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JACK IN THE FORECASTLE ;
INCIDENTS IN THE EARLY LIFE OF HAWSER
FAREWELL TO NEW ENGLAND.
I was born towards the close of the last century, in a village pleasantly situated on the banks of the Merrimack, in Massachusetts. For the satisfaction of the curious, and the edification of the genealogist, I will state that my ancestors came to this country from England in the middle of the seventeenth century. Why they left their native land to seek an asylum on this distant shore - whether prompted by a spirit of adventure, or with a view to avoid persecution for religion's sake —is now unknown. Even if they “ left their country for their country's good,” they were undoubtedly as respectable, honest, and noble, as the major part of those needy ruffians who accompanied William the Conqueror from Normandy in his successful attempt to seize the British crown, and whose descendants now boast of their noble ancestry, and proudly claim a seat in the British House of Peers.
From my earliest years I manifested a strong attachment to reading; and as matters relating to ships and sailors captivated my boyish fancy, and exerted a magic
influence on my mind, the “ Adventures of Robinson Crusoe,” “Peter Wilkins,” “Philip Quarle," and vagabonds of a similar character, were my favorite books. An indulgence in this taste, and perhaps an innate disposition to lead a wandering, adventurous life, kindled in my bosom a strong desire, which soon became a fixed resolution, to go to sea. Indeed, this wish to go abroad, to encounter dangers on the mighty deep, to visit foreign countries and climes, to face shipwrecks and disasters, became a passion. It was my favorite theme of talk by day, and the subject of my dreams by night. As I increased in years my longing for a sailor's life also increased; and whenever my schoolfellows and myself were conversing about the occupations we should select as the means of gaining a livelihood hereafter, I invariably said, “I will be a sailor."
Had my parents lived, it is possible that this deep-seated inclination might have been thwarted; that my destiny might have taken another shape. But my father died while I was quite young, and my mother survived him but a few years. She lived long enough, however, to convince me that there is nothing more pure, disinterested, and enduring than a mother's love, and that those who are deprived of this blessing meet at the outset of their pilgrimage a misfortune which can never be remedied. Thus, before I had numbered fifteen years, I found myself thrown a waif on the waters of life, free to follow the bent of my inclination to become a sailor.
Fortune favored my wishes. Soon after the death of my parents, a relation of my mother was fitting out a vessel in Portsmouth, N. H., for a voyage to Demarara; and those who felt an interest in my welfare, conceiving this a good opportunity for me to commence my salt-water career, acceded to my wishes, and prevailed on my relative, against his inclination, to take me with him as a cabin boy.
With emotions of delight I turned my back on the home of my childhood, and gayly started off to seek my fortune in the world, with no other foundation to build upon than a slender frame, an imperfect education, a vivid imagination, ever picturing charming castles in the air, and a goodly share of quiet energy and perseverance, modified by an excess of diffidence, which to this day I have never been able to overcome.
I had already found in a taste for reading a valuable and never-failing source of information and amusement. This attachment to books has attended me through life, and been a comfort and solace in difficulties, perplexities, and perils. My parents, also, early ingrafted on my mind strict moral principles; taught me to distinguish between right and wrong; to cherish a love of truth, and even a chivalric sense of honor and honesty. To this, perhaps, more than to any other circumstance, may be attributed whatever success and respectability has attended my career through life. It has enabled me to resist temptations to evil with which I was often surrounded, and to grapple with and triumph over obstacles that might otherwise have overwhelmed me.
When I reached Portsmouth, my kinsman, Captain Tilton, gave me an ungracious reception. He rebuked me severely for expressing a determination to go to sea.
“Go to sea!” he exclaimed, in a tone of the most sovereign contempt. "Ridiculous! You are a noodle for thinking of such a thing. A sailor's life is a dog's life at best! Besides, you are not fit for a sailor, either by habits, taste, or constitution. With such a pale face, and slight figure, and sheepish look, how can you expect to fight the battle of life on the ocean, and endure all the crosses, the perils, and the rough-and-tumble of a sailor's life? Hawser, you are not fit for a sailor. You had much better go home and try something else."
Finding me unconvinced by his arguments, and unshaken in my determination, he concluded his remarks by asking me abruptly the startling question, “ Are you ready to die?”
I replied, that I had not bestowed much thought on the subject; but frankly admitted I was not altogether prepared for such a solemn event.
“Then, Hawser," said he with marked emphasis, “if you are not prepared to die — to die of yellow fever - don't go to Demarara at this season of the year!” And he left the room abrubtly, apparently disgusted at my obstinacy.
On the following day, Captain Tilton took me on board the brig Dolphin. I did not mark her imperfections, which were many. She was a vessel, bound on a voyage to a foreign port, and, therefore, I was charmed with her appearance. In my eyes she was a model of excellence; as beautiful and graceful as the celebrated barge in which Cleopatra descended the Cydnus to meet Mark Antony.
The captain led me to the mate, who was busily engaged about the decks. “Mr. Thompson,” said he, “here is a lad who wants to go to sea, and I have foolishly engaged to take him as a cabin boy. Keep him on board the brig; look sharp after him ; don't let him have an idle moment; and, if possible, make him useful in some way until the vessel is ready for sea.”
Mr. William Thompson was a worthy man, who subsequently became a shipmaster and merchant of great respectability in Portsmouth. He treated me with consideration and kindness, and took pleasure in teaching me the details of the business I was about to undertake.
During the few days in which the Dolphin lay at the wharf I gained much nautical information. I learned the names of the different parts of a vessel; of the different masts, and some portions of the rigging. But the great number of ropes excited my admiration. I thought a lifetime would hardly suffice to learn their different names and purposes. I accomplished successfully the feat of going aloft; and one memorable day, assisted the riggers in “ bending sails,” and received an ill-natured rebuke from a crusty old tar, for my stupidity in failing to understand him when he told me to “pass the gasket " while furling the fore-topsail. Instead of passing the gasket around the yard, I gravely handed him a marlinspike!
In the course of my desultory reading, I bad learned that vessels at sea were liable to “spring a leak,” which was one of the most dreaded perils of navigation; and I had a vague notion that the hold of a ship was always so arranged that a leak could be discovered and stopped. I was, therefore, not a little puzzled when I found the hold of the Dolphin was crammed with lumber; not a space having been left large enough to stow away the ghost of a belaying pin. Finding the captain in a pleasant mood one day, I ventured to ask him what would be the consequence if the brig should spring a leak in her bottom.
“Spring a leak in her bottom !” he replied, in his gruff manner; “why, we should go to the bottom, of course!”
The brig was now ready for sea. The sailors were shipped, and I watched them closely as they came on board, expecting to find the noble-looking, generousspirited tars I had become so familiar with in books. It happened, however, that three out of the five seamen who composed the crew were “old English men-of-war'smen,” and had long since lost any refinement of character or rectitude of principle they originally possessed. They were brought on board drunk by the landlord with whom they boarded; for the “old tars” of those days— fifty years ago — had no homes; when on shore all they cared for was a roof to shelter them, and plenty of grog, in which they would indulge until their money was gone, when they would go to sea and get more.