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Source: Gutenberg.org: Frederick Marryat / Frank Mildmay Or, The Naval Officer

Frederick Marryat -
Frank Mildmay Or, The Naval Officer (1829)


Chapter XXV

They turned into a long and wide street, in which not a single
living figure appeared to break the perspective. Solitude is never
so overpowering as when it exists among the works of man. In old
woods, or on the tops of mountains, it is graceful and benignant,
for it is at home; but where thick dwellings are, it wears a
ghost-like aspect.

We were ordered to look out for the American squadron that had done so much mischief to our trade; and directed our course, for this purpose, to the coast of Africa. We had been out about ten days, when a vessel was seen from the mast-head. We were at that time within about one hundred and eighty leagues of the Cape de Verd Islands. We set all sail in chase, and soon made her out to be a large frigate, who seemed to have no objection to the meeting, but evidently tried her rate of sailing with us occasionally: her behaviour left us no doubt that she was an American frigate, and we cleared for action.

The captain, I believe, had never been in a sea fight, or if he had, he had entirely forgotten all he had learned; for which reason, in order to refresh his memory, he laid upon the capstan-head, the famous epitome of John Hamilton Moore, now obsolete, but held at that time to be one of the most luminous authors who had ever treated on maritime affairs. John, who certainly gives a great deal of advice on every subject, has, amongst other valuable directions, told us how to bring a ship into action, according to the best and most approved methods, and how to take your enemy afterwards, if you can. But the said John must have thought red hot shot could be heated by a process somewhat similar to that by which he heated his own nose, or he must entirely have forgotten "the manners and customs in such cases used at sea," for he recommends, as a prelude or first course to the entertainment, a good dose of red hot shot, served up the moment the guests are assembled; but does not tell us where the said dishes are to be cooked. No doubt whatever that a broadside composed of such ingredients, would be a great desideratum in favour of a victory, especially if the enemy should happen to have none of his own to give in return.

So thought his lordship, who walking up to the first lieutenant, said,

"Mr Thingamay, don't you think red hot what-do-ye-call-ums should be given in the first broadside to that thingumbob?"

"Red hot shot, do you mean, my lord?"

"Yes," said his lordship; "don't you think they would settle his hash?"

"Where the devil are we to get them, my lord?" said the first lieutenant, who was not the same that wanted to fight me for saying he was as clever a fellow as the captain: that man had been unshipped by the machinations of Toady.

"Very true," said his lordship.

We now approached the stranger very fast, when, to our great mortification, she proved to be an English frigate; she made the private signal, it was answered; showed her number, we showed ours, and her captain being junior officer came on board, to pay his respects and show his order. He was three weeks from England, brought news of a peace with France, and, among other treats, a navy list, which, next to a bottle of London porter, is the greatest luxury to a sea officer in a foreign climate.

Greedily did we all run over this interesting little book, and among the names of the new made commanders, I was overjoyed to find my own; the last on the list to be sure, but that I cared not for. I received the congratulations of my messmates; we parted company with the stranger, and steered for the island of St Jago, our captain intending to complete his water in Port Praya Bay, previous to a long cruise after the American squadron.

We found here a slave vessel in charge of a naval officer, bound to England; and I thought this a good opportunity to quit, not being over anxious to serve as a lieutenant when I knew I was a commander. I was also particularly anxious to return to England for many reasons, the hand of my dear Emily standing at the head of them. I therefore requested the captain's permission to quit the ship; and as he wished to give an acting order to one of his own followers, he consented. I took my leave of all my messmates, and of my captain, who, though an unfeeling coxcomb and no sailor, certainly had some good points about him: in fact, his lordship was a gentleman; and had his ship fallen in with an enemy, she would have been well fought, as he had good officers, was sufficiently aware of his own incapability, would take advice, and as a man of undaunted bravery, was not to be surpassed in the service.

On the third day after our arrival, the frigate sailed. I went on board the slaver, which had no slaves on board except four to assist in working the vessel; she was in a filthy state, and there was no inn on shore, and of course no remedy. Port Praya is the only good anchorage in the island; the old town of St Jago was deserted, in consequence of there being only an open roadstead before it, very unsafe for vessels to lie in. The town of Port Praya is a miserable assemblage of mud huts; the governor's house, and one more, are better built, but they are not so comfortable as a cottage in England. There were not ten Portuguese on the island, and above ten thousand blacks, all originally slaves; and yet every thing was peaceable, although fresh arrivals of slaves came every day.

It was easy to distinguish the different races: the Yatoffes are tall men, not very stoutly built; most of them are soldiers. I have seen ten of them standing together, the lowest not less than six feet two or three inches. The Foulahs, from the Ashantee country, are another race, they are powerful and muscular, ill-featured, badly disposed, and treacherous. The Mandingoes are a smaller race than the others, but they are well disposed and tractable.

