Two Years Before the Mast
By Richard Henry Dana
Public Domain Books
Chapter XVII. San Diego–A Desertion–San Pedro Again–Beating the Coast
The next sound we heard was “All hands ahoy!” and looking up the scuttle, saw that it was just daylight. Our liberty had now truly taken flight, and with it we laid away our pumps, stockings, blue jackets, neckerchiefs, and other go-ashore paraphernalia, and putting on old duck trowsers, red shirts, and Scotch caps, began taking out and landing our hides. For three days we were hard at work, from the grey of the morning until starlight, with the exception of a short time allowed for meals, in this duty. For landing and taking on board hides, San Diego is decidedly the best place in California. The harbor is small and land-locked; there is no surf; the vessels lie within a cable’s length of the beach; and the beach itself is smooth, hard sand, without rocks or stones. For these reasons, it is used by all the vessels in the trade, as a depot; and, indeed, it would be impossible, when loading with the cured hides for the passage home, to take them on board at any of the open ports, without getting them wet in the surf, which would spoil them. We took possession of one of the hide-houses, which belonged to our firm, and had been used by the California. It was built to hold forty thousand hides, and we had the pleasing prospect of filling it before we could leave the coast; and toward this, our thirty-five hundred, which we brought down with us, would do but little. There was not a man on board who did not go a dozen times into the house, and look round, and make some calculation of the time it would require.
The hides, as they come rough and uncured from the vessels, are piled up outside of the houses, whence they are taken and carried through a regular process of pickling, drying, cleaning, etc., and stowed away in the house, ready to be put on board. This process is necessary in order that they may keep, during a long voyage, and in warm latitudes. For the purpose of curing and taking care of these hides, an officer and a part of the crew of each vessel are usually left ashore and it was for this business, we found, that our new officer had joined us. As soon as the hides were landed, he took charge of the house, and the captain intended to leave two or three of us with him, hiring Sandwich Islanders to take our places on board; but he could not get any Sandwich Islanders to go, though he offered them fifteen dollars a month; for the report of the flogging had got among them, and he was called “aole maikai," (no good,) and that was an end of the business. They were, however, willing to work on shore, and four of them were hired and put with Mr. Russell to cure the hides.
After landing our hides, we next sent ashore all our spare spars and rigging; all the stores which we did not want to use in the course of one trip to windward; and, in fact, everything which we could spare, so as to make room for hides: among other things, the pig-sty, and with it “old Bess.” This was an old sow that we had brought from Boston, and which lived to get around Cape Horn, where all the other pigs died from cold and wet. Report said that she had been a Canton voyage before. She had been the pet of the cook during the whole passage, and he had fed her with the best of everything, and taught her to know his voice, and to do a number of strange tricks for his amusement. Tom Cringle says that no one can fathom a negro’s affection for a pig; and I believe he is right, for it almost broke our poor darky’s heart when he heard that Bess was to be taken ashore, and that he was to have the care of her no more during the whole voyage. He had depended upon her as a solace, during the long trips up and down the coast. “Obey orders, if you break owners!” said he. “Break hearts,” he meant to have said; and lent a hand to get her over the side, trying to make it as easy for her as possible. We got a whip up on the main-yard, and hooking it to a strap around her body, swayed away; and giving a wink to one another, ran her chock up to the yard. “’Vast there! ’vast!” said the mate; “none of your skylarking! Lower away!” But he evidently enjoyed the joke. The pig squealed like the “crack of doom,” and tears stood in the poor darky’s eyes; and he muttered something about having no pity on a dumb beast. “Dumb beast!” said Jack; “if she’s what you call a dumb beast, then my eyes a’n’t mates.” This produced a laugh from all but the cook. He was too intent upon seeing her safe in the boat. He watched her all the way ashore, where, upon her landing, she was received by a whole troop of her kind, who had been sent ashore from the other vessels, and had multiplied and formed a large commonwealth. From the door of his galley, the cook used to watch them in their manoeuvres, setting up a shout and clapping his hands whenever Bess came off victorious in the struggles for pieces of raw hide and half-picked bones which were lying about the beach. During the day, he saved all the nice things, and made a bucket of swill, and asked us to take it ashore in the gig, and looked quite disconcerted when the mate told him that he would pitch the swill overboard, and him after it, if he saw any of it go into the boats. We told him that he thought more about the pig than he did about his wife, who lived down in Robinson’s Alley; and, indeed, he could hardly have been more attentive, for he actually, on several nights, after dark, when he thought he would not he seen, sculled himself ashore in a boat with a bucket of nice swill, and returned like Leander from crossing the Hellespont.
