although her captain was a bit of a "driver". But they got good wages, good food, and had a good ship under their feet--a ship with a crack record as a fast sailer.

In contrast to the _All Serene_, was a handsome barque I once sailed in as a passenger from Sydney to New Caledonia, where she was to load nickel ore for Liverpool. Her captain and three mates were Britishers, and smart sailor-men enough, the steward was a Chileno, the bos'un a Swede; carpenter a Mecklenburger joiner (who, when told to repair the fore-scuttle, which had been damaged by a heavy sea, did not know where it was situated), the sailmaker a German, and of the twelve A.B.'s and O.S.'s only one--a man of sixty-five years of age, was a Britisher; the rest were of all nationalities. Three of them were Scandinavians and were good sailor-men, the others were almost useless, and only fit to scrub paint-work, and hardly one could be trusted at the wheel. The cook was a Martinique nigger, and was not only a good cook, but a thorough seaman, and he had the utmost contempt for what he called "dem mongrels for'ard," especially those who were Dagoes. The captain and officers certainly had reason to knock the crew about, for during an electrical storm one night the ship was visited by St. Elmo's fire, and the Dagoes to a man refused duty, and would not go aloft, being terrified out of their wits at the dazzling globes of fire running along the yards, hissing and dancing, and illuminating the ocean for miles. They bolted below, rigged up an altar and cross with some stump ends of candles, and began to pray. Exasperated beyond endurance, the captain, officers, two Norwegians, the nigger cook and I, after having shortened canvas, "went" for them, knocked the religious paraphernalia to smithereens, and drove them on deck.

The nigger cook was really a devout Roman Catholic, but his seaman's soul revolted at their cowardice, and he so far lost his temper as to seize a Portuguese by his black curly hair, throw him down, tear open his shirt, and seize a leaden effigy of St. Jago do Compostella, which he wore round his neck, and thrust it into his mouth. In after years I saw Captain "Bully" Hayes do the same thing, also with a Portuguese sailor; but Hayes made the man actually swallow the little image--after he had rolled it into a rough ball--saying that if St James was so efficient to externally protect the wearer from dangers of the sea, that he could do it still better in the stomach, where he (the saint) would feel much warmer.

The barque, a month or so after I left her in Noumea, sailed from T'chio in New Caledonia, and was never heard of again. She was overmasted, and I have no doubt but that she capsized, and every one on board perished. Had she been manned by English sailors, she would have reached her destination in safety, for the captain and officers knew her faults and that she was a tricky ship to sail with an unreliable crew.

In many ships in which I have sailed, in my younger days, no officer considered it _infra dig_. for him, when not on watch, to go for'ard and listen to some of the hands spinning yarns, especially when the subject of their discourse turned upon matters of seamanship, the eccentricities either of a ship herself or of her builders, etc. This unbending from official dignity on the part of an officer was rarely abused by the men--especially by the better-class sailor-man. He knew that "Mr. Smith" the chief officer who was then listening to his yarns and perhaps afterwards spinning one himself, would in a few hours become a different man when it was his watch on deck, and probably ask Tom Jones, A.B., what the blazes he meant by crawling aft to relieve the wheel like an old woman with palsy. And Jones, A.B., would grin with respectful diffidence, hurry his steps and bear no malice towards his superior.

Such incidents never occur now. There is no feeling of comradeship between officer and "Jack". Each distrusts the other.

I have not had much experience of steamers in the South Sea trade, except as a passenger--most of my voyages having been made in sailing craft, but on one occasion my firm had to charter a steamer for six months, owing to the ship of which I was supercargo undergoing extensive repairs.

The steamer, in addition to a general cargo, also carried 500 tons of coal for the use of a British warship, engaged in "patrolling" the Solomon Islands, and I was told to "hurry along". The ship's company were all strangers to me, and I saw at once I should not have a pleasant time as supercargo. The crew were mostly alleged Englishmen, with a sprinkling of foreigners, and the latter were a useless, lazy lot of scamps. The engine-room staff were worse, and the captain and mate seemed too terrified of them to bring them to their bearings. They (the crew) were a bad type of "wharf rats," and showed such insolence to the captain and mate that I urged both to put some of them in irons for a few days. The second mate was the only officer who showed any spirit, and he and I naturally stood together, agreeing to assist each other if matters became serious, for the skipper and mate were a thoroughly white-livered pair.

Just off San Cristoval, the firemen came to me, and asked me to sell them a case of Hollands gin. I refused, and said one bottle was enough at a time. They threatened to break into the trade-room, and help themselves. I said that they would do so at their own peril--the first man that stepped through the doorway would get hurt. They retired, cursing me as a "mean hound". The skipper said nothing. He, I am glad to say, was not an Englishman, though he claimed to be. He was a Dane.

Arriving at a village on the coast of San Cristoval, where I had to land stores for a trader, we found a rather heavy surf on, and the crew refused to man a boat and take me on shore, on the plea that it was too dangerous; a native boat's crew would have smiled at the idea of danger, and so also would any white sailor-man who was used to surf work.

Two days later, through their incapacity, they capsized a boat by letting her broach-to in crossing a reef, and a hundred pounds' worth of trade goods were lost.

When we met the cruiser for whom the coals were destined, the second mate and I told the commander in the presence of our own skipper that we considered the latter unfit to have command of the steamer.

"Then put the mate in charge, if you consider your captain is incapable," said the naval officer.

"The mate is no better," I said, "he is as incapable as the captain."

"Then the second mate is the man."

"I cannot navigate, sir," said the second mate.

The naval commander drew me aside, and we took "sweet counsel" together. Then he called our ruffianly scallywags of a crew on to the main deck, eyed them up and down, and ignoring our captain, asked me how many pairs of handcuffs were on board.

"Two only," I replied.

"Then I'll send you half a dozen more. Clap 'em on to some of these fellows for a week, until they come to their senses."

In half an hour the second mate and I had the satisfaction of seeing four firemen and four A.B.'s in irons, which they wore for a week, living on biscuit and water.

A few weeks later I engaged, on my own responsibility, ten good native seamen, and for the rest of the voyage matters went fairly well, for the captain plucked up courage, and became valorous when I told him that my natives would make short work of their white shipmates, if the latter again became mutinous.

Against this experience I have had many pleasant ones. In one dear old brig, in which I sailed as supercargo for two years, we carried a double crew--white men and natives of Rotumah Island, and a happier ship never spread her canvas to the winds of the Pacific. This was purely because the officers were good men, the hands--white and native--good seamen, cheerful and obedient--not the lazy, dirty, paint-scrubbers one too often meets with nowadays, especially on cheaply run big four-masted sailing ships, flying the red ensign of Old England.

(The end)
Louis Becke's short story: The Old Sea Life

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