The island of slaves is kept in subjection by slaves only, who are enrolled as soldiers, miserably equipped; a cap and a jacket was all they owed to art, nature provided the rest of their uniform. The governor's orderly alone sported a pair of trousers, and these were on permanent duty, being transferred from one to the other as their turn for that service came on.

I paid my respects to the governor, who, although a Portuguese, chose to follow the fashion of the island, and was as black as most of his subjects. After a few French compliments, I took my leave. I was curious to see the old town of St Jago, which had been abandoned; and after a hot walk of two hours over uncultivated ground, covered with fine goats, which are the staple of the island, I reached the desolate spot.

It was melancholy to behold: it seemed as if the human race were xtinct. The town was built on a wide ravine running down to the sea; the houses were of stone, and handsome; the streets regular and paved, which proves that it had formerly been a place of some importance; but it is surprising that a spot so barren as this island generally is should ever have had any mercantile prosperity. Whatever it did enjoy, I should conceive must have been anterior to the Portuguese having sailed round the Cape of Good Hope; and the solidity and even elegance of construction among the buildings justifies the supposition.

The walls were massive, and remained entire; the churches were numerous, but the roofs of them and the dwelling-houses had mostly fallen in. Trees had grown to a considerable height in the midst of the streets, piercing through the pavements and raising the stones on each side; and the convent gardens were a mere wilderness. The cocoa-nut tree had thrust its head through many a roof, and its long stems through the tops of the houses; the banana luxuriated out of the windows. The only inhabitants of a town capable of containing ten thousand inhabitants, were a few friars who resided in a miserable ruin which had once been a beautiful convent. They were the first negro friars I had ever seen; their cowls were as black as their faces, and their hair grey and woolly. I concluded they had adopted this mode of life as being the laziest; but I could not discover by what means they could gain a livelihood, for there were none to give them anything in charity.

The appearance of these poor men added infinitely to the necromantic character of the whole melancholy scene. There was a beauty, a loveliness, in these venerable ruins, which delighted me. There was a solemn silence in the town; but there was a small, still voice, that said to me: "London may one day be the same--and Paris; and you and your children's children will all have lived and had their loves and adventures; but who will the wretched man be, that shall sit on the summit of Primrose Hill, and look down upon the desolation of the mighty city, as I, from this little eminence, behold the once flourishing town of St Jago?"

The goats were browsing on the side of the hill, and the little kids frisking by their dams. "These," thought I, "perhaps are the only food and nourishment of these poor friars." I walked to Port Praya, and returned to my floating prison, the slave ship. The officer who was conducting her home, as a prize, was not a pleasant man; I did not like him: and nothing passed between us but common civility. He was an old master's mate, who had probably served his time thrice over; but having no merit of his own, and no friends to cause that defect to be overlooked, he had never obtained promotion: he therefore naturally looked on a young commander with envy. He had only given me a passage home, from motives which he could not resist; first, because he was forced to obey the orders of my late captain; and, secondly, because my purse would supply the cabin with the necessary stock of refreshments, in the shape of fruit, poultry, and vegetables, which are to be procured at Port Praya; he was therefore under the necessity of enduring my company.

The vessel, I found, was not to sail on the following day, as he intended. I therefore took my gun, at daybreak, and wandered with a guide up the valleys, in search of the pintados, or Guinea fowl, with which the island abounds; but they were so shy that I never could get a shot at them; and I returned over the hills, which my guide assured me was the shortest way. Tired with my walk, I was not sorry to arrive at a sheltered valley, where the palmetto and the plantain offer a friendly shade from the burning sun. The guide, with wonderful agility, mounted the cocoa-nut tree, and threw down half a dozen nuts. They were green, and their milk I thought the most refreshing and delicious draught I had ever taken.

The vesper bells at Port Praya were now summoning the poor black friars to their devotion; and a stir and bustle appeared among the little black boys and girls, of whose presence I was till then ignorant. They ran from the coverts, and assembled near the front of the only cottage visible to my eye. A tall elderly negro man came out, and took his seat on a mound of turf a few feet from the cottage; he was followed by a lad, about twenty years of age, who bore in his hand a formidable cowskin. For the information of my readers, I must observe that a cowskin is a large whip, made like a riding whip, out of the hide of the hippopotamus, or sea-cow, and is proverbial for the severity of punishment it is capable of inflicting. After the executioner came, with slow and measured steps, the poor littleculprits, five boys and three girls, who, with most rueful faces, ranged themselves, rank and file, before the old man.

I soon perceived that the hands were turned up for punishment; but the nature of the offence I had yet to learn: nor did I know whether any order had been given to strip. With the boys this would have been supererogatory, as they were quite naked. The female children had on cotton chemises, which they slowly and reluctantly rolled up, until they had gathered them close under their armpits.