The next Sunday the other half of our crew went ashore on liberty, and left us on board, to enjoy the first quiet Sunday which we had had upon the coast. Here were no hides to come off, and no south-easters to fear. We washed and mended our clothes in the morning, and spent the rest of the day in reading and writing. Several of us wrote letters to send home by the Lagoda. At twelve o’clock the Ayacucho dropped her fore topsail, which was a signal for her sailing. She unmoored and warped down into the bight, from which she got under way. During this operation, her crew were a long time heaving at the windlass, and I listened for nearly an hour to the musical notes of a Sandwich Islander, called Mahannah, who “sang out” for them. Sailors, when heaving at a windlass, in order that they may heave together, always have one to sing out; which is done in a peculiar, high and long-drawn note, varying with the motion of the windlass. This requires a high voice, strong lungs, and much practice, to be done well. This fellow had a very peculiar, wild sort of note, breaking occasionally into a falsetto. The sailors thought it was too high, and not enough of the boatswain hoarseness about it; but to me it had a great charm. The harbor was perfectly still, and his voice rang among the hills, as though it could have been heard for miles. Toward sundown, a good breeze having sprung up, she got under weigh, and with her long, sharp head cutting elegantly through the water, on a taught bowline, she stood directly out of the harbor, and bore away to the southward. She was bound to Callao, and thence to the Sandwich Islands, and expected to be on the coast again in eight or ten months.
At the close of the week we were ready to sail, but were delayed a day or two by the running away of F––-, the man who had been our second mate, and was turned forward. From the time that he was “broken,” he had had a dog’s berth on board the vessel, and determined to run away at the first opportunity. Having shipped for an officer when he was not half a seaman, he found little pity with the crew, and was not man enough to hold his ground among them. The captain called him a “soger,"(1)
––––––––––––––– 1. Soger (soldier) is the worst term of reproach that can be applied to a sailor. It signifies a skulk, a sherk,–one who is always trying to get clear of work, and is out of the way, or hanging back, when duty is to be done. “Marine” is the term applied more particularly to a man who is ignorant and clumsy about seaman’s work –a green-horn–a land-lubber. To make a sailor shoulder a handspike, and walk fore and aft the deck, like a sentry, is the most ignominious punishment that could be put upon him. Such a punishment inflicted upon an able seaman in a vessel of war, would break his spirit down more than a flogging. –––––––––––––––
and promised to “ride him down as he would the main tack;” and when officers are once determined to “ride a man down,” it is a gone case with him. He had had several difficulties with the captain, and asked leave to go home in the Lagoda; but this was refused him. One night he was insolent to an officer on the beach, and refused to come aboard in the boat. He was reported to the captain; and as he came aboard,–it being past the proper hour,–he was called aft, and told that he was to have a flogging. Immediately, he fell down on the deck, calling out–"Don’t flog me, Captain T––-; don’t flog me!” and the captain, angry with him, and disgusted with his cowardice, gave him a few blows over the back with a rope’s end and sent him forward. He was not much hurt, but a good deal frightened, and made up his mind to run away that very night. This was managed better than anything he ever did in his life, and seemed really to show some spirit and forethought. He gave his bedding and mattress to one of the Lagoda’s crew, who took it aboard his vessel as something which he had bought, and promised to keep it for him. He then unpacked his chest, putting all his valuable clothes into a large canvas bag, and told one of us, who had the watch, to call him at midnight. Coming on deck, at midnight, and finding no officer on deck, and all still aft, he lowered his bag into a boat, got softly down into it, cast off the painter, and let it drop silently with the tide until he was out of hearing, when he sculled ashore.
The next morning, when all hands were mustered, there was a great stir to find F––-. Of course, we would tell nothing, and all they could discover was, that he had left an empty chest behind him, and that he went off in a boat; for they saw it lying up high and dry on the beach. After breakfast, the captain went up to the town, and offered a reward of twenty dollars for him; and for a couple of days, the soldiers, Indians, and all others who had nothing to do, were scouring the country for him, on horseback, but without effect; for he was safely concealed, all the time, within fifty rods of the hide-houses. As soon as he had landed, he went directly to the Lagoda’s hide-house, and a part of her crew, who were living there on shore, promised to conceal him and his traps until the Pilgrim should sail, and then to intercede with Captain Bradshaw to take him on board the ship. Just behind the hide-houses, among the thickets and underwood, was a small cave, the entrance to which was known only to two men on the beach, and which was so well concealed that, though, when I afterwards came to live on shore, it was shown to me two or three times, I was never able to find it alone. To this cave he was carried before daybreak in the morning, and supplied with bread and water, and there remained until he saw us under weigh and well round the point.
