10 August 2020

Regional U.S. Coinage, 1845

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle p. 186:

I found stowing cotton in a ship’s hold to be the most exhausting labor I had ever performed. We wore nothing but trousers, with a bandana handkerchief tied over our heads. The hold was a damp, dark place. The thermometer stood at nearly one hundred, not a breath of air stirred, and our bodies were reeking with perspiration. This was more than my frail body could endure. When I was paid, Saturday evening, with eight silver Spanish dollars for my four days’ labor, I came to the conclusion that they were the hardest eight dollars I had ever earned, and that there would be no more screwing cotton by the day for me.

The following Monday I went to work at painting ships and steamboats for an old Portuguese, by the name of Desimees, in Algiers, a town situated on the opposite side of the river. A party of five, one an old shipmate of mine, hired a small shanty and kept bachelor’s hall. We employed an old colored woman as housekeeper. On Saturdays we used to quit work early and go across the river to New Orleans and purchase our weekly supply of provisions. Although there was a United States mint in the city, there were at this time no cents in circulation. The smallest pieces of money were a five-cent piece, and a picayune, — six and a quarter cents, — and a Spanish coin called fourpence. It used to confuse Jack before the mast very much, that in Boston it was six shillings to the dollar, and in New York eight; that an eighth of a dollar, or twelve and a half cents, should be called ninepence in Boston, a shilling in New York, a long bit in New Orleans, and a levy in the Western States.

09 August 2020

Capetown & St. Helena, 1842

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 159-160:

Cape of Good Hope is always hailed by the home-bound sailor with as much delight as Cape Horn is with fear. Here we found much shipping lying quietly at anchor. The view of Cape Town from the ship’s deck is indeed novel. On either side of Table Mountain are seen the crags of Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak. The broad, flat top of Table Mountain is always overhung by a great cloud, and when the cloud spreads out and covers the whole town with its broad shadows, it is then termed by Jack before the mast “the devil’s tablecloth.”

To the south, on the hill, stands the world-renowned observatory, where Sir John Herschell discovered the planet which once bore his name, but is now called Uranus.

Cape Town is an old Dutch settlement, and everything wore a Dutch look. Almost all the people we met were Dutch. Both men and women were short and stout, with full, rosy cheeks. They all dressed in the old Dutch fashion.

...

On the 17th we got under way, and took our departure from the Cape of Storms, shaping our course for the island of St. Helena.

On the morning of the 19th Joseph Sylva, a Portuguese boy, who had shipped at Oahu, died. In the afternoon his body, with two roundshot, was sewed up in his hammock, and committed to the deep. Brave little Joe is now sleeping beneath the blue waters with others of the ocean’s heroes.

After a run of thirteen days, we came to anchor in the roadstead of the Valley of Jamestown, island of St. Helena. Here we found six American and two English ships, one from Sweden, and a Dutch sloop-of-war, at anchor. The island of St. Helena is nothing but a large, barren rock, uprisen from the sea, and so steep that only a short distance from the shores soundings cannot be obtained with a deep-sea line. The only landing place was Jamestown. The population, at this time, including the garrison, ... numbered about four thousand, and all lived in the Valley of Jamestown. Meats, vegetables, and fruits we found very scarce and extremely dear. Rum, however, was plenty, and quite cheap. It was not made here, but was sent out from New England, America!

St. Helena is celebrated only because of its being the place of Napoleon Bonaparte’s confinement and death.

08 August 2020

Antarctic Dangers, 1840

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 69-70:

January 20. At two o’clock this morning the sun and moon appeared above the horizon at the same time, but in opposite directions. The moon was full. The effect of the sun shedding his deep golden rays on the distant icy mountains and the surrounding icebergs was beautiful beyond description. We witnessed a sea-fight between a whale and one of his many enemies, a killer. The sea was quite smooth. A short distance from the ship was seen a large whale, lashing the smooth sea into a perfect foam, and trying to disengage himself from his enemy. As they drew near the ship the struggle became more violent. The killer, which was about twenty feet long, held the whale by the lower jaw. The huge monster seemed to be in great agony, and spouted blood. Suddenly the whale threw himself out of the water, at full length, the killer hanging to his jaw; but all his flounderings and turning flukes were useless, as the killer still maintained his hold and was getting the advantage. He soon worried the whale to death. After the battle, the ship appeared to be floating in a sea of blood. During the last few days we saw many beautiful snow-white petrels either up in the freezing air or on the ice-floes.