The old man then ordered the eldest boy to begin his Pater Noster; and simultaneously the whipper-in elevated his cowskin by way of encouragement. The poor boy watched it, out of the corner of his eye, and then began "Pattery nobstur, qui, qui, qui--(here he received a most severe lash from the cowskin bearer)--is in silly," roared the boy, as if the continuation had been expelled from his mouth by the application of external force in an opposite direction--"sancty fisheter nom tum, adveny regnum tum, fi notun tas, ta, ti, tu, terror," roared the poor fellow, as he saw the lash descending on his defenceless back--

"Terror indeed," thought I.

"Pannum nossum quotditty hamminum da nobs holyday, e missy nobs debitty nossa si cut nos demittimissibus debetenibas nossimus e, ne, nos hem-duckam in, in, in temptationemum, sed lillibery nos a ma--ma--" Here a heavy lash brought the very Oh! that was "caret" to complete the sentence.

My readers are not to suppose that the rest of the class acquitted themselves with as much ability as their leader, who, compared to them, was perfectly erudite; the others received a lash for every word, or nearly so. The boys were first disposed of, in order, I suppose, that they might have the full benefit of the applicant's muscles; while the poor girls had the additional pleasure of witnessing the castigation until their turn came; and that they were aware of what awaited them was evident, from their previous arrangement and disposition of dress, at the commencement of the entertainment. The girls accordingly came up one after another to say their Ave Maria, as more consonant to their sex; but I could scarcely contain my rage when the rascally cowskin was applied to them, or my laughter when, smarting under its lash, they exclaimed, "Benedicta Mulieribus," applying their little hands with immoderate pressure to the afflicted part.

I could have found in my heart to have wrested the whip out of the hands of the young negro, and applied it with all my might to him, and his old villain of a master, and father of these poor children, as I soon found he was. My patience was almost gone when the second girl received a lash for her "Plena Gratia." She screamed, and danced, and lifted up her poor legs in agony, rubbing herself on her "_west_" side, as the Philadelphia ladies call it, with as much assiduity as ifit had been one of those cases in which friction is prescribed by the faculty.

But the climax was yet to come. A grand stage effect was to be produced before the falling of the curtain. The youngest girl was so defective in her lesson, that not one word of it could be extracted from her, even by the cowskin; nothing but piercing shrieks, enough to make my heart bleed, could the poor victim utter. Irritated at the child's want of capacity to repeat by rote what she could not understand, the old man darted from his seat, and struck her senseless to the ground.

I could bear no more. My first impulse was to wrest the cowskin from the negro's hand, and revenge the poor bleeding child as she lay motionless on the ground; but a moment's reflection convinced me that such a step would only have brought down a double weight of punishment on the victims when I was gone; so, catching up my hat, I turned away with disgust, and walked slowly towards the town and bay of PortPraya, reflecting as I went along what pleasant ideas the poor creatures must entertain of religion, when the name of God and of the cowskin were invariably associated in their minds. I began to parody one of Watts's hymns--

"Lord! how delightful 'tis to see
A whole assembly worship thee."

The indignation I felt against this barbarous and ignorant negro was not unmingled with some painful recollections of my own younger days, when, in a Christian and protestant country, the bible and prayer-book had been made objects of terror to my mind; tasks, greater than my capacity could compass, and floggings in proportion were not calculated to forward the cause of religious instruction in the mind of an obstinate boy.

Reaching the water-side, I embarked on board of my slaver; and the next day sailed for England. We had a favourable passage until we reached the chops of the channel, when a gale of wind from the north-east caught us, and drove us down so far to the southward that the prize master found himself under the necessity of putting into Bordeaux to refit, and to replenish his water.

I was not sorry for this, as I was tired of the company of this officer, who was both illiterate and ill-natured, neither a sailor nor a gentleman. Like many others in the service, who are most loud in their complaints for want of promotion, I considered that even in his present rank he was what we called a _king's hard bargain_--that is, not worth his salt; and promoting men of his stamp would only have been picking the pocket of the country. As soon, therefore, as we had anchored in the Gironde, off the city of Bordeaux, and had been visited by the proper authorities, I quitted the vessel and her captain, and went on shore.

Taking up my abode at the Hôtel d'Angleterre, my first care was to order a good dinner; and having despatched that, and a bottle of Vin de Beaune (which, by the by, I strongly recommend to all travellers, if they can get it, for I am no bad judge), I asked my _valet deplace_ how I was to dispose of myself for the remainder of the evening?

"_Mais, monsieur_," said he, "_il faut aller au spectacle_?"

"_Allons_," said I, and in a few minutes I was seated in the stage-box of the handsomest theatre in the world.

What strange events--what unexpected meetings and sudden separations are sailors liable to--what sudden transitions from grief to joy, from joy to grief, from want to affluence, from affluence to want! All this the history of my life, for the last six months, will fully illustrate.