Friday, March 27th. The captain, having given up all hope of finding F––-, and being unwilling to delay any longer, gave orders for unmooring the ship, and we made sail, dropping slowly down with the tide and light wind. We left letters with Captain Bradshaw to take to Boston, and had the satisfaction of hearing him say that he should be back again before we left the coast. The wind, which was very light, died away soon after we doubled the point, and we lay becalmed for two days, not moving three miles the whole time, and a part of the second day were almost within sight of the vessels. On the third day, about noon, a cool sea-breeze came rippling and darkening the surface of the water, and by sundown we were off San Juan’s, which is about forty miles from San Diego, and is called half way to San Pedro, where we were now bound. Our crew was now considerably weakened. One man we had lost overboard; another had been taken aft as clerk; and a third had run away; so that, beside S––- and myself, there were only three able seamen and one boy of twelve years of age. With this diminished and discontented crew, and in a small vessel, we were now to battle the watch through a couple of years of hard service; yet there was not one who was not glad that F––- had escaped; for, shiftless and good for nothing as he was, no one could wish to see him dragging on a miserable life, cowed down and disheartened; and we were all rejoiced to hear, upon our return to San Diego, about two months afterwards, that he had been immediately taken aboard the Lagoda, and went home in her, on regular seaman’s wages.
After a slow passage of five days, we arrived, on Wednesday, the first of April, at our old anchoring ground at San Pedro. The bay was as deserted, and looked as dreary, as before, and formed no pleasing contrast with the security and snugness of San Diego, and the activity and interest which the loading and unloading of four vessels gave to that scene. In a few days the hides began to come slowly down, and we got into the old business of rolling goods up the hill, pitching hides down, and pulling our long league off and on. Nothing of note occurred while we were lying here, except that an attempt was made to repair the small Mexican brig which had been cast away in a south-easter, and which now lay up, high and dry, over one reef of rocks and two sand-banks. Our carpenter surveyed her, and pronounced her capable of refitting, and in a few days the owners came down from the Pueblo, and, waiting for the high spring tides, with the help of our cables, kedges, and crew, got her off and afloat, after several trials. The three men at the house on shore, who had formerly been a part of her crew, now joined her, and seemed glad enough at the prospect of getting off the coast.
On board our own vessel, things went on in the common monotonous way. The excitement which immediately followed the flogging scene had passed off, but the effect of it upon the crew, and especially upon the two men themselves, remained. The different manner in which these men were affected, corresponding to their different characters, was not a little remarkable. John was a foreigner and high-tempered, and, though mortified, as any one would be at having had the worst of an encounter, yet his chief feeling seemed to be anger; and he talked much of satisfaction and revenge, if he ever got back to Boston. But with the other, it was very different. He was an American, and had had some education; and this thing coming upon him, seemed completely to break him down. He had a feeling of the degradation that had been inflicted upon him, which the other man was incapable of. Before that, he had a good deal of fun, and mused us often with queer negro stories,–(he was from a slave state); but afterwards he seldom smiled; seemed to lose all life and elasticity; and appeared to have but one wish, and that was for the voyage to be at an end. I have often known him to draw a long sigh when he was alone, and he took but little part or interest in John’s plans of satisfaction and retaliation.
After a stay of about a fortnight, during which we slipped for one south-easter, and were at sea two days, we got under weigh for Santa Barbara. It was now the middle of April, and the south-easter season was nearly over; and the light, regular trade-winds, which blow down the coast, began to set steadily in, during the latter part of each day. Against these, we beat slowly up to Santa Barbara–a distance of about ninety miles–in three days. There we found, lying at anchor, the large Genoese ship which we saw in the same place, on the first day of our coming upon the coast. She had been up to San Francisco, or, as it is called, “chock up to windward," had stopped at Monterey on her way down, and was shortly to proceed to San Pedro and San Diego, and thence, taking in her cargo, to sail for Valparaiso and Cadiz. She was a large, clumsy ship, and with her topmasts stayed forward, and high poop-deck, looked like an old woman with a crippled back. It was now the close of Lent, and on Good Friday she had all her yards a’cock-bill, which is customary among Catholic vessels. Some also have an effigy of Judas, which the crew amuse themselves with keel-hauling and hanging by the neck from the yard-arms.