January 22. Weather foggy. This morning we found bottom with eight hundred fathoms of line. The arming was covered with slate-colored mud. In the afternoon we took a second cast of the lead and found bottom at three hundred and twenty fathoms. The bottom same as before — slate-colored mud. The Peacock, while boxing off the ship from some ice under her bows, made a stern board which brought her in contact with an iceberg with such force as to crush her stern and larboard quarter boats, and carry away her bulwarks to the gangways. While getting out the ice anchor to heave the ship off, she gave a rebound which carried away her rudder and all the stanchions to the gangway. This second shock caused the ship to cant to starboard, when both jibs were given to her just in time to carry her clear of the iceberg. She had not moved more than a dozen lengths before a huge mass of ice fell from the iceberg in her wake. If this had happened twenty minutes before, it would have crushed the ship to atoms. As soon as we gained the open sea, Captain Hudson very wisely put the ship’s head for Sydney, where she arrived in a shattered and sinking condition. For several days the weather had been foggy.

07 August 2020

What Sailors Learned at Sea, 1840

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 126-127:
After dinner all hands were called to muster on the quarter-deck, when Commodore Wilkes informed us that he wished to re-enter us for eighteen months longer, saying at the time that it was impossible to sooner complete the work which he had undertaken. He told us that those who re-entered should have three months’ pay and two weeks’ liberty, and that their wages would be raised one-fourth.

Nearly all our ships’ crews had entered for three years, and, as their time had expired, all hands had an idea that when we left Honolulu it would be to up anchor for “home, sweet, sweet home.”

Like all the young men and boys in the squadron, I felt heartily sick of the navy. We learned nothing but to pull and haul, handle the light sails, holy-stone decks, clean bright work, do boat duty, etc. None but able seamen were allowed to go to the wheel, heave the lead, or work on the rigging. As young as I was, before I entered the navy I had learned to box the compass, heave the lead, knot a rope-yarn, haul out an earing, work a Matthew Walker, and Turk’s head, strap a block, knot, hand, reef, and steer. I learned more seamanship on board the merchantman Rainbow, during an eight months’ voyage from New York to Canton, China, than in my seven years in the navy.

Quite a number of the men who had families and had not seen their dear ones for years, left, and went on board three whale-ships which were homeward bound. After listening to many long yarns spun upon deck, I consulted my own mind, and came to the conclusion that I would not leave the ship short-handed in a foreign port.

06 August 2020

Arrival in Honolulu, 1840

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 126-128:
AT daylight on the morning of the 23d of September we made Oahu, one of the Sandwich Islands, and about eight o’clock entered the harbor of Honolulu. A couple of small hawsers were run out from the starboard bow, and these were seized by several hundred natives, men, women, and children, who were on the reef, up to their necks in water, and very soon the ship was warped over the bar and into port, amid such shouting and singing that it seemed as though bedlam had broken loose. All Honolulu, including its land-sharks, was at the waterside and joined in the shouting and cheering. It was not the novelty that created the excitement, for the arrival of a man-of-war, in their port, was no uncommon thing; but they looked upon the event as a sort of golden shower which was to fill their pockets. They had been expecting our arrival for six months.
...
There were nine whale-ships lying here, besides our squadron. Five of them were American. The next morning between five and six hundred American sailors, all dressed in white frocks and trousers, black tarpaulin hats and neckerchiefs, and their pockets well filled with Spanish dollars, went on shore. Passing the American consul’s house, half-way up Main Street, we hove to, and saluted the Star Spangled Banner, which was proudly waving from his house. The consul, Mr. Brinsmade, and his wife, bowed very gracefully to us from the veranda.

It astonished the natives greatly to see so many sailors let loose at once. The principal street of the town was Main Street. The first settlers lived on this street, in frame houses. Some of these were painted white, with green blinds, and were inclosed with neat picket-fences. The next street was about half a mile back, and ran crosswise. The buildings on this street had thatched roofs and sides, with glass windows and frame doors. Here were located the grog-shops, dancing-halls, billiard-rooms, cock-pits, sailors’ boarding-houses, and gambling-saloons. Some of these houses were inclosed by walls of brick, dried in the sun, and were whitewashed. These were occupied by the middle classes. European garments were worn by this class of people. On the next street the houses were rudely fashioned. They were built of sticks, vines, and half-formed sun-dried bricks, and plastered with mud. The residents on this street were not quite half-dressed. Some of the men wore hat and shirt, and some wore trousers and no shirt. The dress of the ladies was made very much like a bag with a hole in the bottom, for the head to be slipped through, and arm-holes in the sides. It reached to the ankles, and appeared to be of the same width throughout its entire length.

In the outskirts, mud huts were found, which once formed the only habitations of the Sandwich Islanders. The natives occupying these were dressed in the garb of the heathen, a narrow strip of tapa tied around the loins, or a blanket of the same material thrown corner-wise over the left shoulder and tied in a large knot on the breast.

The greatest curiosity I saw while here was the Seaman’s Bethel. This was built in Boston by the Boston Seaman’s Friends’ Society, taken down and shipped to this port in 1826 or 1828. It was in this bethel that Father Damon preached so many years.

05 August 2020

U.S. Sailor's View of Sydney, 1839

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle p. 61:
Portions of the island of Australia were visited by the Spaniards as early as the year 1520. The Dutch, when they captured it in the year 1606, named it New Holland. When the English took possession of it they named it New South Wales. It is now called Australia. It was to this place that England used to transport her convicts, and from this fact it was named the pickpockets’ quarter of the globe. Sydney is its capital and seat of government. George Street is the Broadway of Sydney. The Cove — God save the name! — is the old Ann Street of Boston; South Street of Philadelphia; River of Styx, Norfolk; Sausage Row, Cincinnati; Five Points or the Hook of New York; Hog Lane of Canton. In fact, it is more than the Ratcliffe Highway of London. There are plenty of old Fagins and old Fagin’s pupils living here. Here you will find all nations mixed up together, eating, drinking, singing, dancing, gambling, quarreling, and fighting. Inns abound here, for which the English, you know, are celebrated. Here is the Sailors’ Inn, the Soldiers’ Inn, the Ladies’ Inn, Punch-Bowl Inn, Shamrock Inn, Thistle Inn, the Ship’s Inn, King’s Arms Inn, and others too numerous to mention, not forgetting the Dew Drop Inn.

04 August 2020

Runaway Sailors, 1839

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 54-56:
On many of the islands of the Pacific there were runaway convicts from Hobart Town and Sydney, the Botany Bay of Great Britain. There were also many runaway sailors and many who had not run away, but who had been driven off by bad usage. The next morning after our arrival, an American whaler, hailing from New Bedford, came into port with a red shirt fluttering to the breeze from her fore-rigging.

When a man-of-war’s man sees that signal he well knows that there is difficulty between Jack before the mast and the officers of that ship. Our commodore was soon on board the whaler and listening to Jack’s yarn. He was told that they were two years out; that they were full of oil, had plenty of provisions, and were homeward bound; that they had been put on short allowance; were short-handed, five of the crew having died, and three being sick in their bunks from ill-treatment; and that they were so tyrannically abused that they had taken charge of the ship, confining the officers below in the cabin, and had steered for the nearest port. Our commodore, who acted as arbitrator, soon settled matters, and the whaler sailed for the United States a week afterward, with several of our invalids on board of her.
...
A whaler’s crew are not paid by the month, but have a lay; that is to say, the captain has one barrel out of every thirty, and Jack before the mast one out of about every five hundred. At the end of a voyage, through much abuse and tyrannical treatment by the officers of the ship, Jack before the mast is often fairly driven from the ship. This is called desertion. Then his lay falls to the owners, if the captain does not contrive some way or other to secure it.